Like swimming through the earth's atmosphere, floating in Iceland's toasty Blue Lagoon at night with silhouettes shifting through thick clouds of steam, surrounded by a frosted black lava field, and catching snowflakes in my mouth is nothing short of phantasmagorical. Even after dark the water appears preternaturally blue and the white silica mud smeared across bather's faces makes the scene all the more surreal.
I hopped straight off the plane at Keflavik airport and into the natural geothermal spa of the Blue Lagoon, which has earned a reputation as the Fountain of Youth for its natural skin-boosting qualities. It's only a 25-minute bus ride away from the airport so it makes sense to visit en route. You have to book tickets in advance online and it often gets busy during the day, but it's pretty quiet at night. For me, it's an other-worldly introduction to an utterly bewitching country – up there with the top travel experiences.
Between the extremes of ice and fire sits Iceland. A seismic creation, in winter its elemental landscape is a beautiful juxtaposition of jet black lava fields and pure white snow. The sky feels closer this far north. In fact at one point it seems as if it is coming apart piece by piece as great clumps of snow fly into my face. But according to local guide Geirardur, it's actually been quite a warm winter in Iceland with the snows not arriving until January, when usually they would expect them in November. Global warming? Geirardur simply raises his eyebrows and nods.
I've joined Geirardur on a tour of Iceland's so-called Golden Circle, which encompasses some of the country's most astonishing natural wonders. Travelling east from capital Reykjavik, sled-loads of snow covers a countryside hemmed in by pavlova peaks. Just below the tree line, forests of petite evergreens bristle in frost, resembling southern Lapland in miniature. But this was once a tree-less land where the settlers planted Nordic pines and redwoods in the warmer valleys and watched them flourish.
Icelandic hipster horses with long shaggy hair comb the snow for golden tufts of hay. I watch as two rear up and lock noses – but it's unclear if it's a challenge or a friendly embrace. Elsewhere, bales wrapped in bright pink plastic stand out against the bleached farmlands. It's unsurprising that this land produced the weird genius of Bjork. The natural imagery and oxymoronic icy-warm sounds of her music make perfect sense now I've seen her origins.
Our first stop is Thingvellir National Park. A fracture in the earth's skeleton – the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – lies right beneath it and grows wider by two centimetres every year. The snow white, saw-toothed edges of the rift look like giant jaws opening into a black chasm. According to Geirardur, there's nowhere else in the world where can you see the rifting of the seafloor on dry land.
I walk down the resulting canyon flanked by earth's blackened and broken vertebrae as volcanic basalt rock juts forth in geometric shapes reminiscent of the Giant's Causeway. From the top of the rift, the view over the valley and Althing – where Iceland established the first parliament in northern Europe – looks like a Christmas card with cute little frosted houses and pines clustered beside an icy meandering river.
In one direction the country's largest natural lake – Thingvallavatn – stretches to the horizon, while in the distance frozen mountain-tops merge into the sky.
A far-off roar is the first sign of Gullfoss. It can't be seen from the road, and there is little to indicate the sheer drama of what I'm about to witness. Up over to the crest of a hill and there she is – an icy rival to Brazil's Iguazu. Yet instead of rainforest, its banks are dripping in icicles the size of swords and blanketed in glittering snow.
Thundering Gullfoss is a powerful two-tiered waterfall on a wide and fast-flowing glacial river that cascades down from its frozen plateau and into a deep fissure, as if falling off the face of the earth.
The summer path that takes visitors close enough to feel the spray of the falls is closed due to ice but the view from above is utterly transfixing. The falls were nearly destroyed by a hydro-electric dam in the early twentieth century, but were saved thanks to the efforts of plucky local landowner's daughter Sigridur who walked barefoot all the way to Reykjavik in protest.
Though Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, is the most famous of Iceland's cascades, there are countless others dotted across the country. Near the tiny religious settlement of Skalholt, around 12km from Gullfoss, I stop at lesser-visited Faxi Falls, a long low cascade on a fish-filled river with a curious salmon ladder marking its side. By the time I leave Faxi the light is fading fast, but Bruarfoss is another hidden gem not far away renowned for its glacial blue plunge pool. And of course, much-photographed Selfoss, several kilometres to the south, will have to wait for another day.
Letting off steam
The friction between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates feeds volcanic activity around Iceland and puts on quite a show. In fact, the entire country is fuelled by volcanic energy, milking the geothermal power from beneath the land. Unlimited hot water, valuable central heating, organic farms and thermal lagoons aplenty make the cold more than bearable.
There's no better place to see this natural engine's power than at Haukadalur where geysers let off steam with the violent force of fireworks and elicit the same gleeful response from spectators. On the slopes of a volcanic dome is the original geyser, Geysir, the one that all the rest are named after. Nowadays Strokkur is the dependable one – going off every 5-10 minutes and erupting more than 20 metres into the air, while the old Geysir sleeps nearby.
The run-off melts the snows over russet and bluish-coloured minerals and mud. Around it bubbling cauldrons and sulphurous pots spew a distinctly eggy smell into the sharp air. It's the same aroma that fills the room whenever you turn on a hot tap in Iceland. I can see boiling streams flowing just below a thin volcanic crust and am reminded not to stray off the path here. On a recent visit popstar Ed Sheeran did just that and apparently melted his boot onto his own foot.
Another manifestation of Iceland's inner fire can be seen at Kerid crater lake where a collapsed caldera has left a dramatic conical hole in the earth that's frozen white in winter. Geirardur says this is a startling place to visit in summer too when its reddish rock slopes contrast with the deep turquoise of its water.
The wooden slatted walkways around Kerid, similar to Iceland's other natural attractions, are handy, but in winter they can be slippery with ice, causing more than a few visitors to buckle. I slide as if on ice skates down one section and have to grab onto a rail to avoid falling. Later I watch with amusement mixed with anxiety as several visitors are forced to climb out of the crater on their hands and knees. The freshly-gathered snow is actually much surer under foot as I climb the bank.
Waiting for the transport to arrive for the evening northern lights hunt, a fellow traveller remarks that it's her fourth time. Lucky girl, I think at first, until she says that the other three times have been without success. It's not a good sign, but I do know someone who saw the elusive aurora borealis first time round – so it is possible.
Travelling south through Iceland's frozen lava fields in the dead of night, between ghostly peaks and down into a valley filled with the bright lights of organic greenhouses, we pass close to the Blue Mountains framed by the distant glow of a ski resort. Finally finding a potentially good viewing spot, we stop at a farmstead near Hella. Standing ankle-deep in snow and scanning the northern sky for streaks of green, a sort of reverent silence falls over the group. The only sound in the still Arctic air is the faint crunch of fresh snow underfoot.
The forecast for the night is good on the northern lights website (www.northernlightsiceland.com) predicting high aurora activity and low cloud cover. Though the sky behind us is tantalisingly clear with Orion's Belt burning bright, there are few gaps in the cloud above. As my fingers and toes begin to ache with frost, the Plough constellation is outlined through a break in the cloud and my hopes lift for a sighting. But it's a mercifully wind-less night, letting me withstand the -5 temperatures with relative ease, while also meaning the clouds stay stubbornly put.
Fortunately it's not a bad experience at all. The farm has a deal with the tour company to provide us midnight sky-gazers with hot chocolate and doughnuts, and our tour guide sings traditional Icelandic folk songs to keep our spirits up and (possibly) part the clouds. I'd happily go and do this every night for a chance to see the lights, and my ticket is still valid until I see them, though I might bring a hipflask of whiskey next time.
Iceland is an expensive destination, and difficult to visit on a shoestring as the hotels, restaurants and bars are pricey. To save money I stayed at an Airbnb with a kitchen, went shopping at Bonus supermarket (with a large pink pig as its logo), and snacked on Iceland's favourite junk food – hotdogs.
You can't avoid paying the steep cost for the must-do excursions and day trips from Reykjavik, unless you are an experienced driver willing to hire a car and navigate Iceland's potentially perilous roads alone (you need a four-by-four for F Roads). For penny-savers, Bus Tours is slightly cheaper than Iceland's main tour company Reykjavik Excursions and offers a compact Golden Circle Tour and a less-crowded Northern Lights tour departing from Reykjavik's BSI bus station. For smaller groups and special adventure tours, consider Extreme Iceland (www.extremeiceland.is/en/).
For long-distance buses, check schedules in advance as sometimes the timetables can be tricky and you might have to tweak your plans. For example, buses from the Blue Lagoon to the airport stop at 3pm, while the last bus from the airport to the Blue Lagoon is at 5:30pm.