REYKJAVIK - We've just arrived at Reykjavik airport and head straight for the rental car desk. In front of me in line, a man hands in his keys. "Two weeks rental - that comes to 3,900 euros, sir," he's told.
After quickly calculating that he's paid over $5,000 Canadian, I wonder whether he rented a fleet of limos.
Ten days later, after finishing my tour of Iceland's ring road and paying $1,500 for my subcompact, I realize just how costly Iceland can be.
"Why is it so expensive?" I ask the car rental clerk as I reluctantly pass him my credit card. He replies, "Next week, at the start of September, tourism drops off a cliff. Your car will sit in the parking lot for the next 10 months."
You can try it in September, but summer is definitely the time to do Iceland's ring road, preferably August, when the entire route is guaranteed to be snow- and ice-free. Close to 20 hours of daylight for travelling is another bonus of the "expensive season."
There are no guarantees of a smooth road, though. Several sections are unsealed, and at least one part east of Lake Myvatn is not meant for a subcompact, even though ours managed to make it through.
Side trips off the roughly 1,500-kilometre ring road added another 1,000 kilometres to my odometer, but there was no question of tackling the cross-island road that goes between two of the major glaciers, which is only for the well-equipped. Perhaps that $5,000 vehicle the man at the airport was returning was an SUV with the huge tires needed to tackle the interior. Venturing over those roads is a serious undertaking, and if you get stuck it's unlikely another vehicle will come along any time soon - unless it's August.
August's a double-edged sword when it comes time to bed down. Since the tourist season is essentially two months long, there are few hotels outside Reykjavik, and they charge rates in line with August car rentals - if you manage to find one with a vacant room.
As an alternative, farmhouses and school dorms open in summer to provide reasonable accommodation, although not at bargain rates. The cheapest option is camping, and many grounds dot the ring road. However, as Iceland is located near the Arctic Circle in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the chances of windy and rainy weather are better than even. Luckily, it rained only once during my 10 days.
Despite all this, the rewards of driving around Iceland's perimeter in August far outweigh concerns about money and weather. From your car, you can see majestic waterfalls, dramatic fjords and glaciers that meet the sea, but you'd miss a lot if you didn't venture out to take a closer look at some of Iceland's marvels. This treeless island the size of Newfoundland offers many staples of eco-tourism, including hiking trails, whale-watching and glacier trekking.
Speaking of staples, since over 90 per cent of Iceland's 300,000 people live on the coast, fish is often on the menu. Sheep are our roadside companions for much of the circular journey, so lamb and mutton are well represented each evening in restaurants along the way. It's hard to grow vegetables in the weak summer sun at this latitude, although game attempts have been made to build thermal-powered greenhouses. Imported avocados cost about $4, so I stick with local dishes.
As I relinquish my car, I ask the same car rental clerk how the locals manage to make ends meet. "Things get cheaper in the off-season," he says.