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Iceland: Different kind of hot spot

Hiking with glaciers as backdrop Iceland. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

Hiking with the glaciers as a backdrop in Iceland. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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COUNTRY WALKERS: The U.S.-based active travel company has three, eight-day guided hiking trips in Iceland next summer, starting in Reykjavik on June 26, July 10 and July 31. The trip costs $5,998 and includes hotels, almost all meals and activities. (Iceland is one of Country Walkers’ most expensive trips; it’s a pricey destination despite recent economic woes.) You don’t need to be an expert hiker. We covered about four to nine miles a day, and you can always do less than the itinerary calls for;, (877) 784-0616.

GETTING THERE: Icelandair flies nonstop between Keflavik International Airport (near Reykjavik) and several U.S. gateways, such as Boston and Minneapolis (not Chicago). U.S. passengers are allowed to stopover in Iceland on their way to any of Icelandair’s 20-plus destinations in Europe for no additional airfare; Low-cost carrier Iceland Express this summer started offering seasonal nonstop service between Chicago and Keflavik;

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Updated: November 11, 2011 5:11PM

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Why are you going to Iceland?

It’s a question friends and family asked just about every one of the 15 of us on Country Walkers’ “Reykjavik & National Parks” tour.

No one asks why you’re going to Italy or France; their selling points are well known. But Iceland — a seemingly far away place that’s actually the closet European country to the States — remains a mystery to most.

The nation’s name conjures up images of, well, ice, the singer Bjork and uppity volcanoes prone to belching ash clouds that wreak havoc on European air travel. That pretty much summed up the scope of my Icelandic knowledge when a couple of girlfriends and I decided to vacation there in August.

A big benefit of traveling on an organized tour is that we didn’t have to bone up on the destination beforehand. Virtually every detail — logistics, lodging, food, activities — would be taken care of by Country Walkers, a Vermont-based tour operator that’s been running guided hiking trips around the world for 30-plus years.

Iceland is a new offering for Country Walkers, whose trip starts in the quirky capital of Reykjavik before commencing on a counterclockwise journey around most of the island’s circumference.

Our overnight flight — less than five hours from Boston — landed us at Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport around 6 a.m. By this time, the summer sun had already been up for a few hours in this country whose northern border plays footsy with the Arctic Circle.

Still groggy from our overnight flight, we were greeted at the airport by two friendly Country Walkers guides, Kristin and Arngunnur. Both are Icelandic natives who spent many years living in the United States.

They shepherded our jet-lagged bodies straight to the nearby Blue Lagoon, the most famous of Iceland’s abundant hot springs. Soaking in warm, mineral-rich water siphoned from more than a mile below the earth’s surface is a national pastime for Icelanders (although the swanky and expensive Blue Lagoon sees more tourists than locals).

Iceland’s location on what geologists call one of the earth’s “hot spots” provides the country with an almost endless supply of natural hot water. This water is used to feed not only the popular bathing pools but to heat most homes and buildings, making Iceland a poster child for environmentally-friendly geothermal power.

The lagoon’s hot, powder blue water felt like a cozy duvet against the chilly morning drizzle. From our watery nest, the scene was surreal: steam wafting from the surface of a huge man-made lagoon built in the middle of a lava field. We followed the lead of other bathers and slathered gobs of milky white silica mud on our faces and arms, alternating soaks in the hot springs with trips to the sauna.

The same surreal sense I felt during those first few hours in the Blue Lagoon ended up staying with me for the entire trip. I’ve never been to a place where the earth has seemed so alive. Volcanic eruptions, calving glaciers, spouting geysers, bubbling mud flats, earthquakes, gushing waterfalls. They’re all part of life on Iceland, a nation that owes much of its primal landscape to its precarious position on the globe.

This is a country that’s literally being torn apart — to the tune of nearly an inch a year. That’s because Iceland sits on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive, mostly underwater mountain range that separates the planet’s North American and Eurasian plates. From a geology standpoint, this means many things. From a bragging rights standpoint, it means you can say you walked from America to Europe. But let’s get back to plate tectonics (something I never thought I’d say). These two plates are drifting apart. And like many divorces, it’s a pretty explosive break up. Unlike many divorces, this one’s pretty, at least in terms of the dramatic scenery it creates.

Our daily hikes took us through lava flats blanketed in green moss, across dramatic black sand beaches and past a smattering of the country’s 10,000-plus waterfalls.

We watched the earth spit steam and boiling water hundreds of feet into the air in an area called Geysir, the namesake of this natural phenomenon. The strong smell of sulfur assaulted us at Namafjall, a desolate expanse peppered with pools of bubbling mud and steam vents that look like cloud-making machines.

Much of Iceland’s lava rock landscape resembles the moon. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t too taken aback when I ran into a man dressed as a U.S. astronaut during one of our hikes along a volcanic crater. He was an actor shooting “a small film,” according to the cameraman. (I thought I might have stumbled upon director Ridley Scott, who spent several weeks in Iceland this summer shooting his upcoming sci-fi flick “Prometheus.”)

Iceland may be one of the most volcanically active spots on earth, but this is the land of fire and ice. It’s home to Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajokull, whose glaciers spill down surrounding mountains. Our Country Walkers group, ranging in age from a Georgia guy in his 20s to an intrepid Pennsylvanian in her 70s, strapped crampons onto our boots and trekked along one of these rumbling rivers of ice.

An amphibious vehicle — think duck ride in Wisconsin Dells — took us on a spin around Iceland’s largest glacier lagoon, where seals’ bobbing heads and mini icebergs poked through the turquoise water. Jokulsarlon, as it’s called, has been the setting for a couple of James Bond films, but the incessant rain during our visit made it feel more like an episode of “Deadliest Catch.”

The weather in Iceland is unpredictable, but it’s a safe bet you’ll need your rain gear. And it’s cold here, although not as cold as the name implies. Seventy degrees would be considered a warm day in the summer; winter temperatures are comparable to New York’s.

While the country’s weather and landscape are constantly in flux, one thing that’s remained remarkably stable is the culture. The Icelandic language — especially in its written form — hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. Neither has the DNA of Icelandic horses. These stout and sturdy workhorses are genetically the same as those ridden by the Vikings, thanks to the island’s strict ban on the importation of equines.

Low immigration rates and geographical isolation have made Iceland a homogeneous society with one big family tree, which might explain why the prime minister is listed in the phone book. When I half-jokingly asked our guide Kristin if she was related to Bjork, she pulled out her iPhone to check. Yes, there’s an app for that. Turns out Kristin and the eccentric chanteuse are six generations removed.

“We’re all like family — just a small group of people trying to survive on this cold rock in the north,” Kristin said.

A small group indeed. With a population of 320,000 on an island the size of Kentucky, Iceland is the least densely populated country in Europe.

That fact wasn’t lost on Paul Clear, an Oklahoma man who was on the Country Walkers trip with his wife. After we all said our good-byes and flew home, Clear wrote an e-mail to the group. In it, he recalled standing on a hill during one of our hikes and not seeing “a single road, car, sign, village, house, structure, airplane or person.”

Clear, a seasoned traveler, said Iceland was different than any country he’d ever been to.

“It was unlike my expectations, even after reading about it for years and seeing pictures,” he wrote. “It’s great when a place can surprise me like that.”

That’s why you go to Iceland.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Country Walkers.

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