Iceland in winter? The country's breathtaking landscape - volcanoes, glaciers and huge waterfalls - is just as magical as in the summer. And an exceptional adventure awaits those who travel during the cold season.
With his bare hands and a small shovel, Ingi Thorbjornsson is digging his way through a thick layer of snow on the bank of a narrow ice-covered stream. Ahead of him, there towers the glacial arm of the mighty Eyjafjallajokull glacier. Behind him, on the other side of the stream, awaits a group of travellers. The tour guide stretches out his arm and helps one person after the other to cross the crystal-clear stream. Then he leads them up the steps he has carved into the deep snow as they trek onwards. "Come!" he commands. On their own, the travellers would not have gotten any farther. But with Ingi paving the way, they stomp through the virgin snow to reach the shimmering blue, smooth ice of the glacier.
Tourism: Iceland's most important economic sector
From here, one has a view into the broad Thorsmark Valley and to the snow-capped chain of mountains on the other side of the valley. In the summer, the valley is a lush deep-green, a fairytale landscape that hikers love. But now in winter, it is even a bit more magical, because of its feeling of utter isolation.
"Many people don't realize how beautiful Iceland can be in the winter," says Thorbjornsson, who has been taking tourists around for decades now. Whereas during the June-August period hundreds of thousands of people descend on the island, and camping vans and hotel rooms are quickly booked out, in the dark season, the camping grounds, hotels and restaurants look deserted - and are often closed.
Promote Iceland, the tourism association, wants to get people to come to Iceland in the winter. Tourism has developed into Iceland's most important economic sector, ahead of the traditional fishing industry.
Iceland in the winter: a 'borderline experience'
Icelanders should feel the benefits of tourism in the winter as well, the association feels. But for such an experience, you'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to conquer the snow-covered rock-strewn roads and the ice puddles.
Thorbjornsson himself drives a Superjeep, a specially-equipped all-terrain vehicle. With it, he can quickly get out into the wilderness. With a conspiratorial wink, the tour guide says that for such a "borderline experience," it is good to have somebody along who knows his way around. "You can never know where the dangers lurk," Thorbjornsson says.
In the deep snow, one cannot see the road, or where the treacherous ice-puddles are located. Drivers who don't watch out can break through the ice and then get stuck. "But we have a couple of people who can push you through," he jokes.
Well-deserved hot saunas and warm soups
In the middle of what appears to be a sheer endless landscape of snow, there suddenly appears a collection of small cabins. Soft sofa seating and warm soup await visitors to the "Volcano Huts" located on the hiking trail of Laugavegur. Things are really busy here during the high season in summer, reports Ben Rehn, a German who works at the huts as a volunteer. For two years now, the operators have been looking for ways to keep business going during the winter. "Some days, nobody shows up," Rehn says.
Former Icelandic national football player Hermann Hreidarsson has made it his goal to advance the island's hotel infrastructure. In June 2014 he opened his hotel Stracta in the town of Hella, located on the Golden Circle tourism route. It has 122 rooms, whirlpool baths and saunas. The 41-year-old aims to open three to four further hotels in spots around the country in the next few years. In order to attract vacationers in the winter, the rates for overnight stays have been reduced by around 30 per cent.
"We are trying to show people what Iceland is really like in the winter, with its freezing cold, the ice, the wind and snow," Hreidarsson says. "It is an experience." What an understatement!