THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Circling Iceland cools off some happy campers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

REYKJAVÍK, Iceland - At the edge of the island's largest glacier, in a desert covered with lava rocks, I learned what it means to be an amateur camper.

Around what would have been dawn had the sun actually set during our weeklong trek through Iceland, it suddenly became clear that my $119 department store tent was not designed to withstand arctic gusts. Had we not gone to such lengths to block out the midnight rays and the howling winds, I might have seen warning signs. With such essential gear as earplugs and eyeshades, we hadn't bothered to use some of our other equipment - like metal stakes to secure our tent. Not a wise idea in a country with few trees.

We were in Iceland after hearing that its glacial rivers offer some of the world's best white-water rafting, and its capital, aside from $10 draft beers and basic entrees costing north of $50, boasts of hot springs and glamorous parties. With the promise of interesting things to see, we chose a scenic route that would take us nearly a thousand miles over six days.

It took just 4 1/2 hours to fly from Boston to Keflavík, a decades-old NATO base on the southwestern edge of the island, where we rented a little Toyota Yaris for the week.

Our first stop was the nearby Blue Lagoon, an otherworldly spa about 15 minutes from the airport. We spent several hours sloshing about in the briny, 100-degree water, slathering a cleansing goop into our drowsy pores.

Pampered, crinkled, and smelling of sulfur, we left the tourists behind for a lonely road, a narrow two lanes that looped peacefully through blackened lava fields. Then we reached a sign with a yellow and black exclamation point that read "Malbik Endar." It was the only hint of civilization in the visible distance, and it signaled the end of the paved road.

Our manual-shift Yaris squealed as we climbed a steep grade on what felt more like a mountain trail than a dirt road. We took this shortcut for hours, at one point flagging down a passing car - the only one we had seen on our way to the national highway - to make sure we weren't headed to nowhere.

We continued to putter along the curving road, through parched valleys, over craggy, Utah-like peaks, until the bleak horizon gave way to grass and the sea glistening in the distance. A few more bends in the road, and we came upon several grazing Icelandic horses, a shaggy, affectionate breed that huddle to ward off the cold.

When finally we found the highway - a two-lane road that rings the island - we picked up speed and headed 200 miles east to Skaftafell, a lava field at the base of Vatnajökull, the island's (and Europe's) largest glacier.

We stopped at sparsely populated towns with prefab housing and expensive gas stations, which were often the only places to eat. All the lamb burgers and mayo-topped fries, however, didn't lessen our awe at the ever-changing landscape: a flower-covered prairie that quickly morphs from moonscape to tundra to coastline, each with its share of roaming sheep.

About midnight, we saw what looked like giant muddy ice cubes spilling from the green foothills. It was our first glimpse of the mist-covered Vatnajökull, and we decided to put up our tent in a small campground about a mile from the glacier. As it began to drizzle, we discovered we couldn't inflate our air mattress; we had brought the wrong charger. We also found our tent looked a lot more like a sail than others nearby, which were low-slung, aerodynamic, and secured with large ropes and stakes.

We eventually learned why. The wind pushed one side of the Target special over our heads. Then one of the poles - the main one - cracked. Half the tent collapsed.

It was time to wake up.

So we fought the wind, stuffed the tent in the car, and marched off to inspect the glacier. Later, we took a cruise in a bay studded with large icebergs that had snapped off the glacier and were floating out to sea. Some of the multiton, sharp-edged bergs scattered along the coast's black-sand beaches.

Back on the road, we followed large, black mountains across rocky fiords and alongside dozens of waterfalls, one more picturesque than the next. With thick clouds touching the ground, we inched along an impossibly curvy road in driving rain. We ended up in a flat desert in the shadow of a massive volcano, where we found a campground with grass-roofed cabins. The wind felt strong enough to topple the car, so we opted for a cabin, one with thick shades to block out the light.

The next day we took another dirt road to Dettifoss, Europe's largest waterfall, a gushing oasis in the middle of the desert. From there, we explored one of the country's few places with trees and admired towering rock formations that resembled large buildings. Slogging onward, we passed oceanfront, centuries-old towns, snow-capped mountains, ground vents spewing steam, and Myvatn, a large lake plagued by swarms of black flies.

Feeling haggard after midnight, we gave the tent another try. We repaired the pole and ripped rain shield with duct tape, and drove to a hilltop that had about a dozen cabins.

We received permission to camp there from the rafting company we had paid for the next day's trip, and parked beside a cabin, hoping it would serve as a windbreak.This time we used large rocks and metal stakes to secure the tent behind the cabin.

The next morning we packed, found the rafting center, and soon found ourselves donning dry suits that gave neck-to-toe protection.

At the end of an hourlong bus ride through a hailstorm, our Nepalese guide told us to put on our helmets and helped us carry our large rubber raft into a smooth section of the East Glacial River, which felt freezing despite wool socks, dry suit, and rubber boots.

Within minutes, the grassy banks gave way to canyons and the icy impact of the rapids soaked our faces and numbed our gloved fingers. The bumps turned to ledges, and as our guide urged us to row harder, we flew over sizable drops, some of them causing rafts to tip over. We shot through the bluish-gray river, staring at the stark black cliffs, rocky masses that at points rose more than 100 feet on each side. We glided along for about six hours, the beauty of the moss-covered, treeless gorge inuring us to the onset of frostbite.

When it was all over, we sipped hot chocolate and did our best to thaw. We sped out of the small town of Varmahlid and picked up the highway again, having completed nearly two-thirds of the route. We drove again through midnight, along the ocean, beside tall mountains and broad meadows, crossing into another desert.

It began to rain, and with exhaustion setting in, we stopped at a timeworn hotel we found beside the road. They wanted more than $200 for the night; my girlfriend - who strongly opposed another night in the tent - managed to negotiate paying half that.

The next day we took more dirt roads to explore caves, a large national park, geysers, and yet more beautiful waterfalls. Finally, after all the miles, all the sheep, all the rustic majesty, we rolled into Reykjavík, which had a campground by the sea.

We spent the night (and more than $250) in a newly appointed Radisson.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

If You Go

How to get there

Icelandair (icelandair.com) flies daily from Boston to Keflavík, the international airport about 30 miles outside Reykjavík. Where to stay Radisson SAS 1919 Hotel

Posthusstraeti 2

800-333-3333, 011-354-599-1000

radissonsas.com

A stylish lobby and comfortable rooms with hardwood floors. Doubles $337-$607.

Hótel Borg

Posthusstraeti 11

011-354-551-1440

hotelborg.is

A recently renovated and expanded Art Deco hotel facing Parliament Square. Doubles $297-$456.

Icelandic Farm Holidays

011-354-570-2700

farmholidays.is

Offers a range of options that start at $50 for a room at a farmhouse and sleeping bag. Campgrounds start at about $20 to pitch a tent.

What to do

The Blue Lagoon

011-354-420-8800

bluelagoon.com

A man-made open-air spa created from runoff water from a geothermal power station. Admission starts at about $24 for adults, teenagers are half price, and children under 11 are free. Towels and swimsuits are available to rent.

Jökulsárlón

Glacial river lagoon off Highway 1, about 200 miles from Reykjavík. Boat trips about $20 per person for about 40 minutes.

Hestasport-Activity Tours

011-354-453-8383

rafting.is

Daily white-water rafting trips from Varmahlid, about five hours from Reykjavík. A six-hour ride on the East Glacial River ($115) or a four-hour ride on the calmer West Glacial River ($74) include dry suits, boots, gloves, helmets, and all other rafting equipment.

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