Reykjavik, Capital of Iceland

The exotic scent of stink bombs greets me, as I alight from the plane at Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland and accompanies me for most of my stay here, with Neil. Nowhere is far from volcanic fumes and hot springs. Indeed, the name Reykavik translates as 'Smoky Bay'. Legend has it that the Norsemen used to decide where to settle by casting their high seat pillars overboard and seeing where they washed up. The Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Armarson did this around the year AD 870; it took them three years to track down the actual site and found Reykjavík. But there was no urban development until the eighteenth century. Today, 65% of Iceland's population live here. (This is the most sparsely populated land in Europe)

Reykjavík is the northern most capital of a sovereign state in the world. It is typical Scandi style - a hill crowded with gaily painted houses and arty shops crowned by an elegant modern (1986) Lutheran church, the Hallgrimskirkja. (Lutheranism was imposed on Iceland by the Danes.) The church is designed to look like the pipes of a volcanic flow. It's named after an Icelandic poet. it's February and the whole country is atmospherically blanketed in snow - and chilly.

The white domed Reykjavík Art Museum (Ásmundarsafn) is housed in the former studio of Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson. Adjacent is a sculpture garden that looks stunning in the snow. Also a landmark dome, is the Perlan. once a collection of hot water tanks and now home to an exhibition on the volcanic wonders of Iceland.

Iceland - A Very Brief History

  • Iceland was one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans. After Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island, Norwegians, and other Scandinavians, also emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them their thralls. Eventually, the island fell under Norwegian rule. In 1397 it was incorporated into the Kalmar Union of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. After Sweden left the union in 1523 Iceland came under Danish rule.
  • A form of independence was achieved in 1918, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Iceland, sharing rule with the incumbent monarch of Denmark. Formal ties with Denmark were not ended until 1944, precipitated by the German occupation of Denmark.
  • Even when subjugated, Iceland has been governed by what may be the longest continuously running parliament in the world. (Apparently a break in the nineteenth century doesn't count.), The Althing, was established at Þingvellir in 1930.

The Golden Circle

  • We visit the Icelandic tourist Golden Circle and the lava filled landscape, more of a moonscape, is extraordinarily eerie.
  • First, there’s the spectacular Geysir area, where the active hot spring of Strokkur spouts steaming water 30 metres into the air habitually, every 8 minutes.
  • Then, one of Iceland’s most iconic features, where the Gullfoss Waterfall (Golden Falls), plummet into a 32-metre deep crevice.
  • Onto Þingvellir National Park, at the Continental Divide. Here the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart, at a rate of a few centimetres per year. It's the only place in the world where you can stand between two tectonic plates. Sadly, the idea is more exciting than the reality. It's a stream separating two stretches of rock. Þingvellir is also the site of a stunning rift valley and the Rock of Law - marking the first Viking parliament.
  • There's also a stop at another modern church - the Skrasholt Cathedral. though this one has historic antecedents - it's the tenth church on this site.
  • Finally, the volcanic crater at Lake Kerið. Starkly beautiful in winter. it is said to look very different in summer, when the water contrasts with the red volcanic rock now lurking below the ice. In Iceland. there is a volcanic eruption every four years, on average.

Facts and Factoids

  • Today, Iceland ranks third in the world by median wealth per adult, and is eye wateringly expensive. Nearly all the food has to be imported and alcohol is so dear, the wine is provided in bottles marked by rubber bands. You pay for what you drink – only the super-rich consume the whole thing. Perhaps that's why consumption of Coca–Cola per capita is higher than in any other country. And the food is eclectic - everything from fermented shark and puffin burgers to smorgasbord and pizza.
  • Stunningly beautiful, Iceland has 30 active volcanic systems, amounting to a third of the world’s total lava output. Add this to the glaciers and you get “Land of Fire and Ice”. An epithet that George R R Martin was only too happy to appropriate.
  • There are no surnames or family names in Iceland – Icelanders use the traditional Nordic naming system, which includes a last name that is comprised from their father’s (or mother’s) first name with the addition of -dóttir (-daughter) or -son. First names not previously used in Iceland must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee.
  • Everyone speaks excellent English and wears woolly jumpers. And all that geothermal activity is very helpful. Iceland runs almost completely on renewable energy.
  • O, and apparently, a majority of Icelanders believe in elves.

Icelandic Adventures

  • The Northern Lights are sadly elusive on this trip.
  • I opt not to visit the Blue Lagoon. It’s at the top of most visitors’ agendas, but it sounds like an overcrowded tourist trap and what’s more, you also get covered in mud.
  • I am also persuaded into a snow-mobile ride on the glacier, however, a decision I later regret. Neil professes to be able to drive one. It is a terrifying experience.

Auckland, New Zealand

The third stage on my Round the World Trip, flying in from Australia to Auckland, in North Island. It is the largest city in New Zealand, but not the capital, which is Wellington. It's an expensive, but enjoyable place to live - plenty of museums, galleries, shops. and a large harbour full of superyachts. It's known as The City of Sails.

I meet up with Raye, from who I had parted in Hong Kong and I'm lucky to stay with her brother and his family. A brisk tour of the city and trip to One Tree Hill Park, balanced on a volcanic peak. It's commemorated with an obelisk and it's definitely the place to go for views across town.

Then, an evening visit to watch the horse and cart racing. We end up sitting in the stands and drinking with the Australian rugby team, who are scheduled to play New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup the following day. Campese is frolicking in the seats and John Eeles towers over me. The Kiwis win - by a small margin. It isn’t the best match ever. There aren't any tries.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds, North Island

Time to explore the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) of New Zealand, known for its volcanoes, mountains and geysers. A trip with Raye's family, up the northern finger of the island to Waitangi. In 1840, representatives of the United Kingdom and 500 Māori chiefs met here to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, which in its English version (only) declared British sovereignty over the islands. There are two museums, a treaty house (with a replica of the treaty), a carved Maori Meeting House, two huge war canoes and cultural performances in the grounds.

Bay of Islands, North Island

Waitangi is adjacent to North Island tourist hotspot The Bay of Islands. This natural harbour (mapped and named by Cook) contains 144 islands. There are plenty of gorgeous panoramas, Maori artefacts and, sporting opportunities. The main draw is big game fishing - apparently. This is where the early whalers came, but the game today isn't quite that size. In a 2006 study, the Bay of Islands was found to have the second bluest sky in the world, after Rio de Janeiro. It's not so azure in the winter. The picture is Manghawahi Heads, another scenic spot, two hours drive south of Bay of Islands, in what are known as the Northlands.

South of Auckland

Then south from Auckland, past Hamilton, the country's third city. then an urban sprawl, now a nightlife hub. Otherwise, it’s very quiet and sleepy. The weather is mild and the skyline is dotted with the ubiquitous and characteristic palm like tree ferns. They remind me of Jurassic Park. Sacks of kiwi fruit stand alongside the road. There's been a glut. It's important not to confuse your Kiwis. Kiwis are named after  New Zealand’s native flightless bird. Kiwifruit grow here in abundance, but they are also known as Chinese Gooseberries.

Rotorua, North Island

Rotarua, in the Bay of Plenty area, is another mandatory stop in New Zealand's North Island. The town is set on its namesake lake and is renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. In Te Puia’s Whakarewarewa Valley, the geysers are prolific, exhilarating and stink of sulphur. The 30 metres tall Pohutu Geyser, happily, erupts many times daily. As in most of these volcanic sites, you can stand at the Gates of Hell watching pools steam and mud bubbling. Most of the motels here have hot spring fed Jacuzzis out back of each room.

Rotorua became stablished as a spa town in the late 1800s. The most magnificent building is the half timbered former Bath House (1908), later converted to a History Museum and Art Gallery. And this is where you get to see a proper kiwi. (There are some in the wild and various national hatcheries.)

Another highlight of Rotorua is the Agrodome, a working farm, where there are shows for tourists to learn about sheep and sheep shearing. There are presently around nine sheep to every human in New Zealand (human population  about 4 million). The show is extremely amusing. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not.

Back to Auckland via the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves. You can get a boat across its inky waters, to see the tiny creatures glow in the dark.

Next stop Hawaii.

To read more about New Zealand click here.

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