Iceland's north offers plenty to do

Travel Weekly senior editor Andrew Compart sampled adventurous destinations in Iceland's north with Icelandair Holidays. His report follows:

hat to do with a free day or two in Iceland? The question is pertinent thanks to Icelandair's longstanding "Take-A-Break" option for travelers flying the carrier to other European destinations.

At no added cost, clients can stop over in Iceland for up to three nights before completing the rest of their journey -- or do the same on the way home.

Unfamiliar with the country's sub-Arctic attractions? Not to worry: Icelandair Holidays offers options and packages for those free days.

On a recent visit, I found whales, boiling mud pits and a sparsely inhabited bird-watching island at the Arctic Circle.

It's possible to see them all with a two- or three-night visit, perhaps overnighting in the picturesque fishing towns of Akureyri or Husavik, where the whale-watching is offered.

All also are offered by Icelandair as day trips, with roundtrip air from Reykjavik. Short daylight hours in winter make these jaunts a May-through-September option.

Natural wonders

The Lake Myvatn region is accessible to anyone fascinated by natural forces and formations for $219 per person via Icelandair's Lake Myvatn Mysteries day trip, available May 16 to Sept. 15 (add $28 between June 15 and Aug. 20).

As I walk on the marked paths and trails in a region called "The Devil's Kitchen," the smell of sulfur is in the air, and in some places steam escapes from the ground to relieve subterranean pressure.

At points, roped off for safety, sulfuric acid dissolves the clay, forming pits so hot mud bubbles up, as in a cauldron.

The boundary of the North American and Eurasian continental plates -- moving apart an inch a year -- runs beneath Iceland. Volcanic lava wells up between the plates and fills the rift, which accounts for the geological activity.

A big eruption in 1724 formed an explosion crater called Viti, translated as "inferno" or "hell" -- so you can go there and back if you'd like.

The name refers to its original appearance, with boiling mud and clay in a crater 450 feet wide and 270 feet deep. But Viti is quite scenic these days, belying its name, with a water-filled center and a snow- covered, mountain vista.

Nearby Dimmuborgir ("Dark Castles") is a lava field, with high, oddly shaped pillars. Legend has it that trolls, who live in caves and turn to rock in the sun, partied so hard one night they forgot the time and were frozen in place.

The lake itself is the fourth largest in Iceland. But it also is very shallow, with a maximum depth of 12 feet, and sun warms the bottom.

Warn your clients: This makes the lake a haven for gnats and mosquitoes (hence the name Myvatn, which means "midge" in Icelandic).

The pests can be particularly prevalent in June and August -- the best bet to avoid them is July -- so it might be advisable to use bug spray.

The small island of Grimsey, 40 miles north of Iceland, is home to some 35 species of birds, including puffins. The reward: some spectacular views, and a look at some 50 or so species of birds, including 16 species of duck.

A whale of a time

It's near midnight in Husavik, but the sun is out and I am looking for whales in a fjord. It's almost certain we will find them on our three-hour trip. North Sailing took tourists on 505 whale-watching boat trips here last year, and whales were spotted on 501 of them.

Minke whales -- sometimes half the size of our 50-foot boat -- are the most common. For a while, we see more birds than whales, but then comes the big payoff: minkes, emerging within 100 yards of our boat.

Whale-watching season lasts from May to mid-September in Husavik, and with 24-hour daylight in the summer, nighttime boat trips are offered in June, July and August.

Icelandair's Highlights of the North day trip -- which also includes stops at Lake Myvatn and the Godafoss waterfall -- costs $263 per person May 16 to Sept. 29 (again, add $28 from June 15 to Aug. 20).

Tips for clients: Dress warmly and in layers, and bring gloves and binoculars.

At the Arctic

You can't go any farther north in Iceland than Grimsey, which is one reason why tourists head there.

The small, isolated island, about 40 miles north of the mainland, is home to 100 to 150 people, mostly fishermen.

Grimsey is the only point in Iceland that touches the Arctic Circle; a post marks the spot, with signposts showing distances to major cities. Visitors also leave with a decorative certificate, name included, that confirms they were there.

But people visit for other reasons, as well. One of the main ones is bird-watching. About 35 species of birds nest there, including puffins and fulmar. For avid birders who want more time to look, the island even has a modest guest house -- $27 a night for a room with a bed, $17 for a room to use sleeping bags.

Another Grimsey attraction: In early summer, this is said to be an ideal place to view the midnight sun.

For day-trippers, Icelandair offers the six-hour Grimsey 66-Degree North Evening tour daily (except Saturdays) from June 10 to Aug. 17, priced at $265 per person.

According to Icelandair, travel agents must pay with an MCO for full 10% commission, and agency checks are only accepted from accounts approved by Icelandair Holidays. Travel agents may use passenger credit cards, but with reduced commission.

Heading north, booking Iceland

Phone: (800) 223-5500

Icelandair Holidays
Phone: (800) 779-2899

Icelandic Tourist Board
Phone: (212) 885-9700

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