Price thaw in Iceland makes it a vacation hot spot

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- The morning after they enjoyed a seven-course meal with wine pairings in a top restaurant, Chicagoans Howard and Jackie Brennan are mentally savoring the repast. There were scallops and roast lamb, ocean perch and Icelandic cheeses.

"I don't even remember dessert," Jackie says a bit wearily as she sips coffee in a downtown cafe.

Even better: The gustatory blowout cost less than $100 each, a tab Howard proclaims "quite reasonable."

About 40 miles east of the capital, Cody Martelli shows off sturdy new boots and a warm knit cap at Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, a massive two-tiered waterfall that leaves a powder-fine frozen mist in its wake. He has been on a shopping spree, stocking up on necessities for himself and gifts for friends back in Sydney.

And fresh off an overnight flight from New York, Sandy Sharma and Donna Lentol are luxuriating in the steamy Blue Lagoon, where massage therapists, dressed in thermal wear to ward off the chilly air, knead out the kinks as the duo float on foam mats in the milky 100-degree water. At $70 for an hour massage and admission to the popular attraction, the outing was a splurge. But it's an affordable one, they say, given that the cost of airfare and hotel for their week here will set them back only about $800 each.

Once one of Europe's priciest countries for foreign visitors, Iceland is on sale. American travelers who a year ago blanched at paying $25 for a hamburger are discovering in this North Atlantic island a rare European outpost where the dollar still garners some respect.

With the Icelandic króna worth less than half of what it was a year ago, more Americans (no strangers to economic struggles) are taking advantage of bargain getaways here.

The country's economic collapse began in September, a victim of the global financial crisis. By October, its banks had been nationalized. In early November, Icelandair was hawking $549 "Winter Madness" packages that included airfare from New York or Boston and three nights at the Reykjavik Hilton with breakfast. (That deal has expired, but the airline is offering other packages and airfares that start at $400, plus taxes and fees.)

Move fast for a deal

How long visitors will benefit from the devaluation is anyone's guess. Prices are bound to rise as the cost of imported goods go up. And even promoters acknowledge that Iceland isn't normally a bargain destination. But for now, many are reveling in Iceland's new affordability.

Take Sharma, a New Jersey software designer, who chose Iceland from a list citing the top five least-expensive vacation spots. He snagged a $620 airfare and monitored an online hotel reservations site, watching rates at a four-star hotel tumble to less than $40 before he booked.

Martelli, here for an Internet gaming fan fest, booked his lodgings last summer before the króna's free-fall and is paying $150 a night — which is fine by him. His digs are spacious and well-located and "the same price I paid to stay in Hong Kong on the way here in a room the size of a Balinese prison cell," he says.

The Brennans read an article about the three-night Icelandair package on a Friday and departed the following Monday.

"You hate to take advantage, but it's a good opportunity," says Jackie Brennan.

That's the sentiment tourism officials are aiming to tap into as they play up Iceland's lower prices in the hopes of filling incoming airline seats and attracting foreign currency.

"You think the geysers, bubbling hot springs, raging rivers, the country's 10,000 waterfalls and its spectacular scenery look any different in a depressed economy? We think not," reads a quote in a press release from Einar Gustavsson, head of the Iceland Tourist Board in New York.

In fact, Iceland's otherworldly landscape is its No. 1 draw, though its free-wheeling nightlife may be a close second. On weekends, the bars and clubs of downtown Reykjavik blast as late — or early — as 7 a.m.

"The nightlife here is unique," says Maria Reynisdottir of Reykjavik's tourist office. "It's kind of intimate. And yeah, we like to drink and dance."

Still, the days are over when ads touted "dirty weekends" and urged travelers to go to Iceland to "pester a beauty queen." Instead, the country touts its relative proximity (a six-hour flight from New York) as a quick but exotic getaway for U.S. travelers.

Reykjavik and beyond

Reykjavik, the capital, is the only city of any size, and it's home to two-thirds of the 320,000 residents of this Kentucky-size island. The harbor-side city has a back-of-beyond feeling. Many of its structures are made of brightly painted corrugated metal — inexpensive but tough enough to withstand the harsh North Atlantic weather.

Its landmark structures are young by European standards. For instance, the Hallgrímskirkja, an imposing church whose 24-story tower dominates an otherwise low-profile skyline, was started in 1945 and not completed until the 1970s.

The oldest remnants of civilization were found in 2001 beneath the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, where archaeologists unearthed a 10th-century Viking hall. The subterranean exhibit is one of many excellent museums blending high-tech dazzle with history.

Outside the city, the landscape is raw, rolling and treeless. And empty, save for occasional farmsteads with short, swaybacked Icelandic horses grazing in fields the color of weak tea.

The Golden Circle, a day-long circuit east of Reykjavik, is a standard on most itineraries. It takes in inky black lava fields blanketed in thick spongy moss, roaring waterfalls, shooting geysers and a canyon-sized rift where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates have parted ways.

It was here in what is now Thingvellir National Park that the Vikings formed the world's first democratic parliament in 930.

Sweaters and fish skin

Look beyond the souvenir shops hawking trolls in Viking headgear and you'll find well-designed goods with sleek lines and Scandinavian sensibilities.

At Kraum, a store in Reykjavik's center that represents 80-plus Icelandic artisans, manager Halla Bogadottir notes that local design has made leaps in the past five years or so.

The shop sells trademark Icelandic wool sweaters that are lighter-weight than the traditional bulky ones. Also popular are boots and bags made of cod, catfish, salmon and perch, whose skin has been transformed into sturdy leather at a factory in northern Iceland. (And yes, it's waterproof.)

These goods don't come cheap, devaluation notwithstanding. A lamp made of a gutted cod (cooler than it sounds) goes for more than $700. A whimsical wool cap with curled ram horns knitted into either side costs $110.

Even ubiquitous souvenir T-shirts saying Ég tala ekki íslensku (Icelandic for "I don't speak Icelandic") go for about $23 around town. And the quoted base rate for a double room at the Hotel Borg, a newly rehabbed art-deco beauty, has gone from $195 a night to $224 since the crisis.

But deals are, after all, relative, as Dennis Heleine, an electrical engineer from Los Angeles, has discovered when he compares this visit with one last year.

"So it used to be $10 for a beer and now it's $5. It sounds good, but really, now you're just paying normal prices," he says.

Still, even before the economic maelstrom lowered prices, tourism officials were targeting Americans for winter getaways. The usual drill: an adventurous activity by day, a good meal in the evening and pub crawling into the wee hours.

"They'd come back on the airplane very tired, very happy and very broke," Gustavsson says. "Now, they'll still be tired and happy. But less broke."