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Iceland - Overview

If you've ever seen travel advertising about Iceland, you're sure to have heard the phrase, "the land of fire and ice," and although the moniker has now become a cliche, it's also quite accurate. Nowhere on earth are the hot and cold forces of nature more evident than they are in Iceland. The country, which lies astride the volcanic zone known as the mid-Atlantic ridge, features glaciers, ice caps, hot springs, geysers, active volcanoes, wild lava deserts, tundra, icy peaks, and countless waterfalls, all vying for visitors' attention. On the cliffs that surround much of the coastline lie some of the world's most active sea bird colonies; in the summer, the lakes and marshes flutter with nesting water birds.

Superimposed on this spectacular natural element is a tough and independent society inherited from the farmers and warriors who fled the tyrannical kings of medieval Scandinavia to settle a new and near-empty country over 1,100 years ago (it was previously inhabited by only a few ascetic Irish monks). Iceland also provided the backdrop for many of the Norse Sagas, which are considered by literature enthusiasts to be among the finest of all Western medieval works. These tales of battle, love, revenge and counter-revenge come to life in the locales that have changed little since the days of the Saga heroes, whose exploits are well-known by every Icelander, including schoolchildren.

While most of the activity in Iceland revolves around the capital, Reykjav¨?k, each area of the country offers its own attractions. East of the capital lies the popular "Golden Circle" region, which features the waterfall Gullfoss, the geothermal site at Geysir (all the world's spouting hot springs were named for this place!), and the historical national park, Þingvellir (pronounced THING-vet-lir), the meeting place of the world's first democratic parliament. Heading west from Reykjav¨?k, you'll enter the bleak landscape of lava flows that surround the charming town of Hafnarfjörður and the international airport and U.S. base at Keflavik.

The lovely volcanic islands of Vestmannaeyjar and the hiking areas around Þ¨?rsmörk and Skaftafell National Park dominate South Iceland. In 1996, the latter area was the site of a spectacular glacial burst, caused by a volcanic eruption beneath the ice. The eruption released 3,000 billion cubic liters of water, destroying numerous bridges and closing the "Ring Road," the only highway between southern and eastern Iceland.

In the north, visitors will enjoy the sparkling city of Akureyri and be able to cross the Arctic Circle to visit the island of Gr¨?msey. H¨?savik, in the northeast, offers superb whale watching and the claw-like Westfjords peninsula of the northwest provides dramatic scenery well off the beaten track. The blue lake of Mývatn is one of the world's finest bird watching venues and one of the best fishing lakes in Iceland, which translates into a hub of tourism for this northeastern part of the country. Here the roads all become gravel tracks and cross numerous non-bridged rivers; the very adventurous can witness some of the most desolate, haunting, and strangely beautiful scenes on earth.