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Iceland Cometh

The country of otherworldly beauty and vivid history also has a firm grasp on the here and now. Joseph Hooper reports.

Daubed in white mud, I stumbled around the milky waters of Iceland's Blue Lagoon looking as though I had just stepped out of a documentary about Amazonian warriors. The 29,000-square-foot manmade lake, ten miles from Keflavík International Airport, is filled with runoff from a giant geothermal power plant carved out of the lava beds of southwestern Iceland. The bathers, ghostly-looking in the vapors, spoon mud out of pots festooning the pool's perimeter and apply it to their faces. Laced with sulfur and silica, it is believed to rejuvenate the skin. In this bracingly clean country, even the industrial effluvia is good for you.

With my wife, Kate, I had traveled four and a half hours by plane from New York City. But the Icelandair 757 that brought us here might as well have been a rocket ship. Iceland is another planet, a primeval near-arctic island of glacial mists and intermittent volcanic eruptions made temperate by the Gulf Stream. The modern world doesn't have many places as strange and beautiful as this, and over the past decade Iceland has captured the imagination of adventurous travelers, approaching a mythical status alongside places like Patagonia and New Zealand. ("We are getting more attention," our guide, Jón Olafur Sigurbjörnsson, told us modestly. "Iceland is in.") In fact, when I returned from Iceland, I felt like a minor celebrity. Everyone I knew demanded a thorough debriefing: Was Iceland as great as they'd heard? Should they plan their trip right now? With that kind of buzz, you might expect to see boutique hotels going up right on the Vatnajökull glacier (Europe's largest). But don't count on it. Iceland, where a scant 300,000 people live in coastal towns and hamlets (the interior is uninhabitable), is still marvelously unspoiled.

Sometime in the late ninth century, the Norwegian Viking Flóki Vilgerdarson settled on the desolate island and, according to legend, was taken with its relatively mild climate and bounteous fishing. He supposedly dubbed it Iceland to scare off the competition. These days the misnomer is no hindrance to travelers looking for great food and cool design in Reykjavík, as well as adventure in the pristine countryside. The only head-scratcher is fitting it all into one trip. The Reykjavík-based Luxury Adventures—our guide is the number two man there—was founded last year expressly to solve this problem.

Traveling to Iceland hinges on smart choices, as does any trip to a place rich enough to overwhelm even a one- or two-week itinerary. Some excursions are a given: whale-watching in the western harbors; trekking near volcanoes and on glaciers; an overnight expedition to the stunning Big Sur- like Snaefellsnes peninsula. Other outings will speak to more specialized tastes, like trail-riding the famously purebred and sure-footed Iceland horses through lava beds and fishing for freshwater salmon and trout.

Then there is the helicopter ride with the Helicopter Service of Iceland, the most stirring way to register the country's peculiar landscape. Seen from 1,000 feet, Reykjavík is a city of modest charms. Brightly painted iron-façade houses in the hilly historic downtown area give way to suburbs of ordinary medium-rise apartment buildings and shopping centers. Reykjavík is something like a minor-league version of Copenhagen or Stockholm, both grander northern cities partial to primary colors. But the city draws a certain majesty from the land around it, the churning waters of its harbor, and the massive snow-streaked Esja mountains that resemble a giant tabletop. As we gained altitude and took in a broader swath of Iceland, the capital city receded into a sliver of habitation perched on the western edge of a vast, undulant sea of petrified lava. Or rather, mostly petrified lava. "There are still hot spots where people bake bread in the lava beds," Jón said. Somewhere down there, 40 years ago, U.S. astronauts trained for the moon landing. Now, in May, the moss covering the lava was muted in color, all tawny grays and yellows. By June it would become a luxurious bed of electric green.

Scientists estimate that of all the lava that has spewed from the bowels of the earth in the last 500 years, a third has done so in Iceland, an island about the size of Kentucky. For this reason, and because of the Vikings' penchant for chopping things down, there are very few trees here, most of them dwarf pines. ("We have an old saying," Jón told me. "If you're lost in a forest in Iceland, just stand up.") The result is a severe and spectacularly denuded landscape that is the northern equivalent of the brown hills of Greece. One of the early British travelers in Iceland, poet A. E. Houseman, described the country as the "land of lost content."

Given the primal quality of the landscape, which has scarcely changed over the centuries, it is easy to understand why Iceland remains so connected to its past. The sagas of the Viking settlers, which are still read by Icelandic schoolchildren, seem almost beyond comprehension: sailing to North America in longboats five centuries before Columbus, casually slaughtering one another for the slightest offense. Surprisingly frank about mayhem, these accounts of the first families' doings were written in the 12th and 13th centuries in Old Norse, from which modern Icelandic has deviated remarkably little.

As the helicopter plowed farther east, we peered over the silver expanse of Iceland's largest lake, Thingvallavatn, and could roughly make out the site where the settlers established their national assembly in a.d. 930—the Althingi, said to be Europe's first parliament. The Vikings were an enigma, staunch parliamentarians and cold-blooded killers both, a contradiction that many would say has been passed down to today's Icelanders, known for being hard workers during the week and fearsome drinkers on the weekends. "Iceland is famous for beautiful women and strong men," Jón remarked. "Who drink a lot." Perhaps the Icelandic temperament is a reflection of the geographic volatility: From the chopper, we spotted behind the Althingi site the huge uneven rift in the land caused by the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia slowly grinding against each other. The continual friction opens up the fissures into which flows the subterranean magma that heats the water and mud steaming and bubbling at the surface. Every so often the lava pushes all the way through the earth's crust in a full-fledged eruption, as happened with the 1963 blow that created the island of Surtsey in the Westmann chain off the southern coast of the country.

While returning to Reykjavík we passed over the residence of Iceland's president, a handsome white wood-frame house on the outskirts of town. The thought occurred to me that if we had made a similar flyover back in the United States, we would have been blown to smithereens by now. "Last year a private plane had to make an emergency landing right next to the president's house," our pilot recalled. "I heard the staff invited the captain in for coffee." This didn't surprise me; earlier that day I'd had an interview with the president, Olafur Ragnar Grímsson. The 29-year-old founder of Luxury Adventures, Olafur Helgi Thorgrímsson, had simply asked for an appointment, and Grímsson, whose country sets great store by its egalitarian spirit, said okay. He is not, it seemed, insensible to the economic potential of high-end tourism, and it didn't require much prompting before he launched into a rhapsody on his nation: "In Iceland you can stay in good hotels and enjoy the best foods. And then in an hour you're in a complete lava wilderness, where you can walk alone for the entire day and imagine that you are the first human being on earth."

Hótel Borg, one such good hotel and Iceland's oldest, is the best place to base an Icelandic adventure. "It's got history and soul," Jón said. "My grandmother used to go to parties here in the forties." The Borg bills itself as Art Deco, but staying there is more akin to visiting a slightly batty but elegant relative with eccentric taste: kitschy Graeco-Roman statuary mixed with furniture and photographs from the thirties, a formal Palm Court Restaurant, a dark cigar-and-brandy bar. While dining (excellently, on fresh scallops) at the restaurant, we were surprised by the faint sound of R&B. It was seeping in from a room hidden in the back of the building, where local bands and cabaret acts perform several times a month. It reminded me of the type of come-one, come-all hotel you might have found in a provincial British city in the fifties. Even the quirky Icelandic pop siren Björk played the Borg. In summer the action sprawls out onto the city's central Austurvöllur Square, where sun-starved Reykjavíkers lie on the grass and try to burn the winter out of their souls.

While the Borg spans three or four different eras at once, most of Reykjavík is aggressively up to date. The car of choice is a late-model SUV; the Cosmopolitan now rivals the traditional shot of vodka and the local liquor Brennivin (called "Black Death"), thanks to Sex in the City on Icelandic cable. At Reykjavík's new World Class health club (where the saunas and showers are scented with orange, lemon, or coconut), I tried to enter the locker room without first taking off my glasses at the retinal scanner. The machine brushed me back in steely English: "I'm sorry, you are not identified."

This is a country that seems particularly keen on keeping up with the Jonessons. Hypermaterialism and unchecked consumer spending have helped make Iceland one of the world's most indebted nations, and, as a result, the country is expensive for both locals and travelers. You get the feeling that Iceland is making up for lost time. In the novel 101 Reykjavík Hallgrímur Helgason refers to the mind-set, with only slight exaggeration, as "a thousand-year inferiority complex." It began after the heroic carnage of the Saga era, when the Vikings descended into intramural warfare so relentless that the island ceded political control to Norway in 1262. Under Norwegian and then Danish rule, Iceland languished beneath a black cloud of volcanic ash, famine, and disease. In many respects the dark ages didn't lift until the forties, when the nation declared its independence from Denmark and the economy—based on fishing and the construction of a NATO naval base—began to take off.

The past seemed hard to fathom at 101 hotel, Reykjavík's ultramodern hot spot that opened two years ago. We'd come for a taste of high design, and indeed the hotel named for the city center's postal code was staggeringly hip. "This makes the W look like a Motel 6" was Kate's assessment. The undeviating black-and-white color scheme, the linen-covered geometric furniture, a layout so abstract you didn't know whether you were walking into the closet or the bathroom—the place was over the top, to be sure, but pulled off expertly.

The 101's location, a few blocks off Laugavegur, the main street, also works in its favor—near enough so you can join in the revelry but sufficiently removed so you can sleep while the natives are still holding forth. (A weekend spent getting Viking drunk is a cherished Reykjavík rite of passage.)

Or here's an idea: Dine marvelously well and late into the twilit night at one of the city's two best restaurants, the Seafood Cellar or The Grill at the Saga Hotel (see "Cool New Food"). Then wander into the bar at the 101 for a nightcap. The place is a knockout, half glass-enclosed like a nocturnal greenhouse, with a long onyx counter and raw-wood stools. It stays hopping at night with a well-heeled crowd looking for reasons not to go to sleep.

The next morning we left Reykjavík for the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Two hours north by car, the area is a breathtaking concentration of all that is wild and stirring in the Icelandic countryside—yet it is well off the beaten path. According to Jón, even Reykjavíkers don't go there often. "In Iceland the best places are well hidden," he said. Hidden in plain view, that is, since the mountain of snow and ice that dominates it, the Snaefellsjökull glacier, is visible on a clear day from Reykjavík.

Hiddenness was apparently the theme of the day. On our way north we stopped at Raudmelar, a rocky ridge formed by retreating ancient glaciers and believed to be a hangout for Hidden People. Trolls and elves figure prominently in Iceland's folk mythology and the existence of their modern-day progeny is a subject of debate among otherwise sane, sophisticated people. "I have never seen the Hidden People, but I have met people who say they have," Jón said. "They live in the stones and in grass houses. They look just like humans, but they dress like the old days. When they appear to you, you have to take what they offer or they'll put a spell on you." Perhaps when a culture jumps from the dark ages to 101 hotel in less than half a century, it needs a few mysteries to fill in the gaps.

We arrived midday at the fishing town of Stykkishólmur, where we boarded the Saerún, a catamaran that took us out onto the aquamarine waters of Breidafjördur Bay. We wove our way around its 2,700 tiny grassy islands, sidling up to the isle of Flatey, which used to house a major monastery. Now there's only a library, painted yellow, the size of a tool shed. Flatey seemed populous compared with many of the islands, which were home to only a sheep or two. They looked quite lonely, beastly Little Princes stuck on their own private asteroids. But we were told they were fattening up on the piquant shrubbery, being spiced up from the inside, to become the lamb dishes so prized in the restaurants of Reykjavík. Our meal arrived as we headed back to harbor: The crew disgorged a load of marine life from the bay onto a metal sifting table. Crabs ran in all directions as the crew plucked scallops and urchins from the pile, opening them with a sharp knife. Following Jón's instructions, I let the brine drain down my throat first, then bit into the sweet pulpy meat.

Among the many pleasures of Snaefellsnes is simply staying a few nights there, at the Hótel Búdir. Located at the base of dramatic Snaefellsjökull, the hotel stands on the site of the long-lost fishing village of Búdir, which disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It is stunning, a cross between a Swiss mountain chalet and what I imagine to be Ingmar Bergman's Swedish island retreat. Given that Iceland never really developed its own haute style (luxury being a Danish import), the look of Búdir is a gorgeous amalgam of Scandinavian modern—clean lines, pale colors—and rustic warmth by way of plump leather lounge chairs, nautical prints, and homey wooden furniture. What is most striking here is the light, the clean white sun of lengthening late-spring days. From the second-floor lounge, the view is of the rocky coast, devoid of people but teeming with marine wildlife, including one easy-living seal that drifts into the inlet next to the hotel twice a day. Outside another set of windows lie lava fields surrounding a simple wood-frame church painted black, and next to it an old graveyard. The Bergmanesque solitude, the stark beauty on all sides—the place has far more metaphysical heft than an average Swiss chalet.

After dinner in the hotel's dining room (the famous lamb delivered perfectly), we wandered around in the midnight gloaming, contemplating the Snaefellsjökull glacier that loomed in the distance. It is an alpine redoubt that looks as if it belonged in a Lord of the Rings movie. After all, Tolkien drew heavily from the Icelandic sagas.

The glaciated dormant volcano of Snaefellsjökull summit is locally regarded as the portal to the underworld, which was given wider currency by Jules Verne in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The mountain is not even 5,000 feet high, but it's close enough to the Arctic Circle to be covered in snowdrifts. Jón's four-by-four swung on to the mountain road—marked Impassable—and we climbed the switchback for 15 minutes until the snow line stopped us in our tracks. A weathered man who leads snowmobile trips the rest of the way up the mountain greeted us. "It's not the main street of New York!" he said with a practically toothless grin. Outfitted in the snowmobile company's gloves and coveralls, we grabbed our designated machines and headed up the winding route. It struck me briefly as sacrilegious: I've done some mountain climbing and read long into expeditionary literature—and nowhere do snowmobiles enter the picture. But soon enough this became one of the exquisite moments of my middle-aged life, the glacial fog opening up to reveal gothic snow peaks lit by a piercing blue sky. We were in the sacred territory of Edmund Hillary and Gaston Rebuffat, even if we had taken a shortcut.

At the top, we ran straight into the two 100-foot snow-covered towers of rock that mark the true summits of Snaefellsjökull. In his first-rate Iceland: Land of the Sagas, the mountaineer David Roberts writes about his and climbing partner Jon Krakauer's cramponing up one of the towers in a winter storm. The snowmobile operator, seeing that I was ecstatic to be up here, pointed to the two peaks with a gesture that said "Knock yourself out." All I had in the way of climbing equipment were my hiking boots, but I resolutely plodded toward the mountain on top of a mountain and began to kick steps in the soft snow. I made it about halfway up before I heeded the feeling of walking on clouds that couldn't possibly support me and came back down. It is good to be, for a moment, the hero of your own Icelandic saga. It's even better to return in one piece.


Cool New Food

In a scene from Iceland's Bell, by Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness, the farmer protagonist tucks into a meal of "mossmash, soured tripe, hardened codheads, moldy butter, and brown shark meat." That tells you all you want to know about Iceland's traditional foods, prized solely for their capacity to remain edible over long periods. Today Icelanders still do eat some traditional dishes, like pickled rams' testicles, but as 27-year-old Bjarni Gunnar Kristinsson, one of Reykjavík's star chefs, says, "Visitors might like to eat like this...once." If that. Fortunately, in the past few years, as a new generation of young chefs have come of age, Icelandic cooking has moved beyond peasant fare. As Kristinsson says of the recent experimentation, "We didn't have anything to lose." Well-traveled chefs, like Kristinsson at the THE GRILL RESTAURANT (dinner, $200; Hagatorg) in the Saga Hotel and 26-year-old Lárus Gunnar Jónasson at the SEAFOOD CELLAR (dinner, $175; 2 Adalstraeti), have brought to bear a sophisticated cooking—learned in the best kitchens of Europe and Asia—on Iceland's robust raw materials: fish of unmatched quality, free-range lamb, and a variety of vegetables grown in hydroponic hothouses.

At the Grill, the "Discovery Menu" begins with a ballontine of salmon and langoustines with citrus-shellfish butter and tomato jam. The secret, the chef says, is that the langoustines are only lightly cooked in citrus, ceviche style. Then comes a crispy fillet of lamb in spring-roll pastry, and finally a chocolate mousse that looks like the legs of a dancer extending from a lace-sugar skirt.

Seafood Cellar, while not better than the Grill, is Reykjavík's hottest dinner ticket. Opened a year and a half ago in an 1850 cellar, it's a hipster aquarium of sorts, with lots of glass and hard surfaces. One of Jónasson's trademarks is his use of mason jars, as in a miniature version filled with salt-cod ceviche with apricot, saffron, and coriander, and a medium-size jar with Icelandic lobster in foie gras-and-chili sauce. I'd assumed that the superb fish-and-fowl plate with pronounced Thai influences would arrive in a big jug, as if the meal were unfolding like a set of Russian dolls. It didn't, but the effect of the jars is as exciting as the food. "It's like opening a jar from your grandmother," Jónasson says. "You know something good's going to be inside."


The Basics

The best way to travel around Iceland is with Luxury Adventures, which customizes itineraries, handling every detail down to the last bottle of wine. Costs vary widely; a one-week trip, excluding airfare, costs about $10,000 for two people and includes a full-time guide with a limousine or SUV. The company also offers just a private car and guide for $1,065 a day. 354/577-1155; www.lux.is.

For those traveling on their own, some á la carte prices:

HOTEL BORG Rates, $410-$580. At 11 Posthusstraeti; 354/551-1440; www.hotelborg.is.

101 HOTEL Rates, $385-$885. At 10 Hverfisgata; 354/580-0101; www.101hotel.is.

HOTEL BUDIR Rates, $295-$520. At 355 Búdum; 354/435-6700; www.budir.is.

HELICOPTER SERVICE OF ICELAND $ Rate, $1,555 per hour. 354/561-6100; www.helicopter.is.

BLUE LAGOON Entry, $18. At Svartsengi, Grendavík; 354/420-8800; www.bluelagoon.is.

WORLD CLASS SPA $ Entry, $48. Treatments, $85-$295. At Laugardalur 30a Sundlaugavegur; 354/553-0000.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.