In the past two years Iceland has undergone extensive difficulty in both the financial world as well as the environmental arena. The collapse of its economy two years ago was followed by the eruption of the country’s largest volcano, causing turbulence across the northern hemisphere.
When I had the opportunity to visit Iceland, prior to the eruption, I realised I had no idea what to expect. Images of snow and sleet played through my mind. All I really knew was it was a small island way up north, somewhere.
For those of you who are as unfamiliar with Iceland as I was let me give you some facts: Iceland is a four and a half hour flight from New York or Boston. (In the summer there are flights out of Halifax).
The temperature, when I landed in January, was seven degrees, twenty-five degrees warmer than Port Perry was the previous day. Apparently the Gulf Stream warms the Island. During the 40 minute drive from the airport I saw no snow.
The capital, Reykjavik, has a population of 200,000 – two thirds of the entire country. I gaped in awe, totally shocked by the unexpected. Because Iceland is volcanic there are hundreds of geothermal springs, which now heat the entire city. Hot water is pumped from the earth, piped through buildings, under roads and back into the ocean. Imagine a beach in the north Atlantic with a temperature 10 degree higher than the surrounding ocean.
So what makes Iceland so interesting and appealing? In a phrase: the sophistication of the people; who appear far advanced of Europeans and North Americans, yet they live on the Arctic Circle.
The economy flourishes. Islanders earn an average wage of $57,000 USD, $6,000 more than its closest rival. Comments like “Please don’t tip me, I earn enough,” were shocking.
Education is free, as is medicine. There are 400 policemen for 300,000 inhabitants. There are 9 prisoners per 100,000 people – in the U.S. that number is 900. The brother of a police detective (there are only six in the entire country) told me, “If there is a robbery ask the crook who did it last year. More than likely it’s the same guy.”
But what did I find exciting? The attitude of the people. The price they put on simple values. The positive attitude in a place forgotten by the world. It is common to see baby prams (with babies in them) parked in front of stores and coffee shops, while mother is inside. There are dozens of coffee shops, which line the streets of the upscale shopping district, as well as many fine restaurants, one of which rated among the top 100 in the world.
The surrounding countryside is breathtaking: steep waterfalls, dozens of geysers shooting skyward and a huge crack in the earth’s crust that separates North America from Eurasia.
But there is a downfall – or is there? Two years ago Iceland won the infamous award of being the most expensive country on the planet (I paid $25 for a beer and a burger). The people, however, are paid well and don’t care. In summer there are 23 hours of sunshine and bars are open 24/7. In winter sunrise is at 11 and sets at 4, and bars are still open 24/7. A famous Icelandic saying is, “If you don’t like the weather wait ten minutes, it will change.”
I can go on, but experience it for yourself. In winter IcelandAir has air and hotel packages for $750 a person out of New York. You won’t be disappointed, unless you’re expecting ice, for the only ice I saw was in my drink.