...visit iceland
THE VIKINGS did not do Iceland any favours when they gave it this rather forbidding name in the ninth century. Even though the number of visitors to the island jumps every year enough people still believe the country is wall-to-wall ice and snow, relieved by the occasional fur-sheathed Eskimo dipping a fishing rod in a hole cut from the frozen water. In fact Iceland, a large island with a population of 250,000, has some of the most awesome, contrasting, empty landscapes in Europe. Now that Britain is turning a damp and uninspiring grey, it is as good a time as any to take a two- or three-day break in Iceland. Even after a short time you will come home with your head full of snow-veined mountains, crashing waterfalls, volcanoes, canyons, giant glaciers and jet-black lava fields.

the great outdoors

Discover the country by hiring a four-wheel drive jeep, snowmobile or horse. A number of farms on the outskirts of Reykjavik offer excursions on pure-bred Icelandic ponies dinky enough to remind you of My Little Pony but muscular enough to sustain some serious trekking.

Go east from Reykjavik and head for Gullfoss, generally considered Iceland's best waterfall. Clamber on to the rocks and stand inches away from this roaring two-tiered wonder. From there you can go to Laugarvatn, south- east of which lies the geyser area, alive with noisy, bubbling hot springs out of which pour hot white steam as if tiny smoking chimneys were buried below the surface.

Strokkur, the world's most active geyser, is here and not much patience is needed before the near-boiling water slowly fills the crater - rising and falling like a hesitant souffle - and suddenly erupts into a thick column of water.

In the south-west peninsula of Reykjanes there is no mistaking the Blue Lagoon. On the other side of this natural geothermal lake is a power plant which harnesses the free heat. Locals regularly bathe in the mineral- rich blue water which is said to be good for skin complaints like psoriasis. There are plenty of birdwatching and hiking opportunities in Reykjanes itself too.

the capital

Reykjavik is small, unpolluted and pretty thanks to the backdrop of snow- capped mountains and the charm of its multicoloured roofs. It has all the trappings of a capital city - opera companies, parliament, the National Theatre - but with limited time it is best used as a base from which to explore the countryside. If you do have some free time head for the National Museum which has exhibits from the country's seafaring and farming past plus Viking relics. Or visit Arbaer Folk Museum in the eastern suburbs. Many old buildings were uprooted from all over the country and rebuilt here including a stone church with a turf roof from 1842. For a bird's eye view of the city take the lift to the top of the 246-ft spire in Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing 20th-century church.

where to eat

Prices can make your wallet wince and thanks to high taxes on alcohol even a glass of wine costs around pounds 4. The Hornid restaurant serves reasonably priced fresh fish, tender lamb and pasta dishes in a laid-back atmosphere. Fogettin restaurant, the city's oldest building, was originally built in 1752 as a weaving shed.

how to get there

Icelandair is the only airline company that offers direct scheduled flights, but at pounds 306 it is cheaper to opt for a package deal. Arctic Experience (01737 218800) offers two nights at a guest house in Reykjavic for pounds 217. Icelandair (0171 388 5346) has a two-night deal at one of Reykjavic's top class hotels, Hotel Saga, for pounds 261.

The Iceland Tourist Information Bureau (0171 388 7550) sends out a list of tour operators for Iceland plus general background material.

The Icelandic Tourist office at Bankastraeti 2, Reykjavic (5623045) can provide details of excursions, local hire car companies and what's-on guides etc.