by Waldemar Januszczak, The Sunday Times
Yoko Ono’s shining Peace Tower, a column of unstoppable light high in the night sky, moves our writer in Reykjavik to tears.
Nobody could disagree with the view that Iceland is a pulse-quickening destination for an adventure weekend. Glacier- hopping is an adventure. So is whitewater rafting. Or cycling through waterfalls. You can do all those things in Iceland, and exhaust yourself to a standstill across some of the strangest and rarest landscape in Europe.
And for the sedentary among us, whose idea of an adventure is to yomp adventurously with the mind, Iceland is also the perfect weekend destination. Particularly in the autumn months when the nights get longer, and the views of Yoko Ono’s Peace Tower, in the bay of Reykjavik, are so clear and thrilling.
Imagine a giant torch shining a concentrated column of unstoppable light high into the night sky, as far as you can see: through the clouds, through the stratosphere and beyond. As you look up from Reykjavik harbour, the immensely strange feeling begins to creep through you that someone is shining a light at bits of the cosmos that have never been illuminated before.
The Imagine Peace Tower was first lit up in 2007, on what would have been John Lennon’s 67th birthday. Since then, every year, on October 9, Yoko Ono has made her way from New York to Reykjavik to switch it on again. It stays illuminated until December 8, the day he died.
Weekends in Iceland can be spent busily and excitingly, driving around the southern tip of this enormous prehistoric island. Is this really modern Europe? The village of Geysir gave its name to geysers everywhere, and never having seen any geyser before, I was mightily impressed by the sheer reliability of Geysir’s geyser.
Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle for five minutes. Then up she blows: a vomit of boiling water expelled 30ft into the air. You could set your watch by these terrific eruptions.
In nearby Gullfoss, nature provides a natural opposite to these regular spurtings with a huge and curtainous waterfall that thunders 300ft down the mountain in three mighty stages, which the ancient Norse legends understood as the footsteps of a giant.
A well-signed circuit of these dramatic sights, styled the Golden Circle, allows you to see a lot on a day out from Reykjavik. First, you drive through the Thingvellir National Park, a profoundly mysterious ancient valley of volcanic rocks covered in thick assortments of mosses and lichens and with a pristine lake in the middle.
Next, Laugarvatn, where, deep in the ancient earth, the devil boils the local waters to impossible temperatures.
But by the time the engineers of Laugarvatn have finished siphoning them around the town’s old steam bath, the hellish waters have cooled to a delightful outdoor warmth. I had an adventurous natural sauna, followed by an adventurous natural hot bath.
By the time I arrived back in Reykjavik for the switching on of the Imagine Peace Tower, I was particularly clean and warm. Reykjavik’s mayor had laid on a ferry to Videy island, the site of Yoko Ono’s column of light. The Peace Tower is on the western shore and faces Reykjavik. In the daytime, it’s a giant white wishing well surrounded by messages of peace in 24 languages.
At night, however, things get spacey and intergalactic. An unstoppable column of light emerges from inside the wishing well and sweeps across the cosmos like a burglar shining a torch across the deepest recesses of your attic. As I understand it, the Peace Tower’s specially designed xenon light beam has no earthly boundary. It can travel as far as light travels. So somewhere out there, deep in the future, some lucky alien could be looking back at earth and seeing the Peace Tower being switched on and off in Reykjavik as we ourselves see the stars. Ha!
When Yoko flicked the switch and the miraculous beam of light set off on its journey into the cosmos, someone put Give Peace a Chance on the loudspeaker system and we all joined in, a huge, swaying mob of chanting pilgrims, pleading with the stars to Give Peace a Chance. The gods must have heard us, because they arranged for a beautiful full moon to rise up majestically behind the Peace Tower. Then, to cap it all, in a moment of cosmic drama that Wagner himself would not have dared to script, the gods switched on the aurora borealis. The sky above Videy began to turn green and then pink. I have never seen the northern lights before. They were so beautifully impossible, I cried.
Waldemar Januszczak travelled as a guest of Iceland Express and Visit Iceland.
NEED TO KNOW
Imagine Peace Tower: imaginepeacetower.com.
Where to stay: CenterHotel Thingholt (00 354 595 8530, centerhotels.com; doubles from £114, B&B) is a 50-room design hotel in an old printing works, just off Reykjavik’s main shopping street. Or try the Radisson Blu Saga (0800 374411, radissonblu.co.uk; doubles from £113, B&B).
Tour operators: Discover the World (01737 214291, discover-the-world.co.uk) has three nights in Reykjavik from £342pp (four nights, self-drive, from £498), with flights from London and B&B accommodation. Or try Taber Holidays (01274 875199,taberhols.co.uk).
More info: visiticeland.com.
Want to meet the president?
You can’t really imagine David and Samantha Cameron inviting any old holidaymaker to hang out at No 10. But that’s where the British prime minister differs from the president of Iceland.
If you log on now to inspiredbyiceland.com, you’ll see the friendly face of Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, inviting you to come round to his, where his wife, Dorrit, will cook up some pancakes. Generous? Certainly. A threat to national security? Possibly. A much-needed boost for Iceland’s tourism industry? Let’s hope so.
President Grimsson is leading by example, encouraging his compatriots to offer special tourist experiences free of charge, in a bid to boost visitor numbers. Sigga will give you a private concert in her living room. Hildur will knit you a jumper. The mayor of Reykjavik wants to eat sushi with you.
Find the local you want to meet on the website, then make the final arrangements with them via Facebook.