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Iceland: magic island of fire and ice

Sapphire waters fed by hot springs and a sapphic prime minister are why LGBT people go to Iceland
Iceland's Blue Lagoon is one of the country's most famous tourist draws.
Photo by BIL.

Imagine me standing in the middle of the Arctic Circle in mid-winter in just my swimming trunks and with my face covered in white mud.

Suicidal? No! Smiling? Yes!

I’m not on some crazy endurance test, but soaking in the incredible atmosphere and weird luna-landscape of the world’s most famous luxury spa – the Blue Lagoon.

It’s just one of the wonderfully weird must-sees on any tour of Iceland (just three hours flight-time from London and only five from New York).

And because the sapphire waters of the lagoon are just a short bus ride from Reykjavík’s main airport at Keflavík, they are a first or last experience in the country for most.

Tourists and locals alike come to bathe in the geothermally heated pool. Whether there’s snow on the ground or the summer sun beating down (revealing Iceland’s lest known and spoken about magical green covering), you’ll be beautifully warm once in the lagoon and the mineral-rich waters really do condition and tone your skin.

Once wet you smear your face with the white-silica mud, provided at the pool’s edge, to maximize the exfoliating effect. And you should make the most of the experience by lounging in the steam cave and taking a turn under the hot waterfall that gives you a powerful shoulder massage.

That same natural geothermal energy which heats up the lagoon provides hot water to Iceland’s homes and even acts as under-floor heating for some of the pavements so they don’t ice up.

The Icelanders are a hardy bunch, perfectly prepared for harsh conditions. Our arrival in a blizzard wasn’t any problem for our pilot – he touched down apparently oblivious to the snow-clad condition of the runway. And the bus driver who took us to the capital through the snowstorm acted like he was on a casual Sunday afternoon drive. (A new airline, Wow Air, is launching in June to take you to the island.)

Most remarkably of all the capital, Reykjavík, is cosy and welcoming, not bleak. The economic crisis hit the little island – where everyone seems to know everyone else – very hard and must have created real misery for many. But Icelanders have their chins held high and everyone we met was cheerful (not to mention dryly comic). We didn’t notice any boarded-up businesses or run-down facilities. You can really believe the statistics that the Icelanders were the happiest people on earth until the banks collapsed.

It’s an enjoyable city to explore. The main shopping area is full of cool boutiques and chic bars but it is all on a human scale, more like a large village.

Popular belief has it that huge cosmopolitan cities are more gay-friendly while smaller, isolated communities are more bigoted. Iceland shows that stereotype is garbage. Here, in Reykjavík, at the edge of the earth, the rainbow flag flutters proudly over the Queer Centre. Inside you can find out about the National Queer Organisation and how it has won extensive rights for LGBT islanders.

The country’s small scale actually helps the campaigners. If the organziation’s leaders wants to discuss something with the a minister or even the prime minister they just make an appointment and pop down the street to see them. Because you can meet all the politicians face-to-face, it is easier to reason with them, I was told.

Icelanders are excellently educated and tolerant – violence is very rare. But a small community is not all good news; gay locals jokingly admit that if you make a drunken idiot of yourself in one of the gay bars, everyone knows of your shame by the next day.

Of course that’s not a problem for tourists who can always hop on the Iceland Express service back home and leave their embarrassment behind them.

If there was ever any doubt that the country’s queers have come in from the cold, the choice of openly lesbian Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir to be prime minister in February 2009 and to pull a government back together following the financial melt-down made the reality clear. She faced re-election a few months later in April 2009 and won, increasing her party’s popularity and cementing her own.

Next morning we were picked up for a Golden Circle tour. Bus trips may not be your usual first choice but all tourists do them here as the most practical way to see the sites and the major operators will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.

Even in our heavy walking boots we slid around on the thick ice as we stared in wonder at the Gullfoss, or golden waterfall. It drops 32 meters in a spectacular double-cascade, sending up a shower of spray and shooting out rainbows before the water disappears down a narrow ravine. Even the slippery ice adds to the effect, twinkling in the sunlight. And to think it would have been turned into a hydroelectric scheme if the locals hadn’t saved it!

Not far away is the country’s other most-visited natural wonder, the Geysir (actually pronounced GAY-zeer), the original hot-water spout that lent its name to all those discovered after it. It now rarely erupts because idiot tourists threw rocks into it in the 1950s and when it does, the water doesn’t spurt up as far as it used to.

But just next to it is the world’s most reliable geyser, Strokkur. We were so wowed when we first saw the plume of water shoot 20 meters into the air that we missed the opportunity to take a photo. No problem, we just waited five minutes and it went off again. And another time six minutes later. While you are waiting, you can look around at the steaming fumaroles, bubbling pots and colourful springs that surround it.

And it’s not just natural wonders that are worth visiting. Our tour took us to the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops to learn about their fascinating, and sometimes tragic history and to the wind-swept hill where the country’s parliament used to meet.

The Althingi, where Sigurðardóttir rules, is the oldest parliamentary institution in the world. And while it is now in a nice building in the center of Reykjavík it originally started in 930AD out in the open. (It’s not all cheery though. In one corner is an ice-cold pool where women convicted of serious crimes would once have been tied up in a sack and drowned.)

After all that, return to your hotel and rest. 101 Hotel in Reykjavík is a boutique hotel in the heart of the city center. The luxurious rooms are the perfect place to unwind. Warm up in the big walk in showers or bath tub – there are Blue Lagoon spa products available for extra pampering if you haven’t had enough already.

Then get into your bathrobe and slouch down on the soft bed to listen to a CD or your iPod through the Bose sound dock. Alternatively the rooms all have a DVD player and satellite TV and there are books available too.

You don’t have to go far if you want to go out as the hotel’s restaurant and bar is one of the coolest places in the city, serving a modern Icelandic and international menu as well as cocktails, all at reasonable prices.

Note that I wrote ‘modern Icelandic menu’ in that sentence. Because, even for the most experimental foodies, some of the country’s national dishes may be a bit of a stretch. Rotting shark and singed sheep’s head complete with eye-balls are among the options. But don’t worry, there are any number of cool cafés, bars and restaurants with more conventional, contemporary (wimpy) choices to tempt your palate.

Now relaxed and full-bellied, you can reflect on the magic of Europe’s most sparsely populated country. It’s a land of friendly welcomes, a forward-looking society and unparalleled natural wonders: spouting geysers, active volcanoes, tumbling waterfalls, towering mountains, vast lava plains fjords, glaciers and highlands and magical lakes.

What’s more there is a constant buzz about Iceland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scene. The next event there is the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatic Championship, starting on 30 May with teams from around the world competing and including a mental midnight open water swimming challenge in the north Atlantic (that’s got to be worth seeing).

Later in the year watch out for Reykjavík Gay Pride from 7 to 12 August with all the usual parties, cultural and family events and a parade. Bears on Ice is a four-day festival of all things rugged and hairy starting on 6 September.

From mid-May to mid-July, Reykjavík is a city that never sleeps – you can enjoy daylight 24-seven and turn it into a party capital.

But whenever you go there, you definitely need to go – and return. In my case I still want to see the Northern Lights, visit a puffin colony, go whale watching, do an all daylight bar-crawl from midnight to 5am and take a stroll on one of the glaciers. I know there will be a warm welcome.

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