Dispatch, Iceland: Paying to play the Icelandic way

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Travel Weekly senior editor Michelle Baran is spending one week traveling on a Collette Explorations itinerary through Iceland, the trendy destination du jour that appears to be on everyone's must-do lists. Travel Weekly wants to find out why. Michelle's second dispatch follows. Click to read her first.

After visiting Reykjavik and Akureyri, Iceland’s two main cities, as well as the western Snaefellsnes Peninsula, I’ve seen enough of the Icelandic way of life to start envying it a bit.

Life in Iceland — notwithstanding a massive economic meltdown in 2008, the occasional volcano erupting, and long and cold winters — appears to be desirable in its earthy simplicity.

The Icelandic joie de vivre seems defined by a work-hard, play-hard lifestyle, accented by cookie-cutter homes painted in primary colors; a Nordic fashion sense that has somehow managed to make outdoorsy clothes look good; and taking to task anyone who thinks the only thing Icelanders eat is herring. Who knew there was so much variety in Icelandic cuisine, including seafood and lamb?

Beer lovers who have heard that they only just started making beer here in 1989 after an antiquated restriction was finally lifted, do not fear, they have made up for lost time. The local beers are a very respectable way to wash down Icelandic delicacies.

The Collette Explorations tour is designed to have more free time built in than a standard tour. That means travelers will eat more than half of their meals on their own, at little restaurants that were recommended by a hotel concierge or a helpful guide, or found the good old-fashioned way, just wandering around town.

That the majority of Icelanders speak English makes it all the easier to explore on one’s own, and our group seems to be enjoying and embracing that liberty.

There’s only one drawback to going it alone: Iceland is expensive.

On a recent evening in Akureyri, I paid $45 for a prawn sandwich, a small beer, and strawberries for dessert at the Hotel Kea’s otherwise awesome restaurant, Mulaberg.

I paid $10 — that’s right $10 — for a piece of cake at Stofan Café in Reykjavik. I tried to hide my shock and horror when the adorable Icelandic girl behind the counter rang me up.

Granted, that caramel-topped apple crumble goodness with fresh whipped cream on the side was some of the best darn cake I’ve ever had.

All told, there seems to be a kind of theme developing here. Despite the cold, despite the rain, despite the prices, despite it all, Iceland is still a good deal.

Yes, Iceland is expensive. But it’s got zero pretention. It’s got breathtaking views. It’s got cozy village vibes. And as far as I can tell, the biggest return on the investment is simply this inexplicable happy and healthy feeling one gets traveling around this country.

Is it possible I gained a few extra years on Earth just by breathing in this air? Ring me up, Icelandic barista, I’ll take it.

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