BY the end of my first night back in Reykjavik it was clear that Iceland has been on quite a journey since I first visited in 1992. And so have I. As Iceland has blossomed and shown what small countries – who put their citizens first – can achieve, my belief in how successful an independent, inclusive Scotland would be has strengthened too.

The first Scottish people in Iceland were not such willing arrivals, ripped from Scotland’s coastal areas en route from Scandinavia by Viking settlers on their way to Iceland. And it is never plain sailing for any country, no matter its size.

Iceland was embroiled in the global financial crisis in the late 2000s but tellingly refused to play ball with the IMF. Iceland wouldn’t follow austerity, instead furrowing its own course, jailing 36 of the financial sector it deemed culpable of the crisis for 96 years. Economists sneered outside Iceland, but today I find a country doing things its own way. And a country booming.

Since my first visit – I’ve had one layover and a Tartan Army 2-0 Scotland football triumph in between – the population of Reykjavik has doubled to 140,000 citizens and has been named a Unesco World City of Literature.

And it is not just a case of everyone abandoning the countryside, as has sometimes happened in Scotland. Here, prosperity has rippled outside the metropole as my driver from Puffin Taxis tells me. “People are now actively buying houses in the countryside and doing well there – it’s great to see.”

Reykjavik is clearly booming and not just with the artificial hit its growing cruise ship arrivals inject. I’m with my teenage daughter, who dubs it “a trendier Shetland”. It is, feeling very much out in the Atlantic, with architecture and attitude to match.

The vibe is cool Copenhagen-chic with bijou art galleries, TikTok-pleasing cafes and superb second-hand recycling stores. We need Verzlanahollin in my town. Here citizens rent stalls for just a few days, through to a few weeks. Some aspects of Iceland may be expensive, but my daughter nabs branded trousers, shoes and a t-shirt here for just £20. They make the circular economy work in Iceland.

Also working well was our flight from Glasgow to Reykjavik with low-cost Icelandic airline PLAY, itself recycled out of the old airline Zoom. We ease over the Atlantic on the recently launched route on a new Airbus A321neo with smooth service and a bright one-class cabin. The in-flight food is decent too and staff actually want you to enjoy your flight. Everything feels refreshingly efficient about Iceland. And welcoming.

Our base is the Grandi ( in the new creative heart of Reykjavik by the old harbour. It is a boutique hotel – all hardwoods, mood lighting and lush fabrics. We eat supremely well at their Hédinn restaurant. The tasting menu features expertly seared locally caught seafood and perfectly pink Icelandic lamb. We also enjoy brunch at their appositely named Hygge café – spot-on avocado sourdough and pastries from the in-house bakery.

Icelandic cuisine has come up several notches since my first visit. Kol has been a foodie star for a decade now with its tasting menus. The Arctic char is a highlight, alongside Iceland’s internationally accredited lamb. At Monkeys Food and Wine, we celebrate their second anniversary with a special menu alive with tuna tartare, local salmon and beef fillet.

I’ve visited the Blue Lagoon, as many visitors do. Not the locals, who know there are far better geothermal spas. We push out down the brooding Hvalfjordur fjord into a landscape that does look like Shetland – rugged hills sear down steep slopes to meet the cobalt waters.

The National: Where they do things different

After 45 minutes, newcomer Hvammsvik appears. It quickly becomes one of my favourite spas in the world and they don’t even do massages. Their eight pools are filled with cleansing seawater warmed with the natural geothermal waters. It is bliss floating around. It gets even better when I dip into the fjord and am joined by a curious seal. Superb fish soup in their Scandi-chic café follows. You can stay here too – and you should.

The National: Where they do things different

We don’t have time to see more of Iceland on this trip, but the country comes to us in the form of Flyover Iceland. After films delving into the rich folk culture, we are strapped in for a soaring ride, swooping high above glaciers and sweeping up mountains. If the aim is to make me resolve to spend more time exploring Iceland, it works.

Our last stop is the Sky Lagoon. This geothermal experience lies within the city boundaries. You can just bathe in the main lagoon, backed by volcanic rocks and fronted by the Atlantic, sipping cocktails at the bar. I recommend you shell out the extra to try the eight-part “Ritual”. We literally chill in the first pool, then warm up in the waterfront sauna. A body scrub follows, with a steam room finale. The coup de grace is a tasting platter in their restaurant.

Iceland may not be perfect, but there are so many green shoots around I lose track. We experience real positivity in a small nation doing things for itself and its people. Iceland 2023-style proves nothing short of inspirational.


AIRLINE PLAY flies to myriad cities in the US and Canada, with easy connections from Scotland via Reykjavik. You are very much encouraged to break your journey in Iceland, making it a really fun alternative to flying to America via London. Stay tuned, as next week I fly on from Iceland to return to New York for the first time since 9/11.