I had just been to London, Antwerp, and the north of England to visit my best friends. Now, because of Icelandair’s cheap tickets and tourism push, I had a twenty-four hour layover in Iceland on the way back to New York. There had been something about the idea of Iceland that seemed wild and exciting to me when I was booking the tickets, and currently, as I walked down the stairs of the plane onto the wind and snow swept tarmac, surrounded by a wild moss-colored rocky desert, I found Iceland to be, visually, the other-planet country of my fantasies.
After two and a half weeks of being with people constantly I was looking forward to some time alone to just wander and decompress.
There was one catch: I was out of money.
I had booked an Airbnb in advance anticipating this possibility. The limited budget plan was to spend all my time in Reykjavik instead of renting a car to explore the countryside. I also had this great goal of only spending the 28 euros I had left on my currency passport card.
That goal met its death immediately when the bus ticket from the airport to the city was $32 round trip. I quickly realized that Icelandic currency and prices were trippy to my dollar-oriented sensibilities.
Anything substantial was priced in the 1,000s of Krona. Unlike the Mexican Peso, which can also land price tags in the 1,000s but still only translate to four dollars, 3,000 Krona is around 25 dollars. Despite having to break out the U.S. credit card just to get a bus ticket, I was determined to spend as little as possible while actually experiencing and enjoying Reykjavik. Here is my food journal of 24 hours.
1. Reykjavik Airport: Banana, bottle of water and free spoon (as I had some coconut milk yogurt from London in my suitcase) = ISK 1350/ USD 11.03
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning so I devoured this little snack the minute I could get the yogurt out of my suitcase.
2. Slippbarinn at the Reykjavik Marina Icelandair Hotel: Fish in a Pan, a glass of rosé, Almond Sour = ISK 6710/ USD 54.82
This great bar/restaurant was one of my Airbnb host’s suggestions of affordable but tasty food. She said this was a place younger people went, and it was right on the harbor. I didn’t start out to find dinner until around 8 p.m., which turned out to be perfect as the sun didn’t start setting until 10 p.m. I set off by myself to find adventure or at least some hot fish and a rosé.
Hot fish, cauliflower, potatoes and kale in a bed of cauliflower based sauce topped with mustard and parsley was exactly what I found, along with a fantastic glass of Spanish rosé. The bar turned out to be in a hotel, the next day happened to be a national religious/bank holiday, cocktails were 30 percent off and everyone was out. Two women in their forties on a girls’ night sat next to me at the bar. One was having an odd conversation with the bartender regarding the ingredients of Kahlua and revealed she had a wheat allergy.
The allergy/Kahlua dilemma pulled me into conversation with the women. Suddenly I was the third girl. As my new friends were telling me about growing up in Iceland, moving away, and then moving back and raising kids here, a young businessman walked in, made eye contact with me and eventually made his way to the seat next to me. We ignored each other for a polite amount of time, and then he eventually asked me how the fish was, I asked him where he was from (Copenhagen), and I found myself in the ideal situation of having a girls’ night out and a date all in one.
The women were working their way down the list of cocktails which required items like dry ice, a blow torch and an actual saw to prepare. I tried the bar’s version of a whiskey sour; I appreciated the almond note. My “date” had a solidly perfect old fashioned. The sun set and the people watching got better by the hour. After great conversation peppered with sufficient “will we/won’t we” flirtation, my businessman friend excused himself around midnight as he had a 6 a.m. flight, kissed my cheek, added me on social media, and went upstairs to bed. My new girlfriends and I suddenly realized we had never exchanged names. I will never be able to repeat or recall theirs correctly as Icelandic has approximately twenty character per word, over half being consonants.
I finally closed my tab, did the round of hugs, was assured I was perfectly safe to walk home.
And I was. I took my time, got lost, found a monument to civil disobedience which I photographed in the dark, and decided I liked Icelandic people. Music from the clubs pounded through the clear air. It was cold, but enjoyable cold, still, clean cold: first nine hours in Iceland down and perfect.
3. Eldur and Is: gluten free/vegan crepe, almond milk cappuccino, chai tea ) = ISK 3062/ USD 25.85
I had passed a crepe place on the way to dinner the night before that advertised having gluten free and vegan options. So I rolled out of bed the next morning, walked down the street, and found myself with an almond milk cappuccino and a gluten free/vegan crepe topped with vegan dark chocolate sauce and mixed berries. I was thrilled, just not with the price. But I still got a chai tea to go. Traveling with food allergies is pricey. Correction, living with food allergies is pricey. Service was super lovely though.
4. Reykjavik Indoor Thermal Pool: entrance fee =ISK 900/ USD 7.35
This isn’t food, but it’s the only other thing I spent my money on, and I would have skipped a meal for this experience. My landlady talked up the steam baths the minute I arrived at the apartment. There were two baths in the city she recommended, one on the east side close to where I was staying, more local and basic, with the pool indoors and the hot tubs on the roof, and one on the west which was considered a bit nicer with everything outdoors. I wanted to experience the local one, and it was by a church and huge statue of Leif Erikson that I thought I might as well see.
A holiday mass was ending at the church; there were only a few people at the pool, mostly families with little children and a couple tourists from Spain. Submerged neck-deep in steaming hot mineral water, your face dusted with occasional snowflakes, on a roof above a tiny city, in relative quiet apart from the sound of muted chatting and a baby laughing — this is the best decompression for muscle or mind someone could dream up: fire and ice I guess.
5. Reykjavik Airport: sushi box, green smoothie, little bottle of birch liquor, bar of chocolate = ISK 3505/ USD 28.63
I waited to get lunch at the airport simply because of time, and then didn’t end up with as much time as I expected to have. I grabbed sushi (the only gluten free boxed meal option) and a bottled green smoothie just before boarding the plane. For good measure, I threw in a little bottle of birch liquor and a bar of Icelandic dark chocolate.
The Reykjavik airport looks like an Ikea and has a non-threatening layout. The bathroom stalls are full rooms, bigger than the bathroom in my apartment in New York. The in-stall space age sinks (read Danish design age) have water faucets that are also hand dryers — Icelandic people care about comfort and individuality. It’s an otherworldly, beautiful, expensive country with a tiny population, but it’s very human.
The sushi was good: fresh. I was happy to have the chocolate later in the flight. The birch liquor was terrible.
And then I flew over the North Pole.
Total spent in Iceland over 24 hours = USD 159.68