If Italy is New Zealand upside down – geometrically and geographically (plonked down on the opposite side of the globe) – then Iceland is our sister country in the north.
Of all the places we’ve been, Iceland is the country where the people have been the closest to kindred spirits. Relaxed, down to earth, friendly. Better groomed, though. (I say this based on observations from a) the hitchhiker we picked up about five minutes after arriving b) the car rental staff c) our Couchsurfing hosts and d) Ben, the random guy who struck up a conversation with us in a bar after asking one of our group to swap shoes with him as part of a scavenger hunt challenge.)
The first thing that hit me after browsing through a bunch of Reykjavik Couchsurfers’ profiles was that if they were anything to go by, T would fit right in. It’s hard to describe precisely why, but in terms of musical taste, film taste, sense of humour, hobbies and general vibe, it was pretty clear that they were his kind of people. (Add in the weather, and it’s definitely the kind of place he could live.)
The only person to accept our hosting request was a middle-aged biker who lived a little way out of town with a new and fairly sparse profile, who I contacted as sort of a Plan B. That was a little disappointing initially. But once we got there and met him (along with his wife and kid), all that vanished. They were so welcoming, so youthful, and they were freaking hilarious. The wife gave me a necklace with a pearl and lava stone that she made herself, and (as we figured out after the first night), the kid gave up his bedroom for us and dossed on a mattress in their computer/games room instead. Humbling.
Their (brand new) apartment was amazing, too. As is common in Iceland, it was insanely cosy, with hot water used to warm the floors. The taps were super high tech – we couldn’t work out how to use the shower – though you do have to contend with the lovely sulphur smell. Thanks to hotel-grade sheets, I slept like a baby in a cloud. And because they didn’t live in Reykjavik proper, it was easy for us to see the northern lights – we just detoured into a big park away from civilisation on the way home one night and spotted a faint green rainbow-shaped aurora.
This is volcanic land, so in hindsight, I shouldn’t have expected to be totally wowed. People rave about how unearthly Iceland’s landscape is, but as it turns out, it’s not so different from home. It resembles the Desert Rd (my favourite New Zealand landscape), with its rocky terrain and muted hues.
Driving the Golden Circle was well worth the time and money. After picking up a British couple and one North Carolinan in town – fellow Couchsurfers who were carless and keen to split costs – we made the pilgrimage in our rusty Toyota rental.
We wandered around picturesque Pingvellir, watched Strokkur erupt at Geysir (in fact, at one point it went off four times in a row, surprising everyone there), and shivered our way in and out of Gullfoss, along with a stop to pet the horses across the road.
Deciding to skip the Blue Lagoon was not a decision I made lightly – but it’s one I’m more than happy with. We’re not big on hot pools (and have a few of those back home too), so spending 66 euros for entry into a place where we might spend an hour seemed like a heinous waste of cash. What we did do was drive by, which afforded us a free view of the milky blue waters running like a river between the geothermal plant and the lagoon. It looked exactly like all the photos of the pools. Quite frankly, that’s all I wanted! (I should have snapped a photo to prove I was there, but couldn’t really be bothered stopping the car and getting out in the cold.)
In the end, we didn’t end up visiting any of the local hot pools, either. The thought of disrobing, given how many layers I had on, plus going through the ritual of scrubbing in an open shower area, was way less appealing than continuing to roam around in the toasty car.
I thought Auckland was fickle; Iceland is even more mercurial, if that’s possible. The skies can change in an instant, swinging from moody, storm-approaching-in-two-seconds grey to a promising blue punctuated with rays of sun. You can look up and see one thing, and five minutes later, look up again to see something entirely different – slate wiped clean. Our host told us a bunch of cautionary tales about hapless tourists caught out by sudden storms. Ripping storms that can break windows and peel paint off your car. He also rolled his eyes a bit as he talked about local Icelanders who rush to get a front row view when a volcano erupts and wind up dying in the process; after all, these aren’t particularly uncommon events, so what’s the point of acting like a dumb tourist?
We were incredibly lucky with the weather, with just a few instances of drizzle throughout our stay. The coldest day was probably our first evening there, after which it warmed up. The real killer is the wind, which has a real bite to it and will cut you to the bone.
Living on a remote island doesn’t come cheap. Everything from beer to bread is eye-wateringly expensive. A loaf is over 300 kronor, and a piece of cake could be anywhere from 700 to 1000 kronor. Yep, that’s right – you’ll also have to deal with the kronor, the local currency. Handily, you can use cards almost everywhere – also like New Zealand, this isn’t a cash society.
The nice thing about the kronor was that it was easy to compare prices, as a kronor is basically equal to one NZ cent. In Italy, for example, I’d marvel at the fact that you can get a pasta lunch for 10 euros – there’s no way you could get that for $10 at home. If you were to convert that 10 euros to NZD, however, at 60c to the dollar, it doesn’t wind up being all that affordable. (Overall, European prices on an absolute basis seemed reasonable, but take into account the exchange rate, and things change when you’re talking proportionally.)
Again, like New Zealand, this is car country. As he dropped us off at the airport, our car rental guy told us that car rentals are set to overtake fisheries in Iceland, economically speaking. Tourism is big business, and the best way to see Iceland is by car (or Jeep). Bus transfers to and from the airport for both of us alone would have been about 80 euros; renting a car for our entire time cost 117 euros. The Welcome Card offers unlimited bus travel as well as discounts at museums and attractions, but I imagine waiting for buses in the cold can’t be fun.
Recommendations for Iceland
Obviously, it’s hard to beat Couchsurfing on this front The couple who carpooled with us got a steal at the Welcome Apartments, though (and I can vouch from going inside that they are pretty swish). The Kex hostel seems to be popular with visitors, and Airbnb is always worth scoping out, too.
Affordable Car Rental has the lowest rates (but didn’t have availability for our dates – sadface). Sadcars is the other big name in cheap Iceland car rentals – that’s who we hired from – and they offer a discount if you prepay online. If you’re looking for more grunt, try Cheap Jeeps. Alternatively, you could look on Couchsurfing. The Reykjavik page always seems to be full of people looking to carpool. With petrol being so expensive, sharing the burden of costs is the way to go. There was one guy charging 10 euros plus gas or 15 for a day trip (with a full car, I bet he made back the entire cost of car and gas, basically going for free!) whom I almost signed us up with, before we decided to rent our own vehicle. Or you might get lucky and find someone like us, who just asked for a share of gas and called it even. There’s always someone looking for a ride, so even if you decide you want to be in control and rent your own vehicle like we did, odds are you can find someone to split costs with.
The cheapest thing we ate in Iceland was hot dogs from the famous hot dog stand in town. (Verdict: pretty good; not mindblowing. The sausage itself was a letdown.) In a country where a burger can cost nearly $20, it’s hard to eat frugally. Heck, a jar of Nutella cost $7.
That said, it’d be a shame to skimp on food in Iceland. I highly recommend Seabaron (the whale was sublime, and I hear fantastic things about the lobster soup). The Hamburger Factory wasn’t bad – we liked the chips better than the actual burgers, especially dusted with the freakishly addictive seasoning from the spice shaker on the table. If you’re into fish and chips, Icelandic Fish and Chips is worth a stop too.