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Tourists Flocking to Once-Pricey Iceland

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By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

"We were left alone in the middle of the ocean for 1,000 years and nobody paid notice to us."

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So said artist Hallgrimur Helgason in a short video about Icelandic creativity that I watched on the flight to Reykjavik. He was talking about the so-called Dark Ages, when the Danish conquered Iceland, then essentially abandoned it to plague, pirates, famine and volcanoes.

Now, Iceland can't get out of the spotlight. It rocketed to global prominence during its remarkable economic boom in the 1990s and recently grabbed headlines for exactly the opposite reason: This fall, the country went into an economic meltdown, with the government buying the banks and thousands of Icelanders losing their jobs thanks to risky bets by Icelandic financiers and, some claim, bungled oversight by the government.

One result of Iceland's crisis: the krona's incredible devaluation, from 65 to the dollar a year ago to about 135 at press time. A wiener from the famed Baejarins Beztu hot dog stand used to cost $4.50; it's now $2.

I wanted to visit Iceland to see the rugged landscape, experience Reykjavik's night life and sample the local food -- and do it at a time when I had a shot at affording it.

* * *

Reykjavik's Keflavik International Airport was quiet when I landed. No music playing, no beeping luggage trolleys, no announcements. At 6:30 a.m., more than three hours before sunrise, I was in a pack of bleary-eyed travelers following corridors of blond wood and vague signage, past duty-free shops already selling mini bottles of local schnapps, CDs by local bands and sweet rolls as big as dinner plates.

The Flybus coach pulled into Reykjavik's main bus terminal about 45 minutes after leaving the airport; I then climbed aboard a waiting minivan that took me to the Metropolitan Hotel, on a side street just minutes from bustling Old Town Reykjavik.

The sun was peeking over the mountains as I set out to explore Reykjavik. Getting oriented was simple: the harbor to the north, the stunning Hallgrimskirkja church to the southeast, duck- and swan-filled Tjorn Lake to the southwest. I was disappointed to see the elaborate 244-foot steeple of Hallgrimskirkja (built between 1940 and 1974) obscured by scaffolding and to find the inside of the church reverberating with the clanging of construction. Out front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic-born explorer who became the first European to set foot on North American shores. The statue, which faces west, was given to the city by the United States in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland's parliament.

Across the street, out of curiosity, I wandered into Sunna Guesthouse, where the gracious receptionist gave me a rate card that listed prices, from single-bed rooms to furnished apartments, through 2008. I asked if prices would go up in 2009, and she said yes, a little. Then she paused and added with a sad smile, "But we have no idea what will happen to us by then."

* * *

As a meat eater, I find there's an inverse relationship between how good something tastes and how guilty I feel about eating it. Whale tastes so good, I can forget that I'm eating such a majestic creature. On the other hand, puffin is too underwhelming to cancel out visions of the chubby black-and-white birds with bright orange beaks.


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