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Travel Bug: Iceland

Follow the Vikings to the land of geysers and volcanoes

The Skogafoss waterfall is about 200 feet high  

In this story:

Yes, sir, she's my geyser

The Golden Circle

Cool Running

Winging it


NEW YORK (CNNfn) -- Any country that can produce both Leif Eriksson and Bjork is definitely worth a look.

Iceland can proudly lay claim to these two renowned individuals, as well as many others. And, in addition to giving the world an intrepid explorer and an innovative singer, the island nation in the North Atlantic offers the traveler a place to see nature gloriously at work.

"The land is still being created," said Deanna Swaney, author of Lonely Planet's "Iceland, Greenland & the Faroe Islands" guidebook. "If you're into the outdoors, especially geology, it's paradise."

About 277,000 people live in this land of glaciers, geysers and lush green valleys. Often regarded as a kind of stop-over for people on the way to some place else, travel experts say Iceland has enough going on to rate a full-time vacation.

graphic Itching to travel somewhere else? Click and go!

"Iceland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world," said Michael J. Kissane, a contributor to Fodor's Travel Publications' Scandinavia guide, who has lived in Iceland for about 15 years. "It's got Europe's largest undeveloped wildland area and pollution is virtually nil here."

Hiking, fishing, and horseback riding are some of the more popular activities on this roughly 40,000 square-mile-island that reaches into the Arctic Circle. and if you're a golfer, well, there's the Arctic Open in June, where people are on the links at midnight, thanks to long summer days.

glacial lagoon
Chugging through Jokullon, the glacial lagoon  

"You can quit at 3 o'clock in the morning and still have enough light to fill out your scorecard," Kissane said.

Yes, sir, she's my geyser

Irish monks are believed to be the first inhabitants of Iceland and they were followed by settlers from Norway in the 9th Century. Thus began the Age of Settlement, where those fleeing various forms of grief on the Scandinavian mainland headed for Iceland.

Eric the Red grew up in Iceland and colonized Greenland in 982. Eric's son, Leif Eriksson, is popularly held to be the first European to explore the coast of North America.

Things have changed somewhat since then, and today, when you land in the capital city of Reykjavik, you'll find yourself in a modern city that still manages to retain its old world charm.

Old Town, considered the city's hub, has grassy parks, lakes, and museums. Cheap food, lodgings, and bargain shopping are available in or just east of Old Town.

The National Museum, which is slated to reopen its doors on June 17, contains religious and folk relics and tools from the Age of Settlement. Reykjavik hosts an arts festival every year in June and previous events have attracted such notables as David Bowie and Luciano Pavarotti. The city also has nightclubs and pubs for serious partying and there's also the Icelandic Opera and Iceland Symphony Orchestra for your cultural side.

Westman Islands
The Westman Islands  

The Blue Lagoon, a spa located about 31 miles from Reykjavik, is a man-made, mineral-rich body of water that looks like it was piped in from another planet. The temperature averages 104 degrees in the spots where swimming is permitted and the waters are said to have curative powers.

The Golden Circle

Travel experts say a vacation in Iceland is not complete unless you travel along the Golden Circle. The trip, which takes in waterfalls, lakes, and hot springs, starts at Thingvellir, a broad lava plain which, in 930 A.D., became the site for what is now the world's oldest parliament, the Icelandic Althingi.

Thingvellir National Park is a prime spot for many national celebrations and it is also the meeting point of two continents: North America and Europe. On the west side you'll find the easternmost edge of the American tectonic plate and on the east side is the westernmost edge of the Eurasian plates.

From here, you can go on to the Geysir geothermal field in Haukadalur, home of the Geysir and Strokkur geysers. GeysirÑthe source of the English word "geyser"Ñhas been quiet for a while, but Kissane said it has started spouting again recently, although not like it once did. Nearby Strokkur is much more reliable, spouting off as much as 60 to 100 feet of boiling water about every 10 to 20 minutes.

From here, the golden circle tour goes to Gullfoss, or "Golden Falls", a double cascade in the Hvita River. Horseback riding and white water rafting are some of the activities that can keep you busy around here.

The cliffs of Latrabjarg stand tall over the North Atlantic  

If you're heading north, spend a day at Myvatn, which is considered one of the world's natural wonders. Lake Myvatn has the greatest variety of nesting ducks, including some that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. From here, you can make excursions to Jokulsargljufur National Park, the Kverkfjoll ice caves or the Hverfell crater.

Cool Running

The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that Iceland has a relatively low crime rate, but minor assaults and other street crime has become more common, especially in Reykjavik.

"Tourists should be aware that downtown Reykjavik can become especially disorderly on weekend evenings," the Bureau report said.

Less than a third of the country's total road network is paved, the report adds, and many bridges are one lane wide. Kissane said roads in some places, especially the highlands, cross glacial rivers and streams without bridges. Fording these streams requires four-wheel drive and motorists should do this only in groups in case a driver gets into trouble.

"These streams change course, even during the day," he said. "The little creek you crossed at 9:30 a.m. can be a raging torrent by 5:30 p.m. The general fording spots are often marked, but may not always be passable."

Kissane said experienced drivers carry hip waders and a metal rod 6 feet to 8 feet long to test water depths before they attempt a crossing.

Bear in mind that Iceland has to import just about everything, so prices tend to be high. Your American dollar will convert to about 87 Icelandic Krona. Lonely Planet reckons a budget meal will cost about $5 to $10, while a restaurant meal will set you back $12 to $20. Budget hotel rooms will cost between $15 and $20 and a mid-range hotel can cost around $90 for a double. A five-star hotel in Reykjavik can set you back $250 to $300 per night.

Swaney said low budget travelers can also get sleeping bag accommodations, which offer a room, but no bedding. Climb into your sleeping bag and pay a lot less than you would for a hotel room.

Winging it

Iceland's high tourist season runs roughly from July to August, with August being especially popular with European vacationers. Swaney said she prefers to go in June, before the tourist season begins, or in September when the season is ending.

Maybe you'd like to check out Iceland yourself. A little Web exploration should turn up some deals, such as the following:

  • Ring in the New Year at the top of the world. Icelandair Holidays is cracking open the champagne for a three-night holiday blast in Iceland. The trip includes a Golden Circle Tour, a visit to the greenhouse district and a gala New Year's Eve Celebration. Fireworks light up the sky at midnight. The trip is $999 per person, double occupancy.
  • Lindblad Expeditions offers a 16-day tour called "Icelandic Adventure and Beyond the Golden Cape" that includes five days in Iceland seeing Reykjavik, the Golden Circle, Lake Myvatn and other sites. The tour heads to Norway for a cruise to Bear Island, the Barents Sea and Svalbard, which is 600 miles from the North Pole. Tour prices range from $6,460 to $10,830, airfare not included.
  • Iceland is known for its fabulous horses, so if you're looking for a horseback riding tour, Hidden Trails has several rides through Iceland, including the Golden Circle, an 8-day tour that takes in the Geysir area and a ride across the river Tunguflj—t at Hrosshagav’k. The tour costs $1,325, airfare not included.

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November 29, 2000
Travel Bug: Squealin' for New Zealand
November 22, 2000
Travel Bug: Get down with your favorite roller coaster
November 15, 2000

Icelandic Tourist Board
Embassy of Iceland

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