REYKJAVIK, Iceland – In better times, Nina Bjork, one of Iceland’s fashion glitterati, would be busy styling photo shoots for the island’s top design houses. But since Iceland’s economy collapsed in October, one of the first victims of the global financial crisis, Bjork has had to try her hand at a new career: fashion tour guide.
For $112 for two hours, she and other top Icelandic designers now squire visitors through Reykjavik’s fashion district as personal shopping assistants. The service, tailored to the interests of each client, includes help finding the city’s best shops, advice on hot trends and assistance in putting together a personalized Icelandic look, from salmon-skin shoes to a woolen knitted cap featuring curved ram’s horns.
“Business is growing,” said Bjork, 32, a former fashion model, in snakeskin silver leggings, black boots and blond ponytail. Thanks to the utsala — sale — signs everywhere, “tourists are buying a lot these days, and even Icelanders are buying more at home.”
Iceland, a remote North Atlantic nation of volcanoes and glaciers midway between the United States and Europe, has long been a temptingly exotic destination of milky-blue geothermal lakes, stunning fjords and waterfalls and tales of Vikings and elves. Sadly, it’s also been way too expensive for most people.
No more. The collapse of the island’s overextended banks in October brought on a full-blown recession, and airfares and hotel rates have plunged by half. Round-trip airfares to Reykjavik from the U.S. now start at less than $500, and package deals, including stays at some of the island’s best hotels, are proliferating.
“Iceland is now affordable — not cheap but possible,” said Asta Kristin Sveinsdottir, one of the workers manning the desk at Iceland’s main tourist information center in Reykjavik. Last winter and early spring, the center saw perhaps 10 or 15 visitors a day; this year “we have lines,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest lure of Iceland is the chance to do something you almost surely have never done before, from dining on grilled minke whale or smoked puffin to snowmobiling across a glacier or buying designer jewelry made from lava.
At the Ishestar Riding Center, just a short drive outside the capital, guides will bundle you in an oversize green insulated thermal suit and plonk you on one of the island’s hairy Icelandic ponies. Then it’s off through the black volcanic rock landscape, with pauses to peer into caves, cup handfuls of water to drink from the region’s pure icy streams and throw off the saddles to watch the steaming ponies roll comically in the snow.
Doug and Amy Reece, longtime Missouri residents who recently relocated to Martha’s Vineyard, were so taken by the experience that they quickly signed up for a second ride the same day. Having nabbed a package deal including airfare and three nights at a good hotel for $1,400, they felt they could afford to splurge.
“We haven’t found it cheap, but we haven’t found it expensive,” said Amy, 53, a grade school teacher who received the trip as a Christmas gift from her husband. She said she thought the island’s prices, including $90 spent on a hand-knit wool sweater, were fair, particularly after the 15 percent tax rebate for foreigners on Icelandic clothing and other products.
They said they had no qualms about abandoning their original plans to head to the Bahamas for a late-winter break in favor of facing more snow in Iceland. “We haven’t even thought about the Caribbean,” said a grinning Doug, 54.
During Iceland’s summer high season, prices — which plunged late last year after the island’s currency collapsed — are creeping up again, but signs suggest they will not go far. With travel down worldwide in the face of a near-global recession, Iceland’s number of visitors in the first quarter fell 6.5 percent, according to the Icelandic Travel Industry Association. That means plenty of unoccupied hotel rooms.
Even with the indignities of air travel in an era of cutbacks — 5 euros for a pillow and blanket on Icelandair — those are easy to forget when you’re staring out the window at some of the most remarkable wonders on Earth.
And did I mention that 66 Degrees North jacket you might finally, finally be able to afford?