The Northern Lights are switching on this month in Iceland. The aurora borealis is one of those absolutely stunning, once in a lifetime things to experience during your world travels.
The temperature outside is achingly sub zero and bitter enough to freeze my facial expression solid. Yet inside this late-night Reykjavik bar, all woollies are abandoned. The short-sleeved men are either brave or mad and the women are unequivocally bonkers ; they're wearing teensy mini-dresses and stilettos that seem fabulously inappropriate for tottering home through snowy conditions at 6am. But hey, this is Iceland. Ask any local and they'll tell you that crazy optimism lies at the heart of the national psyche. You can't let a little chilly winter weather stop you.
To my right stands a huge, scruffy guy who's rocking a Viking look and drinking enough to explain his massive crop of chest hairs. To my left is a girl with an uber-mod hairstyle, fishnets and a gold Chloe handbag dangling from her pale shoulder. She looks like a punky fashionista crossed with someone from The Jetsons. The barman pours us frosty vodka shots that burn all the way down. It seems appropriate enough; this is the land of fire and ice after all.
Seductive Iceland freezes and burns at the same time. Hot springs, exploding geysers, volcanoes, lava chasms and the Northern Lights mix with icy glaciers, fjords and colossal waterfalls bound to make your teeth chatter and your body tremble in a good way.
Yep, Iceland is a stunner. But before you toss your parka and thermal undies into a suitcase and book your flight, take note. It's also one of Europe's most expensive destinations. A trip here could leave you filing for bankruptcy. Say goodbye to your savings and get ready to give your credit card a sadistic thrashing.
If you're cashed up, a shoestring budget mastermind or just plain nuts, then Iceland beckons. It's pricey, but its attractions are priceless.
Here are a few itinerary highlights.
Bathe in the Blue Lagoon
Want to soak yourself silly in hot geothermal waters while snowflakes fall on your head? This is the place to do it. And don't forget to slather white silica mud on your face as well. It's all fabulously soothing, as long as the idea of swimming in miscellaneous substances doesn't freak you out.
Carved out of a lava field, this is a hotpot of milky blue water, pongy sulphur and rising steam clouds. Occasionally the mist parts, revealing all sorts of surprises; an Icelander floating next to you offering face mask tips; the outline of a power plant materialising in the distance; a pack of Scottish bucks party boys wading around wearing wrestling masks and novelty g-strings. You've been warned. It's all possible when the steam lifts in the right (or wrong) places.
Explore the Golden Circle
Embark on a tour of the Golden Circle which includes a trip to a volcano, waterfall and hot springs. The biggest corker is definitely Strokkur geyser in the Haukadalur Valley town of Geysir, which blows more or less every five minutes. Sure, this usually happens when you're busy chatting and haven't got your camera ready, but that's beside the point. Stand clear and avoid the wind, unless you fancy getting your face burnt off. If the Golden Tour doesn't quench your need for adventure, there's always horse riding, snowmobile tours and scuba diving off the coast.
Sleuth out the Northern Lights
If the night sky is squeaky clean and it's the right time of year (not summer) then clap on your warmest earmuffs and go hunting for the Northern Lights. Guided tours do not offer guarantees or refunds, but if weather conditions and luck are both on your side, you'll see pink, green, yellow and orange swirls igniting the sky, smudging together an acid trip sans the acid. Think of it as weird natural science, Icelandic style.
Remote outpost, seaside town and cosmopolitan hotspot? Well, why not? Reykjavik has its own versatile sense of offbeat style. Would you expect anything less from Bjork's home city?
Marvel at the bright, blocky homes and hotels which dot the capital (they look a lot like those Monopoly board development pieces you add when you're winning). Then trawl through the vintage clothes shops, punk stores, designer boutiques and art galleries and duck into cafes whenever you need to thaw out. Alternatively, heat yourself up at one of the many spas, where you can schmooze and soak with local "hotpotters" and eavesdrop on some real gossip.
Friday and Saturday nights are all about boozing and bar-hopping. Reykjavik's sophisticated nightlife scene is notoriously good. Here, Icelanders drink to get drunk and party until 5am, at least. Dress up and don't be offended by general pushing and shoving inside clubs. It's just part of the hands-on fun.
Icelanders have a passion for the mystical, the kooky and the offbeat.
Did you know that certain highways have actually been diverted in order to protect local fairies and elfin folk? It's true. As a tourist you can go on a fairy-spotting tour, if that's your bag.
For a different type of eccentric adventure, perhaps you can pay a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (home to an assortment of animal penises, as well as a human one and apparently a few "troll" ones as well).
Finally, refuel with a hearty Icelandic meal. Putrefied shark, boiled sheep's head and ram's testicles are all fine choices for staving off the cold, as long as you've got guts.
For more information on Iceland, log onto www.visiticeland.com.
Ever been to Iceland before, or seen the Northern Lights? Tell us about it.