With the Zeal of the Converted: My Iceland Review

instagram-top-of-churchI came back from a September 2016 trip to Iceland as an Iceland evangelist.  If you, like me, live in a big city on the East Coast of the U.S., for the same price and time investment as going to California, you can go to a completely different country that has amazing natural features such as you will not be able to see elsewhere, is incredibly easy to get around, and, despite a well-developed tourism industry, does not feel touristy.

What’s cheap:

  • the flight – flights to Iceland are famously inexpensive, but do watch out for increased costs through the a la carte pricing for choosing a seat or having a meal, now spreading everywhere, that seems to have been invented in Iceland. I left Iceland by way of London, and I didn’t read the fine print on my Iceland-London ticket.  It was on British Airways and I didn’t think BA would charge a la carte pricing, but they did.  As a result, I thought the online bag check they were asking me to do was in error and had to pay about $100 to check one bag (versus $46 if I had done it online the night before).  Pretty much count on all the tickets being a la carte and read the fine print.  I like Hipmunk for booking flights.
  • lodging – everything we booked we found on Airbnb, but hotel prices were reasonable as well.  Rates were comparable to rates in small to medium cities in the U.S.
  • car rental – reasonable and comparable to car rentals in small to midsize cities in the U.S.  We encountered no traffic, nice highways (mostly two lane).  There just aren’t that many people in Iceland, so driving is a real pleasure.  We used Sixt for our car rental and paid $345 for five days, for all fees, insurance and one extra driver.
  • parking – we went to a concert at the main concert hall in Reykavik  (Harpa) and showed up like 10 minutes before it started.  We easily found a spot on the street right by the concert hall (remember, it’s a low population country), and the parking meter was something like 50 cents for four hours.  This would, of course, be unheard of near Carnegie Hall or the parking-rape known as the Kennedy Center in D.C.

What’s expensive:

  • food – Sure, yes, buy groceries while you’re there to keep costs contained, but we had local Icelandic advice on the cheapest grocery store (Bonus), and it was still super expensive (here’s another article handicapping grocery stores). Packing in your own food is the only way to keep costs manageable in this area.  My advice is set a high budget for food and do not teach yourself the conversion rate.  Just go about blissfully choosing your food based on the relative price of things.  For example, a gourmet hamburger at American Style (don’t blame me, the Icelanders picked it) is 2,600 króna, and you accept that, then the four-course tasting menu at the LAVA restaurant at the Blue Lagoon at 9,900 seems reasonable. If you convert to U.S. dollars you won’t enjoy your food, so just don’t do it.  I’m going to follow my own advice and only translate to U.S. dollars on the things I found cheap.
  • gas – gas always seems expensive to Americans.  With gas, to truly understand how much it costs in American dollars, you, of course, need to convert twice – from króna to dollars and then from liters to gallons, so just don’t.  In fact, don’t wait until your tank is empty to fill up, because then you’ll know how much it takes to fill a tank of gas and trust me you don’t want to.  Just remember how cheap your flight, lodging and car rental was.

Things to Do:

  • The Golden Circle– I had a dim view of the Golden Ring – it’s so close to the city, how great can it be?  Whoa!  It was great!  In a very short one to two day drive, you see:
    • geysers – in the town of Geiser, that literally put geysers on the map – that erupt much more often than Old Faithful in Yellowstone and allow you to get much closer than you would in any American park  (my video)
    • a giant crack in the earth that is literally where Europe and America meet. I’m not the most experienced nature vacationer, but I have never seen anything like it (I was dumbfounded and forgot to take video)
    • a waterfall (Gulfoss) that beats all but Niagra Falls in North America (my video)
    • a volcanic crater lake with dazzling colors (my video)

Just think of how you would happily take a day trip to see any one of those things and, at some points, you’re seeing them like every hour.  That’s how amazing the Golden Circle is.

There are plenty of one day bus coach trips and two-day organized tours.  We chose to do it ourselves in our car across two days.  We used one of the many self-driving guides and stayed overnight in Heradsskolinn at the Laugarvatn hostel, a converted school, in a cozy room for three that cost $138 plus fees.

  • Inside the Volcano – this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  With Inside the Volcano you get a bus ride from Reykjavik into the countryside to a field of “young volcanos.”  You start at a nice lodge and then hike about 2 miles over mildly hilly terrain to the Thrihnukagigur volcano (don’t worry, the tour includes plenty of instruction and practice time on how to say this).  Once at the volcano, the trained staff use something like a skyscraper’s window-washing platform to lower you 400 feet into the volcano (it’s dormant, natch).  There are not many volcanos in the world that are open such that this would be possible, so it’s really a rare treat.  Not for the claustrophobic.  Once back at the lodge, you are treated to a lovely lamb stew.  It cost 42,000 kr (about $370) and was worth every penny. (My video)
  • Blue Lagoon – I searched for “lesser known” geothermal spas to visit to avoid the large crowds and high price of Blue Lagoon, but first, a Canadian friend (Hi Chad!) said “the Blue Lagoon is worth it” and second, there really isn’t anything else like it. It’s several large pools of warm water with walk up bars for drinks but also walk up bars for face and skin treatments.  If I went again, I think I would forego the advice to forego contact lenses (it’s a lovely and unique landscape and I missed most of it because I couldn’t see). I think I would just take good care not to go underwater or to be splashed on, and if I did, and my eyes bothered me, just take out and throw away the contact lenses.  The sit down restaurant at Blue Lagoon is quite acceptable as well.  We bought the premium package for 9,500 kronur ($87) which included entrance, silica mud mask, algae mask, towel, a bathrobe, flip-flops, and  two drinks.  The cheapest package is $50, which doesn’t even include a towel.  Bring a bathing suit – Blue Lagoon is co-ed everywhere except the locker rooms and the amazing showers.

Those are my only three strong recommendations that I think will have broad appeal.  For more things pertaining to my specific interests, see Iceland Off the Beaten Path

Food to try:

  • lamb stew – this is one way to keep food costs somewhat reasonable. Some places offer unlimited lamb stew and unlimited bread.  The price is still super high, but remember, you don’t know the conversion rate, so enjoy!
  • fermented shark – there’s a brilliant cafe across from the main church in Reykjavik which serves four little squares of fermented shark for about $4.  This is the perfect amount to just say you tried it.  Also, fermented food is very good for gut health.  Here’s a video showing the experience and explaining a little bit about what is fermented shark.
  • fish – it’s an island. ‘Nuff said.

Other tips

  • Carry change.  If you drive the Golden Circle in your own car, some of the stops have parking meters that only accept coins.
  • Guide books – I didn’t use a guidebook and relied on the internet (including in country where I purchased an inexpensive SIM card at the airport and popped it into my unlocked Iphone 6).  For those who like paper guidebooks, I always use Lonely Planet.

Have you been to Iceland?  What did you like there?  What else would you like to know about Iceland or travel?

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