Icelandic Saga 2013: Food and Other Expensive Icelandic Hobbies

16 07 2013

“What did you eat while you were in Iceland?”

This is the question I am asked the most, right after, “How was your trip?”  And my honest answer has to be, “lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Typical lunch

Typical lunch

Food, along with everything else in Iceland, is expensive.  (Okay, I can think of three things in Iceland that are cheap: air, water, and energy.)  Knowing this, I came prepared with a suitcase filled with nothing more than snacks: peanut butter, assorted crackers, breakfast bars, gum, hard candies, and trail mix.  The idea was that this, along with a few items picked up in grocery stores, would allow us to eat fairly cheaply for lunch and sometimes dinner while on the road.  And by the end of the trip, I’d have an empty suitcase I could fill up with all my treasures, both purchased and found.  And it worked.

We discovered Bónus, Iceland’s favorite discount grocery store, and when passing through towns we stocked up on drinks, cheese, salami, and bread.  We also bought and developed an addiction for Skyr, a thick and creamy version of yogurt that is high in protein and low in fat.  With the cool summer temps, we felt comfortable leaving these refrigerated products in the car overnight. 

Bonus discount grocery store!

Bonus discount grocery store!

Our eating habits quickly fell into a pattern: a huge breakfast provided by the hotel: various meats, cheeses, yogurt or skyr, oatmeal, bread, pastries, fruit, and coffee or juice.  Sometime by mid-afternoon we would start to feel a twinge of hunger, so we would pull off at a convenient gorgeous spot and have a picnic lunch.  Late in the evening we would eat another sandwich and more skyr. 

Skyr and flatbread for lunch.  Yum!

Skyr and flatbread for lunch. Yum!

You can't beat the view in our open-air dining room!

You can’t beat the view in our open-air dining room!

About every other day we would give in and buy a meal at a restaurant.  We learned quickly to be careful though.  Our first lunch at a coffee shop was an eye-opener: we had one order of soup and bread, one order of potato gnocchi, and two tap waters.  Our bill was 4500 ISK (Icelandic Krona), the equivalent of about $37.

Note:  while we were there, the exchange rate was 120 ISK = $1 U.S.  To convert, my math-challenged brain took off two zeros, then deducted 20ish% to get the dollar amount.  I’m not sure this is completely accurate accounting, but it gave me a rough approximation of what I was spending.   And while I’m on the topic of money, we found that exchanging dollars for króna at Landsbankinn, a common bank chain, was the best choice since they don’t charge for the service. 

A dinner of fish chowder (made with no discernible fish pieces), bread, and water for two was a bit more reasonable, at 2000 ISK, or $17. Icelanders love their pylsas, which are hotdogs made with lamb meat, so at a roadside stand in town we had two pylsas and one Coke for only 980 ISK (a little over $8).  Another dinner of mushroom soup (with few mushrooms), rolls, water and a Coke was 1600 ISK, or $13.  Not too stinking bad, although it was probably soup from a can.  We did have one nice Icelandic dinner: salmon and lamb.  Total bill: 6400 ISK, or $53, which is not too far out of line for a dinner in a decent American restaurant.  However, it was not something we were comfortable doing every night!

Our one real meal!

Our one real meal!

Possibly because of the expense of importing so much of their food, Icelanders have taken to eating some rather, ahem, unusual things.  Although we never saw it for sale, they are known for eating hakarl, or putrified shark.  Apparently the process of putrifrication destroys the poisons, although leaving a strong ammonia smell in the raw meat.  I’m not sorry I missed this dish.  I asked our trail guide why there were so many Icelandic ponies since there seemed to be far too many for simply riding.  She said, yep, you guessed it, they eat them.  Foals are a particular delicacy.  Having never felt hunger, I’m not going to judge.

Other expenses added up quickly.  Gas was close to $8 a gallon.  However, this cost was somewhat offset by the great gas mileage of our manual transmission Ford Escort.   Wool sweaters ran between $100 to $200, and sheepskins were not cheap skins, costing about the same as a sweater.  This made no sense to me, as the huge population of sheep should kept prices down.  Again, I’m not going to judge.  This was probably one of their biggest money-makers in a country lacking in very many exportable products.

N1gas station with unique recycle bin

N1 gas station with unique recycle bin

My favorite souvenirs were found ones, free for the taking: lava rocks, black volcanic sand, feathers, an auk’s egg shell, the wing of an arctic tern (He must have been quite forgetful.  I found his other wing on down the path), the skull of what I think is an eider duck, and various other sheep bones and teeth.  Add to this some dried seaweed, oyster shells, a sea sponge, and several sea urchin shells left over from a gull’s meal and I was quite the happy tourist.  I was a little concerned about getting these through Customs; although I declared them on the card they hand you on the airplane, the customs officer hardly batted an eye.

I only took the skull!

I only took the skull!

There were no admission fees for the National Parks or other sights of interest.  However, one could end up paying an arm and a leg for all the excursions that were available.  We decided on four: horseback riding (you can’t go to Iceland and not ride an Icelandic pony), kayaking on a fjord, a glacier walk, and snorkeling at Silfra in the rift zone.  This latter excursion turned out to be my least favorite as it wasn’t very scenic and was quite cold, but at least I have bragging rights that I snorkeled in 2°C/36°F water where the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates are moving apart at a rate of one cm a year.  I just couldn’t see it.  I thoroughly enjoyed the other experiences, though, and found the guides’ commentary very enlightening.  And it was a draw which was more pleasing to the eye: Sven or the fjord he took us kayaking through.

Our horses plunged into the freezing river up to their bellies without hesitancy.

On our HestaSport riding tour, our horses plunged into the freezing river up to their bellies without hesitancy.

I don't know if this was typical, but when we went the water in the fjord was like glass!

I don’t know if this was typical, but when we went the water in the fjord was like glass!

Putting on our crampons (no giggling allowed)

Putting on our crampons (no giggling allowed) for our Blue Ice Experience

Other opportunities to leave your money in Iceland abound.  There are Super Jeep tours, snow mobile tours, four-wheeler tours, and a variety of boat tours, to name just a few.  I was quite happy with the ones we did, although I’m a bit hesitant to look at the itemized costs from IcelandGuest, the travel agency that booked all these excursions.

Boat tours at Jökulsárlón

Boat tours at Jökulsárlón

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we paid IcelandGuest to make all our arrangements for accommodations and travel.  Although we could have done all this ourselves online for much cheaper, it certainly took a lot of the stress away from the trip by letting them handle the details.  In addition, we would be traveling blind whereas they had the benefit of years of experience traveling and living in Iceland.  We were more than pleased with all their arrangements.  Every single one of the accommodations rated four stars in my book: some run by farming families, some run as large commercial hotels, no hotel chains, all very clean, professionally run and comfortable.  From the quaint Fisherman Guesthouse where we had our own efficiency apartment/fisherman’s cabin to the Fosshótel  in downtown Reykjavik with its slanted ceiling, skylights, and antique furniture, we were very happy campers.

Fisherman guesthouse at Isafjörður

Fisherman guesthouse at Isafjörður

Speaking of happy campers, there were cheaper accommodations and modes of travel all over Iceland than what we used.  Small RVs and pop-up trailers were a common sight on the roads, and hitchhikers swarmed like midges as they looked for rides from one scenic attraction to another (particularly noticeable in the Golden Circle area).  We passed many a bicyclist lugging camping gear up and down the mountain roads all over Iceland.  Apparently, people with high tolerance for pain and/or death wishes are not isolated only to the U.S.  We were quite happy to toot around in our Ford Escort, the stick shift giving us all the thrill we needed as we navigated the narrow, sometimes gravel, mountain roads.

In a nutshell, then, Iceland is not a cheap trip.  We saw few families with small children and many busloads of seniors, a testament to the excess of funds needed.  Yet it was worth every króna.  I just won’t be able to look another peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the face for a while.