I was searching for the perfect winter vacation -- one that would offer natural beauty as well as a bustling city center. And I found it, surprisingly, in Iceland.
Certainly, planning a winter trip to Iceland was a concern. But it's a popular myth that Iceland, the second largest island in Europe, is a frozen country. Despite its northerly location, the Gulf Stream actually keeps temperatures quite moderate.
Iceland, which lies close to the Arctic Circle, is situated approximately halfway between Moscow and New York in the Atlantic Ocean and is only a two-hour flight from the United Kingdom.
On my flight, an elderly seat mate, a veteran European traveler connecting in Iceland on her way to Germany, asked me where I was going. "Reykjavik," I replied. She was stunned. "I've never met anyone who was actually staying in Iceland."
Iceland, roughly the size of Kentucky, is the most sparsely settled country in Europe, and four-fifths of the land is uninhabited. The last European country to be settled, Iceland was discovered by a mixed stock of Norsemen from Scandinavia and Celts from the British Isles in the period 870-930 A.D., and even today there is little immigration. Most Icelanders live in cities and villages around the country's coastline, as well as on various islands.
Half of the country's 260,000 people live in Reykjavik, the world's northernmost capital city. It is Iceland's hub of commerce, government, industry and culture.
The 30-mile ride from the airport to Reykjavik meandered through lava fields covered with moist green moss that hugs Iceland's ragged coastline. The land seems desolate and barren, but as we drove into Reykjavik, suddenly the flat, bowl-like terrain was covered with multicolored homes and sharply edged cathedrals. The houses, each with its own color and shape, stood almost on top of the narrow winding streets.
It was cold and crisp, and the sun hung low in the sky -- during my visit, there were just six hours of daylight.
Reykjavik is a relatively new city by European standards, its buildings dating to the 18th century. It sits atop massive hot springs, which provide steam heat for most of the city.
The smoke you see rising from the ground -- even in winter -- is escaping steam, and Reykjavik, which means "smoky bay," was named because of the rising mist.
Iceland's major export industry is fishing, and Reykjavik plays a prominent role -- not only in the catching of fish but in the processing as well. Its harbor is more of a working area than a tourist attraction.
On my first day, the city tour of Reykjavik provided an excellent introduction. We visited a hilltop overlooking the city, where an .. immense glass cupola named the Pearl contains mammoth storage tanks for hot water that perks from bore holes beneath the city.
City leaders didn't want to waste a scenic hilltop on storage tanks alone, so they built a restaurant and arts center on top. In the dome-like building, palm trees soar through all levels, art displays abound, and a sandwich shop offers patrons an informal meal and a breathtaking view of the city. On the top floor, the revolving Pearl Restaurant, one of Reykjavik's most glamorous, is known for elegant cuisine.
Other interesting highlights of the city tour were visits to the Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum and Hallgrimskirkja, a modern Lutheran cathedral whose magnificent steeple rises high above all other buildings in Reykjavik.
The Outdoor Museum, on the fringes of Reykjavik, showcases one of the old home styles, built of wood with roofs of turf and living grass, favored by Icelanders in the 19th and early 20th century. These homes did not always withstand the elements, so today most Icelanders live in concrete houses, while the older City Centre buildings are built of corrugated iron.
Nothing beats Reykjavik's Old City Centre for strolling, sipping coffee at cafes and watching Icelanders. Rising up a gentle hill from the waterfront, this picturesque downtown expanse of parks and cobbled streets is flanked by office buildings, pubs, cafes and shops. The area is home to Althingishusid, Iceland's circa 1881 Parliament House, and Domkirkjan, the old Lutheran cathedral.
For shoppers, Reykjavik has a cosmopolitan flavor. The Laugavegur section, adjacent to the Old City Centre, features boutiques with European men's and women's apparel, leather goods, cosmetics and even housewares.
One of my favorite spots here was Cafe Mokka. This intimate coffee house has walls of rough wood planks burnished with warm brown stain. A smooth wooden ceiling and deep red carpet speckled with black lend a cozy and festive air. But it is the dozens of square original paintings -- created on the wall by local professional artists -- that draw people to the cafe.