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May 26, 2008

In the land of fire and ice

The Sweetness, her mother, and I visited Iceland over the Victoria Day holiday (note to Americans: it's one week before the Memorial Day holiday, which Canadians don't observe). We booked a package trip through Icelandair, including air, hotel, "full Scandinavian breakfast" and two tours. I'm sure most of y'all have never considered visiting Iceland. Maybe you should.

Icelandair flies nonstop from Halifax to Reykjavik on B757 aircraft. We left Canada at 10pm and arrived in Iceland around 5:30am (4:30 in flight plus three hours time difference). During the flight, we saw some videos telling us how to fill out US customs forms on arrival (?), and we were served a hot meal in the middle of the night. Never mind that no one in eastern Canada nor Iceland would have been eating a meal at that time. (I suppose it kept us full until lunch.)

It's a solid 30 minute drive from Keflavik airport to the capital city, and most of the drive looks like this:


You begin to understand why NASA spent some time in Iceland while preparing for the Apollo mission. The place is weird! Endless lava fields, in various stages of reclamation by arctic mosses, cover much of the land. Iceland owes its existence to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge astride two tectonic plates. Earthquakes and volcanic activity are commonplace. It's incredible that the Vikings managed to settle here. Their descendants, the Icelanders, have harnessed the boundless geothermal energy to keep the roads ice-free and the hot-water-heater salesmen out of work. (And it's turned into a tidy growth area for power-hungry industries in the EU, courtesy of the Kyoto Protocol.)

It's also the home of good old Leifr Eiricsson, the guy we know of as Leif Erikson. Leif most certainly discovered America hundreds of years before Columbus, but the Vikings weren't much on follow-up. They were too busy founding the world's oldest parliament and writing sagas. A surprisingly literate bunch, no? Today's Icelandic schoolchildren learn how to read the ancient stories, which is a lot easier than us trying to read Beowulf, as the Icelandic language has scarcely changed from Old Norse. Check out the original saga parchments at the Culture House, then go down to the waterfront and get a hot dog from Bill Clinton's favorite hot dog stand. Or get some puffin, if you feel adventurous (I did, but won't be next time). If you come to Reykjavik in the summer, you can drink Viking beer all night and the sun will still be up when you leave the bar at 3am. I didn't participate, though I did have a glass of Viking (mediocre) with my lobster calzone (better) at dinner.

Okay, enough about the city. Let's go on tour number one, shall we? This was a bus trip to Jokulsarlon, the lagoon at the foot of Europe's largest glacier, including a boat ride among the icebergs. I am so impressed with the Icelanders that they would even plan something like this, as it is at the limit of my travel insanity. I'm sure we wouldn't have gone at all if there hadn't been a tour bus going, fooling us into accepting the idea of this as a "day trip". You see, Jokulsarlon is at least five and a half hours from Reykjavik each way. It's almost one-third of the way around the entire country!

I'll spare you a recounting of the obvious discomforts that 12 hours of tour busing will supply. Here's some scenery:

Past the Mid-Atlantic ridge

Westmann islands


Arctic terns on an iceberg at Jokulsarlon


The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon (click on this one for a panoramic shot)

And to top off our trip on the way back to the airport, tour number two: a trip to the Blue Lagoon. It's the best known tourist attraction in Iceland, and surely the most popular power-plant outflow in the world. Yes, that's right: they took the wastewater from their geothermal power station and made it into a spa!


Bathing in hot water under the arctic sun: that's Iceland for you.

Posted by The Greatness at 07:04 PM | Comments (0)