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A green resolution for 2016

Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador

Lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, travel more: these are our most commonly made (and broken) resolutions at the beginning of each new year. What doesn’t make it onto the usual list but should be there is: spend more time in nature.

Currently more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and by 2050 that proportion is expected to increase to 70 per cent. While urbanisation has many benefits, studies show that city living takes its toll on us, as our brains are not optimally developed for living in concrete jungles. Urban living, with dozens of stressors such as traffic and noise, has been found to raise the risk of anxiety and mood disorders, while researchers in Germany found that people living in cities don’t handle stress as well as people who live in the countryside do. Living in an urban environment is also thought to cause cognitive load – the tiring of your brain from too much stimulation which is thought to weaken some functions such as attention capability.

This doesn’t mean we should all decamp to the country – what it does mean is that we need to bring nature back into our city lives. A lot of research has recently been done on the benefits of short exposure to nature, and the findings range from the alleviation of ADHD in children to improving memory. A study done at Stanford University found that volunteers who walked through on tree-lined paths through a leafy green park were more attentive and in a better mood afterwards than the control group of volunteers who walked for the same amount of time next to a traffic-choked highway. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that walking in nature for just a few minutes can reduce depressive symptoms, and studies have shown that children who attend schools with more trees and plants do better on cognitive tests than children at schools with no greenery.

The obvious solution for urbanites is to plan more weekends and holidays in natural environments. Spending time immersed in nature has been found to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and increase energy levels. Luckily in South Africa we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to wilderness escapes, whether it’s wildlife spotting in Kruger or hiking in the Drakensberg. Going off the grid as much as possible is ideal: researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder did a study on campers sleeping out in the wilderness for a week and found that sleeping in a dark place away from the artifical lights of a city helped reset their circadian rhythms (which govern your biological processes like sleeping) and made them more alert.

While getting out of the city does wonders for your mind and body, you don’t have to go further than your garden to get a rejuvenating nature fix. Scientists at Westminster and Essex universities found that people who gardened for at least half an hour a week were in better physical health, had lower levels of tension and stress and higher levels of self esteem than people who spent no time gardening. Even short amounts of time spent looking at a natural scene – like some trees in a park – have been found to have a relaxing effect on the brain and to boost attention levels.

Whether you bring nature into your life by going on an epic wilderness trip, taking more long weekends in the bush or just starting a flowerbox on your balcony, getting more green in your life seems like one of the best resolutions to make for 2016.

This was originally published in Mango Juice magazine in January 2016

 

 

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On ditching the travel bucket list

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

In the 2007 film The Bucket List, two terminally ill characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman meet in a cancer ward, which they escape to do a road trip to tick off their wish list of things to do, including seeing the Taj Mahal and skydiving, before they die. Since then the term “bucket list” – meaning a list of things to do, see and accomplish before you kick the proverbial bucket – has taken off, becoming firmly entrenched in popular culture, with travel being a big focus of many lists. The term “travel bucket list” yields nearly 50 million searches on Google: the Internet is awash with articles proclaiming “The ultimate travel bucket list: 1001 things to do before you die”, “100 places that should be on your bucket list” and even “The ultimate Harry Potter travel bucket list”. On Bucketlist.org you can get inspiration from other users’ three million things to do before you die, if you don’t have enough ideas to fill own list. There are multiple smartphone apps that help you create and manage your travel bucket list and share your bucket list experiences with your social media community once you’ve ticked them off.

If you read through some of the many thousands of travel bucket lists posted on blogs and websites, you’ll soon see that there’s a startling similarity in many of the lists’ points: from swimming with dolphins, seeing the Northern Lights and road tripping across the USA to witnessing the Great Migration in the Serengeti, the same things appear over and over.

The problem with bucket lists is that they reduce the vast wonders of the world to the easily packaged consumerist form of a shopping list – and unfortunately the other shoppers have the same items on their lists to purchase. Experiences become things to acquire – not unlike material goods. Ticking things off comes with a competitive edge. The benefits of travel – the learnings, cultural exchanges and personal growth – are glossed over in favour of the kind of things that look great in Facebook photos: jumping on Great Wall of China, getting a selfie with a penguin in Antarctica, riding a camel in front of the Great Pyramids.

When you make a bucket list, you presuppose what will be the most memorable part of a trip: the great sights. In fact the elevated expectations laden on these places and experiences often leads to disappointment when the pyramids aren’t as big as you expected, or the dolphins don’t seem as friendly as you thought they’d be. Instead, the many joys of travel are the spontaneous, unexpected ones – the kinds of things that aren’t included in brochures. From getting lost in a foreign city and stumbling on a wonderful local restaurant (the kind of place that wouldn’t have made it into the guidebook), making a new friend on a long bus trip who you stay in touch with for the rest of your life, discovering your own tenacity when your journey throws up an unexpected challenge – these are often the memories that we keep with us long after the trip is over. You also don’t have to go far for travel to be rewarding – according to research short, frequent trips boost our happiness much more than long, infrequent holidays.

The American historian Miriam Beard wrote that “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” The transformative power of travel lies not in visiting the world’s most famous places, but in the way in which immersive experiences enhance, deepen and broaden the way in which you view the world and connect to other people. This kind of travel which cannot be checked off a list is the kind of travel that should make us leave home in the first place.

 

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Shoot less, remember more

Shooting hummingbirds in Costa Rica

Going trigger happy on holidays and shooting hundreds of photos may not be the best way of remembering those special moments you experience – doing a beautiful hike, taking in an idyllic sunset on the beach or standing in front of a famous view.

In a recent study, a group of students went to an art museum and spent time observing 15 works of art, and photographing 15 others. The next day, the students were asked to recall details of the art works. It turns out that when they had taken a photo of a work, they remembered far fewer details about it than when they’d just observed it. This is called a photo-taking impairment effect: when people rely on photos to store the memory of something they’ve seen, rather than using their own memories.

But using photos as a digital memory of your trips only works when you access the photos – in order to remember, you need to spend time interacting with the photos. Research suggests that most of us leave folders of hundreds of photos on our computers and hard drives and don’t browse through them very often. Because we feel like the photos are safely stored somewhere, there’s no urgency to look at them.

Relying on technology to remember for us – using a camera or smartphone to record events and a hard drive to store the memories – means we often aren’t fully engaged in the experiences in real time. We are so busy taking photos that we aren’t looking at the panoramic mountain vista or palm tree-fringed beach that inspired us to take the photos in the first place.

The 19th century English art critic, John Ruskin, who was an avid traveller, had a solution for preserving magical moments and beautiful scenes that you don’t want to forget which doesn’t involve any shutter pressing. He thought that the best way of capturing what we see is to draw, whether or not you have any drawing talent. Drawing makes you an artistic observer, helping you to notice details you would have missed looking through the viewfinder of your camera. To draw something forces you to slow down and spend many minutes – if not hours – taking in a scene, rather than the few seconds it takes to touch a smartphone camera button.

Not everyone has the time for sketching while travelling (imagine asking kids to stay in one place for two hours while you draw) but one alternative is to buy an old film camera and limit your photos from a trip to one roll of film. Try to think about taking photographs in the same way that you would think about drawing – the noticing rather than just looking, the attention to detail, and most importantly, the decision to take just one or two photos of each magnificent scene or place instead of dozens.

Even if you feel that you won’t be able to remember all the details of somewhere you visit without taking photos of everything, if you are present in the moment then it forms a part of who you are. This is one of the greatest benefits of travel, and most often it requires using only your eyes to take in a view, rather than a viewfinder.

This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Mango Juice.

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Interview with Anton Crone

Anton Crone (right) in NaboishoI first met Anton Crone when he’d just given up a long career in advertising and decided to try his hand at travel blogging. Even before I knew him well, he seemed like the perfect traveller (and a good person to drink many beers with and chat about everything) – a hardy motorbiker who takes everything in his stride with good humour and a sense of adventure. I love Anton’s take on slow travel (he once drove from Cape Town to the Serengeti in a Smart Car, for no particular reason), his genuine enthusiasm for Africa, wilderness and conservation, his choice of really off-the-beaten-track destinations (like Mali), his beautiful photography – and his portraits in particular – and his truly inspiring story (read it here) about how he decided to change life track so drastically and give up his career for travel, at a time when most people are settling down to stay in the same place for the rest of their lives.

Anton’s moved from blogging to a job as the publishing editor of Africa Geographic Magazine, and he’s about to embark on a new travel venture. He continues to write about what he loves – conservation, Africa and the beautiful wild places he’s been to.

Read about Anton’s travels through Africa on his blog, Bright Continent, and his blogs and articles on Africa Geographic, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

What was your first trip without your parents?

The first trip I remember with my folks was to the highlands of Nyanga in Zimbabwe. It was a strange time – there was a war going on. We explored ancient ruins and swam in mountain streams, but dad carried an AK and mom packed an Uzi. We left Zimbabwe for South Africa soon after that. My first trip alone was going back there as a teenager. My parents put me on a long distance bus. They were happy to see me go because I was a real shit, and I didn’t want to come back. I considered Zimbabwe home. I would be staying with family friends on their farm and I thought it was going to be like old times – playing the fool; getting up to mischief. But I was put to work branding cattle and hoeing fields. My folks had arranged it like that. It did me a lot of good. And I missed them.

What’s been the most meaningful journey you’ve done?

I hitchhiked from Anchorage to Acapulco in 1999. It was so far from my perceptions of America, and myself. I lived like a hobo. I loved it, and sometimes I hated it.

Where in the world have you felt happiest?

Probably the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I had just fallen in love. While we were walking around the gardens, trying to figure each other out, I realised that she must like me because she was laughing at my silly jokes.

Pineapple salesman

What’s the best sky you’ve ever slept under?

The sky above Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana. It’s a wonderful place to see the expanse of the Milky Way, and to feel ridiculously small.

What are your favourite travel books?

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia of course! His Songlines I loved too. Then there’s Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari and Shackleton’s South. One book that really stuck with me was The Water in Between by Kevin Patterson.

Photo 2010-10-06

Why do you travel?

I travel to move. I get fidgety if I’m sedentary.

What places that you’ve travelled to have had the biggest impact on you?

Mount Assinboine in Canada. I felt so exposed to the elements hiking there. Denali in Alaska for the same reason. Djenné in Mali for its mud mosque and Koranic Island. Then there’s Africa’s Albertine Rift – the entire region astounds me, culturally as well as geographically. Lagos, for the mad energy. Malawi because I feel like I belong there – which is incredibly presumptuous of me, so let’s say I want to belong there.

What’s your favourite story you’ve written?

A little piece about a kid on a boat on Lake Malawi.

Moto Taxi

How can people learn to be better travellers?

I think the people who are better at travelling are those who travel like it’s their first time, every time. Who just throw themselves into it without planning; without following the same method or strategy. Who just travel to see what happens next.

What’s the wildest place you’ve ever been to?

Alaska.

What’s your favourite mode of transport and why?

I love motorcycling because it exposes you to the environment. But I would say hitchhiking is my favourite because you meet so many wonderfully interesting people. They tell you stuff they don’t tell others, and you tell them stuff you don’t tell others, because you think you’ll never see each other again. You get to really understand a country that way and you become a part of it.

Photo 2013-03-16

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Why you should spend money on travel rather than things

View from Wayna Picchu

Want to be happier? It’s simple: buy less material things and spend more money on experiences, like travel. This route to contentment is backed up by science: over the past decade psychologists have done extensive research and studies into why experiences make us happier than things.

Most of us have finite amounts of wealth and we have to make decisions every day how to allocate it. It seems to make sense to buy things that will last at least for a few years: cars, couches, coffee machines, rather than spending money on experiences, which are short-lived, because the material things will bring with them longer-lasting happiness than the fleeting experiences, which are over in a few hours, days or weeks.

From a happiness perspective, this assumption, one which many of us make, is actually wrong. There are a couple of reasons why. Firstly, we’re subject to something known as hedonic adaption, which means we quickly get used to anything new. At first a new purchase, like a new pair of jeans, fulfills a desire, so you feel good. After a short time though, you stop appreciating the jeans, and as they become part of the background you lose the happiness you felt when you first bought them. Hedonic adaption happens much more with objects than it does with experiences, because of the transient nature of experiences like travel: you’re usually not on a trip long enough to adapt to the point where you don’t appreciate it any more. Even when a trip is long over, the pleasure derived from the experience stays with you: think about how long the happiness attached to the memory of a weekend away in the countryside with a group of friends or a camping holiday with your family in the bush lasts.

The second reason why experiences make us happier than things has to do with anticipation. Waiting for the new iPhone to become available in South Africa is annoying, while looking forward to the start of your holiday – even if it’s six months away – is butterflies-in-your-tummy exciting. Planning for and anticipating the start of a trip is part of the fun of travelling – who hasn’t got through long weeks of work without the fantasy of imagining yourself far away from the humdrum of the 9-5 life, relaxing on a beach, hiking through the mountains or exploring the streets of a new city? (This, by the way, is also an argument for booking holidays way in advance rather than doing everything last minute).

It might seem like you can create an identity connected to the stuff you own – that your house or your artworks can help to define you – but material goods are not a part of you, they’re just inanimate objects we to which we attach meaning. Experiences, on the other hand, are you. Experiences make us who we are: our self is little more than a collection of the things we’ve done, seen and learned. Every time you travel somewhere you build up your experience bank, which forms your part of both your ever-changing self and changes your outlook on the world. It’s hard to say the same thing about the latest Apple gadget.

This column was first published in the August 2015 issue of Mango Juice

 

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A road trip around Iceland

Road trip Iceland

I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, but I always saw it in the same league as Antarctica: the kind of place that I’d maybe get to later in my life, when I have more money. Like Antarctica, it seemed so far away and so expensive – a place you save up to see after you’ve gone to all the other, more accessible, places on your list.

So when I read about an Icelandic budget airline launching flights between the US and Iceland just at the time that we were planning our journey from Mexico to Europe, it was like the travel gods had intervened. There was no way I could not book that $120 flight.

It seemed the only way to really see Iceland is to drive right around it on the 1332-kilometre Ring Road circling the island, which is what we did, hiring a car as we arrived and setting out with a map and layers of thermals.

Day one – Reykjavik

We started off our nine-day road trip around Iceland in a sleeting Reykjavik, where we drank beer in the Big Lebowski bar, visited the penis museum and ate the best fish and chips ever and marvelled at how Nordically cool Icelandic people are, with their woollen knitted sweaters, thick hipster beards and thriving music and arts scene in a city of just 120 000 people.

Day two – Thingvellir National Park

The next day we got up early and drove into a snowy Thingvellir National Park to go diving at Silfra, a glacial river filled with some of the purest water on the planet. We donned cumbersome dry suits and plunged into water just above freezing to dive between the continental plates, at one point touching Eurasia and North America at the same time. This definitely made the uncontrollable shivering and my almost-frozen blue lips worth it. That afternoon, we took a scenic flight in a tiny plane over the Vatnajökull ice cap to see the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the famous one that disrupted European air traffic in 2010), which looked like a harmless white mountain, and steaming geysers surrounded by snow. From the air there were no signs of human life apart from power lines and a few hiking cabins nearly entirely covered with snow. It was a glimpse of just how wild and sparsely inhabited this island is.

Diving Silfra, Iceland
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Day three – The southeast

After driving for awhile through fairly featureless fields south of Thingvellir National Park, we suddenly started seeing the kind of epic landscapes Iceland is famous for: huge cliffs swathed in mist looming over tiny farmhouses below, the thunderous Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls dwarfing tiny tourists underneath them, white waves crashing onto the black sand beaches of Vik and then the magnificent sight of the Vatnajökull glacier from a distance (the biggest glacier outside of the polar regions) – a vast tongue of ice pouring out of the mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking with crampons on the Svínafellsjökull, an outlet glacier cut through with lines of dark clay like skeins of blue cheese mould, which looked strangely familiar. It turns out that the glacier was a location set for Interstellar and Batman Begins and it fills in for the world north of the wall in Game of Thrones.

Napping in the car with jet lag, I nearly missed the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, which in a day of spectacular sights, was a highlight. Iceland’s deepest lake collects icebergs that break off the Vatnajökull glacier. The icebergs melt at the mouth of the lagoon’s exit, and float down to the sea, about a kilometre away. In the late afternoon light the lake was magnificent. We sat on the black shoreline in silence watching the light catch on the edge of the icebergs and listening to the sounds of them bumping into one another and melting into the lake with crackles and pops.

SkogafossSarah Duff Iceland-5 Hiking Svínafellsjökull glacierJokulsarlon lagoon

Day four – Hofn

Pouring rain scuppered our hiking plans, so instead we took a slow drive to Hofn, winding our way around dramatic black cliffs. Hofn, a tiny harbourside town of 2000 people, seemed like a bustling metropolis after all the empty countryside. We bought some supermarket sushi and drove out of town to the ruins of a modern-day Viking village – the abandoned set of a Hollywood film that ran out of money. In the drizzle and biting wind, under heavy grey skies the village, set between mountains and sea, felt positively eerie, wooden shutters creaking in the wind, like an actual movie scene. In the afternoon the sky cleared up and we walked around the harbour, buffering ourselves against the wind. Hofn is famous for lobsters, so for dinner we went to the restaurant across the road from our guesthouse and tried not to look at the prices as we ordered baguettes filled with lobster tails – the best lobster I’ve ever had – and drank Vatnajökull beer made with glacial iceberg water and wild thyme that only grows in the summer months.

Sarah Duff Iceland-10Abandoned Viking village, Iceland

Day five – Hofn to Lake Mývatn

After a breakfast of creamy blueberry skyr, we headed off on the Ring Road on a sunny morning, hugging the eastern coastline as we looped around beautiful fjords and then headed up into the snowy mountains to drive north. It was 16 degrees and as we stopped for photos we could hear the sound of snow melting into the ground. For an hour or two we saw no one else and no other car as we drove through what felt like the edge of the world. Once we’d passed the town of Eglisstadir, the landscape became even wilder: high up on snow-covered volcanic plains, chocolate-brown hills were marbled with snow like white chocolate brownie mix and iced-over milky blue ponds looked like melted Hall’s cough drops.

We turned off the Ring Road and headed off a lonely country road to get to Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss, which poured down cliffs covered in snow and ice and created a thick banded rainbow in the sky. There were only a few other tourists there on a late sunny afternoon, and we all stood in silence as a chunk of ice the size of a house fell of a cliff with a resounding boom and huge spray, reminding us of the raw power of nature.

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Day six – Lake Mývatn

In what turned out to be our favourite day of the trip, we explored the lunar-like landscape around Lake Mývatn: the steaming vents and piping fumaroles of Hverir, where we stood enveloped in the warm eggy steam to dethaw from the cold wind and drove up into the hills past Krafla, a steaming geothermal power station that looked like somewhere a James Bond villain’s lair. Here the road was snowed over, so we parked the car to hike through snow that came up to our knees to a sulphurous pale duck egg-blue sulphurous pool surrounded encircled by dark yellow sand and black volcanic rocks spewing forth steam. There was no one else around for miles, and everything was surreally quiet.

After lunch at Vogafjos Cowshed-Café, where you can watch cows being milked for the cheese on the farmhouse platter with smoked Arctic char and cake-like geyser bread baked in geothermal geysers, we hiked up the near-symmetrical Hverfell crater and explored the volcanic pillars of Dimmuborgir, which is supposedly home to trolls. A day of hiking called for a relaxing soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths, a natural open-air ice-blue hot pool with views down to the lake far below. The sun was only starting to set at 8.30pm, the outside air temperature was 8 degrees, and in the pool it was a toasty 37 degrees. I thought that was the most perfect way to end a great day, but then at midnight we spotted a flash of green outside our window. We hurriedly got dressed and drove our car out to an empty road, where we were treated to an hour’s lightshow: the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. It was eerie and magical and just as spectacular as I’d thought it would be.

Sarah Duff Iceland-15 Sarah Duff Iceland-16 Sarah Duff Iceland-17 Sarah Duff Iceland-18 Sarah Duff Iceland-19 Sarah Duff Iceland-20Northern Lights Iceland

Day seven – Lake Mývatn to Snaefellsness

A long and not very scenic whole-day drive brought us from Lake Mývatn past Iceland’s second biggest city, Akureyi, and right across the north west of the island to a sliver of land like a finger pointing west – the Snaefellsness Peninsula, where we checked into the incredibly romantic Hotel Búðir – the kind of place you’d want to be snowed into, which is next to a striking black church (one of the more unique places to get married in, if you’re ever looking for a destination wedding location).

Budir Church, iceland

Day eight – Snaefellsness Peninsula

On the coldest day of our trip, when the wind chill brought the temperature below freezing, we decided to do a horse ride. We’d been eyeing up Iceland’s beautiful horses, with their long blonde manes and thick furry coats, the whole way through the road trip, and wanting to ride some. In between bouts of hail and sleet we saddled up and froze our fingers riding horses (who seemed totally nonchalant about the weather) to the beach. It took much hand warming on our heater back at the hotel, as well as several cups of tea and some whisky to dethaw.

Icelandic horse on a road trip around Iceland

Day nine – Keflavik Airport 

We drove back to the airport, stopping off for a quick soak in the silica-infused waters of the Blue Lagoon surrounded by black volcanic rocks, wishing we had another month to explore Iceland.

I’d come to Iceland with high expectations, and fell in love with Icelandic culture and the raw, wild beauty of the dramatically diverse island. After nine days I felt like I’d only had a small taste of what Iceland has to offer, and can’t wait to be back – my plan is to visit Iceland in every season.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Planning a road trip around Iceland

Iceland is more accessible than you think (many budget airlines fly from Europe to Reykjavik in a few hours, and Wow Air flies from the US for under $200), but it’s just as expensive as you’ve heard.

However, you can save money by travelling outside of the peak summer months of June, July and August. Most hotels and car rental places drop their prices dramatically for the other nine months of the year. We travelled in April, which is early spring, and while it was cold, it was a great time to travel – nothing was busy and we paid low season rates. If you travel in the off-season you don’t need to book your accommodation ahead of time, so you can just drive around the Ring Road and decide where to stay each night as you go along.

You don’t need a 4×4 to drive the Ring Road, even in winter, but you do need one if you’re planning on exploring the highlands (which you can only do in summer). Renting a car is expensive in Iceland, but we found the cheapest option – a company called SAD cars, which has older, slightly scruffy cars in their fleet. Our car had quite a few dents and scratches but we had no problems with it at all.

Where to stay on a road trip around Iceland

Reyjkavik – Loft Hostel

One of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, Loft Hostel has a stylish Nordic-minimalist look, really amazing breakfasts, a bar serving Icelandic craft brews on Reykjavik’s main street, close to bars and restaurants.

Near Thingvellir National Park – Hotel Ranga

Warm and cosy with friendly staff, a wooden cabin exterior, outdoor hot tubs and themed rooms (the traditional Japanese inn was my favourite) Hotel Ranga is surrounded by fields and only a few houses, which makes it a perfect spot to see the Northern Lights. The restaurant serves up gourmet food with Icelandic produces – wild mushroom soup with pickled wild mushrooms, pan fried souffléd langoustine with herb oil and puréed artichoke, creamed skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) with blueberry jam and berry sorbet.

Near Jökulsárlón Glacier LagoonHali Country Hotel

A simple, sweet little country hotel in an amazing location, close to the lagoon and sandwiched between mountains and sea.

Hofn – Guesthouse Dyngja

I liked feeling like I was staying in someone’s home in this family-run guesthouse, which is a few small cosy rooms and shared bathrooms, and a sunny kitchen overlooking Hofn’s harbour.

Lake MývatnHotel Reynjalid

The biggest hotel in the area, Hotel Reynjalid has spacious well-equipped rooms, friendly staff, a great breakfast buffet and excellent dinners in the restaurant – wild mushroom soup, pan-fried Arctic char, Icelandic fish soup, cod with barley, apples and celery root, and liquid chocolate cake.

Snaefellsness Peninsula – Hotel Búðir

Hotel Búðir must be Iceland’s most romantic hotel. Situated on a windswept, otherwise uninhabited stretch of the Snaefellsness Peninsula, the hotel looks like it’s straight out of a décor magazine with Gothic Victorian-inspired dark walls, quirky framed prints, faux-fur covered ottomans, shelves of National Geographics, leather couches and a stylish bar. The hotel is steps from the beach so you sit at breakfast watching waves crashing and seals swimming in the churning sea. The food here was fantastic, from the wild mushroom soup, cod and potato bake, shellfish soup and skyr with rhubarb compote to the salmon gravadlax for breakfast.

Iceland adventures

You could do a road trip around Iceland and just stop off to take photos and wander around waterfalls, but if you don’t do any of the many activities on offer then you’re missing out on Iceland’s greatest adventures.

Diving

Dive (or snorkel) between the tectonic plates at Silfra in Thingvellir National Park with Dive.is. Their diving instructors are great, and their equipment is top notch and the diving is superb – a truly memorable experience.

Flying

While it’s expensive, a flying sightseeing tour of Iceland is a great way to get perspective on the island’s amazing landscapes. There are a few companies that offer scenic flights; I went with Flightseeing, which offers trips from Reyjkavik, Bakki and Skaftafell.

Glacier trekking

If you want to get on top of a glacier, there are lots of ways to explore Iceland’s icy worlds: dog sledding, snow mobiling, ice climbing or glacier trekking, which I did in Skaftafell National park with Icelandic Mountain Guides.

Horseriding

There are places to horse ride all over the island. I went on a ride with Lysuholl, a family-run horse farm on the Snaefellsness Peninsula.

Northern Lights Iceland