June 21, 2017

Iceland, Part 1

A good friend sent me the Oh, you went to Iceland? Amazing link.  It sent me into hysterical laughter.  You should read it if you have friends, family, or social media acquaintances who've gone to Iceland recently, you'll probably relate.  I did.

See, I already had a love-hate relationship with Iceland by the time we got here.

View of the Blue Lagoon from the approach to KEF.

[Full disclosure, this post is going to have some serious first-world spoiled rotten whine in it, because you can't really complain (even honestly) about being able to travel to amazing places without sounding like a bit of an asshole.]

Typical gorgeous road trip view
if you are unlucky enough to be in Iceland when it's storming.
So, we were doing Europe on our standard seat-of-the-pants "dirt-bag planning" that more-or-less worked this Sabbatical year throughout South America, most of Asia (but not Japan), and all of Europe right up until Iceland.  This approach means we don't usually have lodging or rental cars more than a week in advance (sometimes booking the day before), and typically, we buy tickets for trains, planes, ferries, etc. a week before we need them (or 2 weeks if we really have our shit together, or, on the other extreme, we just buy them the day of if we're convinced we don't need to purchase in advance).  Essentially, we're cheap, lazy, and late, and we tend to take the best of the dregs of the cheapest of what's available wherever we are headed with a dedicated bathroom ('cause we're old now), which generally tends to work out fine and occasionally results in some very funny stories.

Road trip views of the ocean and shoreline in Iceland before the weather turned.

We hadn't booked our flights back to the US from Europe, but I knew that Icelandair had free stopovers for up to 7 days in Iceland, and I knew that Chase Ultimate Rewards points could book on Iceland Air, so I figured we'd just go with this option and do some time in Iceland on our route back just like so many of our friends and family who've shown us their awesome photos.  First mistake -- I waited 'til about 2 weeks before we needed to fly to Iceland and called Chase Ultimate Rewards because I couldn't figure out how to book the free stopover on points online.  Turns out, they couldn't either.  Apparently, it's a benefit that's only available for people actually paying real cash to Icelandair.  I could have called and researched and tried to solve the problem but I decided that was too much trouble, so we just booked one leg to Reykjavik on the Chase Ultimate Rewards points on Icelandair.  And then, I built in a week stay for us to enjoy Iceland (without doing any research on hotels, mind you) and booked our flight from KEF to the US on airline miles after that week.

Stereotypical $110+USD a room night, in-room sink,
but down the hall for shared toilet and shower
Iceland special.
So, now we had flights in and out of Iceland right around the Summer Solstice.  In hindsight, I probably should have guessed that a place with that much Summer sun might be a popular destination around the longest day of the year...

But, I didn't.  So when I went to start reserving hotels, my jaw dropped at the prices, and I quickly downgraded to guesthouses and hostels with shared bathrooms, which, in most cases were still some of the most expensive lodging per night we'd purchased for the entire sabbatical year (including amazing suites and glorious ocean views and what not in places off the beaten track in Asia and South America).  In fairness, we did cheat a bit and used hotel points and Chase points in big expensive cities this year, so it's not a true apples to apples comparison, but even so, I was super shocked to learn that rural Iceland is *much* more expensive than rural Japan when booked late on our seat-of-the-pants-travel-plan (like 2X for a basic room for 2 in Iceland sharing a bathroom with multiple guests vs. enjoying a very private en-suite bathroom for half the price in a rural Japanese business hotel).

Waiting for the Geyser to erupt...
You know what none of my friends or family who'd been there before told me?  Iceland is CRAZY EXPENSIVE.  Like $10 pint draft beer special expensive.  Like $25 hamburger expensive.  Like $40-$60+ per person to get in the popular hot springs expensive (and that probably doesn't include towel rental, etc.).  Like now that we've seen our options, we actually plan to go to Taco Bell (secret guilty road-trip pleasure in the US normally) and see how much we can save with a run to the border for a road-trip meal before we leave.  All of a sudden, my cousins who brought their camping gear and MREs and did a road trip in a rental car and tent-camped around the Ring Road in May even though there was still snow on the ground don't look so crazy to me.

Beautiful Icelandic horses in the wind...

Oh, did I mention the weather?  Yeah.  Turns out, Iceland is green and beautiful for a reason.  Our day of arrival was gorgeous, but we'd come from Malta so we figured this was normal and didn't take too many pictures.  Since then... well, it looks like we're here for a week of serious wind and rain and cold.  Did you know Iceland is the windiest place in the world where people actually live?  Yeah.  It's true.  Thankfully, we have rain gear and hats and wool socks and gloves from some of our other travels, because it had not occurred to me that 21 hours of sun a day in Iceland would be anything other than glorious Summer.  I mean it was almost 25C in Copenhagen when we were there!  But the high today was 8C (46F), and it rained *all* day.

The face of the Eurasian tectonic plate from the rift walkway...
Anyways, Iceland is gorgeous, but the rain, wind, and cold has cut back on our planned enjoyment of the views, the running, and the hiking.  And, unfortunately, the food in Iceland is actually pretty terrible.  There.  I said it.  I'm from California, I've been traveling the world for a year (primarily to eat good food, if I'm honest), and today, I was excited to go to a diner where I could order mozzarella sticks with iceberg lettuce and a cucumber on the side with a large soda water for lunch -- this was a *great* option by local standards (in fairness, it's actually a pretty great little kid guilty pleasure lunch, just super unhealthy).  Not to be outdone, E had one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs and jalapeno poppers along with some fries (to the restaurant's credit, they gave us the fries for free and we both enjoyed them -- the fryer had more than they needed for the lunch service and we arrived on the late side of the lunch rush).  This gastronomic experience set us back $30, which is by far the cheapest meal we've had in Iceland thus far. 

Posing, with the famous Icelandic hot dog... (just fine, not mind-altering).
Make no mistake, Iceland is *not* a culinary destination.  Which is, of course, fine.  Its landscapes are obviously the reason to come.  But it's more fine if you happen to be here when the weather is good and the free views and hikes help balance out the value of the otherwise egregiously expensive trip with bland expensive food, or, it's fine if you're prepared with MREs like my genius cousins, or at least if you're pre-prepared for the amount of money you'll be paying for something that doesn't really qualify as a proper meal in many of the places you regularly spend time (I wasn't and it's still smarting, every day, to see the totals on our bills after mediocre meals -- oh, the 4 EU full-size amazing margarita pizzas in Naples, they do that one aspect of life better than just about anyone, and it really hurts to experience how badly Iceland missed the good food value boat).


Arvay said...

Did you know that Iceland is almost 100% renewable generation, between hydro and geothermal? They also export power, in the form of incentivizing high-energy industry to invest there. Iceland smelts aluminum and makes chocolate, for example. A lot of renewable energy folks work with Iceland, so I hear a lot about them. :)

Pretty ponies! :)

bt said...

@Arvay -- Yes! We've visited one of the first hydroelectric dams they built (initial turbines from Sweden in the 30s, still going strong), hiked up to view a geothermal plant from above and visited a renewable energy museum. It's super impressive, but also a little depressing -- as they have the 8th lowest population density in the world, so the ratio of natural resources to humans is immense and makes you wonder just how hard we can push that number...

Arvay said...

Well, dam!

It must have been a dam cool tour!

Jen said...

Hi! Finally catching up on your blog posts! :)
I had heard Iceland was expensive, but I had not heard actual prices. That sounds even more expensive than my time in Switzerland, where we paid $60 (or $80?)/night to share a bunk bed room with two others at a hostel, with the bathroom down the hall. Even a self-catered meal of simple bread, cheese, and meat set us back $15/person. But the nature was gorgeous there, as I'm sure Iceland was too.

bt said...

@Jen -- I think the thing with Iceland is there just isn't a big collection of much of *anything*. In Switzerland, it's expensive, yes, but you can still opt for the cheapest option anywhere you are, and it's going to be much cheaper than the cheapest option in Iceland anywhere you are just due to the law of numbers.

Switzerland's population? 8,287,000.

Iceland's population? 331,000.

AND, Iceland is more than twice as big as Switzerland: http://www.mylifeelsewhere.com/country-size-comparison/switzerland/iceland

So, often, in Iceland, you don't have a choice. You take the only available room. You order the only available meal. Etc.

But yes, the scenery was gorgeous. Of course, this is true *many* places we were this year that were not remotely as expensive...