According to myth, vikings named it Iceland even though it's green and lush, mostly to keep away all the people who would want to visit if they knew the truth. That name really has worked pretty well. But Iceland is now trying to undo a thousand years of bad publicity by having Icelandair offer cheap weekend trips and stop-overs to "The Land of Fire and Ice."
This spring two friends from work and I took the bait. We saw an Icelandair ad telling us that for a mere $459 each, we would get air fare, two nights' hotel and tax, not to mention the pleasure of being able to say casually, "No, I can't go to brunch on Saturday, I'm going to Iceland for the weekend." Much to our surprise, there turned out to be more to do in Iceland than giggle "Oh my God, we're in Iceland," which, sophisticated travelers that we were, we assumed would be our primary amusement.
Not that you should believe that nonsense about Iceland really being green and Greenland icy. That was probably some previous tourist board's campaign, before they invented discount air fares. The only time Iceland is green at all is during a brief touristy summer period. Most people go in August for the midnight sun, when it never gets completely dark and everything's briefly green. Only a few plants bigger than moss grow on the volcanic island. The biggest plant I saw looked like a Christmas tree. Most of the wildlife you'll see is birds or sea creatures. No squirrels, no rabbits, not even a mouse. (There may have been mice there, but I didn't see any--or for that matter, Iceland's only native mammal, the Arctic fox.)
This is the place, you'll remember, where NASA sent astronauts for training because it looks so much like the moon. It is a desolate wasteland. But, to be fair, it's the prettiest desolate wasteland you'll ever see.
At first we figured we might just have to pick between two random destinations for our trip by favoring the one with the longest or oddest name. (Icelandic has lots of extra letters, but a good pronunciation tip is that they all are pretty much variations on "th.") When we realized there were things we actually wanted to see, we decided each of us could pick one thing that we had to see. Chanoine wanted to go on "some kind of boat." I had to see a puffin, the national cute bird of Iceland, which looks like a cross between a penguin and a toucan. Cora wanted to go to the "Blue Lagoon." She had been only mildly interested when it was showcased in tourist literature looking like a cheesy Club Med: Scandinavian bathers in an aqua-blue misty pool surrounded by snow. Then we saw pictures from another angle, which show the thermal power plant whose enormous smokestacks loom over the pool and supply its water. When it looked like a post-apocalyptic Club Med, Cora definitely wanted to go.
After a quick five-hour, red-eye flight, from which we saw the aurora borealis out the airplane windows, we arrived at dawn. Sleep deprived, we immediately went on a whale watch. It was here we first realized that Icelanders feel immune to personal safety concerns, much in the way Midwesterners are oblivious to most serum cholesterol issues. The life vests are downstairs, our guide told us as our tiny boat took off into the North Atlantic in 15-foot swells. We passed a boat full of fishermen who proudly held up their catch, which looked suspiciously like two dead puffins. Our guide assured us it was some other kind of bird. Eventually the boat's whale-spotter hurried us off to where he had seen some whales. Or whale parts, really. We watched two minke whales swim in circles and spew water. They didn't breach, but seeing the dorsal fins alone of the 10-ton creatures made it worth the trip. And, to top it off, a few non-dead puffins swam by.
With both the boat and puffin goals accomplished, we quickly headed for the Blue Lagoon. No picture could properly capture the surreality. For starters, it's in the middle of nowhere. You may think you have seen nowhere if you've been to places like Wisconsin, but no one does nowhere like Iceland does nowhere. Iceland is filled with vast expanses of lumpy earth and jagged rocks covered in two-inch-thick moss and lichen. No need for fences; no one has discovered any purpose, not even mischievous ones, for this land. (Though, according to some sources, the land got this way from overfarming sheep.) After driving through miles of this, you see a tiny sign saying "Blaa Loni," prompting you to turn down a dirt road toward the smokestacks between the mountains.
Outside, it was about 30 degrees and we were highly skeptical about taking off our hats, let alone all of our clothes. Certainly the space between the dressing room and the lagoon is one of the coldest places on Earth. But once inside, the lagoon is magic. The water is warm enough to let you enjoy your surreal surroundings. The freaky blue water is so opaque you can't see below your waist. The pool is a bed of erratically shaped, sediment-covered volcanic rock. The giant power plant is on one side; snow-covered mountains are on the other. Once again eschewing safety concerns, the Icelanders provide no lifeguard, but then it wouldn't do any good; in the thick fog that covers the water, people 10 feet away disappear. The other bathers didn't speak English, but everyone communicated their delight at being in one of the strangest places on Earth with big grins. Added bonus: supposed benefits to psoriasis patients.
Next stop: Reykjavik, a civic project designed to convince the citizens that they do not, in fact, live on the remote outer edge of civilization. There are, for instance, exotic cuisines ("The northernmost Indian restaurant in the world!"). Most of the architecture is of the Socialist European concrete-block variety, due not so much to politics but to the country's fundamental lack of trees and related lack of wood. Nothing looks as if it was built before 1972. A few buildings appear to be cute Victorian houses. On closer inspection you'll find that they're made of what appears to be the national building material: corrugated tin. In an apparent attempt to cheer people up during the long months of long nights, someone has painted everything--houses, roofs, lighthouses--very bright colors.
We had read that Reykjavik, where 110,000 of the country's 275,000 people live, was a hot nightlife spot, attracting thrill-seeking celebrities. That seems to be a big lie. Reykjavikers have the same sense of cool that kids going to the prom do: The later you stay out, the more successful your evening is. So don't even try to go out before midnight. In a patriotic effort to pretend it's not really that cold, women wear tiny skirts and skimpy white high heels; men eat ice cream outside. Even by the standards of three New Yorkers, Reykjavik clubgoers were strikingly rude. If you get in their way, they just shove you aside. Sure, part of it could have been language: When we were five minutes late meeting someone downstairs the hotel desk called up to ask, "What is wrong with you?" Then again, this is a people who have, over the centuries, been naturally selected to thrive while cut off from the rest of the world on an island that's dark half the year. It shouldn't be surprising if they are not exactly pots of fun.
The best part of the trip was traveling beyond the city. Iceland is a place that more than most places you'll visit is still being manufactured by geological forces of the sort you usually see only on documentaries. Guidebooks describe the area of the "Golden Circle," which consists of the natural highlights Geysir and Gullfoss (the biggest waterfall in Europe)--plus Thingvellir (home of the historic Alting parliament)--as being overrun with tourists. That may be the case in the busy summer season. But at other times, trust me, you'll be virtually alone.
The most commercialized stop is Geysir, the original geysir, from which we get our word. Icelanders don't have a word for that object; they just name each one individually. And there are a lot of them shooting up all over the countryside. Geysir, alas, stopped working when too many people threw rocks into it. Luckily, the reliable Strokkur is just next door. To protect people from the unpredictable jets of scalding, sulfuric water the Icelanders have installed a foot-high rope fence--more of that Nordic devil-may-care attitude about personal safety. Anyone who complains this area is too commercialized has not been to America.
Still, we wanted to do some exploring of our own. Iceland has one road that goes around the near edge of the island that's in good shape and lots of other roads in more dubious condition. A Web site (www.vegag.is/faerd/indexe.html) constantly updates travelers on how passable the roads are. Even the ring road is not completely paved and narrows to one lane over most bridges. To add to the excitement, some of those narrow bridges unfortunately come with the warning sign "Blindhae!" or "Blind Hill!," meaning a hill or curve prevents you from seeing what's coming at you. There are only three gas stations in the interior, so plan ahead.
We tried to visit a glacier on one of the roads that was merely a dotted line on our map. The road got progressively lumpier, then was stopped by an impromptu stream formed by glacial runoff. We tried another route but were cut off by an extremely local blizzard. We drove from sunshine to visibility just beyond our hood ornament within 10 minutes. Since it was nearing sunset--about 9 p.m. in April--we turned back. When we turned around, however, we simply drove out of the blizzard, back onto the sunny, unwet road. If you like a lot of weather, you'll like Iceland.
We also made an unsuccessful venture to see Mount Hekla, a volcano thought to be the front door in Medieval Europe, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook. The expression of the day was "Go to Hekla" and we fully expected to see the nearest town, Hella, full of T-shirts and coffee mugs with that slogan, as it most certainly would have been in the United States. Instead, Hella, like most Icelandic towns, consisted mainly of one gas station/restaurant.
Not being able to get to our destinations, though, hardly bothered us. All the main Iceland attractions are certainly worth seeing. But the best part of the trip is that without much effort you will just stumble across several natural wonders a day. A casual drive will bring you past surreal, all-white mountainous landscapes; waterfalls that anywhere else would be a major attraction, but here go unmarked; volcanic crater lakes; and fields of short, furry Icelandic horses. It's like going to the moon for the weekend, but in coach, and for $459.
For information, contact the Iceland Tourist Board, 212-885-9700, www.arctic.is.
Carol Vinzant, a writer for Fortune magazine, last wrote for Travel about hosting children in Manhattan.