iceland fjord

Iceland has been in the news a lot lately and it’s not because there’s a new album from Sigur Ros or Bjork. It’s because a country that was always an intriguing but expensive travel destination has become an intriguing and bargain-priced travel destination.

So the first superlative is very recent: Iceland has had the biggest currency drop this year of any developed nation. If you went there this time last year, you got 60 kroner to the dollar. When I visited at the end of September, the math was easier and prices were bearable at 100 kroner to the dollar.Then all hell broke loose and the overstretched banks came crashing down, leading to national bankruptcy and an IMF loan. Hop on an IcelandAir flight today and you’ll get 156 kroner for a dollar. It’s like the whole country got put on the clearance rack.

The timeless landscape is still timeless though. The geysers still spout as they always did, the hot springs are still hot, and the eerie volcanic mountains and ice-age-carved fjords look the same as they did when everything was twice as expensive. Imported food is harder to get now, but the seafood is still fresh as ever.

iceland greenhouseOn of the oddest claims to fame here is the biggest banana plantation in Europe. That’s not saying much of course since Bananas don’t grow in Europe. They will grow inside a greenhouse though, especially when you are pumping in hot geothermal water in the pipes you see here in order to keep things toasty. This greenhouse I visited is also full of tropical plants and tomato bushes. You would think a country this close to the Arctic Circle would be hurting for produce, but this technology allows them to grow all kinds of crops outside the hottest months and the long daylight hours help in the summer.

Iceland is also the most energy efficient nation in the developed world because of this abundance of almost free hot water and cheap power. Here a geothermal power plant can generate as much wattage as a nuclear plant, but with no waste except water. Some 80% of the energy used is renewable. Unfortunately, car use per capita in Iceland is the highest in Europe, so most of the imported fuel is for use in cars. But they’re working on that too. I drove a hydrogen-powered Prius around Reyjavik one day and in 2010 a fleet of Mitsubishi MiEV electric cars will be on the market, supported by a network of charging stations to kick in after the 100-mile battery charge expires.  The garbage trucks and around 200 cars already run on methane biogas derived from garbage.

I didn’t make it to Dettifoss, but this is billed in multiple places as the most powerful waterfall in Europe because it’s got the greatest volume discharge. It looks sufficiently scary in photos.

Iceland’s Vatnajokull the biggest glacier in Europe, though like many of them it’s shrinking. In this case it’s losing about a meter a year. (You can see the lake it calves into in the James Bond movie Die Another Day.)

And one last bit of trivia: the word “geyser” we use to describe water shooting out of the ground originates from a real place here called Geysir.

For more, lots more, see the Iceland Tourism site.

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Tim Leffel is author of five travel books, including Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price, on living abroad. He is editor of Perceptive Travel webzine and this blog. He splits his time between Guanajuato, Mexico and Tampa Bay. See his writing portfolio, awards, and links to his books at TimLeffel.com.