Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice

Is there really magic in the air?

There’s something odd in the air of Iceland – and it’s not just the sulphuric perfume of the springs shooting a powerful aroma up your nostrils.

No, it’s something altogether weirder.

The locals tell of spirits and elves in these parts, and they’re not joking. Most Icelanders believe elves inhabit the bleak lands to the south of Reykjavik. They say you should keep your eyes open after dark, and that if you’re really lucky you might spy them fidgeting about: up to no good with the parked cars of hapless tourists perhaps, or creating a metaphorical stink by rearranging rocks.

And even if you don’t see any sprites, it won’t matter much as you drive around the island nation. The lunar landscape is breathtaking in what isn’t there – no houses, no mountains, no farms, no elves, not much else. Just a jet-black rocky volcanic wilderness.

Nature feels wild and unpredictable out in the wilderness; a unique place leaving you feeling small and insignificant.

The Blue Lagoon is a great place to start a tour of Iceland because it’s so near to where international flights land. The level of modern development at the lagoon might come as a surprise – there’s a huge building right next to the springs containing a restaurant, roof terrace and all the modern facilities to make sure you have a perfect paddle in the hot water.

On really cold days, it’s fun to relish the temperature difference between bitter air and bath-time blue water. You can even enjoy a cocktail as you swim from the spa-side bar.

The forces of nature are writ large in Iceland – lava and explosions act like chapter headings in the history of this steely land surrounded by a frigid sea. Rent a car and penetrate further up into the center of the island to check out geysers, volcanoes, glaciers and waterfalls.

Nature feels wild and unpredictable out in the wilderness; a unique place leaving you feeling small and insignificant.

When you’re ready for a return to modern life, head back to Iceland’s friendly capital.

Dining is a big draw in Reykjavik, though the national delicacy might be a little hard to stomach. Kæstur hakarl is essentially rotting shark meat, and most who eat it need to chase each bite with a shot of gloopy Brennivin schnapps to take away the aftertaste.

But there’s plenty that tastes good on the menu too – lamb and fish are signatures round these parts – and hardly any crops can be grown on Iceland so almost every conceivable ingredient is imported. Try the trio of lamb at the new Satt Restaurant in the Hotel Natura, next to the city’s domestic airport. Soft lighting and hip decor mark this as a place for a romantic dinner.

Music is also important to Icelanders – essential really.

There are so many internationally-known musicians and bands here with many coming together for the Iceland Airwaves music festival in the fall, a week when all the venues and bars in Reykjavik are packed to the rafters – even the brand new Opera House on the shoreline, with its asymmetrical angles and clean modernist spaces.

Rent a bicycle in this bike-friendly city and you can explore at will.

Reykjavik’s older buildings are mostly brooding, solemn affairs. The multi-colored houses south of the Marina are charming, some using the odd material of corrugated iron for their frontages, which keep out the fierce winter winds whipping through town.

To keep warm, Icelanders buy hand-knitted woolen hats, scarves and sweaters from the artisan shops on Laugavegur. Theses also make great souvenirs.

Alexander Stirling Calder’s statue of Leif Erikson stands watch over the city in front of Hallgrímskirkja Church. The statue was given by the United States to Iceland in 1930 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the Icelandic Parliament. It also, in its way, honors the intrepid Viking explorers led by the Icelander Leif who ventured from Europe to North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

Now is a great time to make the same journey in the opposite direction – but, thankfully, you won’t need a longboat today.