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Fun under the solstice sun

For The Baltimore Sun
Looking for a hot summer vacation destination? Try Iceland.

After a long winter of staying indoors, we're all antsy for a jaunt to someplace sunny and exotic.

Iceland might not be the first destination that comes to mind, but with WOW Air's new nonstop service from Baltimore to Reykjavik, the small island nation should leap to the top of the list.

It's only been in recent years that travelers began to consider Iceland a destination rather than a layover. Yet, in about the time it takes to fly from the East Coast to San Francisco, adventurous travelers can wake up across the Atlantic Ocean to explore a stunning landscape like no other.

Even better, WOW Air's fares begin at about $99 each way, significantly cheaper than flights to just about any other international vacation destination.

If you're envisioning bleak, frozen plateaus and whale blubber sandwiches ... well, OK, you're correct. But that doesn't really begin to define this spectacular island, particularly at this time of year as the days grow longer.

Often called the "land of ice and fire," in reference to contrast between its glaciers and volcanoes, Iceland is an adventure-seekers playground and a photographer's fantasy-scape. The most sparsely populated country in Europe, its dramatic, largely untrodden landscape is often compared to New Zealand and is laden with spectacular fjords, soaring waterfalls, colossal glaciers, and bubbling natural hot pools.

But, uniquely, Iceland's often-frozen land mass rests below a perpetually simmering system of volcanoes, which rain lava and ash residue onto its deserts and beaches, creating some of the most extraordinary terrain in the world.

And despite six months of darkness, Iceland also enjoys some of the longest and lightest days on the planet, thanks to its summer solstice, June 21, when sunshine radiates for 24 hours. Here, the first day of summer is observed in April and the entire country launches into celebration mode with both organized and impromptu festivals and outdoor events.

The gatherings reflect the spirit of Iceland, a country that is often ranked among the happiest places on earth. How is this possible in a country that endures six months of dark winters, still struggles to overcome a brutal economic downturn and copes with a stretch of continuous volcano eruptions, including one in 2010 that shut down most of Europe's airspace?

Experts proclaim the fish-driven Icelandic diet, rich in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, guards against depression. Living amid a pristine environment with a noticeable lack of pollution, including some of the cleanest water and air on earth, can't hurt. With about 325,000 people dwelling on an isle the size of the state of Kentucky, kinship and comradeship are strong. Icelanders are a free-spirited, yet dignified populace, with one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Crime is almost nonexistent, with even top government officials strolling the streets without bodyguards.

When traveling, visitors often begin their journeys in the city where their plane lands. In Iceland, that is Reykjavik, the largest city, and also the world's northernmost capital. Nicknamed by hipsters "the capital of jam," a cutting-edge world-music scene is only one of its attributes. Reykjavik is also a bastion of quirky culture, outrageous bars and avant-garde arts.

And then there's Jon Gnarr, the city's mayor from 2010 to 2014. The one-time comedian and punk rocker who proclaimed "The Wire" his favorite TV show, Gnarr represented a party he invented called The Best Party, whose platform was to make the city more fun. And fun it is.

By day, artists, techies, musicians, and other creative types flock the city's cafe culture. At night, many of those cafes morph into clubs featuring music ranging from punk rock and indie to classic rock 'n' roll. In a downtown with only one main street, there are music events every night of the week.

Reykjavik also possesses an impressive array of museums and galleries exhibiting contemporary works, folk art, innovative design craftsmanship and even the oddball Phallogical Museum, honoring ... well, you know.

While the city is indeed a happening place, you'd be doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you don't venture out to see Iceland's phenomenal geological wonders, including the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's famous geothermal spa. Travelers here can view some of the most spectacular scenery on earth simply driving along Iceland's only highway, the Ring Road, which circles the island. But don't miss venturing down some of the intersecting byways leading to breathtaking fjords, and hiking trails ending at staggering waterfalls and black volcanic beaches.

Other sites include Krafla, one of Iceland's most-visited volcanoes, a well as Dettifoss, reputedly the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and Jokulsarlon, a large glacial lagoon. Note, too, that there are a number of independent guides providing tours of Iceland's most important sites, but since many Icelanders speak English, most visitors simply rent a car and enjoy the freedom of exploring at a leisurely pace.

Reykjavik

Harpa Overlooking the harbor, the architectural marvel Harpa is home to the symphony, opera and other major performance events, in addition to hosting major conventions. If you can't make a performance, try the behind-the-scenes tour.

Harbor district Hafnarbudir is the old harbor district, which is full of boutiques, design shops, galleries and eateries. You can walk there from Harpa.

Reykjavik City Museum A series of museums depicting the historic and present-day culture and life of the city. It includes The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavik Museum of Photography and Reykjavik Maritime Museum. Various locations.

Kraum Located in one of Reykjavik's oldest houses,Kraum (meaning "simmering") is a shop representing more than 200 of Iceland's most talented designers of clothing, jewelry, housewares and books. 

Icelandic Phallological Museum The museum is credited with establishing the study of phallology as a respectable science. The museum contains a collection of more than 200 penises and parts once belonging to the land and sea mammals inhabiting Iceland. 

Lodging

Centerhotels Thingholt is a centrally located property famed for its progressive design features. Rates start at $350 per night. (centerhotels.com/our-hotels/hotel-thingholt

Reykjavik4you Apartments Hotel offers kitchens, living areas and a variety of bedroom options. Rates start at $215 per night. (reykjavik4you.com)

Dining

Kolaportio The food section here at Reykjavik's largest flea market is the perfect place to score free and cheap samples of local fare, including Iceland's hakarl (fermented shark) on weekends. (kolaportid.is)

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur Thisis Iceland's most famous "pylsur" kiosk (aka hot dog stand), located in central Reykjavik. Order it "eina meo ollu," meaning you want it with everything. (bbp.is/en/)

Dill From Dill restaurant's ever-changing menu of cutting-edge Nordic cuisine, you'll sample unforgettable foods like the crispy chicken skin/smoked eel and onion appetizer or a main course of lamb tartar. (dillrestaurant.is/en)

Fiskfelagid Located in a charming circa-1884 house with outdoor seating, and serving imaginative dishes from land and sea, it's easy to understand how Fiskfelagid or "Fish Company," continually wins as Reykjavik's top seafood restaurant. (fiskfelagid.is)

Reykjavik Roasters Coffeehouses are such a huge part of the culture here, it's hard to go wrong. Still, Reykjavik Roasters is at the top of practically everyone's list. Ask them about their three different brewing methods. (reykjavikroasters.is)

Kaldi Bar One of the favorite watering holes in the city, Kaldi Bar offers a wide array of Icelandic brews. If you're lucky, you'll be able to sample a leftover winter variety called Steoji's Hvalur 2, flavored with sheep dung-smoked whale testicles.

Nightlife

Runtur Reykjavik's self-guided pub crawl occurs primarily on weekends from about midnight until 5 a.m.You'll quickly discover that alcohol is pricey, so how do locals do it? They pregame heavily before leaving home. Still, it's worth it because the pubs are a great way to integrate into the local culture.

Hurra is a popular bar and nightclub with local beer on tap and live music on weekends. (facebook.com/hurra.is)

Paloma A perfect people-watching spot, this clob is about as authentically weird-Reykjavik as you can find, especially after-hours when it becomes threshold of alternative music and equally peculiar-but-friendly locals. (facebook.com/BarPaloma)

Touring

Iceland is a vast country with countless hidden nooks ripe for exploring and fascinating background stories. Unlike the rest of Europe, there is no train service here, so the only way to see the country outside Reykjavik is by car. Many visitors drive themselves around to the sites, while others feel that the best way to ensure they don't miss anything is to hire a guide. There are many independent guides and tour companies, so be certain to check credentials and reviews of anyone you consider. Two of the most highly rated include Olafur B. Schram of Highlander Tours (highlander.is) and Georg Aspuland of Discover Iceland.

If you choose to drive yourself, it is highly advisable to map out your journey in advance, including hotel stays, because tourism is at its peak in summer and lodging in the remote areas is extremely limited. Conversely, roughly two-thirds population live in Reykjavik, so be certain you have plenty of gas and a method of communication when you are exploring: it could be a long time before you encounter another soul on the road.

The Ring Road This road circles the entire country, leading you to practically all of Iceland's wondrous geological sights and mysteries — best if you have at least 10 days to explore.

The Golden Circle A popular 186-mile route, allowing visitors to see some of Iceland's most popular landmarks in a day or two. But for a fuller experience, dedicate at least a week to exploring here.

The Blue Lagoon Iceland's most popular geothermal spa is about 30 miles from Reykjavik. Located in a lava field, the mineral-rich water, ranging 99 to102 degrees, is a milky blue shade from a high concentration of silicate.

Akureyri Nicknamed Iceland's Northern Capital, Akureyri is about a four-hour drive drive from Reykjavik and hosts arts, sports and folk festivals and concerts all summer long. (visitakureyri.is/en/)

Into The Glacier A huge man-made ice cave atop Langjokull, one of Europe's largest glaciers. Opening in June, the attraction takes visitors deep into an ice tunnel within the glacier. Tours depart from Reykjavik via helicopter or a "Monster Glacier Truck." (intotheglacier.is)

Events

Reykjavík Arts FestivalIceland's premier cultural jubilee features the finest in modern and folk music, dance, theater and visual arts. Through June 7. (en.listahatid.is)

Seafarer's Day & Festival of the Sea A countrywide celebration honoring everything related to the sea. There are competitions, demonstrations, parades, seafood, and parties. Through June 1.

Viking Festival Iceland's iconic event, a living-history experience of Viking culture, including costumed re-enactors, authentic ships, storytelling, games and sporting events, impromptu battles, food, and crafts. June 12-17. Hafnarfjorour. (fjorukrain.is)

National Day Each town produces distinctive programs and celebrations for this day marking Iceland's independence from Denmark in 1944. Events include patriotic addresses, re-enactments, parades, dancing and music. June 17. (17juni.is)

Summer Solstice While some prefer to commemorate the event standing over the ocean watching the sun set and rise again in a matter of minutes, for the rest of us there are countless festivals and activities June 19-21, including Secret Solstice, Iceland's three-day, 24-hour music festival (secretsolstice.is) and the Midnight Sun half-marathon (marathon.is/midnight-run).

If you go

Getting there: WOW Air flies nonstop from BWI-Marshall Airport to Reykjavik, with fares starting at $99 each way. Go to wowair.com.

Taxes: Iceland's 24.5 percent VAT (sales tax) is included in prices, but tourists can get most of that back on qualified purchases.

Water: Iceland has some of the world's best drinking water, and all tap water is safe to drink.

Time zone: Iceland operates on Greenwich Mean Time, and is four hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time in the United States.

For more information, go to visiticeland.com and reykjavik.com.

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