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THE CHILL-OUT ISSUE / ICELAND

Flee the city, savor the sveit life

Hit the road out of Reykjavik for country hospitality, a magma-fueled steam bath and, perhaps, the annual sheep chase.

August 05, 2007|Krista Mahr | Special to The Times

AKUREYRI, ICELAND — I'm lying slack-jawed on a plank of hot wood, supine and defenseless over a gaping hole in the Earth's crust. Magma flows about a mile below me; above me, a drop of water condenses on the ceiling of a dimly illuminated steam room in the Myvatn Nature Baths, the lesser-known cousin to Iceland's iconic Blue Lagoon, that geothermal destination outside of Reykjavik often touted for its health benefits.

Myvatn, near the town of Akureyri (riddled with consonants, Icelandic words are not easy to tackle, but saying "mee-VAHT" and "ah-KOO-ray-ree" will get you by), is more or less on top of the ever-growing chasm between the North American and Eurasian plates. In the '70s and '80s, this region fielded nine eruptions from a nearby series of volcanic fissures. Locals had to put their tap water in the fridge to cool.

But on this winter's day, I'm left undisturbed to enjoy the low-lying fruits of plate tectonics: hiking on a black crust of a lava field, taking the womblike geothermal waters and breathing these hot, sloth-inducing vapors. Across the steam room, my friend flops onto her stomach in the mist, and I watch the drop of condensation slowly muster its strength. It falls.

That was winter 2006, during my five-year stint as an on-and-off-again resident in Iceland, first as a student of Icelandic and, more recently, as an editor of the magazine Iceland Review. A visiting friend and I, two Angelenos, had hit the road after work in my four-wheel drive and headed north to escape the chaos of a January snowstorm in Reykjavik. By midnight, we faced the dark, empty expanse of the Greenland Sea along Iceland's northern coast.

Iceland gets more yearly visitors than it has residents (a little more than 300,000), and nearly all of these tourists make Reykjavik and environs their primary destination. I've watched too many of them fly all the way to the middle of the North Atlantic, hit the bars and spend the rest of their vacation hung over. So I always gave my guests the same line: If you're on the island for a long weekend, you have a choice. You can explore Reykjavik's amusing but over-hyped night life and suffer -- and I do mean suffer -- the physical and financial consequences, or you can escape the grip of the $11 pint and explore.

Akureyri, Iceland's second-largest city at 16,700, is a base for another kind of weekend. Here the days revolve more around sheep than stocks, and beater Ford Broncos are more common than Reykjavik's flashy fleet of SUVs. People in Reykjavik still call northern Iceland the sveit, or countryside, and it remains an idyllic escape from the capital's increasing pressures -- and increasing ennui for tourists.

Up north, you might find yourself standing in an empty heath with only a few blank-faced sheep and a looming volcanic crater to keep you company. Or you might find yourself treated to a good dose of Icelandic country hospitality from a local who still has the patience to show a stranger around this strange land.

FREEWHEELING ROAD TRIP

Depending on the weather, the drive to Akureyri is about five hours. Though buses regularly shuttle between Reykjavik and Akureyri, part of the trip's charm is being able to pull over and fill up a water bottle in a frigid mountain stream (perfectly safe) or stop in at a gas station for a lamb hot dog with remoulade and fried onions (of questionable safety but delicious).

Before I bought my own banged-up SUV, I routinely rented cars to escape. Like everything else in Iceland, rental prices and gas are killers, but the freedom is worth it and -- perhaps because they're charging a premium -- rental companies are strangely relaxed when a vehicle is returned caked with mud.

Every three or four months, I found myself heading north either in the winter with January's roving green bands of northern lights swaying above me or in the summer when the wind-driven rain pelts the countryside. Akureyri leaps out after a turn in the road: a hub of lights and colorful houses built into the hills.

Complete with its own international airport (flights from Copenhagen), the town is surprisingly cosmopolitan in its isolation: sleek cafes, a selection of bars entirely out of proportion to the population and boutiques that hawk designer jeans and candles to passersby on the cobblestone downtown streets.

There are plenty of options here to stash your gear while you venture out from town to explore by day. I've stayed in the centrally located, upmarket Hotel Kea, where Icelanders gather after dinner for whiskey and cigars in a bar packed with leather chairs, and in a wooden prefab summer cabin outside of town that came with a hot tub that we had to pay to fill up with water. Both had their charms.

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