People rave about how wonderful Iceland is, so when the opportunity came for me to join my friend Cathy there for a few days, I jumped at it, looking forward to icy vistas, the Northern Lights, monstrous geysers, volcanic craters and the hot springs.
We started with a bus tour of the Golden Circle, the traditional loop south of Reykjavík. Our first stop was Pingvellir National Park, where our bus driver/guide let us out, told us to walk down the hill and meet him at the bottom in an hour. The views were beautiful, the temperature a tolerable 2 degrees Celsius, but the clouds and fog obscured the sky.
Stop #2 was in the Efstidalur valley, at The Ice Cream Farm famous for its ice cream. Inside the restaurant which sold the ice cream were windows into the barn where stood, get this, some cows. And as far as I could tell, not particularly special cows. Two scoops of ice cream cost $20, so I passed.
Stop #3 were the lava fields at Blaskogabyggo, where boiling water bubbled in little pools and the Strokkur geyser blew every few minutes, tossing a stream of water high into the air before quickly retreating and regenerating for the next show. Pretty, yes, but having enjoyed the much longer and higher display of Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park just a few months before, this was underwhelming. A pattern was starting to emerge…..
Stop #4 was the Gullfoss Waterfall, the largest in Europe. The half frozen water cascaded over the rocks below, snaking its way across the river. Pretty, yes, but I had seen larger ones at Iguacu and Victoria, and Niagara Falls in the winter. Gulfoss didn’t compare.
Stop #5 was the dormant volcano Kerio and its crater, which in summer fills with turquoise blue water. It was December, the crater was an empty hollow filled with dirt and not overly impressive. Vesuvius in Italy and every volcano in Costa Rico and Nicaragua are more spectacular.
The tour was turning into a bit of a dud. The driver/ tour guide didn’t seem to like to talk, with the exception of religion, as he became quite animated when discussing the funds provided to the Islamic community in Iceland by Saudi Arabia (he said $500 million) to erect a mosque, but infighting between the sects meant they couldn’t agree on basic construction issues. It was a strange conversation point.
The saving grace, and highlight, was a trip to the Blue Lagoon, a giant hot spring about 45 minutes out of Reykjavík. For only $100, we were provided with a towel, locker, free drink and a silica mask. It was dark by the time we reached it and a light snowfall sprinkled the ground. We changed into our bathing suits, ran the 20 feet to the lagoon and waded into the hot water, luxuriating in the thermal pool, relaxing and sipping a glass of wine as snowflakes floated onto our faces and our bodies shriveled into prunes.
Back at the hotel, we learned that the Northern Lights tour had been cancelled for the evening; it was too cloudy.
On Wednesday, we waited until the 11:00AM sunrise before walking to the center of Reykjavík to join a free walking tour of the city – at the end of the tour you pay what you think it was worth. Our guide’s Icelandic name was unpronounceable by all in the group so he asked us to call him Eric. For the next 3 hours, we followed him around the city, listening as he told us about Iceland’s history, culture and other tidbits. In a nutshell, the memorable points were:
- Iceland was first settled by Vikings in 874;
- The Landnamabok is a book which lists all 720,000 persons born in Iceland since 874. Most Icelanders today can trace their roots back to 874 (including our guide Eric) and nearly every one is related to everyone else to some degree. The book is now on-line and there is a special app to ensure no one accidentally dates someone too closely related;
- The Vikings spoke a form of old Norse, or old Norwegian, which is today’s Icelandic;
- The island was Catholic until 1550, when the last Catholic bishop was hanged. Iceland has been Lutheran ever since.
- Governed by Denmark/Norway since 1262, Iceland took advantage of the Nazi occupation of Denmark and declared independence in 1942 and has remained a sovereign nation.
- A unique Xmas story concerns the Yule Cat; tradition says it eats children who haven’t produced enough wool and rewards those who have with new clothes at Christmas. A mean looking cat was lit up in in the main square:
Fortunately. Eric was a more enthusiastic and informative guide than the one from the previous day. We paid him $20 each and returned to the hotel to learn our Northern Lights tour had again been cancelled due to the cloud cover. Doubly disappointing for Cathy was her glacier hike/ice cave spelunking tour the next day was also cancelled. The warm weather meant it was too dangerous to go out onto the ice. Even her attempt to substitute it with a tour of the south was thwarted; the warm weather and possibility of freezing rain caused widespread cancellations of most activities.
The one tour that was proceeding was the foodie tour, led by Thor, an English major and another Icelander who could also trace his roots back to 874. Our group of 13 was treated to the best of Iceland cuisine and it was all good. We started with a hearty lamb stew, followed by a cheese and smoked meat tasting. Horse meat was offered and I gave it a try. It tasted sort of, but not quite, like beef. It is widely eaten in Iceland since horses are one of the few animals that can live in the harsh climate and nothing edible is wasted in this harsh environment. Rye bread ice cream followed, which was sweet, delicious and tasted nothing like rye bread. The star of the meal were two fish plates, grilled Arctic Char and a white fish stew served with rich rye bread. We were all stuffed, but 2 more stops remained. At a hotdog stand, we partook of the island’s famed hot dogs – 70% lamb and 30% unknown. Finally, we dug into a tangy lemon mousse covered in meringue with frozen yogurt.
One final attraction beckoned – the Phallic Museum, devoted to all things phallic and probably the only one of its kind. On display were all manners of phalli, including the largest from the sperm whale and various human donations.
Not surprisingly given the cloud cover, the Northern Lights tours were all cancelled Thursday evening. We would leave Iceland without seeing them.
What we did leave behind was a hell of a lot of money. Our Golden Circle tour cost $200 per person, glasses of wine were $20 each, the breakfast buffet $30, and a decent meal for 2 without alcohol was at least $100. A souvenir sweater was $400 (we passed) and a snicker chocolate bar was $4 (I bought 2).
The real kicker was our cab ride to the airport early Friday morning. Communal bus rides were available for $60, but they involved being outside at 4:15 AM and transferring between buses. The 45 minute taxi ride’s flat rate was a whopping $170. Call me a cynic, but even a decent wage for 2 hours and Iceland’s high priced gasoline didn’t justify that. The only rationale I could figure out was gouging tourists, something Iceland seems good at. The $100 entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon, the high priced bus tour with a mediocre guide, even the ridiculous baggage fees on IcelandAir ($78 for the first checked bag) along with the $18 charge for a glass of wine on board, made me feel like Icelanders view tourists as cash cows, milked for all they are worth, then put on a plane to be replaced by more money toting suckers.
Maybe Iceland would be considered a worthwhile destination if I hadn’t seen Niagara Falls or Yellowstone Park or Mount Vesuvius or the prairies on a cold, January night, but I had and Iceland didn’t compare favourably to any of them. Add the obscene prices into the equation, the overcast weather and consequential cancellations and I was disappointed. Granted, I enjoyed the walking and foodie tours, but I was eager to get back to Paris, where meals, attractions, hotels and transit prices were all met with my newfound favourite refrain “at least it’s cheaper than Iceland.”