by Ann Lombardi and Wendy Swartzell
For a really unconventional getaway, treat yourself to Iceland, the "Northern Jewel of Europe." Only a six- to seven-hour flight from the U.S. east coast, this gem of a country is a surreal place of ice and steam, gurgling hot springs, rugged lava fields, and welcoming Nordic people.
Home to 40 percent of Iceland’s 280,000 inhabitants, the delightfully uncongested capital, Reykjavik, boasts an appealing mix of city attractions, clean air, pristine natural sights, international cuisine, and hot night life.
Our middle-aged intuition told us to forego the latter and concentrate instead on the low-key side of the city. An imposing downtown statue of beloved native son Leif Erikson — the first European to set foot on American soil 1,000 years ago — stands guard over this northernmost world capital. Nearby, the massive Hallgrims Lutheran Church stretches heavenward and on a clear day, offers a splendid 100-mile view.
Dorothea Larusdottir, our new Icelandic friend, led us through the narrow Reykjavik backstreets, along centuries-old houses topped with corrugated iron. There’s not a tree in sight, we heard, because axe-wielding Vikings chopped down forests long ago and used the wood for fuel and mighty ships.
"Ann couldn’t find you in the telephone book, Dorothea," Wendy said, as we ambled through the old town. Dorothea grinned, "Let me tell you about our Icelandic family name tradition." We passed a troop of proud parents toting their newly-baptized babies, pink-cheeked cherubs in flowing white gowns.
"My family name, ‘Larusdottir,’ translates as daughter of Larus," Dorothea explained. "My dad’s first name is ‘Larus.’ Icelandic children take their father’s first name for their last name and add either ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ at the end. So, my brother’s family name is slightly different from mine because it has another ending." And, as it turns out, names in Iceland are alphabetized in the phone directory by first names rather than by last.
Our stomachs were growling noisily as we headed to the busy indoor farmers’ market. There we sampled Icelandic tastebud ticklers like dried fish, morsels of lamb, and an assortment of licorice — some creatively covered with coarse salt. Open-minded as we are about food, we felt somehow a tad suspicious when Dorothea steered us to her neighbor’s fish stall. "Try these," she winked, handing us four dime-sized, unidentifiable beige chunks which were skewered on toothpicks. She giggled in rapid-fire Icelandic to her pal behind the fish stand.
A small group of curious shoppers soon gathered to watch the action. We quickly downed the mysterious, ammonia-smelling cubes, without a groan or grimace. "You both are now honorary Vikings!" cheered Dorothea, surprised at our hardy American stomachs. The crowd applauded our feat. It seems we had just eaten raw, fermented shark meat, which is covered with rocks in a deep hole for two months. Then it is hung to dry in a shed for another three or four. We politely took a rain check on the "Black Death," a bitter Icelandic schnapps said to be the perfect way to cap a shark meat snack.
The next day we peeked into shops with colorful Icelandic woolens and munched on more licorice. Then it was time to explore the most photographed site in all of Iceland: the Blue Lagoon. Sharing the 30-minute cab ride with a bubbly Norwegian woman we met by chance at lunch, our excitement grew as we drove by black lunar-like lava fields sprinkled with green moss.
Not far in the distance, we spotted that much-photographed plume of thick steam. Desperate to escape the frigid air after changing into our swimsuits, we raced from the lockers to the water and quickly took the plunge. We were swimming in a milky blue, mineral-rich lagoon, heated by geothermal energy more than 5,000 feet underground. The slippery warm water was exquisitely soothing.
Scooping up chalky clay silt from underneath our feet, we slathered it over our faces like the natives do, hoping it quickly would work its magic so we could depart as beauty queens. Around us, happy tourists and locals alike splashed, relaxed, and rejuvenated. Bundled up in their insulated red jackets, lifeguards in ski caps reminded us of the Icelandic version of a scene straight out of "Baywatch."
The next day, our long-awaited "Golden Circle" tour beckoned. The 8-hour daytrip whisked us away by bus from the core of the city to the heart of inner Iceland. At Thingvellir National park, site of the world’s first parliament in 930 A.D., we stood at the edge of a huge rift of tectonic plates, a dramatic valley dividing North America and Eurasia.
A stone’s throw away were the thundering Gullfoss waterfalls and a lively geyser, one of the country’s most active hot springs. Every few minutes, boiling sulphur water exploded high into the air while awestruck tourists gasped at mother nature’s display.
With stunning fjords, crackling glaciers, and energetic geysers, unspoiled Iceland is a nature-lover’s dream. Yet we had barely scratched the surface of this European land so close to our shores. "Takk," Iceland, for your lingering warmth and beauty. We know we will return.
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("Icelandic House" Photo by Roger Beau and "Icelandic Geyser" Photo by J.M. Mueller.)