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Adventures in Iceland
by Christine Lynn Harvey
Svalbardseyri, Iceland
Iceland is one of the last great wild sanctuaries on earth, where volcanoes (eldfjall), glaciers (jökulls), hot springs (heituruppspretta), geysers (hvera), fjödurs (fjords) and waterfalls (foss) leave an indelible impression upon your soul. If you're looking for a Zen experience with a Nordic twist, then Ísland's it.

Although Íslendingurs are all fluent in Ensk ("English"), they are purists at heart, speaking Íslensku ("Icelandic"), an Old Norse language which hasn't changed much since the first Viking settlers from Norway arrived here in 874 AD. Though there may be an ocean that separates Iceland from America, the two countries share the same Nordic roots. It was a Viking from Iceland, Leifur Eiriksson, who discovered America before any other Europeans did.

When a new word has to be introduced into the lexicon, a special committee is given the daunting task of scouring the old texts to find an appropriate word. The Old Norse equivalent of "computer" is "tölva" which is a mixture of tala ("number") and völva ("prophetess"). For this reason, Icelandic remains the oldest living language in Europe today.

Hearing an Icelander speak his ancient but beautiful language on a farsíma (cell phone) is quite anachronistic to say the least. But Icelanders have done well to preserve their past while keeping up with the latest technology. Icelanders can trace their genealogy back 1,000 years through the internet (www.islendingabok.is).

Subterranean lava under a glacial ice cap
created this formation
Although Iceland is not far from the Arctic Circle, it's a misnomer to think of Iceland as a land of just snow and ice. In fact, Iceland is greener than Greenland, boasting some of the most unique geological landscapes and diverse species of life on earth. Since the flight is only five hours from New York, it's the closest remotest place you can go to.

Icelanders are resilient, independent and practical people. They recycle everything and survival is based on using the natural resources around them. Heat and electricity are generated via geothermal power. Subterranean lava (hraunn), rivers (fljót) and waterfalls (foss) supply all of Iceland's electricity. It's also the first nation on earth to implement hydrogen gas as an alternative energy source.

For sports & fitness enthusiasts, Iceland offers a plethora of endless possibilities. There is of course midnight golf, kayaking in beautiful fjords and lakes, fishing, hiking and ice climbing. Runners can enter in the Myvatn Midnight Sun Marathon June 21st & Reykjavík International Marathon with several distances around the city on August 17th. Americans can ride Icelandic horses cross-country, one of the best ways to experience the wilder side of Iceland (www.icelandair.com/horsetreks). You can also participate in the seasonal sheep round-ups throughout the countryside. Check out Icelandair's website (www.icelandair.com) for other activity packages like "Midnight Golf" as well as low fare specials including "Midweek Madness" and last minute "Sebastian fares" (www.icelandair.com/sebastian). Receive on line discounts by signing up at www.icelandair.com/netclub.

Eyjafjordur
Icelanders are among the healthiest people on earth with a long life expectancy that ranks only second to the Japanese. This is mainly due to low pollution levels and a basic diet of seafood. The fields are free of chemical fertilizers and sheep are allowed to roam the hillsides grazing on mountain herbs. They are rounded up in the fall during "Réttir," into corrals also by the same name, where the farmers identify them according to their distinct ear markings.

I left for the "land of fire and ice" from JFK on Icelandair's Business Class which also offers non-stop flights from Boston, Baltimore/Washington, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Orlando to Reykjavík to destinations in Scandinavia, the UK and continental Europe. I have to plug the airline here, because the flight attendants and food were incredible. Their "Special Catch of the Day" featured on the menu of flights going to North America, is caught from the cool waters of the North Atlantic just hours before take-off.

I left JFK around 8:50 pm and landed the next morning around 6:20 am in Keflavik Airport in Iceland's capital of Reykjavík which means "Smoky Bay." There, I met up with the group of intrepid travelers I would be journeying with for the next four days.

Reykjavik, Iceland's capital
We stayed at the 4-star Nordica Hotel in Reykjavík, owned by Icelandair, which affords an expansive view of Mount Esja (pronounced "Esha") and Svid ("Svith") Bay. With 11 meeting rooms, 282 guest rooms and a grand ball room that accommodates up to 650 people, this hotel is Iceland's largest. The guest rooms are bright, spacious and modern. The hotel's fitness center and spa has an outdoor log cabin-style sauna, three jacuzzis, ten massage and treatment rooms, two steam rooms and cardiovascular and weightlifting machines. The Nordica offers a luxurious respite for world travelers and business people at very affordable rates. For more information on booking hotel and flight reservations, please contact your local travel agent or call Iceland Air direct at 1-800-223-5500 or visit: www.icelandair.com.

Not far from the capital is Thingvellir where the world's first democratic parliamentary system known as the "Althingi" was forged by Icelanders in 930 AD. The first day, we journeyed through the Sudurland and "South Beach" area of Iceland, located in the southwest corner of the country. We passed several greenhouses, heated of course by geothermal energy where Icelanders grow everything from bananas to roses being the self-sufficient people they are. We stopped off at the Eden Greenhouse in Hveragerdi which features a giant chia head version of the Icelandic "Green Man."

We all lunched at an amazing little lobster shack called Fjörubordid (pronounce the "d" as "th") which means "by the seaside." It's located in the town of Stokkseyri and claims to be haunted by "gentle" ghosts, not the beserker Viking-type. I tried to force the hostess into revealing the secret recipe for the seasoned, steamed Icelandic humar (lobster) we ate, looking like longostinos but tasting much sweeter and served with an exquisite tartar sauce. I could only get two ingredients for the tartar sauce...tarragon & sour cream. I discovered Icelanders are not quick to give away their culinary treasures.

Bláa Lónid is a geothermal spring
renowned for its healing powers
Afterwards, we made a pilgrimage to the famous Bláa Lónid (The Blue Lagoon), near Grendavík, a geothermal spring renowned worldwide for its healing powers. The nearby Svartsengi power plant pumps mineral-rich superheated water up from 1 1/4 miles below the earth's surface at a temperature of 470 degrees F which is then cooled and pumped into the lagoon at a temperature of 110 degrees F. The result is a sky blue-colored hot spring with silica, blue green algae, salt and other elements that are immensely therapeutic for the body and healing to the skin. The admission price allows you to relax at this natural hot tub all day if you wish. The spa also offers special spa treatments and sells beauty products manufactured from the lagoon and a natural sparkling spring water (www.bluelagoon.is; 354-420-8800) After, we enjoyed dinner at the Blue Lagoon Restaurant which has made several top lists in Europe. I had Midjardarhafsfiskisúpa (Blue Lagoon Bouillabaisse), the most delicious soup I've ever tasted.

Húsavík:Whalewatching Capital of the World

Húsavík is becoming one of Scandinavia's
hottest travel destinations
The next day, we all flew out of Reykjavik Airport, on a small commuter plane to the city of Akureyri, which is surrounded by the beautiful Eyjafjördur, and drove about an hour to the charming north seaside village of Húsavík which is rapidly becoming one of Scandinavia's hottest travel destinations.

We were graciously shown around the town of 2,500 inhabitants by Haraldur (Halli) Líndal Pétursson, Húsavík's cultural ambassador and Framkvaedastjöri (General Manager) of the Marketing Council of Húsavík (www.husavik.is). Halli served as our international hospitality guide, personally showing us all the great things to do in Húsavík.

Husavikian host:
Haraldur Líndal Pétursson
The Landnáma, (Book of Settlement), tells of a Swedish Viking named Gardar Svavarsson who came to Iceland. He circumvented Iceland and called it Gardarsholm (Island of Gardar, what else?). When he reached Skjálfandi Bay, he put Náttfari, one of his crew members and a slave woman in a boat which landed at place that would be called Náttfaravik (Nattafari's Cove) Here, the happy newlyweds set up home. Gardar on the other hand, lay claim to the other side of the bay where he decided to set up his own little house cove called Húsavík (Hús = House, Vík = Cove). But the name "House Cove" doesn't do this lovely place justice; we need to consult the ancient textbooks for a place name that means "haven for world travelers looking for solitude, but with lots of things to do."

Húsavík offers travelers plenty of skemmtun (amusement). Icelandic hestur (horse) riding is a big thing here and there's two horseback riding places in Húsavík that fulfill any horse-lover's dream. The first is Ishestar (www.ishestar.is; phone 354-892-4645) which is 5K south of town. Bring some bread to feed the horses who are more like ducks than horses. Icelandic horses are smaller and sturdier than horses we have in America and perhaps they got that way from eating lots of bread. The other company is Kaldbakur (www.heimsnet.is/cottages) and is 2K south of town. Ishestar and Kaldbakur will be offering horseback riding along the beach in the summer.

In Húsavík, you can also play midnight golf, kayak, hike, listen to Icelandic folk music and even go karaokeying. The only thing you can't do here is...get bored! There's even a sundlaug (swimming pool) with three jacuzzis that will cost you 160 krona to get in. Swimming is big in Iceland and every school child must pass a swimming test as part of the curriculum. And no, despite the great myth, Scandinavians are not shameless nudists. In fact, it's illegal to wear your birthday suit in public in Húsavík or any other place in Iceland!

Whalewatching with North Sailing
(Husavik Church on the Hill)
The first item on our program was whalewatching in Skjálfandi Bay aboard the "Knörrinn," North Sailing's 51 foot "handsome and able" oak vessel. The day was beautiful and enchanting. With Husavikurkirkja, the green and white church behind us on the hill, and the Kinnarfjöll (mountains whose name means "cheeks") before us as our backdrop, we embarked on our whalewatching tour. Husavik is considered the whalewatching capital of Europe and here you can find just about every species of whale: minke, fin, sei, killer, humpback, blue, northern bottlenose as well as harbour porpoises and white beaked dolphins. We were lucky to see several minke whales and white beaked dolphins. This is the first time I've seen whales in their natural environment, so it was quite special. Whales are not only identified by their appearance, but how they dive. The minke spouts and breathes three to four times in succession before diving, does not fluke (lift its tail up) and stays under water about five minutes. We also saw a variety of seabirds: puffin, kria (arctic tern), a variety of gulls (great backed, lesser backed, common), fulmar and skua.
Midnight Sunset over
Grimsey Island

When we arrived back from our voyage, we visited the Gamli Baukur (Old Tankarde), originally built in 1843 as a residence for the district magistrate. It was used as a fisherman's shack until the 1960's when it burned down, but recently restored, it's now used as a restaurant by the North Sailing Company. Since there are very little trees left in Iceland, and therefore a shortage of lumber, the entire building is made from driftwood found along the town's coastline. North Sailing also offers trips to Grímsey Island which lies in the Arctic Circle and is inhabited by 100 people and 36 different species of birds. You receive a certificate declaring you visited there and you can have your photo taken where the Arctic circle runs through the island in front of a sign marking the distance of New York 2,763 miles away.

For more information about whalewatching boat tours in Húsavík, please visit North Sailing at: www.nordursigling.is or call (354)-464-2350. You would also fare well to visit a little yellow building in front of the Gamli Baukur called Kadlin (Gardarsbraut 6, phone: 354-464-2060) a shop featuring Icelandic crafts and traditional Icelandic lopapeysa (woolen sweaters) specially hand-knit by the ladies of the town.

The Safnahúsid á Húsavík (the Húsavík Museum; www.husmus.is), is where Halli showed us photos on the wall of his grandmother working at a fish factory and his grandfather being honored at Sjomannadagurinn (Fisherman's Fair) which was once treated like a religious holiday throughout Iceland. Today, this observance is not nearly as "holy" and serves more to entertain than to sanctify the sacrifices made by the fishermen to their community. We toured a bait house like the one Halli's grandmother would have worked in which smelled quite authentic. Icelanders preserve their fishing heritage in very special ways!

The top of Mt. Húsavík, looking at Botnsvatn
Gudni Halldorssón, the director of the Húsavík Museum, gave us a tour of his complete charge: a folk and maritime museum, photo & art collections, district archives and a natural history collection (including the stuffed remains of a polar bear who had the misfortune of arriving at Grímsey Island on ice floes; there's also a replica of the Great Auk, now extinct). The inside of a turf house is recreated and made complete with an intricately woven woolen "lace" table covering. But the highlight has to be the maritime museum founded only last year and expanded quite fully to include memorabilia of the fiskidnadur (fishing industry) and the role of the fiskimadur (fishermen) in ensuring the survival of the people in the district.

We ate at the Salka Restaurant after our whale watching and museuming for the day where we feasted on typical Icelandic fare and discussed the differences between Icelandic and American culture. All I could think about was the differences in seafood. Any where you go in Iceland you will experience the freshest of seafood like nowhere else! Every seafood dish I had (which is all I had) was incredibly fresh. It's too bad. Now, I'm spoiled for life. I know the "fresh" Icelandic seafood in my local supermarket will never be as delicious as what I experienced in Iceland. Iceland is a seafood lover's dream come true.

The Heilsuba is Húsavík's best-kept secret
That evening, we were driven in superjeeps by Runar Oskarsson of Fjallasyn Mountainview Highland Expedition Tours and Gunnar Johannesson to the top of Mt. Húsavík where we had an awesome view of the town, Skjálfandaflói Bay, Botnsvatn and Flatey Island. For more information on superjeeping in Iceland's Northeast, please visit: http://www.fjallasyn.is/fjallasyn/ and click on the icon "Amazing North-east" or call 354-464-3940. We watched the Kvöldsól (midnight sun) for a bit, then Halli showed us his town's best kept secret...the "Heilsubad fyrir Psoreasis og Exsemsjuklinga" (a health spa for people with psorosis and eczema). Geothermally heated mineral water is pumped into a huge tub that can fit about twenty people at a time. The heilsuba is a secret treasure for the roughest and readiest of world sojourners.

We stayed two nights at the FossHótel in Húsavík (www.fosshotel.is; 354-464-1220), a very pleasant lodging that offers a continental morgunverthur (breakfast) and free internet service. Pórhallur Hardarson was "fagleg pekking" (knowledgeable & professional) and the "vithmót starsfólks" (friendliness of staff) was "frábaert" (#10, or "excellent" in English). The chef of Fosshótel's veitinggasalur ("restaurant" which was also #10) is the only winemaker in Iceland. His two-year old label, Kvöldsól is made out of kraekiber (crowberries) and blueberries. The wine tastes just like wine made from grapes except that it's richer in anti-aging phytochemicals.

Lake Myvatn and pseudocraters
Just outside of Húsavík lies Lake Myvatn (pronounced "meeva"), a hot spot of not only volcanic activity, but tourist activity as well. The next day, Eggert Sigurjónsson of SBA-Nordurleid (www.sba.is; 354-462-3510) our leidsögumadur (guide), took us first to Hveravellir, a geyser and hot spring that supplies heat energy for Húsavík. We stopped off at Bjarnarflag where there is a diatomaceous earth factory that harvests the skeletons of microscopic algae called diatoms. These creatures' remains are made of fine silica and are used in liquid filtration, pottery glaze and in natural flea powder products.
Iceland, land of fire and ice
(Viti Crater in the Krafla area)
The surrounding Krafla (pronounced "Crappla") area is an enigmatic wasteland. It was here at Eldhraun (fire lava), that Apollo 11 practiced moonwalking; the astronauts said this place looked more like the moon than the moon itself! We walked between America and Europe where the American and Eurasian continental plates meet and pull Iceland apart at the rate of 1" a year. Because of all this shifting, this area is ripe for volcanic activity. We made use of this otherworldly place by walking around in a volcano crater that was still hot from the 1970-80s eruptions.

Stopping off at the Krafla Geothermal Power Station which is the world's first geothermal electrical plant, we witnessed enormous steam pressure blasting out of one of the production wells. We also visited "Hell" or Víti, a crater which was formed during the 1720's eruptions. This "hell" had transformed itself from a bubbling solfartaras (boiling mud pit) over the centuries into a beautiful green-blue lake that is 90 feet deep. We walked across the hraunbrekka (lava fields) and visited the brennisteinn (sulphur) pits and drove a short way to the bluish-gray Hverrarönd mud pits. During the Ice Age, lava pushed up under the glacier to form the beautiful tabletop mountains (Bláfall & Sellandafjall) that surround the desolate area, an odd juxtaposition of beautiful creation with firey destruction.

We stopped off for lunch in Reynihild at the Gamli Baerinn which means "The Old Farm" http://www.randburg.is/is/reynihlid 354-464-4170) where we had kjötsúpa matarmikil (mutton broth) and reyktum silungi (smoked charr) and sampled hverabraud, a delicious sweet rye bread that is slowly baked on the lava beds just outside of town. Outside we could see a church that had been spared by the 1720's eruption. Just before reaching the church, the lava stopped and went around it! Many still attribute the event to divine intervention.

Dimmuborgir Lava Formations
After lunch, we visited Dimmuborgir ("Dark Citadels") where trolls once threw a party, forgot about the time, and when the sun came up the next day, were turned to stone. Geologically speaking, these columns were formed when water from an ancient swamp got trapped under a pool of lava. The water boiled beneath the lava, creating upwards channels of steam that pushed the lava up around it. When the lava pool drained, half cooled columns sloughed off and collapsed forming the unique troll-like shapes you see today. The Skútustadagígar (pseudocraters) of Lake Myvatn were formed similarly when lava flowed across the lake bed and steam pushed the lava up to form more smoothly shaped formations looking like volcanic craters.The Lake Myvatn area is renowned as a birder's paradise featuring the most diverse duck populations concentrated in one
Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods)
place on earth. We saw Barrow's Goldeneye, Scaup, Harlequin, Wigeon as well as non-duck species including red wing (looking like a huge speckled robin), ringed plover, eider (a seaduck that is famous for its down feathers and is the commonest of Iceland's ducks) and snipe which makes a weird gobbling sound when it flies which is caused by the beating of its tail feathers. We then visited Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) where an Icelandic chieftain named Thorgeir threw all his pagan idols into the falls after he decided that Iceland should convert to Christianity in 1,000 AD.
Húsavík Harbor and Whale Center

It was back to Húsavík where we visited the Húsavík Whale Center, the only of its kind in Iceland, dedicated to the education and preservation of Iceland's indigenous cetaceans and marine wildlife. We were given a special tour by Asbjörn ("Abbi") Björgvinsson who has dedicated much of his time educating the community that whaling is a thing of the past and whalewatching is the way of the future. The museum is a converted fish freezing plant where everything was recycled including tin cans that were used as modern lighting fixtures! The museum offers displays on the different species of whales and dolphins as well as the mythology and history of Icelanders' relationship with them. For more information on the Húsavík Whale Center, please visit www.icewhale.is or call 354-464-2520.

Asbjorn ("Abbi") Bjorgvinsson, Director of the
Húsavík Whale Center
Since it is easy to lose track of time in the Land of the Midnight Sun, I asked Halli and others in my group if we could go fossil hunting. The sun was still shining at 9:30 pm as we looked for the Yritunga fossils beds that were off a dirt road missing its sign. Halli found the road which leads down to cliffs and a little fishing port called Tjörnes Höfn and we culled some pretty nice specimens. The next morning, we departed. I know I left a piece of me behind in that town. I was sad to be leaving Húsavík. When you experience something special in a particular place, a part of your soul stays there with it. Where are the tissues? Never mind...I will be coming back soon.

Christine Lynn Harvey is publisher and editor-in-chief of New Living Magazine.

All photos by Christine Lynn Harvey.

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