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Tromsø surprised visitors in the 1800s: they thought it very sophisticated and cultured for being so close to the North Pole—hence its nickname, the Paris of the North. It looks the way a polar town should—with ice-capped mountain ridges and jagged architecture that is an echo of the peaks. The midnight sun shines from May 21 to July 21, and it is said that the northern lights decorate the night skies over Tromsø more than over any other city in Norway. Tromsø is home to only 69,000 people, but it's very spread out—the city's total area, 2,558 square km (987 square miles), is the most expansive in Norway. The downtown area is on a small, hilly island connected to the mainland by a slender bridge. The 13,000 students at the world's northernmost university are one reason the nightlife here is uncommonly busy.
Almost half way between Tromsø and Svalbard is isolated Bear Island – considered the southernmost island of the Svalbard Archipelago. The unglaciated island is an impressive Nature Reserve of steep, high cliffs that are frequented by seabirds, specifically at the southern tip. Brünnich’s Guillemots, Common Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Little Auks, Northern Fulmars, Glaucous Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and even Atlantic Puffins and Northern Gannets nest along the cliffs south of Sørhamna. Because of the large numbers of birds and the isolated location, Bear Island has been recognized as an Important Bird Area. It was once a hotspot for whaling and walrus hunting, and at one stage even mining. Bear Island received its name because of a polar bear encountered by early explorer Willem Barentsz. Today polar bears rarely visit the island and its only settlement is a meteorological station manned all-year round on the north side.
Described as one of the most remote islands in the world, Jan Mayen liesbetween Norway to the east and Greenland to the west. It is a rugged volcanicisland 34 miles long and is made up of two parts – the larger section to thenorth (Beerenbeg Volcano) and the longer but narrower section to the south. Amile-wide isthmus links these two parts. Geologically, the island was formed bya ‘hotspot’ where molten magma pushes up through the earth’s crust to createvolcanoes in the middle of nowhere. Politically, Jan Mayen is an integral partof Norway. The eighteen people living on the island work for either the NorwegianArmed Forces or the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. Their main purpose isto operate the Loran-C radio navigation system. From 1615 to 1638, the Dutchran a whaling station here. Today, the island is a nature reserve underNorwegian jurisdiction aimed at preserving the pristine Arctic island and themarine life, including the ocean floor.
Vigur Island is a little more than a mile (1.6 km) in length and about 450 yards (412 m) wide. This green oasis punctuates the waters of the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord east of the town of Isafjordur. The island is home to a single farming family and has some meticulously preserved historical landmarks including Iceland’s only windmill, built in 1840 and used until 1917 for grinding imported wheat from Denmark; and a 200-year-old rowing boat, which is still in use to ferry sheep to the mainland. Summer is the best time to see large numbers of Atlantic Puffins, Arctic Terns and Black Guillemots. One of the export articles from this small island was eider down and one can see where the eider ducks nest and how the down is collected and cleaned.
Two colossal terraces of sheer rock stand either side of this extraordinarily located town - which rides a jutting spit onto an immensity of black fjord water. Surprisingly, considering the remoteness of its location and its compact size, Isafjordur is a modern and lively place to visit, offering a great choice of cafes and delicious restaurants – which are well stocked to impress visitors. The town is a perfectly located base for adventures amongst Iceland's fantastic wilderness - with skiing, hiking and water-sports popular pursuits among visitors.
Sprawling Reykjavík, the nation's nerve center and government seat, is home to half the island's population. On a bay overlooked by proud Mt. Esja (pronounced eh-shyuh), with its ever-changing hues, Reykjavík presents a colorful sight, its concrete houses painted in light colors and topped by vibrant red, blue, and green roofs. In contrast to the almost treeless countryside, Reykjavík has many tall, native birches, rowans, and willows, as well as imported aspen, pines, and spruces.
Reykjavík's name comes from the Icelandic words for smoke, reykur, and bay, vík. In AD 874, Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson saw Iceland rising out of the misty sea and came ashore at a bay eerily shrouded with plumes of steam from nearby hot springs. Today most of the houses in Reykjavík are heated by near-boiling water from the hot springs. Natural heating avoids air pollution; there's no smoke around. You may notice, however, that the hot water brings a slight sulfur smell to the bathroom.
Prices are easily on a par with other major European cities. A practical option is to purchase a Reykjavík City Card at the Tourist Information Center or at the Reykjavík Youth Hostel. This card permits unlimited bus usage and admission to any of the city's seven pools, the Family Park and Zoo, and city museums. The cards are valid for one (ISK 3,300), two (ISK 4,400), or three days (ISK 4,900), and they pay for themselves after three or four uses a day. Even lacking the City Card, paying admission (ISK 500, or ISK 250 for seniors and people with disabilities) to one of the city art museums (Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, or Ásmundarsafn) gets you free same-day admission to the other two.
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