Monday, March 9, 2015



“Iceland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world…”

Julie Christie, actor

They shouldn’t call Iceland “Iceland".

Once thought to be a cold barren place sans people, this Arctic land has no snow and ice in the summer.  Berries, vegetables and flowers grow in many places and the sun shines on the entire region for at least part of the day from March to September.  That is, unless it rains.  At the onset of summer, the sun never sets and white nights illuminate the annual June 23rd golf tournament which begins at midnight.     

The misnomer of this Scandinavian island dates back more than a millenium (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 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 Europe's largest waterfalls is etched with craters of slumbering volcanoes that pockmark an eerie landscape so lunar-like that America's moon-mission astronauts trained there. Known as "The Land of the Midnight Sun," Iceland, a country the size of the state of Ohoi, has a total population of appproximately 323,000. 


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), a geothermal water storage tank, is a domed architectural wonder that houses a restaurant.


Greater Reykjavik, the heart and center of the Icelandic nation, contains approximately one-half the population of the entire country.  Picturesque homes, 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.


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.  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.  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 a three-course Icelandic feast 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!)


Anyone visiting Iceland must take a trip into the countryside.  That is the real Iceland, a land filled with natural beauty and dramatic contrasts.  The tour included Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) Waterfall, crested by a vivid rainbow when the sun peaked through, and the town of Hveragerdi, with its huge greenhouses heated by thermal springs.  The Garden of Eden offered a good shopping spot as well as a greenhouse. 


My Iceland tour also included Geysir Park, (geysir is the correct Icelandic spelling) with its Strokkur (“The Churn”) geyser that erupts every eight minutes sending boiling columns of water 100-feet skyward. 


At Thingvellir National Park, a hallowed spot where the Vikings first met in parliament in 930 AD, we walked through the canyon that is the meeting place of two of the earth’s tectonic plates.  A stop was also made at Kerio Crater, an inactive volcano crater that houses a sparkling lake. 


The Westman Islands are the single most dramatic locale in Iceland.  There 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.  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 

You will also see the tall basalt cliffs inhabited by puffin birds, and Iceland's greatest fishing harbor that 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.  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.     


The consummate shopper will not leave Iceland without a supply of naturally waterproofed Icelandic woolens, Icelandic lumpfish caviar, and the unusual Ostur Myur cheese.  The latter looks like a bar of brown soap and tastes somewhere between peanut butter and chocolate.  Fans of Bjork, Iceland’s most revered lady of pop, will want to take home Gling Glo, an Icelandic album recorded in her pre-superstar days.


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 is an award-winning Travel Writer, International Travel Consultantand winner of 40 national Travel Writing Awards. 


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