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Iceland: Off the Beaten Track

Iceland may have become popular in recent years, but there are still plenty of places escape the crowds, says William Gray

First published in Sunday Times Travel Magazine

Vatnajokull Icecap, Iceland
Vatnajokull Icecap, Iceland

I want to… scale a volcano

Head to: Mælifell

A bright green pyramid rising above a black desert, Mælifell adds a psychedelic splash to Iceland’s austere volcanic interior. Cloaked in lime-coloured moss, the volcano stands just 200m above plains of basalt gravel – a luminescent pimple on the charred hide of Iceland’s southwest Highlands. Climb to its summit on a clear day, however, and you’ll feel like you’re standing on top of the world. To the south, glacial folds and creases of the Myrdalsjokull icecap smother the brooding caldera of Katla; the wild mountains of Fjallabak rise to the north, while all around the base of Mælifell the dark plains are gilded with silver braids of meltwater rivers. Apart from a few lonely souls hiking the Laugavegur Trail between Thorsmork and Landmannalaugar, this is a desolate, bewitching place – Mælifell glowing like a beacon to all lovers of true wilderness.

Travel's tip: The 4WD tracks probing Iceland’s interior are only open during mid- to late-summer, so you’ll need to plan your expedition to Mælifell between July and September.

Get me there: Extreme Iceland ( offers a 12hr superjeep tour to Mælifell for 39,900kr per person, departing Reykjavik and heading east across the vast Markarfljot floodplain behind Eyjafjallajokull. You pass Trollagja (Trolls’ Canyon) and the volcanoes of Einhyrningur and Hattafell, fording fast-flowing rivers before reaching the base of Mælifell.

I want to… explore an ice cave

Head to: Vatnajokull

Covering 8,100km², Iceland’s mighty Vatnajokull is Europe’s largest icecap – a frigid wilderness almost the size of North Yorkshire, and much of it largely inaccessible without a helicopter. All along its southern fringe, however, so-called ‘outlet glaciers’ emerge like frozen tongues, drooping tantalisingly towards the coast and luring tourists to Vatnajokull’s fabled ice caves. Each summer, meltwater torrents carve these spectacular chambers out of ancient blue ice, chiselling intricate patterns in the ceilings and walls. New ice caves are revealed each year. Guides seek them out in the autumn, then lead groups of wide-eyed visitors inside during the winter months when the ice is at its most stable. Photographers love the way light refracts through the ‘cut-crystal’ ice; others recall Superman’s home on Planet Krypton. Either way, you won’t find a more surreal or beautiful sight in Iceland.

Travel's tip: Although tours are available from Reykjavik, you’ll spend most of the day on the road. Far better to base yourself at Skaftafell, Hofn or Kirkjubæjarklaustur near the icecap. There’s lots to see in the area, including the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon.

Get me there: Glacier Adventure ( operates ice cave tours from mid-November to mid-March for 20,500kr per person, departing from Hali Country Hotel, 13km east of Jokulsarlon.

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