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Travel: Iceland

We crunch up the hill through white, deep, squeaky snow to see the lake.

Lake Myvatn sits amid the volcanic lunar landscape of the far north of Iceland. Photograph: Radius Images/Alamy
Lake Myvatn sits amid the volcanic lunar landscape of the far north of Iceland. Photograph: Radius Images/Alamy

It's a short hike under a milky sky and the view at the top, as is often the way in this part of the world, is icily spectacular. The island's northern peaks - huge jagged planes of rock and snow - stretch away into the distance. Fairy tale mountains. All around us the land is white and cold and solid. And, come to think of it, very unliquidy. "Hmm, where's this lake then?" we ask our guide. He points to a stretch of land beneath us. "There," he says. "Lake Myvatn." In one corner of the white emptiness there's a tiny melted glimpse of dark water, suggesting that there is possibly a lake down there, underneath the thick, thick ice and snow. How thick is it? "The locals ride their horses on it." I guess this far north and at this time of the year Iceland lives up to the name on the box.

This is proper north by the way. Even by Icelandic standards. We are just over an hour's drive from Akureyri, Iceland's second largest town and home to the most northerly 18-hole golf course in the world. That's if we're still on the world. Iceland looks like the moon in a snow storm. Between the mountains huge volcanic calderas rear up, giant circles on the landscape, the kind of craters Neil Armstrong might once have bounced across. But look closer and it's clear that this place is not just dead rock. Steam vents send plumes of sulphur into the air; mud bubbles and pops around them. At one point we stand on land that exists between tectonic plates, spewed up in the tension of their coming together. This is new land. The newest on the planet, geologically speaking.

Iceland is a land of waterfalls and volcanic rock formations, of geysers and steam vents and sulphur, a (hopefully) recovering financial system, a liberal outlook, a lesbian prime minister (who's married to her partner) and drunken Charlize Theron lookalikes out on their Reykjavik hen nights. It looks like nowhere else on Earth (apart from maybe New Zealand). And if you're lucky it's where you will see the northern lights.

Luckier than us, anyway. On our first night in Akureyri, we jump on a bus outside our Icelandair hotel and drive further north along the country's longest fjord looking for clear sky where the northern lights might be seen. We drive and drive and drive and the skies stay cloudy. As we do, our guide Hjalti gives us the potted history of Iceland. The bit that sticks with me is that in the 12th century the island was so wild the neighbours stopped coming for a while. Think about that. That means Iceland back then was too rough for the Vikings. Later, when I meet the "Charlize Therons" in Reykjavik I can well believe it.

We drive for hours. And then we drive all the way back. No northern lights appear.

Driving through this empty, monumental landscape you do wonder why people live here. It's perhaps no surprise that the vast majority of the population on Iceland huddle together in Reykjavik. Yet Akureyri - a 45-minute flight north from the capital - is a handsome little town full of artists and shops and bars and a heated swimming pool that opens early and closes late. And once you leave the town you realise that there are people living all over this landscape.

The next morning we go looking for invisible lakes, eat bread that's been baked in ovens in the ground for 24 hours next to the steam vents. Late in the afternoon, when the light is beginning to fade and the temperature has dropped to minus six, we take our clothes off and go outside. It is a 30-second walk from the changing room to the water. I opt for a 10-second sprint. It is worth the goosepimpled skin and iron nipples because the water is blue and hot and wonderful.

Around us is a world of white but here we move through sulphur-smelling water that steams in the cold. It is exhilarating. I reach up and feel my wet hair seem to ice up. But hair apart I'm cocooned by the heat of the water. Our group is the only one in the spa. The world is suddenly silent and perfect.

There are spas all over the island. Spas and Icelandic horses standing in freezing fields. Back in the south of Iceland we watch geysers where water swells and bowls, like something waiting to be born, before the meniscus breaks and a shaft of water shoots up into the sky. It's then sucked back into the earth and the process begins again.

We see ripe tomatoes under glass at Fridheimer, pollinated by bees imported in a box from Holland. We see men and women gather in a funky marina hotel in Reykjavik decked out in furs and finery. What we don't see are any northern lights.

On the second night we go looking for them out of Akureyri. We drive and drive through frighteningly narrow tunnels and past snow-wrapped fishing villages as far north as the road takes us, but still the sky remains stubbornly cloudy.

We finally stop near Siglufjordur on a lonely, empty stretch of road to drink hot chocolate. We've come almost as far as we can. To the right of us, just a foot or two from the side of the road the land falls away down to the Atlantic. We are not so far from the Arctic Circle here, Hjalti tells us as we dunk our Icelandic doughnuts in the sweet, comfortingly warm drinks. Sometimes polar bears will swim south and come ashore here, he says. I look out into the dark to see if any are sneaking up on us. "What do you do when they get here?" I ask. "We shoot them."

There are no polar bears to be seen, however. No northern lights either. On the way back the bus quietens and stills. The engine is the only noise. The lateness of the hour, the disappointment of the cloudy skies and the heat of the air conditioning sends us all into a fitful doze.

It's nearly one in the morning when the bus stops just outside Akureyri. Suddenly the skies have cleared and I step off the bus into a chilly night. The mountains loom large and white, the ground glitters in the brazen moonlight. Jupiter shines, a brilliant dot in the sky. There is no-one and nothing to be seen except this picture-perfect landscape. We stand around in silence stupefied by its beauty. There are still no tell-tail flickers of light in the sky. We will go home never having seen the northern lights. But it doesn't matter just now. The chilly perfection of this landscape, of this moment, is enough.

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there

Icelandair (icelandair.co.uk) has return flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik from £233 based on travel in February. Return internal flights with Air Iceland (airiceland.is) from Reykjavik to Akureyri cost from £120 based on travel in February.

Where to stay

Two nights at Icelandair Hotel Akureyri costs from £63 per person for a double room. Visit icelandairhotels.com/hotels/akureyri. One night at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina costs from £43.50 per person for a double room. Visit icelandairhotels.com/hotels/reykjavikmarina.

Other information

For further details or to book a tour with Reykjavik Excursions visit re.is. For more information or to book a Northern Lights tour with Saga Travel visit sagatravel.is/en/all-tours/day-tours-from-akureyri/northern-lights-from-akureyri.

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