Iceland has an impressive number of natural wonders. Land of the midnight sun
By Laura Lippstone, Sunday News Correspondent
Pondering a vacation? How about Iceland, any time of year?
In some ways, this piece of Europe straddling the Arctic Circle in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is a bit like Lancaster County. Farms dot the countryside. And dairy products and livestock are an integral part of Icelandic life.
While Lancaster County was settled primarily by Germans, Iceland was settled by Nordic Vikings and Celtic tribes. Like Lancaster County, the country has strong Protestant ties --Lutheran being the dominant sect.
Suprisingly, the population of this country the size of Kentucky is roughly 300,000 -- less than Lancaster County.
How can a country so far north grow anything? The weather phenomenon known as the Gulf Stream keeps Iceland not too warm and not too cold. Though it's considerably cooler than Lancaster in the summer, it's frequently warmer in the winter. (During a cold snap in January, Lancaster was 20 degrees colder than Reykjavik, Iceland's largest city and the most-northern capital in the world.)
But that's where the similarity ends. The people speak Icelandic, which hearkens back to Viking days.
And unlike Lancaster County's farms, Iceland's live in the shadows of a beautiful menace -- volcanoes that are still very much alive. In fact, one of them erupted just two years ago, spewing a plume of volcanic ash that disrupted trans-Atlantic air travel for days.
Iceland has an impressive number of natural wonders all rolled up into one country -- including the volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers and endless rugged coastline.
Along with a national park that's on the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage sites -- where you can actually walk the dividing line between North America and Europe -- there are the Northern Lights, that colorful collision of sun and earth particles that pains the night skies.
There are also natural hot springs spawned from all that volcanic activity. Because they come from deep in the earth, they provide what's known as geothermal energy.
It's the source of much of the country's heat, electricity and hot water.
The telltale signs of nature are apparent when the shower and tap are turned on. The water often smells like rotten eggs.
This same water is the source of naturally warm geothermal pools, which are a popular place to swim, even in the winter.
One of the most popular -- the Blue Lagoon -- is geared toward tourists. It looks like something out of a Hollywood set: a giant bathtub set in lava formations.
Part of the attraction is the convenience: It's located off a main highway near the airport. So lots of tourists either drop in on the way in or out of Reykjavik.
But the truth is, it's not all natural. Certainly, the lava field underneath is. But the water itself isn't. It's actually hot water that comes from a power plant next door.
But this is considered good use of the environment. It's pointed out that the hot water originally came from the ground. It was merely used by the plant to make heat and electricity. And then sent to the Blue Lagoon.
The silica mud that comes from the bottom of the lagoon supplies minerals that are supposed to be great for all kinds of skin conditions, but can be harsh on hair.
One caveat about the Blue Lagoon: Since the water isn't saturated with synthetic antiseptic chemicals, there's a bigger emphasis on cleanliness. That's why public showers sans bathing suits are required before entering the pool. So if you're squeamish about showering with strangers, it might not be for you.
Go on in -- the water's fine -- any time of year. Even in the dead of winter, with the Arctic winds blowing, the water is a silky, warm comforter.
Iceland is small enough that you can see many of the natural wonders on your own in just a few days. Summer is an ideal time, because there's almost constant daylight in this land of the midnight sun.
Winter's trickier. Since the sun doesn't rise until 11 in the morning, there's obviously less daylight to see the sights. Snow can crop up suddenly in the higher elevations away from Reykjavik, making roads dangerous. That's why hiring a driver who happens to be a guide is a good idea.
There's every kind of winter and summer sport imaginable, including whale watching, horseback riding and ice-skating.
Reykjavik is small enough to navigate, but big enough to be happening. Have seafood at the harbor. A coffee at the Volcano House, where they feature all things volcanic -- from desserts supposed to resemble lava to jewelry actually made from volcanic materials.
Some of the traditional fare might be off-putting -- unless you don't mind eating puffin birds, reindeer and whale meat.
If you'd like to get to know the locals, it can be arranged through an agency known as Friend in Iceland. It's a business run by locals. For a fee they'll help customize your stay, arranging anything you'd like, from sightseeing to mingling with the locals.
During a recent stay, they arranged a Christmas dinner. Our host for the evening -- a filmmaker -- took us to his flat, where he served up his version of his grandmother's traditional lamb dinner.
The other guests included a singer who calls himself the Frank Sinatra of Iceland. After dinner, he serenaded us.
Iceland is just as popular in winter as it is in summer. There are all kinds of holiday festivities. Winter's a better time to see the Northern Lights because the nights are longer. But there are no guarantees these vivid swirls of color will be visible.
We got lucky.
Laura Lippstone is a travel writer and blogger who lives in Manheim Township. She came to Lancaster County after living in Los Angeles, New York City and Australia.