dip into ice­land and stay for the warmth

The Nordic is­land’s friend­li­ness and fan­tasy-world scenes are easy to add to a transat­lantic itin­er­ary

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MARY WIN­STON NICK­LIN

It had been a fool­proof plan. To trans­plant my Paris-based fam­ily for a sum­mer on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, where I grew up, we would meet my mother “half­way” in Ice­land and en­joy the fa­mous stopover that Ice­landair has mar­keted bril­liantly over the past few years. We’d then con­tinue the voy­age with a dot­ing grand­mother to help en­ter­tain a (pos­si­bly) un­ruly toddler. An added bonus: The grad­ual ad­just­ment to a new time zone, since Ice­land is two hours be­hind France, mak­ing for an eas­ier ar­rival on the East Coast.

But then I trawled a trio of weather Web sites that all pre­dicted con­stant down­pours and tem­per­a­tures hov­er­ing around 50 in July. De­spite all the ad­mo­ni­tions to pack light, bags would be stretched to the seams with rain gear, hats, maybe even win­ter coats. I went on the site for the Blue La­goon — the geo­ther­mal spa pool that’s the coun­try’s most fa­mous at­trac­tion — and found that reser­va­tions were booked solid for our ar­rival time. Had Ice­land be­come a vic­tim of its own tourism suc­cess?

The 3.5-hour flight from Paris to Ice­land was bliss­fully calm. Al­though adults are not served com­pli­men­tary meals, kids are spoiled with col­or­ing books, head­phones and blan­kets that fold up neatly into back­packs.

We stepped off the plane at 9 a.m. into an air­port that’s a show­case for sleek Nordic de­sign, where Mom was wait­ing. We quickly learned that taxis to Reyk­javik, a good hour’s drive away, could cost up­wards of 100 eu­ros, so a rental car made the most sense. But a line snaked around the ter­mi­nal from the rental

ICE­LAND CON­TIN­UED ON F4

ICE­LAND FROM F1 car kiosks. And pa­tience was start­ing to wear thin — thank­fully, a smoothie made from skyr (Ice­landic yo­gurt) took the edge off the kids’ hunger.

Sal­va­tion ap­peared in the form of an Ice­lander named Hei­dar Mar, driv­ing a four-wheel-drive SUV. Mom had ar­rived the day be­fore, sleep­ing at a lovely lodg­ing near the air­port called the Ho­tel Berg. Perched on the cliffs fac­ing the fish­ing har­bor in Ke­flavik, the fam­ily-owned ho­tel also ar­ranges car rentals. On the phone, Hei­dar Mar was a man of few words. He would check on avail­abil­ity and call us back. In­stead, less than 10 min­utes later, he was wait­ing out­side the ter­mi­nal with a smile. He raised an eye­brow at the back-break­ing weight of the lug­gage — piled pre­car­i­ously on the trol­ley — and with­out a word stacked it in the trunk of his car, the stroller block­ing the rear view. “The car I had in mind might be too small,” he said.

Tem­po­rar­ily with­out a car of our own, we took off ex­plor­ing the Ho­tel Berg’s pretty en­vi­rons. We climbed a hill to dis­cover a mag­i­cal mise-en-scène: a field of pur­ple lupine, bril­liantly lit from rays of sun­light that broke through the omi­nous gray clouds. A lone path me­an­dered to the ocean’s edge. The girls broke into a glee­ful run.

From this van­tage point, we spied gi­ant foot­prints painted on a foot­path that hugged the har­bor, beg­ging to be ex­plored. Driz­zle tum­bled from the sky as we fol­lowed the foot­prints — each toe the size of my daugh­ter’s sneaker — with slight trep­i­da­tion. We watched a red boat power out to sea, and three bulky fish­er­men — clad in heavy, all-weather gear — lifted their arms in a happy, spon­ta­neous wave.

The foot­prints dis­ap­peared into a black stone cave. As we ven­tured cau­tiously in­side, we heard a strange, gut­tural rum­bling that echoed off the walls. “She’s snor­ing!” Jane cried, point­ing at an enor­mous, wart-nosed troll made out of pa­pier-mâché. The gi­ant was only par­tially vis­i­ble be­hind a makeshift bar­ri­cade, adding to the drama and verisimil­i­tude for the kids. Younger sis­ter Ce­cilia was more in­ter­ested in the col­or­ful paci­fiers that were strewn around the cave. They were even found dan­gling like or­na­ments from a tree.

The cave was empty but we no­ticed benches where we could sit, con­tem­plate our sur­round­ings, and lis­ten to the sound­track. And sud­denly, “poot!”— as the girls re­counted hys­ter­i­cally through­out the du­ra­tion of our trip — the troll made a rude noise in her sleep.

Giddy with laugh­ter, we ran through the rain back to the ho­tel where a white jeep was wait­ing. Here was our in­tro­duc­tion to Ice­landic in­ge­nu­ity. Not only had Hei­dar Mar lo­cated a larger ve­hi­cle, but he had also ac­quired child car seats — call­ing all his friends and neigh­bors to track them down.

Mom hadn’t driven a stick shift in decades. But where else but the tiny is­land na­tion of Ice­land — with ex­cel­lent in­fras­truc­ture and a pop­u­la­tion of just 323,000 — could be bet­ter to pol­ish a rusty skill? “It’s like rid­ing a bike,” grinned Hei­dar Mar. And just like that, we set off in the rain, driv­ing across the boul­der-strewn lava fields. Let the Ice­landic ad­ven­ture be­gin.

A tourism boom

When Ice­land’s econ­omy crashed in 2008, and the krona took a nose­dive against the U.S. dol­lar, an in­fa­mously ex­pen­sive des­ti­na­tion was sud­denly put into reach for the av­er­age trav­eler. Over the past seven years, Ice­land has suc­cess­fully trans­formed an eco­nomic down­turn into a tourism boom with a savvy mar­ket­ing cam­paign depict­ing the cin­e­matic land­scapes — vol­ca­noes, north­ern lights, glaciers and wa­ter­falls — that make Ice­land a par­adise of nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena. Ice­landair ad­ver­tises com­pet­i­tive air­fares be­tween the United States and Europe, with a multi-day stopover in­cluded at no ad­di­tional cost. With ex­panded flight routes serv­ing des­ti­na­tions across North Amer­ica, Ice­landair con­tin­ues to of­fer com­pet­i­tive prices (the Ice­landair flights I pur­chased from Paris to Wash­ing­ton were the cheap­est I could find). Plus, the new Ice­land-based Wow Air is up­ping the ante with $99 fares. To­day you won’t find the bar­gain ho­tel and food prices that were the norm af­ter the financial cri­sis, but Ice­land con­tin­ues to reign at the top of trav­el­ers’ bucket lists.

Ice­land’s ap­peal is mul­ti­fac­eted; there’s a rock­ing nightlife, a dy­namic arts and mu­sic scene, sigh-in­duc­ing nat­u­ral beauty, and even the cui­sine is mak­ing a name for it­self. For us, it was per­fect for fam­ily travel, pro­vid­ing ex­cite­ment and fun for three gen­er­a­tions.

Be­yond all this, it was the Ice­landers who won us over. I knew I’d fall for a coun­try where a Pi­rate Party politi­cian rapped a song in Par­lia­ment, where the de­scen­dants of fierce Vik­ings vo­cal­ize their be­liefs in elves and trolls, and where there are no sur­names (last names com­prise a fa­ther’s (or mother’s) first name with the ad­di­tion of -dot­tir (daugh­ter) or –son.

Quirky Ice­landic wit threads through all as­pects of cul­ture; we were amused to learn about a new tourist of­fer­ing, a guided tour called “Bankers Be­hind Bars,” which traces the causes and con­se­quences of the bank­ing sys­tem’s 2008 col­lapse. (Yes, sev­eral of­fi­cials ac­tu­ally went to jail.) Mag­nus Sveinn Hel­ga­son, who leads the walks, was quoted as say­ing: “What could be more ex­cit­ing than the story of how a tiny coun­try was turned into a gi­ant hedge fund, only to blow up?”

An apart­ment rental with Reyk­javik4You was the most cost­ef­fec­tive way to sleep a fam­ily of four in the city cen­ter. Just a few steps away from a gro­cery store, our two-bed­room apart­ment came with a fully equipped kitchen, a park­ing space and thought­ful ameni­ties like a Nokia cell­phone for free calls. The apart­ment’s ex­tra space also al­lowed us to ad­just to the dif­fer­ent jet lag cir­cum­stances; Mom needed to sleep later while the girls would

be up at 4 a.m. Luck­ily, the flatscreen TV came with a DVD player and a stack of Amer­i­can DVDs.

From here, we could stroll through Old Town to Hall­grim­skirkja, the land­mark con­crete church, or to the water­front to try the fa­mous hot dogs, smoth­ered in fried onions, at Bae­jarins Beztu Pyl­sur. Reyk­javik can be equated to a mid­size Amer­i­can town, so it wasn’t hard to find the Sund­hollin pub­lic pool, de­signed in art deco style. My girls love noth­ing more than swim­ming, and Ice­land is chock-full of swim­ming pools, many filled with geother­mally heated wa­ter. But leave your mod­esty be­hind! In Ice­land, it’s manda­tory to strip naked and shower be­fore tak­ing a dip. We for­got to bring tow­els, and there were none avail­able to rent. Who knew pa­per tow­els and blow dry­ers could pro­vide such amuse­ment to a 2- and a 5-year-old?

While Ce­cilia took her af­ter­noon nap in the apart­ment, Grand Jane and Lit­tle Jane could en­joy a leisurely lunch date: sand­wiches at Mokka kaffi or de­li­cious noo­dle dishes at Nud­luskalin, where out­side they no­ticed ba­bies left sleep­ing in strollers to take in the fresh air while their par­ents caf­feinated in­side. We ob­served Ice­land’s love of chil­dren not only in the wait staff ’s wel­com­ing at­ti­tudes, but also in the gi­ant trolls and stuffed an­i­mals placed out­side shops.

As the rain poured down, we were the first vis­i­tors to Whales of Ice­land when it opened in the morn­ing. Launched in late Fe­bru­ary of this year, the pri­vately owned mu­seum is a vast ware­house space ex­hibit­ing replicas of all the dif­fer­ent species. Face to face with a leviathan, hang­ing in the blue-tinged light, the girls shrieked with de­light. “We want to give vis­i­tors a feel­ing of won­der, be­stow­ing a per­sonal con­nec­tion to whales and per­haps in­spir­ing a de­sire to pre­serve whales in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment,” says Parker O’Hal­lo­ran, an Amer­i­can ex­pat who works as a shift man­ager.

At Land namssyn­ing in (the Set­tle­ment Ex­hi­bi­tion) — built around the ru­ins of an orig­i­nal Vik­ing long­house — Mom and I gleaned in­sights into the A.D. 874 set­tle­ment, while the girls col­ored a des­ig­nated chil­dren’s ta­ble. We learned about the coun­try’s rich lit­er­ary tra­di­tion— peering at cen­turies-old manuscripts de­tail­ing the “sagas” — and also about the Vik­ing greed for tim­ber. (Ice­land’s tree­less land­scape is not en­tirely due to nat­u­ral causes, and to­day there is a big prob­lem with ero­sion caused by de­for­esta­tion.)

Dreamy Thingvel­lir

Sagas could also be writ­ten about the glo­ries of the Ice­landic road trip.

There aren’t any traf­fic jams or nav­i­ga­tional haz­ards in this un­der­pop­u­lated is­land na­tion; our bor­rowed road map was of such poor qual­ity, we re­lied on our nav­i­ga­tional com­pass in­stead. Sooner or later we had found the Ish­es­tar Rid­ing Cen­ter, out­side Reyk­javik, where Jane could ride a stocky Ice­landic horse.

And with a rental car, we could ex­plore at our own pace. The most pop­u­lar day trip is the Golden Cir­cle route, which en­com­passes three sites: gey­sers in the geo­ther­mal val­ley of Haukadalur, the Gull­foss water­fall, and Thingvel­lir Na­tional Park.

Why push the “must-sees” and risk the pos­si­ble melt­down af­ter the 2-year-old’s skipped nap? In­stead, we chose one site and lin­gered. Thingvel­lir is a UNESCO World Her­itage site of cap­ti­vat­ing beauty. It’s here where two tec­ton ic plates con­verge. The re­sult­ing rift val­ley — dot­ted with wa­ter­falls and craggy cliffs — is where the Vik­ings, in A.D. 930, held their first gen­eral as­sem­bly, the world’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment body.

As we strolled the trails, I kept the girls on their best be­hav­ior by warn­ing of hun­gry trolls lurk­ing off the path. Across Ice­land, bizarre rock for­ma­tions are said to be trolls frozen into stone when they ven­tured into day­light.

Later, I learned that Ke­flavik’s flat­u­lent troll was in fact a good guardian named Skessa. This be­ing Ice­land, one of the world’s most tech-savvy coun­tries, Skessa the troll has her own Web site (www.skessan.is/for­sida ). Ac­nat­u­ral cord­ing to Olof Ei­as­dot­tir, owner of the Ho­tel Berg, “the troll moved into the cave in 2008 as part of the town’s an­nual ‘Night of the Lights’ fes­ti­val. There’s no rea­son to be scared; she makes an ef­fort to be car­ing and help­ful!”

Ice­land is rife with tur­bu­lent nat­u­ral won­ders: brood­ing vol­ca­noes, ex­plod­ing gey­sers, shift­ing glaciers, ce­les­tial lights danc­ing across the fir­ma­ment. Faced with this — not to men­tion ex­treme weather pat­terns — is it any won­der that so many Ice­landers be­lieve in Hul­du­folk, or hid­den peo­ple, like elves and trolls? Who can blame them for di­vert­ing road con­struc­tion projects out of “elf habi­tat”? The doc­u­men­tary film “In­ves­ti­ga­tion Into the In­vis­i­ble World,” pre­sented at the 2004 Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, in­ter­views former Ice­landic pres­i­dent Vigdis Finnbo­gadot­tir: “No one has proven the ex­is­tence” of in­vis­i­ble be­ings, she said, “but no one has proven the ex­is­tence of God, either.”

Ge­o­log­i­cally, Ice­land is the youngest coun­try on Earth, still in the process of cre­ation. Here, we could wit­ness the dra­matic to­pog­ra­phy that’s fu­eled so many dream­ers and artists. As the girls slept in the back seat of the car, we cir­cled Thingvel­lir’s lake, the largest in Ice­land. There was no one on the road, and we no­ticed a few soli­tary fish­er­men knee-deep in the wa­ter. We mar­veled at the vast, tree­less ex­panse over which vol­canic moun­tains loomed. Steam rose from the moss-cov­ered earth, and we passed a num­ber of geo­ther­mal power plants, such as Nes­javel­lir. Sur­round­ing it: a moon­scape straight out of Tolkien’s fan­tasy world.

We did make it to the Blue La­goon, a req­ui­site, if over­crowded, “must” on the Ice­land itin­er­ary. Tick­ets were ex­pen­sive (about $147 for two adults), but the kids didn’t want to get out of the wa­ter. And so, by the time we ar­rived at the Ho­tel Berg to re­turn the car, and the girls made one last trip to see Skessa, Hei­dar Mar was forced to speed to the air­port to make sure we didn’t miss our flight. We joked that the car hadn’t driven that fast in four days.

Nick­lin is a free­lance writer based in Paris.

Ice­land is rife with tur­bu­lent nat­u­ral won­ders. Faced with this, not to men­tion ex­treme weather, is it any won­der that so many Ice­landers be­lieve in Hul­du­folk, or hid­den peo­ple, like elves and trolls?

ARNALDUR HALLDORSSON/BLOOMBERG NEWS

MARY WIN­STON NICK­LIN

A water­fall in Thingvel­lir Na­tional Park, a UNESCO World Her­itage site for its role in how an­cient Vik­ing so­ci­ety or­ga­nized it­self, in south­west­ern Ice­land. Top, in nearby Grin­davik, bathers in the Blue La­goon geo­ther­mal spa, the coun­try’s big­gest at­trac­tion.

BROOKS WALKER

The full-scale blue whale is the cen­ter­piece of the col­lec­tion at the Whales of Ice­land mu­seum, which opened just in Fe­bru­ary, in Reyk­javik.

MARY WIN­STON NICK­LIN

Be­low left, a lone path me­an­ders through a field of lupine to­ward ocean cliffs above the Ho­tel Berg in coastal Ke­flavik. Be­low right, the fa­mous hot dog stand Bae­jarins Beztu Pyl­sur in Reyk­javik.

GRE­GORY PAYAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

MATT CARDY/GETTY IMAGES

The cap­i­tal city of Reyk­javik seen from the top of the Hall­grim­skirkja church tower. Over the past seven years, Ice­land has spun an eco­nomic cri­sis into a tourism boom, helped along by the car­rier Ice­landair.

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