The first time I saw whales in the wild, I was on a yacht in the Whitsundays off Australia’s Queensland coast, soaking up the sun as screams of delight from my fellow passengers welcomed the sight of humpback whales.
So, many years later, when I headed to Iceland with my family, I wanted to recreate that memorable experience with my own son — even if the conditions were very different indeed, with Arctic winds and subzero temperatures instead of scorching heat.
But with 23 different species to spot in the waters around Iceland, including humpback whales, it’s a great place to try.
And of Reykjavik’s string of whale watching companies, it’s hard to beat the responsible whale watching ethos of Elding. One of the first to offer trips in the city, Elding works closely with marine biologists and conservationists, becoming the only Earth Check Gold Certified whale watching company in the world.
We got to see this strict code of conduct in action — along with a pod of white-beaked dolphins. There are no guarantees of what sightings you might have, although Elding offers another boat trip within a year if you don’t spot so much as a fin.
With blue skies shining over the North Atlantic, we drank in the scenery of western Iceland as we sailed around Faxaflói bay, looking back to Reykjavik and to Mount Esja.
About an hour in we spotted the dolphins, 12 of them cruising through the waves, before falling back after around 20 minutes so as not to distress them.
By this point, we were all ready to head below for a warm drink, and to learn more from our guide about Iceland’s marine life and history — not to mention a chance for my son to ‘steer’ the ship, with a hand from the captain.
But I was determined to head back on deck to search for one of those elusive whales — and it paid off, as I caught the last part of a dive from a Minke whale.
Buzzing with success, that was only one highlight of our visit to the land of fire and ice which has made Iceland one of the hottest destinations around, despite several months of winter darkness, those sub-zero temperatures and its often hefty prices.
And while you might associate it with city breaks to Rekyjavik or off-road adventures in the wilder north, the country is unexpectedly accessible for families as well, with plenty of chance to venture beyond the tour bus crowds in this natural playground.
You can’t miss the highlights of the Golden Circle — it wasn’t just my young son shrieking with delight at the sight of a geyser exploding from the ground at Geysir, or being wowed by the spectacular force of the country’s waterfalls.
Gulfoss is perhaps the best known, but only a couple of hours along the coast from Reykjavik, the Skógafoss falls are around double its height and set on the cliffs of the island’s old coast, with rainbows shimmering in the spray. Further east, the black volcanic sand of Vík beach is unmissable too.
Then there are the hot pools: children aged from two up can swim in these natural geothermal pools, including the world-famous Blue Lagoon, with floats and armbands provided for the youngest.
There are over 18 pools alone near the capital, but venture around 90 minutes inland and you can find Gamla Laugin, the Secret Lagoon.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the petrol station is the only reason to stop in the small village of Flúðir, if you didn’t know that the track from the main road leads to this tempting spot. Used by local people since opening in 1891, it might be less of a secret than it once was, but is still free of the crowds you’ll find elsewhere.
The calm waters of Gamla Laugin are heated to a toasty 40C year-round, while a sizzling geyser erupts every five minutes. There’s a walking trail surrounding the hot springs while gently steaming vents add the finishing touch to the atmosphere.
The facilities are on the basic side — you won’t find electronic lockers and spa quality toiletries here — but you won’t find long queues either if you avoid late afternoon when tour groups are allowed.
Gingerly walking on the frozen pathway to the steps, and then sinking into the hot water is bliss — although sitting on the jutting rocks that peek out of the surface of the water is a welcome relief from the heat. It might have been -12C outside but we needed the occasional respite.
From toddlers to adventurous teens, Iceland has plenty to entertain: glacier walking and volcano hiking for those seeking a challenge, even snorkelling between tectonic plates.
For a gentler adrenaline thrill, there’s dog sledding, snowmobiling and boat or jeep tours, as well as wildlife from Arctic foxes and Icelandic horses, to whales and puffins.
If you’re exploring beyond the better trodden tourist trails, you can also help give sustainable tourism a boost across rural Iceland.
Hey Iceland has around 170 different accommodation options set up by farmers and local communities, including B&Bs and farm stays, as well as small hotels, so you can ensure they profit from visitors.
We also had a hire car, a map and detailed instructions of how to find our hotel, Hotel Laekur, near Hella on the south coast, a great base for the Golden Circle route and the coast towards Vik.
Out on the open road, we could drive for hours and just gaze in awe at the sweeping landscapes surrounding us and the surprises in store. We’d often see snowy-topped mountains, icy rivers, frozen seas and waterfalls when we least expected them.
Often, we wouldn’t spy another soul for long stretches: it felt as if we were the only people in this magical land, venturing out across the shimmering snow. Whales may have been one of the biggest temptations, but the beauty of this wild landscape and all that Iceland has to offer was just as memorable.
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