In this time of adventure travel and discovery shows on TV, it takes a lot for a country to be spectacularly impressive. So think up the most enigmatic and bizarre landscape imaginable. Give it a topography of hardened lava, lush sheep-grazed hilltops, thrusting mountain peaks, and a jagged coastline. Then make it bubble with boiling mud, freeze over with advancing glaciers, explode with geysers, and roar with waterfalls. Throw in gnomes, elves, fairies, and dwarves--as described in local lore--and what you have is Iceland.
Many Americans don't realize Iceland is so close--only five hours from the East Coast. Direct flights on Icelandair leave daily from Boston, New York, and Minneapolis during high season, from early June to mid-September, and cost just $300 to $600 round-trip. After the summer ends, Iceland gets to be just like its name--icy and snowed-over. Much of the eastern part of the island becomes inaccessible from Reykjav?k--the capital--and many hotels, restaurants, and tour operations close up shop. Not that Iceland really gets frigid: It is warmed by the Gulf Stream, and winter temperatures are comparable to those in New England. The big difference: Daylight in the dead of winter lasts only from noon to 2 p.m.
In summer, of course, it's the opposite: The sun shines all night. That's when Iceland (population 250,000) explodes with life, from the lush moss and grass that carpet the landscape wherever the snow recedes to the crowds of Icelanders and mainly European tourists who patronize Reykjav?k's clubs and restaurants around the clock. The country is expensive by exotic-locale standards. Expect London prices for hotels and restaurants in Reykjav?k, though budget accommodations in small guest houses and B&Bs are available for $60 to $90 a night at the Web sites goiceland.org or hotel.is.
Iceland's language, derived from Old Norse, gave us two common terms: Geyser comes from Geysir, a spot 35 miles east of Reykjav?k that began erupting in the 14th century and still spurts water 60 feet in the air every eight minutes. Heck is derived from Mt. Hekla, a still-active volcano that mainland Europeans believed was the entrance to Hell.
Tourists can see both these attractions by taking day-excursion buses from Reykjav?k. But renting a car--for $80 to $100 a day plus $4 a gallon for gas--is the best way to get around. A car can take you to spots the tour buses miss, such as Vik, a town at the southernmost tip that is the center of the country's knit-wool industry. Rising from the North Sea, its cliffs teem with Arctic terns, and the surf pounds its black-sand beaches and unusual rock formations. Swivel 180 degrees, and you find yourself a speck between the sea and the towering, 4,440-foot Myrdalsjokull glacier behind you.
You can also drive to the many horse farms along the south coast, which offer the chance to ride Iceland's unique breed of horses. At just 13 hands high, or a little over 4 feet at the shoulder, full-grown horses are not much bigger than a pony. Like only a handful of other breeds in the world (Tennessee Walkers and Mongolian ponies, for example), Icelandic horses have a fifth gait. Get the horse moving fast enough, and it will stride from a gallop into a "tolt"--a gait at which the ride smooths out to a glide that feels almost like being on ice skates. Icelandic horses are so hardy they prefer to live outdoors all year round--even in snow. Because they're small, they need less food than other breeds--and their coats require no brushing. "It's like having a bicycle," says Anders Hansen, who owns the Arbakki Horse Farm, one of Iceland's largest, and reports that more and more Americans are importing these easy-to-care-for horses to the U.S.
Iceland has no lack of unusual wildlife. In the Westman Islands, reached by a short ferry ride from the south coast, spectators in August watch the thousands of recently hatched puffins descend on the fishing village of Heimaey in search of food.
Whale watching is also a big event in summer, as hundreds of minke whales ply the harbors of Reykjav?k and other cities. Whale-watching boats leave Reykjav?k's docks hourly, and trips cost about $30. Iceland has announced its intention to resume whaling, outlawed worldwide in 1989, but so far it has not done so. Still, some restaurants (such as the Trir Frakkar Hja Ulfari in downtown Reykjav?k) serve whale that was legally caught for "scientific" purposes.
Salmon is also plentiful on restaurant menus, and the sport of catching them draws anglers from all over the world to the famous Laxa River in the north of the country. It is reputed to be one of the most demanding--and rewarding--salmon-fishing spots in the world.
The most relaxing place in Iceland is the most ethereal: the famous Blue Lagoon. It is an enormous pool of mineral-rich water, the effluent from the geothermic power plant that generates all the electricity for Reykjav?k. Icelanders swear by the healing properties of its natural silica and blue-green algae. In some places, the water is scalding, and the steam it generates billows into the cold surroundings. At dusk, the place has an eerie glow.
Large hotels in the capital offer bus service to the site four times a day, for about $20 per person. After a few days of taking in the sites and scenes of Reykjav?k, climbing around lava fields, visiting mud pits, geysers, glaciers, and waterfalls, then horseback riding around the countryside, that hot water will feel like heaven. By Sheridan Prasso