- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

For most of us who live below the 60th parallel, much in Iceland looks surreal, mystical and, well, just plain odd. The photos in my scrapbook look more like the illustrations in a science-fiction book than the chronicle of a vacation. The earth bubbles and steams, the sun comes and goes at abnormal times, and trees never really bothered to grow. If vacation is meant to be an escape, there is no better place.

I must say that looking out the window on my way from Keflavik to Reykjavik, I wasn’t won over by the never-ending moonscape.

The monotony of the lava rock and gray sky was broken only by the painted corrugated metal of a few homes. There is no wood with which to build, and the climate is too savage for homes to be made of anything other than concrete and metal.

Given that most of these homes housed members of the U.S. armed forces stationed in Iceland, I wondered whom these men and women had offended to be sent to this inhospitable place.

Then came Reykjavik, the northernmost capital of the world, which holds 171,514 of the country’s 278,702 residents. More gray sky and more corrugated metal. The town seemed inert and sleepy for a Saturday and, walking about town, I couldn’t help but feel that I was playing a losing game of hide-and-seek.

HOMEBODIES

I walked the town really just sizing up the potential of its vacant pubs, restaurants and nightclubs, wondering when the people would appear. Stopping in at a few cafes, I quickly learned one of the reasons Iceland has so many homebodies: Prices are as extreme as the environment.

At about $8 a beer — I typically judge both cost and standard of living by a country’s beer prices — Iceland is the perfect place either to become a teetotaler or to indulge in the perverse logic of justifying each purchase by vowing to abstain from some other pleasantry once having returned home. I chose the latter.

In keeping with Icelandic unorthodoxy, the people finally emerge after midnight and, judging by their behavior, also after a few drinks at home.

Tales of Reykjavik’s surprisingly bacchanalian revelries and its gorgeous population have been told before. Most interesting, however, is the backlash you may get from women tired of being touted in American magazines as the country’s greatest natural resource.

As one woman said about me to a friend, “Your friend looks confused and disappointed.” She then tapped me on the shoulder.

“You know, back in America, when you read all of those articles about the beautiful Icelandic women, I hope you did not think they meant all of them.” I laughed to hint that I did not. I lied.

Reykjavik’s nightlife can be riotous, raucous, flirtatious and a list of other adjectives that describe the nightlife of Washington’s Adams Morgan area. If that’s what you want, save the money and pay cab fare rather than airfare. Instead, go to Iceland for the unique splendor of the landscape.

MUNDANE IS EXCEPTIONAL

Reykjavik is a fine jumping-off point for various excursions, the most popular of which is the Golden Circle in south-central Iceland. Even the mundane seems exceptional there — you become accustomed to snowcapped rock escarpments, Icelandic horses (these look like midget horses with punk hairdos) and occasional pockets of steam floating over the earth like dry ice and water at the town’s Halloween haunted house.

My first stop in the Golden Circle was Pingvellir, or parliament plains. In this rocky terrain, where a chasm created by the mid-Atlantic rift formed a sort of natural podium and amphitheater, Iceland created the first-ever parliamentary national assembly in 920.

It was in this spartan environment that Iceland unified itself as a Christian nation in 1000. This historic parliament, known as the Alping, now convenes in a modest building in downtown Reykjavik. I heard one British tourist boast that his house was larger than the building that serves the world’s oldest parliament.

GEYSERLAND

Next is the Geysir geothermal field, where you undoubtedly will see tourists standing around bubbling sulfuric water, poised with their cameras locked in front of them, like mannequins at a camera store. They are waiting for the Strokkur hot spring to erupt, which it does dutifully every five minutes, providing second and third chances for those who may get lax and put down their arms and cameras at an inopportune moment.

The most impressive natural wonder of the area, however, is the Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, whose picture probably is seen in every tourist publication, every in-flight magazine, every hotel lobby and even over the occasional urinal in Iceland. That’s fortunate, because you may not get a good look at it when you arrive.

The powerful glacial water from the Hvita River shoots bullets of ice-cold water in your face as it roars down the two-tier waterfall. I sought shelter from the liquid barrage behind a parked car but later was embarrassed to see what looked like a Brownie troop forge its way to the falls, singing.

Windburned and fatigued, I returned to Reykjavik for the evening to grab a few beers. (I promised myself I would not go to see a movie for at least six months upon returning home.) The absence of Hawaiian shirts and Jimmy Buffett music makes it easy to forget that Iceland is, after all, an island that attracts most of its tourists during summer.

The island affords great aquatic opportunities, primarily whale, penguin and puffin watching. Although Reykjavik is not the most ideal spot in the country from which to venture out on a whale-watching tour, numerous boats offer such services to tourists, many of whom will never leave the capital. I boarded one such boat, owned and operated by Elding, in hopes of witnessing what I always considered to be an elusive and majestic creature, the whale.

I simply say “the whale” because, being as much a marine biologist as George Costanza, I didn’t think to differentiate between the possible types one can view.

Do not call me Ishmael. Anyone foolish enough, like me, to expect to spot a sperm or blue whale breaching the surface with its massive tail as if posing for a shot on a National Geographic calendar will be disappointed.

The trip does, however, afford multiple views of the minke whale, which must be the sea gull of Icelandic waters. The minkes arch their backs above the water and dive back into the blue, titillating viewers worse than a Fox reality show. They make their brief appearances constantly and all over, leaving the whale watchers on deck spinning like tops as a staff member with a megaphone and set of binoculars calls out, “1 o’clock, 7 o’clock, 3 o’clock.”

Although I was a victim of my great expectations, the whale watching, like all things Icelandic, was a unique and entertaining experience.

In search of more unique experiences, I walked my way to Reykjavik’s airport the next day (a cab would have kept me from dining out for a year) to book a flight to Akureyri, the capital of the north and Iceland’s second-most-populated city. It has 17,000 residents. After 45 minutes of flight over ice-capped mountains in the country’s unpopulated center, I landed in Akureyri and immediately reached for my camera. At the base of a jet-blue fjord and surrounded by snowcapped hills, this tiny town is extremely photogenic.

With a small pedestrian zone of pubs, restaurants and shops, Akureyri is a pleasant town for a stroll, although I dared not purchase anything. (I already had consumed enough beers that I had sworn off all but bread and water when I returned to the States.)

Even more than in Reykjavik, however, I got the feeling that I had arrived in a college town during Christmas break. Fortunately, it is a great place from which to depart to witness some of Iceland’s most exceptional natural wonders, many of which can be found surrounding Lake Myvatn.

The ice-blue lake, a melted ice cap enclosed by lava dams and surrounded by craters, lies in the center of barren and unpopulated earth that looks as though it is still going through some awkward growth spurt, a geological adolescence that has kept the area in a state of extreme change for thousands of years.

Pseudo-craters abound around the lake, elevated indents of green that look like popped pimples on the earth’s face. These pseudo-craters were never volcanoes but solidified bubbles that emerged from the heat below the surface.

The violence that takes place beneath the surface can still be seen (and smelled — although you get used to it, as almost everything, including your own body, starts to smell like sulfur after a while) in the bubbling mud pots around the lake.

To see the true power of the boiling underworld, one need only head north of the lake to Mount Krafla, where the massive Viti crater holds a turquoise pool in the space vacated by active volcanic eruptions as recently as 1984.

South of Krafla and just east of the lake is the Dimmuborgir lava field. Dark ashen rock spires, rolls and loops all over the place as if providing a home for mythical creatures — the ones I have not yet caught on film, but that I am sure inhabit this eerie and beautiful place.

Icelandair flies between BWI and Reykjavik

Years ago, Icelandair was the budget airline from the United States to Europe, landing its passengers in Luxembourg, where they then boarded trains to capital cities on the Continent.

Times have changed, for the airline now flies from U.S. gateways such as Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Reykjavik, Iceland, where connecting flights take off for European capitals such as London, Paris and Amsterdam; the Scandinavian countries; and also Glasgow, Scotland. For information on the airline, visit www.icelandair.com or call 800/223-5500.

Four-star hotels in Reykjavik include the Grand Hotel Reykjavik, Radisson SAS Hotel Island (that’s “Iceland” in English), Icelandair Hotel Loftleider and the Nordica Hotel. For more information on these and other hotels, visit www.hotel.is.

The Blue Lagoon, with naturally heated water (about 104 degrees), offers swimming outdoors day and night, geothermal spa and skin and beauty treatments. It also has a very good restaurant. Visit www.bluelagoon.is or call 354/420-8800.

Iceland is noted for delicious seafood as well as meats, especially homegrown lamb. Choices in Reykjavik include Sjavarkjallarinn (Seafood Cellar); Perlan (the Pearl), which overlooks the city from Oskuhlid Hill; and Restaurant Siggi Hall in Hotel Odinsve.

For more information, visit www.icelandtouristboard.com or www.icetourist.is.


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