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Land of Fire and Ice

Even a few days in Iceland is enough to showcase the beauty of this dynamic country -- and it's far from frozen.

There are few places left in the world where evidence of civilization is rare, where you instantly recognize the air as pure, and the natural world overwhelms you with its austere, powerful beauty. Iceland is such a place.

Perhaps visions of sunless days and freezing nights are keeping you away. But those visions are wrong -- as the adage goes, Greenland's ice and Iceland's green.

The country is amazingly temperate, despite it being partially located in the Arctic Circle. During the upcoming summer months, you'll have no problem visiting many parts of the country in just pants and a shirt.

But how to get there? Searching for airline tickets to Sweden, I stumbled upon a can't-miss deal offered by Iceland Air. When flying the airline to anywhere in Europe, a three-day layover in Iceland adds no extra charge to your ticket.

I jumped at the opportunity, and this little side trip turned out to be such an incredible adventure that I've since returned to explore more of the country.

You'd probably think that you can't see an entire city -- much less a country -- in only a few days. However, Iceland is quite small, with a population around 300,000. Over half live in the capital of Reykjavik and its environs, so once you leave the city, wide open space greets you, remarkably pristine and unpopulated.

This unusual island was settled by Norwegian, Scottish and Irish immigrants in the ninth and 10th centuries and is a first-rate European country by literacy, longevity and

income standards.

It houses the northernmost national capital in the world and has more land covered by glaciers than in all of Continental Europe. It boasts the world's oldest functioning legislative assembly, the Althing, which was established in 930.

Warm Introduction

The trip begins at Iceland's tiny Keflavik airport, where it's possible to rent a car. To truly experience the magnificence of Iceland, do it from behind the wheel --there are tour buses available to many of the island's hot spots, but you'll miss a tremendous amount of beauty by relying on them.

If you've never driven in a foreign country, you won't be intimidated by starting here. The first time I rented a car at the airport, I anxiously asked the attendant, "Is it difficult to get to Reykjavik?" She calmly replied, "There's only one road."

After settling in at a hotel in Reykjavik, head out for the Reykjanes peninsula.

This stretch of land is a wonderful introduction to the diverse Icelandic landscape, boasting amazing views of the ocean, primitive, unspoiled lava beds, a huge lake and eerie, active geothermal pools.

The thermal pools of Krisuvik offer visual evidence of Iceland's volcanic underbelly. Here, the smell of sulphur hangs in the air, and you can walk right up to bubbling mud pits and scalding-hot water. The surrounding landscape is evocative of another planet, with bizarre erosion patterns and scattered mineral deposits.

Because you'll probably be a bit tired from your flight and the unusual sights, I recommend next heading over to the

Blue Lagoon, one of the most famous sights in Iceland.

This attraction is a mammoth, geothermal-heated pool situated in the middle of a vast, jet-black lava bed, with water of an opaque, skylike blue due to the mineral content.

Besides the lagoon, the site includes both dry and steam saunas, buckets of silica mud for impromptu mud masks, waterfalls and a restaurant. You could happily spend a day here, but after an hour or so in that water, I can almost guarantee you're going to be ready for a meal and some sleep.

Shifting Scenery

Wake up early on the second day for a drive up the coast to the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

One of the remarkable things about Iceland is the breathtaking variety of landscapes in such close proximity. Otherworldly lava beds give way to spectacular ocean and lake views; jagged, foreboding cliffs and mountains yield to huge expanses of green grass and wildflowers -- and long drives are the perfect way to experience all this.

Drive up the west coast, taking time for photo opportunities of massive craters and multiple inlets and mountains. A late lunch destination, Arnastapi, sits at the foot of a jagged, peculiar looking mountain, like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

The main attractions at Arnastapi, however, are the stunning rock formations --including a natural sea-carved arch -- right off the beach. This is a great place to sit on a bluff and rest, enjoy the view and watch arctic terns and kittiwakes wheel overhead.

To watch Sean Driscoll's video take of this column, click here


To finish your day, continue driving around the peninsula, which offers a nearly 360-degree view of the glacier Snaefellsjokull, perched magnificently atop a mountain. And just past the town of Olafsvik, don't miss the stunning beach, facing a high cliff, where a waterfall lazily splashes the black rock with white water.

Local Jokull

Ready for a long drive? This is your final day, so don't waste it.

The Icelandic word "jokull" means glacier, and here's your chance to drive right up to one. Heading east, your first destination is the huge lake Thingvalatn, where the Althing met and settled matters of state. Continuing on, two stunning natural wonders await: Geysir and Gullfoss.

Driving through Iceland, it's not unusual to see steam rising from the ground, due to the geothermal activity. Other signs of it can be found in the country's geysers -- in fact, Iceland's great one, "

Geysir" actually gave its name to the geological phenomenon.

Sadly, Geysir has fallen somewhat dormant, with infrequent eruptions. However, the geothermal field surrounding it also sports Strokkur, a spectular geyser which erupts every few minutes, shooting water and steam 90 feet into the air.

A few miles up the road is the stunning waterfall Gullfoss, where the glacial river Hvita (which has its source underneath the glacier Langjokull), plunges in two stages into a canyon more than 200 feet deep. Get out of the car to soak up unbelieveable views, as well as some of the spray -- be sure to bring your rain coat.

The final stop on your whirlwind tour is the glacier Myrdalsjokull, a few hours' drive along the southern coast road.

If you're lucky and it's a clear day, you'll be able to see Iceland's major volcano, Hekla, on the way. It has intermittently wrought devastation on the country and was once believed to be the entrance to hell.

This drive also yields two more waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss, an ethereal veil of water that you can walk behind, and the more impressive

Skogafoss, which is more than 80 feet wide and thunders 300 feet off a cliff.

Finally arriving at the glacier Myrdalsjokull after a somewhat bumpy ride on its access road will quiet any visitor with awe. The valley this glacier has carved out upon its recession is stark, and at first glance, lifeless.

However, walking up to the glacier itself a prompts the careful discovery of colorful mosses and ground cover rife with tiny wild flowers. A small finger of the main glacier looms before you, absolutely massive in scale, the top covered in odd formations of black volcanic dirt and ash.

You can spend hours here, quietly inspecting the beautiful, translucent ice formations, every now and then hearing a sharp crack or deep rumble, eerie indications of the glacier shifting.

If you still have time, it's worth the short drive to the small town of Vik for its spectacular black sand beach and unearthly rock formations. It's an ideal place to get dinner before the drive back to Reykjavik -- a perfect time for reflecting on the remarkable sights Iceland has shown you.