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Iceland: Land of extremes

Temperate nation is an elemental netherworld of fire, flowers and ... ice

Patrons enjoy the sunshine at a cafe in downtown Rejkjavik, Iceland.
Visitors take in a mud bath and a photo at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
The double Gullfoss cascade in Iceland plunges 105 feet.
Fat ponies with gaits as smooth as hobby horses graze around Iceland.
The Icelandic coast can be seen from the fast-melting Snaeffelsjokull glacier.

Patrons enjoy the sunshine at a cafe in downtown Rejkjavik, Iceland.

Visitors take in a mud bath and a photo at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.

The double Gullfoss cascade in Iceland plunges 105 feet.

Fat ponies with gaits as smooth as hobby horses graze around Iceland.

The Icelandic coast can be seen from the fast-melting Snaeffelsjokull glacier.

On a damp and sullen day, in the drama of the rocky rift separating east and west tectonic plates, you can almost hear the horde of Vikings gathered at one of the world's oldest parliaments.
Given the political contentiousness of its offspring American Congress, it seems little surprise that this original Icelandic legislature temporarily lost its law-making power after only 340 years. (For the next 500 years, its role was judicial, and for nearly 50 years, it was disbanded.)
The surprise is that it happened here at all. Shouldn't the oldest continuous democratic assembly, as some have called it, hail from Rome or Britain or France? Yet many bestow that honor on the fierce Vikings who gathered in 930 near a confluence of crossroads, rocky fissures and a fish-filled lake (and meet still in more civilized quarters in Reykjavik.)
In Iceland, the unexpected is commonplace.
Start with the name - a misnomer if ever there was one. You often hear the quip that Iceland got the wrong end of the Viking marketing scheme: While this island-by-the-Gulfstream is temperate and grassy (even in winter, temperatures in the capital generally rise above freezing), more northerly Greenland is buried in ice (fast-melting though it is in these warming times).
In summer, Iceland becomes a field of flowers, and for three July days I will bask in the sun spilling over Reykjavik's cafes, motor beneath grassy mountain ridges gushing with waterfalls, slip into natural thermal pools and canter across seaside farm fields on pint-size ponies with a gait smooth as a hobby horse.
The name isn't ALL wrong, I soon discover, for Iceland is a land of fire and ice.
The country's 200 volcanoes are the boils of irritation opening along the tectonic rub called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and more than a third of the earth's lava flow in the past 500 years has happened here, according to experts at San Francisco's Exploratorium.
For casual travelers, the easiest access to Iceland's geological extremes is at Reykjavik's "Volcano Show," where two back-to-back films are shown in a tiny theater by host, filmmaker and ticket-seller Villi Knudsen. Glacial ice is split by volcanic explosions before your eyes as searing magma and meters-thick ice collide in violent clashes that reshape the island, forming lakes and floods often hidden beneath the ice. The most startling footage is of the 1960s eruptions off the coast that resulted in the creation of a new island, Surtsey - mirroring the ancient creation of Iceland itself.
Step outside the theater, and for the moment at least the geology lesson seems academic. Reykjavik is a chic urban village anchored by the concrete pyramid of Hallsgrmskirkja church and surrounded by commercial sprawl. The cozy streets are lined with boutiques, coffee houses and stylish bars burning with the sharp intensity of summer love. Cyclists and joggers pound the harborside path in the unending light of summer. The thin grass glows emerald in the fleeting warmth.
But once you've hit the local museums and nightclubs and experienced the whopping prices ($150 per day car rental, US$100 for tandoori chicken and a couple of beers), you'll be drawn back to the elements.
Transcendent voyages
Nearly everyone who visits Iceland goes to the Blue Lagoon, the thermal pool complex near the airport. It's part tourist trap, part transcendent voyage into an ethereal universe. Steam rises from the pool, carved from a lava landscape that looks like it should be on the moon.
Though there's a serious clinic, cafe and massage facilities, what most people do here is soak and slather their skin in the mineral mud stationed in boxes around the pool.
Along with impurities, it seems, the mud draws out the chat. A Norwegian mom and her 15-year-old, Ingeborg, advise me about the mud. "Don't get it too close to your eyes," the mom warns.
Iceland is slightly smaller than Kentucky. Though most of its interior is impenetrable without a rugged 4x4 and hearty guide, touring the island takes more time than I expect. For more than two hours I drive along the green flats edged by sea and ridge to Snaefellsjokull, a relatively accessible glacier rumored to have been a landing strip for aliens, a place of magic and Jules Vernes' legendary entrance to the center of the earth.
Like many glaciers, this one is melting. For the past several summers, glacier tours have been impossible past mid-July, and I barely make the cutoff, bypassing the rigors of a 5-hour hike to the top in favor of the immediate gratification of a snowmobile tour.
In under 15 minutes, the group is whisked to the crater. It's a stellar, crystalline day, and the views are spectacular, with snowcapped basalt peaks showing patches of black rock trickling to azure sea. Swaths of green are sheltered by rippled peaks and cliffs and strange, prehistoric-looking lava fields strewn with rocks - the spew and vomit of a raging earth.
Looking around, you realize the elves, trolls and gods said to live here must be unsettled; you don't need to see the "Volcano Show" to realize something roils beneath.
Another day's visit to the geyser fields confirms it. White steam rises against the green hills like a train chugging through the land, and it's only when you realize that the location never changes that you understand that these kettles sit at a constant boil.
The most visited of the fields is at Geysir, the place from which the geological term was borrowed. If you've been to Yellowstone, you'll be underwhelmed; it is neither so vast nor so colorful as those geysers of the American west. Still, it's a sight few want to miss.
Some of the sprays here blow regularly; others are less predictable. The namesake Great Geysir - a once-regular vent spouting 180 feet high - now spurts less regularly and less tall. Its entrance is said to have been clogged by common sense-challenged visitors who threw rocks into it in the 1950s, but more recent earthquakes seem to have loosened the passageway. This change underscores the message of "Volcano Show:" that Iceland is a geological laboratory in flux, constantly reshaping the land.
A few miles away lies Gullfoss, a massive double waterfall of the river Hvita that plunges from a wide plain some 105 feet into a canyon. The flow seems almost to disappear, swallowed by Iceland's mystical and ever-changing earth - the elements at play with eyes and mind.
A drive over ridges and boulder fields brings me to Pingvellir. There's nothing whimsical or playful here; the planet's plates have thrust and sparred without mercy, shearing to dramatic heights in a set ready for a sci-fi flick. It's no wonder that the Vikings chose this as the site for their most momentous civic actions - and no surprise that, like important occasions throughout history, these took on a festive air. The pathway along the rift is lined with rock-hewn booths where vendors once sold nibbles and beer and whatever might have passed for souvenirs at an earlier time. If you close your eyes you can almost sense the hurly-burly of power and influence, pride and prejudice.
Capital: Reykjavik, pop. about 113,730
Land area: 38,706 square miles
Population: 304,376
Government: Constitutional republic
Religion: 82 percent Lutheran Church of Iceland
Economic drivers: Outsize banking industry has been devastated by the global economic crisis. Fishing, aluminum and ferrosilicon exports, tourism also prominent
Climate: With its northerly latitudes, expect long days and highs around 55 degrees in Reykavik summer, super-short days and highs of 27 degrees in winter.
Language: English is widely spoken.
Lodging: Staying outside Reykavik typically is cheaper than staying in town. Note that even a hostel room with shared-bath may cost US$100.
Dining: It's going to be New York expensive; even a 12-inch pizza will set you back US$30. Seafood and lamb are the local specialties.
Info: Iceland Tourism Board: "Iceland," US$22.99, by Lonely Planet.

Updated : 2021-05-17 18:32 GMT+08:00