Enjoying Iceland’s Wonders for Less
By Christina Talcott
The Washington Post
“We were left alone in the middle of the ocean for 1,000 years and nobody paid notice to us.”
So said artist Hallgrimur Helgason in a short video about Icelandic creativity that I watched on the flight to Reykjavik. He was talking about the so-called Dark Ages, when the Danish conquered Iceland, then essentially abandoned it to plague, pirates, famine and volcanoes.
Now, Iceland can’t get out of the spotlight. It rocketed to global prominence during its remarkable economic boom in the 1990s and recently grabbed headlines for exactly the opposite reason: This fall, the country went into an economic meltdown, with the government buying the banks and thousands of Icelanders losing their jobs thanks to risky bets by Icelandic financiers and, some claim, bungled oversight by the government.
One result of Iceland’s crisis: the krona’s incredible devaluation, from 65 to the dollar a year ago to about 135 at press time. A wiener from the famed Baejarins Beztu hot dog stand used to cost US$4.50; it’s now $2.
I wanted to visit Iceland to see the rugged landscape, experience Reykjavik’s night life and sample the local food – and do it at a time when I had a shot at affording it.
Reykjavik’s Keflavik International Airport was quiet when I landed. No music playing, no beeping luggage trolleys, no announcements. At 6:30am, more than three hours before sunrise, I was in a pack of bleary-eyed travelers following corridors of blond wood and vague signage, past duty-free shops already selling mini bottles of local schnapps, CDs by local bands and sweet rolls as big as dinner plates.
The Flybus coach pulled into Reykjavik’s main bus terminal about 45 minutes after leaving the airport. I then climbed aboard a waiting minivan that took me to the Metropolitan Hotel, on a side street just minutes from bustling Old Town Reykjavik.
The sun was peeking over the mountains as I set out to explore Reykjavik. Getting oriented was simple: the harbor to the north, the stunning Hallgrimskirkja church to the southeast, duck- and swan-filled Tjorn Lake to the southwest. I was disappointed to see the elaborate 244-foot steeple of Hallgrimskirkja (built between 1940 and 1974) obscured by scaffolding and to find the inside of the church reverberating with the clanging of construction. Out front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic-born explorer who became the first European to set foot on North American shores. The statue, which faces west, was given to the city by the United States in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament.
Across the street, out of curiosity, I wandered into Sunna Guesthouse, where the gracious receptionist gave me a rate card that listed prices, from single-bed rooms to furnished apartments, through 2008. I asked if prices would go up in 2009, and she said yes, a little. Then she paused and added with a sad smile, “But we have no idea what will happen to us by then.”
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As a meat eater, I find there’s an inverse relationship between how good something tastes and how guilty I feel about eating it. Whale tastes so good, I can forget that I’m eating such a majestic creature. On the other hand, puffin is too underwhelming to cancel out visions of the chubby black-and-white birds with bright orange beaks.
I tried both at 3 Frakkar, a small seafood restaurant on a quiet street just steps from the Hallgrimskirkja. I went there with my neighbor from the airplane, a middle-aged lawyer from New York whose only planning for his Iceland trip was printing out news stories about the economy. When I mentioned I was planning to eat whale and puffin for lunch, he decided to join me for a bite before heading off on his own.
Whale sashimi came piled, purple and glistening, next to slices of buttery-fresh salmon, wasabi and ginger. The whale in question was minke, one of the most abundant in Iceland’s waters, and my lunch companion likened it to beefy tuna. The puffin, smoked and served in strips, had a saltiness that paired nicely with its scallion vinaigrette dressing. Still, all I could think of was little orange beaks.
I ordered more whale, this time a steak swimming in creamy pepper sauce alongside tubers and carrots. I cleaned my plate with my bread.
The bill came out to about $26 apiece, a pretty penny for lunch, but worth it nonetheless.
Then the lawyer did some quick mental math and blurted out, “Can you believe that meal would have cost $56 apiece a year ago?”
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My first night in town, I participated in a cherished Icelandic ritual, the runtur. Roughly translating to “tour around,” runtur refers to two activities: bar-hopping and driving around downtown, people-watching from inside a warm car. Reykjavik’s main commercial strip, packed with coffeehouses, restaurants, pubs and shops, stretches about a mile, east from Ingolfstorg square till Laugavegur Street runs into Snorrabraut Street. On Friday and Saturday nights, the street turns into a raucous all-night party, with locals and tourists mingling in clubs ranging from swanky (Rex, Oliver) to homey (22, Belly’s).
Alcohol has long been exorbitantly priced in Iceland, so the economic downturn makes drinking only slightly more affordable: about $5 for a Guinness at a hip club. Still, the night life in Reykjavik is legendary, and for a reason: The dancing, drinking, laughing and flirting last all night, with the dance floors getting so crowded that the only way to move is to shove. (Don’t worry about being rude; everyone does it.) Add Iceland’s inventive DJs, candy-flavored vodkas and friendly locals, and it’s no wonder winter visitors welcome a midday sunrise on Saturday and Sunday.
On the second floor of 22, a young bearded blond guy who looked barely 20 started chatting me up – in Icelandic. Eventually he tried his English, which he probably had spoken better 10 beers earlier.
“How are you?” I half-shouted.
He looked at me for a second. “I want my wife back. I want my money back,” he slurred as the music cranked up.
It took me a second to process that. “You what?” I asked him, but by then he’d turned back to his friends, veered toward the bar for another drink and vanished into the crowd.
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Plates pull apart at Thingvellir National Park in southwestern Iceland. On a day-long bus trip (called the Golden Circle Tour) to sites outside Reykjavik, Thingvellir was our first stop.
The world’s first parliament was established there in A.D. 930, on a site overlooking vast, rippling lava fields cut by the crystal-clear Oxara River. A gorge at one end is filled with water so clear I saw coins, tossed in for good luck, resting on the bottom seven feet down. (“Don’t throw coins in the gorge,” our guide, Christine Steinthorsdottir, warned. “It’s not good luck. It’s just wasting money.”) With my fellow tourists, I inched my way down an icy path between rock walls in a canyon where the earth split as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates drifted apart.
Well, drift isn’t quite the right word: Though the rift widens, on average, by two or three centimeters a year, those splits happen suddenly, with violent earthquakes shifting the landscape.
All that underground action benefits life aboveground: Iceland’s geothermal power plants heat more than 80 percent of homes and buildings and generate a quarter of the nation’s power. (Hydropower supplies much of the remainder.)
On the way to the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, the bus passed fields studded with snow-covered hay bales, where stocky, shaggy horses grazed. As I hiked up a steep hill to the edge of the waterfall, the path was so icy I wondered if I’d signed a release form with the tour company. (I hadn’t.)
Near Gullfoss was a field full of geysers. These wonders lay in a plain of red mud and were overlooked by snowy mountains, the gray sky above them tinged pink from the reflection of a nearby glacier.
After stops at a historic church and a greenhouse, we visited a new geothermal power plant, where proud tour guides led us through English- and Icelandic-language exhibits about the process of creating energy from steam and hot water.
As the tour bus pulled away from the plant, Steinthorsdottir got on the microphone and said, “Someone asked me to talk about the elves.”
As we drove past a snow-covered moonscape in the afternoon half-light, Steinthorsdottir explained that some Icelanders believe in elves, “hidden people” who live in rocks and caves in the mountains, and that disturbing an elf’s home could mean cancer or blindness or worse. Steinthorsdottir said this with the same solemnity she used to describe the beautiful mosaic of Jesus at Skalholt church and to stress the importance of staying on the path by the geysers (“It takes emergency vehicles 1 1/2 hours to get here,” she informed us).
Only about 10 percent of Icelanders believe in elves; most are ambivalent about their existence. In general, Steinthorsdottir said, “it’s a good thing we believe in elves, because then we respect nature.”
On my last day in Iceland, I visited the Blue Lagoon. Riding past fields filled with nothing but moss-covered, holey black lava rocks, I saw the steam first, a long plume of white in the still-dark sky at 9am. I’d booked a package that included a trip to the lagoon followed by drop-off at the airport. Entrance alone is about $22; I paid about $34 for the bus trip and entrance, plus $4 to rent a plush turquoise towel, which matched the plastic bracelet that gave me access to a locker in the spotless changing room.
And no wonder it’s popular: The Blue Lagoon is like nothing else I’d ever seen, nearly two square miles of meandering, landscaped pool with rocky coves, wooden bridges crossing inlets and benches for sitting and soaking. People float around blissfully with their faces covered in white silica mud ladled from pots around the pool. (It’s supposed to work wonders on the complexion.) My favorite moment was standing under the artificial waterfall, which rained hot water on my neck and shoulders for a thoroughly relaxing massage.
On the bus to the airport, I watched the sun bathe the eerie landscape in soft shafts of light. With all its geological oddities, from piping-hot groundwater and live volcanoes to lava fields and shooting geysers, Iceland is a country whose people have grown accustomed to changing landscapes. Perhaps this current economic crisis might be like just another earthquake, one more change to the ecosystem, one more chapter in the country’s saga.