Lost & Found: Iceland
17 - 19 October 2008

Iceland's recent economic meltdown means that its wildly primitive scenery, party atmosphere, stylish black-clad population and tasty hot dogs can now all be experienced as an affordable long weekend destination.

See and do:

Thanks to Icelandair we managed to score two free Reykjavik Welcome Cards which enabled us to ride public transport and enter various museums for free for 48 hours. Normally 1700 ISK.

Swing around the Golden Circle. This round trip through the south-west corner of Iceland is the must-do tour for every tourist. First stop is the windswept plains of Þingvellir which contain the site of the first parliament, a rock platform surrounded by stark cliffs where you can imagine the tribes gathering to hear the proclamations of law. At the national park you can skip from America to Europe across a 7km cracked no-mans-land created by the drifting of the tectonic plates. From freezing plains to the freezing waterfall Gullfoss, which rushed over jagged rock then abruptly vanished into a canyon with a mighty roar of mist. The waft of stinky-egg sulphur and swathes of steam heralded our arrival at Geysir, the place that gave its name to all geysers. The steam provided some welcome warmth as we watched hawk-eyed for any gentle bubbling, then a sudden eruption of water from the ground. Final stop was the lame-ass (Yalin's words) greenhouse town of Hveragerði where most people go to visit hot springs, but which was a tacky souvenir and toilet stop for us. 5.5 hours and 6800 ISK.

Airwaves Festival. For the last 10 years, Reykjavik has hosted the raucous, 5 day Airwaves Festival. Edgy Icelandic bands sweat it up with international indie bands and DJs in city centre venues as varied as the hanger-like Reykjavik Art Museum (I can't believe they allow the place to be trashed like that), the steamy low-ceilinged bar Organ and carpeted manor house/underground music pit Nasa. The festival-goers were the coolest, best-looking gig crowd I've ever seen. I've been to all the Nordic countries now, and boys, take my advice - focus your attentions on Icelandic women, who are all impossibly stylish and jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

  • Friday night started off with dull as dishwater Munich (even with an Angelina Jolie lookalike frontwoman), moving to the very fun Mattias Tellez from Bergen via Chile (I had to explain to Yalin the relationship between the title of "MILF" and the lyrics "I thought you were 35 but I guess I was wrong"). A circuitous search for Hresso finally had us doubtfully eyeing a pub band dressed in sunglasses and prison stripe jumpsuits.
  • Saturday night proved much more fruitful, despite having to line up in the freezing cold and dodging the young uns vomiting on the pavements. Hot Band of the Moment Vampire Weekend rocked their set with catchy melodies and insouciant lyrics (although I think they could have upped the tempo a bit). Robots in Disguise were boring, shrieky quasi-punk rockers who refused to leave the stage even when the roadies were dismantling their mikes and amps. In contrast, geek chic FM Belfast had the home crowd bouncing and singing along to their infectious electro-pop in amongst wild confetti showers and a dude swinging around in a bear suit.

Party in the Blue Lagoon. On the Saturday the Airwaves festival held their hangover party at the famous Blue Lagoon. The approach to the lagoon was quite spectacular - against a background of rising steam the lava fields looked like a landscape where an army of trench digging trolls had been frantically tunnelling. It was a strange experience feeling my hair freeze while being cushioned in a warm bath of radioactive icy blue. The lagoon is usually a calm, relaxing affair but combine house music and beer and you get a beach party with a difference. At the beginning everyone chilled out, chatted and slathered themselves with silica mud (apparently it has exfoliating properties), washing it all off with a massage from the dump shower. Then DJ Margeir pulled out "Love is in the Air" and the ravers emerged - the photos look like Yalin and I are having a private boogey, but we didn't want to risk our cameras in the crowd where beer and water were being splashed with abandon. 4400 ISK.

Hallgrímskirkja. This unadorned church is perched on the hill overlooking the city. Normally you can climb the tower to experience the typical postcard view of the Reykjavik skyline, but it was closed for repairs while we were there.

Sun Voyager. This sleek sculpture representing the bones of a Viking ship is so photogenic I'm not sure why decorative candelabra replicas haven't been manufactured for tourists. Its waterside location is perfect against the backdrop of shifting moods of the Reykjavik sky.

The Culture House. The Icelandic people take their Viking sagas very seriously and this museum contains an exhibition of the stories and some revered ancient manuscripts. Frankly, I thought the more interesting exhibition was on the ecological and geological development of Surtsey a volcanic eruption 30 years ago which has become Iceland's newest island. 300 ISK, free with Reykjavik Welcome Card.  

Eat:

Skyr. Our first taste of this typically Icelandic dessert was on the flight to Keflavik. It's like a yoghurty and creamy cheese, like a rich cheesecake filing but with no fat, and is often served with fruit. 125 ISK each.

Hot dogs. You can do Iceland cheaply if you eat hot dogs morning, noon and night. We weren't on such a tight budget but Yalin still managed to pack away a record three hotdogs in one day. Icelandic hot dogs typically contain a whole host of sauces (ketchup, mustard, remoulade), fresh onion and crispy fried onion. The best ones are apparently from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (they've served Bill Clinton and Metallica) but Yalin reckons that's only because they're the only place open at 3am when you're desperate for anything meaty and greasy. Personally I liked the ones from the service station across the road from our hotel because of their freshly toasted buns. 220-250 ISK each. 

Chocolate. Icelandic people are really really into their sweets, especially their chocolate. I ate the bulk of our box of Lava, more-ish bites of rice crispy water biscuits covered in chocolate.

Laekjarbrekka. We were lured into this romantically lit country-cottage restaurant by the smell of lobster soup, and only after we'd made a booking did we look at prices and have a heart attack. Luckily, we discovered we could have 3 set courses of typically Icelandic dishes for a more reasonably priced 6800 ISK. I had the Icelandic fish menu and evil, man-with-no-soul Yalin had the puffin menu (puffins are cute birds similar to penguins which are becoming endangered). Starting off with an amuse bouche of wasabi tempura prawns, I launched into a delicious fish selection starter (lobster soup, smoked salmon, langoustine) while Yalin enjoyed his salad of smoked slivers of puffin, salad leaves and berries. My main course fish of the day was succulent and perfectly matched the fried langoustines accompaniment, while Yalin struggled through the overwhelming gaminess of more puffin (ha!). Dessert was delicious skyr with berries and a rather dry almond tart.

Vegamot. I'm a big believer in asking for concierge advice from flash hotels if you want a properly considered recommendation. We requested an informal, reasonably priced bistro and Hotel Born directed us to this hip two-level bar/restaurant, a place we wouldn't have found otherwise. The servings were enormous and piled with seafood (tagliatelle for me, quesadilla for Yalin) but the highlight was the fragrant and hearty lobster soup.

Mokka. Sitting in Reykjavik's oldest cafe is like entering a comfortably dark, leather chocolate box. Unfortunately, their hot chocolate and waffles were terrible - the hot chocolate was tepid and tasted of dishwater, and the waffle took 20 minutes and came out crispy and dry. I'm not sure whether this was because the usual waiter was off sick, but a disappointing experience.

Shop at:

The airport. Iceland hits you with a whopping 24.5% VAT but you can claim back if you buy more than 4000 ISK in one transaction at one store. However, the line for tax refunds at Keflavik airport is long, so if you're buying souvenirs or Blue Lagoon products (highly recommend the algae and silica body lotion and handcream), save yourself the time and trouble (and avoid the 100ml fluid handicap) and buy everything duty free at the airport. If you do have a tax refund, you can avoid the line by using the amount as credit in the Icelandic Giftstore and duty free store.

Stay at:

Hotel Cabin. This 3 star hotel was part of the Icelandair package, and it's a nondescript, functional, concrete bunker (albeit with views of Mt Esja on a clear day). Our twin room was tiny, about the width of 3 single beds put together, but it suited our purposes because we just needed a place to rest our weary heads about nights of gigging. All Icelandic buildings are heated by geothermal water which means great showers - instant hot water! Location-wise its a little out of the city centre action (which isn't saying much, because the city is tiny) so when the cold hits you can take a bus from the stop outside to avoid the 20 minute walk. Plus it's across the road from our favourite service station, Nesti, which served the best hot dogs I tried the whole weekend.

Getting around:

Iceland's only international airport is in Keflavik, 45 minutes from Reykjavik. Unless you want to take a long and expensive taxi ride, the only choice is the Flybus. It departs approximately 30 minutes after every flight and drops you off at the main bus station, where you catch shuttle buses for your hotel. 2700 ISK return.

The Reykjavik bus system is also easy to use, although beware on weekends buses may only run every 30 to 60 minutes. There is also no night bus system after about midnight, so plan for a cold walk home or a taxi fare.

Iceland Excursions: Hofdatuni 12

T: + 354 540 1313

Reykjavik Art Museum - Harbour House: Tryggvagata 17

T: +354 590 1200

Nasa: Austurvöllur, 101 Reykjavík

T: +354 511-1313

Organ: Hafnarstræti 1-3, 101 Reykjavík

T: +(354) 551-0022

Hressó: Austurstræti 20, 101 Reykjavík

T: +354 8621118.

Blue Lagoon: 240 Grindavík

T: +354 420 8800

Hallgrímskirkja: Skólavörðuholti, pósthólf 651, 121 Reykjavík.

T: +354 510 1000

The Culture House: Hverfisgata 15

T: +354 545 1400

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur: Posthusstraeti 101 Reykjavik

Laekjarbrekka: Bankastraeti 2

T: +354 551 4430

Vegamot: Vegamótastíg 4 - 101 Reykjavík

T: +354 511 3040

MOKKAKAFFI : Skólavörðustíg 3A: 101 Reykjavík

T: 354 552 1174

Hotel Cabin: Borgartuni 32 Reykjavik 105 Iceland

T: +(354) 511-6030

Reykjavík Excursions: Vatnsmyrarvegur 10

T: +354 562 1011