The Land of Fire and Ice The Tem­ple City Monaco of Asia

A land of con­trast where fire and ice co-ex­ist, Ice­land is cer­tainly more than just a mere des­ti­na­tion. Set amidst harsh nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, this coun­try has spurred a rich and vi­brant cul­ture, of­fer­ing once in a life­time ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one.

Maxx-M - - CONTENTS - Text by Den­nis Latif |

As­mall dot in the At­lantic be­tween the Scan­di­navia and Amer­ica, Ice­land has long been known as one of the most dra­matic nat­u­ral spec­ta­cles on the planet. This “the land of fire and ice” fea­tures daz­zling white glaciers and black sands, blue hot springs, rugged lava fields and green val­leys. The fire comes from the fe­ro­cious pow­ers of na­ture ubiq­ui­tous there. It is home to abun­dant vol­ca­noes that pe­ri­od­i­cally burst into life. These hot el­e­men­tal forces are lo­cated just below the sur­face of the earth across the land, heat­ing Ice­land’s tap wa­ter and swim­ming pools, and cre­at­ing out-of-this-earth land­scapes of twisted lava and rain­bow coloured min­eral sands. Ice in Ice­land is an­other ma­jor na­ture at­trac­tion, the dra­matic glaciers which slice down and float to­wards the coasts, calv­ing ice­bergs into eerie la­goons. Glacier tours by snow­mo­bile, on foot, or on the back of tiny Ice­landic pony, are an in­te­gral part of Ice­land ex­pe­ri­ence. An­other big at­trac­tion here is the Aurora Bo­re­alis, more com­monly re­ferred to as “the North­ern Lights,” a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non formed by par­ti­cles emit­ted by the sun dur­ing so­lar flares, caus­ing pe­cu­liar lu­mi­nous green streaks across the skies when in­ter­act­ing with the at­mos­phere in the earth’s mag­netic field. There are many things to do in Ice­land from hik­ing and run­ning, cy­cling, cav­ing, ice climb­ing, swim­ming in a na­ture-heated pool, spas, rid­ing an Ice­landic horse, whale watch­ing, bird­watch­ing to he­li­copter tours and north­ern lights hunt­ing.

Reyk­javik

Reyk­javik, on the coast of Ice­land, is the coun­try’s cap­i­tal and largest city. It is home to an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of ex­hil­a­rat­ing at­trac­tions and places of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. With a pop­u­la­tion of 120,000 peo­ple, Reyk­javik is prob­a­bly not a whirl­wind me­trop­o­lis. Sev­eral sky­scrapers grace the sky­line, traf­fic jams are no­tably rare, and faces are fa­mil­iar. But don’t be de­ceived, a steady beat of en­ergy and events keeps the city alive and puls­ing with ex­cite­ment. The quirky na­ture of the Ice­landic peo­ple is what lures many peo­ple back to this land for a sec­ond or third visit. Ec­cen­tric, cre­ative and fiercely in­de­pen­dent, the Ice­landers are sim­ply a lot of fun to be around, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the end­less days of summer. Sunny days feel like spon­ta­neous hol­i­days in Reyk­javik, sun­bathers and pic­nick­ers fill Aus­tur­vol­lur, the green square in front of the Par­lia­ment. Lo­cals and tourists alike stroll up and down Lau­gave­gur, the main drag, shop­ping, stop­ping for cof­fee, and peo­ple ev­ery­where one turns. Thirsty jockey for sparse out­door seat­ing at bars and happy hours rolls around. Croon­ing buskers line the side­walk, per­for­mance artists stage sur­prise acts, and march­ing bands seem to pop out from cor­ners. The Hall­grim­skirkja Church is the city’s main land­mark, and its tower is vis­i­ble from al­most ev­ery­where in the city. The church fea­tures most no­tably, a gar­gan­tuan pipe or­gan de­signed and con­structed by the Ger­man or­gan builder Jo­hannes Klais of Bonn. Stand­ing tall at an im­pres­sive 15 me­tres and weigh­ing a re­mark­able 25 tons, this me­chan­i­cal ac­tion or­gan is driven by four man­u­als and a pedal, 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes, all de­signed to re­pro­duce pow­er­ful notes ca­pa­ble of fill­ing the huge and holy space with a range of tones – from the dul­cet to the dra­matic. Stand­ing di­rectly in front of the church, and pre­dat­ing it by 15 years, is a fine statue of Lei­fur Eiriks­son – the first Euro­pean to dis­cover Amer­ica. Apart from it be­ing a beau­ti­ful place to walk with stun­ning views across the bay to Mount Esja, the Old Har­bour area is where the ma­jor­ity of ma­rine ac­tiv­i­ties, such as whale watch­ing and puff in tours

clus­tered; it is also where you find Vikin Mar­itime Mu­seum and the Ice­landair Ho­tel Reyk­javik Ma­rina. There are nu­mer­ous new and in­ter­est­ing busi­nesses spring­ing up, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from scooter rides to the city’s best dark-roasted cof­fee, including the im­pres­sive ad­di­tion of Harpa – the city’s award-win­ning new con­cert hall. Harpa eas­ily is one of Reyk­javik’s great­est and dis­tin­guished land­marks. It is a cul­tural and so­cial cen­tre in the heart of the city and fea­tures stun­ning views of the sur­round­ing moun­tains and the North At­lantic Ocean. Of­fer­ing the best fa­cil­i­ties for con­certs and con­fer­ences, Harpa has re­ceived nu­mer­ous awards and prizes, thanks to its stun­ning lay­out and ar­chi­tec­ture. The down­town area of Reyk­javik (also known by its postal code as 101) is the nu­cleus of Ice­land’s rich cul­ture and arts scene. By day, the cafe­go­ers rule the area, with free wifi and re­fills on drip cof­fee be­ing fairly com­mon, a steady hum of con­ver­sa­tion keeps the city’s sev­eral cafes lively. The lo­cals and tourists mixed, linger un­til there is a suf­fi­cient buzz on the strong, dark elixir. And as the day turns into night, peo­ple start fil­ing into many of the cities restau­rants. Through­out

101, play­ful mu­rals and street art tes­tify to the city’s sense of cre­ativ­ity and fun. Art gal­leries; the Reyk­javik Art Mu­seum and the Na­tional Gallery show­case the works of clas­sic Ice­landic artists, while smaller in­de­pen­dent gal­leries dis­play the projects of cut­ting-edge, con­tem­po­rary Ice­landic and in­ter­na­tional artists. Var­i­ous mu­se­ums pre­serve the cul­ture and his­tory of both the city and the coun­try at large. Des­ig­nated as a UNESCO City of Lit­er­a­ture, Reyk­javik is also the core of Ice­land’s lit­er­ary her­itage where you will dis­cover a trea­sure of lit­er­ary works and a wealth of tal­ented po­ets and au­thors.

The Golden Cir­cle

If you make only one foray out­side Reyk­javik, take this pop­u­lar route. Of­fered by many tour op­er­a­tors, The Golden Cir­cle con­sists of the Gull­foss water­fall, the Geysir hot springs, and Thingvel­lir na­tional park, all of which are fa­mous in their own way but can eas­ily be en­joyed in the course of one day, mak­ing for an ideal day tour. Usu­ally, the first stop on the tour is Ke­rio, an ex­plo­sion crater lo­cated 15-kilo­me­tre north­east from the town of Selfoss be­side the road lead­ing to Geysir. The wa­ter-filled crater is 55 me­tre deep and some 3,000 years old. The green­ish colour of the wa­ter and the cir­cu­lar steep slopes cre­ate an eerie view cer­tainly worth­while stop­ping to ad­mire. Ow­ing to its nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre form and ex­cel­lent acous­tics, a con­cert was once held at the crater. The next stop is Gull­foss, or fa­mously known as the “Golden Water­fall.” It is Ice­land’s most fa­mous water­fall, and one of the nat­u­ral won­ders of the world. Gull­foss is also by far Europe’s most pow­er­ful wa­ter fall. On a sunny day, the mist clouds sur­round­ing the ham­mer­ing falls are filled with dozens of rain­bows, pro­vid­ing an un­par­al­leled spec­ta­cle of colour and mo­tion. Lo­cated in the mighty glacial river Hvita (White River), the enor­mous white glacial cas­cade drops 32 me­tres into a nar­row canyon which is 70 me­tres deep and 2.5 kilo­me­tres long. In win­ter, it has an un­usual ap­pear­ance when ice and snow ga rb the en­tire sphere. Just a few kilo­me­tres from Gull­foss, is an­other nat­u­ral won­der, the world-fa­mous Geysir which gives its name to hot springs all over the world. Though Geysir it­self is hardly ac­tive any­more, the area fea­tures spec­tac­u­lar hot springs such as the pow­er­ful Strokkur, which spouts a vast amount of wa­ter to 15-20 me­tres into the air ev­ery 10 min­utes. Mean­while in the north of Geysir are fu­maroles, un­like the Hot­springs that emit hot wa­ter, only stea, and gas em­anate from these. About two kilo­me­tres from Geysir is an old pre­served nat­u­ral pool called Kualaug. One can bathe in it, and it has room for 3-5 peo­ple at a time, but care should be taken, as the area around the pool is very del­i­cate. The tem­per­a­ture is 39-43 C, de­pend­ing on how you are po­si­tioned in the pool. The wa­ter is slightly muddy, as the pool is built on soil, and the bot­tom is slip­pery due to al­gae, so cau­tion is ad­vised.

The last stop is the Thingvel­lir Na­tional Park which sits in a rift valley caused by the sep­a­ra­tion of 2 tec­tonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fis­sures like the huge Al­man­nagja fault. Not only does it serve as a Na­tional Park, but Thingvel­lir is also s a his­toric site, known for the Alth­ing, the site of Ice­land’s par­lia­ment from the 10th to 18th cen­turies. On the site are the Thingvel­lir Church and the ru­ins of old stone shel­ters. Thingvel­lir is one of the most fre­quently vis­ited tourist sites in the coun­try and known as Ice­land’s great­est his­tor­i­cal site and the jewel of na­ture.

The North­ern Lights

As we have men­tioned ear­lier, the North­ern Lights (Aurora Bo­re­alis) is a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non which looks like the lights are cas­cad­ing around the sky, danc­ing if you will, and it is un­ques­tion­ably a pretty and spec­tac­u­lar sight. Re­cently, the North­ern Lights comes on the top of the list of things most vis­i­tors in Ice­land would like to ex­pe­ri­ence, although it is not a walk in the park to ex­pe­ri­ence this stun­ning nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. There are sev­eral fac­tors that you have to keep in mind if you want to ex­pe­ri­ence it. First is to know the sea­son, the of­fi­cial Aurora sea­son in Ice­land is from Septem­ber un­til mid-April, but like with so many other things that have to do with Ice­landic na­ture, it is not some­thing you can say with any cer­tainty. For ex­am­ple, some­times, the first North­ern Light soft he sea­son in Reyk­javik the year were seen around the mid­dle of Au­gust. Sec­ond is the light con­di­tion, the suit­able con­di­tions to see the Aurora is when it is cold and dark out­side, so Aurora spotting is best to do at night time. It is also a fall, win­ter or early spring ac­tiv­ity since dur­ing summer months it is pretty much bright all the time. The third is the sky con­di­tion; it has to be clear. Un­for­tu­nately, Reyk­javik is usu­ally cloudy and full of lights at night time, so it is a good idea also to hunt for this mys­tic green lights out­side the town. There are many great small towns to visit around Ice­land with beau­ti­ful coun­try ho­tels and guest­houses, just steps from pure un-mod­ern­ized na­ture where there is no light pol­lu­tion. The last but not least to con­sider is the length of stay. It is rec­om­mended to stay for a min­i­mum seven nights; the Aurora usu­ally tend to be very ac­tive for two to three nights, then low for four to five nights, in on­go­ing cy­cles. On clear win­ter nights, sight­see­ing trips are of­ten or­ga­nized around this re­mark­able nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. The ideal lo­ca­tion for sight­ings varies, and ex­cur­sion lead­ers are skilled in “hunt­ing” the lights, find­ing lo­ca­tions where con­di­tions are best for see­ing them on any given night.

Shaped by the un­re­lent­ing forces of na­ture, Ice­land’s harsh nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment has bred a re­silient na­tion that has learned to ex­ist un­der ex­treme con­di­tions and harness the nat­u­ral re­sources for its pros­per­ity, lur­ing vis­i­tors from all around the globe to come flock­ing to its wilder­ness parks and dra­matic land­scapes.

Pho­tos by Pro­mote Ice­land

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