The financial crisis has made Iceland cheaper for tourists. An earlier one, the collapse of whaling, spawned a new industry – whale-watching tourism, ideal for combining with a break in Reykjavik
Iceland has long been one of those "nearly booked" destinations: often considered, but frequently dismissed as being too expensive. In October 2008, all of that changed. The global financial crisis brought the Icelandic banking sector to its knees and the value of the Icelandic krona crumbled along with the rest of their economy,
Nowadays, Iceland is much more affordable – which has to be good news for the rest of us, because this truly is a country like no other. I was there specifically to see whales. Whale-watching has been growing in popularity as a global tourist activity for some time, a fact that has not been lost on the resourceful Icelanders. Even before the credit crunch, many of them had seen their income decimated by the decline in commercial whaling.
More than 20 different species of whale can be found in Icelandic waters, including minkes, humpbacks, dolphins and orcas (killer whales). Most whales are migratory, travelling huge distances between breeding and feeding grounds, so timing is important. The peak season for whale-watching in Iceland is May-October.
In many cases, the whale-watching guides are "poachers turned gamekeepers". I found their vast knowledge of the sea, of marine life and of weather patterns totally fascinating. There are a variety of boats operating whale-watching tours in Reykjavik Bay. I went out with a small family-run company called Elding. They were very professional, had an obvious pride in their business and enjoyed a good reputation locally. Unlike some of the other boats, they provided proper waterproof flotation suits and limited the numbers on board so everyone could enjoy an uninterrupted view.
During our trip, we saw minke whales, dolphins, puffins and various other seabirds. At one point, a young minke whale "played" with the boat for five to 10 minutes, coming in close and peeking out of the water at us. If you are serious about whales, then binoculars and zoom-lens cameras are pretty much essential. Remember to take a cleaning cloth: if you are close to a whale when it "blows", its breath will coat your lens with a thin oily film. These boats are relatively small, so once outside the harbour you have to be prepared for a certain amount of movement. Don’t forget the seasickness tablets, and give yourself time to adjust.
Reykjavik is a smallish, spread-out city and not particularly attractive. The buildings are made from steel and concrete (to survive earthquakes) and there was little evidence of coordinated town planning. Having said that, the modern cathedral is very impressive and well worth a visit. English is taught in schools and widely spoken.
I stayed in the Viking Village hotel which, as the name suggests, offers Viking-themed accommodation. The bar and dining room were excellent, but some of the rooms – mine included – were unacceptably small… so check before you book. All Icelandic hot water and central heating comes from the thermal springs. It’s free, but be prepared for a strong sulphur smell every time you take a shower.
The Viking Village is located on the coast in the small town of Hafnarfjördur, just outside Reykjavik. A decent central hotel would be the CenterHotel Skjaldbreid. It has a pleasant conservatory and airy rooms – but be warned, Icelanders tend to go a little crazy at the weekends and the centre of Reykjavik gets very noisy on Friday and Saturday nights. If you prefer a quieter location, a better option might be the Hotel Bjork a few minutes' walk from the town centre.
If you have the time, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the interior. I took a horse-riding trek on prepared cinder tracks through the lava fields. It was certainly different from hacking around my local moors, and probably closer to riding on the moon. Icelandic horses are the size of a large pony and are unique in that they have five gaits. Because they have a shorter step than other breeds, it is impossible to "rise" at the trot. Instead, a sitting trot is employed on extended stirrups.
A visit to the Blue Lagoon is almost mandatory on any trip to Iceland. Situated between Reykjavik and Keflavík International Airport, the outdoor thermal spa is famous for its healing properties. The minerals, silica and algae in the geothermal seawater offer an effective treatment for many skin conditions, including psoriasis, but most people seem to use it as a general spa treatment.
Despite its name, Iceland benefits from the Gulf Stream on its southern and western coasts, so summer temperatures are quite comfortable. I found T-shirts were fine on land, though a fleece jacket came in handy on the boat. Rain is always a possibility, however, so waterproofs are essential kit at any time of year.