A Glossy Guide To Iceland

TIM MAGEE questions the value for money but not his ONGOING FASCINATION with ICELAND … 

Ireland was Iceland when I left for Reykjavik – it was warmer there than at home. The itinerary was Copenhagen to Reykjavik to LA, but storms are not my friends. Storm Emma and the “Beast from the East” had a white wedding over Ireland and Dublin airport was virtually shut down, with me in it. Most Irish people still think going to Northern Ireland involves interplanetary travel, but for once Belfast was marginally milder than Dublin, so I put a line through Copenhagen, and a very serious dining reservation, and was in Belfast City Airport in under two hours and off the island before it locked down. After another two hours or so on the prop plane, I was descending to the moonscape of Iceland.

An Air Iceland Connect flight from Belfast to Reykjavik cost me €130 including seats and treats, the biggest of which was a half-bottle of champagne served in an actual ice bucket (a first) and a real glass for €25. It was the last time that I would get value for money.

I’d been to Iceland before but the last time was a long time ago and just before the financial crisis. I’ve no problem spending my own or the bank’s money on expensive food, wine or hotels. Some people prefer designer handbags, golf membership or season tickets, or all three. More power to them, but I like to eat or drink whatever money I have. YOLO as a mantra – you only live once – has rarely let me down but you do still need to feel like you’re getting value for money. I’m not sure that anything outside of the free magisterial views and some of the museums in Iceland’s capital really give you that.

Iceland has the population of Co Cork. A population of fishermen and aluminium processors, and also some outstanding artists. Many of them the same people. That was before Icelandic banks went buck ape and all-in to the craziest banking shenanigans in the craziest period of global banking shenanigans. Iceland’s carry-on made us look prudent (-ish). Unlike us, they weren’t tied to the euro so they devalued like their lives depended on it, which it did, threw a few people in jail and guaranteed their citizens’ deposits but also put a mechanism in place to make it difficult for investors to move their money overseas. They figured on spending their much harder-won kroner locally – on things that would bring and keep tourists rather than on pretend banking. 

Sand Hotel, Reykjavik

Since then, and after a great deal of pain, Reykjavik has backed itself, investing in a flurry of boutique hotels and restaurants that could be in Stockholm or Copenhagen. Hotels like the Sand Hotel, built with a bakery that makes you believe that all hotels should have real bakeries. Cool, local, seasonal restaurants too, like top of the food chain, Dill. Dill was very good – lovely people and my dung-smoked fish was delicious, but I could have flown home and back to a starred lunch in Dublin and still saved money.

My problem is that there is little at the other end of the food chain that makes you feel like exploring the capital. Navigating Reykjavik for many is like becoming a student again. You pack booze, you get duty free booze at your Irish airport, you get a trolley full of duty free again when you land at Keflavik. Not entirely legal but common, and common sense. The legal relationship between Iceland and alcohol is comedic. I was legally able to drink beer a week before Iceland – the first day of March 1989 was the first day that beer was legal in the country. They call it Beer Day. They spent decades just drinking bad wine and good spirits. The Reykjavik I remember was a ghost town until the vampire-like locals came out after midnight to party hard after getting toasted at home. It was crazy and brilliant. Now it’s happy hour, tourism and economics.

The thing is that many visitors to Reykjavik seem to be living off that duty-free allowance and spaghetti from the Euro Shopper, the series of very un-Scandi stores that pepper the town with all the charm and comfort of a tanning salon. Then you do much of your socialising during happy hours, or once you’ve eaten at your AirBnB or in your new hotel, which is probably an aparthotel with basic cooking facilities in your room, as even the developers know it’s not realistic for visitors to eat out every night. 

This country is so very expensive I can’t figure out how the locals ever go out. On the basis of my Wikinomics the average industrial wage is very high, near €4,000 net per month, which seems about enough for dinner for two with wine in Reykjavik. But none of this is putting tourists off. The airport has never been busier, the restaurants are buzzing, there are hour-long queues for the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon has changed too, and in a way it’s the perfect model for what has happened to Reykjavik. The trip in from the airport still has those Mordor and Hornby landscapes to your right, deep blue and black seas to your left. Before, you dipped your paw down into the smoky water for a fistful of skin-changing silica mud from the lava floor to lash on to your head. Now you swim up to a kiosk for a handful from clean white designer pots, while staff pitch the other skincare products they sell. The lava bottom is now covered with white enamel so it’s more like the Blue Bath. Meanwhile, from the far side of that bath, across the dry ice effect of geothermals, you can hear the Club Med set gab while they bob and queue by the new drinks bar.

I’m filing this in 26°C degrees in Cyprus over a coffee with eggs baked in salt and a crunchy honey-laced baklava from the local bakery. It cost two euros. Would I go back to Iceland? Absolutely, it’s the opposite of here. It’s the opposite of everywhere, which is why it is so appealing. If there is a landscape as beautifully alien after such a short flight I haven’t been there. But a stopover day or two in the capital is plenty unless money is your best friend. Coming to Iceland and only seeing Reykjavik is like coming to Ireland and only seeing Dublin city centre – and mostly seeing Temple Bar. It’s worth the trip but not the best we have to offer.

Downtown Reykjavik has local municipal baths, where locals actually go, some brilliant museums, and try to see something in the magnificent Harpa, a cultural centre where the backdrop is more jaw-dropping than anything ever to grace the stage. From there move on to the Snaefellsjokull glacier or to the black beaches and tiny villages of Vik, to any number of amazing waterfalls, springs, still lakes, lava fields and glaciers. It’s best in summer and an extreme sports playground in winter. Yet even just off the plane when you dip into the Blue Lagoon’s warm water, steaming into the cold air, and whether the sky is full of stars, the aurora borealis, snowflakes, or lashing rain, your inner barometer is reset to bonkers. Even at its most commercial, Iceland is something else.


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