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Offbeat Tour of Iceland

Otherworldly land of ice and fire

Tours of Iceland

     In contrast to some other countries featured on this website, I have never heard anyone, at any time, say a bad word about Iceland.  Therefore, it's a peculiar fact that very few people go there.  This is all the more puzzling when you consider that Reykjavik, the pleasant capital of Iceland, is only a five hour flight from New York, and that even though the country skirts the Arctic Circle, it is not nearly as cold in winter as one would imagine.  In fact, the average January temperature is several degrees warmer than that of Chicago.  Make no mistake, if you remove all your clothes and wander off into the wild, you will freeze to death.  Otherwise, it's quite manageable.

Iceland Tours

    There are many other things that are widely unknown about this astonishing country which I visited many years ago, though admittedly in June.  Iceland is the size of Ohio, but its 320,000 inhabitants comprise only 3% of Ohio's population.  Virtually all of them are descendants of the ancient Norse and Celtic seafarers, so what you have, ethnically speaking, is a land of 21st century Vikings.   It's the longest running free society on earth; Thingvellir, site of the first parliament in 930 AD, is a premier attraction.


     But above all, Iceland is a geologist's wildest fantasy, a place that has been likened to another planet - a barren land of volcanoes, steaming lakes, glaciers and lunar landscapes which supports only a smattering of native plant and animal life.  One writer has described it as science fiction transformed into science fact.  Nowhere else on earth can you bathe in warm springs in the frigid air while the Northern Lights pulsate through winter nights that last eighteen hours.

     Icelanders are friendly, civilized and highly literate; everyone speaks English as a second language.  They are a resourceful people, harnessing the huge reservoirs of underground steam to provide for their heating needs, and keeping their environment pristine and pollution-free.  If there were such a thing as a role model nation, a people living to their fullest potential in a rugged land where survival pretty much depends on social harmony and intelligent solutions to problems, Iceland would be it.


    One thing that struck me about this country is how practical the people are.  For example, there are many small towns where it would make no sense to build a hotel, as so few people passing through are in need of a night's lodging.  Instead, I was directed a few times to the local school, vacant during the summer, where for a nominal charge I slept on a cot and took a shower.  I had the whole place to myself; no guards, no locked doors.


    Like the other Scandinavian countries, Iceland is expensive, but there are ways to keep the cost of traveling there quite reasonable.  One is utilizing dorm-type accommodations, rather than staying in hotels; another is using kitchen facilities to prepare meals from food purchased in supermarkets.  And although it is possible, at a price, to embark on some truly bold expeditions into the interior using monster vehicles called "Super Jeeps," there is no shortage of natural wonders within a few hours' drive of Reykjavik, the world's northernmost capital, and a most interesting city in itself.


    Tourist traffic to Iceland is miniscule compared to the popular countries in Europe, and the number of winter visitors here is much smaller still than those who arrive in the summer months.  Probably the biggest draw is the opportunity to see the Northern Lights (also known by the scientific term Aurora Borealis), which is only possible on cold, clear nights.  I have seen this phenomenon only once, in July no less, on an unseasonably cold night in the north Canadian wilderness.  I had read about the Northern Lights as a child, but I really didn't know anything about them, and I had no idea that that's what I was seeing.  I thought the world was coming to an end!  There are no superlatives to describe it.  It is the most awesome natural spectacle you will ever see in your life, if you are lucky enough to see it, and the further north you go on our little planet, the better your chances.


    I e-mailed Bjorn, my contact in Iceland, with the following question: "Would it be truthful to say there's an excellent chance of seeing the Northern Lights during a five-night stay in your country?"  In straightforward Viking style, he replied, "I wouldn't say excellent but I would say likely."  So, may I go out on a limb and say that, on a winter-break tour of Iceland, the odds are two out of three that the Northern Lights will illuminate the sky? 


    I also asked Bjorn if it would be possible for American high school students to sit in on a classroom in Iceland to get a feel for their education system.  No problem at all, he said.


    As far as Iceland's geologic marvels, there will only be six or seven hours of dim light each day to see them, and there is plenty to see in the way of geysers, glaciers, waterfalls and boiling mud pools, and plenty of ways to see them, whether on horseback, from a snowmobile, or on foot.  And no tour of Iceland would be complete without bathing in a warm geothermal pool, of which there are many in the country.  With so many outdoor activities to choose from, not to mention all the possibilities in Reykjavik, a very lively venue for such a small capital, putting together a tour in Iceland is downright fun.  It's guaranteed that a group of American teenagers is going to have a wonderful time here - and learn a lot in the process.