Tourists, the people primarily responsible for converting charming destinations into tourist traps (cough San Antonio cough), often complain that they want to go somewhere that “isn’t quite so touristed.”
We found such a place yesterday: Eskifjorour, Iceland. To pronounce the town’s name, you start to say “Eskimo,” but stop before you say “mo” and then make a gargling noise. Two years ago, exactly zero cruise ships had ever stopped here. Last year, seven ships pulled into port. This year, nine (including ours) will.
Before our arrival, I googled around for tours in Eskifjorour. I didn’t find any, but I did stumble on a message board for residents, one of whom was befuddled as to why Holland America was so intent on coming to town. “There isn’t anything here,” the honest Eskifjorourian wrote. “And as this is the ship’s first stop in Iceland, I’m afraid we make a bad impression.”
In fact, the town makes a good impression on me. Yes, it’s sleepy, remote, and small. There’s almost no signage, because all the Eskifjorourians know where everything in Eskifjorour is.
The cruise terminal is one of those little red utility houses your dad stores lawnmowers in. There are three parallel streets, each gently elevated above the other and carved into the hill like steps. The upper two streets are dotted with boxy houses. The lower street has more houses, a grocery store, a community hall, a Shell station, a coffeehouse, and that lot where they park the old snow plow during summer.
Holland America struggles to find excursions to sell in places like Eskifjorour. We are excited, though, about a walking tour billed as a “small group outing” to visit “a real Icelandic family” in their home. We are a bit surprised, then, to find ourselves squeezed into some poor Icelandic housewife’s kitchen with thirty-five other dripping-wet strangers.
All things considered, she takes this in stride. She has mugs ready to serve us coffee. She has piled two platters high with those rolled-up, cinnamon-laced Icelandic pancakes. She and her kids stand in the doorway. We look at them. They look at us.
“This is only my second time to do this,” our hostess admits. “Maybe you could ask me some questions.”
At this point, a bright-eyed, hawk-nosed woman from Australia — dressed all in black, looking like a sort of evil Mary Poppins — lunges forward. Her question sounds less like a question than a demand: “How old are the children?”
Our hostess beams. “Daughter’s seven, her friend is eight. This son, Christopher, is twelve, and there’s another son. He’s not here just now, which is good news for all of us, given that he’s in his teens and showing it!”
The Nanny doesn’t laugh with the rest of us. “When do the children go to school?”
“During the winter,” our hostess says. “They’re out for the summer now.”
The Nanny tilts her head to one side, eyes the children with something like hunger, and launches into a bizarre cross-examination that betrays what I think is an unhealthy level of interest in Icelandic school children. “How long do the children stay in school? How many hours a day? Do they walk to school? Would they be unsupervised during this walk?”
I decide to change the subject, asking, “What would you be doing if we weren’t here this morning?”
Christopher — a tall, blonde boy with skin as fair as sunshine — doesn’t even hesitate before saying, “Sleeping!”
“The children would be sleeping!” The Nanny exclaims. She rubs her gloved hands together. “Asleep in their beds! Imagine it!”
“So would I be,” our hostess admits. “It’s summer. And, as you can see, there isn’t much doing here.”
The Nanny licks her lips. “Not much for children to do,” she says, lowering her voice to a growl, “but sleeeeeep.”
Our Holland America guide, glancing at the Nanny, tells us it’s time to say goodbye. After the home visit, he walks us to the far side of town, which, given Eskifjorour’s size, takes exactly six minutes.
We visit a church, built in 2000: a huge, hollow octagon with white walls, blonde wood, and great acoustics. The windows are very tiny — because if they were larger, I suspect everyone would ignore the sermon and stare out at the jaw-dropping waterfall cascading through the church’s back lot.
In any other city in the world, that waterfall would be the main attraction. In San Antonio, for example, instead of a church, there would be a ticket kiosk, and a queue, and touristy shops selling “See the Waterfall” t-shirts.
When The Nanny starts asking questions about children’s ministries, Clyde and I decide it’s time to abandon the group and strike out on our own.
We hike up to the waterfall:
We walk the streets:
There is a small craft show in the town hall — a few tables selling cake, coffee, candle holders, hand-knit sweaters, and cards handmade by local children. (The Nanny will be delighted.)
While others are complaining (“There’s not enough to do! There aren’t any stores open! There’s only one restaurant! The children move too quickly to be easily caught!”), we see this as a day to immerse ourselves in the textures of a genuine gem of a small town before the corner store and the coffee house give way to the same old shops selling the same old wares to the same old tourists.
Here’s hoping Eskifjorour never becomes “Iceland’s San Antonio.”