Reykjavik — Iceland is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. The Iceland Costco was on mine.
What’s up with that?
I made the 3,586-mile journey from Seattle in early February, before the coronavirus outbreak, back when Icelanders let Americans visit their pristine island.
My goal is to shop at a Costco in all 11 countries outside the United States. I’ve checked South Korea and Canada off my list, with only eight to go: Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia, Spain, France, United Kingdom and Mexico. The membership card is good worldwide.
There are 364,260 people on the island of Iceland and only one Costco. To me, that’s more brutal than the winters.
The suburban Costco wasn’t on the tourist grid of our hotel near the colorful city center of Reykjavik, the Nordic nation’s capital.
The hotel clerk said a bus would take several transfers and about 90 minutes. She pointed out there were many interesting places within walking distance we might be better advised to see — the famous cathedral, shops, marina, museums.
There is no Uber or Lyft in Iceland. A taxi to Costco would cost about $100 in U.S. dollars, the clerk said.
So, we rented a car. Not just to go to Costco, though it started that way.
The car also took us to waterfalls, lava fields, pastures of those fat fuzzy horses and other amazing places we’d planned to see by tour bus.
Iceland is a pleasant 8-hour direct flight from Sea-Tac Airport and, pre-virus, was a trendy stopover for people on their way to Europe, just a few hours away. It was tempting to hop over to Spain, France and the U.K. to knock three more Costcos off my list, but my fat fuzzy husband Max said, “No way.”
Tourism is the main moneymaker in Iceland, which is as pretty as the Instagram pictures.
Other than a big Bitcoin heist, crime is almost nonexistent. There’s maybe one murder a year. According to a story in Vanity Fair, police question suspects in cozy “conversation” rooms decorated with soothing photographs of swans. They don’t carry guns, not even with the influx of rowdy tourists.
Iceland had about 2 million tourists in 2019, five times the number in 2011. Many are millennials and seniors, as was our multi-generational party of five.
We all remembered our teachers saying Iceland and Greenland were misnamed in a ploy of fake advertising to try to get people to move to Greenland, which is 80 percent icebergs and has no Costco for its 56,000 hardy souls.
Iceland has plenty of ice in the winter, when the sun doesn’t rise until 10 a.m. Neither do I.
My trip was inspired by Loa Griesbach, 36, of Everett, who talked about her travels during an interview for a story about her life. She is paralyzed from a spinal cord injury as a teen and relies on a ventilator, but that didn’t stop her from going to her mom’s homeland of Iceland two times since the accident. She even went off-roading in a Range Rover to the top of Mount Esja.
After meeting Loa, I wanted to see Iceland. I didn’t even know there was a Costco there.
Along with Costco, the island lives up to the dream.
There’s the Blue Lagoon, a spa of geothermal bliss with silica mud masks and a fancy restaurant where you dine in your bathrobe then go back for a second dip. The “Game of Thrones” beaches, with crashing waves. The 269 glaciers, each with its own name. The Northern Lights, green magnetic charged particles that flash through the sky like a trip on psychedelic mushrooms. Or so I’ve been told.
For a religious experience outside of Costco, there are about 350 churches. The grandest of them all is Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik that stands 244 feet high. The church took 41 years to build and opened in 1986. In front is a statue of explorer Leif Erikson that was a gift from the U.S.
Of course, every trip needs culture. We went to The Icelandic Phallological Museum. On exhibit were 215 phallic specimens in formaldehyde and mounted taxidermy of parts formerly attached to land and sea mammals of Iceland — whales, horses, bears, mice and a human as well as mythological members from elves, trolls and kelpies. Best of all, I got a senior admission discount.
Yup, it’s all there in Iceland.
Plus a Costco.
On Costco’s opening day in 2017, units from search-and-rescue teams were called in to manage crowd control.
It wasn’t busy on the February afternoon I dragged poor Max there. There weren’t any people at endcaps handing out food samples that day, not that I wanted to taste fermented shark anyway.
Every other cart had a mega pack of Kirkland toilet paper, just like at home, and workers neatly folded stacks of clothes for shoppers to rifle through. The warehouse had the same color theme and vibe as the Everett Costco, but the prices were higher.
A tub of $15 Kirkland chocolate macadamia clusters was 2,699 ISK (Icelandic krona) or about $20 USD. Still a good deal compared to the chocolate-covered black licorice that Icelanders are obsessed with.
Costwise, a week in Iceland is about the same as a week in Maui. In Maui there’s a Costco near the airport that’s a popular stop for tourists to load up on beach toys and Hawaiian trinkets.
The Iceland Costco doesn’t cater to tourists, it serves the locals who want to save some krona on booze, produce and petrol. Gas is about $6 USD a gallon, although it sells by the liter.
The store didn’t have souvenirs, unless you want to bring back cod liver oil for all your friends. Cod liver oil is an Iceland essential, with Vitamin A and D to vitalize people through the long winters. They even make little kids drink it. No wonder these “Nicelanders” are all so robust and beautiful.
A bottle of best-seller Lysi cod liver oil looks like a bottle of Lysol. It costs more than a bottle of vodka.
At our hotel breakfast buffet, the Lysi and small shot glasses were positioned between the pastries and porridge.
There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks in Iceland. Sure enough, Costco had hot dogs, for $3 USD. And sure enough, my husband Max ate one whilst I scoured the aisles of saelkerahorn, svinakjot and avextir og graenmeti.
That’s his reward for being dragged to Costcos, not only in foreign lands but also in every city and state we visit.
Costco has 552 stores in the U.S. I only have about 500 more to go.
There are over 105 million cardholders worldwide, said Muriel Cooper, a Costco spokesperson at the company’s Issaquah headquarters.
“What a great goal you’ve set to visit a Costco in every country,” Cooper said. “To my knowledge, I’m not aware of another member with the same ambition.”
Costco by the numbers
Countries and number of stores in each:
U.S., 552. Canada, 102. Mexico, 39. United Kingdom, 29. Japan, 26. Taiwan, 13. Korea, 16. Australia, 12. Spain, 3. Iceland, 1. France, 1. China, 1.