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Iceland: Go or No Go?

June 12th, 2019 · No Comments · Iceland, tourism, Travel, Uncategorized

Two full days in Iceland, as well as one very long evening and one very early morning.

Enough to have an opinion on the little island in the upper reaches of the north Atlantic?

Of course it is.

We all make snap judgments, some snappier than others, given on how long we are around a new vacation spot.

Thinking of going to Iceland? Then here are some concepts to take into account.

Iceland is expensive, about a third again as expensive as the rest of Europe, even taking into account the more pricey countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Some of this is about having to import lots of things that cannot be made or grown in Iceland, due to its location in the far north. Iceland produces only about 65 percent of its foodstuffs, and the rest is shipped in, and that costs. Some of it is taxes: Iceland has a 25 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) and then there are more additional taxes on hard alcohol and beer. 

–Housing is expensive. I do not know how much our host paid to rent a modern, four-bedroom, two-bath home with a sea view, but it had to be significant. By way of comparison, on our last day there we dropped off our luggage, for a bit, at a hotel/hostel named Kex, an old place with lots of character down by the port of Reykjavik. This is where kids and backpackers get rooms, but even those are not cheap. A double with its own bathroom is about $200 a night. If you are willing to share a room, or get a smaller one, visitors can get the cost down, and if you go to the least expensive — six people in one room, with a shared bathroom) it can run about $40.

–Labor is expensive. Something like 90 percent of Icelanders belong to a union, and those unions keep wages higher, especially for what much of the First World would consider low-wage jobs. Those salaries are paid for, in part, by higher prices charged to tourists and visitors. Be ready to pay $100 for the basic “scenery near Reykjavik” tour.

–Iceland is not yet overrun by tourists, and it actually is likely to see a decline in visits in 2019 due to the demise of the low-cost Iceland airline “Wow”, which flew in thousands of visitors annually. In information printed before Wow’s collapse, the government said that “tourism has increased five-fold since 2010”. Clearly, things will change but you can probably rest secure in this: Iceland is not going to be a place, any time soon, where you can’t turn around without bumping into someone. All the big empty spaces in the interior … give a visitor a sense of elbow room. If you rent a car, you can be in the middle of nowhere pretty darn quick.

–Icelanders can be a little aloof. This stereotype seems to adhere to most nations of northern Europe, and we thought of it when some Icelanders spoke in blunt and terse tones. Also, don’t expect a lot of smiles. In exchange, you are likely to find competence, and wouldn’t most of us rather have things that work and transit that leaves on time rather than some empty promises that come with a big smile? Exactly. 

–Nearly everyone in Iceland speaks more than a little English. They converse in their own ancient tongue, and maybe they are making disparaging remarks about your shoes, but you will never know: Their language, which is essentially the same tongue handed down from the Vikings, is impenetrable to outsiders.

–Food is good but expensive. If a person is in Iceland for any length of time, make your own meals from items purchased at a grocery. Dinner in a restaurant (and the capital seems to have dozens of them) will run about $50 a person at a basic resto.

–Keep in mind you are in a cold part of the world. Right now, the edge of spring, the high temps in Reykjavik will not break 60 degrees Fahrenheit and overnight lows will be in the low 40s. Not awful, but the wind blows. A lot. And a 20 mph wind can make 50F feel like quite a bit less. And if you travel to Iceland in the winter, be prepared for freezing temperatures for weeks on end.

–The clocks seem screwy. It’s because you are so far north. It never really gets dark, this time of year, and people are peppy and pleasant and apparently not sleepy at 1 a.m. Then comes winter, with three or four hours of weak sun, and if you cannot deal with a cloudy week back home, don’t go to Iceland in January.

–Reykjavik is surprisingly cosmopolitan, considering the city and its surroundings comprise maybe no more than 250,000 (of the nation’s 350,000) people. It has museums. It has an opera house. It has current movies. It has restaurants and taverns galore. 

–The Outback. For those who spend a week or more, Iceland has large swaths of territory with lots of spectacular scenery. This is a country of high tectonic activity, and it throws up geysers and volcanoes and mountains nearly a mile high. If you feel like a taxing hike in the cold, Iceland is for you.

–Icelandair is the government carrier, and it is keen to get you to drop by, while flying from east to west (or vice versa). You can arrange to land in the capital and stay for two, three, four days before you go back to the new, spacious airport to resume your trip to the Old World — or the New. No extra charge, from the airline, for stopping over.

So, the final question: Thumbs up, or down, for Iceland?

If you do not forget that the weather is brutal six months a year, and you will spend a lot of time inside, in the dark … if you never lose sight of the reality that Iceland is expensive … if you don’t mind citizens who don’t generally deal in small talk … if you want to be somewhere unlike anyplace you have been before (unless you live in Canada or Siberia) … a big yes. Yes. Go. Save up the money, go in the shoulder season (May or October) and bring a coat and snow boots. Much of Iceland is like a part of the world that nature forgot, and all those new and strange sensations … hard to replicate anywhere else so easy to get to. Go.

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