Having hankered to experience Iceland with my kids and finally decided that, at 11, 10 and 6, they were old enough to appreciate it (a summer flight sale also helped me decide), I set out to plan our week’s trip.
In some ways, this first foray was consciously ‘Iceland lite’. I wasn’t convinced that taking a 4X4 into the wilds of the Highlands was the best option for first-timers with relatively young children, and this reluctance seemed confirmed when in the run-up to our departure news of imminent earthquake activity and volcanic eruptions around Bárðarbunga dominated the world headlines. Looking at what there was to offer outside the Highlands persuaded me that there was enough to fill our week’s visit. And I was right – we struggled to fit in the main sights and had to resolve to leave many attractions for next time.
"The highlight of our holiday, Jökulsárlón truly takes your breath away […]
You're free to just come and walk along the shoreline to look at the glaciers and watch the seals swimming amongst them, but we took a boat out, with a chirpy tour guide telling us about the glacier and then allowing us to hold a chunk of 1000-year-old ice and even chip pieces off to eat."
So what did we do, what did we enjoy and what would we do differently next time? Having studied the map of Iceland, I ruled out the north on the basis that though the whale-watching was probably superior, it was too far to travel on that basis alone. The southern coast, which traces a line of volcanoes including Eyjafjallajökull (the one that caused all the uproar in 2010), seemed to promise a more concentrated dose of really awesome and unforgettable sights.
We began in the capital – see my feature on Reykjavik with Kids for the highlights of our short stay there, and my recommendations for family-friendly places to eat and sleep. After a couple of days seeing the sights, we picked up our hire car and headed to Hverasvaedid, known for its geothermal activity. Just outside the town, a hiking trail takes you (in about 90 minutes) to an area of bubbling, sulphuric hot pots then to a hot river where you can bathe in thermally heated water surrounded by pure unadulterated nature. For the kids this was an amazing adventure, and I was glad I’d chosen this in favour of the more commercial Blue Lagoon.
From here we continued along the southern coast to a farm close to Vik, glaciers and waterfalls looming up beside us as we travelled along the mainly deserted main road. Vestry Pétursey has wooden cabins on a milk and carrot producing farm – isolated but cosy and welcoming, it has views of black-sand beaches in one direction and a glacier to the rear. It’s just a few minutes’ drive from the scenic Dyroholaey Pensinsula, a puffin and seabird colony at the southernmost point of Iceland, with natural arches, sea stacks and black-sand beaches.
Tiny, otherworldly Vik is a jumping off point for glacier excursions and other adrenaline activities that my kids were not old enough for. We stayed there mainly as a stopover en route to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon just south of Iceland’s main volcano cluster, on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park.
The highlight of our holiday for most of us, Jökulsárlón is a sight that truly takes your breath away – hence its choice as a movie location for A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, Tomb Raider and Batman Begins. A full glacier 80 years ago, it is now retreating at a great pace, spewing great boulders of blue, white and black striated ice into the lagoon. You are free to just come and walk along the shoreline to look at the glaciers and watch the seals swimming amongst them, but we took a boat out, with a chirpy tour guide telling us about the glacier and then allowing us to hold a chunk of 1000-year-old ice and even chip pieces off to eat. Afterwards, we drove to the other side of the road bridge to the black-sand beach, where you get the even more stunning sight of the icebergs floating out under the bridge and heading out to sea, to finally melt.
After another night on the farm near Vik, we headed to Hella on the road back towards Reykjavík. En route, we stopped at Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls, with a 60m drop. As we found with other other natural sites in Iceland, you can get up close and personal with Skógafoss – there are no barriers keeping you at a boring distance. It was a cold but sunny day, and single and double waterfalls flickered in and out of view.
At Hella we headed for a new hotel, the Stracta, part owned by footballers Hermann Hreidarsson and David James. Stylish but family-friendly, with mini wooden motorbikes to zoom around on in the lobby, saunas and private hot tubs in the spacious family apartments, it made a great base for horse-riding – there are lots of stables in the area organising rides, some days-long. Our kids were blissed out with their short outing with nearby Kalfholt farm, plus the chance to groom their cute Viking ponies.
Hella is also a handy base for those who want to make their way around the popular Golden Circle tourist route – we didn’t manage all 300km of this in the short time we had, but we did have fun getting sprayed by the Strokkur geyser in the geothermally active (and hence very pongy) valley of Haukadalur, admiring the fury of the spectacular Gullfoss double waterfall and walking inside the Kerið volcano crater.
Iceland isn’t a bucket-list type holiday, we found out during our action-packed week. It’s not a place that you can tick off but one that truly gets its claws into you, convincing you even as you are there that you’ll come back for more as soon as you possibly can.
Read more about family holidays in Iceland.