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An Alaskan's guide to Iceland, 'Wild West of the Arctic'

Scott McMurren
The Blue Lagoon, located between downtown Reykjavik and the international airport, is nearly an acre in size and offers travelers mineral-rich heated waters, a great place to destress after a long flight.
Scott McMurren photo
Designed in 1937, The Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík named after the 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson.
Scott McMurren photo
The drive north from Geirshlid to Isafjordur is 245 miles and took me more than six hours. That's because I kept stopping to take photos.
Scott McMurren photo
Gudmunder "Gummi" Eyjolfsson is one of many knowledgable locals who offer guided tours of Iceland. Eyjolfsson is pictured here with his "Super Jeep."
Scott McMurren photo
I headed north from Reyjkavik about 60 miles to a small guesthouse in farm country. Hulda Hrönn Sigurðardóttir and her family have the Geirshlid Guesthouse, which is essentially rooms in their farmhouse.
Scott McMurren photo
The Hvítá -- translated into "white river" in English -- flows 25 miles from Langjökull glacier in Iceland's highlands before dropping down into a narrow gorge at the Gullfoss waterfall, pictured.
Scott McMurren photo
Flights from Anchorage to Iceland are surprisingly affordable and offer easy access to many European destinations, including London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo.
Scott McMurren photo
Situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Iceland is a nation of mariners. Fishing has helped propel Iceland from poverty into one of the world's wealthiest developed nations. The Jupiter is one of many vessels docked in Reykjavík.
Scott McMurren photo
I made a point of getting out to see an amazing Icelandic waterfall called Dynjandi. So that meant driving south from Isafjordur on Highway 60 to the ferry dock at Brjánslækur for the cruise to Stykkishomur.
Scott McMurren photo
Renting a car in Iceland is not cheap. My car, from Sixt, worked out to about $80 per day. Gas is about $7.60 per gallon. But driving in Iceland is relatively simple--not the daunting task it can be in Rome or Paris, for example.
Scott McMurren photo

Now that Icelandair provides twice-weekly nonstop service between Anchorage and Reykjavik, Alaskans have an entirely new playground.

Many travelers are using the new Icelandair flights to get to their favorite European destinations including London, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Paris, among others. I think Condor, which offers nonstop service to Frankfurt, is better-suited for connections to Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and other destinations in southern Europe. 

Travelers to Europe on Icelandair can take advantage of the no-additional-fare rule which allows for a free stop in Iceland. Even if you stop for just a few hours, you can take the bus to Blue Lagoon hot springs, just 25 miles from the airport. Reykjavik Excursions offers bus fare and admission to Blue Lagoon for $79. There's free wi-fi on the buses, so you can catch up on your email before slipping into this two-acre hot tub. In addition to the super-soaker natural hot spring, there's a sauna and a steam bath to enjoy. If you had a particularly rough flight, book a massage--in the water! There's also a great restaurant "Lava", on the premises. Enjoy fresh seafood (always), plus local Icelandic specialties including Minke whale and lamb. 

Most travelers, when visiting Iceland for the first time, stick close to the capital city of Reykjavik. That's not a bad strategy--it's a friendly town. Your airport bus (they sell the tickets on board the Icelandair flights) will take you to your hotel or guesthouse. From there, you can catch any number of excursions, including the famous "Golden Circle" tour, which includes a visit to Iceland's own "rift valley" where you can see the tectonic plates pulling apart the earth. The site is a national park "Thingvellir"---where Iceland's general assembly first convened in the 10th century. The Golden Circle tour also includes stops to see the incredible waterfall at Gullfoss and the oh-so-active Geysir, whcih shoots steaming water in the air every five to eight minutes. 

Wild places Alaskans will never correctly pronounce

I was inspired by my friend Katie Pesznecker, who flew over on Icelandair's inaugural flight on May 16, 2013. She kept posting great photos on her Facebook account of wild places I couldn't pronounce. So when she returned, I cornered her at Kaladi's to get the inside scoop on where she went and how she got there. 

While she opted to stay the night on arrival, I budgeted a few hours to soak in Reykjavik's public pool at Laugardalslaug before driving north. In addition to an Olympic-size swimming pool that is oh-so-toasty, they have a series of hot tubs, a steam bath and a sauna. Further, they rented me a suit, a towel and a locker for about $11.20.

Renting a car in Iceland is not cheap. My car, from Sixt, worked out to about $80 per day. Gas is about $7.60 per gallon. But driving in Iceland is relatively simple--not the daunting task it can be in Rome or Paris, for example. Here's a tip: if you plan on traveling outside of Reykjavik, don't settle on the smallest, cheapest car. I rented a VW Polo with manual transmission. The kind woman at the rental counter looked at me (I'm 6'5" tall) and had mercy on me--upgrading me to a Chevy Cruze. It has a little higher clearance, more room inside and automatic transmission. I'm fine with a stick shift, but if you find yourself on a gravel road, you might wish you had rented a Jeep. A Suzuki mini-SUV is available at Sixt for $156 per day. 

After a rekaxing soak, I headed north about 60 miles to a small guesthouse in farm country. Hulda Hrönn Sigurðardóttir and her family have the Geirshlid Guesthouse, which is essentially rooms in their farmhouse. Hulda and her family tend to the farm, which includes cows, sheep, horses, ducks, hens, dogs and a cat. She makes a delicious Scandinavian breakfast which includes fresh eggs, cheese and milk from the farm. There are several interesting sites to see around the farm, but I was more interested in a quiet place to rest and shake off the jet lag. 

My plan was to get up early and head north to Isafjordur, along the northwest coast of Iceland. But the coffee and conversation was good -- so I dallied awhile and learned a little more about "Iceland's Wild West." It's easy to take your time in the summer, since, as in Alaska, the sun never goes down. Hulda and I poured over the maps and she recommended taking a ferry on my way back from the western peninsula, which I promptly booked. Advance reservations are required, since I was taking the car with me! 

The drive north from Geirshlid is straightforward on the map. Take Highway 1 (the Ring Road) up to Highway 61. But I was using Google Maps on my iPhone. While this is cheaper than the GPS unit provided by Sixt (or any car rental company), it does have its drawbacks. The map led me to a small road. In fact, I'm amazed this goat track even had a number (pro-tip: another reason to get a heftier car). Regardless, be wary of any road with three numbers. 

My iPhone was connected via a MiFi from Xcom Global. For $14.95 per day, you can tap into Iceland's mobile phone network on up to five devices, including laptop, iPad, iPhone or other smartphone. . And although Iceland has lots of free internet WiFi hotspots, the mi-fi link comes in handy to use your iPhone like a GPS with Google Maps. 

The drive north from Geirshlid to Isafjordur is 245 miles and took me more than six hours. That's because I kept stopping to take photos. It is a spectacular drive that tracks the fjord-ridden coastline of the north, all against the spectacular setting of the roadless, isolated wilderness at Hornstrandir Nature Preserve. There are more than enough waterfalls, jaw-dropping cliffs and awe-inspiring vistas for even the most jaded road-tripper. So take your time. 

I stopped for lunch in Holmavik. After passing a grocery store, I jsut stopped at the first cafe, called "Holmakaffi". The owners offered up some delicious coffee and a fat slice of carrot cake. They also told me to visit the nearby Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. The museum, which also features a gift shop and cafe, offers a glimpse into the 17th-century persecution of witches in the 17th century. It's worth a visit to learn more about the folklore of the region.

The coffee helped fortify me for the awesome drive through the fjords of northwestern Iceland. I'm thankful it was daylight for the entire trip. The road is in great shape--but this is wild country.  

Isafjordur, with a population of about 2,600, is the largest town in northwestern Iceland. Primarily a fishing village, the town boasts an impressive harbor--and hosts cruise ships and ferries in port. 

My destination was the Gamla Guesthouse, in the middle of town. Originally a hospital, the guesthouse features a sumptuous Scandinavian breakfast. Our host encouraged me to sample the fish oil and pickled herring. I deferred, opting instead for the delicious local cheeses and fresh bread! My private room was $110 per night, with the bath and shower across the hall. Bring your sleeping bag and sleep in the dormitory-style room (4-6 beds per room) for $39 per night. 

On the day after I arrived, one of Aida's cruise ships sailed into town, with 1,500 travelers on board. In the harbor, several boats were waiting to take them to the nearby bird reserve at Vigur Island, on whale-watching tours, or scuba diving trips. 

I opted to rent a mountain bike from West Tours, located in the tourist information center. The bike was a little pricey (about $50), but therer was a great route to explore. The road to the northwest of Isafjordur had been shut down due to avalanches. Now there was a new tunnel. But the old road--with the boulders tumbling down from above, now was a bike and pedestrian path. I jumped at the chance to dodge some falling rocks and ride to the nearby community of Bolungarvik. On the seven-mile stretch, I didn't see anyone else, aside from a couple of gravel truck drivers. It is a spectacular ride. 

Like Isafjordur, Bolungarvik is a fishing village. And bordering the harbor is a delicious restaurant/guesthouse: Einarshusid. I opted for the seafood soup, but followed it up with some carrot cake. Yum! 

Back in Isafjordur, everyone encouraged me to dine at Tjoruhusid, which looked more like a run-down longhouse instead of a restaurant. But don't be fooled. Make reservations in advance, since it fills up quickly. Seating is at long tables--get cozy. Serve yourself from the buffet, which features big platter after big platter of freshly-cooked seafood: haddock, pollock, cod, shrimp, halibut--it's all delicious. There is plenty of salad and fresh-baked bread to fill out your plate. But it's the fish that's worth writing home about. With one glass of wine, the buffet was about $50. 

The folks in Isafjordur think nothing of driving south to Reykjavik. But the task can be daunting for the faint-of-heart. You always can drive back the same way you came up--on Highway 61 back through Holmavik.

But I wanted to head south, in part to see an awesome waterfall: Dynjandi. So that meant driving south from Isafjordur on Highway 60 to the ferry dock at Brjánslækur for the cruise to Stykkishomur. 

I was looking all around town for the road--but all I could see was a small hole in the mountain. That was it. A tunnel. In fact, it is a one-lane tunnel. It's several miles long, with an exit in the middle to take you to another town w-a-a-y out west. 

Slow and easy, careful not to die!

Sure, the scenery is great, but I was afraid to look away from the steep, twisty road in front of me. Again, the road is in fairly good condition, but you're wise to heed the speed limits. After about 30 miles, the pavement ends and the road reverts to gravel. If you're used to driving the Denali Highway, the McCarthy Road or the Dalton Highway, you'll be right at home on Highway 60. I was not particularly confident, so I went pretty slow. But like the drive into Isafjordur, the drive out was spectacular. Me and my trusty Chevy Cruze were climbing up one mountain and down another all day long. We stopped to see the gigantic waterfall at Dynjandi, then we kept going. I didn't want to miss the ferry. 

Pro tip: Do not go fast on these roads. If you are at all uncertain about driving on loose gravel over high mountain passes with no services for miles, I suggest you take the paved road back to Reykjavik. That's why there's a big, red "X" across this road on the map you receive from the car rental company. 

If you elect to take this route, though, you will see a part of Iceland that very few travelers experience. The vistas and the scenery is unmatched. When you do run into people, they are gracious. They take credit cards. And they speak English. 

Paved roads never felt so good once I got to the ferry terminal on the southern coast of the peninsula. The three-hour ride across the bay is a great way to unwind after the harrowing drive. The ferry offers wi-fi for sale, although my hands still were shaking, so it was hard to type on the keyboard! 

The drive back to Reykjavik was relatively tame. But I was anxious to try out the accommodations at Hlemmur Square, a blend between hotel and hostel, created by Klaus Ortlieb. Ortlieb has a long list of swanky hotels that he's designed, including the Gotham Hotel in New York and the Modern Hotel in New Orleans. 

"I wanted to bring together a community of travelers, including the smart, young set here in Iceland," said Ortlieb. "This includes families. Instead of getting two or three hotel rooms, parents can opt for a hotel room and let the kids stay in the hostel accommodations," he said. 

The hotel sits on the top floor, with balconies that look over the water, complete with down comforters on the beds.  Nice. The two floors below feature family rooms (a queen bed and two twin beds) or rooms with four or eight beds (male- or female-only). There are shared kitchens and bathrooms, as well as common lounge areas where travelers can gather and share stories (or surf the 'net with free wi-fi). All the hostelers get a lockable drawer underneath the bed for personal stuff, as well as a fluffy duvet and a pillow. "Upscale hostelling" is how Ortlieb describes it. 

Right across the street, there is a grocery store so hostelers can load up on food and drinks. When I stopped in, Ortlieb and the crew were still putting the restaurant together--although all the guest rooms are available. 

With Icelandair's new service, this island nation is poised to be a popular stop for travelers to Europe. It's a no-brainer to take advantage of the hot springs, especially when it's so close to the airport. And it's easy to spend a day or two enjoying Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. But don't stop there. Push on through to Iceland's Wild West. It's a reach--a real adventure. That's why it's a natural itinerary for Alaskans. Again -- hat tip to Katie Pesnecker for the recommendation. 

Nonstop flights to Iceland on Icelandair  are available for $584 roundtrip between Aug. 26-Sept. 8, 2013. Grab your passport. Meet me at the airport. 

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.