'Let’s face it, there aren’t many countries where you need to pack a bikini and a balaclava'

·10 min read
kathy lette
kathy lette

The worst thing about getting older is becoming somewhat vague. I mean, sometimes in the middle of a sentence I … Is this happening to you? Do you spend hours looking for your glasses which you finally locate on top of your head? My synapses are definitely not firing on all cerebral cylinders. For example, it recently took me an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.

I clearly needed some urgent help so immediately booked a trip to ­Iceland. Why? Well, it’s been scientifically proven that leaping into cold water helps stave off cognitive degeneration – and nowhere has colder water than Iceland. It’s a country of ice and fire – glaciers and volcanoes, freezing fjords and hot thermal springs. Let’s face it, there aren’t many countries where you need to pack a bikini and a balaclava. Having half-­lobotomised myself when shoving a Covid testing stick up each nostril, the need to reverse my mental decline became even more pressing – once in Iceland, I was convinced my synapses would be zinging and pinging like an overactive pinball machine.

But having arrived in Reykjavik, my enthusiasm was short-lived. I dipped one toe into the Arctic Ocean and recoiled. I’ve got good legs; shame I was going to have to amputate one of them because of frostbite. The water was so cold my breasts were chattering. “I think I just broke a nipple,” I said to my companion.

blue lagoon retreat - Blue Lagoon Retreat
blue lagoon retreat - Blue Lagoon Retreat

We quickly abandoned the wild and windy coast for Iceland’s most glamorous spa hotel – Blue Lagoon Retreat, which offers brain cell-restoring cold plunge pools but with a warm, thermal lagoon within easy leaping distance. I spent the rest of the day plunging into the cold pool, then defrosting in the 39C billabong. I dived into the cold pool so often that, by evening, a career in astrophysics was clearly beckoning.

The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s top tourist spot. Smack bang in the middle of the 800-year-old lunar landscape of black lava fields, the mineral-rich, geothermal seawater gushes up from Jules Verne depths of 6,650ft (2,000 metres), filling the natural spa with water made bright blue from the white silica mud. As if floating in one of the Wonders of the World – wild Arctic sky above, tectonic earth below – wasn’t magical enough, an aquatic masseuse suddenly swam up and started kneading me with mineral oils. At least I hoped this was a mermaid massage and not preparation for some ritualistic sacrifice to a Norse god – I was in Viking territory, after all.

Another excellent way to maintain mental agility, I’m told, is to get out of your comfort zone and master new skills; which is why, the next day, I found myself driving a snowmobile over a glacier. Weedy Aussie that I am, I’d worn so many thermal layers that the guide had to hoist me on to the back using a block and tackle rig. Just as he was rolling his eyes at this “hopeless, middle-aged mum”, and searching for L-plates, I pulled down my helmet’s visor, revved the throbbing machine between my legs and scooted off across the pristine snowscape, hollering “Just call me Bond, Jane Bond.”

Langjokull Glacier - Getty
Langjokull Glacier - Getty

My second glacier experience proved even more exciting, albeit accidentally. Halfway to Langjokull’s Ice Cave, our super jeep turned out not to be so super when a wheel imploded, bogging us down. Our charming driver waved a shovel around in a manly way, but there was no denying it – we were stranded on a 950-square-metre ­glacier with no help at hand. Now, a lot of thoughts cross a girl’s mind at times like these – namely, which of my companions to eat when starvation sets in.

The first hour passed pleasantly enough. I mean, how often do you get to bask atop a glacier in complete solitude? But as I gradually lost all sensation in my fingers and toes, I started to wonder how long I could hold out, marooned on this huge, slab of Arctic icing, before uttering my Titus ­Oats-esque “I may be gone some time” wandering-off-into-the-wilderness speech. Speech? I thought. As if. My lips were novocained from the cold. In fact, the fog had become so thick that when taking a gulp of air, I practically chipped a tooth.

Just as the rain, hail and panic set in, a big rescue truck hoved into view full of handsome Vikings. As you can imagine, I had no trouble thawing out. Or should that be Thor-ing out? My flirtation was slightly impaired by the fact that when I batted my eyes, my ice-laden lashes snapped off like the teeth of an old comb.

But Icelanders take these misadventures in their insouciant stride. In a country described as being “on the edge of the world”, and with such extreme weather conditions such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and midnight sun, followed by winter months walking around by braille, intermittently dazzled by the Northern Lights, locals have come to expect the unexpected. It’s all part of the thrill of enjoying mother nature’s magnificence.

It’s no wonder that so much of Game of Thrones was filmed in this awe-inspiring landscape. Every turn in the road reveals the most mesmerising panorama of untamed, untouched wilderness – all registering high on the ooh-ometer.

gullfoss falls - Getty
gullfoss falls - Getty

I ooh-ed at the cascading waterfalls of the Golden Circle – especially the spectacular Gullfoss Falls, which puts the gorge into gorgeous – I ahh-ed as the Strokkur geyser shot 30ft into the air at 10-minute intervals. But without doubt, the most ooh-ahh moment of all was my trek into the mountains to see an erupting volcano.

As we neared volcano Fagradalsfjall, the trail of climbers ahead resembled ants crawling over the vertebrae of a dozing dinosaur. Passing the sizzling lava field Fagradalshraun, I took advantage of the smouldering hot rocks to toast my cheese sandwich. Fortified, I strode on to find the source – a great, gaping mouth in the volcano’s side, spewing out what looked like steaming, iridescent ­marmalade.

The sight of oozing lava was so other-wordly that I felt sure we had arrived at Mordor. I found myself glancing around for Gollum – if only to help me with a human sacrifice I had planned for the loud Texan from our tour bus. Forget the cheese sandwich; a Texan toastie really would have added to my seismic enjoyment.

 Fagradalsfjall - Getty
Fagradalsfjall - Getty

Iceland is a very ejaculatory place – volcanoes, geysers, hot bubbling mineral mud pools, oh, and the world’s biggest penis museum. I suppose size really does count when your museum is dedicated to that particular appendage but as I made my way there from Reykjavik’s Borg Hotel, I began to wonder if the PR blurb meant that the penis museum was the biggest in the world, or if the museum housed the world’s biggest penis? The Blue Whale, for example. I imagine the tip of that beast’s mighty member would enter the female of the species at 6pm and the base of the shaft about half past ten.

Questions crowded my cranium. Who had donated the specimens or had they been collected in the field? Who curated the short, or rather, long list? Would it be okay to make jokes about "entry" fees and how size is just a “phallucy”? Or would they see these feeble penile puns, coming, so to speak.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum turned out to be a serious, scientific study of the male member, from humpback whales to humans. One man, Pall Arason, has given a new meaning to the term “organ donor”. His pickled phallus now nestles between donations from an elephant and a polar bear. Needless to say, there was very little small talk in the café afterwards, despite the Moby Dick beer and phallus-shaped pasties.

Iceland is famous for another well-hung attraction – fermented shark. I’ve swum with sharks – hell, I’ve even dated a few – but never eaten one. Hakarl is cured with a particular fermenting process, then hung outside to dry for four to five months. The fishy flesh has a very strong ammonia smell. A local advised me to pinch my nostrils while taking my first bite and then swig a sip of Icelandic Brennivin schnapps to enhance the experience.

Well, let me just clarify that a sip is not going to save you. It would take more than a gallon gulped at speed to numb your tongue.

After rolling around on the ground, sobbing, tears streaming down my contorted face, my tonsils were no longer on speaking terms with my intestines. Shell-shocked, I was dreading the rest of Iceland’s ­gastronomic offerings. What next? Whale blubber burgers and reindeer balls? Actually, yes, these things are on offer, but so is the most scrumptious and innovative gourmet fare.

Icelandic food is among the healthiest in the world. The crystal-clear air and water, the free-range livestock, the wild fish and the chemical-free fruit and veg provide the best ingredients for inventive chefs.

The delicious dining at Reykjavik’s ROK, and at Fish Market, expunged all fermented shark memories from my mind. The delectable degustation menu at the Blue Lagoon Retreat’s Moss restaurant took my palate on a sublime journey from the mountains, river, farms and fjords to the oceans, serving up a whole aquarium of scallops, cod and lobster.

kathy on a norse horse
kathy on a norse horse

At the Torfhus Retreat, a traditional Viking-themed collection of moss-covered cottages with private basalt stone hot pools, “mad genius” chef Toti delighted with his gastronomic pyrotechnics, bringing fire and ice to his cuisine in imaginative ways. I inhaled his hearty, yet creative, cuisine with gusto, after a hard day of horse riding.

Which leads me nicely to my favourite Icelandic experience of all – cantering around Torfhus on a Norse horse. Small but hardy, gentle but resilient, these famous Icelandic ponies have an extra gear, called a tolt. Half trot, half canter, it is the smoothest ride imaginable – outside a carnal encounter with George Clooney, perhaps.

Yes, geographically Iceland is volatile, but the people are as gentle as their horses, and even the big, strong, Icelandic men believe in elves and knit their own jumpers. Iceland is also the cleanest, greenest and safest country, with an unarmed police force and no official army – and it’s one of the oldest democracies. They also voted in the world’s first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980.

So, after all that cold swimming and adventuring, did I achieve my goal of brain cell stimulation? Okay, I didn’t exactly come home with an Einstein level IQ, but on the airport Covid testing form, where it said “Sign”, I didn’t write “Scorpio with Gemini rising”.That’s a result, wouldn’t you say? Oh, and I haven’t once lost my glasses.

How to do it

Regent Holidays (020 7666 1290; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers a six-night trip with two nights in a Lava View or Moss View junior suite at the Retreat; two nights in a Torfbær room at The Torfus; and two nights in Reykjavik from £2,885pp. Includes return economy flights with Icelandair (icelandair.com), car hire, accommodation and breakfast.