John & Desiree Durrant give us the down low on a four day trip to Iceland from Scotland.
“Man, I really love Iceland but it’s very expensive,” said our shuttle bus driver on the way to Reykjavik Airport. He kinda nailed it, I thought to myself.
Iceland is enticing, beguiling, fascinating, a little bit crazy and just beautiful. We were spellbound by it but, man, it’s expensive.
Iceland’s reinvention from a remote island nation reliant on fishing and farming to one of the globe’s most fashionable holiday destinations was swift (admittedly, it was via stories of dodgy bankers, a financial collapse and volcanic ash clouds that crippled half the world’s flights for a time).
It seems like it’s top of just about everyone’s must-visit list and Iceland has been revelling in its recently-found popularity.
Reykjavik, the island nation’s capital city and most populous spot, is a magical place. We were instantly taken by its charming, slightly lunatic edge that seems to run through its architecture and even its people.
When you think of a nation’s capital you inevitably conjure up images of sprawling financial districts with tasteless skyscrapers piercing smog-filled skies, traffic-jammed streets, and masses of faceless strangers all running late for something or other.
Reykjavik couldn’t be further from that image if it tried. It’s a capital city, yes, but it feels more like a big town and, triumphantly, it feels like it has a big heart.
No one’s in a rush and most people seem happy to smile and say hello. When you think about this little country’s place in the world, you kinda get why everyone seems so bloody content.
Reykjavik, by most standards, has virtually no serious crime to report. Its people live in a modern, safe, clean city and they prosper.
Iceland is ranked first in the world for job security, third for social equality, seventh for life expectancy, fourth for life satisfaction and is consistently ranked as one of the world’s happiest places to live.
Icelanders earn, on average, £700 per month more than us in Dear Old Blighty. So, the relative expense for us visiting there is pretty excruciating. Conversely, when Icelandic people visit the UK, they must feel like they have money to burn.
Before you travel to Reykjavik, you just have to make peace with the fact that your wallet is going to take a pounding, even if you do try to do it on a budget but that absolutely should not stop you from planning a trip there.
Why? Well, the great news is that the cost to get there and accommodation can be relatively cheap. There are dozens of online agents offering great flight and accommodation deals. We flew with EasyJet from Edinburgh and paid a little over £200 all in for our return flights.
Iceland Accommodation: Hotel Island
Our accommodation was Hotel Island, an impressive little spa hotel in Armuli on the outskirts of the city. We splurged out a little more for a Junior Suite (it was our first trip, just us, in many years after all) and it was absolutely worth it. We had fantastic views from the balcony of Reykjavik and the nearby mountain ranges that seem to lean over the city basin.
Hotel Island is about a mile-and-half outside the city centre and you can pretty much walk from the main drag right to the hotel and hardly turn a corner.
Blue Lagoon, Iceland
Iceland’s most popular tourist destination is the Blue Lagoon. As the name would suggest, it’s a lagoon… but not just any lagoon. It’s a geothermal pool. The big deal is that it’s filled with steaming hot water and silica mud which, according to lots of research, is apparently good for the skin… but not necessarily your sense of smell.
Its turquoise blue waters and inviting rising steam is something that would be extremely difficult to refuse once you lay your eyes on it, especially when the outside temperature is hovering just above freezing.
As you would expect with any large commercial tourist venture, it’s very slick and organised. We arrived in the carpark outside and within 15 minutes we had got changed in the well kitted-out changing rooms, collected our towels and were up to our necks in hot, steamy water.
Depending on the package you buy, there are various add-ons to the experience, like drinks at the bar, dinner reservations in the restaurant etc.
Our pass entitled us to silica mud and algae face masks and a drink at the swim-up bar, which was enjoyable even just for the novelty factor. As we waited on the cheery servers making our drinks we realised that everyone standing (or treading water) around the bar was either Irish or Scottish… Don’t you just hate it when stereotypes prove to be true?
A little moneysaving tip for the Blue Lagoon, buy one those waterproof phone protectors off of Ebay. We spent about 2,300 ISK for one from the shop, and so did just about everyone else there. That’s about £17…
Whale Watching in Iceland
Iceland – or rather the waters around it – are a playground for thousands of whales. The beauty of Reykjavik is that whale watching is available all year round (as long as its angry seas let the boats out).
We booked a three-and-a-half-hour trip with Special Tours, which leaves from the city’s Old Harbour. The weather gods were smiling on us as the still day meant that they were able to run the tour on the smaller catamaran for the first time this year.
Our Scottish guide George was funny and engaging and told us everything we could ever want to know about the marine life around Iceland. Hundreds of white-beaked dolphins showed off for us within 30 minutes of leaving Old Harbour. The real stars of the show – the humpback whales – proved less willing to perform.
Then, just as we were beginning to lose hope… We saw one. It was about 150 feet from the boat and only made a brief appearance on the surface but that fleeting glance was magical. What wonderful animals they are, and to be seeing them just a short jaunt from a city centre made it all the more amazing.
Eating & Drinking in Iceland
Reykjavik’s restaurant options are impressive. From casual burgers-and-chips-type diners to five-star establishments, there’s plenty to enjoy.
Of course, your budget will influence where and what you eat. As you’d expect, seafood is prominent and delicious. Our first lunch after arriving was a massive portion of fish and chips from Red Chili, a Tex-Mex-influenced restaurant near Hotel Island.
Our bill for two entrees and two main meals with drinks was less than 50 quid, which is nothing short of a bargain for Reykjavik.
By far the best dining experience of our trip was at Public House in the city centre. What it lacks in creativity for its name, it makes up for in the standard of its Asian-inspired sharing gastro food.
Public House isn’t cheap and our meal and two Cokes cost well over £80. It was worth every penny though.
Iceland’s more traditional food options are certainly not to everyone’s palate… or even morals. Horse, puffin and whale are common entries on restaurant menus.
Fermented and salted fish and whale are particularly challenging delicacies that we didn’t bother to experiment with.
How to book Holidays in Iceland
John and Desiree booked their excursions through IcelandTravel.is and booked their accommodation directly with HotelIsland.is
By John Durrant
Want to find cheap holidays in Iceland – check out this Iceland tour from £659 here