Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Iceland: All Steamed Up

The famous Blue Lagoon thermal baths began when water
from the nearby geothermal power station started leaking. (R Eime)
The Icelandic horse is an attractive and good-natured animal
and much loved by natives. I'm told they are also tasty.
From editor, Roderick Eime, aboard Ponant's Le Boreal
Itinerary: Reykjavik - Kangerlussuaq 28/7-9/8 2012
Sunday 29 July 2012, Reykjavik, Iceland

Nowadays when you think of Iceland, you're more likely to recall a land of financial catastrophes and unpronounceable volcanoes than a vast Arctic island twice the size of Switzerland with a romantic Nordic heritage and strong, resourceful inhabitants.

Arriving by aircraft will give you an immediate idea this is no ordinary land. There is no passport control and no obvious customs barriers. The airline, Iceland Air (FI), operates a fleet of ageing Boeing 757s and must be the largest single operator of this orphan type from Seattle. The cabin crew are attractive females in classic uniforms who, I'm sure, could evacuate the entire aircraft in 90 seconds even if all the passengers were unconscious. It's a bit of a bumpy landing, but then the windsock looks more like a set-square.

Volcanism is the basis of Iceland's creation
and is on show at locations like Krysuvik (R Eime)
I first heard of Reykjavik when the great Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer had their cold war chess showdown in 1972. I imagined a land encased in a vast glacier and wondered why these two chess masters would go to this unlikely place for a chess match on a card table in giant ice field. The naming of Iceland and its massive neighbour, Greenland, is also a story in itself. Iceland is green and Greenland is one massive glacier, albeit a rapidly melting one these days.

As a primer, the rolling screen on the Iceland Air seatback (the one you get when you don't pay for the inflight movies) tells you Icelanders enjoy a high standard of living and with most of the 300,000 nationals possessing a university degree yet the same percentage continue to believe in elves. Makes you wonder who was running the banks a few years back. The Prime Minister is a woman and so is the head of the church and, so my guide tells me with a smirk, men soon hope to have equality.

Iceland commands a healthy tourism industry with visitors arriving both by air and sea. While land-based visitors might indulge in some hiking and climbing in the lunar-like landscape, seaborne arrivals will typically arrive at the wharf in Hafnarfjörður, the historic harbour which once housed Iceland's famous fleet of tiny fishing boats and is home to the island's mysterious elves.

It's easy to overlook some of the dinky little houses and folk museums around from the wharf in your rush to get amongst the lava fields and opal-hued steam baths. Such is the imperative of modern tourism, but see the port museum [www.portofhafnarfjordur.is] if you can.

Either way, the iconic Blue Lagoon thermal baths are a great success, especially when you consider the whole thing began with a leaky power station. Today it seems every postcard and brochure will feature these lurid ponds dotted with willing bathers lolling about in the steamy overflow. The gift shop must rival the island's fishing industry for foreign exchange, with pricey salves, lotions, designer wear and trinkets marching out the door with the constant stream of towel-toting tourists.

Cruise tourists will typically embark on a range of shore tours that include such natural attractions as the world's original geyser, called Geysir, or Gullfoss (the Golden Waterfall). The Reykjanes Peninsula is where buses head for the Blue Lagoon thermal spas in the Krysuvik area. The main shore tour operators are www.atlantik.is and www.re.is

For details of this itinerary and others from Ponant, see www.traveltheworld.com.au