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Warming Up to Chilly Iceland

A traveler ventures into this remote country to experience its delightful culture and scenery

Long johns. I should have packed long johns.

"I like the silk ones. A bit like wearing your wife's pantyhose, but you get used to them," said Charlie Wallace with a chuckle as he, his wife, Mary, and your faithful, semi-frozen journalist walked briskly around Reykjavik on a bitter November morning.

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Packing long underwear was the first lesson learned on a week-long, Saga Holidays, "Road Scholar" trip to Iceland.

"Smart travel" vacations combine tours, lectures, museum walks, and detailed talks on the history, culture, and geography of your chosen destination. They are a growing trend in tourism for those who want to return with more than a showoffy tan line, or a goofy pair of Mickey Mouse ears.

A group of 27 "mature adults" braved the wind-chill factor to learn more of this remote, often overlooked island that nudges the Arctic Circle.

The first few days were spent in and about Reykjavik as we adjusted to the nippy climate, time change, a new diet ("How would you like your cod prepared, sir?"), and each other.

Still, the schedule was active - visiting museums; the library; government buildings; and, of course, shopping - for those who could afford Iceland's steep prices.

Reykjavik, (translation: "smoky bay") is modern, clean, and shiny as a freshly caught herring. It is home to 130,000 tall, handsome, taciturn people - about half the country's population.

Guidebooks boast of the city's "certain slow pace and almost rustic charm." Let's just say that folks from Osawatomie, Kansas, would come to Reykjavik to unwind.

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Hallgrimskirkja, (a church named for a local poet, not a saint) is a towering cement, basalt structure that points toward Valhalla and rises above the city's low profile. It is guarded by a chin-jutting statue of Leif Ericsson, "Discoverer of America." (October 12 is no holiday in Iceland.)

Homes here are simple one- or two-story wooden or stucco affairs with large windows to beckon the elusive sun, and diaphanous lace curtains to maintain a discreet sense of privacy.

Highlights of Reykjavik included a visit to the Arni Magnsson Manuscript Institute and the National Museum.

If Iceland has a holy of holies, it is the Magnsson Institute. The small, unassuming, concrete building houses the spiritual essence of each countryman: The ancient Icelandic sagas.

Ushered into a hushed and darkened room we viewed these most valued treasures. Penned and colorfully illuminated on vellum by anonymous 13th-century writers, they chronicle a series of romantic and mythical stories of kings, fabulous creatures, holy men, and everyday folks. Their fictional prose spins tales of fierce gods, dark heros, and women with attitude.

Witness the tale of the lovely Gudrn Gjukadttir, who before burning her husband alive, fed him the flesh of their two sons. (Are these the bedtime stories parents read to little Arni and Agnus? I wondered.)

Written in the ancient Norse language, they can still be easily read by every Icelander. For during the Middle Ages, when Europe was corresponding in Latin, the remote Icelanders were writing in their own language - the same one spoken today.

A personal guided tour and lecture at the National Museum brought us closer to the history and culture of the land.

We learned that it was Irish monks, not vikings, who first settled here: The vikings came later. "It is an international misconception that Iceland was a viking settlement," said our lecturer. "Most settlers were peasants wishing to live in peace far away from war, much as Icelanders today," said our lecturer.

Pop quiz.

Why did vikings wear horns on their helmets?

Answer: They didn't. (I guess we can blame Wagnerian operas for that.)

Icelanders are fiercely proud and protective of their ancient tongue. In fact, an academic committee screens foreign words that tend to creep in. Hence, "television" becomes sjnvarp , ("sight throw"); "computer" is tlva ("number prophetess") - but of course!

If ebonics is searching for a sympathetic home, it not be Iceland.

Icelanders, it seems, would rather sit down with a book than get down and dance the funky chicken. "Icelanders," it is said, "are either reading a book or writing one." Iceland is considered the most literate nation in the world.

And being a hale and hearty breed, they love their sports. Most take place on water, frozen or otherwise: skiing, ice climbing, snowcatting, river rafting, to name a few. There's also golf, horseback riding, and soccer. Boxing is illegal.

Pop quiz: Can you name Iceland's national sport?

Guess again.

Not even close. Swimming!

Hot water from all those geothermal springs is piped in to heat most of Reykjavik's housing and pumped into a number of open-air pools. This makes for year-round outdoor swimming. In fact, to graduate from high school, each student must pass a swimming test.

Our all-knowing, local guide informed us that she never swam in an indoor pool until she visited the US.

The most interesting "classroom time" was spent on the bus touring the countryside. Here we saw the raw, untamed, adolescent land in the throws of growth, still unsure of what it will be if it ever grows up.

One tour, a must for all visitors, is the "Golden Circle." Buses move out southwest from Reykjavik on Route 1, the Ring Road - the one and only road that circumnavigates the island.

A tourist trap - the only one, really - is "Eden" (talk about a stretch!), a gift shop/coffee shop/geothermal greenhouse in Hveragerdi.

Here you can get a clue how some of Iceland's produce is grown in these thermal heated glass buildings, as you shop for Icelandic wool sweaters, T-shirts with puffins, sweatshirts with puffins, puffin salt and pepper shakers, pewter puffins stuffed puffins, and ceramic puffins.

Pop quiz: Can you guess Iceland's national bird?


Back on the bus.

Now it starts getting interesting. The Golden Circle Tour swings out to Gullfoss the magnificent "golden falls" where frigid temperature had muted the waterfall's thunder, and frozen its fair beauty; at Geysir, we explored a limestone field where gurgling hot springs danced and plumes of steamy water shot into the air, undeterred by the freezing weather.

More pensive moments were shared at Thingvellir National Park, where the first parliament was held by Iceland's early settlers in AD 930. Here, as throughout the tour, our Icelandic guide gave detailed talks on history, answered our countless questions, and added her own personal anecdotes on growing up in Iceland, which brought a dimension not found in any guidebook or casual tour.

Saving perhaps the best for last, we spent a few days out in the remote countryside in the little fishing village of Vik. This is Iceland in the raw. Here are vast plains where once-active volcanos gave birth to this distant land. Here, too, are deserts where the wind can whip up the sand and strip a car of paint quicker than a laser. And tucked in the shoulder of mountains and cliffs, small, sod-roofed farmhouses and outbuildings still somehow survive, as the people do.

Along the way we picnicked at waterfalls, and explored restored 19th-century farms. Small museums opened their doors to us, and personal tours and lectures further enlightened our stay. An overnight at a family farm-stay was a time to meet local folks and compare notes of our very different worlds

So what made this a "smart travel" trip?

First the native-born guides were omniscient and endlessly patient with our barrage of questions.

Then there were the tours of museums and government houses where additional guides or museum curators gave us private tours, often opening just for our visit. We also received a suggested reading list before we left. And there were no long drawn-out lunches that eat up so much valuable time. (Often box lunches were eaten on the bus.) And the group was composed of experienced, seasoned travelers with an insatiable appetite for learning, and the curiosity of a four-year old.

The one thing I never did master was how to pronounce Kirkjubaejarklaustur, a little one-horse town near Vik, (Now if someone could please check the spelling?)

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