Travel Topic: Iceland and Reykjavík

icelandWhen I started this blog almost two years ago, an early set of posts were about travel. Since summertime is the natural vacation time, that is, well, natural. It might be against all principles of “audience collection” for blogging, which seems to be first and foremost about sticking to a topic and keep writing about that same topic incessantly. Unfortunately for me, I can’t quite stick to that principle. So here are some observations on Iceland in the Summer of 2009.

I lived here for a year back in 1989-1990, and went to school at the now closed Keflavík US Naval Air Station. I also worked here in the summers of 1990, 1992, 1993, and 1994. So it is fifteen years since I last visited Iceland, and this place has certainly changed.

The recent economic turmoil that hit Iceland hard is visible if you look closely. There are fewer people in the expensive shops, more in the cheaper ones. Lots of construction projects seem abandoned. However, the overall impression is that so much has changed for the better during the boom times of the past fifteen years, and apparently much of it in even the last five years according to my parents who last visited Iceland then.

Thanks to the drastic fall of the Icelandic Króna, Iceland feels decently affordable today, even for a Swede whose SEK currency has taken a bad beating in 2008 and 2009. Last year, when the ISK was at twice its current value against the SEK, it would have been killingly expensive, like Norway or Switzerland are. But today, the overall impression is that Iceland is a relative bargain, and that this is the best time in a long time to visit Iceland!

So what is the impression?

The roads are much better than they were in 1994, both inside and outside of Reykjavik. There are even multiple-lane highways in some places! Driving feels much more comfortable and safe and fast.

The food has improved radically! Eating out here used to be very expensive and mostly of dubious quality. Now, however, all restaurants we have visited serve more than decent food and quite reasonable prices. The shops carry a large selection of food stuffs from Europe and America, and it is not too unlike home. Imported things are sometimes quite expensive, but nothing too bad.

Update! Something that really stands out is the great value of fish in the fish markets in Reykjavik. For the same price as really cheap meat in other parts of Europe you can get incredible fresh fish, and if you can cook yourself there is no reason not to eat fish for all meals during a stay in Iceland. I am also singularly impressed by the bakeries in Iceland, which compare favorably both to Germany and France, my two best bread nations so far.

There has been a boom in services. Finding somewhere to have even a simple coffee while traveling outside of Reykjavik tended to require careful planning. Now, there are little Kafístofur (sorry for clobbering the language) everywhere. The new visitors’ centers at the big tourist destinations like Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss are quite impressive. Especially Geysir had a food court and very nice restaurant, where there used to be pretty much nothing. Update! The only poor experience we had was at Fosshotel Reykholt, which featured very slow service and a bad case of overpricing.

Construction was a big part of the overspend in Iceland, and that is very evident as you travel east from Reykjavík: the countryside that used to be empty is now dotted with summer houses, some of them pretty impressively large. They are also made from all-imported wood, which used to be rare as indigenous concrete was cheaper and more durable. Inside Reykjavik, construction has been rampant, with large bodies of new housing, often very nicely done. Many older houses have been renovated, for an overall much classier look to the city than what I recall.

The car pool also shows the effect of a big boom. Where there used to be a predominance of horrible 1980’s US cars and small Japanese cars, there are now a plethora of expensive Audis, Volvos, and Mercedes cars. A marked difference, making it look much more like Sweden or modern America than the Iceland of old.

Update! I do have some late-breaking negative points to bring up as well. If you can avoid it, do not rent a car in Iceland. The prices are horrendous, and they seem to be trying to fool you into paying for scratches and dents already present on the vehicles when you rent them. Instead, if you are a small group, go and rent a bus with a driver. More fun, more convenient, and much cheaper. Plus you get to enjoy the company of a local driver and guide.

Some things are the same, though. The hot water smells faintly of sulphur, which brings back memories 0f times past every time I need hot water. The pools are still heated outdoors pools mostly. The peculiar charm of going swimming outdoors when it is plus five degrees and a drizzle in the air (like it was this morning), but thirty degrees in the water, remains. Icelanders are as generous and funny as always. Energy in the form of heat and electricity are still cheap.

Overall, the “new” Iceland feels much more cosmopolitan and like any other world city in terms of what you can expect in terms of services and availability. I think that is for the better.

Now, how Iceland will get out of the current economic crisis is a different thing, but going here as a tourist is sure to help. It is a great experience, and the prices are nice now!

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