Last month I went on an unforgettable week-long trip to Iceland, the home of Secret Solstice Festival. Seven days of adventure took me through Reykjavík, into the heart of a glacier, across a hot spring paradise, round the incredible Golden Circle, and into the naturally heated waters of the Blue Lagoon.
Secret Solstice spans the longest day of the year, when the midnight sun blends days into each other and encapsulates Iceland's almost mystical sense of adventure. The festival's breathtaking locations – from Reykjavík to Langjökull glacier – put Secret Solstice in a bracket all of its own when it comes to world festivals, while a country so rich in memorable experiences makes for a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
With exclusive tips from Secret Solstice's Leon Hill, here's a snapshot of the festival's stunning locations and those unmissable extra-curricular activities you'll want to make sure you see.
Iceland's elegant capital is a city of inherent charm, mis-matched architecture, independent boutiques and a population of just 120,000.
Secret Solstice's main billing takes place at Laugardalur, in the centre of Reykjavík. Home to major sporting events and concerts throughout the year, as well as a botanical garden and a zoo, the area's name translates as Hot Spring Valley.
Leon: "There are a few new things this year! We're launching a Viking eating hall on site that we're likely going to deck out with furs and a massive communal table, where guests will be able to gorge themselves on traditional Icelandic and Viking-inspired food. Personally though, I'm most excited about our upcoming lineup announcements, as we've got some epic acts being added to the bill very soon."
The view over Reykjavík from Hallgrímskirkja
Between festival sets, a trip up what is possibly the most individual looking church in the world – Hallgrímskirkja – is a must, as is a visit to Svarta Kaffi. Their sumptuous soup is served not in a bowl, but inside a carved-out loaf of bread. Wash it down with a pint of locally brewed Einstok and you'll be well-stocked to explore the island.
Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík
Just across the water on Viðey Island is the Imagine Peace Tower, Yoko Ono's tribute to John Lennon. The white stone memorial, which has "imagine peace" transcribed in 24 different languages, shines a beacon of light into the air and is visible from across the city. Buried beneath it are over 1 million written wishes that Ono collected over the course of several years. Iceland was chosen as the Tower's location because the country doesn't have an army – it was voted the most peaceful country in the world by the Institute for Economics and Peace in 2015.
The Imagine Peace Tower is visible amidst the Northern Lights
As night falls, the city comes to life. As you've probably heard, alcohol can be quite expensive in Iceland, and the locals know that only too well. If somewhere seems quiet at 11pm – believe me, it won't be by midnight as the locals, pumped up after pre-drinking at parties, make their way out into the town.
Kex, a chic hostel, bar and eatery on the site of a former biscuit factory is a popular spot to catch impromptu gigs, while a cool coffee shop by day, Kaffibarinn, turns fiendishly busy bar by night. The latter, known for its London Underground-styled logo, remains one of the city's most popular nightspots.
Leon: "I'd say almost every member of the festival's management would probably suggest Prikið, as that's where we're almost always found."
Icelandic bars are not known for dress codes, meaning you can stumble in wearing hiking boots if you like, but the legal drinking age is 20 and some places will impose their own limit, usually 21 or 22. If you're in it for the long haul, you're in luck: the majority of bars are open until around 1am during the week and as late as 4:30am on the weekend. Keep an eye out for Happy Hour deals to keep costs down too.
Kex Hostel in Reykjavík
Beyond the capital
For anyone after a real snow-capped adventure, Secret Solstice delivers in exclusive style.
Diving deep into the hollow Langjökull – Europe's second largest glacier – the festival's Into The Glacier party claims the unique honour of being the world's only music show inside a glacier. Transported up and onto the massive ice formation in a former Nato vehicle, just 100 guests will experience the party of a lifetime, with a DJ set (18th June) and an acoustic show (19th).
Secret Solstice's Into The Glacier is the only natural ice-enclosed party in the world
Leon: "Secret Solstice is all about providing guests an experience they can't get at any other festival, which is why from the start we've always hosted it during the solstice weekend when the sun doesn't set. The idea to host Secret Solstice presents Into The Glacier came from us wanting to make sure there was no doubt in anyone's mind we were doing something truly special, and hosting the only party on Earth inside a glacier seemed to be a good way to do that!"
And from the freezing to the boiling, another location Secret Solstice have brought to life in previous years is Flúðir's Secret Lagoon, the oldest geothermal pool in Iceland. Not yet confirmed for 2016, the lagoon has hosted world class DJs right beside the blissful water of a 39ºC (102ºF), volcanically-heated spa through the early hours of the morning.
Secret Lagoon may play host to another Secret Solstice party in 2016
Flúðir sits on the Golden Circle route, which loops around from Reykjavík, through Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park – where they filmed part of Game of Thrones – past the astounding Great Geysir and Gullfoss Waterfall, and back round to Reykjavík via Kerið Crater and more. The popular tourist route is well worth it if you have time, and can be self-driven, or seen by joining the contingent of coach tours that travel the circle regularly. It is a perfect opportunity to experience some of Iceland's most remarkable natural spots as you head out into the vast, expansive landscape.
Leon: "It really is like nothing else you've ever seen before, and any first timers here in Iceland are always wowed by how unbelievable the country looks."
Hveragerði hot spring river hike
Your first stop is Þingvellir – a UNESCO world heritage site with sprawling hiking trails, the historic site of the world's first parliament, and the exact point where Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet. You can even swim between the two!
Þingvellir, a UNESCO world heritage site
Haukadalur, another stop along the route, is a site of intense geothermal activity. It creates the surreal aesthetic of steam rising from the earth, with one particular geyser (known as The Great Geysir) erupting every few minutes, throwing water tens of metres into the air.
The last major stop for most tours is the imperious Gullfoss Waterfall, where you'll be confronted with a gaping canyon, tearing the expansive landscape apart. If you've hired a car, you can loop back round to Reykjavik via the volcanic lake at Kerid Crater, the Secret Lagoon, or the greenhouses at Friðheimar and some great local food.
Sitting in the apocalyptic lava fields near Grindavik (about a 40 minute drive from Reykjavík), the famous Blue Lagoon is created by geothermal activity that begins 2,000 metres below the surface, where freshwater and seawater combine at extreme temperatures. It is then harnessed by the nearby geothermal power plant, pushing the water to the surface where it emerges at a relaxing 38°C. Entry prices start at €35, including all-day access to the lagoon and its spa facilities. Other packages include bath robes, towels, complimentary drinks and more.
The Blue Lagoon bubbles up to the surface at 38°C