Icelandic Travel Sagas – Don’t Listen To Travel Agents

I didn’t become a fully-fledged Scandifriend until my late twenties, but after that there was no looking back. Even so, there was at least one false start previously – the most jarring of which came in my late teens, when my traveller’s imagination had a brief fling with Iceland.

I was fresh out of my first year at university, putting away good money in a holiday job (yes, this all happened well before the credit crunch) and cocky and absolutely full of it – although in this case, ‘it’ meant at least in part some curiosity about What Iceland Was Really Like.

As I remember it, I used to take my Pears Cyclopedia 1988 and stare in fascination at that island on the very top left of the Europe map – especially the in-and-out fjordy bits and the brown splodge that extended from the very centre of the island to within reach of the very shores themselves.

A splodge that cartographically signified mountains of course, but they seemed a million times more mysterious than the considerably larger, and ostensibly definitive, Himalayan splodges on the Asia page. Maybe that signifies one of the sagas Iceland’s landscape has generated in itself: that of a relatively small island taking on the world in the natural beauty stakes and, with a few possible exceptions, improbably beating it – but remaining no less elusive.

(There will always be something about Iceland we haven’t quite got round to charting – and that’s why those of us addicted keep on going back. If there was a giant white splodge on that map to signify the Vatnajökull glacier, I sure as Odin didn’t take it in first time round.)

The enticing brown and white splodges

The enticing brown and white splodges

 And yet my puffin-like flight of fancy was hosed down in abruptly quick time. Had I gone and outlined my enthusiasm at an amenable and cuddly travel outlet such as STA Travel, (both student- and graduate-friendly in my experience), I would have probably been indulged more. I wouldn’t have minded if I had been hosed down by an artificial warm geyser to give me an idea of what the island was like – instead I got a cold-water travel agency experience that still seems funny after nearly twenty years simply because I was dealing with shocking humourlessness personified.

Maybe I was unlucky and caught the end of an era when package holidays were essentially the default option for a number of certain travel agencies and nothing else really counted. Even so, I could and should have twigged that truth the moment I walked through the door and was confronted by agent with starched hair, starched jacket, starched shirt, starched face, starched personality and a sizeable set of predatory and starched teeth offset by starched lipstick. The only thing I couldn’t fathom is how someone so starched was presumably mobile enough to hunt down woolly mammoths with her bare hands before breakfast – at least, she very convincingly gave the impression that that was her forte.

The travel agent fields my Iceland enquiry

The travel agent fields my Iceland enquiry

She sat centre-stage; behind her, the manager of the shop, who looked as if he was engaging in a long-distance endurance scowling contest well into its third decade and the eighth decade of his life, was wearing a tweed jacket that had seen better days (ie the days of the Paleolithic Era) and was bashing away furiously on the keyboard of an old-style clunky TV-screen computer (I told you it was a long time ago).

They must have perfected that double-act over some time.

I got shrift shorter than an Icelandic elf and left feeling smaller than one. They were so institutionalised I swear the agent started typing out ‘T-E-N-E-R-I-F-E’ on her clunky computer the moment I said I wanted to go to Iceland. The agent’s own frown deepened like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge itself. The double-act crashed into action. ‘That’s EXPENSIVE,’ the agent snarled. Bulldozing in on her last syllable, manager furiously looked up from computer and bellowed out the epitaph all budding travellers to the Nordics have had to absorb at one point or another, in one form or another:

‘YOU HAVE TO PAY FIVE POUNDS FOR A BEER!’

The agent bared her teeth. Now I come to think of it, that wasn’t starched lipstick; it was the blood of her previous client.

Her frown deepened like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Her frown deepened like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

I actually had the nerve to go back a few days later – partly, I think, because I subconsciously wanted to see if they would repeat the whole routine.

They did.

Now don’t get me wrong. Package holidays are a staple of the working person’s life. They have opened up new parts of the world to countless numbers of people over the last 40-odd years. And families do deserve sun, sea, sand, a nice meal, a good beer, a straightforward pleasant hotel or self-catering pad and the company of both their fellow countrymen and women and the company of people from other countries as well. Anyone who argues with that is, frankly, being too snobbish.

However, what I couldn’t stand on this occasion was the inverted snobbery, the inability of the duo to relate to someone who was doing something different to them. It’s hardly as if Iceland at that point in history was the River Congo when first charted by Stanley; Björk had started to wean her way into the public imagination, and I’m sure the country must have had a fair few tourists before the era of cheap air travel.

Not enough to sway the sentiments of Sabre Tooth and Tyrannosaurus Tweed on this occasion.

Why do travel agents behave like this? Surely if a place is expensive, they can cream lots of commission? Even if they don’t, they still get some trade. Or am I missing something?

I ended up doing lots of travelling in the next twelve years – so at least there was a positive reason why I didn’t make it to Iceland in that time. But the memory of that conversation sticks – not least because, having finally reached the glorious zenith of the Icelandic West Highlands, I know that they don’t deserve comparison with the redneck estuary I wandered down that day. It detained me from Iceland – and briefly quagmired me somewhere far less attractive.

The West Highlands - better than cheap beer

The West Highlands - better than cheap beer

The next time a UK travel agent tells you Iceland is too expensive, ask them about the ratio of Tesco Expresses, pound shops and pub and car park fights to glaciers and volcanoes in the town where they work. Any travel professional invoking the ‘five pounds for a beer’ argument may as well propose holidays in said car parks with a flagon of homebrew.

But it won't get you a volcano or glacier

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