Land of fire and ice

Another world is closer than you think. I do not mean Richard Branson’s flights to space next year; I am referring to Icelandair’s direct flights from Toronto to Reykjavik.

By CAROL PATTERSON

Special to the Advocate

Another world is closer than you think. I do not mean Richard Branson’s flights to space next year; I am referring to Icelandair’s direct flights from Toronto to Reykjavik.

In about five hours, less time than you can drive to Vancouver, you can be exploring the land of fire and ice. British Columbia is nice, but, unlike Iceland, it did not top National Geographic’s Best Destinations list for 2012.

Iceland has earned a reputation as the world’s hottest cool destination, and right now, it is on sale. With the currency devaluation of recent years, Iceland has gone from being Europe’s most expensive country to visit to a relative bargain.

Do not be put off by the Ice in Iceland’s name. Iceland apparently got its name from early explorers who did not want to share the verdant green hillsides with their enemies, so they labelled it icy. Greenland, by contrast, is not green, but icy. Truth in advertising was a problem even then!

Iceland is the smallest economy in the world with its own currency and fluctuating exchange rates. With more Icelanders living abroad than in the country, this is a nation where survival is earned. Early explorers ‘mined’ the beaches for driftwood to build houses and fences; current residents rely on natural resources and tourism to sustain them.

But don’t expect Iceland to be a backwater because life was hard and the main island is 40 km from the Arctic Circle. Warmed by the North Atlantic current, Iceland’s climate is closer to Vancouver’s than Winnipeg’s. As a bonus, Iceland has no mosquitoes.

Icelanders are extremely fashionable, as a stroll through Reykjavik’s bustling downtown will show. People don designer clothing and in combinations you never thought possible. One day, I saw someone who at first glace, appeared to wearing a shower curtain; it looked so good I was tempted to head to Bed and Bath for something similar!

Icelanders lead the way in more than fashion. They are also leaders in adopting sustainable energy methods.

Household trash is converted to methanol to fuel cars. Free plug-ins in downtown Reykjavik (called the smokeless city because there are no smokestacks) provides incentive for people to use electric cars. The volcanic activity under Iceland’s crust provides a steady supply of geothermal energy. As early as 1930, houses were heated with geothermal systems.

You will find it easy to travel around Iceland. Flights from North America arrive at Reykjavik’s international airport, Keflavik, about 45 minutes from the city centre, usually before dawn. Regular bus service whisks you into town, but the first glimpses of Iceland can be startling.

On my inaugural bus transfer, I was dismayed to see large, black lumps of lava littering the landscape and not much else.

Fortunately, that scenery is not typical of Iceland. Upon reaching the outskirts of Reykjavik, you see tidy, neat rows of houses dotting the streets. Icicle lights on the eaves and deck heaters on the patios indicate we Albertans have more in common with Iceland than you might think.

For adventure travellers, limit your time in the capital and explore the countryside. Touring Iceland is like walking through a National Geographic magazine and you will want to maximize your time outdoors.

Numerous tour companies provide adventure and sightseeing trips from Reykjavik, or you can rent a car and head out on your own. The charred remains of a Toyota with a Driver-Beware sign displayed near the airport may scare you, but Albertans can handle Iceland’s narrow roads, wayward sheep, and inclement weather.

For more ideas on places to explore, look for my suggestions on rural Iceland in the next few weeks.

If you decide to go to Iceland:

For flight schedules visit www.icelandair.ca.

For tours around Reykjavik check out Reykjavik Excursions www.re.is

To explore Iceland’s popular northern coast, try Fjallasyn at www.fjallasyn.is

Carol Patterson of Kalahari Management Inc. has been speaking and writing about nature tourism and emerging destinations for two decades. When she isn’t travelling for work, she is travelling for fun. More of Carol’s adventures can be found at www.kalahari-online.com.

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