Cruising to Iceland, Greenland for a terrific northern exposure On Top Of The World

July 17, 1994|By Janet Wilson | Janet Wilson,Cox News Service

My first brush with these two islands hugging the Arctic Circle in the far North Atlantic was in elementary school. A geography teacher, pointing to an ancient map on the wall, tried to explain why an island covered almost entirely by a vast, continental icecap was called Greenland while another, teeming with volcanic activity, wildlife and spectacular waterfalls, was called Iceland.

Was this the world's first real estate scam? It would take three decades before I'd get the chance to check it out myself. What I found during a two-week cruise to Iceland and Greenland, was a window at the top of the world that allows visitors to watch Mother Nature do what she does naturally.

Iceland, with its glaciers, hot springs, geysers, active volcanoes, icecaps, snowcapped peaks, vast lava deserts, waterfalls and craters, is one of the most geologically active areas in the world. By contrast, Greenland, the largest island in the world, which is populated by indigenous people living primarily in small, coastal fishing villages, has the planet's oldest rock formations, strata that is at least 3.7 billion years old.

Not surprisingly, these neighboring islands midway between North America and Europe are becoming a mecca for tourists in search of off-the-beaten-path destinations with natural beauty that have not been trampled by the masses.

That's exactly the kind of destination MarQuest Inc. was looking for when it added Iceland and Greenland to the Columbus Caravelle's cruise itinerary last year.

"We like to go places where nobody else goes, like the Arctic Circle, deep into the Amazon or Antarctica, places that are considered expeditionary," says Cathy Udovch, a representative for MarQuest. "In that respect, it was perfect."

Tourism authorities are catching on quickly to the lure of the land of the midnight sun. They are hoping to cash in on a traveling public that is tired of competing with the hordes in Alaska, but still wants to experience glaciers, icebergs, history and culture.

They may have found the ticket in the polar north.

Iceland, which achieved its independence from Denmark in 1944, is the better known of the two islands, with its rich Viking history and folklore. It also is a country whose people have developed a remarkably high standard of living. The literacy rate is 100 percent. Crime is almost non-existent. Prisoners are allowed to go home for holidays.

But Icelanders have had to fight a continual battle with nature's elements to get where they are today. The harsh and sometimes uninhabitable land reveals itself as soon as you leave Keflavik International Airport for the 30-minute drive into the capital city, Reykjavik. The landscape is surreal with miles and miles of lava fields, mostly covered by dense, encroaching moss.

"What does an Icelander do when he's lost in the forest?" asks one of our guides. "Stand up."

It's a fitting description. The trees and lush vegetation that once covered the country were destroyed by early settlers. Today, only about 1 percent of the country has trees. And vegetation is so sparse that erosion is a major concern.

We spent a day seeing the sights in Reykjavik -- home to more than half the island's 260,000 residents and where former President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met for a summit -- before setting sail for small fishing villages in Iceland and Greenland. After a couple of days weathering turbulent seas, we made an overland trek to Helgafell, a mountain that figured prominently in Icelandic literature and history. We were informed that this mountain, really more of a tall hill, had magical powers. And if we religiously followed some simple rules, we would be granted three wishes.

First, we had to climb the south-west slope to temple ruins at the top of the mountain without glancing back or uttering a word. Our wishes had to be sincere. And, lastly, we had to descend the eastern slope and keep our wishes to ourselves.

Silence fell on the group as we trudged up the mountain, single file. I was tempted to look back, because the scenery was stunning. But I persevered.

At the top, I stepped inside a low-lying rock wall, made my wishes and then stepped back to take in the panoramic view. In the distance, low-lying clouds hugged layers of mountain ranges. Livestock grazed on incredibly green pastures. Not even a ripple disturbed the tranquillity of the inland lakes.

My wish? After hunkering down for two days trying to stave off seasickness, all my wishes went for calm seas for the duration of our trip.

Unfortunately, the North Atlantic had other plans and continued battering us with high winds and colossal waves. However, Helgafell did work its magic. The time I spent on top of the mountain, scanning the horizon, calmed the seas within my soul.

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