Thursday, September 20, 2012

Iceland: Land of Wonder

Iceland is truly a country of surprises.  From a boisterous weekend nightlife to a geographic landscape unlike anything I've ever seen, this small nation--just over 300,000 people--provides a varied and rewarding experience.  Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world, was our base for a tour of some of the natural highlights, including volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and a stunning waterfall.

A popular tourist stop is the famed Blue Lagoon.  While criticized by some as an expensive tourist trap, we found it well worth a visit.  Nestled in the midst of volcanic tuft, the lagoon is warmed by a nearby geothermal plant and the expansive vista is of a rugged, mountainous terrain.  While drifting in the warm water, applying a natural mudpack if you wish, a swim-up bar beckons along the shore and a few glasses of Gull beer, a local brew, promote total relaxation.  We opted for massages, administered while we floated on comfortable rafts, and my stepson and I fell asleep as we drifted along.  Not a bad way to wile away an afternoon. 

A full day should be devoted to what is popularly known as the Golden Circle, a tour including Dingvellir National Park, the famed Gulfoss Falls, Geysir, and Iceland's geothermal plant.  Dingvellir is a mammoth park with sweeping views that encompass both the American and Eurasian continental drifts--which account for so much seismic activity in Iceland.   The park is also the dramatic setting of the world's first democratic parliament, established by the Vikings in A.D. 930.

Gulfoss Falls (roughly translated as "golden water" for the effect that sunlight has on the rushing torrent) looks like something crafted by digital imagery for a Lord of the Rings movie.  The falls, in a striking double cascade, tumble over a cliff into a surprisingly calm body of water, then twist and plunge into the river far below.  In the distance, there is a clear view of the glacier that is the source of the river. 

Geysir is home to one of the few natural geysers left in the world.  Strokkur, as it is known, typically erupts every five minutes or so, and it is great fun to watch the water churn and bubble while anticipating the next explosion of water thirty feet into the air. 

The geothermal plant is fascinating.  The entire country is heated by geothermal energy, which means Icelanders pay virtually nothing for heat.  Indeed, the energy source is so abundant that even roads and sidewalks in the capitol are heated.  The hot water produced at the plant is transported throughout the country in miles of white pipeline that snake across the desolate, sparsely populated terrain. 

A word about Icelandic cuisine is in order.   The country is justly noted for its lamb, genetically pure for over four hundred years, but other dishes are more unique.  We sampled minke whale, both sashimi style and cooked (with a liver-like taste) and enjoyed both dishes.   Reindeer pate was also quite good, and puffin dishes are plentiful.  We tried it smoked and the meat was slightly gamy but very flavorful.  I shied away from hakarl, a species of shark which must be allowed to rot before it can be digested--something for the next trip.  Very good is skyr, which resembles yogurt but is actually made from cheese.  A shot of Brennivin, a type of schnapps, will wash anything down.

Icelanders are famous for raucous Friday and Saturday nights, where power drinking seems to be the norm.  These nights apparently last until the wee hours of the next morning.  I made it until 2:30 a.m. when I abandoned the crowds and meandered to Baejarins Beztu Pyslur, an iconic lamb hot dog stand.  One dog (in natural casing, of course!) was completely filling and I tumbled into bed well satisfied with the Icelandic experience and ready for our next stop:  London.

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