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An account from my friend with a career in the foreign service.

We arrived in Iceland on Friday, December 27, 2002, and went to Borgarnes, about an hour's drive north of Reykjavik. Borgarnes is a lovely town and a great place to recover from jet lag. The first night we were there we heard the Northern Lights were absolutely spectacular; unfortunately we were too zonked to notice. We took some day trips from there, seeing some of the fantastic scenery, a replica of an authentic early Icelandic dwelling, tried some fermented shark, visited a privately owned church (given the sparse population, farmers would have their own private chapels) and other lovely, low-key things to do.

From Reykjavik we visited Geyser, from which all geysers get their name. We also went to the site of the first Icelandic parliament and the present Althing in Reykjavik (Iceland has the oldest parliament of any republic in the world). The present Althing has a most interesting sculpture: it's rather plain and resembles a large ear, but if you put your ear next to it, it talks to you (unfortunately our Icelandic wasn't very good).

There were three particular highlights.

First of all, being practically the Winter Solstice, the days were very short. It would start to get light about 10:30 and by 11:30 the sun would be visible; it would be dark again by 4:00. What I didn't expect, however, was that the sun never got more than a few degrees above the horizon. It just moved around the horizon, which I found rather disconcerting because I never knew north from south.

New Year's in Iceland is a fascination mix of traditional and 21st century. Old Year's Eve is totally unforgettable. It's a family night, parties are for the evening of New Year's Day. Old Year's Eve has huge bonfires (Reykjavik, a city of 178,000, has 18 bonfires) which are guaranteed to keep you warm. We estimated that there were 5,000 people at the one we went to, babes in arms, seniors with canes; all well behaved. Given the limited daylight, one assumes that the original settlers of Iceland used bonfires to shatter the darkness. About half an hour after the bonfire is lit, the official sponsors of the bonfire put on a fireworks display. Everybody goes home and things get quiet while people watch TV for an hour spoofing the year's events. Then things build up to the most incredible fireworks I have seen which peak at midnight. This is private initiative, and fireworks are everywhere. We were told that the rescue squads are not publicly financed and support themselves by selling the fireworks - they obviously do very well. Someone estimated that the cost of the private shows was over a million dollars.

I enjoyed the geothermal pools immensely. Swimming is the most popular sport in Iceland, and every municipality has a pool. We didn't have any free daylight time in Borgarnes, but I made a point of going twice to the pool near our Reykjavik hotel. It's a large pool, with several hot tubs around. This pool was well attended, but not crowded; people have a monthly pass type thing. The idea seems to be to swim a bit, sit a bit, swim a bit more. I was particularly tickled that they had a large thermometer, and I was swimming outdoors - and moving quite fast when out of the water or tub - when it was 2 or 4 (OK so it was celsius but fahrenheit isn't much better). Unfortunately I was the only one in the group to try the pool, but on the way to the airport we did stop at the Blue Lagoon. It is a run-off from the geothermal plant and, to me, not nearly as nice as the municipal pools. It seemed revealing that only tourists were there. It is essentially a natural formation, and it took weeks for the scab on my knee to heal which resulted when I brushed the crystal on the bottom.

The weather wasn't bad at all. It was somewhat chilly out in the country where there was nothing to break the wind, but the temperature was about freezing. There was little snow, and one got the feeling that the Icelanders were somewhat concerned.

I definitely recommend New Year's in Iceland. You will never forget it and will never confuse it with any other place.

Last updated February 1, 2003.