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Iceland - Eating and sleeping
Turf farmhouses at the Skógar Museum are examples of traditional architecture © VisitSouthIceland, www.south.is
Icelandic cuisine relies on anything that could be harvested from the barren landscape. It is simple in that its ingredients are what can be pulled from the ocean or what can live off the earth. That means fish, sheep, and the few things that do grow in Iceland – potatoes, blueberries, rhubarb, and caraway seeds. Once upon a time, Icelanders ate a greenish porridge made from boiled moss. Lifestyles have since improved, but there is still a blend of what nature provides and whatever can be shipped from Scandinavia.
With so many sheep around, lamb is the red meat option most preferred by Icelanders. They use their cows for dairy, so beef is not traditional (though steak is now listed on every menu). The same goes for horse meat, which was once taboo, but is now a common tourist dish. Whale is unfortunately not taboo, and is still more common than people think. Both the meat and the blubber are eaten, often heavily salted or pickled.
Iceland's marketing gurus may enjoy painting the nation's traditional cuisine as replete with pickled ram's testicles, sheep's heads and putrefied shark, but there is food originating from this little island that is delicious, flavour-packed and cheap. One of the best of these is skyr.
Vegetables and fruit were never Iceland’s forte, but potatoes did catch on in the 19th century. Icelanders avoided getting scurvy by eating scurvy grass and blueberries. Bláber are actually bilberries and they grow so ubiquitously that you can get filled up just by picking them as you walk. The berries are sweet, juicy, and tart (and blue) and are best from August and into September.
Compared with the rest of Europe, Icelanders devour an alarming amount of dairy products. Icelandic butter, milk, yoghurt and ice cream are some of the best you’ll ever taste, and the truly unique skyr is downright addictive. Traditional Icelandic cheese is little known outside the country, but ranges from very soft brie-like cheese to harder Edam-style cheeses.
Iceland has embraced fast food with a worrisome vengeance. In some places, restaurants serving pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, and fish and chips outnumber traditional eateries. At the other extreme is the trend of serving culinary curiosities to tourists. This includes traditional game (puffin, guillemot, and whale) along with oddities for the sake of oddities (eg: horse and dolphin). Certain game (like puffin and reindeer) are said to be harvested sustainably; others are not. Eating any type of wild game should be discouraged because it contributes to a tourist market for wild animals.
Hákarl means 'shark' in Icelandic, but in Iceland it means so much more – almost an edible national medal of honour.
At the forefront of this issue is whale meat, which continues to be a heated political debate in Iceland. Tourists wrongly assume that because whale is on the menu, ‘it must be OK’. It’s not – restaurants rarely know the origins of the whale they are serving and Icelandic whaling ships continue to hunt endangered species. Another controversy surrounds puffins – though Icelanders reassure visitors that there are millions and millions of puffins (which is true), Iceland is the last major breeding ground left for these birds in the world. Know that the great numbers of puffins have disappeared from the United States and parts of Britain because tourists were eating them. As tourism in Iceland grows, it is vital that the market does not decide the future of Icelandic wildlife.
The first thing that anyone should drink in Iceland is the water, which is incredibly pure and tastes so good that upon returning home, you’ll feel disappointed by your tap. In most places, it is quite safe to simply dip into the clear rocky streams, waterfalls, and lakes and drink the cool water. Almost all the cold water you encounter is glacial run-off and free from the sulphur smell that comes with naturally heated groundwater. When searching for a spot to drink from, look for clear water flowing over rocks. If you are somewhere remote and there’s nothing animal or human upriver, the water is safe. Otherwise, use caution if drinking water near farms, cities and dams. Mineral springs dot the countryside, some of which are naturally carbonated and bottled Icelandic water is sold everywhere.
Icelanders have been brewing ale since the age of the sagas, but beer or bjór was officially banned in 1915. The country’s prohibition lasted for decades, during which time breweries sold non-alcoholic beer to the disgruntled populace. The ban was only lifted in 1989 after a pair of Icelandic students (recently returned from Germany) opened a bar selling non-alcoholic beer with a hidden shot of vodka. The bar quickly outdid all others in Reykjavík and it is still a popular drinking spot. Beer is still not a preferred beverage in Iceland today, but in the last ten years, Iceland’s beer consumption has more than doubled.
The Icelandic national religion that is coffee has been in force ever since the Danes first brought it here. No matter where you go, you will be offered a cup of coffee, typically with lots of sugar and lots of milk. Even when people speak of ‘tea’ they usually mean coffee.
Most restaurants open right before lunch (around 11.30) and stay open until late, though the kitchen always closes by 22.00. Almost every menu in Iceland is printed in English and reading between the lines is a good way to learn the language. Hotel restaurants are open for breakfast from about 07.00 onwards and tend to serve a formulaic breakfast: coffee with a smorgasbord of a few Icelandic delights (eg: pickled herring, smoked lamb, etc) next to continental staples like muesli, yoghurt, sausage, cold-cut ham and cheese, along with bread, butter and jam.
On the top of the spectrum are Iceland's glitzy gourmets that mix over-the-top flamboyance with artistic experimentation.
Icelanders get a little sensitive to criticism about their cuisine – as they should, considering that most of the past critics were eating in bad restaurants. The core of Iceland’s tourist restaurants fall under a category that I refer to (affectionately) as ‘fish-and-lamb’. This being Iceland everyone serves fish and lamb, yes, but ‘fish-and-lamb’ denotes the tourist standard in which ‘a taste of Iceland’ is so monotone that it begs an aftertaste of somewhere else. The early days of mass tourism have now passed and Iceland’s dining culture has matured a great deal. Today it’s the Icelanders who are the discerning critics and they have zero patience for an uncreative chef.
You can save a lot of money in Iceland by skipping the pricey restaurants and buying your food right off the shelf. Bonus (www.bonus.is) is the largest supermarket chain with the lowest prices in the country (the one with the pink piggy bank). The chain of 10/11 or 11/11 stores is meant to be open during those times, but isn’t always. Dried soup packets mixed up with boiling water is standard travellers’ fare, as is whole-wheat bread, Icelandic butter and cheese, smoked salmon and sausage. The only vegetables grown in Iceland (in greenhouses) are tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, and carrots. It’s amazing how much you can do with those few ingredients. Everything else that’s green is imported and that’s why a chocolate bar is cheaper than an apple.
Accommodation is the number-one expense for travel in Iceland: where you lay your head determines just how expensive your trip will be. The good news is that Iceland has a lot of variety in accommodation (hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and homestays); the not-so-good news is that standards are not at all standard. Iceland follows its own sense of service, backed by a Scandinavian austerity that makes you feel lucky to even get a bed.
It's heartbreaking to watch what Iceland does to people: luxury travellers suddenly turn into penny-pinching backpackers who sneak complimentary breakfast buns back to their 20,000ISK room.
The reason behind all of this is that Iceland’s accommodation is still a sellers’ market. The supply of rooms coincides with the supply of tourists, who until recently have been very seasonal. That explains why the six-week period from July until mid-August is booked solid, and why they can charge you so much for a room that feels average compared with back home. Don’t judge too harshly. Standards are improving and you can help the process by being choosy about where you stay. For now though, adjust your sights to fit the reality. If your travel budget normally gets you hand-fluffed pillows with a goodnight chocolate, Iceland might feel like a school trip. If you’re used to paying for middle-rate chain hotels, then Iceland might seem like an institutional summer camp. To avoid lowering your standards, one must spend upwards of US$500 a night, after which one is taken care of quite splendidly.
Before you give up and decide that Iceland is unaffordable, realise that there’s a lot you can do to lower the price. Travelling in the off season (spring, autumn, and winter) sees hotel rooms discounted by nearly 50%. Not having a private bathroom will also drop the price significantly and if you are going to be travelling in summer, then book ahead. Discounted specials are always available to guests who book through the hotel’s website, and even high-priced luxury hotels have great deals.
Likewise, following an allegiance plan (booking with one chain or with a tour operator) will normally get you very good hotel rates. Because labour is the real expense of Iceland’s hotels, cheaper accommodation is often available to those guests who are willing to lighten the laundry load by not using any bedding. Getting a ‘sleeping-bag space’ (svefnpokplass) costs US$15–40 a night, and in the long run will more than halve the cost of your trip.
Iceland’s most formal accommodation ranges from the passably decent to sleek design hotels to woody country lodges and a few stalwart classics like the Hótel Borg. To make the most of the seasonal shift, a lot of Iceland’s schools and colleges are outfitted as tourist hotels in summer and this is the prime habitat for most large groups – if your room feels like a dormitory, that’s because it is. To help outsiders know what they’re getting, the tourist association has its own five-star classification system that grades tourist accommodation annually. For now, it is only relative internally: the only hotels to advertise their status have three or more stars, and at present, there are no five-star hotels in Iceland. A four-star hotel is the international standard for a ‘nice’ hotel and this is exactly what most people expect in Iceland, but don’t get. On the upside is an emerging class of creative boutique hotels that now dot Iceland’s towns and countryside. These are original, unique, and truly pleasant.
The Icelandic gistiheimilið combines traditional Icelandic hospitality with the demand for something more personal and local. Some guesthouses look and act more like boutique hotels and others like grandmotherly bed and breakfasts. Obviously, prices are higher than the concept of a guesthouse might imply, but there are also some real gems out there that are definitely worth every penny. The best part about staying in a guesthouse is that you get to meet local Icelanders and really connect with the area you’re in. It’s worth doing the research to find a good guesthouse and book in advance.
Once you’ve been to Iceland, you’ll be too spoiled to stay in a hostel anywhere else. Icelandic youth hostels are top quality – clean, efficient, user-friendly, and affordable. Because the cost of hotels is so prohibitive, the clientele at hostels tend to be more mature and even family-oriented. In general, that means quiet times are respected, people are more courteous, and everything is always kept very clean. Because the demand for clean, quality, and affordable accommodation is so exasperatingly high in summer, you absolutely must book ahead. Hostelling International Iceland (Sundlaugarvegur 34; tel: 553 8110; email: email@example.com; www.hostel.is) oversees 25 privately owned hostels, all of which are better quality than you’d find in mainland Europe. If you are planning on staying in several hostels, it is definitely worth becoming a member of YHA (Hostelling International, Gate Hse, Fretherne Rd, Welwyn Garden City, Herts AL8 6RD, UK; tel: 01707 324170; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.hihostels.com). Members receive a significant discount that pays for the membership in just a few stays.
Ever since people lived here, travellers crossing Iceland have found refuge from the wilderness by staying in remote farms all around the country. It was the Viking code of hospitality to welcome all strangers, feed them, keep them warm, and give them a good bed for the night. This practice continued on for centuries, and in the national museum there’s a 19th-century travel map of Iceland that pinpoints ‘farms in which you can stay’. As Iceland turned into a cash economy, the farmers had to start charging for the night (given the constant flow of tourists) and there now exists a federation of farms that welcomes travellers. Some of these are legitimate farms with hundreds of sheep and lots of horses. Others are simple homesteads in the middle of nowhere that allow you to stop in the middle of Iceland and breathe it all in.
Farmstays are still the most authentic way to see Iceland, and in certain parts of the country, you won’t have any choice but to stay on a farm. Amenities are what they are – some might offer private cottages with hot tubs, others might be a re-converted barn with a single bathroom for 20 people. For more information, contact Icelandic Farm Holidays (Ferðaþjónusta bænda; Reykjavík, Síðumúla 2; tel: 570 2700; email: email@example.com; www.farmholidays.is). Also note that some farms offer space for tents and caravans to spread out, including access to amenities.
Camping in Iceland is for masochists – not only for the wetness, cold, and wind (which are admittedly bad) – but also for the crowds and general chaos that surround the practice. In Iceland, every town, village, national park and nature preserve has a designated campsite in order to keep travellers from ruining the countryside. Some campsites are very plush (hot showers, kitchens, drying rooms, clean toilets, etc); others are pretty basic (toilets and cold water only). The Icelandic government should be applauded for its efforts to provide a safe and comfortable place for campers, and kudos to the locals who go to great lengths to keep these sites clean.
If you still insist on camping, bring earplugs to keep out the noise, flip-flops for the showers, and a lot of goodwill towards strangers.
Alas, the main threat to campsites is the campers themselves, who, as a whole, can be downright obnoxious and untidy. Summer crowds in campsites become so concentrated that their populations outnumber many of Iceland’s small villages. That means tent-to-tent apartment blocks and the most unbelievable noise. Despite quiet times (total silence from 23.00 to 07.00), summer campsites are anything but, with people coming and going all through the night-time sunshine. If you happen to be camping next to an Icelandic family reunion, then you might as well just give up on getting any sleep and join in the festivities. With so many people washing, cooking, playing, and grooming, things get messy fast. The worst example of this is the campsite in Reykjavík.
Of course, camping is seen as the cheapest way to travel across Iceland and you may land in a campsite that’s clean and empty and gorgeous. If you do, don’t let anyone else know about it. The Icelandic word for camping is tjaldsvæði and the sign is a blue tent. Free directories of the country’s campsites are handed out all over Iceland, or you can do your research online. The English site (www.camping.is) is less informative than the Icelandic equivalent (www.tjaldsvaedi.is). It is possible to book a space at campsites but not all.
If you're camping in Iceland, even in summer, you need to prepare for bad weather: make sure you have the right tent for the elements © VisitWestIceland, www.west.is
If money is your main impetus for camping, then consider carefully. Two to four people sharing a tent will be charged individually. You can then also face additional charges for access to the pool’s showers. When all the little costs add up, staying at a youth hostel is of comparative cost to camping out (but a heckuva lot more comfortable). If you still insist on camping, bring earplugs to keep out the noise, flip-flops for the showers, and a lot of goodwill towards strangers.
You may hear that rough or wild camping is against the law. That is not the case – you may camp at will. The practice is not widespread simply because wild camping is not pleasant. Campsites offer wind barriers and facilities with plumbing – a lava field in the middle of nowhere does not. Also, Icelanders take property rights very seriously and chances are that you are camping on someone else’s land. If you do camp wild, always seek permission from the farmer who owns the property. Building a fire is illegal and littering will get you a terrible fine.
The Icelandic Touring Association manages nearly 40 mountain huts (skálar) located throughout the remotest parts of Iceland. Most of them are cute little cottages with wooden or tin-siding, ample bunk space, gas stoves, and access to fresh water nearby. This is not luxury accommodation by any means, but a place for hikers to unroll a sleeping bag and get out of the weather. Guests are expected to contribute to the upkeep of these cabins by paying a fee (typically 1,000–2,000ISK per night), paid into a lockbox in the cabin. While some huts are left virtually unused, others (like Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk) get booked out solid. If you’re planning a mountain hike, then guarantee a space by booking in advance (Ferðafélag Íslands; Reykjavík, Mörkin 6; tel: 568 2535; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.fi.is).
You know things are bad if you’re staying in one of these. Iceland’s emergency huts are painted bright fluorescent orange and are situated in the most isolated and dangerous parts of the country: think barren coastlines, high mountains, empty deserts, and the tops of glaciers. Almost every decent map of Iceland will show all the locations of emergency huts (normally a red house symbol). Inside the huts you’ll find emergency rations of food, bedding, and a radio to contact emergency help. If you are caught up in terrible weather, then the huts are there to help you survive. They are not there to camp out in and non-emergency use is illegal.