In a way it was a journey of a lifetime, not because the distance involved for me (I was almost travelling from one end of the world to the other end) to travel there but also seemed to be somewhat out of the way from the normal tourist track. I was also forewarned that it was possibly the costliest place on earth to visit not withstanding severe weather condition. But I was mistaken, indeed tourism appears to be the third largest industry now in Iceland. Tourism has become the main driver of economic growth in the post-financial crisis period accounting for more than 50 per cent of growth. Iceland received 1.3 million tourists in 2015, a country with only 3.33 million people.
Two factors contributed to my decision to travel to Iceland: first, the country appears to be an out-of-the-way place and I always like to travel to out-of-the-way places as a few years ago I travelled to Mongolia. The second reason was to get a feel about how the country recovered from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008. The country was particularly hit hard by the GFC which caused the collapse of the banking system, perhaps the largest-ever experienced by any country . The banking collapse led to serious economic and political crises in the country.
The GFC also caused Iceland's currency to collapse and rising unemployment - and the stock market was practically wiped clean. The financial crisis so severely affected the economy that its gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 10 per cent in real term between 2008 and 2010. Thereafter, the economy stabilised to some extent and started to grow, achieving a positive 2.0 per cent GDP growth by 2014. But this will remain a topic of discussion for another day.
Iceland, the legendary Land of Fire and Ice, is a perfect destination for one who likes to visit off-the-track places, which I do. I was deeply touched by the amazing beauty of its nature marked by magnificent volcanoes, waterfalls, geo-thermal lagoons and glacial formations. To see the beauty of the country I travelled all the way from Reykjavik in the south to Akureyri in the north, a city only 100 km away from the Arctic Circle.
I arrived at Keflavik airport a few days after the summer solstice in the mid-afternoon after travelling 16,974 km. The airport is about 50 km south west of the capital, Reykjavik. The arrival area at the airport appeared to me rather poorly organised and signposted . But once I navigated through the immigration, it took a fair amount of time to retrieve my luggage. Then to find the way out also took some efforts. Once I hit the road on way to Reykjavik, it was clearly apparent that the soil formation is volcanic. Indeed, Iceland is of volcanic origin and mostly mountainous. It took about close to an hour to reach the hotel. Reykjavik is the most northerly capital city in the world. It is a very modern city with a variety of restaurants (which include a Nepalese and a Pakistani restaurant), trendy cafes and shops, museums, galleries and theatres. The city has a very leisurely pace. Reykjavik city was originally named as 'smoky bay' by settlers who saw steam rising from the ground from hot springs.
I was forewarned that even in summer it can be cold, rainy and windy in Reykjavik and in other parts of Iceland. I encountered all the three elements as I ventured out to explore the city on my first evening out and to have a bite. I was adequately prepared for the weather and headed off to Laugavegur, the main street, a short distance from my hotel. This is where largely tourists congregate for shopping and dining.
The restaurant menu included puffin and whale meat, among others, but I opted for pan-fried Icelandic cod fillet (cost US$45) and finished with a cup of coffee (cost US$6.50). It was so delicious that I went back for the same the following evening. Some restaurants also offer fermented shark meat which is considered a very special culinary experience but I avoided the temptation simply because I was told that one needed to develop an acquired taste for it to fully appreciate the taste. I simply did not have the sufficient time (may I say also the appetite) to develop that taste. Also in some restaurants one can savour dried fish disguised as crisps.
At one end of this street (Laugavegur), I presume the only laundromat in the city is located and appropriately called the Laundromat Café. It is a very nice café and the laundromat is in the basement with a children's play area. I have never seen such small washing and drying machines anywhere in the world. Here one can enjoy a cup of coffee or a meal while washing and drying one's clothes.
The Golden Circle Tour was next on the agenda. The tour guide was a profoundly knowledgeable person who immensely helped to understand and appreciate the places we were visiting. It was primarily a tour of Iceland's most renowned natural attraction and geological wonders. First we were taken to the Geysir geothermal field, where we walked around bubbling hot springs and sprouting geysers. Then we went to Strokkur, the most active geyser of the area, sprouting up-to 25-30 meters.
Afterwards we went to the famous Gullfoss waterfall where large quantities of water flow down violently into a deep, meandering gorge. We were also taken to Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, where two of the earth's tectonic plates meet. Here one can clearly see the great Atlantic rift which is pulling Iceland apart along the tectonic plates. We also visited the original site of the oldest existing parliament in the world. Finally, on the drive back to Reykjavik, the tour guide pointed out to us the house of Haldor Laxness who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. His Nobel citation reads "…for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland''. The house is now a museum.
The following day very early in the morning I flew out to Akureyri (just 100 km from the Arctic Circle), a half an hour flight out of Reykjavik airport, 2.0 km away from the city centre. The airport is used only for domestic flights. The tour itinerary included the twin-waterfall Gooafoss, named after the pagan idols thrown into it a thousand years ago. This beautiful waterfall also played an important role the country's history, especially in connection with the introduction of Christianity.
Next we went to visit Lake Myvatn, the largest bird sanctuary in Europe, then on to see the still active Krafta volcano and from there to sizzling Hverarond, famous for its bubbling mud pots. A walking tour of Dimmuborgir was the next in the programme. It is a surreal lava park with unique rock formations towering above and delicate flowers blooming on the ground below.
Early in the evening I flew back to Reykjavik. The next few days I explored the city, including its older part, on foot. Finally, my departure experience at the airport was as disappointing as the arrival experience was.
It is a pity that I could not see the Norther Lights as I was there at the wrong time of year for that. But even if I were there in the right season (winter), it is presumably always hit-and-miss affair. But that disappointment was compensated by all other fantastic experiences I had on this beautiful island country.
The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.
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