For many, Iceland didn't really register itself upon the international stage before the success of Björk in the mid-90s. It became a briefly fashionable destination during that decade, but is now once again the preserve of more discerning or adventurous travellers. Dubbed 'the land of fire and ice', this is a country that lives side-by-side with the elements. At the height of summer it enjoys sunshine at midnight, while in the depths of February, it sees just four hours of daylight, from noon till 4pm. Spectacular displays of the aurora borealis provide some compensation, but few would still choose to visit at such a time. Glaciers permanently scar parts of its wild landscape, while elsewhere dozens of volcanoes and hot geysers keep things fiery and steamy.

WH Auden visited the country before the World War Two, noting that until the start of the 20th century, things were pretty primitive in Iceland. Thankfully, things have developed rapidly over the last few decades, and continue to do so. Iceland's economy is booming, and on the 45-minute journey from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik, parts of the landscape are dotted with new housing developments. And what a landscape - volcanic rock covered in furry moss. The sea glints to one side, while hills and mountains poke through the cloud on the other. Reykjavik has a slightly toy-town appearance, with its dinky, beautiful little houses decorated in bright colours. Laugavegur, the main shopping street, runs from east to west into the older part of town, and it's here that you'll find most of the retail and nightlife action. There are few high buildings (it lies within an earthquake zone), but a suitably impressive view can be gained from the top of the Hallgrim church - a suitably Lord Of The Rings-style tower, or the Perlanum dome - an architecturally impressive visitors' centre. Due to the rugged terrain that dominates most of the country, many locals drive chunky American 4x4's, so the city has the strange feel of New England-meets-Austria, yet at the same time, it's always unmistakeably Icelandic.



I had briefly visited Reykjavik once before, for the Gay Pride celebrations in 2000. An estimated 3,000 people had taken part in that parade, and since then, the annual Pride parade each August has grown to become the third most attended event in the country - with 40,000 revellers taking part in 2005's festival. Uniquely, it's probably the only Gay Pride parade in the world that's 'mostly straight'. It's a family affair, with the local gay population often bringing along mums, dads, siblings and younger relatives to swell the numbers. Having visited before for Pride, I perhaps had an inflated view of the local gay scene - outside Pride weekend, it's even smaller than I remembered. Despite the country's size, the population of Iceland is just under 300,000, and most of those (around 180,000 people) live in the capital city, Reykjavik. This makes it roughly the same size as Brighton. Gay-wise, there's Café Cosy, a bar and information centre at Samtökin 78 (the local gay organisation), and an intimate men-only MSC leather club open Friday and Saturday nights. The reason for my recent visit was to take part in the country's first ever bears weekend, Bears On Ice, a joint venture between the website, the MSC club, and London club Come To Daddy. 'It just started as a simple idea to get away for a weekend and do a night somewhere different, but the bears up there seemed so excited about it that they went and organised a whole weekend around it,' says Come To Daddy's Mitch. 'The rest of the time, the bears here just hibernate,' jokes Frosti Jónsson, the creator of 'They do their own thing or mingle with the rest of the scene.

BOI2The gay scene here is very small, and we don't really have active sub-communities such as bears. The scene here is a mix of all those groups you'll find in London, which is in a way good, but at the same time a reason to host an event like Bears On Ice.' The weekend started with a welcome party at the aforementioned MSC club. This is basically a small courtyard with an attached bar, decorated (like leather clubs the world over) with camouflage netting, black walls and Tom Of Finland-style illustrations. Very keen for fresh meat... sorry, new visitors, the dress code is relaxed for foreigners, and the place quickly filled for the Friday night 'Leather, Vikings & Bears Party'. Besides the locals, there were a few recognisable faces from the London scene, particularly to any regulars at Central Station, the London home of Come To Daddy. Was that really karaoke host Lady Cornwall we saw going around with the free shot glasses? Unsurprisingly, such giveaways proved extremely popular. Iceland's one downside is its expense. The Government heavily taxes alcohol, and you can expect to pay £6 for a pint, rising to £12 for a large vodka and Coke. So, you might wanna skip offering to buy a round!

The highlight of the Bears On Ice weekend was on the Saturday, when organised a coach to take us all to the world-famous Blue Lagoon. Due to its volcanic nature, Iceland sits upon banks of geothermal heat. The hot water bubbles up through the ground, meaning they don't have to pay any heating costs. It's this geothermal reaction that has helped created the Blue Lagoon, roughly a 40-minute journey from the city. This beautiful spa sits amongst the pitch-black, volcanic rock, and is easily Iceland's number one tourist attraction. A small coach-load of beary types took to the spa, amidst the other visitors, and enjoyed a hugely enjoyable couple of hours paddling around its waters. Steam dominates the skyline and the faint smell of sulphur hangs heavy in the air. I've never been anywhere quite like it in my life.

The Blue Lagoon trip was followed by a dinner in the evening, and then the jewel in the Bears On Ice crown, the Come To Daddy party. The crew had taken over the beautiful basement of the National Theatre, and decked it out with posters and Union Jacks for their self-styled 'London Invasion'. The other notable thing about the scene here is that they like to party late. Doors opened at midnight, but no-one really began to arrive before 1am. However, given the size of the gay scene, and the lack of big club nights, word had quickly got around town about the visitors from England, and most of the scene decided to check the night out through simple curiosity. By 3am the place was rammed, with nearly 400 through the doors. 'I can't believe the support,' a visibly-relieved Mitch smiled. 'It's an amazing mix - men and women, young and old. There's not exactly a huge number of bears up here, but I'm touched that so many others wanted to come along and check us out - and to stay dancing so late!' The DJs - who included Central Station's own Marky and S.O.P's Adam - kept the crowd dancing until closing with an eclectic mix ('I've been asked for everything from Led Zeppelin to Gloria Gaynor,' one confirmed later), and approximately £1,600 was raised for the local gay centre in Reykjavik. I finally crawled back to my hotel, the plush Room With A View apartments, at 5am, somewhat bemused by the fact that the streets were alive with drunken Icelanders - far busier than during the daytime!

There was a farewell brunch on the Sunday morning, before taxis ferried our small London party back to Keflavik and the flight back to Stansted. Bears On Ice had staked its place as one of the world's smallest bear festivals, but also one of its most alternative and off-the-wall. Iceland itself couldn't fail to impress. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who left with a desire to return and explore more of this astounding wilderness.

First published in BOYZ MAGAZINE 2005