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What an unexpected contrast. From the ticket booth, my family and I walked down the pier at the Reykjavik harbor. It was a sunny August day with a cool northern breeze, and we were looking for the ship that would take us out on Faxafloi Bay to see whales. The sight that met us was odd: On one side of the pier several brightly colored whale-watching boats were docked. Floating on the other side were the black whale-hunting ships. The odd contrast reminded me that in Iceland, whales are both watched by tourists and hunted by whalers. Harvesting the resources of the sea is the backbone of the Icelandic economy. With confidence about healthy numbers of whales in their waters, and ignoring international protests, Icelanders recently resumed whale hunts. As a result, whale steaks are served in fine seafood restaurants in Reykjavik. Meanwhile, the whale-watching business thrives, both out of Reykjavik and the northern port of Husavik. Our whale-watching vessel, filled with its catch of tourists, left the harbor and headed 10 miles out of the bay where whales often feed. The whale-hunting ships venture much further out and bring their catch to a fjord northeast of Reykjavik that is appropriately called Whalefjord (Hvalfjordur). As a result, there are no tales yet of shocked tourists seeing harpoons whiz by. After an hour, the ship slowed and the engine quieted. We had reached a patch of water where minke whales, 25- to 30-foot baleen whales, frequently feed. Our tour guide was perched in the crow’s nest above us, muttering in hushed tones over the loudspeaker while she scanned the vicinity for signs of whales. Meanwhile, we took in the great view around us: to the south, the Reykjanes peninsula, to the east, the Esja and Akrafjall mountains that frame most photos of Reykjavik, and to the north the mountainous, 50-mile-long Snaefellsnes peninsula, with the 4700-foot-high Snaefellsjokull glacier sitting at its tip. Before long, our tour guide alerted us to nearby whales spouting. The captain throttled down and we moved in for a closer view. Spectators lined the ship’s bow and sides, scanning the waters. Within 50 feet of the boat we saw several minke whales surface repeatedly, displaying their long snouts and distinctive white markings on their belly and fins. The sun glistened on the water and there was North Atlantic wildlife all around. The omnipresent gulls hovered in the air, and solitary puffins bobbed on the waves. The best show was provided by the northern gannets, a yellow and white sea bird. They circled above us and then suddenly dove like missiles into the water, one after the other. Each would disappear for several seconds before emerging in a different spot with a fish in its beak. After paddling about for a moment while gobbling down their meal, they would take flight again and prepare for the next dive. Returning to land, I realized that a great vacation in Iceland could revolve around the water. Oh, yes, there’s a lot more to be seen: moss-covered lava fields, volcanoes peppered across the landscape, trendy Reykjavik bars and restaurants. But a good trip can be built around the various experiences in or around Icelandic water. GLACIERS AND HOT SPOTS A brief geology lesson helps. Iceland spans the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where tectonic plates meet above a geologic hot spot. The results include periodic volcanic eruptions, including under the large glacier, Vatnajokull, that covers much of southeastern Iceland. In 1996, water melted by an eruption under the glacier burst forth in a spectacular flood that destroyed roads and bridges along the coast. Iceland’s geology also produces an abundance of geothermally heated water, created by water seeping into the ground and being heated by volcanic sources. Geothermally heated water and steam meets the heating and hot water needs of most Icelandic homes, and geothermal power combines with hydroelectric power to provide Iceland with almost all its electric power from renewable sources. The hot water is also put to use in the country’s many public swimming pools. While swimming might not be the first activity you think of in planning a trip to the far north, it’s actually a popular activity in Iceland. My 8-year-old son had an epiphany about the differences as we headed to a pool one afternoon: “Dad, in America people go in the pool to cool down, but in Iceland they do it to warm up.” The swimming pools range from the huge Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik — a 50-meter lap pool and attached recreational pool — to small pools tucked next to farm houses and in fishing towns. Taking a dip after a day of hiking around is almost mandatory. Even more popular than the pools themselves are the hot pots (hot tubs) adjacent to the pools. There’s often a few of them, with increasing temperatures. The hottest may reach 115 Fahrenheit or so, and typically it’s just the hardy veterans who can stand the heat. In the less scalding hot pots, locals meet to trade gossip or just space out, and tourists warm up before dashing through the chilly air back to the locker room. For an even more unique dip, travelers head to the Blue Lagoon. It is a one-of-a kind phenomenon, a large outdoor pool formed by the clean effluent water from an adjacent geothermal power plant. The water, at about 105 Fahrenheit, forms a milky blue pool in the midst of a lava field scooped out to allow visitors to swim and relax in the water. Aside from the uniqueness of the setting, the warm water is rich in minerals such as silica, which many consider healthy. One of Iceland’s most popular tourist stops, it now includes a spa and hotel. And it’s easy to get to, situated just off the road between Reykjavik and Keflavik, home of the international airport where most travelers arrive and depart. Water also goes up, down, and sideways in Iceland. WATER GOES UP First, up. Thanks to the geothermal heat, Iceland has many hot springs. There are far fewer erupting geysers, but the most reliable one, named Strokkur, can be visited on an easy day trip from Reykjavik. Strokkur is next to the formerly mighty but now dormant geyser, Geysir, from which the word in English is derived. The steady Strokkur is visitor-friendly, erupting every few minutes by shooting a stream of boiling water 50 feet into the air. The water goes down. With glacial runoff and heavy precipitation, Iceland has numerous rivers that cascade from its highlands towards the sea. Waterfalls are abundant, and one of the biggest is a regular stop on the same excursion as the geyser. Gullfoss (golden fall) is formed where a large river tumbles in two levels 100 feet into a ravine. Early in the last century it was the site of one of Iceland’s first environmental controversies, when hydropower developers considered harnessing the site. The water goes sideways. No matter what the time of year, bear in mind that Icelandic weather is unpredictable. Because of the northern latitude, the summer days are long and golfers can enjoy midnight tee times in June. But that doesn’t mean it is warm or dry. Rainfall is frequent, and thanks to strong winds, the rain may be horizontal. So in addition to your swimming gear, pack fleeces and rainproof shells, plus thick-soled boots. There’s lots more to do in Iceland, whether water-related or not. You can venture up to the highlands for drives onto glaciers in specially configured SUVs, cross rivers on Icelandic horses, and fly fish for salmon in pristine rivers. Visitors from Washington may also wish to take in the U.S. presidential tour of Reykjavik. It’s really just two stops. Start at Baejarins Bestu Hot Dog Stand, right by the harbor, where former President Bill Clinton showed his Everyman side by downing a lamb hot dog with all the trimmings. Then head a mile east along the waterfront to Hofdi House. That’s where President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 and swapped unexpectedly dramatic disarmament proposals. There must have been something in the water.
A native of Iceland, Gunnar Birgisson practices energy law with Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington, D.C.

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