BY JANET STEINBERG
“People are always asking me about Eskimos,
but there are no Eskimos in Iceland.”
They shouldn't call Iceland “Iceland”. The misnomer of this Scandinavian island dates back more than a millennium (874 AD) to Ingolfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking frequently credited with discovering the island. By naming it Iceland, he hoped to discourage future voyagers from settling on this green and appealing island. Throughout the centuries, unsuccessful attempts have been made to rename the country.
Once thought to be a cold barren place sans people, this Arctic land that has no snow and ice in the summer has been ranked second on the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) list of the ten hottest destinations for 2019. Berries, vegetables and flowers grow in many places and from March to September the sun shines on the entire region for at least part of the day. At the onset of summer, the sun never sets and white nights illuminate the annual Arctic Open Golf Championship that begins at midnight sometime during the month of June. To quote Jack Nicklaus: “There’s probably more golf played in Iceland than most places in the world. They play 24 hours a day in the summertime and the northern part is warmer than the southern part.”
Iceland, just 625-miles west of Norway, is a craggy land of fire and ice...where steam and snow are side by side...where erupting volcanoes, boiling geysers and bubbling hot springs lie next to glistening glaciers and ice fields. This land of pure untamed nature is etched with craters of slumbering volcanoes that pockmark an eerie landscape so lunar-like that America's moon-mission astronauts trained there.
ASTRONAUTS TRAINED ON ICELAND’S LUNAR-LIKE LANDSCAPE
Known as "The Land of the Midnight Sun," Iceland, a country the size of the state of Ohio, has a total population of 340,410. Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik (meaning Smoky Bay) is often called "The Smokeless City" because it is heated by geothermal energy in the form of boiling water piped directly from natural hot springs. Perlan (The Pearl) is a domed architectural wonder that, in 1991, was constructed atop a cluster of six geothermal water storage tanks. The symbol Iceland's capital city, Perlan houses an exhibition space, a planetarium, a restaurant and an observation deck. Perched 200-feet above sea level atop Öskjuhlíð Hill, it offers a view over the city and its surrounding area.
|PERLAN IS A DOMED ARCHITECTURAL WONDER|
Greater Reykjavik, the heart and center of the Icelandic nation, contains approximately one-half the population of the entire country. Picturesque tin houses, in a riot of gay colors, surround the Arctic tern-inhabited lake in the center of the city. The bustling harbor, the historic old town huddling nearby and the modern new town are all encircled by mountains for which the people feel an intimate affection.
|PICTURESQUE TIN HOUSES IN REYKJAVIK|
Reykjavik (pronounced rake-ya-vek) is the most northern capital in the world. In this city of civilized tastes, there are two symphony orchestras, the Icelandic Opera House, a major sports center, art galleries, the National Museum exhibiting artifacts of yesteryear, the Nordic House Cultural Centre, and Hallgrimskirkja Church that offers glorious views of the city and a glacier at the other end of Faxafloi Bay. This Scandinavian city has a standard of living as high as any in continental Europe. There are a wide variety of hotels in Reykjavik. The Hotel 101, a 4-star boutique spa hotel, occupies an historic 1930s building in downtown Reykjavik. Overlooking the stunning harbor, its sleek monochromatic palette is the epitome of Nordic cool.
Iceland is as much the home of magnificent cuisine as magnificent scenery. Icelandic menus offer lamb in all its variations and fish in countless permutations. Traditional gravlax (raw salmon and chopped dill) tastes even better as you gaze at the pink streaks of a midnight sun. An Icelandic buffet gives you a taste of Iceland. The continental cuisine should be preceded by a glass of Brennivin, Iceland's "Black Death." Laekjarbrekka , situated in the heart of Reykjavik in a restored 1834 house, offers an Icelandic tasting menu that might include the likes of hardfiskur (dried fish), hakrl (ripened shark meat) or hangikjot (smoked lamb). Skyr, the uniquely Icelandic dairy product is a delightful dessert. So, gjorid svo ve! (Help yourselves!)
Iceland’s countryside embraces the wonders of a land filled with natural beauty and dramatic contrasts. The Golden Circle is a popular day excursion from the city. Favorite stops along the Golden Circle include Gullfoss Waterfall, Strokkur Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. Cascading with incredible power, Gullfoss Waterfall (“Golden Falls”) is Iceland’s most famous waterfall. When the sun peaks through, this iconic force of nature is crested by a vivid rainbow.
Geysir Park, (geysir is the correct Icelandic spelling) is home to Strokkur ("The Churn"), the mighty geyser that erupts once every 6-10 minutes sending boiling columns of water anywhere from 50 to 130-feet skyward.
|TOURISTS AWAIT STROKKUR’S ERUPTION|
Thingvellir National Park is a hallowed spot where the Vikings first met in parliament in 930 AD. Take a walk through the canyon that is the meeting place of two of the earth’s tectonic plates. Also, not to be missed is the colorful Kerio Crater, an inactive volcano crater that houses a nearly-neon turquoise lake inside a stunning bowl of green moss and red volcanic rock.
|THE COLORFUL KERIO CALDERA|
If time permits, visit the Westman Islands, the single most dramatic locale in Iceland. On Heimaey you will see the pitch-black mass of Eldfell, the volcano that erupted in January 1973 and made world headlines when the town of Vestmannaeyjar had to be evacuated. Iceland's greatest fishing harbor was almost closed off by lava from the eruption. Only ingenious high pressure hosing of seawater onto the advancing lava prevented the harbor from being destroyed. From 700-feet above sea level, you look down on the rebuilt town that has piped into the slopes of the volcano to extract steam for heating homes and businesses. As you walk over jagged boulders of hardened lava, you will spot a tiny splash of color amidst the rubble. The tiny clumps of pink and white blooms are called lava flowers. From Early April to September, puffin birds inhabit the islands’ basalt cliffs. Iceland is the breeding home for about 60 percent of the world's Atlantic puffins that spend most of their lives at sea, but return to land to form breeding colonies during spring and summer. In the spring, these sea birds are distinguished by their bright colorful beaks that fade to gray in winter.
A trip to Iceland, a fantasyland of fire and ice will alter any preconceived notion you might have had about the country. Although perpetual darkness prevails during Iceland's winters, in summer there is no night. Golfers putt, and photographers snap, beyond the bewitching hour. Bathers swim in pools heated by thermal pools and the country is ablaze with colorful blooms.
One visit to this verdant Nordic nation just below the Arctic Circle will convince you...they shouldn't call Iceland ‘”Iceland”.
Janet Steinberg, winner of 47-travel writing awards, resides in Cincinnati but calls the world her home.