Ken, K, and I have just arrived home from Iceland. K really wanted to go back to Spain and practice her Spanish, but Ken and I were interested in a new experience. We were able to compromise, thanks to Air Iceland’s ploy to lure tourists into their country. They offer really cheap flights to Europe on the condition that you stop over in Iceland on the way there and back. This sounded like a great deal, and it satisfied everyone’s desires. So we were in Iceland for four days, then Spain for three days, then back to Iceland again for three more days. But Iceland has only recently become a major tourist destination, and if you’re like me, you probably don’t know a lot about it. It’s definitely a unique experience, but there were some questions I would have LOVED to know the answer to before we went. Therefore, I’ve decided to create a list of Frequently Asked Questions, a primer, if you will, to the Icelandic experience. Or at least from my own perspective.
First, let me say that we really liked a lot of things about Iceland. It’s very different from just about anywhere else, which is part of its charm. It’s visually stunning, and incredibly clean. You can drive around the whole island very easily, stopping just about anywhere to enjoy the gorgeous landscape. But it’s also a very quirky place, and if you plan to travel there, you definitely need to be aware of a few things. So here’s the list of questions that I would have wanted answered BEFORE we arrived:
1) OMG, should the water smell like that?!
We arrived from the airport around 11 pm, rented our car, and drove to the apartment we had booked through AirBNB. Bjorn, the owner, had left a key for us in a lockbox outside the apartment door. It was a really nice little place and we were relieved, because you never know when you’re booking things relatively sight unseen. It was late, and all we wanted to do was go to bed, so we’d be rested up for the next few days’ adventures. Ken went in the bathroom first to brush his teeth. When he came out, he said, “The water smells a little different.” I was like, “How different?” and he said, “Kind of like sulphur, but it’s not too bad.” Then I went into the bathroom and started running the hot water to wash my face. Suddenly, I was standing at the gates of the deepest part of hell, breathing in acrid fumes that smelled like someone had put a dozen hardboiled eggs in an airtight box and left them out in the hot sun. I called out to Ken, “I thought you said it wasn’t THAT bad! I’m dying here!!” Turns out the Iceland sits on top of a sh*tload of naturally scalding hotsprings which supplies 85% of the island with geothermic energy and hot water. The only downside is that it reeks. It clings to your skin for a good ten minutes after you shower, and it fills the air with what can only be described as “farts of death”. But it’s only the hot water—the cold water is just fine, and you can drink it straight from the tap. It tastes terrific and not like demonwater at all. But we didn’t know this at first, and we were really scared that there was a sewer line break or something, and that we’d end up with Icelandic dysentery. When we met our host the next morning, it was the first thing we asked him, and he explained that it was perfectly healthy and safe, finishing with, “You get used to the smell.” And it’s true—you do. In fact, it becomes kind of comforting and homey, like when your dog farts and you just look at him affectionately and say, “Oh Bowser, you’re so smelly, but I love you.” Plus, it might be nasty, but apparently the minerals in it are really good for your skin. Icelanders are EXTREMEMLY proud of their stinkwater and the best part is if YOU fart, you can blame it on the water, not the dog. Because your dog will NEVER smell that bad. It’s not everywhere you go though—some of the hotels must filter it out, which would account for the incredible cost (see question 3).
2) Will I be able to eat the food?
Well that depends on how hungry you are. Icelandic food is a little different. I don’t mean different like a little more spicy, or in a “using mayonnaise instead of ketchup on your fries” kind of way—I mean “pickled ram’s testicle” kind of different. I’m not a picky eater, but I have two problems that plague me when I travel: I can’t eat gluten (I have arthritis and it makes my joints swell) and I’m allergic to shellfish (I carry an epipen for that one). So any foreign country can pose a challenge, but I can usually find SOMETHING to eat. Iceland made it a little harder because not only do they have a LOT of seafood and bread on their menus, they feel compelled to weird it up. We finally found a restaurant in Reyjkavik called “Kol” where the menu had a couple of relatively straightforward items on it, and they brought warm bread up first for Ken and K. It came with some kind of spread, which was bright red and looked like pureed strawberries. Ken tried it and said, “It’s slightly sweet—try it and see if you can figure out what’s in it.” I thought it was supersalty and strange, then I got worried that maybe it had squid blood or something in it, so we asked the waitress. It was beet hummus. Why would anyone ruin perfectly good hummus by putting beets in it?! Maybe you like beets, but if you want to know how I feel about it, read My Week 48: Deathly Beets, and you’ll understand. And it’s not enough to serve your run-of-the-mill fish and meat. No, the Icelandic specialty is Minke Whale. I’m already unhappy enough that I’m not a vegetarian (screw you, bacon), but there’s no way I’m eating something that can carry on an actual conversation with another member of its species and is probably smarter than I am. Plus, don’t forget that I swam with dolphins last year, so I’m almost one of them. It would be like cannibalism.
But my favourite item had to be “Salted Cod and Deep Fried Cod Cheeks with Couscous, Carrot, Cumin, and Mussel.” Seriously, how many different aquatic forms of life do you need in ONE dish? And Cod Cheek? WTF is that? Do cods even HAVE cheeks? Wouldn’t they be really tiny and not even worth deepfrying? I know there are lots of people out there who LOVE eating talking animals, freaky vegetables, and baby sheep, and if so, then Iceland is the place for you. You weirdos. But if not, then there ARE restaurants that cater to the more timid among us, Our last night there, for example, we went to an awesome Thai place and the Massaman Chicken (yellow curry), Spring Rolls and Pineapple Fried Rice were fantastic.
Side note 1: Make sure you specify that you want your food cooked all the way through. Icelanders like to eat their fish “medium rare” and their beef while it’s still mooing. As we discovered.
Side note 2: Iceland is also supposed to be known for its fantastic hot dogs. I don’t know where this mythology developed or why. All I know is that we were all dying to try one, and when we did, they were simply pre-packaged boiled hotdogs, like any other storebought hotdog. Except they tasted kind of plastic-y. Oh well. They only cost $15 each (see question 3).
3) If I find something to eat, and it’s cooked properly, will I be able to afford it?
That depends. Did you win the lottery last week? Be warned—Iceland is unbelievably expensive, especially compared to Spain, which is often cheaper than Canada. At Kol, we had three main courses (two salmon, one steak), one glass of wine, one beer, and one milkshake. It totalled out at the equivalent of over $200 American. No appetizers—the asparagus spears that I wanted were $30—and no dessert. (Well, we got dessert but it was free to make up for the double recooking of my steak, which I had asked for to be cooked “medium” but kept being served bloody; dessert would have cost us another $60 otherwise). In comparison, on our last night in Seville, Ken and K each had homemade 14” pizzas, I had poutine with bacon and cheese, and we had wine and beer. The whole meal was not quite $25. Which is exactly what I paid for lunch at a cafeteria in Iceland which consisted of 5 meatballs, a scoop of rice, and a side of sweet potato cubes. Even the grocery stores are expensive when it comes to certain items. A block of regular cheese can run you 25 00 Krona (the Icelandic currency which makes you THINK you’re getting a lot for your money because of all the extra zeroes), which is just about $25, and a small bottle of Pepsi can run around 4 bucks depending where you are. Which just goes to show that it’s not about ripping off tourists—the cost of living there is just really high for EVERYONE.
And hotels? It’s enough to make you cry. One night’s stay at the Radisson in Reykjavik cost us $500 for a room that you might find in a Motel 6. It was the same amount that we paid for 3 nights in Spain for the three of us, or the same as one night in the most luxurious hotel in Canada. Check out Langdon Hall for a comparison. Our “hotel” near Hella was even worse. It took 43 km. on a gravel road to get to it, and when we arrived, there were three single cots; there was no TV, no wifi in the rooms, and no soap for the shower. I wouldn’t have cared if we weren’t expecting more for the price, but it was $425 for the night, and dinner at the restaurant there was $225 for three entrees, drinks, and two pieces of chocolate cake. A word to the wise—use AirBNB whenever you can, because it’s a lot cheaper than the hotels, and make sure your accommodation comes with a kitchen so you can cook your own meals and save a little that way.
4) Do Icelanders like tourists?
They seem to. But this tourism thing is pretty new to them, and they always seem slightly bemused by foreigners. It’s not obnoxious or mocking—it’s kind of charming, like they’re not entirely sure what to do with tourists, instead of taking advantage of us like other countries do. For example, most tourist attractions are free, and there are relatively few souvenir shops. The people are polite and pleasant, and almost everyone speaks English really well; in fact, they learn it in school. We were at a restaurant seated next to two elderly gentlemen—when they heard us talking, they struck up a conversation in almost fluent English with us. As Canadians, we felt very comfortable in a country that seems as friendly and polite as our own.
5) Will I have a good time?
Yes. If you appreciate beautiful scenery, unique geographic elements, and interesting things to do, then you absolutely will. It’s an amazing country. Even though I’m 50 years old and was still in recovery mode from surgery, I found myself compelled to clamber over rocks to walk behind waterfalls, hike for kilometres to touch a glacier, watch in amazement at geysers exploding (then run away when we realized the hot water was about to rain down on us), and make my way through lava fields just to touch the crystal clear water of a rushing stream. It’s a great country, and we now know how to explore it the next time without having to take out a second mortgage.
Now, here are some questions that are more particular to me:
5) Is there always that one guy who has to smoke?
Yes. You will find him at every tourist stop, standing in nature’s pristine beauty, blowing smoke into the crisp, clean air, then throwing his cigarette butt on the ground. He comes in all nationalities, shapes, and sizes, and he will annoy the hell out of you with his inability to get out of his car and NOT immediately light up.
6) If I go to a swimming pool, will someone steal my towel?
Yes. Believe it or not. This happened to us at the Blue Lagoon, the most popular tourist spot in Iceland. It’s a giant hot spring where the water is bright blue. It’s one of the few places we had to pay to visit and like everything else in Iceland, it was very expensive. The regular admission was $50 Euros (about $73) but we chose the “Comfort Package” for $75 Euros each (about $108), because it came with a rented towel. You couldn’t take your towels beyond the entry, where they had hooks and racks for them, but when we came out of the lagoon , both K’s and my towels were gone. Yes, someone jacked our $35 rented f*cking towels. The same thing happened to my brother at a public pool in Reykjavik. They had their OWN towels, and when they came out of the pool, they were all gone. He complained to the attendant, who just shrugged and said, “Yes, that happens a lot.” So maybe it’s better, and cheaper, to drip dry. Otherwise, I highly recommend the Blue Lagoon, which is superwarm and not too deep. They also give you silica mud to put on your face, and K used it to create a mustache, beard, and monocle, which made me laugh insanely, despite the theft of the towels.
7) What about those Icelandic men?
Every time we saw a guy wandering around, half-smiling and looking a little lost, you could bet he was Icelandic. A lot of men in Iceland seem perpetually baffled. By what, we were never sure, but it became a running joke with us. It started at the airport with an Icelandic man who wanted to bring two loose lacrosse sticks onto the plane with him, and seemed very confused when he was told he couldn’t. The female clerk gave him tape to wrap around them, and it took his whole family almost ten minutes to help him do it. From the airport to the city centres to the countryside, there were men who just randomly wandered around looking perplexed and a little helpless. Maybe in the same way that some women are said to have a “resting mean face”, Icelandic men have a resting “why am I here?” face. At any rate, they’re all very nice. Even if they don’t know where they are. You might not believe me about this, so go there and see for yourself. You’ll love it—if you can afford it.
NB: I didn’t say anything about Spain. Spain was as great as always, except hotter. If you want to know about Spain, you can read My Week 45: Adventures in Spain. It hasn’t changed:-)