Viking boat replica
Geyser erupts
Colourful houses
Pictureque Reykjavik
Volcanic mountains
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A Remarkable Land of Contrasts, Firsts, Mosts and Bests

The island is inundated with volcanoes, not all dormant. Its misty lakes and pools are constantly a-bubble thanks to underground thermal springs. Thick glaciers stay put year-round. Geysers gush their hot sprays fifty feet and more into the air 24/7. Miles of pristine beaches, some with unique and other-worldly rock formations, ring the coasts. Not surprising, there are canyons and gorges galore, snow-capped peaks and mountains, too. And dozens of waterfalls across the country keep the water rushing forth round the clock.

It is nature at its most prolific and stunning.

And once you factor in the midnight sun and the incredible technicolour displays of the northern lights, you have described nothing short of a paradise-on-earth. Even more remarkable than its bounty of natural attributes, is how and when this remote dot in the frigid sea of the far North Atlantic Ocean came to be.

Back at the end of the ninth century – 871 to be exact – Vikings, in the market for a new place to call home, journeyed from up north in Scandinavia with their cargo of horses, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and other farm animals, numbers of birds and tons of seeds. This was essential, as there was absolutely nothing here.

The Vikings found themselves a clean slate and went to work.

They chopped down all the trees needed to build their homes, barns, and corrals. They planted their seeds, they thrived and multiplied. It was like Noah’s Ark, but without the rain. They named it Islande, which simply meant “island” but was pronounced “Iceland”, and the name stuck.

Today there are about 330,000 inhabitants in Iceland, all proud descendants of the early Vikings. Most are clustered in and around the Capitol city of Reykjavik, the rest are sprinkled around the 40,000 square miles of the country.

Although we were there for six days at the end of May, the weather was totally unreliable. I packed a light rain jacket, just in case, and wore it every day but one. I needed my silk long johns and long-sleeved top as well (which were a lucky after-thought). And the one day it didn’t rain, wasn’t blowing up a storm or freezing cold, it was warm, sunny, blue-skied and perfectly lovely, and the Icelanders happily took to the streets in shorts and flip flops.

We subsequently found out this abrupt and unexpected state-of-affairs weather-wise (and the casual acceptance thereof) was par for the course.

Aside from the crazy, unpredictable weather that surprises a visitor, the prices nearly take your breath away. The daylong van tours to the Golden Circle (waterfalls, geysers, lakes, canyons, national park) were about 9,600 krona per person, without lunch or snacks. I priced a hoodie in the charming old part of town at US$ 80; back home, it would be closer to US$ 30. Martinis, Moscow Mules and all other mixed drinks will set you back a cool US$ 25 each, but Happy Hours cut that in half and are a popular must.

In this land of way less than half a million souls, there is an extraordinary ninety-nine per cent literacy rate (the best in Europe, maybe in the world). Iceland also boasts Europe’s highest life expectancy and is home to a remarkable six universities, at least a dozen fine museums and the newly built Harpa. This spectacular state-of-the-art concert hall/convention centre sits in pride of place, majestically astride the old harbour’s waterfront.

We took a friend’s advice of where to stay and opted for Eric the Red, a very comfortable, well-respected, conveniently located guesthouse. Much good advice was gathered from returning fellow travellers around the table at breakfast. And we found we could comfortably walk everywhere due to its handy location. Aside from the numbers of very nice guesthouses and scores of B and Bs and AirBnBs in town, there are many excellent hotels, some old and elegant (Hotel Borg) and others, sleek and modern (The Ion).

We manage to take part in a local custom and nibbled on the Icelandic delicacy of fermented shark, an acquired taste to be sure, but served with a local schnapps, which was quite good and managed to drown out much of the strong taste. But I must say every meal we enjoyed was a beautifully prepared and presented seafood or fresh fish dish. I especially enjoyed the wild-caught salmon ceviche in lime juice, the grilled Arctic Char dusted with bits of crispy, crumbly bacon and the codfish and chips.

So now that we have obviously been smitten, we fully intend to come back for longer. We’ll rent a car, drive around the island, steep in the Blue Lagoon, take an elevator deep down into a volcano, visit the museums we missed, attend a concert at Harpa and try to make it to their annual August Jazz Festival. We understand it’s one of the very best in the world.

Text Sandi Butchkiss / Photos Cliff Shaffran