The key when taking children wildlife watching is to manage expectations. This can be difficult when one of your tribe jumps onto your bed at 5am announcing this is the day we’re all going to see orcas. As our boat heads out of Olafsvik on the west coast of Iceland in pursuit of both orcas and whales, I try to temper Thomas’ hopes for the umpteenth time. For all animal-spotting adults know: the creatures wait for no man.
We trundle alongside dramatic coastal scenery in Breidafjordur Bay, whereupon our effervescent guide Judith invites us to look out across the port bow. There’s a collective gasp from everyone: a dorsal fin, chillingly tall and clearly attached to something that means business, slicing through the water. Soon there are four orcas all but nudging alongside the gunwales. They heave up and down as though breathing in harmony with the ebb and flow of the sea.
Our three children, along with the other 30 passengers, are mesmerised. No sooner have the orcas exited the stage but a pod of sperm whales is sighted. Remarkably, we’re able to drift right up to them, stand in awe of their vast blubbery bodies and gasp as they flick their tales up before diving. So much for dampening expectations.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Iceland for visiting families is that everything is larger than life. Driving away from Reykjavik’s airport through a moonscape of bumpy, jagged lava fields, the landscape, scattered with volcanic debris, looks the way a child views the world: intensely vivid, three-dimensional and tactile. Those lava flows running down the side of that volcano could be the paws of a giant dinosaur; that vast chasm in the sheer rocks are a sign of a world specially created to amuse the person viewing it.
Iceland is way too large to explore on one visit and, to avoid spending our entire week in a car, we base ourselves on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, three hours north of Reykjavik. It has everything we need: from a large volcano on our doorstep, to breezy beaches and wild, open spaces.
The volcano in question is Snæfellsjokull which, unlike many of the other Icelandic volcanoes, has behaved itself in recent times. It looks the part, though, with triangular flanks leading up to a glacier-capped summit. We’re staying in the village of Hellnar, more or less at the base of the volcano, in Glacier Lodge, a smart rural hideaway furnished in Nordic pine, with a steep pitched roof and stairs. It’s part of the package laid on by our tour operator, Discover the World. Since this is a family holiday, the company provides an iPad that has a decent children’s travel component, ‘Mission Explore’. But, it’s a mixed blessing. Children squabble over whose turn it is to use the thing and it proves all too easy for little people to study it rather than look at the natural wonders they’re actually visiting.
But, our days pass quickly, each one based around a single activity so as to avoid too much driving or dashing from one place to another. We take a second, shorter boat trip offshore from Grundarfjordur on the north coast. The puffins are beginning to nest, scuttling back and forth, low over the water, with an animal magnetism equal to that of the orcas, with the chilly waters overlooked by Kirkjufell, a mountain of strikingly conical dimensions.
Having seen the country from the coast, we now inspect it underground. Along the skirt of Snæfellsjokull, we find the lava tubes at Vatnshellir. Wearing hard hats, we wind down a 30m-long spiral staircase into a cave 8,000 years old, packed with stalactites (including some that stick out sideways) and fossilised gas bubbles.
We spend a couple of days exploring the southern edge of Snæfellsnes, walking the corrugated coastline to the natural arches at Arnarstapi. Further west, down a path flecked with otherworldly shades of green, yellow and white rock, and lichens, we find the black pebbles and volcanic sand of Djupalonssandur beach. The children are more taken by tales of local strongman competitions involving boulders and hold their own contest, hurling rocks into the pool at the back of the beach. They’re having fun, which is what it’s all about, so we let any poetic talk about the beach’s natural beauty go.
One thing surprises us. We’d imagined the children to be the right age for tales of elves and trolls — extraordinarily, more than half the Icelandic population claims to believe in them — but the talk leaves them cold. Perhaps it’s just there’s enough magic in the landscape before them that they can create their own creatures and their own worlds.
Their favourite things
The biggest highlights for the children were the rugged volcanoes, ginormous whales and — at a dead heat — the enormous chocolate buns, known as snudur, bought at local bakeries. Not forgetting the Hruan, a brand of crunchy lava-shaped chocolate.
Thomas: “Laki Tours gets 100% marks for the whale watching. I’d go again and again. And I love how you can feel and hold the lava and other stuff.”
Hannah: “Everything was amazing. Running along the cliffs with the big mountains behind us was such fun.”
Oscar: “I loved the whale tour even though I was a bit nervous about the boat wobbling.”
& other things
1. Take a trip out to sea with Laki Tours. Depending on the age of your children, you can take a short excursion to the skerries out of Grundarfjordur to watch the puffins or a three-hour trip in pursuit of whales and orcas. lakitours.com
2. Hike a glacier. The guided walk inside the Langjokull glacier near Husafell is unforgettable. The approach is simply astonishing as you travel up the side of the mountain to the entry point in a former NATO multiple rocket launcher. intotheglacier.is
3. Climb a small volcano. Saxholar, on the western tip of Snæfellsnes, is an ideal choice since it’s not too high and there’s a paved, stepped path up to its summit. From there, the children can run down the slopes to the volcano bottom (safer than it sounds). intotheglacier.is
4. Stroll through a lava field. Pull over by the road side near Hellnar and just pick your way over the rocky open ground.
5. Take a dip in a hot spring. Everyone heads to the Blue Lagoon, but ask the tourist office for local ones. We visited the springs at a school in Stykkisholmur on the north-easterly tip. stykkisholmur.is
Mark and Lucy Rowe travelled with their children, Hannah (10), Thomas (9) and Oscar (7).
Whale and wildlife watching (age 7+ years); beaches and touring by car (age 4+ years).
How to do it
Discover the World offers a four-night ‘West Iceland Escape’ for £526 per person, based on two adults and two children, including car hire, self-catering stay at Glacier Lodge, flights and digital travel guide.
Whale Watching, £52.
Puffins Galore, £32.
Need to know
Take warm clothing, sunscreen, games and books. May-August is near 24-hour daylight.
Published in the 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)