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Published: Sunday, 3/4/2012

Chill out over a 3-day weekend in Iceland

BY LYNN JACOBSON
SEATTLE TIMES
Visitors to Iceland's Blue Lagoon swim in pools of milky-blue, 99-degree geothermal waters. Visitors to Iceland's Blue Lagoon swim in pools of milky-blue, 99-degree geothermal waters.
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SEATTLE -- You have a three-day weekend coming up and you want to get away for a little shopping and nightlife, or maybe just a change of scenery.

So how about Reykjavik?

Yes, that's in Iceland -- and you may be surprised to learn you can get there and back in a long weekend.

At this time of year, it's also affordable: You can get your fill of lava fields, geothermal steam, ghostly winter light, and quaint European streetscapes for not much more than the cost of three or four nights in San Francisco.

My sister and I recently booked a Thursday-to-Sunday Icelandair deal that included flight, hotel, some meals, a free museum pass, and unlimited in-city bus service for $685 each. Here's how we spent our time:

Day one

After about a seven-hour flight, we arrived at Keflavik airport at 6:45 a.m., though it could have been the middle of the night for all we knew. In Iceland, in February, the sun begins to rise about 9:30 a.m., traverses a low arc across the horizon, and sets around 5 p.m. Visitors learn quickly to make the most of precious daylight.

After breakfast and a stop to drop our bags at our hotel (the well-situated Centerhotel Plaza), we walked straightaway up a short hill to the Hallgrimskirkja -- perhaps Reykjavik's most recognizable landmark.

A modernist church designed by Icelandic architect Guðjon Samuelsson in the middle of the 20th century, it presides over downtown. For about $4 you can take an elevator to the top of the bell tower and survey the city, the ice-clad mountains, and the sea beyond.

As we looked out on the rooftops and the glowering sky, we sensed a slight whiff of sulfur in the air -- evidence of the geothermal activity that powers most of the country.

After a quick stop for a slice of pizza, we spent the afternoon walking the main commercial streets of Reykjavik: Laugavegur and Skolavorðustigur. Shop windows bloom with high-end fashion, traditional woolens, outdoor gear by Iceland companies like 66° North and Zo-on, contemporary Danish housewares, and trinket shops hawking trolls and Viking figurines.

We had been warned about the high cost of food and drinks in Reykjavik. So as evening closed in, we stopped at a Vinbuðen (Iceland's state-owned liquor stores) for a bottle of wine. We enjoyed a glass of inexpensive Chilean merlot in our room, then went prowling for a reasonable dinner.

At the trendy but low-key Laundromat Cafe we found one. We sat at the bar and had sandwiches, fries and -- hey, it was vacation! -- shots of Reyka vodka ("made with pure Icelandic spring water and filtered through lava rocks"). The bill came to 6,100 Icelandic krona -- about $25 per person.

Day two

Breakfast at Centerhotel Plaza was a feast of artisan breads, salami and cheese, pastries, granola and other cereals, bacon and eggs, plus characteristically Scandinavian delicacies such as pickled herring. Fruit and vegetables are not so plentiful in Iceland, especially in winter, because they have to be imported or grown in greenhouses. We skipped the sad-looking fruit salad and loaded up on orange juice instead.

Our first stop Saturday was Kolaportið, a popular flea market near the waterfront. A trove of tchotchkes, foodstuffs, books, jewelry, and clothing, it offered an excellent alternative to pricier shops in the center of town. Vintage-clothing vendors, especially, seemed to do a brisk business with locals and tourists alike. We bought locally produced candy, secondhand Danish jewelry, and even Donald Duck comic books -- written in Icelandic -- as souvenirs.

For lunch on the cheap, we visited Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur on the waterfront, one of the most famous hot-dog stands in the world. ("Bill Clinton ate here," locals are quick to point out, in their impeccable English.) For a little more than $4, we bought two hot dogs slathered in ketchup and a sweet mustard sauce, sitting on a bed of crunchy fried onions. Yum.

Next stop: Culture House, for an exhibit of medieval manuscripts, including original handwritten copies of some of the Icelandic sagas -- the stories that relate the exploits of the Vikings who settled the country in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Among them we found the bloody tale of Egill Skallagrimsson, one of my family's distant relatives through marriage. Skallagrimsson reportedly embarked on a life of violence at age 7, when he axed to death a playmate whom he believed to have cheated him.

The grisly history of the Vikings was very much on our minds later that day as we passed through the rugged, windswept lava fields outside Reykjavik on a bus trip to the Blue Lagoon. A more inhospitable environment for a luxury spa is hard to imagine, but that's part of this famed attraction's otherworldly appeal.

Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool famed for its warm, milky blue waters and natural silica mud masks. Massages and other spa treatments are also on the menu. As a day trip, it's a splurge, costing about $63 for bus and entry, and taking four hours at minimum.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors bathe in its sulfurous pools each year. Some find it an exotic, sensuous experience; others, an overpriced dip in a pungent bath. We landed somewhere in the middle, deeming it a pricey, but unique sensation, not likely to be repeated.

Back in Reykjavik, we dined at Prikið, an unpretentious spot in the commercial center promising traditional Icelandic food. It did not disappoint, especially with a gravlax salad drizzled in vinegar. Prikið is also known as a nightlife destination, with a bar that stays open past 4 a.m.

Reykjavik's famed wee-hours bar scene eluded us on this trip. On this night, we were out till about midnight -- just when things tend to heat up, according to the Icelanders we spoke to. At 2 or 3 in the morning, we awoke briefly to the sounds of singing and smashing glass.

Day three

We devoted our final day in Reykjavik to a visit with relatives. They treated us to a mouthwatering, traditional Sunday dinner -- lamb, red cabbage, potatoes, pickled pears, and salad -- and showed us how to mix Iceland's orange soda Appelsin with a sweet, beerlike brew for a unique, delicious drink.

Our plane wasn't scheduled to leave until 5 p.m., and if we'd had no family visit on our agenda, we could have easily filled a third day with art and natural-history museums, or one of the country's many outdoor pursuits -- whale-watching; glacier hikes; or the Golden Circle driving tour past geysers and massive waterfalls.

As it was, those will have to wait for another trip -- perhaps a mad, weekend dash in summer, when it's daylight nearly around the clock.

IF YOU GO:

Go to www.icelandair.com and click on "Packages" for inclusive deals.More informatioj is available at the official tourism site: www. visiticeland.com.

SAVE ON SHOPPING: Iceland has a Value Added Tax, or VAT, that is charged on purchases but may be refunded at the airport when you leave the country, subject to certain limitations. Some tips:

● If you are buying lots of small souvenirs, buy them all in a single transaction, because the VAT is only refunded on purchases above 4,000 krona (about $33).

● Use a credit card instead of cash so that when you receive your refund, it will be applied to your credit card, rather than paid in Icelandic currency. This allows you to avoid having to change krona back into dollars later.

● Avoid the VAT entirely by shopping duty free at the airport before departure. Many of Iceland's most coveted brands are represented at Keflavik airport, including 66o North fashions, Blue Lagoon beauty products, Eymundsson bookstore. Details: www.kefairport.is/English and click on "Before Departure" and then "VAT Refund."



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