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Vacation in Iceland? Why not?

Land of Fire and Ice an extreme experience

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Iceland is not a destination for a relaxing holiday.

Oh, it's a fantastic holiday destination. But it will not be relaxing. If you're looking for a nap in the sunshine in an exotic locale, Iceland is not for you.

If, however, you want to stay up around the clock, snorkel in crystal-clear ice-cold water, ride a snowmobile up the side of a glacier, tramp over a lava field to climb a volcano, dance in nightclubs until 5 a.m. -- then get thee to the Land of Fire and Ice.

"Why Iceland?" was the question my husband and I heard most often after booking a week's holiday there this June.

Certainly Winnipeggers aren't known for vacationing anywhere with "ice" in the name. But casting about for a holiday destination this spring, we were wooed by new budget, direct Winnipeg-Reykjavík flights. With prices and travel times comparable to New York City or other cosmopolitan points south, the question became: "Why not Iceland?"

As a holiday destination it has much to offer: untamed wilderness, a virtually crime-free, sophisticated European city, and friendly, welcoming locals -- all just a few hours away.

We started our adventure in Reykjavík, home to about two-thirds of Iceland's 317,000 residents. The compact city centre fills a small peninsula; most of its main attractions are within walking distance. It's a pleasure to spend a day browsing downtown's two main drags, Laugavegur and Skólavördustígur -- the former leaning toward high-end clothing and jewelry, the latter toward arts and ceramics, and both rife with cafes, bars and tourist emporia.

At the top of Skólavördustígur, stop for a long view of the Hallgrímskirkja, the modernist concrete church that dominates Reykjavík's skyline. The lovely building is open to the public, so stop in to enjoy its austere interior, featuring an enormous 5,275-pipe organ (concerts on summer Sundays), and take an elevator trip to the top of the tower ($4), which offers a 360-degree view of the city and, on a clear day, the sea and surrounding mountains.

If you're charmed by the ever-changing nature of Winnipeg's Salter/Isabel/Balmoral/Memorial/Osborne/Dunkirk/Dakota, you'll love Reykjavík, where many street names change after just a few blocks. Laugavegur is one of these, changing to Bankastraeti and then Austurstraeti as it runs into the city centre, where you'll find a park and peaceful lake in the city's centre as well as the city's main tourist office.

Iceland's numerous tourism offices are bursting with information on Reykjavík and beyond. We brought a guidebook but barely looked at it; everywhere we went we were able to find free maps, pamphlets and guides to accommodations and local tours. Some of our favourite adventures were not even mentioned in our guidebook -- such as midnight whale-watching.

Whale-watching? At midnight? It's not as strange as it sounds.

Located north of 64 degrees latitude, Reykjavík enjoys round-the-clock daylight in June, which means plenty of late-night activities are on offer. It's a real boost to jet-lagged North American travellers whose body clocks are set six hours behind: Go ahead, sleep till noon if you're so inclined; you can still pack in 12 hours of activities and not even notice the day passing.

Our whale tour left Reykjavík's harbour around 8:30 p.m. and circled Faxaflói Bay for roughly four hours. We didn't see any whales, although we did see hundreds of puffins and other bird life. Our guides with Elding (elding.is) seemed genuinely surprised at the lack of sea life spotted during our trip -- according to their online diary, they usually see minke and humpback whales, as well as dolphins and harbour porpoises.

Elding handed out certificates allowing us to take a second trip -- usually priced at around $65 per person -- free of charge on another day. A word of warning: when Elding describes sea conditions as "a bit rolly," that translates into "tossing high seas" for Prairie landlubbers. Take the freely offered motion-sickness pills before you get on the boat if the tour guides recommend it.

Next to the whale-watching centre on the pier you'll find another unexpected late-night activity: cycling. For about $35, Reykjavík Bike Tours (icelandbike.com) provides comfortable cruiser-style cycles and helmets and heads out on a low-key, chatty, 2.5-hour tour around the peninsula that starts at 10 p.m., ending around the scenic northwestern shoreline just in time to see the reddish glow of the sunset over the sea.

Another evening we were collected by two enthusiastic AdventureBOX guides for a snorkelling trip at Silfra, on the fault line where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet (adventurebox.is, about $115).

Snorkelling in Iceland: It's as cold as it sounds. "The cold is all in your head," our guides insisted, encouragement that might have been more effective on visitors from warmer climates; we were skeptical. We had a choice of full bodysuits to protect ourselves from the 2 C to 4 C water: Wetsuits, which let water in but allow more maneuverability, or drysuits, essentially buoyant snowsuits that keep you and your clothing dry. Jason took the former; I, the latter.

The water was possibly even colder than we imagined; any skin that came into contact with the water first tingled, then went numb within a couple of minutes. But we could not have imagined the stunning beauty that awaited under the crystal-clear water. AdventureBOX advertises that snorkelling at Silfra "feels like flying" and they're right -- with visibility down the rift of up to 300 feet, it feels like you're floating above a canyon.

Even with the bodysuits, we were shivering at the end of our 40 minutes in the water. Returning to the city, it was the perfect time to warm up in one of Reykjavík's many geothermal pools.

There's no shortage of hot water in Iceland -- the piping-hot volcanically heated water is used to heat homes, pools, and even the sandy Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, in case you feel like taking a dip in the North Atlantic. Reykjavík's many swimming pools are much warmer than pools in Canada -- a comfortable 29 C or so -- and most pools have at least one "hot pot" or hot tub, often outdoors, at 39 to a steaming 42 C -- as well as saunas, steam rooms and whirlpools.

Swimming and soaking are social activities in Iceland; admission is very reasonably priced ($3 or so) and most pools open early and close late. Note that swimming pools and hot pots are not chlorinated -- there is much signage in them about properly showering without swimsuit before entering, and we're told not complying is a major faux-pas.

Iceland's abundance of superheated steam and hot water is borne of its volcanic geology; the island was formed by volcanic eruptions that continue to this day, as evidenced by the eruption under Eyjafjallajökull that caused airline chaos in Europe earlier this year. We took an up-close-and-personal tour of the country's volcanic history with a trip beneath the surface in the Buri lava tube, provided by the aptly named Extreme Iceland. (www.extremeiceland.is, about $130).

The Buri tube, formed in an eruption some 5,000 years ago, was discovered just five years ago on the Reykjanes peninsula in south Iceland; only a few dozen people have been through its caves. Reaching the cave could be advertised as an excursion in itself, requiring an hour's hike across the spongy, moss-covered surface of the Leitahraun lava field, with Iceland's southern coastline and the North Atlantic unfolding around you.

The cave appears as a small dip in the lava field. Outfitted in hard hats, head-lamps and full-body work suits, we shimmied into a small hole and began clambering over rocks and ice in near-total darkness for nearly a kilometre underground. The cave ends in a 17-metre vertical pit, said to be the deepest lava pit on earth.

"Iceland is not a country for claustrophobics or agoraphobics," Jason observed as we emerged from the dark hole back into the sweeping landscape. Acrophobics should take note, too: Iceland has incredible sweeping vistas, but they typically involve high, winding narrow routes without guardrails.

Take, for example, our next extreme journey, to the top of the 4,600-foot Snaefellsjökull glacier. Located in West Iceland, Snaefellsjökull is Iceland's smallest glacier and the closest to Reykjavík, located just a few hours' drive from the city around the stunning coastline -- including the nearly six-kilometre, 165-metre-deep tunnel under the Hvalfjördur fjord. The glacier-topped mountain pops into view on the horizon an hour before you arrive.

To take the glacier tour, would-be alpinists buy tickets in the tiny seaside town of Arnarstapi (www.snjofell.is, about $60), then make an intense drive up a steep, switchbacking ribbon of a track to the snowline. There await cheerful guides proffering snowsuits, helmets and gloves for the zippy snowmobile ride to the peak of the glacier.

The view from the summit on a clear day is simply astonishing. Rugged mountain peaks that loom over Arnarstapi below appear from the glaciertop as cute little knolls in the scenery below. The vast panorama stretches as far as Reykjavík's distant peninsula on one side and to the Westfjords on the other, and is a bit vertigo-inducing even with one's feet planted firmly in the slushy snow.

On the return to Arnarstapi, enjoy a delicious meal in the sod-topped restaurant and take a spectacular 2.5-kilometre hike along the coastal lava-rock arches to neighbouring Hellnar, all under the eye of the mighty glacier you just conquered, famed for being the entranceway in Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Iceland doesn't provide adventures only for the body -- you can exercise your palate, as well, in dozens of Reykjavík restaurants offering a range of cooking from hot-dog stands (on virtually every street corner) to world-class dining.

Many restaurants feature local fare -- even a downtown Mexican restaurant encouraged passersby to "Try our Icelandic menu" -- which usually includes delicious varieties of smoked or salted seafood and lamb, as well as the more esoteric whale, puffin and reindeer.

We were introduced to gourmet Icelandic cooking with a meal at Laekjarbrekka (www.laekjarbrekka.is), a cosy yet elegant restaurant located in a beautifully restored, 150-year-old house on Bankastraeti.

Jason forged boldly into the local cuisine with the Icelandic feast -- a gastronomical tour in four courses including minke whale -- "the best damn 'beef' you'll ever eat," was Jason's verdict -- sheep's-head jam ("better than it sounds"), and hákarl -- medicinal-tasting cubes of fermented shark, washed down with Iceland's herbal schnapps Brennivín. I opted for the humarveisla, or langoustine feast, featuring Iceland's tiny lobster four delicious ways in three courses.

If you're looking for something more unconventional, a bit further down the street you'll find the Sjávarkjallarinn or "Seafood Cellar," which offers Asian-influenced Icelandic fusion cuisine, served with panache in the oldest cellar in the city (www.sjavarkjallarinn.is).

The restaurant's ultra-modern lighting and lucite furniture provides a hip contrast to the rough-hewn cellar beams in the restaurant's underground location, which provides a romantic dusky atmosphere despite the night-long sunshine outdoors.

If there's an occasion to splurge on dinner, it's Sjávarkjallarinn's "exotic menu," the chefs' pairings of food and wines, which when we visited included mango-salmon sushi, spoonfuls of lucious duck confit, and the restaurant's signature "lobster pick-me-up" with truffles and foie gras, followed by a selection of fruits and sorbets dramatically presented in a bamboo steamer chilled with a smoking base of dry ice.

After a week of extreme physical feats and unusual experiences, we were ready to head home for a rest. Iceland had one more surprise in store for us, however, at its famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa.

Located between Reykjavík and the international airport in Keflavík, Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's signature destinations, popular even with travellers stopping over on flights between Europe and North America (bluelagoon.com).

Blue Lagoon is an enormous outdoor geothermal pool; its milky opaque water is a mix of sea and freshwater loaded with silica, algae and minerals. It's billed as healthy for your skin; certainly we were smooth as babies' bottoms when we got out after a two-hour soak on the way to the airport. The complex, carved into sooty-coloured lava rock, includes a full-service spa, cafe and upscale restaurant, and the pool itself has a swim-up bar offering cocktails and massages.

So maybe I'm wrong about Iceland not being a relaxing vacation destination. You can relax there, but like all else in Iceland, it's done to the extreme.

wendy.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2010 E1

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