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ICELAND    April 2012

After a 5-hour overnight flight from Toronto, we arrive in Iceland.

The views out the window during the one hour ride to Reykjavik, the capital city, are surreal.

Acres and acres of treeless, moss and lichen-covered lava rock or frost heaved clumps. And in the background, snow-covered peaked and flat-topped mountains.

It looks like another planet!

Our first order of business is to sample some dark, strong, delicious coffee. A hint: if you can see customers inside the coffee shop but the door won't open when you pull it, don't knock on the door and wait, PUSH.
A large van picks us up in front of the hotel for our first excursion: the Laugarvatn Fontana spa, a series of steam huts and heated baths at an area of geothermal hot springs. We relax in shallow 30oC mineral pools, our chin on our arms, gazing at the neighbouring mountains. No wonder I dozed off. Returning to our hotel, we settle into our comfortable, clean room overlooking one of the main shopping streets of Reykjavik.
We decide to eat in, so head for a grocery store. Our picnic dinner of pastrami, brie, bread, yogurt and fruit costs us about $5 each. We eat, talk and then sleep.
Up early, we head to the bright, cheery breakfast room. Coffee, tea, milk, juice, granola, bread, preserves, buns, cheese, pate, ham, pickled herring, pickled beets, olives, fruit--all fresh, delicious and included in the hotel price.

We walk 10 minutes to the harbour for our whale watching excursion. After boarding a fishing boat, we pull on the snowmobile-style suits and head for the deck. Although it is about 10oC in the city, it will be colder out on the water. Our guide tells us to search for signs of whales: flocks of feeding birds, blow spouts or tails/fins. When we hear a passenger shout "Spout at 2 o'clock" the boat swerves, the guide yells, "Hang on" and we head for the sighting.
The guide is very animated, as it is rare to see this many Humpback whales at this time of year. He also educates us about eating whale meat: it is not a local delicacy, but a tourist treat.
After our exciting trip, we dine on very fresh mussels in cream soup in a nearby restaurant.
The afternoon is spent orienting ourselves in Reykjavik. It is situated on the North Atlantic Ocean so the average temperature over the year is 14oC (-2 in winter to 20 in summer). 65% of the country's 300,000 people live in Reykjavik. Everyone wears the unique Icelandic wool sweaters with the diamond pattern around the neck/shoulder area.

A focal point in the capital is Hallgrimskirkja Church.
From the 70m high observation tower of the church, you get a spectacular view of the entire city. The cottage-style, two-storey houses are covered in corrugated metal or stucco, painted white or fairly bright colours. City Hall is built over the pond in the middle of the city. Green spaces are abundant.

I visit some galleries: the first holds some of the most striking outdoor sculptures I've ever seen. (see left & below). You turn a corner and before you are thirty stretchers.
Arranged on each is the costume of a young pioneer girl. Thick ropes are tied at the hands and feet.

In the past, unwed girls who became pregnant were drowned in the Drowning Pool. An artist 'drowned' each of these costumed figures and then arranged them on stretchers.

The display is shocking and moving.

After a good night's sleep, it is tour day. We have selected the most popular sites of Iceland in the Golden Circle Tour. First stop is Thingviller, a massive rift valley of vertical cracks and immense canyons, home of the first Icelandic parliament in 930 AD.

We warm up in the nearby restaurant with bowls of hearty lamb soup. Next stop: the geysers of Haukadalur. Our guide reminds us that the temperature of the water is 100oC, and yes, that is boiling, so we don't test it. The bigger one, Geysir erupts only 4 or 5 times per day and we don't see it, but Strokkur erupts three times in two minutes and then every few minutes, shooting water 30 ft into the air, thrilling all of us. I catch it on video. Other hot springs and mud pots nearby pulse and boil as they suck in and out of the earth.

On to Gullfoss waterfall which rivals Niagara for spectacle. A single rope separates us from the rushing waters of the river Hvita that surges past us through right angle turns, and down a wide three-step 'staircase' before plunging into a yawning crevice and vanishing into the earth.

On our return trip we stop at Kerith, a massive volcanic crater whose steep, rocky sides are red and brown and yellow.

The next day, we embark on our riding adventure. Icelandic horses were introduced by the Vikings, and remain a pure breed, as no other horses are allowed into Iceland. After donning our warm suits and helmets, we begin our trail ride.
We cross through a rushing stream and climb an embankment.

Unfortunately my mount stumbled onto her knees and I pitched forward.
I hung on and ended with my chin between her eyes and my arms around her neck. Once she regained her feet, I adjusted my feet back into the stirrups, my heart beating a bit faster than before. We continued on without incident.

Besides the walk, trot and gallop, Icelandic horses have an additional gait called the tolt. It is like a trot, but the rider sits back in the saddle and bounces very little. Perfect for the novice rider who plans to ride for an hour and a half and wants to skip the sore muscles!
As it was the first day of spring and a civic holiday, the downtown area was very lively. Rather than participate, we watched from our bedroom window. The revelers were happily singing and drinking until the bars closed their doors at 5:00 am.
The last day of any trip is the same for me. I wander the city, snapping pictures, drinking in the sights and filling my memory.
As a final dinner, we choose a tapas restaurant and order a sampling of typical Icelandic fare (or so the waiter says). It arrives on a wooden platter: smoked salmon with dill; lamb and apple; wind-dried cod with hard butter; guillemot (sea bird) with cranberries; putrescent shark meat that tastes of ammonia and comes with a side dish of breath mint. We learn too late that first-timers are advised to pinch their nose while taking the first bite, although I'm not sure how much of a difference that would have made. Since eating this delicacy is often associated with hardiness and strength, I guess we are a disappointment.

After a good night's sleep, we begin our journey home. Within hours we are back in Canada.

TIPS for this type of trip:

To visit Iceland, go to icelandair.com and check out their special deals.

You can stop in Reykjavik for a few days on your way to Europe or The United Kingdom, or make it a destination in itself.

Iceland is the perfect destination for the outdoor enthusiast. It offers hiking on glaciers, sea kayaking, river rafting, fissure snorkelling and offers excursions for viewing the Northern Lights.