It’s a hardy beast that can stand Iceland’s elements year-round. But even when lashing snow clings to their teddy-bear-like coats, Icelandic horses can. They are Viking stock, after all, having been purebred for 1,000 years, and, despite their low-slung bodies, I’ve been promised the smoothest horse ride in the world.
In a deserted corner of west Iceland, near Borgarnes, our group of riders swagger out of the pen. Gudmar, who runs Hestaland horseriding here, inhales the biting air. ‘There’s no better way to get close to nature than being on horseback in the middle of nowhere,’ he says, gesturing to miles of golden grass and half-frozen pools. ‘You notice things you usually wouldn’t.’
The little fawn-coloured steed I’ve been given affords me only a few inches of extra height, but I’m seeing the landscape from a new perspective. Long, late-afternoon shadows of our troupe bob beneath a row of light-bathed white mountains, marking the mystical Snaefellsnes peninsula.
Viking stock: Hardy Icelandic horses braving the ice and snow on the Snaefellsnes peninsula
It might not be your usual late summer holiday, but of all the years this is surely the one to embrace the great outdoors. With so many destinations off the table, Iceland is one place you’re free to roam wherever you like. There is currently a quarantine period of five days when you arrive, with Covid tests before and after (the first costs £50 in advance, the second is free), but that’s being reassessed weekly and there is no need to self-isolate on your return.
Besides, late summer and early autumn is a spectacular time to visit. The days are still long, the temperature hovers around 10C and even if you experience the first snow, it’s no challenge to drive around on the excellent roads.
Moss and shrubs smothering the basalt rocks turn dramatic orange and gold, while nights can be dark enough to see the Northern Lights.
It is also the only place where horses can fly. Instead of the usual three gaits (walk, trot, canter/gallop), Icelandic horses, uniquely, have five. Suddenly perked up by a downward slope, my Hestaland horse bursts into a merry four-beat single-foot gait, called ‘tolt’.
It puts the wind past my cheeks but feels as smooth as floating on a magic carpet. The fifth gear is a 35mph ‘flying pace’. I leave that one to Gudmar.
These magical beasts – whose ancestors are thought to have been brought here by Norse settlers 1,000 years ago – still play a key part in Icelandic life. They’re used as transport in heavy snow, and each spring entire communities jump on to horseback to round up farmers’ wild-roaming sheep.
Window on the wild: Fantastic views of mountains and lava fields from the lounge at the Hotel Budir
That vision, of people living close to nature, is best experienced in this western region. Within easy reach of Reykjavik (where more than half of the country’s 360,000 population live) but beyond the tourist-trodden Golden Circle, it was a fantastically wild place to visit even before the world turned upside down.
That’s not to say there isn’t luxury here. Ninety minutes from the capital and I experience warming up as Icelanders do at Krauma baths, enveloped by steaming-hot geothermal water and the silence of the surrounding hills, as I’m handed a frothy beer.
Over four days, local guide Thor drives me across the west’s highlights. We cruise among snow-spotted lava fields and mountains reflected in curving lakes. With no forests, these dramatic scenes seem to stretch into infinity.
Much of it looks just as the Vikings would have found it. They thought this explosive and unfertile island was haunted when their longships landed, a tale recounted at the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes.
This tiny town, on a rocky shore in the middle of west Iceland, is a gateway to the region. A short drive away I find a touch of Viking at the Stedji beer brewery, in the form of a Welshman called Morgan. He looks the part: windswept long hair, fur-topped boots and Icelandic knit. At a banquet table laid with candles held by twisted rams’ horns, he opens a sour-tasting brew, Northern Lights. ‘If you drink enough of it, you might just see them for real,’ he winks. Straight from glaciers, water here is so pure that Iceland has become a magnet for microbrewers, despite beer above 2.25 per cent being banned until 1989.
Spectacular: Nights can be dark enough to see the Northern Lights, pictured above over Snaefellsnes peninsula
As alluring as beer and bathing are, soon a sense of adventure leads us to the 56-mile-long Snaefellsnes peninsula. Often described as Iceland in miniature thanks to its diversity of mountains, sleepy fishing villages and gothic black-sand beaches, its jewel is the Snaefellsjokull glacier at its tip, immortalised in Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.
After a lurching snowcat ride up an active volcano to reach it, we arm ourselves with icepicks for the short hike to the second summit (the pinnacle is a harness-and-ropes job). I catch a glimpse of my hair: crispy, coiled, frozen and shocking white. ‘How cold is it?’ I shout to the leader of Summit Adventure Guides – another Thor. ‘Minus 10. With this wind, though, feels like minus 15.’
Breathlessly reaching the top, our frozen world is in full view. Wispy clouds skimming the lower peaks look so sublime, I can see why Snaefellsjokull is considered one of the seven chakras (energy centres) of the planet.
Back down to earth, warming comforts come at Hotel Budir, where shellfish soup made with smoked buttermilk is dished out in a candle-lit dining room. Facing the rumbling waves of Europe’s far-west edge, this homely sanctuary is a glowing speck in the darkness of the back of beyond.
On the road the next morning we pass an emergency shelter stocked with dry food and gas cylinders, left there for vehicle breakdowns in heavy winter weather. Thor shrugs. ‘We have a popular saying in Iceland that translates as “it’ll all work out OK”.’ Here, they just get on with it.
Mysterious as it once was, it’s now easy for those who come to west Iceland to explore even its most remote treasures. Though there’s always the option to experience this wild land as the Vikings did; soaring across the tundra on the back of a flying horse.