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Northern Lights.

Reykjavik, Iceland

 Reykjavik is the most northerly capital city in the world.  It’s also the coolest.

Um? Surely that’s a no-brainer?  Most northerly capital, on the edge of the  Arctic circle – of course it’s cold!

Not cold – though it is a little – I said cool.  Reykjavik is as cool as they come.  The city has been called the best night out on the planet.  Its bars, pubs and clubs stay open all hours, and parts of the city have a constant party atmosphere.

Take, for example, Kaffibarinn on Bergstaðarstræt (approximately “berg – stath – ar –strite” – going to Iceland?  Take a pronunciation guide!).  It’s about the trendiest bar in town, visited by celebrities from all over the world who have ‘discovered’ Iceland.  Yet it’s not so exclusive: the welcome is friendly, and it’s usually crowded and atmospheric. Drinks are not cheap.  But you won’t find a cheap drink anywhere in Iceland.  There’s a high tax imposed on alcohol served in licensed premises.  But the prices are worth it for the atmosphere!

If you feel like soaking up culture rather than vodka, there’s lots for you to do.  Live music thrives in Reykjavik – nearly all the trendy city centre bars have DJs on weekend nights.  There’s classical music, too.  Although Iceland has a population of only 270,000 – smaller than most medium-sized U.S. cities – its Symphony Orchestra is world-renowned and plays regular concerts in the capital between June and September.

The literally-named Culture House is also worth a visit.  For a smallish island with a tiny population, Iceland has a whole lot of history.  You thought Christopher Columbus discovered America?  Think again.  As the locals will remind you as soon as they hear your U.S. accent, one of their forebears, Leif Ericsson, was the first European to make landfall in what would become the U.S.A.

As well as being cool, Reykjavik is colorful.  Literally.  There’s not a lot of wood in Iceland.  Most of the trees, in fact, are in and around Reykjavik, and have been imported.  So what wood they have, the Icelanders make the most of.  Many of the old wooden houses are painted in brilliant blues and reds.  If you stand on the city’s sea front, turn your back on the deep azure of Faxafloi Bay and look back at the town, it looks like the kind of place a kid would build if he had a couple billion colored bricks.

Further afield there’s stuff to do, too.  The interior of the country is mountainous, and filled with glaciers, volcanoes and geysers.  If you’re a geologist, it’s one of the most interesting places in the world.  If you’re not, go have a look anyway.  It’s spectacularly beautiful, if, at times, a little eerie.  Three-quarters of Iceland’s population are crammed into the south-western corner of the island, around Reykjavik.  The rest of the country, which is about the size of Ohio, is empty and unspoiled.

You can learn how to skidoo, or ride a dog-sled.  You can hike in the hills (though not without a guide, please, unless you’re an expert) or have a go at some of the very best mountain biking in the world.

But just about the definitive Icelandic experience – after weaving unsteadily home from a really good night out in Reykjavik – is meeting the whales.  Iceland is surrounded by whales of several species, and it’s easy to get on one of the regular boat trips to see some of these leviathans.

When a minke whale breaks surface right next to your ship, it’s a humbling experience. But then, so much about Iceland is humbling: the scenery, the friendliness of the people – the sheer warmth of such a wonderfully cool place.

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