LAKE MYVATN, Iceland
This really is the land of fire and ice.
While three major glaciers cover 15 per cent of the country, you can also get up close and personal with thermal vents as they roar their superheated sulphurous steam out through cracks in the ground.
“It’s hot!” exclaimed one visitor as he quickly pulled back the hand he had thrust toward one fumerole alongside Highway 1, just past Lake Myvatn here in north Iceland.
The geothermal activity provides the country with much of its hot water and heating plus about one-quarter of its electricity.
While Greenland is mostly ice, Iceland, which hangs just below the Arctic Circle, is mostly green - at least in the summer. Yukon visitors will feel comfortable with the northern feeling here, yet so many of the experiences are quite different.
Iceland attractions revolve mainly around nature. The vast treeless landscapes are truly spectacular. Lava fields in various stages of disintegration dominate large parts of the country. Mountains, including volcanoes, rise steeply from the valleys. The ocean is never far away and along with the many lakes, attracts abundant birdlife.
Thanks to the fire below, you can bathe in large outdoor spa pools like the Blue Lagoon and the five-year-old Myvatn Nature Baths whose opening is sometimes delayed while the super-heated water is cooled to a tolerable 40 degrees.
And there is the volcanic nature of Iceland. Eruptions are so prevalent (30 volcanoes have erupted over the past two centuries) the phonebook’s “how to cope with natural disasters” section includes detailed instructions on the best way to survive a volcanic eruption. Recent major eruptions occurred in 2000 and 1996.
The worldwide economic crisis forced over-extended Iceland into bankruptcy. The exchange rate doubled in favour of foreign currencies. Some prices have risen because Iceland has to import so many items. But prices for foreign visitors generally have fallen to half of their former very expensive levels.
Although Europeans can catch a car ferry for the three-day trip to Iceland - Norway and then Denmark ruled Iceland until it became independent in 1944 - most international visitors arrive either at Keflavik airport or via a one-day cruise stopover.
Keflavik sits on Iceland’s southwest tip, the Reykjanes peninsula, which offers a taste in miniature of many of the country’s attractions: golfing, deepsea fishing, the lava fields including the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart at 2.5 centimetres a year, a replica of the Viking ship Islendingur (Vikings first settled in Iceland in 874) and the Blue Lagoon; see www.visitreykjanes.com
Reykjavik, the world’s most northerly capital city, is a 45-minute drive north on a mostly four-lane dual highway.
Keep an eye out for the irreverent but informative Reykjavik Grapevine, which recently published The Best of Reykjavik 2009 including “Best place to cheer up (the petting zoo),”“Best biking tour,”“Best place to shop for touristy stuff (Handprjonasambandio)” and “Best place to hook up (Vegamot, Hresso, Dubliners)”- as well as restaurants and bars; check www.grapevine.is
You wouldn’t suspect anybody was experiencing financial problems, judging by the shopping and bar action and the number of Range Rovers and BMWs, although one local said:
“People took out loans based on foreign currencies. So since the value of our money dropped in half, many people have trouble making double their former payments and worry about losing their car or home.”
Also, more Icelanders are holidaying at home so booking accommodation ahead is important.
A paved ring road runs about 1,400 kilometres around Iceland, past picturesque waterfalls and rivers, as well as farmhouses and churches set along the shore or up into the mountains.
By the middle of the short summer similar to the Yukon’s, large rolled hay bales, covered in white plastic, start showing up in the fields, along with sheep and cows and the sturdy, short (1.3 metres high) and mild mannered Icelandic horses, whose special running walk is so smooth the rider hardly notices the motion.
Here are just a few highlights:
—The easy one-day Golden Circle tour just to the east of Reykjavik has Geysir (and its Strokkur geyser which shoots water and steam 30m into the air every few minutes), the Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir national park with moonlike landscapes and another section of the ever-widening Mid-Atlantic Ridge. For delicious fresh local food and the most amazing chocolate mousse with raspberry puree and watermelon pieces, plan a lunch or dinner stop at Lindin restaurant, in Laugarvatn.
—Drive north to Borgarnes where the Settlement Centre provides a fascinating history of how and where the Vikings settled in Iceland starting in the 10th century.
—Hvammstangi features the Icelandic Seal Centre, an Icelandic wool-knitting factory and shop, and nearby Gauksmyri Lodge, with horse riding, hiking, bird watching, yoga and Bowen therapy.
—Lake Myvatn is surrounded by lava fields, craters, bubbling mud pots, steaming fumeroles and other-worldly landscapes as well tranquil countryside for hiking, cycling and climbing.
Credit cards are widely accepted; service is included so you don’t need to tip. Hotel room rates often include breakfast. Camping offers an inexpensive alternative. Most people speak English.
Long daylight hours in summer allow you to make the most of your visit. Icelandair flies to Keflavik from several North American cities.
Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University
on Australia’s Gold Coast—