Iceland: Europe's Land of Fire, Ice, and Tourists

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Much of the interior is uninhabited, and accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Because it receives warm water from the Gulf Stream, winters in Iceland never get very cold, with temperatures hovering around freezing.

"In the dark hours of winter we have the celestial wonder of the northern lights," said Squire, "and in the summer we have nearly 24 hours of daylight."

Caving is one of Iceland's most spectacular attractions.

Lava caves, most of them formed in the Holocene era, more than 10,000 years ago, are the most common, and minimum caving gear and expertise are needed to explore them.

Ice caves, formed by geothermal run-off water, are more challenging, and require waterproof suits, crampons, axes and in some instances respiratory equipment. The best known ice caves are in the Vatnajokull glacier.

The Iceland Speleological Society (www.speleo.is) and Ultima Thule (www.ute.is) can help organize caving expeditions.

Food

Iceland is mostly known for its seafood. Shellfish, cod, haddock and other fish abound in its clean waters. The most famous traditional dish is "hakarl," or fermented shark.

At the Naustid Restaurant (www.randburg.com/is/naustid) in Reykjavik, the oldest restaurant in Iceland (even though it is only 50 years old), the appetizers are all seafood dishes: scallops, lobster, shrimp.

Designed to look like the inside of a ship, the Naustid is popular with tourists. In the old days, fishermen sailed up to the back of the building and sold fish out of their boats. The harbor was later filled in, and moved out 300 meters (330 yards).

"This place is like a monument in Reykjavik," said Sighvatur Ivarsson, Naustid's general manager. "Everyone knows it."

From mid-January to late February, Iceland celebrates the food festival known as "Thorramatur," eating like Icelanders did centuries ago when there were no refrigerators. Foods like heads of sheep are preserved in "mesa," the urine-like liquid that rises to the top in fresh-squeezed milk. After it has been cooked, it is eaten cold.

"We're eating like the Vikings did," Ivarsson said.

Museums

Iceland had no pre-historic period. It was not settled until around 900 A.D., when the Vikings arrived from Scandinavia.

Both the language and culture of Iceland were purely Scandinavian from the outset, but later mixed with Celtic influences. The blending of Nordic and Celtic blood may partly account for the fact that Icelanders, alone of all Nordic peoples, produced great literature in the Middle Ages.

The most detailed accounts of the Viking age and its mythology are found in the Icelandic sagas, which date back to the 13th century. The Saga Museum in Reykjavik (www.randburg.com/is/saga_museum) houses life-like replicas of historical Icelandic figures based on the Viking sagas.

Pools

Iceland is one of the world's best getaways for a spa vacation. The island is filled with thermal swimming pools, which are heated naturally by underground volcanic activity. Perhaps the most famous pool is The Blue Lagoon in Grindavik (www.bluelagoon.is).

The largest thermal swimming pool is the Olympic-sized Laugardalur on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Popular with both locals and tourists, it receives 600,000 visitors annually.

Laugardalur also has four smaller pools, known as "hot pots" or "gossip pots." The temperatures in these range from warm (37°Celsius/99°Fahrenheit) to scalding.

When asked to compare a thermal pool and a regular swimming pool, Gidja Johannesdottir, who works at Laugardalur, said a thermal pool feels different.

"The water is natural," she said. "It's much fresher than the fake ones."

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