- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

MYRDALS GLACIER, Iceland — In a country famous for its volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, avalanches and landslides, nothing beats racing across a glacier in a snowmobile.

From the moment we set off from a hut near the edge of Iceland’s fourth-largest glacier, where you can snowmobile nearly year-round, we were grateful that a guide was taking us through the blinding white snow, hail and clouds.

She knew her way around Myrdals Glacier, which sits atop a volcano with snow as deep as 2,475 feet, but she still strapped a global positioning system device to her handlebars to make sure we didn’t make a dangerous mistake.

As we raced up and down steep hills of snow, leaning left and right to avoid falling over, it was easy to see why.

Two obstacles suddenly emerged from the whiteout: an ice cave, with a low-hanging and sharp entrance of ice, and a waterfall that fell hundreds of feet into the glacier. We managed to avoid hidden crevasses.

Two days later, one person died and another was injured when their four-wheel-drive vehicle plummeted into a 100-foot crater in the Hofs Glacier in central Iceland, setting off a rescue by 150 people using a plane, helicopters, Jeeps and snowmobiles.

Welcome to Iceland, a country that offers a bewildering range of options, from the peace and tranquillity of a swim in the world-famous Blue Lagoon hot spring and a view of the aurora borealis to the challenge of hiking and snowmobiling through its wild interior.

The country of 300,000 people, most of whom speak English, also is a nice retreat from the mayhem of big cities. Its capital, Reykjavik, is laid-back, safe, clean and friendly, with a full range of nightclubs, restaurants, shops, museums and galleries.

Despite the name Iceland, the country isn’t always as cold or dark as one might expect in the winter. Even in February, when we visited, the temperature was 45 degrees, far warmer than Northern Europe, with sunlight from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The weather has been so warm in recent winters that the ski slope closest to Reykjavik often is closed for lack of snow.

Iceland’s main drawback for tourists is the high price of food, liquor and travel within the country, thanks to high taxes, import quotas and the strong krona currency. For instance, the 45-minute taxi ride from Keflavik International Airport to our hotel in Reykjavik cost us $116 the night we arrived.

Here’s a typical entry in the guest book of the Hotel Odinsve from two tourists who stayed there recently:

“Thank you very much for a very friendly stay. It’s SO refreshing after the commuterdom of London. The few parts of Iceland we saw were magnificent. … We’ll definitely be back (after saving up a bit).”

Our tour guide, Olafur B. Schram, said the high prices also affect the locals and that it is not unusual to see Icelanders dress up for dinner at McDonald’s.

Iceland’s mayor and tourist board recently complained about the effect of high prices on tourism, an important part of the nation’s strong economy. Nevertheless, that hasn’t curtailed a steady increase in visitors.

Iceland once was famous as an out-of-the-way stopover for cheap flights to Europe.

In fact, years ago, the country welcomed two historic events that helped put it on the map: the all-important summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986, and Bobby Fischer’s 1972 world chess championship victory in the capital over Cold War rival Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.

Tourism is rising. Many people seem to regard Iceland as a cool place to visit, with artists ranging from the hip Bjork and Sigur Ros to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.

In 2005, 370,000 foreigners visited Iceland, more than the country’s population. The top three points of origin were Britain, the United States and Germany.

“We really wanted to show our children the northern lights and the volcanoes and glaciers they learn about in school,” said Junji Takei, 48, who traveled to Iceland from New York City, where he lives with his wife and two children, ages 9 and 6. “We also wanted to swim in the Blue Lagoon. Where else can someone do all that on a short flight from America?”

Sightseeing options here are endless, including thundering waterfalls, glaciers, lava craters, spouting geysers, caves and whale-watching expeditions. A national park not far from the capital includes a sight of the tectonic plates where Europe and the United States are slowly drifting apart at an average of 1.6 to 2 inches each year.

People who find snowmobiling too risky, or unfriendly to the environment, can ride a dog sled through the pristine glaciers or ride horses through lower elevations. The Icelandic horse, a small and docile breed brought to Iceland by vikings in the eighth century, is ideal for beginners. The horses are found at many stables on country farms in the south.

Snorkeling and scuba-diving also are available inland.

Tourists hoping to save money should choose from among a wide variety of group day tours, which last as long as 14 hours, from their hotels. Package tours also are available that include airfare and travel to and from the airport.

The most popular destination in Iceland by far is the Blue Lagoon. It is so close to Keflavic International Airport that some people visit during stopovers on their flights.

Located in a bare, harsh landscape of volcanic lava, the natural hot pool — equipped with changing rooms, showers and a restaurant — draws water from wells as deep as 6,600 feet. The water temperature stays at about 97 to 102 degrees.

It sprang to prominence when a worker at a nearby power plant who suffered from psoriasis began bathing in the lagoon and found his skin condition improved, apparently because of the unique mineral content of blue-green algae.

Like many other visitors, we felt relaxed and had a good night’s sleep after swimming in the Blue Lagoon and rubbing some of its white silica mud over our skin. The only drawback was the price — $44 each for the entry fee and the bus ride from our hotel.

“Wow, we’re staying here all day just to get our money’s worth,” said Peter Rowan, 38, who works for a bank in London. He and his wife, Natalie, were in the Blue Lagoon’s restaurant, where they were limiting themselves to a sandwich and a cup of tea each.

“This country is beautiful, the people are wonderful, but the prices stop you in your tracks,” Mr. Rowan said.

• • •

For travelers to Iceland from the Washington area, Reykjavik, the capital, is served by Icelandair flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Snowmobiling on Myrdals Glacier is less appealing in November and December because of harsh weather and sparse sunlight. Contact Arcanum Adventure Tours: go to www.snow.is or call 354/487-1500.

Swims in the Blue Lagoon hot spring; whale-watching expeditions; and tours of glaciers, caves and other natural wonders are easily arranged by hotels or as part of a package that includes airfare. Olafur B. Schram offers customized tours; go to www.icelandertours.com or call 354/892-5509. For dog sledding tours, visit www.dogsledding.is.

Central, upscale and lively hotels in Reykjavik include the Hotel Borg (en.hotelborg.is) and Radisson SAS Saga Hotel (www.saga.reykjavik.radissonsas.com). Smaller options in centrally located residential areas include the Odinsve Hotel (www.hotelodinsve.is). Nightly rates at all three hotels are $200 to $400.

For more information on Iceland, go to www.visit iceland.com or www.visitreykjavik.is.

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