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Iceland

Published April 10, 2008

While whispers of elves, threats of eating shark meat preserved in human urine, and requests to say hello to Björk preceded my trip to Iceland, there was also a sense of beguiling magic that added to my anticipation when I visited the island country in late October.

My adventure began in Reykjavík, the country’s capitol. Clean and pristine, its primary thoroughfare, Laugavegur, is the city’s main artery. Off this drag is where all things vibrate: restaurants, bars, shops, art galleries and hotels. Many of these businesses become makeshift venues for the Iceland Airwaves Festival, which takes place annually on the third weekend in October.

Next to the brisk wind chill, one fact about Iceland, and about Reykjavík in particular, strikes quickly: this place is expensive. The U.S. dollar’s weakness aside, almost everything is imported to the country, so nothing comes cheaply. Beers are $10, and a casual meal without cocktails starts at around $30. Exploring Reykjavík in the daytime, however, can be an affordable endeavor. You can walk around and window-shop, discover graffiti-strewn buildings, take in a chilly stroll by the ocean, and people-watch it seems readily apparent that the city is overflowing with a hotness factor, both among the Icelandic locals and the international visitors.

While Reykjavík is invigorating in the daytime, its heartbeat is palpable during its long nights. The city’s residents know how to party, and during Iceland Airwaves, free food and drink are available nightly. We decided to hit the Icelandair Takeoff party, where the theme was taken to a campy but charming extreme. The deafening sounds of airplane engines piped through speakers as we entered, and once inside, we “checked in” and received bagage claim wristbands before walking through "security," where a goofy wand-wielding “security guard” tapped me on the bottom for good measure. Flight attendants served screw-top wine and meals encased in plastic. We sampled a pilsner-styled brew called Viking, along with medicinal-tasting menthol, caraway and salt vodkas—icky. Stick with the beer.

Reykjavík is also a good place to meet artists and friendly locals—all of whom speak English, by the way—and share recommendations for a good time. I met Haukur S. Magnusson from the hardcore band Reykjavík! and asked him to point us toward a nosh spot away from the live show mayhem. He suggested an eclectic new restaurant/bar called Boston that offers traditional Icelandic fare. I ordered Plokkfiskur m/þrumara og smjöri, which is a fl avorful fish stew served with rye bread and butter. It has a thick and hearty cream-of-wheat texture, and is composed of seafood, potatoes, mystery vegetables and assorted spices. As Magnusson explained, the dish is a weekly staple at households across the island—a catch-all meal that’s analogous to how Westerners might prepare stew using leftovers and everyday pantry items. Add a glass of wine and my bill was around $37.50. Needless to say, this was my first and final sit-down meal of the trip.

My remaining bites were spent eating crappy six-bucks-a-slice pizza, and embarking on late-night jaunts to a most excellent hot dog stand called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, where lamb hot dogs are served with crisped, sautéed onions, tangy mustard and a sweet remoulade. For less than four dollars, this becomes a frequented spot for some of our most interesting (albeit drunken) conversations, as well as a lot of last-minute cajoling for the seemingly prevalent late-night tryst. There must be something in the water, or maybe like the rest of the world, in the booze.

Before slinking off for a rendezvous, there are many haunts to hit. It’s imperative to visit the NASA nightclub, which has booked such well-known acts as GusGus and Brazilian Girls, and the Reykjavík Art Museum, which keeps its galleries open to art lovers while the bands play. My favorite venue is Iðnó, with its homey, loung

  Travel notes
Frugal Traveler Tips

. Pack a flask and purchase alcohol at Keflavík Airport’s duty-free shop. The legality might be questionable, but locals and visitors alike share nips from flasks throughout the night. Besides, it’s a nice way to get to know your fellow travelers— and there’s a lot of getting-to-know-you going on in Reykjavík.

. Rise early to indulge in the free breakfast offered at most Reykjavík hotels, and pilfer a snack for lunch.

. Plan your visit to coincide with Iceland Airwaves (www.icelandairwaves.com), which takes place in late October during the more affordable off-season travel time. A festival pass (around $130 if bought in advance) grants priority access to nearly a week’s worth of shows—an affordable way to soak in Reykjavík’s stellar nightlife. Icelandair also offers packages with discounted flight, hotel and festival passes included (www.icelandair.com).
 

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