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Iceland: Into the Blue

He eyed me sternly over his glasses. "This time, no fire and ice."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Something else," he urged me.

I was standing at passport control. I was trying to get into the country. So I was prepared to agree with most anything he proposed. But what was he looking for?

Somehow, things had begun to go amiss when he'd asked, "Why have you come to Iceland?" and I'd replied, "I'm a writer and I'm going to do a story about driving the Ring Road around the whole country."

"Something else?" I repeated his words.

His look softened; it turned all but beseeching. "You writers come here, all you ever talk about is 'land of fire and ice.' Write something else," he insisted.

"I'll try," I told him.

So I suppose I'd better be brief in pointing out that Iceland is home to Europe's largest glacier (it's bigger than Delaware). Or that it is, in terms of recent volcanic activity, one of the hottest places on the globe. It's a land of steaming valleys (the soft, unending exhalations of a thermal spring) surrounded by snow-buried hills. Hence, the beckoning metaphor of Iceland as a warm niche in a cold corner of the planet.

Of course, Iceland has the advantage of a name that encourages low expectations. An "ice land" should be piercingly cold, its scenery unvaryingly white, its people glum and unsophisticated. In truth, winter temperatures in the capital, Reykjavík, are slightly warmer than in New York City. (Spring, though, may not arrive until May.) The terrain has a polychromatic, if often raw, diversity of hues: green pasturelands, milky-blue ponds, golden expanses of moss, the tawny browns and rust reds of rhyolite hills, ebony beaches, tumbling rainbow-ridden waterfalls. And urban life—particularly in greater Reykjavík, whose 170,000 souls make up three-fifths of the nation's population—has a cosmopolitan grace you'd hardly expect in the northernmost capital on earth.

But my wife and I and our two daughters, ages 14 and nine, had not come for urban life. We were here to drive along the 860-mile road that circumscribes the country. Still, having landed in Reykjavík, we were in no hurry to depart. We lived here for a year in the late eighties, and I've returned almost annually; it's one of my favorite cities.

Admittedly, Reykjavík's appeals can be elusive. Everything is too expensive. Shopping is limited. It's a long way from anywhere. Yet the breezes, whether coming east off the North Atlantic or west off the interior mountains, are always fresh; there can't be a cleaner capital in the world. As a backdrop to the city, across Faxa Bay looms rangy Mount Esja, furrowed with snow throughout the year; Reykjavík's little streets are a pleasing marriage of the snug and the monumental. And much of the make-do, patched-together architecture—squat, square, gray houses with lacy curtains and roofs painted bright kindergarten colors—has a gawky, at times zany, charm. Reykjavík is homey, homely, and surprisingly sweet.

The young people are often blond, and often strikingly attractive. They're hip and fit, and always seem to be carrying books. (Icelanders pride themselves on publishing more titles per capita than any other country.) Life feels benign. Reykjavík remains astoundingly safe, at least by American standards. Parents regularly leave babies in strollers out on the street while they duck into a grocery store. During the white nights of summer, when the sun never sets very deep or for very long, you sometimes see children playing outdoors, unattended, at midnight.

My family and I kept things loose, not deciding until the day we left Reykjavík whether to head our rental car north (clockwise) or south (counterclockwise) along the Ring Road. We considered the day's weather report, saw that skies promised to be clearer to the south, and followed the sun in the land of midnight sun.

The Ring Road may be Iceland's chief thoroughfare, but it's no expressway. It's mostly a two-lane road, not always paved. So it's easy to pull over, which we did continually: to approach a waterfall, photograph some horses, inspect an old church, clamber over a lava field. Armed with a roster of must-sees and an armful of brochures provided by an enthusiastic young woman at Tourist Information in Reykjavík, we gave ourselves a week to do the entire circuit. The pace (125 miles per day) sounded leisurely, but we wound up leaving a number of sights for our next Icelandic loop.

What you don't get along the Ring Road are many opportunities to buy groceries. Stores in the countryside tend to have a forlorn, somewhat comical air. You may not be able to find a head of lettuce or a banana, but there's a good chance you can buy shark oil or powdered béarnaise sauce, rent a video starring Demi Moore or Pamela Anderson, or pick up some flavored potato chips for people with very specialized tastes ("smoked ham 'n pickle"?). And there are vats and vats of candy. When they step off their glaciers, Icelanders live on mountains of sugar.


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