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Land of fire and ice

Even in winter, Iceland remains the hottest destination on the planet - a land of fire and ice, that offers everything from cool nightlife to dramatic coastlines, from steaming spa pools to rugged mountain walks. Karen Thomas went to find out more. Photographs by Karen Thomas

Sometimes, the buzz of city life leaves you gasping for breath. Sometimes, even sunshine gets too much. Sometimes, you yearn for the unharnessed power of nature, for vast grey skies and wide open spaces. For storm-chased clouds and crashing seas. For life-giving waters and a hint of sulphur in clear crystal air. At times like these, you head for Iceland.

Iceland, the hottest holiday destination on the planet, is uncompromisingly, different - a landscape devoid of trees, yet greener than emeralds, both beautiful and bleak.
Board a plane in London, and less than three hours later, you're in a different universe.

Europe's youngest country in terms of its geology, a land of fire and ice, is emerging as the continent's favourite 21st century destination.

For fashion folk and writers, birdwatchers and history buffs, sporty types and clubbers, pop idols and international diplomats, movie-makers and backpackers, Iceland is the place to be.

National treasure Bjork is just the tip of the iceberg - the best-known export of a thriving cultural scene.

But be warned - Iceland's vibrant cafe's and cute boutiques can seriously damage your credit card's health.

Many visitors restrict their stay to the capital Reykjavik - but the country's abundant national parks, glaciers, lakes and coast are too stunning to miss. In this small country, you can take in thermal pools, whale watching, scallop fishing, elf-spotting and still have time to spare for shopping and clubbing. Which is precisely what we did, in less than a week!

Volcanic experience
Iceland was created by successive volcanic eruptions at the meeting point between the continental plates of America and Eurasia. Lava built up under the weakened earth's crust, causing spectacular volcanic eruptions. Iceland emerged slowly from the sea, built on fire and black rocks.

The traces of Iceland's fiery origins remain, with 200 active volcanoes and hot springs supplying the country's energy needs.

Local film-maker Villi Knudsen has spent his adulthood risking his life to film the spectacular forces simmering under Iceland's deceptively calm surface. Knudsen, a tall man of few words, presents his footage of every eruption in Iceland from 1945 to the present, at the unmissable daily volcano show at Reykjavik's Red Rock Cinema.

Volcano watching is not an amateur sport. A safer way to see the forces of nature at work is to take a day trip to the south-west to Iceland's geysir district, a simmering expanse of barely-contained geo-thermal activity.

Ringed by green hills and veiled in sulphuric steam, Geysir - which gave its name to these steaming water spouts - is covered in bubbling red mud. Every few minutes, the Great Geysir and its smaller sister Strokkur erupt in a crashing metre tower of 100C vaporised water. It is fascinating to watch.

Kristina our guide, a grey-haired and spirited Katharine Hepburn look-alike, cautioned against straying from the timber walkways between the hissing, gurgling geysers. “In my experience,” she said dryly, “it takes exactly four minutes to soft-boil a tourist.”

Less dramatic, but equally fascinating are the pools of molten water around the edges of the site. “If you want to test how hot the water is, please start with just one finger,” said Kristina. “Otherwise, you will lose your whole hand.”

Geysir is the highlight of the Golden Circle tour, available from every tour operator in Iceland, that also takes in the spectacular Gulfoss waterfall, where the White River crashes 32 metres into a vast canyon.

When an Englishman tried to buy the waterfall in the early 20th century, feisty farmer's daughter Sigridur Tomasdottir - one in a long line of feisty Icelandic women - walked all the way to Reykjavik to protest, threatening to throw herself into the canyon if the sale went ahead.

The third stop in the Golden Circle tour is Fingvellir, a magical green plain at the meeting point of the two continental plates, its cracked and fissured landscape intersected by rivers and the country's largest lake, which is also Iceland's most historic site.

It was here that the world's first parliament was created in 930 AD. Every summer, the people of Iceland would gather to settle disputes, pass laws, arrange marriages and agree contracts. From the top of the black volcanic crags, a gentle path popular with hikers and walkers winds through the rocky fissures down to the plain.

Healing waters
Another day trip from Reykjavik heads north through 18 million year old land formations to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, its jagged black basalt beaches stretching out into the bleak Atlantic below a glacier-topped dormant volcano.

Short, sturdy Icelandic horses graze the fields and local men stand thigh-deep in the icy mountain streams, fishing for salmon.
Dotted with clapboard cottages, the largest town, Stykkisholmur is famous for scallop fishing.

There, we boarded a small trawler for a bird-watching and fishing trip around the Breida fjord.

Better-prepared travellers produced telescopes and binoculars from their rucksacks, eagerly scanning the craggy ledges for colonies of puffins, kittiwakes and cormorants. A lone fish-eagle perched on a distant rock, before spreading its vast wings and vanishing into the distant crags.

The trawler stopped and an elderly man from Reykjavik stripped down to his shorts, plunging headfirst into the icy waters. Tourists from softer, more forgiving climes shuddered in disbelief as he swam happily out to shore, his blue-white flesh gleaming in the black water.

“He's not crazy,” his friend announced, silencing the muttering critics. “This old man is eighty years old and has swum in the waters of Iceland every single day for the last twenty years. It has cured his asthma, and he has the circulation of a twenty year old!”

Each to their own. Lunch proved more popular than the offer of a circulation-boosting dip. As the trawler drew its huge net from the floor of the fjord, the burly, blond sailors set to work with knives, opening and passing round fresh-caught sea urchins, clams and scallops.

Icelanders believe strongly in the healing power of water, but most favour the country's plentiful, mineral-laden thermal waters that are said to heal both body and soul.
The country's leading commercial spa is at the Blue Lagoon, just outside Reykjavik. The lagoon contains geothermal sea water from 2,000 metres below ground, with blue algae and an added dose of minerals extracted from a nearby power station. Icelandic doctors diagnose the treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis.

But most people come just to relax for a few hours, allowing the thick heat and sulphuric steam to deliver a sense of deep relaxation.

Visitors strip, shower and enter the lagoon, the soupy waters contrasting with the cold, damp air. The further you swim, the hotter the water.

The Blue Lagoon runs special Pampering Days to promote its products, offering shoulder massages and other treatments. Visitors have included Queen Rania and King Abdullah of Jordan, actor Kevin Costner and film director Francis Ford Coppola.

Once lulled into a blissed-out state, you just can't stop your credit cards running amok in the Blue Lagoon beauty shop, going home with industrial quantities of facial scrubs, mineral salts, souvenir t-shirts and fluffy branded towels. Or you can undo all the good work with a quick caffeine fix at the cafe next door.

Twilight zone
Another Icelandic tradition - not shared by hip young things from Reykjavik - is a belief in the supernatural. Specifically, in the Hidden People - elves, fairies and goblins.

Drive 20 minutes south of Reykjavik to Hafnarfjordur, and you can even trek through the lava fields on an elf-watching tour, led by an old woman who claims to have second sight. The cheerful, otherwise down-to-earth, Hafnarfjordur tourist office staff eagerly press you to take the town's Hidden Worlds map.

Complete with a message from the mayor, the map charts lay lines, cosmic energy flows, elf dwellings and churches of hidden spirits. It lists eight different types of wee small folk - elves, light fairies, hidden people, dwarves, angels, gnomes, lovelings and mountain spirits - complete with helpful artist's impressions so that you can spot them. “You paid how much for that?” said my horrible, cynical friend.

The odds are much higher on spotting hidden sea creatures. Iceland is famous for its marine life, and its whale watching industry has grown from just 100 passengers in 1991 to 44,000 last year.
We sailed from Keflavik harbour on the Moby Dick.

Ten nautical miles out, under greying skies, our fresh-faced captain Vilma pointed out bobbing puffins, dive-bombing kittiwakes and countless schools of lithe, white-beaked dolphins. Sociable and extrovert, the dolphins flirted in front of the bows, before launching on an extravagant display of formation leaping.

Sadly, though, there were no whales that day. “I've been taking out three trips a day for the last three years, and we usually see at least one minke whale,” Vilma said. “One time, we even saw a blue whale - but only once.”

Capital punishment
Back in Reykjavik, it was time to do some serious shopping. The capital is so small - home to just over 170,000 souls - that you can walk everywhere you need to go. We started at the Hallgrimskirkja - the city's most visible landmark, the stunning white church built to resemble a flow of volcanic lava.

Next to the church is a hidden gem, the sculpture garden dedicated to Iceland's leading sculptor Einar Jonsson - sadly closed in winter. The sculptures depict mythological figures, drawing on Christian, Roman, Greek, ancient Egyptian and pagan influences.

Heading north-west into the city centre, Skolavordustigur is lined with craft shops selling Iceland's famous knitwear, jewellery set with semi-precious stones and other souvenirs.

The street intersects with the main drag Laugavegur, its boutiques displaying international fashions and fragrances, none of them particularly cheap.

This is also the heart of Reykjavik's pulsating nightlife, its side-roads crammed with bustling cafes, restaurants and nightclubs - some for Ôgentlemen' only, where the women are not so ladylike. Iceland is famously liberal - if you can afford the drinks.

Many of the clubland dancers are seasonal migrant workers. Icelandic women are among the most liberated in Europe, well represented in all areas and at all levels of society. They are also famously feisty.

“Traditionally, Iceland's men spent most of the year out at sea,” explains Magnus, a thirtysomething Icelander. “They left the women behind to run the farms. Because they had to run things alone, they became very independent. So Icelandic women don't accept that men can push them around, or tell them what to do.”

Along the harbour, tourist shops compete to part the visitor from their krone. But there are far more intriguing retail opportunities at the Friday flea market at Kolaportid, near the cruise terminal.

One of the most multicultural places in Iceland, the market sells a bizarre hotch-potch of fishermen's sweaters, Che Guevara flags, joss sticks, Christian icons, Juventus football strips, packets of dried shark meat, imported vegetables and moth-eaten second-hand furs.

Iceland's tourist season runs from May to September and many museums close off-season. However, the dark days of winter are the perfect time to enjoy the sharp contrast between steaming spa waters and the sharp, biting air and to join Iceland's spirited holiday celebrations. AW

Plan your activities

  • Something hot:
    Visit the Blue Lagoon online at www.bluelagoon.com

  • Something cool: Check out the beautiful people at off Laugevegur.

  • Something fishy: Get whale-watching at www.arctic.is/itn/whale

  • Something spicy: Visit Austur India Felagid on Hverfisgata for a curry fix at one of the best - and most northern - Indian restaurants in Europe.

  • Something chic:Visit Ofeigur Gullsmidja on Skolavordustig, where jewellers fabricate delicate silver jewellery incorporating volcanic and semi-precious Icelandic stones.

  • Something cheeky: The Phallological Museum (look it up, ladies!) just off Laugevegur contains eye-watering exhibits from mammals of earth and sea. Human donors are sought!

  • Something cheap:Self-catering at the central Lighthouse Apartments for just £33 per person per night..

Travel Essentials

  • How to get there:

    Emirates Airlines and Saudi Airlines have daily flights to London, Frankfurt, Zurich or any other major European destination. Onward journey to Iceland can be made on Iceland Air from any of major European cities.

  • Visa:

    GCC nationals must procure a Schengen Visa. Danish embassies in all countries handle visa applications on behalf of Iceland.

  • For more information contact:

  • Royal Danish Consulate, Dubai: +9714-2227699 Royal Danish Consulate, Jeddah: +9662-6672222

  • Tours:

    For information on package tours and hotel bookings and prices visit: www.icelandadventure.com

  • Time to visit:

    From May to October. During the summer months you can enjoy daily whale-watching tours in Iceland.

  • Currency: Icelandic Kronur ISK (1$US = 90.55 ISK)

Travel Desk (Previous Features)

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