By Miranda Larbi, Senior lifestyle reporter
Tuesday 10 Jul 2018 8:00 am
Were a long way from California. Thats the main reason that Ive never been – who has the patience to spend 12 hours on board a little tin can in the sky?
But you know, there is an alternative. You dont have to fly direct – and no, were not talking about spending hours trapped in some dire airport living off dubiously flavoured Pringles.
Icelandair flies from London to San Francisco via Reykjavik. Its just three hours from Heathrow to the Icelandic capital and then another eight hours to the west coast – which is way more manageable.
Youd be foolish to hop straight on your long-haul flight though, because Iceland is completely magical. I went, expecting to be counting down the hours until I could be in the Californian sunshine and found that actually, a speedy pre-holiday trip around glaciers and hot springs was the perfect beginning to holiday – particularly if youre the sort of active person who needs to be tired out to sleep on a long haul.
Iceland – a 48-hour stopover
The worlds most gender-equal country and perhaps the worlds most tree-less. The local joke goes that if you see a forest in Iceland, stand up.
To those of us born and raised in leafy valleys, that might sound a bit bleak but Iceland is stunning. So much so that itd be kind of a waste to spend any time you have there indoors.
Visit the cathedral, yes. Go and see the new concert hall and the prison where parliament was first formed, why not? But the real attractions are all in the great outdoors.
So, just how much can you pack into a 48-hour stopover?
First things first, pack an eye mask if youre planning on visiting any time during the summer because everything youve ever heard about the midnight sun is completely true.
Its bright at 10pm and its confusing (although quite useful for getting used to being up at odd hours before you reach Cali).
Its even brighter when youre snowmobiling down a glacier, surrounded by perfectly untouched snow with a burning orb dazzling in the distance. One of the most magical experiences youll ever have.
But remember to pack your coat and woollies because although it looks dead sunny, its also dead cold.
And speaking of dead cold glaciers, why not go swimming in the water from one the next day?
Over in Silfra Fissure, you can snorkel between two tectonic plates and the two continents of America and Eurasia. Now, how many people can say that theyve done that?
Youll struggle to find water more clear and pure, which means that you can see for miles below the surface. With the sun dappling through the ripples, the plates kind of look like a Magic Eye illusion of Ariels underwater kingdom. It wouldnt have surprised me to find a load of silver spoons lurking on rock ledges.
In fact, its so pure that we swam (at times) with our mouths open and boy, did it taste fresh (friends, take your Sensodyne).
Reykjavik may be the capital but unlike most big cities, its completely surrounded by amazing nature. A stones throw away from the citys centre is the dock, from which you can go whale watching.
Big cruisers take you out into the ocean where youll be accompanied by a load of puffins bobbing around for fish, as well as huge humpbacks that dont seem bothered by the intrusion at all.
Were not talking about taking your binoculars to see them – theyll come right up to the vessel umpteen times over the three-hour period.
But a word of warning: the sea is (or at least was) incredibly choppy so if you get at all seasick, take something for it before you board.
No trip to Iceland is complete without a trip to the iconic natural spa – and if youve only got a bit of time in between flights, youre probably best off just heading straight here because its relatively close to the airport.
Its the most wonderfully warm, restorative lagoon – complete with mud masks and (depending on which package you buy), drinks. Oh, and the restaurant is really something else.
Oh a more base note, the Blue Lagoon was made for Instagram.
Youll struggle to find fish as fresh as you can around Iceland. Apparently, everyone in the country is in some way related to a fisherman, which isnt hard considering that there are only 334,252 inhabitants.
But the really fantastic thing about Icelandic cuisine is how incredible the vegan grub is. If youre a vegan, book a flight to Iceland immediately.
Apparently more and more chefs are training in the art of plant-based cooking and it really shows – the freshest veg, the most interesting pairings, the most delicious plates.
And after a day or two of eating your way through the country and mounting glaciers, head back to the airport (the Icelandair lounge is epic – if you can get a pass) and get ready to pass out on board.
Icelandair, unlike many other carriers, has a tonne of leg room, even in economy, and phone charger sockets in front of every seat. And WIFI on board. Enough said.
San Francisco – making the most of the great outdoors
The Californian city is equally magnificent in terms of the nature it has on offer within minutes of the city centre. And if youre as lucky as we were, youve got the bonus of that beautiful Californian sun to warm up your adventures.
Grab your walking boots and get exploring.
Muir Woods is home to some of the worlds oldest and largest redwood trees – and Californians are dead proud of them.
The woods are well worth having a wander around to stretch out any long haul induced cramping; apart from the walking and oxygen, the drive up to the woods from the city offers some really incredible views over green valleys and Sausalito (which is stunning).
If you like seafood, get yourself to Sausalito immediately because there, restaurants like Scoma have incredible-looking crab and scallops (although their vegan grub is also delicious).
The ongoing theme of being in San Fran seems to be the Golden Gate Bridge; no matter what you do, you seem to end up admiring the great feat of engineering.
So after all that trekking around, get on board a Hornblower dinner cruise and prepare to spend the next few hours supping yourself silly while taking a million snaps of the bridge from various angles and in varying degrees of light.
The boat serves up three-course dinners with epic views of the city, Alcatraz, Angel Island and Sausalito.
Oh, and theres a disco on board that you wont want to miss. Love a boat disco.
But Muir Woods isnt the only place to hike around San Fran – and you dont have to cross water to find green oases.
The Presidio is a national park that offers tremendous views down on the city, the bay and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.
The city is essentially a Mediterranean-like metropolis surrounded by water and woods.
But the Presidio isnt just a load of trees. Its also the home to some of Yorkshire-born artist Andy Goldsworthys most awe-inspiring works.
He makes sculptures from materials he finds in nature; theyre not designed to last so you should try to catch them while theyre there.
But if Im honest, the main reason you need to visit the Presidio is for the Presidio Picnic.
Theres a great expanse of lawn as you enter the park which is taken over by a load of food trucks and vendors on the weekends, serving up all kinds of incredible-smelling dishes and snacks.
I went for a really delicious veggie bean stew and dumplings, but the range of options is vast. Imagine Borough market on a lawn in America and youre close.
San Francisco is probably most famous for being the home of the hippie movement.
Janis Joplin lived here. The Grateful Dead lived here. You know, everyone who was anyone in the 60s were here busy making music and buying bananas in the hope of getting high before realising that the only way forward was LSD.
How do I know that? Because I went on Wild Tours singing tour of the Haight-Ashbury with a bloke wearing banana earrings.
He took us around the area, taking us back 50 years to the Summer of Love – and explaining how the area has gone from a free-living paradise to a city that is becoming increasingly impossible for artists and creatives to afford (aint that the story everywhere?).
The tour is pay-what-you-want but honestly, youll struggle to find a more comprehensive and entertaining introduction to a much romanticised period of history (its not as cringe as it sounds, I promise).
Once youre done with all of that, head over to the Tonga Room for some absinthe cocktails and youll really be living your best rock n roll life. It rains indoors – thats all you need to know.
But trust me, youll thank your lucky stars that you booked with Icelandair on the way back. After all that activity, only a sadomasochist would put up with poor leg room.
Where to stay in Iceland and how to get there
The flight with Icelandair from London Heathrow to San Francisco starts from £447.80 return, including all taxes, fees and charges (price is based on travelling in September 2018).
You can stopover in Iceland en route for up to seven days without paying extra fare charges.
The Iceland to San Francisco route is currently running four flights a week. As well as the extra legroom, the aircraft also has onboard wifi.