Earth to Iceland

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By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 30, 2002

Beneath the dying light of a northern sun, we crouch around small rocky pools to boil fresh eggs in water that rises from the molten center of the planet. Clouds of steam billow skyward from dozens of spots along the riverbank. The smell of sulphur hangs in the air. In the distance, a glowing greenhouse seems to hover above the horizon, looking eerily like a golden unidentified flying object.

Sometimes in Iceland, it's hard to remember you're still on planet Earth.

Where else do car rental agencies offer insurance for pumice damage? Only in Iceland is a "lava stick" an essential item in a bag of golf clubs. Is there another country that proudly serves soured lamb testicles, or considers rotten shark a delicacy? (The shark is buried in sand for six months before being cooked and served.)

The sky here is bigger than Wyoming's. It can turn from Caribbean blue to tornado black in the time it takes to flip off your sunglasses. The collision between brilliant sunlight and precipitation in all its forms is so dramatic that rainbows, after a few days, seem hardly worth remarking.

And those boiled eggs? If you get hungry past 9 p.m. and are outside the capital, you may have to improvise for food. Miami may have gotten its idea for early-bird dinners from small towns in Iceland. If you are lucky enough to be at the Frost and Fire guest house in Hveragerdi, ask the owner if you can raid the fridge, pick an outdoor hot pot, and cook up the best fresh eggs you'll ever taste.

We are at Frost and Fire in early spring, when the sky is still light at 9 p.m., and temperatures range from the 30s to the low 40s. After our egg dinner, we run on freezing flagstones back and forth between a scalding hot tub near a waterfall and an outdoor swimming pool heated by natural hot springs. We scoop up snowballs from poolside and throw them at each other, then make a mad jump back into the steaming pool. We top off the water treatments with a steam bath in the guest house's basement, then retire to a room decorated with Icelandic modern art.

This, I think, is the world's most underrated honeymoon spot. What could be more romantic than a cozy room on a chilly night, after a swim with snowflakes falling on your face, beneath the stars? Or, if you time it right, the lights of the Aurora Borealis.

I'm here with an old friend and a young child, but I feel myself falling in love. With a country.

There may be no stranger place on Earth, and I guarantee there is nothing quite so "other" anywhere within a five-hour plane ride of America's East Coast. Yet despite its geographical strangeness, the people bring to the land a familiar, European feel. English is widely spoken.

Reykjavik, the capital, sits on a hill overlooking ice-capped mountains, a glacier and the North Sea. It has a good art museum, and the Saga House expertly details Iceland's rich history and Viking culture. I envy residents the open spaces and numerous outdoor swimming pools open all year.

But given that 80 percent of Icelanders live in or near Reykjavik, and given the city's international reputation for hip, thriving nightlife, I'm surprised by how small it is. Cool shopping? Yes, if you want an Icelandic sweater or a sealskin coat. The capital is definitely worth a visit, but it takes just a couple of hours to walk around most of central downtown. You can cover the highlights, including the above-mentioned museums, in a couple of days. If for compelling reasons you are unfortunate enough to have just a two-day stopover, be sure to spend one day in the amazing countryside.

We begin our day in Reykjavik near lunchtime, so we walk to Thrir Frakkar, a highly recommended restaurant downtown. But whale is on the menu, so we stalk out in a fit of righteous indignation.

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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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