Having a magical time in Iceland - without breaking the bank

Reykjavik is one of the world’s most expensive cities but there are practical ways to make the trip affordable and still have a magical experience, writes Vickie Maye.
Having a magical time in Iceland - without breaking the bank

There was a whistle and then a sudden pop, as though something had exploded right overhead. The blast came again, louder this time.

Finally we saw the flashes of light over the water, on the horizon — red, yellow, blue and gold.

Fireworks.

They were everywhere, and the light show continued until the early hours of the morning.

We saw neighbours commune to set firecrackers off from their back gardens in the city streets, we were told of parades through suburban roads led by children holding candles. January 6 had seemed like as good a date as any to book our flights to Iceland. We had no idea just how significant it was.

The last night of Christmas is dedicated to supernatural beings in Icelandic folklore. There are elf bonfires across the country, and, as we were to discover, it’s a chance for locals to explode the last remnants of the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

It was a fitting introduction to this other worldly country, a landscape that has been the backdrop for the futuristic Star Wars, the post-apocalyptic set for Game of Thrones.

My first glimpse of the Iceland, as we descended into Reykjavik had already set the tone. This was terrain was like no other I’d ever seen.

Grey, barren, scarred with deep, crater-like holes, it was stark, lunar and utterly breath-taking. That landing, those fireworks, the sense of the ethereal in my first few hours there, only touched the surface of Iceland’s magic.

The more we explored the more we discovered a place of great contrasts.

Where Reykjavik is warm and cosy – wooden huts and fairy lights at the tail end of Christmas – drive 20 minutes outside the city and you are in bare, desolate surrounds of black gravel roads and bleak rocky terrain.

Turn another corner and there’s lush grass, deep browns and greens on uneven surfaces that look akin to the depths of Connemara. Later still there are ominous snowcapped mountains on the horizon.

And then there’s the Blue Lagoon, steaming geothermal baths set in the lava fields in Grindavik. Every so often the overwhelming smell of sulphur — it can only be described as egg — stops us in our tracks and we are awe at this volcanic land.

It’s no wonder this little country, with a population of just 320,000, has seen its tourism rates more than double from 2011 to 2015.

It’ll be all the easier now for us to experience Iceland as WOW launches its direct service from Cork to Reykjavik in May.

The low cost airline has set fares for as little as €59.99 each way, and it’s pushing its transatlantic option too, with prices to New York coming in at €149 minimum.

The flight was short, just two and a half hours, the seats comfortable, the cabin food prices on a par with other airlines.

All in all, it’s good value for money. Just be careful with your cabin luggage — WOW are strict on bag size dimensions; too big and you maybe liable for an €80 charge at the gate.

It’s one thing to launch a no frills route, but it’s quite another when it’s to one of the world’s most expensive cities. And the prices here are high.

Magical scenery aside, there are practicalities to be taken into account when you book a holiday to Iceland. A glass of wine in the average bar is €15.

The most basic fish and chips meal comes in at around €25-30. Tours to see the Golden Circle — a genius marketing term to wrap up a day trip to three of Iceland’s most natural wonders — begin at around €100.

But there is a way to make this city affordable. First, accommodation. Airbnb is thriving in Reykjavik and we found a beautiful two-bed room apartment in the heart of the city for €450 for three nights. Art Deco furniture, atmospheric lighting that oozed hygge — it is nothing short of perfect.

Our host Jon wasn’t there to meet us but our keys were ready for collection and he sought us out the next morning to make sure we had all we needed.

His little welcome note had full instructions — where to grocery shop, that we should drink and savour the pure tap water; there was even an add on for us to carry our bags and not wheel them if we had an early morning flight, so as not to disturb his neighbours.

It felt like a home from home. Hotels don’t come cheap in Reykjavik so explore Airbnb, seek out five star ratings and read the reviews for security.

Our second saving was to rent a car. With insurance it came in at a little over €135 for three days.

The car took us to and from the airport, around the Golden Circle on our second day and to the Blue Lagoon on our last.

Bus transfers alone to the Lagoon would have set us back €40 each; a tour to the Golden Circle around €100 per person.

If you’re willing to drive abroad then renting a car is one of the biggest savings you’ll make. Icelanders drive on the right but the highest speed limit is 90 and the roads, once you stay on the main motorways, are safe and easy to navigate.

Eating and drinking is the biggest cost of all. But again, you can be clever about this. We tried to eat on somewhat of a budget on our first and last nights. Traditional fare at Icelandic Fish and Chips on Tryggvagata for €25-€30, and sensational pizzas for the same price in Mikkeller & Friends, around the corner from one of the country’s most talked about restaurants, Dill (it has a two-month waiting list) on Hverfisgata.

Iceland is famous for its food, and we wanted to experience the best it had to offer too. So we booked a table at the Grillmarket. Cool and cutting edge, we shared monkfish skewers for starters, then I relished the Fish Gourmet — cod, salmon and hake.

It was one of the best meals of my life. The Grillmarket Chocolate saw a chocolate shell cracked open by warm caramel sauce.

Two glasses of wine and two coffees and our bill was €170. It was our one splurge and it was worth every cent.

We had a drink afterwards in the upstairs bar in the very cool Kex hostel overlooking the water.

We could have sat there all evening but with wine a tenner a glass, we opted to go back to our apartment where a bottle was chilling in the fridge (€15 for the most basic labels in the local off licence).

We had breakfast both mornings at the relaxed Laundromat cafe — bacon, scrambled eggs and rye toast, plus coffee, for around €20 a head. Shopping is pricey too, jewellery made from lava was at least five times the cost of what I saw selling at Mount Etna in Sicily.

But even if you don’t buy, the stores are beautiful to browse.

The Golden Circle, a 300km roadtrip taking in three of Iceland’s natural wonders, was another highlight.

If you’re doing this yourself by car, leave early and allow for a minimum of four hours driving. Daylight is limited at this time of year, meaning it didn’t get fully bright until 11am and was beginning to darken again after 4pm.

First stop is Thingvellir National Park. Here you walk through a canyon formed between two tectonic plates, a visual representation of continental drift, and emerge to sweeping mountain vistas.

From there it was on to the geysers, where Strokkur spouts water 30 meters into the air every few minutes. The final stop is the glorious Gullfoss waterfall.

Bar a token charge for public toilets, and a €4 parking ticket at Thingvellir, all of these amenities are free. So there are big savings to be made by seeing the Golden Circle independently. It’s not to be missed.

Two days of snow, and we woke on our last morning to thick downpours of rain. We were disheartened.

Our Blue Lagoon ticket was booked — the standard package came in at around €50 each — and we knew that meant venturing outside in minus temperatures and wet conditions in a swim suit.

The Lagoon is very beautiful, low key and minimal from the outside, but it’s very commercial too.

There are long queues for check in and the changing rooms and showers were a little chaotic (and no, I wasn’t forced to shower naked in public as I had been warned about over and over).

It was bitter, yes, running into the blue steaming waters, but once our shoulders were submerged the rain was forgotten.

There were silica mud masks to open the pores and then all the time in the world to sit back and enjoy.

Pools are a key part of Icelandic daily life. We loved watching the social banter in the outdoor jacuzzi in the public pool by Hofsvallagata.

Entry is cheap too, around €8, and there’s a cafe across the road with super coffee to warm you up afterwards.

There was one little piece of magic we were denied on our trip.

Cloudy skies meant the Northern Lights weren’t an option — but it’s an excuse to go back and experience that other world all over again.

GETTING THERE

WOW, the Icelandic low cost operator, will begin a new Cork–Reykjavik service from May.

WOW’s new year-round service will also bring low-cost transatlantic connections from Cork to eight destinations across the US and Canada.

WOW air’s one-way airfares to Reykjavik will start at €59.99 each way including taxes and charges.

The airline will also provide easy and affordable access from Cork to Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, New York City, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington DC, with fares starting at €149 each way.

The new service with WOW will start from May 19. The airline will operate four weekly flights on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday during the Summer 2017 season and will operate three weekly services during Winter 2017.

Where to stay: Airbnb is a very affordable way to stay in Iceland - watch out for five star ratings and read the reviews. www.airbnb.ie

The Kex Hostel is another popular option, with its upstairs bar overlooking the water. There are options of private bathrooms and shared depending on your budget.

Where to eat: For fish and chips, we ate at Icelandic Fish and Chips on Tryggvagata for €25-30. Our highlight was the Grillmarket. Dill also comes recommended, but there is a waiting list so book early.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up