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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Get a couple of Icelanders together and you'll be regaled with stories about these fiercely independent and proud people. On a tour of Heimaey Island, we learned of one of the more remarkable tales in recent history, which occurred in January 1973, when a volcano erupted unexpectedly in the early morning hours near the village of Heimaey. Fortunately, because of inclement weather, all the fishing boats were in the harbor when the volcano began spewing lava on the village below. All 5,000 villagers calmly made their way to the harbor and were safely evacuated. Some islanders stayed behind and pumped cold sea water onto the molten lava, redirecting it out to sea and saving part of their village, which endured another five months of eruptions.

We toured the steaming lava fields, walking on black, coarse rocks that are still too hot to touch 20 years later. We walked the streets of a town that was buried under 30 tons of lava and ash but has a spit and polish finish today. We watched as thousands of puffins, guillemots, fulmars and gannets soared from the towering cliffs overlooking the village. It was easy to understand why the residents chose to dig out and rebuild.

It was time to bid Iceland farewell and set our sights for Greenland. The skies had been the color of an elephant's hide as we headed out across the ocean. But a brilliantly blue sky welcomed us into Prince Christian Sound, Greenland. Towering mountains blocked the sun as we sailed farther into a passageway once explored by Viking sailors. The silence was broken only by waterfalls spilling over rocks making their way to the ocean below.

As we wended farther north, the channel closed us in, only to open again to new worlds that lay ahead. Much of the North Atlantic coast has been carved and shaped by rivers of ice flowing down from icecaps, creating fjords and inlets. The farther inland we sailed, the more beautiful the scenery. Occasionally we passed tiny villages with brightly colored homes dotting the shoreline. Scores of Inuit, commonly known as Eskimos, rushed to their boats and took a few spins around the cruise ship, waving at passengers on deck, as we passed their homes.

Only 56,000 people live in Greenland, a hostile, rugged, forbidding island with rocky, treeless mountains, boggy tundra, long, winding fjords, vast ice sheets and flowing glaciers. Eighty-five percent of the island, which is still governed by Denmark, is covered by an icecap that is three kilometers thick (taller than the Empire State Building) in the middle. The residents are a mixture of Europeans and Eskimos, whose primary source of income is derived from fishing and hunting seals.

Villagers along the coast were an incredibly friendly lot, opening their churches and often their homes to outsiders. Except for Nuuk, Greenland's capital with 14,000 residents, the ports were very small. Walking excursions to glaciers, waterfalls and sheep farms were almost always available. One afternoon, we anchored off shore and ferried in for a picnic at the base of a mountain range. Some of us hiked to the top, up hills that looked like moonscapes and across springy tundra, careful to steer clear of the delicate mosses and flowers. Our reward at the top was two alpine lakes overlooking a spectacular bay.

So few visitors make it to this part of the world that you can be completely alone almost anywhere you go. One night, we watched as a full moon rose over the ship's stern, casting an eerie blue glow that silhouetted the mountain ranges in the distance. Everything was blue on blue.

The excursion through Disko Bay, where icebergs wander for centuries around the Arctic, was the most popular among most passengers, who were loaded into small rubber Zodiac boats and sent out to explore a forest of icebergs. For an hour, we got up close and personal with ancient icebergs and cruised alongside giant floes.

It was an unrivaled spiritual experience.

IF YOU GO . . .

The Columbus Caravelle will cruise Iceland and Greenland, Aug. 28-Sept. 8. Cruise prices, excluding air fare, start around $4,110.

Icelandair has direct flights to Reykjavik from Baltimore. With 14-day advance purchase and a minimum stay of seven days and a maximum stay of one month, round-trip airfare from BWI to Reykjavik through Aug. 31 is $708 for travel Monday through Thursday and $748 for weekend travel. In September, Baltimore-Reykjavik round-trip rates drop to about $568 on Icelandair. Call (800) 223-5500 for information.

For information or reservations about cruising in the North Atlantic, call MarQuest Inc. at (800) 510-7110, or check with your travel agent. For information about Iceland, write to the Iceland Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, or call (212) 949-2333.

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