I have always had an interest in Iceland's birds and culture, but visiting the Virginia-sized island-country in the North Atlantic has seemed financially daunting. During the summer season when most people go, on-the-ground costs per couple per day easily could exceed $500 for room, board, and transportation, while airfare to Iceland itself has always seemed exorbitant. However, the national airline Icelandair runs an efficient hub system connecting its flights to North America and to Europe, and offers competitive through fares for transatlantic passengers. Periodically they also offer a subsidized 1-3 day stopover option, and now is one of those times. Thus, my wife and I were able to fly to London for the same as others' winter fare, while staying at almost any hotel in Reykjavik (including its best, the Hotel Saga) for two nights for $110/night per couple, including breakfast daily (beginning 4:30 a.m.!) and transfers to/from the 50-km-distant airport. We found a good off-season deal (by Icelandic standards) on a small hire car from Geysir (firstname.lastname@example.org): ~$75/day including 24.5% tax, full insurance, and 200 free km/day. Hertz, bookable even at a much-reduced rate through the airline, was more.
Our flight arrived at modern Keflavik Airport about 6 am, and we were at the hotel by 8. Once settled, we called Geysir, who picked us up and took us to their office to complete paperwork. Since birdable light at this season begins about 10 am, we were heading east for the River Sog, nearest site for Barrow's Goldeneye, before dawn in a light snowfall. After finding them below Ulfljotsvatn, we drove past flocks of Snow Buntings through magnificent scenery to Hvalfjordur, where we birded to the east end of the fjord, then back towards Reykjavik. Off a picnic table at Hofsvik, a bay about 25 km n of Reykjavik, we had our first Harlequin Ducks. We then went into the city as light began to fade towards 4 pm, and stopped at the Natural History Museum to thank the staff for their pre-trip advice. We ate dinner at a very traditional, small romantic restaurant Thrir Frakkar hja Ulfari, where I tried the tasty sauteed (Thick-billed/Brunnich's ?) murre/guillemot in game sauce.
After a long sleep, we were out the next day again before dawn, heading west out the Reykjanes Peninsula towards Keflavik. We mainly birded at Sandgerdi, Gardur, and Hafnir, with highlights including more Harlequins, Shags, the local races of Winter Wren and Redwing, and a vagrant wintering American Black Duck. We returned to Reykjavik in time to do some shopping, then ate at a pleasant small restaurant downtown, Hornid. We turned in the car keys to the hotel's front desk as agreed with Geysir, having driven just under 400 km in 2 days. If daylight were longer, we would have needed the unlimited km option, offered at ~$85/day. Next morning, we had early breakfast and were picked up at 6 a.m. for our 8:30 onward flight. Our total ground cost for 2 people for 2 days was ~$550 (excluding shopping), about half what it might have cost in summer.
Iceland is beautiful, fascinating, and the people very pleasant and helpful. English is widely spoken, so it really was a no-problem place to visit. We could have stayed one more day on the stopover package for roughly a commensurate increase in cost. In summer, undoubtedly we would have wanted to range farther, and probably the 3-day limit to the subsidized stopover (not to mention higher costs overall) would have been confining. Anyway, brief as it was, we enjoyed our visit to Iceland immensely. Incidentally, that name is a misnomer; temperatures hovered around freezing.
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