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Ash cloud puts magical Iceland on the map
Visit, learn how to order puffin, volcanoes and enjoy the sight of majestic waterfalls in the stunning, magical country of Iceland.
By Danielle Dwyer
"Order the puffin", the waiter suggested politely as I dithered over the extensive menu on my first evening in Iceland.
I didn't have the guts - quite literally - so I stuck with the salmon, but I was the only one eating it in our group. The others indeed opted for smoked puffin - and gave it rave reviews.
As for my fish, caught the very same day from a river running past the restaurant window, it was perfect.
The adventurous menu marked the beginning of what was to be an action-packed four-day trip.
Hours earlier, peering out of the window as we began our descent into Keflavik Airport, just west of Reykjavik, I had felt as though I was gazing down at the pages of a geography textbook.
A massive expanse of lunar-looking terrain greets visitors as they touch down in Iceland, setting the scene for a country where the landscape is as dramatic as it is varied.
Over the course of our trip we took in spectacular glaciers, a bubbling volcano, tumbling waterfalls and rolling fields. The landscape is striking, albeit curious and bleak in places.
It is impossible to forget that Iceland - nicknamed the land of fire and ice - is a country of extremes.
Earlier this year, that became a harsh reality for millions of holidaymakers as flights across Europe were grounded when Eyjafjallajokull erupted and an ash cloud lingered in the skies for weeks.
Yet sitting in the grounds of the Hotel Ranga with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in my hands and the now infamous volcano just a short drive away, it was easy to forget the disruption and see only the startling beauty of a country so diverse and dramatic.
Guests braver than me stripped to their bikinis and lazed around in outdoor hot tubs, enjoying the spectacular view - Mount Hekla stands proud on the horizon - and the surprisingly mild climate.
We were pausing for a mid-afternoon break, having spent the morning driving along Iceland's stunning south coast, visiting waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss and Skogarfoss - just two of hundreds in the country.
Volcano enthusiasts can drive to Eyjafjallajokull from Reykjavik along Route 1 - a journey of roughly 70 miles. It is also possible to fly over the volcano as we did, an experience well worth an afternoon if weather conditions permit.
But there is so much more to Iceland than lava and ash.
It is an over-used cliche that every cloud has a silver lining, but the people of Iceland hope the old adage holds true.
Our guide told us Icelanders are confident the eruption, which caused little disruption in Iceland, will put them on the map, so to speak.
Besides the volcanoes and waterfalls, a trip snowmobiling on one of the country's glaciers is an absolute must. Tour providers run day trips from the capital.
After 10 minutes hurtling across the snow of Vatnajokull on the comfortingly sturdy snow mobile, in convoy with a group of around 20, I had completely forgotten the fact that I was dressed up like a Tellytubby, in padded red overalls.
Admiring the view of snow-capped mountains and the seemingly endless pristine-white glacier, and taking in the complete silence, it was hard to believe I had travelled just one hour by air from London.
I was struck by that thought again and again, as we toured the south of the island in our rented jeep.
Iceland, situated just south of the Arctic Circle, is home to a population of 300,000. Roughly half that number live in the capital, Reykjavik, and its neighbouring towns in the southwest.
Corrugated iron-clad buildings, many painted in pastel hues, lend a picture-postcard backdrop to Reykjavik - where Icelanders regularly party right through the night.
In the summer months, 24 hours of daylight lend themselves to long nights partying in the capital's many pubs and bars. Younger inhabitants take up the challenge with gusto.
By day, the city's atmosphere is casual and relaxed, with a dress code to match. By night, the stilettos come out and the bar crawls commence, lasting into and beyond the early hours.
But Reykjavik has more to offer than its vibrant nightlife.
In the daytime it is pretty and peaceful, with just enough bustle to create an atmosphere. The capital is small enough to explore by foot, and wherever you are in the city, you are never far from a decent coffee and a spot to sit down and people-watch.
A wander down to the harbour offers the perfect morning stroll, and on a clear day, the icy cap of the Snaefellsjokull volcano can be seen across Faxafloi Bay. The bay itself plays host to popular whale-watching tours, where catching sight of minke whales is a daily occurrence.
Reykjavik is also an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the country. About four buses leave the city each day for the Blue Lagoon, where you can share the locals' fondness for outdoor bathing by plunging into mineral-enriched waters at a breathtaking 38C.
By car, the Golden Circle tour makes a fascinating day-long excursion from Reykjavik, taking in Thingvellir, setting for the Viking Parliament, the hot blowhole of Geysir (now dormant) and mighty Gullfoss, the "Golden Falls" which you hear from miles away.
With a week to play with, it is just about possible to complete a circuit of the island, along the main ring road - Route 1, nearly 800 miles long. It's similar to a British A-road, but with traffic jams virtually unknown.
Along the way, the Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon, on the south side of Vatnajokull, is a must-see.
The lagoon is a sprawling lake of glacial meltwater into which huge icebergs have floated, having broken away from the glacier.
Boat trips take visitors through gaps between the rough-edged icebergs but a walk along the water's edge is enough to draw gasps. The icebergs, white and blue and sludge-like black in colour, look like the setting of a blockbuster movie and provide spectacular holiday snaps.
Equally striking is the fact that such an inevitably popular spot has been left exactly as nature intended. Except for the unobtrusive boat that chugs through the lagoon, there is nothing. No fast food chain to cash in on the scores of tourists flocking through the area, no souvenir store, no ticket booth.
And the same can be said about hundreds of Iceland's natural wonders.
Our guide tells us that Icelanders want to keep it that way - unspoilt - and it is certainly worth a visit while they do.
:: Best for: Natural beauty and enjoying the great outdoors.
:: Time to go: Mid-May to late July for 24-hour daylight. July and August are the warmest months.
:: Don't miss: Vatnajokull, for its snowmobiling and the Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon.
:: Need to know: Climate is changeable, so pack layers and waterproofs.
:: Don't forget: Your camera.
Danielle Dwyer was a guest of Discover The World, which offers six-night self-drive holidays in Iceland year-round from £808 per person (April and October).
The Arctic Edge package includes Icelandair flights ex-Heathrow, B&B hotel accommodation, including the luxury Hotel Ranga, car rental (unlimited mileage basis and semi-comprehensive insurance).
Direct flights also available ex-Manchester and Glasgow (packages start at £790 from both).
Reservations: 01737 218 800 and www.discover-the-world.co.uk.