Iceland Express will offer low-cost flights from Newark to Reykjavik

I’m kind of obsessed with Iceland. Ask me about the country and get ready to endure my lengthy soliloquy on why I love it so much. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and I’d feel pretty comfortable saying that even as I travel to more destinations, I’ll always consider it so.

Drive a few minutes away from Reykjavik and you’ll see mountains topped with snow, former lava fields covered in moss, volcanic ash beaches, and waterfalls in every shape and size. At Thingvellir National Park, the earth is shifting and dozens of little earthquakes happen every day. At the Blue Lagoon, people soak in steaming neon blue waters even as fat snowflakes land in their hair, and in random fields all over the country, horses will literally come running up to you to socialize. Horsies! Plus: Best. Hot dog. Ever.

Ever since I visited in March, I’ve been plotting my return. Trouble is, the tickets are just so expensive. Because Icelandair is the only carrier that goes from the US to Iceland, they can charge pretty much whatever they want. While they do have sales often, tickets from JFK to Reykjavik regularly range from $500 (in winter) to as much as $1200-$1500 during peak times.

But perhaps finding a cheaper fare may get easier. Iceland Express, a low-cost carrier that already operates flights from several European cities to Reykjavik (often for as low as $200 round trip) will begin flying from Newark to Reykjavik in June. Flights are available for purchase now and seem to be slightly cheaper than Icelandair. For dates I checked in August, flights on Iceland Express were $534 compared to $730 round trip on Icelandair.

Iceland ditches McDonald’s

It’s been a tough year for Iceland. Thanks to foreign money, crazy lending and borrowing practices and a real estate bubble that amazed the world as it grew and when it popped, the small northern country has suffered severely through the global financial crisis … which was predicted by a walking tour guide prophetic viking. Now, a year after Iceland went bankrupt, it’s losing something else – fast food. McDonald’s is leaving the island nation.

Reykjavik, the capital, is home to all three of the country’s McDonald’s restaurants … but not for long. The decimation of the Icelandic krona and declining profits are forcing the franchise owner to call it quits. Magnus Ogmundsson, managing director of Lyst Hr., which holds the franchise in Iceland, told The Associated Press, “The economic situation has just made it too expensive for us.” His situation was made difficult by the McDonald’s requirement that the store’s goods be imported from Germany. So, he had to spend in euros, which became incredibly expensive because of the krona’s plunge.

To get a sense of how bad the situation became, check out the price of a Big Mac. It already costs $5.29 in Reykjavik, and to turn a profit, it would have to go for $6.36 – making it the most expensive in the world. Currently, the title goes to Switzerland and Norway, where a Big Mac costs $5.75.

Ironically, the first person to taste a Big Mac in Iceland was David Oddson. At the time, he was the prime minister but later moved into the position of governor of the country’s central bank, where oversaw the rise of the bubble. He was forced out of office by lawmakers earlier this year.

McDonald’s has had a presence in Reykjavik since 1993 but has no plans to return in the near future. Theresa Riley, a company spokesperson, released a statement saying, “The unique operational complexity of doing business in Iceland combined with the very challenging economic climate in the country makes it financially prohibitive to continue the business.” She added, “This complex set of challenges means we have no plans to seek a new partner in Iceland.”

Lyst, however, isn’t finished. Ogmundsson plans to reopen the stores under the name Metro and use locally sourced materials and produce, keeping the company’s 90 employees in jobs.

In the meantime, you can still get a solid hotdog in Reykjavik with fantastic mustard.

Tourism helping Iceland weather their perfect storm

If you think the recession in the US has been dreadful, I recommend reading up on how Iceland has been coping.

This nation of just 320,000 people let its banks pull the country into a total financial disaster.

Their three national banks had debt equaling over three times the countries gross domestic product.

Their government collapsed, their currency lost a third of its value, they had to take out emergency loans with the IMF, and some of their European neighbors don’t want to let them into the EU until they repay their debt. Sucks to be Iceland.

But despite all this, the country still has its biggest asset – itself. The nation is gorgeous, and they are heading back to their roots to take full advantage of this.

Tourism is up 20% this year, and they are on target to welcome 600,000 people, almost twice their own population. Part of the driving force behind this increase is a substantial drop in the cost of visiting Iceland. The country was always well known for its insanely high prices – it was quite normal to be charged $16 for a glass of wine, or $150 for a short excursion.

Many of these prices have dropped by at least 30%, which still puts them on the high side of what you’d want to pay, but makes it affordable enough to pull in more tourists. The lower exchange rate has also lowered prices of air travel to Iceland, flights from many European countries are available for under $200, and even round trip tickets from the US to Reykjavik are available for under $550 (all in) on Icelandair.

I highly recommend visiting the site of their tourism board to see how much the nation has to offer. Your tourism krónur may not be able to pay off their debt, but you’ll certainly help them in the right direction.

Canadians flocking to Iceland, but Europeans are preferred

The economic collapse of Iceland has been covered extensively and zealously, so it’s no surprise that people are taking an interest. For Canadians, this makes even more sense, given their proximity to the country that has as many people as my neighborhood. At this time last year (when I went), just picking up dinner would cost you a fortune. Now, it’s almost half price … and that doesn’t include the great deals that are being offered.

Last year, more than 10,000 Canadians visited Iceland, effectively increasing the country’s population by 10 percent, even if only temporarily. That’s an increase of 68 percent from 2007.

Overall, Iceland welcomed just over 500,000 guests last year.

Like most travel deals, the unplanned currency-based discount won’t last forever. Like the weather up there, the economy is showing signs of thawing, thanks to a fiscal hand from the rest of the world.

For now, the 8,200-person travel industry is focusing on drawing guests from Europe. Hey, Canadians are great, but there aren’t as many of them as there are Europeans, and the small nation needs as much tourist cash as it can get. In 2008, 70,000 visitors came from the United Kingdom, followed by Germany with 45,100 and Denmark with 41,000.

Fortunately, Icelanders aren’t picky. They treated me well, and that was when the local currency was going strong.

If you go, take the walking tour. The guide predicted the fall of the Icelandic markets months ahead of time.

Tour the world’s vandalism

Eyesore or art, graffiti is part of any culture’s public dialogue. Vandalism is visual profanity, and we all swear in our own f—ing ways. I’ve been drawn to these wall scrawls for a while, probably since I read Holden Caulfield‘s concerns about the subject in Catcher in the Rye. My fascination gained momentum while I was stationed in South Korea.

A soldiers’ bar in Tong Du Chon (the Peace Club, which is no longer there) was littered with attempted wit. “I used to believe in the common decency of main,” one drunken soldier-scholar printed at eye level. Another replied, “I still do.” Eight hours into a soju-induced haze, this stuff is profound.

Along the way, I’ve become a connoisseur of this crime, though only as an observer. I have seen social commentary and even debate. And, there’s even been a bit of meaningless paint spilled in the vain hope of making a point. I’ve soaked it all in and hit a few readers up for their tips, as well.

So, let’s take a tour of some of my favorite acts of defacement. Some reflect careful planning and show artistic talent. Others offer nothing more than layers upon layers of cries for attention and assertions of self-importance.In Iceland, I read in the local English language newspaper, the Reykjavik Grapevine, that an outbreak of graffiti was the result of building vacancies triggered by the weakened economy (and this was back in June). This was supported by the observations of the walking tour’s prophetic viking. Hell, the wall says it all.

The Parisians waxed political on the walls of metro stations. I was in town for the hotly contested presidential election of May 2007, and the ultimate winner, Nicolas Sarkozy, took a beating in the vandals’ press. This is nothing compared to the scratched-out eyes on campaign posters, though.

Translation: Sarko = Bush = Berlusconi = Shit. The tagger lumps the president of France with the now former president of the United States and the hotheaded former president of Italy … not to mention a steaming pile. Politics took center stage in Tallinn, Estonia, as well. Thankfully, the vandals worked in English, making it easy for me to take a stab at recreating the crime.

From what I could see, this is something of a public discussion. First, it seems, a disgruntled “activist” wrote “Fuck Fascism!” And, I have to admit, it’s hard to disagree with that. Next, a second person probably popped “anti” in front of fascism, before a third joined the spray-painted conversation by crossing out “fuck.” A fourth crossed out “anti,” and we’re left with fascism. But, the entire discourse supports the original position.

At least, that’s how I’d imagine the entire process unfolding.

The most compelling, however, was in Quebec. I found it fascinating that the retort to an assertion of independence was proffered in English.

Of course, my neighbors are far from innocent. Here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, we seem to be waging a war on body image. Custo Barcelona, an upscale fashion retailer, has ads on the corner of W. 71st St. and Columbus Ave. The models, wearing about as much body fat as they are clothing, glare at me every time I walk to Gray’s Papaya for a hot dog, as if holding me in contempt for my substandard diet. Someone (not me, I promise) decided to comment.

Hey, New Yorkers can be brutal, even in my quiet, peace-loving corner of the city. This is but one example of how the poor Custo models, have suffered, though. Check out the photo gallery below to get a sense of how Upper West Siders feel about this bit of eye candy.


And, this is just a taste of what I have collected. Take a look at the next photo gallery to see what our readers have submitted. Fortunately, their collections are a bit more high-minded than mine. The stories with each photos are in the readers’ own words (with some slight editing).