Stunning Splendor of Iceland

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I was aware of the buzz surrounding Iceland as a new travel “hot spot,” but the only in-depth coverage I had actually come across was filtered through the acerbic wit of Anthony Bourdain on an episode of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations.” (There seemed to be a lot of late-night drinking and eating of odd foods….)

On the whole, I tend to avoid “it” destinations, as they usually boast nothing more than overpriced attractions and the latest in hip venues for the cool kids. But this time, someone got it right. While I didn’t know exactly what to expect from my first visit to Iceland, I’m sure glad I got on the plane!

Iceland

Surprise, surprise!
Living on the West Coast, I’m prepared for long flight times and often markedly higher airfares to most destinations. But, thanks to Icelandair’s seasonal (May-October) nonstop service from San Francisco, West Coast travelers need only invest about 8½ hours when flying into Iceland’s capital. And for those on the East Coast, it’s a relatively short 5½-hour hop.

I was pleasantly surprised at the fare as well, which, during the time of my May ’06 visit, started at $610 (economy) for the San Francisco-Reykjavik round trip.

I flew Icelandair’s Saga Class, which offered better food than I’d experienced on almost any other international flight plus the option of a handheld personal DVD player with a selection of films to help pass the time. (This option is also available in economy at a cost of $15.)

Upon arrival at Keflavik International Airport, I met the group of journalists with whom I would be traveling. In an effort to stave off jet lag, our guide whisked us away for a soak in the waters of the Blue Lagoon, about a 15-minute drive from the airport. What a fabulous first impression!

Established in 1976 from the runoff of a geothermal power plant, the Blue Lagoon has been drawing visitors since it opened to the public for bathing in 1987. After undergoing a complete renovation in 1999, the Blue Lagoon & Spa now combines its healing waters with the stylish Scandinavian design of its new spa facilities and restaurant.

As I’m most often a bundle of aching muscles following a flight, thanks to damage from a car accident years ago, I was more than ready for a dip in the steaming, milky blue seawater, which boasts a host of minerals that, along with blue-green algae and silica, are purported to provide relief for psoriasis sufferers.

After about an hour, I was well relaxed but revitalized and ready for my first meal in Iceland. At the on-site restaurant, my gorgeous plate of monkfish with barley risotto (ISK2,050, or $29) tasted as good as it looked, the first of many outstanding meals I would have on this trip.

The steaming waters of the Blue LagoonThe steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon 

Yet another surprise — while the prices for meals in Iceland could be, well, “spendy,” as they say here in Oregon, the quality was exceptional. Ingredients were extremely fresh (fish caught that day) and healthy, with vegetables cooked perfectly rather than to death as they are in many European cities. The combination of flavors and the visual appeal of each course was gourmet standard, even in seemingly remote locations.

Fully sated, we continued on to Reykjavik, where we checked into the 4-star Nordica Hotel (+354 444 5000, www.ice hotels.is), an Iceland­air property. Typical of most of the architecture we encountered in Iceland, the rather austere exterior gave way to a chicly designed interior. Throughout the trip, I was continually surprised each time I walked through a new door.

More important, however, was the fact that my room had hefty black-out curtains, something that would prove to be a necessity for sleep at this time of year as it never really got dark but rather just darkish for an hour or two before the sun poked its bright, shiny head out again. If you’re really sensitive to light, a sleep mask might be a smart item to pack. (Or consider visiting in winter, when too much sun is never a problem.)

Rack rates here start at ISK15,000 ($211) single and ISK16,700 ($235) double, depending on the season, but I’d recommend checking their website for special offers before booking. (At the time of this writing, a promotion including a sizeable ISK5,000 discount was featured.)

Stark landscapes
We left Reykjavik to travel north to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, crossing the Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) via an underwater tunnel. Completed in 1998, the tunnel cuts nearly an hour off the former ring-road journey.

A dramatic landscape shaped by ages of volcanic activity rolled past my window: undulating black basalt expanses almost wholly unmarked by vegetation and punctuated by soaring peaks dusted with snow. I began to understand why many people come away from a visit to Iceland with the word “big” in mind, something many Icelanders don’t quite comprehend coming from Americans. (Iceland is, in fact, only about as large as the state of Ohio.) But for this section of the island, perhaps “empty” is a more accurate description.

Quiet scene at StykkishólmurQuiet scene at Stykkishólmur 

Outside of Reykjavik, the island is sparsely inhabited, and the land, offering clear views for miles in every direction, evokes a feeling of enormity. When you do come across a little dwelling in the midst of this expansive terrain, however, you never know what you’ll find.

Think theme from “Jaws” (everyone, dun-duhn, dun-duhn, dun-duhn…)

In our case, a memorable — if a bit terrifying — food experience awaited. Our cheerful, accommodating driver, Þorgeir, had a friend (it seemed everyone was a friend of a friend on this island) who happened to be a supplier of one of Iceland’s legendary “delicacies”: putrefied shark.

Known to make a grand appearance at the annual Thorrablót Midwinter Feast, which takes place each January, the shark claims its place among other Viking festival faves, including soured ram’s testicles, sheep’s-brain jelly and seal flippers.

While I expected a stomach-turning stench and an even more awful taste, I have to admit that it wasn’t that bad. The flavor, while definitely fishy, wasn’t super strong; it was the texture (think thick rubber bands) that I found a little difficult to get past.

My only question is “Why?” I think the answer is “To torture tourists,” as most locals we spoke to turned up their noses at the mention of it.

Continuing on, we ended our day’s journey at the seaside village of Stykkishólmur. The weather, which was cool but sunny and pleasant in Reykjavik, turned unseasonably cold — well, freezing, I suppose — as snowflakes swirled in the gusting wind.

After checking in at Hótel Stykkishólmur, which was a bit dated but in the process of a complete renovation, we took shelter at Narfeyrarstofa (Aðalgötu 3) for an incredible dinner including a lovely cream soup of mushrooms and Icelandic moss. This quaint restaurant is a great choice for a meal in the area.

After a brisk (translation, extremity-numbing) jaunt back to our hotel in a local horse-drawn carriage, I retired for the night, while others from our group took the owner up on his offer to use the hotel’s clubs for a few holes of midnight golf on the course out back. Anything to keep the jet-lagged guests happy!

A day at sea
When visiting a seaside village, it makes sense to get out on the sea, and we did just that on a cruise to visit a few of the thousand tiny islands that lie off the coast of Stykkishólmur. A haven for a variety of birds, depending on the season, the islands were once inhabited by farmers, but now all but one of the islands have been surrendered to the local wildlife.

Braving the icy winds was a number of bird-watchers, attached to their binoculars and ticking off each new sighting. I just enjoyed the view and the motion of the boat on the water (after having taken my meclizine, of course).

The highlight of the cruise, though, was the fresh catch pulled up from the bottom of the sea. An announcement was made and everyone ran out on deck to watch a trawling net being lifted from the water filled with glistening creatures. The net was dumped out on a table and fresh scallops were shucked to be enjoyed raw by guests.

Now, I’m not really one for raw shellfish — or raw anything, for that matter — but when in Rome…. So I stepped up to the front of the line and accepted what was being offered. Once again I was surprised, by the firmness of the raw scallop and the exceptional taste, seasoned only by the saltwater from which this creature came. You can’t get any fresher than that!

Passengers eagerly wait while staff shuck freshly caught scallops.Staff shuck freshly caught scallops. 

This unexpected treat made up for the onboard starter of grilled puffin, the taste of which evoked not-so-fresh fish with a hint of liver. (However, I was told that this wasn’t the favored preparation method, so I can’t really condemn puffin on the whole.) The horror on the faces of the British bird-watchers didn’t make it go down any easier.

The price for our Seatours cruise, with buffet meal, was ISK6,100 ($86). For more information on this and other water-related offerings, phone +354 438 1450 or visit www.seatours.is.

Mystical site
Perhaps the most notable draw on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is Snaefellsjökull, the glacier made famous in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” But in Iceland, this site holds meaning far beyond its literary reference.

Believed to be a site of great spiritual energy, the glacier draws visitors curious about its powerful potential as well as those who are awed by its natural beauty.

Located at the foot of the glacier is Hotel Hellnar (+354 435 6820, www.hellnar.is), winner of the Iceland Tourism Board’s Environmental Award.

The small hotel is run by the exceedingly charming Gudrun Bergmann and, in addition to striking views of the glacier and the coastline, offers guests a variety of activities, including glacier tours, whale-watching, horseback riding and hiking. (Tours must be prebooked.)

To take advantage of the extraordinary location, a meditation house will be built this winter, providing a place for guests to meditate or practice yoga by spring of next year. Room rates start at ISK8,400 ($118) single and 10,700 ($150) double, including breakfast. (These rates reflect an early-booking discount.)

It was here, surrounded by the mystique of the area, that I heard the first allusions to the otherworldly aspect of Iceland. This country of spectacularly dramatic natural wonders is also home, for many, to the not-so-often-voiced belief in huldufólk (hidden people).

Ingrained in the culture and folklore of Iceland, the belief in, or at least an acknowledgment of the possibility of, elves, trolls, dwarves, fairies and mountain spirits seems to pop up in the most mundane of places. (You’ve got to love a country where you can find a map with ghosts and scantily clad monsters in its legend, making travelers aware of the locations of haunted places and man-eating trolls.)

Road construction plans have been altered to accommodate rocks in which hidden people are believed to preside, and in Reykjavik, a high-tech, modern city, there is even an Elf School (Álfaskólinn), where visitors can learn about the unique attributes of each member of this hidden world.

While some may call them crazy, I believe this quirky trait is simply an extension of Icelanders’ open-mindedness and their belief that anything is possible — with a bit of influence from years of long, dark winters in relative isolation thrown in for good measure. But why tempt fate? Apparently, elfin payback can be hell.

A night to savor
We arrived back in Reykjavik for perhaps the most memorable dining experience I’ve ever had. A night out at Reykjavik’s Seafood Cellar (Aðalstræti 2; www.sjavarkjallarinn.is), one of Condé Nast’s Top Table winners for 2004, is one to remember. Asian-influenced cuisine is exquisitely presented (as a potter, I was as excited by the tableware as by the food itself) and, once again, the taste and quality were out of this world.

We enjoyed the group “exotic” menu, which included plates and plates of different selections from which everyone could sample a bit of everything. What a great way to get a feeling for what a restaurant offers, and I can honestly say you can’t go wrong with any menu choice.

I particularly enjoyed the kangaroo (yes, another first for me, but it was fabulous), the soft-shell crab tempura and, not to be outshined by the extravagant main courses, the concoction of chopped cashews, wasabi and anise that was served with mango-infused oil as a condiment for the bread.

Prices for dinner entrées range from ISK2,700 to ISK5,900 ($38-$83, service included) in keeping with the city’s high cost of living, but if you’re looking for an opportunity to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime meal, I would recommend a reservation here.

Perhaps a bit more affordable way to enjoy the cuisine would be a lunch visit, when dishes average 1,700-2700 kronurs, or $24-$38.

A sports lover’s paradise
After an overnight at the Park Inn (Ármúli 9; www.rezidorparkinn.com), we were picked up at our hotel by our friendly, informative guide, Gunnar, who would accompany us for a 2-day super-jeep tour of the country’s more spectacular natural attractions. This, I must say, was my favorite part of the trip.

The sheer splendor of Iceland’s south-central landscape just east of Reykjavik was inspiring. We traded the dark, brooding terrain of the east coast for lush green hillsides steaming with geothermal hot springs.

Ideal for outdoor adventure, the area offers visitors a variety of activities, including kayaking, white-water rafting, glacier hiking, snowmobiling, caving and dogsledding, depending on the season. But on this trip, we enjoyed all of the visual stimulation without necessarily experiencing too much physical stress.

At Gullfoss, one of the bigger waterfalls in the area, a gently sloping trail quickly leads visitors to the top of the falls for a stunning view, and at Skógafoss, the parking lot sits practically underneath the waterfall (although the short walk to the falls is over loose stones, so you should be surefooted if you wish to get closer). A steep climb leads the more adventurous to the top.

Our super-jeep, specially designed to travel over rough terrain and snow, had room for 10, making a group outing a breeze. (The company offers smaller-sized vehicles as well.) While the ride was exhilarating, it was pretty bumpy at times, so take precautions if you are prone to motion sickness.

After rambling about in the crisp spring air (still quite a bit colder than normal for this time of year), we had worked up an appetite, and the tiny village of Stokkseyri awaited. Here we found Fjöruborðið (Eyrarbraut 3A; www.fjorubordid.is), a cozy little place that attracts patrons looking for one thing: lobster.

It’s not a stuffy place where black-tied waiters bring you a giant lobster on a silver platter. No, it’s a comfortable, get-your-hands-dirty joint that plunks down a huge pan of smallish tails (about the size of langoustines) drenched in butter, herbs and lemon and gives you an empty bucket for the shells. Fabulous!

Prices start at ISK2,750 ($38.50) for just over a half pound of lobster. Accompany your meal with cucumber salad, tomatoes, couscous, green salad and potatoes for an additional ISK590 ($8).

Stuffed to the gills, we drove on for an overnight at Hótel Flúðir (Vesturbrún 1; www.icehotels.is). Once again, a rather utilitarian building transformed as I walked through the door. I really enjoyed this hotel, whose smart design was enhanced by a pleasant staff and a homey, comfortable atmosphere.

Listed room rates, including breakfast, start at ISK 8,200 ($115) single and ISK10,200 ($143) double, depending on the season. However, check the hotel’s website, as they often offer discounted rates online.

Oh, the wind!
Our final super-jeep day was made all the more interesting by unbelievable winds. They reached their peak at Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament. The landscape here was otherworldly, with not only the visible separation between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates but an expansive turquoise lake. Note: when your guide tells you to hold onto the car door to keep it from flying off the hinges if you plan on venturing out, it’s a good idea to stay inside.

We were told repeatedly that the weather conditions were very unusual for this time of year, which I tend to believe, as many of the locals expressed their dismay as well, but it taught me one key element of traveling in Iceland: be prepared!

What to take
When packing for Iceland, it’s a good idea to prepare for every possibility. Layers are a good idea in the spring and summer, as the weather can change on a dime, but you might want to throw in a warm jacket, a hat, a scarf and gloves just in case. Thermals are also a good idea.

Thanks to Iceland’s excess of geothermal energy, heated public swimming pools can be found just about everywhere, so a bathing suit is a must on your packing list. With entrance fees around ISK280 (just under $4), it’s a good option for those looking for a budget activity. And, of course, you’ll need it if you plan on visiting the Blue Lagoon (+354 420 8800, www.bluelagoon.com), where the entry fee to the pool is a reasonable ISK1,400 ($20) or, for seniors (67+), ISK900 ($13).

Finally, make sure you pack your credit card. ATMs can be found throughout Iceland, but credit-card use is also easy, if not downright encouraged. (Even cabs are set up to make credit-card transactions.) Iceland is not cheap, but I think value for dollar is fair in most cases.

What to bring home
Souvenirs can be a rather personal choice, but there are a few things unique to Iceland that might bring back memories of this incredible country or make a great gift for those at home who missed out.

When traveling to Europe, I like to bring back a good local wine. However, this is not a winning idea in Iceland, as most of it is imported and it can be extremely expensive (especially California wines, making them a nice gift for Icelanders, should you need one). But Reyka vodka, produced in Iceland’s only vodka distillery, is a great alternative.

I very rarely drink, and I don’t really care for the “hard stuff,” but after tasting this product, unique to Iceland as it’s made from the country’s natural springwater and filtered through its lava rock, I was sold. The taste is really crisp and clean, without the bite usually found in other brands.

You can pick up a bottle at the duty-free shop at the airport for about $20. (It is also being exported to the U.S. I found it online at Beverages & More for around $14, but they were, understandably, sold out.)

Another unique discovery, for me, was Sirius chocolate, with licorice. Now, it sounds like an odd combination, but I’m already regretting not buying more, as my stash is running low and my family, friends and I are now addicted.
My favorite is the bar with little bits of firm licorice (the label says Nizza lakkriskurl), but the little chocolate balls with licorice caramel centers (Nóa Kúlur) are also really yummy. Try to find them before you get to the airport (check at any 10-11, Iceland’s version of 7-11), as I found other types of Sirius chocolate bars there but not these.

While chocolate and alcohol are pretty safe bets at the airport as far as fair prices go, I found other items to be rather inflated. I purchased a T-shirt at the shop at Geysir and found the same shirt at the airport priced at nearly 1,000 kronur ($14) more, and that was the duty-free price!

For other unique gifts, I’d suggest a visit to Álafoss Factory Outlet & Art Gallery (Álafossvegi 23; www.alafoss.is) in Mosfellsbæ, 15 kilometers outside of Reykjavik. They carry a good selection of Icelandic wool sweaters at prices much cheaper than those we saw anywhere else, as well as one-of-a-kind pottery, books and, for you crafters, a good variety of yarns and colored wool.

And, as is true all over Iceland, if your purchase totals 4,000 kronurs ($55) or more, you will get a form to receive a 15% refund of the included 24.5% VAT, which is processed efficiently at the airport bank, located near the Blue Lagoon shop just past the security area.

One more reason to visit
While I was truly impressed by the sights and tastes I had experienced, what really made this trip — I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true — were the people. Everyone we met was so helpful, so well spoken, so engaging and just downright genuine.

I found their spirit, their caring about the environment and the welfare of others, their seeming suspension of religious-based judgment and their penchant for embracing what life gives them to be extremely refreshing. As one Icelander told us, in Iceland, “there are no problems, only solutions.”

After only a week, I am in love.

Beth Habian was a guest of Icelandair and the Icelandic Tourist Board (New York, NY; 212/885-9700, www.icelandtouristboard.com).

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I was aware of the buzz surrounding Iceland as a new travel “hot spot,” but the only in-depth coverage I had actually come across was filtered through the acerbic wit of Anthony Bourdain on an episode of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations.” (There seemed to be a lot of late-night drinking and eating of odd foods….)

On the whole, I tend to avoid “it” destinations, as they usually boast nothing more than overpriced attractions and the latest in hip venues for the cool kids. But this time, someone got it right. While I didn’t know exactly what to expect from my first visit to Iceland, I’m sure glad I got on the plane!

Iceland

Surprise, surprise!
Living on the West Coast, I’m prepared for long flight times and often markedly higher airfares to most destinations. But, thanks to Icelandair’s seasonal (May-October) nonstop service from San Francisco, West Coast travelers need only invest about 8½ hours when flying into Iceland’s capital. And for those on the East Coast, it’s a relatively short 5½-hour hop.

I was pleasantly surprised at the fare as well, which, during the time of my May ’06 visit, started at $610 (economy) for the San Francisco-Reykjavik round trip.

I flew Icelandair’s Saga Class, which offered better food than I’d experienced on almost any other international flight plus the option of a handheld personal DVD player with a selection of films to help pass the time. (This option is also available in economy at a cost of $15.)

Upon arrival at Keflavik International Airport, I met the group of journalists with whom I would be traveling. In an effort to stave off jet lag, our guide whisked us away for a soak in the waters of the Blue Lagoon, about a 15-minute drive from the airport. What a fabulous first impression!

Established in 1976 from the runoff of a geothermal power plant, the Blue Lagoon has been drawing visitors since it opened to the public for bathing in 1987. After undergoing a complete renovation in 1999, the Blue Lagoon & Spa now combines its healing waters with the stylish Scandinavian design of its new spa facilities and restaurant.

As I’m most often a bundle of aching muscles following a flight, thanks to damage from a car accident years ago, I was more than ready for a dip in the steaming, milky blue seawater, which boasts a host of minerals that, along with blue-green algae and silica, are purported to provide relief for psoriasis sufferers.

After about an hour, I was well relaxed but revitalized and ready for my first meal in Iceland. At the on-site restaurant, my gorgeous plate of monkfish with barley risotto (ISK2,050, or $29) tasted as good as it looked, the first of many outstanding meals I would have on this trip.

The steaming waters of the Blue LagoonThe steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon 

Yet another surprise — while the prices for meals in Iceland could be, well, “spendy,” as they say here in Oregon, the quality was exceptional. Ingredients were extremely fresh (fish caught that day) and healthy, with vegetables cooked perfectly rather than to death as they are in many European cities. The combination of flavors and the visual appeal of each course was gourmet standard, even in seemingly remote locations.

Fully sated, we continued on to Reykjavik, where we checked into the 4-star Nordica Hotel (+354 444 5000, www.ice hotels.is), an Iceland­air property. Typical of most of the architecture we encountered in Iceland, the rather austere exterior gave way to a chicly designed interior. Throughout the trip, I was continually surprised each time I walked through a new door.

More important, however, was the fact that my room had hefty black-out curtains, something that would prove to be a necessity for sleep at this time of year as it never really got dark but rather just darkish for an hour or two before the sun poked its bright, shiny head out again. If you’re really sensitive to light, a sleep mask might be a smart item to pack. (Or consider visiting in winter, when too much sun is never a problem.)

Rack rates here start at ISK15,000 ($211) single and ISK16,700 ($235) double, depending on the season, but I’d recommend checking their website for special offers before booking. (At the time of this writing, a promotion including a sizeable ISK5,000 discount was featured.)

Stark landscapes
We left Reykjavik to travel north to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, crossing the Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) via an underwater tunnel. Completed in 1998, the tunnel cuts nearly an hour off the former ring-road journey.

A dramatic landscape shaped by ages of volcanic activity rolled past my window: undulating black basalt expanses almost wholly unmarked by vegetation and punctuated by soaring peaks dusted with snow. I began to understand why many people come away from a visit to Iceland with the word “big” in mind, something many Icelanders don’t quite comprehend coming from Americans. (Iceland is, in fact, only about as large as the state of Ohio.) But for this section of the island, perhaps “empty” is a more accurate description.

Quiet scene at StykkishólmurQuiet scene at Stykkishólmur 

Outside of Reykjavik, the island is sparsely inhabited, and the land, offering clear views for miles in every direction, evokes a feeling of enormity. When you do come across a little dwelling in the midst of this expansive terrain, however, you never know what you’ll find.

Think theme from “Jaws” (everyone, dun-duhn, dun-duhn, dun-duhn…)

In our case, a memorable — if a bit terrifying — food experience awaited. Our cheerful, accommodating driver, Þorgeir, had a friend (it seemed everyone was a friend of a friend on this island) who happened to be a supplier of one of Iceland’s legendary “delicacies”: putrefied shark.

Known to make a grand appearance at the annual Thorrablót Midwinter Feast, which takes place each January, the shark claims its place among other Viking festival faves, including soured ram’s testicles, sheep’s-brain jelly and seal flippers.

While I expected a stomach-turning stench and an even more awful taste, I have to admit that it wasn’t that bad. The flavor, while definitely fishy, wasn’t super strong; it was the texture (think thick rubber bands) that I found a little difficult to get past.

My only question is “Why?” I think the answer is “To torture tourists,” as most locals we spoke to turned up their noses at the mention of it.

Continuing on, we ended our day’s journey at the seaside village of Stykkishólmur. The weather, which was cool but sunny and pleasant in Reykjavik, turned unseasonably cold — well, freezing, I suppose — as snowflakes swirled in the gusting wind.

After checking in at Hótel Stykkishólmur, which was a bit dated but in the process of a complete renovation, we took shelter at Narfeyrarstofa (Aðalgötu 3) for an incredible dinner including a lovely cream soup of mushrooms and Icelandic moss. This quaint restaurant is a great choice for a meal in the area.

After a brisk (translation, extremity-numbing) jaunt back to our hotel in a local horse-drawn carriage, I retired for the night, while others from our group took the owner up on his offer to use the hotel’s clubs for a few holes of midnight golf on the course out back. Anything to keep the jet-lagged guests happy!

A day at sea
When visiting a seaside village, it makes sense to get out on the sea, and we did just that on a cruise to visit a few of the thousand tiny islands that lie off the coast of Stykkishólmur. A haven for a variety of birds, depending on the season, the islands were once inhabited by farmers, but now all but one of the islands have been surrendered to the local wildlife.

Braving the icy winds was a number of bird-watchers, attached to their binoculars and ticking off each new sighting. I just enjoyed the view and the motion of the boat on the water (after having taken my meclizine, of course).

The highlight of the cruise, though, was the fresh catch pulled up from the bottom of the sea. An announcement was made and everyone ran out on deck to watch a trawling net being lifted from the water filled with glistening creatures. The net was dumped out on a table and fresh scallops were shucked to be enjoyed raw by guests.

Now, I’m not really one for raw shellfish — or raw anything, for that matter — but when in Rome…. So I stepped up to the front of the line and accepted what was being offered. Once again I was surprised, by the firmness of the raw scallop and the exceptional taste, seasoned only by the saltwater from which this creature came. You can’t get any fresher than that!

Passengers eagerly wait while staff shuck freshly caught scallops.Staff shuck freshly caught scallops. 

This unexpected treat made up for the onboard starter of grilled puffin, the taste of which evoked not-so-fresh fish with a hint of liver. (However, I was told that this wasn’t the favored preparation method, so I can’t really condemn puffin on the whole.) The horror on the faces of the British bird-watchers didn’t make it go down any easier.

The price for our Seatours cruise, with buffet meal, was ISK6,100 ($86). For more information on this and other water-related offerings, phone +354 438 1450 or visit www.seatours.is.

Mystical site
Perhaps the most notable draw on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is Snaefellsjökull, the glacier made famous in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” But in Iceland, this site holds meaning far beyond its literary reference.

Believed to be a site of great spiritual energy, the glacier draws visitors curious about its powerful potential as well as those who are awed by its natural beauty.

Located at the foot of the glacier is Hotel Hellnar (+354 435 6820, www.hellnar.is), winner of the Iceland Tourism Board’s Environmental Award.

The small hotel is run by the exceedingly charming Gudrun Bergmann and, in addition to striking views of the glacier and the coastline, offers guests a variety of activities, including glacier tours, whale-watching, horseback riding and hiking. (Tours must be prebooked.)

To take advantage of the extraordinary location, a meditation house will be built this winter, providing a place for guests to meditate or practice yoga by spring of next year. Room rates start at ISK8,400 ($118) single and 10,700 ($150) double, including breakfast. (These rates reflect an early-booking discount.)

It was here, surrounded by the mystique of the area, that I heard the first allusions to the otherworldly aspect of Iceland. This country of spectacularly dramatic natural wonders is also home, for many, to the not-so-often-voiced belief in huldufólk (hidden people).

Ingrained in the culture and folklore of Iceland, the belief in, or at least an acknowledgment of the possibility of, elves, trolls, dwarves, fairies and mountain spirits seems to pop up in the most mundane of places. (You’ve got to love a country where you can find a map with ghosts and scantily clad monsters in its legend, making travelers aware of the locations of haunted places and man-eating trolls.)

Road construction plans have been altered to accommodate rocks in which hidden people are believed to preside, and in Reykjavik, a high-tech, modern city, there is even an Elf School (Álfaskólinn), where visitors can learn about the unique attributes of each member of this hidden world.

While some may call them crazy, I believe this quirky trait is simply an extension of Icelanders’ open-mindedness and their belief that anything is possible — with a bit of influence from years of long, dark winters in relative isolation thrown in for good measure. But why tempt fate? Apparently, elfin payback can be hell.

A night to savor
We arrived back in Reykjavik for perhaps the most memorable dining experience I’ve ever had. A night out at Reykjavik’s Seafood Cellar (Aðalstræti 2; www.sjavarkjallarinn.is), one of Condé Nast’s Top Table winners for 2004, is one to remember. Asian-influenced cuisine is exquisitely presented (as a potter, I was as excited by the tableware as by the food itself) and, once again, the taste and quality were out of this world.

We enjoyed the group “exotic” menu, which included plates and plates of different selections from which everyone could sample a bit of everything. What a great way to get a feeling for what a restaurant offers, and I can honestly say you can’t go wrong with any menu choice.

I particularly enjoyed the kangaroo (yes, another first for me, but it was fabulous), the soft-shell crab tempura and, not to be outshined by the extravagant main courses, the concoction of chopped cashews, wasabi and anise that was served with mango-infused oil as a condiment for the bread.

Prices for dinner entrées range from ISK2,700 to ISK5,900 ($38-$83, service included) in keeping with the city’s high cost of living, but if you’re looking for an opportunity to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime meal, I would recommend a reservation here.

Perhaps a bit more affordable way to enjoy the cuisine would be a lunch visit, when dishes average 1,700-2700 kronurs, or $24-$38.

A sports lover’s paradise
After an overnight at the Park Inn (Ármúli 9; www.rezidorparkinn.com), we were picked up at our hotel by our friendly, informative guide, Gunnar, who would accompany us for a 2-day super-jeep tour of the country’s more spectacular natural attractions. This, I must say, was my favorite part of the trip.

The sheer splendor of Iceland’s south-central landscape just east of Reykjavik was inspiring. We traded the dark, brooding terrain of the east coast for lush green hillsides steaming with geothermal hot springs.

Ideal for outdoor adventure, the area offers visitors a variety of activities, including kayaking, white-water rafting, glacier hiking, snowmobiling, caving and dogsledding, depending on the season. But on this trip, we enjoyed all of the visual stimulation without necessarily experiencing too much physical stress.

At Gullfoss, one of the bigger waterfalls in the area, a gently sloping trail quickly leads visitors to the top of the falls for a stunning view, and at Skógafoss, the parking lot sits practically underneath the waterfall (although the short walk to the falls is over loose stones, so you should be surefooted if you wish to get closer). A steep climb leads the more adventurous to the top.

Our super-jeep, specially designed to travel over rough terrain and snow, had room for 10, making a group outing a breeze. (The company offers smaller-sized vehicles as well.) While the ride was exhilarating, it was pretty bumpy at times, so take precautions if you are prone to motion sickness.

After rambling about in the crisp spring air (still quite a bit colder than normal for this time of year), we had worked up an appetite, and the tiny village of Stokkseyri awaited. Here we found Fjöruborðið (Eyrarbraut 3A; www.fjorubordid.is), a cozy little place that attracts patrons looking for one thing: lobster.

It’s not a stuffy place where black-tied waiters bring you a giant lobster on a silver platter. No, it’s a comfortable, get-your-hands-dirty joint that plunks down a huge pan of smallish tails (about the size of langoustines) drenched in butter, herbs and lemon and gives you an empty bucket for the shells. Fabulous!

Prices start at ISK2,750 ($38.50) for just over a half pound of lobster. Accompany your meal with cucumber salad, tomatoes, couscous, green salad and potatoes for an additional ISK590 ($8).

Stuffed to the gills, we drove on for an overnight at Hótel Flúðir (Vesturbrún 1; www.icehotels.is). Once again, a rather utilitarian building transformed as I walked through the door. I really enjoyed this hotel, whose smart design was enhanced by a pleasant staff and a homey, comfortable atmosphere.

Listed room rates, including breakfast, start at ISK 8,200 ($115) single and ISK10,200 ($143) double, depending on the season. However, check the hotel’s website, as they often offer discounted rates online.

Oh, the wind!
Our final super-jeep day was made all the more interesting by unbelievable winds. They reached their peak at Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament. The landscape here was otherworldly, with not only the visible separation between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates but an expansive turquoise lake. Note: when your guide tells you to hold onto the car door to keep it from flying off the hinges if you plan on venturing out, it’s a good idea to stay inside.

We were told repeatedly that the weather conditions were very unusual for this time of year, which I tend to believe, as many of the locals expressed their dismay as well, but it taught me one key element of traveling in Iceland: be prepared!

What to take
When packing for Iceland, it’s a good idea to prepare for every possibility. Layers are a good idea in the spring and summer, as the weather can change on a dime, but you might want to throw in a warm jacket, a hat, a scarf and gloves just in case. Thermals are also a good idea.

Thanks to Iceland’s excess of geothermal energy, heated public swimming pools can be found just about everywhere, so a bathing suit is a must on your packing list. With entrance fees around ISK280 (just under $4), it’s a good option for those looking for a budget activity. And, of course, you’ll need it if you plan on visiting the Blue Lagoon (+354 420 8800, www.bluelagoon.com), where the entry fee to the pool is a reasonable ISK1,400 ($20) or, for seniors (67+), ISK900 ($13).

Finally, make sure you pack your credit card. ATMs can be found throughout Iceland, but credit-card use is also easy, if not downright encouraged. (Even cabs are set up to make credit-card transactions.) Iceland is not cheap, but I think value for dollar is fair in most cases.

What to bring home
Souvenirs can be a rather personal choice, but there are a few things unique to Iceland that might bring back memories of this incredible country or make a great gift for those at home who missed out.

When traveling to Europe, I like to bring back a good local wine. However, this is not a winning idea in Iceland, as most of it is imported and it can be extremely expensive (especially California wines, making them a nice gift for Icelanders, should you need one). But Reyka vodka, produced in Iceland’s only vodka distillery, is a great alternative.

I very rarely drink, and I don’t really care for the “hard stuff,” but after tasting this product, unique to Iceland as it’s made from the country’s natural springwater and filtered through its lava rock, I was sold. The taste is really crisp and clean, without the bite usually found in other brands.

You can pick up a bottle at the duty-free shop at the airport for about $20. (It is also being exported to the U.S. I found it online at Beverages & More for around $14, but they were, understandably, sold out.)

Another unique discovery, for me, was Sirius chocolate, with licorice. Now, it sounds like an odd combination, but I’m already regretting not buying more, as my stash is running low and my family, friends and I are now addicted.
My favorite is the bar with little bits of firm licorice (the label says Nizza lakkriskurl), but the little chocolate balls with licorice caramel centers (Nóa Kúlur) are also really yummy. Try to find them before you get to the airport (check at any 10-11, Iceland’s version of 7-11), as I found other types of Sirius chocolate bars there but not these.

While chocolate and alcohol are pretty safe bets at the airport as far as fair prices go, I found other items to be rather inflated. I purchased a T-shirt at the shop at Geysir and found the same shirt at the airport priced at nearly 1,000 kronur ($14) more, and that was the duty-free price!

For other unique gifts, I’d suggest a visit to Álafoss Factory Outlet & Art Gallery (Álafossvegi 23; www.alafoss.is) in Mosfellsbæ, 15 kilometers outside of Reykjavik. They carry a good selection of Icelandic wool sweaters at prices much cheaper than those we saw anywhere else, as well as one-of-a-kind pottery, books and, for you crafters, a good variety of yarns and colored wool.

And, as is true all over Iceland, if your purchase totals 4,000 kronurs ($55) or more, you will get a form to receive a 15% refund of the included 24.5% VAT, which is processed efficiently at the airport bank, located near the Blue Lagoon shop just past the security area.

One more reason to visit
While I was truly impressed by the sights and tastes I had experienced, what really made this trip — I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true — were the people. Everyone we met was so helpful, so well spoken, so engaging and just downright genuine.

I found their spirit, their caring about the environment and the welfare of others, their seeming suspension of religious-based judgment and their penchant for embracing what life gives them to be extremely refreshing. As one Icelander told us, in Iceland, “there are no problems, only solutions.”

After only a week, I am in love.

Beth Habian was a guest of Icelandair and the Icelandic Tourist Board (New York, NY; 212/885-9700, www.icelandtouristboard.com).