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Becoming one with the inner Viking

In the countryside beyond Reykjavik, visitors saddle up hardy purebred horses for a guided expedition into a land of volcanoes and geysers that is unchanged by time.

June 22, 2003|Hope Cristol | Special to The Times

Hella, Iceland — A misty drizzle was falling again, beading on my bright orange rain pants and my horse's thick black mane. It was cold enough to make my nose run and my toes numb. But none of that mattered once we took off at a gallop along the muddy home stretch.

Charging into the wet wind, speeding past massive hillsides and winding rivers and very startled sheep, I'd never felt as primal -- or as free.

Some people come to Iceland for the culinary delicacies: decomposing shark flesh and roasted lamb testicles, for instance. Some come to groove in the funky boites of Reykjavik, the cosmopolitan capital. Some come just to watch the geysers and soak in hot springs.

But I came here solo last September to discover my inner Viking -- on horseback.

When a friend suggested the tour atop purebred descendants of the original Viking breed, I was intrigued by the idea of riding across a landscape that's scarcely changed in the last millennium. I had ridden horses throughout my childhood, so it struck a personal chord.

On this sparsely populated island about the size of Kentucky, just 500 miles from Scotland in the North Atlantic, dozens of horse farms offer the chance to relive Viking history.

My choice was the family-run, 250-acre Hestheimar (pronounced hest-hi-mar) farm in a bucolic hamlet called Hella, about an hour's drive from the Keflavik international airport. Searching the Web, I had found an extensive list of riding tour operators, but the combination of cultural immersion and affordable eco-tourism made Hestheimar an easy choice for me, a fairly budget-conscious traveler seeking an authentic experience. A five-day guided expedition with more than 80 horses to ride (though you can ride the same one every day), home-cooked meals and lodging in a four-bedroom guesthouse cost about $800.

My package, booked through a company called Ishestar, included airfare and two nights in Reykjavik, which I wasted in a hotel room, given the downpour and my jet lag. Fortunately, I hadn't come for city life.

Arriving in Hella on a crisp, damp morning, I took in the hilltop view of this glaciated landscape: Rivers snaked across grassy fields, a brown volcano (one of about 200) reached the clouds, and steam floated from holes in the ground, proof of the geothermal energy that provides inexpensive, nonpolluting heat and hot water for the island. In fact, Reykjavik means "Smoky Bay," and the city is said to have been named after a 9th century settler's glimpse of the steam from the hot springs.

Icelandic horses -- pony-sized creatures ranging from almost white to brownish black -- seemed to roam everywhere. I felt as though I had reached Tolkien's Middle-earth, even though it is only a 5 1/2-hour nonstop flight from Washington.

Despite vestiges of the 21st century, Hella is still charmingly Viking. Like most of Iceland's population, the people here are largely homogeneous, hailing from Nordic and Celtic stock. Neighbors still visit one another on horseback, barter animals and make moonshine. (Alcohol is heavily taxed.) Names are patriarchal: Mine would be "Hope Joels- dottir" (Joel's daughter). And the horses are still viewed as a labor force. Most of Hestheimar's horses don't even have names: There's no point being sentimental about "workers" when you have to get rid of them as they age or fail, said Matti Bonz, Hestheimar's resident -- and reticent -- guide on the trails.

This is an Iceland that few tourists discover. Nearly 280,000 tourists came by plane and 30,000 more by cruise ship last year, but many limited themselves to the capital.

Reykjavik, the Geysir geothermal field (origin of the word "geyser"), the huge Gulfoss waterfalls and more than half of the country's 272,000 inhabitants are in southwest Iceland, as is Hella, so there's plenty to do if your riding-strained body needs an afternoon off.

Mostly, though, a week at Hestheimar is all about the horses and where they can take you.

Visitors stay in a newly built guest- house that's bright, warm and eminently quaint. Four downstairs bedrooms, spare and clean, can accommodate eight travelers in narrow beds with fluffy comforters. Two rooms share a bath; two have private baths. A low-ceilinged loft upstairs has a couch and chairs and stacked mattresses -- for the travelers with sleeping bags who invariably fill the place in summer months. There's even a full kitchen, complete with seating for six at a wooden table, but all three meals are served in the hosts' farmhouse up the hill.

Around 9 a.m., the guests -- a Norwegian kayaking guide, his Danish-speaking wife, a Boston mail carrier and I, all there for an eco-cultural experience -- had breakfast with our hosts, Asta Begga and her husband, Gisli. Their kitchen, a large, sunny space dotted with horsy knickknacks, has a windowed wall overlooking the vast green grazing field.

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