Iceland: Destination with a touch of chic

By Denis Peters

Iceland is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes, geysers, strange geology, glaciers and vast plains. Pictured is a fissure in the earth around the meeting point of the north American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Photo / AAP
Iceland is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes, geysers, strange geology, glaciers and vast plains. Pictured is a fissure in the earth around the meeting point of the north American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Photo / AAP

"I come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow", says the T-shirt on sale in Reykjavik souvenir shops.

The lines will be recognisable to many from Led Zeppelin's immortal hit Immigrant Song. Nothing strange about that - it was actually written by the band after a visit to the Icelandic capital.

But its use in the Reykjavik tourist quarter reflects a shrewd marketing nose in this distant North Atlantic nation, and the fact that Iceland holds the strong allure of Viking legends and tourist drawcards by the crater-load.

Iceland was indeed settled by Vikings and their slaves more than a thousand years ago. The Norse bloodlines, their language and even the horses they brought with them have changed little in that time.

Then, as now, Iceland has been a land of volcanoes, earthquakes, geysers, strange geology, glaciers and vast plains, not to forget Viking sagas and fish.

But it is also a surprisingly chic, switched-on place. Streets and venues in Reykjavik reflect the feel of the trendier parts of London, and its famous musicians, of the likes of Bjork and Sigur Ros, have grabbed the attention of the world for their differentness and sheer talent.

Iceland has a lot to sell to the visitor.

With just over 300,000 population snuggled away high in the north Atlantic, the island country generally has a low profile. But its volcanoes play the game another way.

When its famously unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull volcano exploded in April 2010 and its airborne ash shut down European airports for weeks, it caused airlines and governments billions of dollars in losses and disrupted the travel plans of many thousands of people.

Hard to ignore.

My own plans to visit in late May 2011 were disrupted when the Grimsvotn volcano erupted, although it retreated after just five days of activity, allowing international flights to resume quickly.

The cheeky Icelanders refused to show any embarrassment over the inconvenience caused - the T-shirt says "Oops, Iceland did it again!", against the backdrop of a smoking Grimsvotn.

There are some 150 active volcanoes across this land, as well as many other dormant and extinct specimens.

Eruptions down the ages have left many parts of Iceland with a lunar-like landscape from the lava flows and strewn boulders. On a good day, flying in from Europe to the east, the vast, uninhabitable inland lava plains are evident, supplanted here and there by great glacier "islands".

The 45-minute road trip from Reykjavik's Kaflavik Airport into town runs through such a landscape, making an immediate impact on the visitor.

The lunar likeness was not lost on Nasa which sent its Apollo astronauts to Iceland in the 1960s to familiarise themselves with such a jumbled, rocky surface.

The volcanoes themselves are tough to get to, but "super-Jeep" trips to the craters and rifts are available. Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters flights are also on offer to provide the definitive view of these volcanic goliaths, including the chasm of Hecla, which has given its name to the so-called entry to Hell ("Go to Heck!").

Iceland suffered severely from an economic eruption in 2008, its banking system collapsing with debts well beyond the country's GDP.

Emergency measures were put in place to prevent catastrophe, although that is precisely what many Icelandic businesses and individuals have experienced.

Even its grand new concert hall, the Harpa, under private construction on the Reykjavik harbour area, was hit, forcing the government to step in to complete this marvel.

But the visitor will barely notice the impact. Tourism is vibrant and expanding rapidly, with visitors benefiting from a greatly devalued krona, in a country where most things traditionally are expensive.

"They say that energy is the only thing that is cheap in Iceland," said one tour guide.

He was referring to geothermal power, which is readily drawn from hot water forced through the surface of the land in many parts, including in Reykjavik itself - the pretty town with a snow-capped mountain range backdrop whose name means Smokey Bay in Icelandic.

Farmers often capture the heat through small power stations, but big government-owned plants heat the country's homes and power industry such as aluminium smelters, attracted there by cheap power.

In the regional town of Sellafossi, geothermal energy also heats vast greenhouses that grow half the country's needs of vegetables and fruit, including even bananas.

At the south-west inland town of Geysir, great spurts of hot water and steam rise at regular intervals and have given the world the name geyser.

A more gentle aspect of the underground heat comes in the form of the Blue Lagoon just outside Reykjavik, where locals and visitors alike can take a soothing bath in the geothermally-heated natural spa. Treatments, massages and accommodation are available at the site.

If the fascination with Iceland's geology wanes, the island has much more. It lacks native terrestrial wildlife of any great substance, as befitting a geologically new island. But the sea is another thing - the marine and seabird life is rich.

Visitors talk breathlessly of close encounters on the many whale-watching trips. The north Atlantic puffin, a curious bird whose stumpy wings look inadequate to lift its body to an airborne state can also be glimpsed from these boats.

Alas, on return to land, both the whale and the puffin are on many restaurant menus too.

Again there is a T-shirt on hand to deal with any criticism of this practice - "Whales - kill them all". Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but typical of Icelandic defiance and independence.

Beyond the pop-tourism art of T-shirt culture, the shops of Laugavagur display some very chic offerings, not least the magnificent woollen garments looking like something between a jumper and a large overcoat.

Jewellery shops display some beautiful objets d'art, artworks and handcrafted items, many featuring local rocks and gemstones.

The pub culture of the 101 district is also intriguing, with 50 pubs, many of them small and intimate. It's in these environments that the curiously different musical sounds have emerged to grab the attention of the world in recent years.

And of course while you are there, it is almost compulsory to sample the local firewater, known locally as Brennivin (Burning Wine) or, as it is known to outsiders, Black Death. It is in fact a tasty schnapps.

Whether returning from an adventure-filled excursion to volcanic craters, glacier-climbing or cold-water diving, or merely a day's sight-seeing in a comfortable coach, a restful dinner of grilled cod washed down with a Brennivin is a pleasant way to end a day's touring of this fascinating land.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Iceland's Keflavik Airport describes itself as a bridge between east and west. It is around five hours' flight time from both New York and Boston, two-and-a-half hours from London and just under four hours from Oslo. There are direct flights from many other European and north American airports. Fares depend on the season. Flybus coaches regularly leave the airport for town at a modest fare. Cruise ships also visit several Icelandic ports.

Staying there: Reykjavik has a range of accommodation from backpacker establishments to plush hotels such as the Radisson Blu, the 101 and the Hotel Borg, as well as private serviced apartments. The author stayed at the moderately priced Hotel Holt, which also displays Icelandic artworks throughout. Fare comparisons can be readily made through such websites as hotels.com. Cabin and lodge rentals are available in some rural areas.

Playing there: Various tour companies take in trips to the South Coast, North Iceland, Reykjanes, East Iceland, West Fjords, West Iceland, The Golden Circle, and a range of other day trips from Reykjavik. Information on more selective holidays can be obtained at visiticeland.com.

- AAP

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