The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's most popular attractions. Picture: Steve McKenna

It's 11.30 and I'm wandering beside the waterfront promenade of Reykjavik, the quaint yet quirky little capital of Iceland. My eyes are torn between the trickle of passing strollers, cyclists and skateboarders, the scenic chain of mountains on the other side of the harbour and the Harpa, the city's giant, cube-shaped concert hall whose glassy shell reflects a blue sky speckled with drifting cumulonimbus. I'm finding it hard to get my head round the fact that it's 11.30pm.

Being in Iceland - or anywhere near the Arctic Circle - in the northern summer is an incredibly strange experience. It's light virtually 24 hours a day, so if you want to sleep, you had best make sure your hotel room has thick curtains.

Yet there's so much to cram into an Icelandic experience that shut-eye almost seems like a waste of valuable time.

The port of call for many a cruise ship, especially between May and October, Reykjavik is the launch pad for an array of adventures around a country whose weird and wonderful landscapes have seduced fleets of movie-makers and TV producers.

HBO's Game of Thrones, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Ridley Scott's Prometheus are among the hits to have been filmed on this tectonically volatile island, which sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American plate pulls away from its Eurasian cousin.

Iceland is a similar size to Cuba, though the north-Atlantic climate and Nordic character couldn't be more different from its Caribbean counterpart.

Round-the-island coach tours - including ones run by Australian operator Bentours - show off Iceland's tapestry of treasures: lakes, waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes, lava fields, fjords, glaciers and hot springs, as well as farms, fishing villages and folkloric traditions. Most last between five and eight days.

For those on tighter schedules, the Golden Circle is a real appetite- whetter - a 300km loop through UNESCO World Heritage-listed territory, starting and finishing in Reykjavik.

My guide, an engaging chap who emigrated to Iceland from Canada in the 1960s, is a fount of knowledge, full of humorous anecdotes, providing commentary as we pass through countryside that reminds me of New Zealand and Patagonia but with distinctive local flavours.

We see tiny, witch-hat shaped churches nestled in lush green meadows, galloping pure-breed Icelandic horses and, apparently, lurking behind rugged volcanic rocks, are elves, fairies and trolls. Surveys show that a majority of Iceland's mostly well-educated and multilingual population of 320,000 believes in these huldufolk (hidden folk).

Myth-drenched stories have been passed down the generations and, while outsiders may be sceptical, Iceland's surreal scenery certainly encourages fertile imaginations. The Golden Circle's showstoppers are Gullfoss (a spectacular, and thunderous, rainbow- tinged waterfall) and the sulphur-scented fields of Geysir, where one of the world's most active geysers, Strokkur, spurts up to 30m high every 10 minutes, inspiring gasps and giggles from spectators.

Close to the rift valley, where the two tectonic plates part, we pause at Thingvellir, where the first Icelandic parliament was established in AD930 by the island's first Viking settlers, who'd arrived 50 years earlier (the parliament was moved to Reykjavik in the mid-19th century). Later, we pass a cluster of futuristic steam-clouded geothermal power plants which help generate much of the country's energy supply but which have sparked protests from environmentalists for scarring the countryside.

The next day, I pop to arguably Iceland's most iconic attraction, the Blue Lagoon, a deluxe spa perched amid otherworldly lava fields near Iceland's international airport, 50km from Reykjavik.

Heated at about 38C, the lagoon's milky blue mineral-rich waters are a joy to bask in. You can enjoy some DIY pampering, revitalising your skin by caking your face and body in white silica mud. Or, alternatively, receive massages while floating on the lagoon's mattresses, check into the lagoon-side clinic for treatment for ailments such as psoriasis, or just order cocktails from the lagoon bar and sip while you bathe.

In summer, the lagoon does midnight sun soaks (you can wine, dine, get massages and have a midnight dip). Visit in the cold, dark months of winter and you'll have a chance of seeing the ethereal northern lights from the warmth of the pool. Iceland doesn't get quite as cold as you'd suspect in winter. Thanks to the warming Gulf Stream, temperatures are more similar to the UK's than Siberia's.

You can also take a dip in the capital. Thermal pools pepper Reykjavik, with the Laugardalslaug public baths a local favourite.

While travellers are usually drawn to Iceland for the natural wonders, Reykjavik itself makes quite an impression.

Cosy, creative and caffeine-fuelled, it's one of Europe's most memorable little cities - although size-wise, it's more a town than a bustling metropolis.

Crammed with cultural gems such as the extraordinary rocket-shaped Hallgrimskirkja church, Reykjavik has made a steady recovery from its economic troubles (which were sparked by the collapse of Iceland's banks during the 2008 global financial crisis). Post-recession, a raft of new establishments have opened, the biggest being the Harpa - the magnificent harbourside venue that hosts revolving shows, exhibitions and international conferences, plus performances from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera.

Reykjavik has a buzzing bar scene - including an eccentric new joint themed on cult movie The Big Lebowski - and a raft of shabby-chic, literary-minded coffeehouses (Icelanders are among the world's biggest caffeine consumers). Shopping-wise, there's a real independent spirit here, with chain stores almost non-existent. I spy dozens of funky design boutiques stocking everything from woolly sweaters and lava beads to vintage vinyls and watches, and heaps of intriguing galleries. A few show exhibitions and cinema screenings about the 2010 eruption of the iced Eyjafjallajokull volcano (whose ash clouds caused the shutdown of Europe's airspace). Another spot, Aurora Reykjavik, tries to recreate the awe-inspiring beauty of the northern lights using HD projection. Bringing to life the renowned Icelandic sagas (medieval stories brimming with heroes, villains and epic battles), the spruced-up Saga Museum complements the enlightening National Museum, which traces Iceland's history from its Viking origins to occupation by Danish kings and rapid post-World War II development which transformed the country into one of the most prosperous on the planet.

Despite its wealth, Iceland has a reputation for odd, unappealing food, with dishes such as fermented shark and sheep's testicles. Yet while you can savour these "classics", you can also dine in fusion restaurants such as Sushi Samba (which combines Japanese, Peruvian, Brazilian and Icelandic ingredients), up-market seafood bistros and little haunts run by the city's Asian immigrants. What adds to Reykjavik's charm is that so many of its homes and businesses are set inside colourfully painted, corrugated-iron houses dating from the late 19th century.

Down at the photogenic old fishing harbour - from which you can embark on whale and puffin-watching cruises - tourists and locals mingle over trusty favourites such as lobster soup. The Sea Baron, run by a retired fishermen, is deservedly popular.

Exploring, and absorbing Reykjavik, under the mellow midnight sun, I recall a quote I read before I arrived, from the English poet W.H. Auden, who visited in the 1930s. In his book Letters from Iceland, Auden wrote: "There is not much to be said for Reykjavik."

In the 21st century, nothing could be further from the truth.

FACT FILE

Icelandair and Easyjet offer return fares from London from about $200. Icelandair also offers stopovers in Iceland with its US-UK flights.

Iceland Excursions does tours across the island, including the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon; icelandexcursions.is

Bentours also arranges Iceland cruise and tour packages; bentours.com.au

About 2km from the centre, Reykjavik Lights Hotel is one of the city's newest design hotels, with rooms and public spaces themed on city's ever-changing light (keahotels.is/Reykjavik-Lights), while Hlemmur Square is an interesting dual concept, an up-market hostel and a swanky hotel inside a refurbished art deco building (hlemmursquare.com).

For more information on visiting Iceland, see iceland.is.

Steve McKenna was a guest of Iceland Excursions, Blue Lagoon and the Reykjavik Lights Hotel.

The West Australian

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