This Nordic island’s ripe for research

Tourist town: Like Queenstown, Iceland capital Reykjavik is bursting at the accommodation seams. PHOTO: PICTURE: ALLEN WATKIN WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

I know David Kennedy was putting his hand up for a hard-earned Icelandic research junket to investigate how the locals are handling the hordes of curious tourists arriving each year.

Unfortunately for David, my former Winter Festival partner in crime Jo Holley and I beat him to the basalt in September with a nine-day adventure around Europe’s youngest and most expensive island.

As David alludes to, tourism has flourished post Iceland’s GFC financial meltdown. The only flickering remnants of its near bankruptcy are the occasional stories in the media of bankers heading to jail for their role in the country’s financial collapse.

The capital, Reykjavik, which is home to 60 per cent of the population, is awash with cranes and heavy machinery as the infrastructure build plays catch-up.

Airbnb is the best bet for a room, but it won’t come cheap; hotels even in the shoulder season are bursting at the seams, just like Queenstown. Iceland is expensive but everyone pays and life goes on.

Iceland may be small but driving around it is not as easy as one would imagine; the roads range from multi-lane paved toll motorways with undersea tunnels to heavily potholed winding gravel goat tracks, and this is all on the main island ring road.

Google Maps sent us on a detour over an alpine pass that looked like it hadn’t seen a vehicle for years. The resulting puncture – coupled with a flat spare tyre and no cellphone coverage – cost two boxes of beer, one bottle of gin and a day of our holiday to rectify. Given the cost of alcohol I was considering offering up Jo’s left kidney instead.

Luckily, Icelandic people are a friendly lot, and despite some hairy moments while hitch-hiking at 140kmh in the wet with a local fisherman who didn’t speak English, we survived to finish a 3000km-plus circumnavigation of Iceland complete with the Northern Lights, Arctic foxes and enough waterfalls, glaciers and geothermal pools to satisfy even the most depraved nature fetish.

You wouldn’t know there are three million tourists in some parts of Iceland, which are breathtakingly scenic and refreshingly peaceful. But by the time you hit the main drags of the golden circle and the south coast, it’s like the Milford Road times 50 and the queues for each waterfall can be overwhelming and off-putting.

Iceland has very rigid alcohol laws and high taxes. Beer was illegal until 1989 and you can only buy it now from official government stores. Despite this, Saturday night in Reykjavik makes Queenstown look like a church on Sunday. The drinking culture eclipses any of the rules put in place to curb behaviours and pre-loading is rife due to the high prices. Steve Wilde, I see you and Jim Boult needing a trip for research on our impending local alcohol policy.

Iceland is, however, coping. Some attractions, such as the famous Blue Lagoon, have capped numbers and hiked prices for the precious booking spots. There are 80,000 Icelandic horses, and anyone who owns one seems to have set up a trekking operation, while the farming sector has started recruiting free tourist labour to help with Rettir (their annual sheep muster).

Beware of seemingly attractive female farmers matching you on Tinder and inviting you to a date on the farm. It can end up as an eight-hour shift mustering, penning up and drafting Icelandic sheep!

Mark Wilson is a Queenstown-based marketing consultant.