Iceland: whales & waterfalls

Long known as the ‘land of fire and ice’, Iceland made a different impression on Richard Holmes. For him it’s a country gaining a reputation for whale – and other adventurous – cuisine and where dramatic waterfalls punctuate an already spectacular landscape.

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in Iceland.

It was, almost without fail, the second question people pitched to me on my return from a 10-day trip to Iceland. After asking if I had seen the aurora borealis, the ethe­real Northern Lights, they turned to cetaceans. “Did you eat whale?”

On the former, sadly I didn’t. It was mid-summer and even at 3am the sky remained a ghostly grey. To admire the aurora you need to visit from October onwards, when darkness begins to descend in the late afternoon. As for enjoying a bite of minke whale? Absolutely. When in Rome and all that.

Dill produces inventive New Nordic cuisine.

“Whale is just too political. It’s not worth the argument to have it on the menu,” sighed chef Ragnar Eiriksson when I asked why he didn’t serve it at Dill, his ground-breaking New Nordic restau­rant on a quiet Reykjavik side street.

Ask any local, or take a look at Trip­advisor, and Dill is far and away the most sought-after eatery in Reykjavik. Seating just two dozen fortunate diners each evening – the waiting list runs to at least two months – Dill offers a remarkable vision of how traditional Icelandic inspiration and ingredients can be transformed into fine dining. 

Expect anything from tusk, a fish similar to cod, cured and roasted and plated with fermented black garlic, through to pungent guillemot served with traditional malted barley. It’s inventive, adventurous cooking that blends heritage and innovation, and nobody was surprised when Dill bagged Iceland’s first-ever Michelin star earlier this year.

I had come to Iceland to eat, and the restaurants of Reykjavik certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ll never forget the whole roasted cod’s head at Matur og Drykkur, nor unpacking the city’s culinary history through the gentle charm of Egill Fannar Halldórsson from the Reykjavik Food Walk. Food-focused walking tours are always a great way to discover a city and this one was no exception.

And although savvy tourists are fast waking up to the culinary adventures on offer in Iceland, they’re certainly not the only attraction. The compact capital has plenty of charms and on any visit to this far-flung island you’ll want to allow two or three days in Reykjavik. 

Start at the wonderful Hallgrímskirkja, the imposing white-concrete church on a hill above the capital, and don’t shy away from paying the nominal fee to admire the views of the city from the upper balconies. Down on the waterfront, the beehive glasswork of the Harpa concert hall is a remarkably modern architectural addition to the city, while the Sun Voyager statue by Jón Gunnar Árnason recalls the seafaring Norwegians who first settled on this misty island in the ninth century.

Silfra fissure in Thingvellir
National Park.

After a few days of soaking up the understated Nordic charms of Reykjavik, you’ll want to channel your sense of adventure and hit the road. In Iceland that means heading out on Route 1, the 1 300km national road that circumnavigates the island. If you have a week or so to spare, this is far and away the finest way to discover the dramatic natural beauty of Iceland. Along the way there are impressive waterfalls and bucolic green fields with free-ranging sheep, but also moonscapes of broken rock where sulphurous steam wafts across Namaskard Geothermal Area. Iceland is nothing if not a land in flux.

The north is where you’ll find the waterfalls and can marvel at the likes of Goðafoss and Aldeyjarfoss. Don’t miss out on a stop at Dettifoss; at 100m across, it ranks as the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Then there’s whale-watching to be had on Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, and remarkable birding in the charming hamlet of Borgarfjörður. The village is said to be home to the rocky castle of a fairy queen, but I only fell under the spell of the shy yet inquisitive puffins at nearby Hafnarhólmi harbour.

As Route 1 skirts the southern reaches of the island, the iconic glaciers of Iceland make their presence felt: rivers of ice creaking slowly onwards to the sea. At Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon we watched icebergs floating ponderously past before being shattered by waves onto black basalt beaches, while at Skaftafell glacier we laced up our crampons and tackled the ice on an invigorating two-hour glacier walk. 

Snow-shrouded Reykjavik in winter.

From here the return route to Reykjavik was in our sights as we ticked off the spouting steam of Geysir and contemplated the hallowed grounds of Thingvellir National Park. It was here that the earliest chiefs of Iceland ruled for hundreds of years and in 930 formed what would become the world’s oldest parliament. 

That evening I mulled it all over at ROK, a hip new tapas-style restaurant in the shadow of the Hallgrímskirkja. In front of me was a plate of seared minke whale. Was it any good? Absolutely. Did it taste of whale? Not at all.

Done right, whale is like an aged fillet or venison seared to rare. At Matur og Drykkur, one of my favourite restaurants in the city, chef Steinar Sveinsson serves it with umami-packed sea truffle seaweed. At Fish Market, owner-chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran plates it simply seared with cauliflower, berries and a ponzu sauce. 

The minke was my last taste of Iceland, a country that is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations on the planet. But I’ll be back. I still have to catch a glimpse of those Northern Lights.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

A swing beneath the midnight sun

Keen golfers will be surprised to discover that Iceland offers a number of top-notch courses where you can tee off on a memorable round. Most of the country’s best courses are clustered in and around Reykjavik, making it easy to swap sightseeing for
a seven iron, even on a short break. 

Keilir Golf Course is just 30km from the capital and offers an unforgettable experience of playing on grassy fairways that meander between rocky lava fields. It’s a windy course that demands both power and accuracy. The same could be said for Sudurnes, a links-style layout that promises stellar sunset views. Brace yourself for the third hole, where a 200m drive over surging seas is needed to reach the green. 

Beyond Reykjavik, the Geysir Golf Club offers a charming nine-hole course close to the island’s famous geo-thermal geysers. Or head north to Akureyri. Iceland’s second city is home to the world’s most northerly 18-hole golf course, host of the
annual Arctic Open. 

With their long daylight hours, the summer months are the most popular time to play. Yet while the courses will be busy, the upside is the opportunity to play beneath the midnight sun. Ever booked a tee time for 1am? Here’s your chance.

The Sun Voyager statue in Reykjavik.

Travel Planner

FLIGHTS The best way to get to Iceland is with British Airways, which offers daily direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow, with regular connections
to Reykjavik. For more info, visit www.britishairways.com.

GETTING AROUND Local buses are plentiful and affordable in Reykjavik, but the city centre is best explored on foot. Taxis are available, but can be expensive. Further afield, a hire car or guided tour is best.

GUIDED DISCOVERY Stellenbosch Visio travelled around Iceland with global small-group company G Adventures, which offers a range of bespoke itineraries across the island. 011 442 0822, www.gadventures.com.

PAPERWORK South African passport holders require a Schengen visa.
Contact the Danish embassy in Pretoria: www.sydafrika.um.dk. Flying through London will also require a UK transit visa. 

MONEY MATTERS The official currency is the Icelandic Króna. ZAR1:ISK8. ATMs are common in Reykjavik and credit cards are accepted widely. 

READ MORE www.visiticeland.com

For more local luxury lifestyle features, events and happenings in and around Stellenbosch, subscribe to our newsletter.