Cancel Preloader

Seals, hot tubs, overpriced beer: how I holidayed in Iceland

Despite my Turkish heritage, I cannot handle hot holidays, so a trip to Iceland is my dream, combining two of my favourite things: nature and jumpers. I have long been fascinated with this small, otherworldly country on the edge of the Arctic Circle. What natural wonders it has! Auroras, whales and bearded men. How friendly Iceland must feel when everyone is referred to, officially, by their first name. When I was in labour with my second child, it was to the stirring sounds of Sigur Rós, as if I was a rare mammal on a BBC nature documentary. In 1975, Iceland’s women went on strike; inspired by these women, forged in fire and ice and battles with trolls, I too rarely do any housework. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Iceland but, failing a trip, is it possible to live my own Icelandic saga from home?

Emine Judithsdóttir has breakfast and ponders Vikings

Over a bowl of Skyr (an Icelandic yoghurt-like dish) and blueberries, horned helmet on my head, I wonder how to recreate a volcanic island nation in south-east England without resorting to tired stereotypes. I’m fortunate to live near Hastings, a seaside town where people come on their actual vacations, and a place so great that holidays away from it always feel a little underwhelming. Hastings, like Iceland, has a strong fishing heritage; it is bursting with creativity despite its small population; and if you talk to anyone for long enough, you will discover acquaintances in common. Our key year, 1066, is also considered to be the end of the Viking era. England’s King Harold may have been defeated by the Normans, but he had just seen off a Viking invasion – the last big one in Britain – three weeks earlier. My Icelandic history is shaky, but I imagine that without having to worry about invading all the time, those Vikings who had settled in Iceland could get on with better things, such as fermenting shark and improving gender equality.

The quest for a dramatic landscape

A lava field in all but name.
A lava field in all but name. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

An early morning low tide reveals my favourite beach, to the east of Hastings – where the sun rises over dark lunar-like rocks that could, through tired eyes, stand in for a beautifully bleak Icelandic beach or lava field. It’s glorious. Why don’t I do this more often?

A dip in a geothermal pool

Emine reads a novel resting her head on a blow-up shark in a hot tub
Hastings’ version of Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Or rather hot tub, since this area is lacking in subterranean lava flows. Steve answers my plea on a local Facebook group and generously offers me the use of his hot tub (and inflatable whale), where I read an Arnaldur Indriðason crime novel as I soak. Steve and Marianne – first names, Icelandic-style – went to Iceland a couple of years ago to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. It was, says Marianne, as good as they’d hoped it would be. Thankfully they don’t insist, as many Icelandic thermal pools do, on compulsory nudity and (mostly communal) showering.

In search of wild horses

In Iceland, horses roam free during the summer, grazing the highlands. In September, they’re gathered up in great herds, so they’re only wild part-time. Icelandic horses are small and hardy, and miraculously this part of the East Sussex coast also has a herd of small wild horses – Exmoor ponies – who graze the scrubland on the clifftop nature reserve. The problem is, there are only six of them, as opposed to Iceland’s 80,000 or thereabouts, so they can be hard to find. “They could be anywhere,” says the woman in the visitor centre. Wandering around, as if I were roaming Icelandic moorlands, will have to suffice.

Settlement of the highly taxed bar bill

Emine at an outdoor pub table, contemplating a half pint of lager
How much? Emine enjoys an Icelandically priced drink. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Iceland has the highest alcohol taxes in Europe – a pint of beer can cost a tenner or more – so, at the pub, I put a fiver in the RNLI donation box and take my half-pint outside, trying to convince myself that it isn’t actually 3pm but midnight in an Icelandic midsummer. It’s hard, mainly because there are lots of families around. With another drink, I could possibly mistake children for elves – Iceland being full of them, of course – but I can’t afford it.

A perilous voyage

One of the seals spotted by Emine.
One of the seals spotted by Emine. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

To Rye harbour, where Will runs sea-life-spotting trips on a rigid inflatable boat. You straddle the seats, which he calls “horses”, and grip the handle in front like reins – I’m a “horseman of the sea”, as the Icelandic poet warrior Egil puts it in the medieval Egil’s Saga. Steve and Marianne had shown me pictures of their whale-watching trip, but that’s too optimistic here in the Channel. Dolphins? Will says he has seen them once. Instead, we’re after seals. After a 15-minute fast and bumpy ride, we find them. I once saw a seal by the pier in town, and it was so thrilling, it was all I talked about for a week. Here, we find about 20 of them, puppy-dog faces curious, bobbing in the water and coming surprisingly close to the boat. The sun is out, the wind is down, and I feel high – though this could be the beer combined with surviving the mildly terrifying voyage.

The last battle

Emine with a pony in the background
A wild East Sussex pony.

I hope to get to the real Iceland one day, where I’ll repeat all these things with less self-delusion. In the meantime, I’m grateful to this “holiday” for introducing me to things I never knew existed – Skyr, Marianne and Steve, communal showering and my local seal population. Still, I’m uneasy about those horses evading me, and an unsatisfactory ending to this epic tale. How can I expect forthcoming generations to retell the story of the woman who sat in a hot tub with a library book?

The next day, I summon some Icelandic endurance, as well as a picnic lunch of smoked herring and rye bread, and set off to find the wild ponies. Back at the cliffs, I march uphill and down, and venture into the bracken; I’m anxious about stumbling across nudist berserkers, but feel cheered by piles of horse manure, each bringing excitement in growing proportion to its freshness. After about half an hour, I come into a small clearing and spot four ponies. They’re perfect – beautiful, and small, so they’re not intimidating when they approach and allow me to stroke their silken noses. I am victorious, and can’t think of anywhere better to be.


Related post