Visitors Can Discover Iceland's Allure at 'Top of the World'

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Associate editor Cathy Carroll recently visited Iceland. Her report follows:

REYKJAVIK -- Upward we climbed on snowmobiles on that early fall afternoon, to the 2,520-foot summit of Vatnajokull, Europe's largest glacier. It was like a perfect spring ski day -- temperatures in the 50s and a cloudless sky with brilliant sun reflecting off the great mass of whiteness. We reached a peak from where we could see out over the scores of smaller, surrounding icecaps and to the Atlantic.

I was sampling a one-hour tour, offered by Glacier Tours Ltd. It was at that point that I began to understand why I'd heard Iceland referred to as "the top of the world." After all, the phrase is not literally correct, so I asked an Icelander about it. "Being 'at the top' is part of the Icelandic psyche," he said. "People here see themselves as belonging to an elite community."

That's difficult to debate, considering, for starters: the country's clean environment (much of the country is geothermally heated); its lack of crime (it was not unusual to see a baby in a carriage parked outside a cafe or shop); its 100% literacy rate, and its residents' life expectancy -- longer than most people anywhere.

It is the European country closest to the U.S. (nonstop flights from New York to Iceland are shorter than from New York to Los Angeles) and yet many Americans imagine that it is difficult to reach.

Somehow, however, that is part of Iceland's allure -- the reaction you get when you tell people you are going there. "Ooooo, Iceland..." is the response from some, who vaguely envision a remote, snowy adventure. "Iceland?" -- usually queried with brow furrowed in puzzlement, comes from others who imagine a dark, cold, punishment rivaled only by going to, say, the dentist.

In either case, that is the cue to rattle off a list of myth-busting facts about Europe's second-largest island. The weather, for example -- the Gulf Stream makes the average winter temperature in the capital, Reykjavik, and on the rest of the southern and western coasts, on par with New York. Although winter has little sunlight and frequent rain, revelry ensues in the summer, beneath the midnight sun.

Some people happen to know that Iceland has few trees. This makes for a vast, open landscape that imparts a feeling of unfetteredness and calm, punctuated by the awe of its dramatic rock formations. Despite the tree shortage, the adage, "Iceland is green and Greenland is ice," is true. There is no lack of greenery with hundreds of types of mosses and lichen in as many hues covering the hillsides.

The enchanting landscape helps explain why 60% of the population believes in elves, gnomes, fairies and hidden people -- and the other 40% won't argue that they don't exist.

Driving the southern coast, waterfalls are so abundant it seems each of the country's 265,000 residents could lay claim to one each.

My first stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the oldest surviving parliament, called the Althing, was founded in 930. This natural amphitheater, formed by rock, remains unchanged. The setting invites you to imagine the democratic proceedings unfolding on a bright summer evening. Perhaps it is the primitiveness of the surroundings that conveyed a sense of antiquity even more than, say, the ruins of the ancient Greeks and Romans, despite the fact that Thingvellir is not as old.

The trails here wind along the clearest glacial waters, meandering by wildflowers and mosses and to hilltops overlooking the valley. But Iceland's landscape is characterized as much by drama as it is tranquility. With it's waterfalls, volcanoes and geysers, Iceland seems constantly in flux.

The geysers (which gave the world this generic term for spouting hot springs) looked temptingly like natural Jacuzzis on the damp afternoon I visited them. The geyser Strokkur erupted on schedule, spewing water about 50 feet every eight minutes. At Gullfoss, the river Hvita plunged more than 100 feet in two tiers of astounding power.

What makes this natural wonder even more unique is how undisturbed it remains, despite the number of visitors it receives. Virtually the only man-made marker along the falls is a simple string thread through foot-high stakes in the ground.

One can easily go beyond it to the edge to take in the depths of the canyon, more than 200-feet deep and more than a mile long. From here, I drove about 75 miles southeast along Route 1, the "ring road" which encircles all of Iceland, to Dyrholaey, the island's most southern point.

I arrived at sunset, taking my rented Toyota compact four miles along a rocky, dirt road.

At the road's end a nearly 400-foot high rock arch, carved by Atlantic breakers, extends from the sea. Boats and planes can pass through the arch, along the black sand beach, and by the rock spires which stand like sentinels along the shore.

The only sound here is of the wind, the sea and the wings of herons wafting from still ponds. I was indeed at the top of the world. More information is available from the Icelandic Tourist Board at (212) 885-9747.

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