I’m writing this on the plane back from Iceland, a fact that fills me with relief. Not because I didn’t enjoy my trip to the land of fire and ice – far from it – but because there was a serious risk I might be stuck there indefinitely with Caroline and my three sons. In the 24 hours before our departure, nearly 4,000 earthquakes were detected in the southwestern region known as the Reykjanes peninsula, which is where the international airport is located. Such unusual seismic activity is often a sign that a volcano is about to erupt and that, in turn, can create an ash cloud that necessitates the grounding of all aircraft, as happened in 2011.
There are worse places to be stranded, of course. The scenery is breathtaking, the people are charming and, best of all, the water that comes out of the tap is better than any mineral water. But Iceland is ruinously expensive. A single scoop of ice cream in a high-street café can set you back £12, while a steak in a family-friendly restaurant is closer to £45. In one place – again, nothing fancy – a pint of beer was £9. Caroline calculated that the cost of accommodation was £65.32 per person per night, giving a total of £3,592.60 on hotel rooms alone. It is by some distance the most expensive country I’ve ever visited. The fact that it has the same name as a discount frozen food shop is a cruel joke.
Our family initially planned to go to Mexico City this summer to see Sasha, my 19-year-old daughter who’s in Mexico for her gap year, but decided against it because the flights were just under £1,000 a head. We naively thought Iceland would be more affordable, particularly as an Icelandic friend of mine offered to lend us her 4x4. However, even factoring in that saving, our 11-day holiday cost us more than £10,000. Had we been forced to stay for several weeks, I would have gone bankrupt.
My friend sent me a WhatsApp message on Sunday morning alerting me to the earthquakes and advising me not to go on any long walks in mountainous areas. This caused huge excitement among my three boys and at their insistence we headed straight for Thingvellir National Park, where you can walk in the gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. They hoped to witness a Hollywood-style earthquake in which the earth cracks, vast chasms open up and people plunge to their doom, screaming in terror.
Alas, nothing so dramatic happened. As we traversed the park, we discovered that a new crack did indeed appear last year, leading to the erection of a wooden walkway. But even though an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.4 occurred just before we got there, the ground remained disappointingly motionless.
The only tremor I felt was on Monday morning in my Reykjavik hotel room, but it was barely noticeable, a bit like the rumbling you experience when a large lorry drives past. It wasn’t a patch on the earthquake I experienced in Los Angeles in 1994. Then I was staying with my friend William Cash, the Times’s LA correspondent, and without any warning the ground underfoot suddenly started moving violently from side to side. I initially thought I was having some kind of stroke, so I was relieved when William burst out of his bedroom like a chicken trying to escape a fox, screaming: ‘Earthquake!’ He pulled me under a large wooden table and we crouched there until it stopped about ten seconds later. Once I realised what was happening it was surprisingly enjoyable, like a geological funfair ride.
Even without any natural disasters, Iceland didn’t disappoint and if money’s no object I’d seriously recommend it. One of the most attractive things about it is how few people there are – it has a population of just 372,000 – which means you can hike for hours, taking in hot springs, geysers and lakes full of crystal clear water without seeing another soul. The highlight of the holiday, though, was ‘Viking Sushi’ – a boat trip in which the crew dredged up some crustaceans from the ocean floor and then served up raw scallops and sea urchin, accompanied by soy sauce and wasabi. Fifteen-year-old Freddie took a lot of cajoling before tentatively nibbling on his first scallop, but after that he couldn’t get enough. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted better. Between us, we must have eaten more than two dozen, which more than covered the cost of the trip.
All in all, a very enjoyable family holiday, but not for the faint-hearted. And don’t expect to get away with less than £2,000 a head.