It took some convincing to get Rick to agree that we should start our Travel Adventure in Iceland. “Who leaves Canada in January to go to Iceland?” “How many places are colder than Ontario Canada in January?” Well, Siberia probably. But news that the Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights) were most visible in winter tipped the scale.
So we spoke to a couple of previous visitors, scanned the web, and developed a plan where we would start our Icelandic travels in the major city of Reykjavik, visit the Golden Circle then Vik and the Southeastern Coast and round off our trip by staying near the airport (I was really thinking of the Blue Lagoon Spa) outside Keflavik. Reading that the unpredictable weather made traveling the roads in the north difficult and perhaps risky, we opted to save that region for a future summer visit.
We were in Iceland for 10 days, quite a leisurely pace, which could have been comfortably completed in 6 days. However, seeing the Aurora Borealis is a matter of lucky timing so we extended our stay to increase our chances – which paid off because the best view was on our last night.
We arrived at our hotel around 6:30 a.m. Saturday hoping that our room would be available – no such luck. So we checked our luggage and set out for a coffee shop. Need I mention that early morning in January in Iceland is cold and dark? Also closed. Absolutely nothing was open and the streets looked like Mardi Gras had just passed through.
Actually Dunkin Donuts was open, but I would rather freeze and starve in the dark than make doughnuts my first meal of our Travel Adventure. Finally we found a coffee shop that was preparing to open; 7:30 couldn’t come quickly enough. Two breakfast sandwiches, a tea, and a bottomless coffee with slow wifi was our oasis for the next few hours at the price of $43.95. As forewarned, we found food in Iceland to be expensive, even locally produced food. Actually everything is expensive except for power, water and hot dogs. Iceland has glacier water piped right to the faucet so get a reusable bottle and you can get it filled everywhere for free.
Iceland is a small island of 103,000 square kilometres (two Nova Scotias) located in the Atlantic Ocean near the Arctic Circle, with a population of approximately 350,000 people. University education is free and the population is highly educated. Icelandic is the first language; a second Scandinavian language plus English are taught in school. Almost 90% of Iceland’s energy is supplied by sustainable sources: geothermally heated water, which is piped to radiators and faucets across the country, wind, and hydro.
Tourism has been growing quickly over the last five years and the country is building infrastructure to support it – which was neither unsightly nor inconveniencing. The locals were polite, helpful, and welcoming. They are very proud of their roots, culture, and language which still has much of its old Nordic roots. They are happy to tell their traditional stories, share their food, and show off the natural majesty of the country; but they are not too interested in teaching you the language, which is nearly unpronounceable to Westerners – partly because they have 10 letters in additional to the Latin alphabet plus accents. And those streets are cleaned up by 10:00 a.m.
Here are the highlights of our trip. Logistic information is located at the bottom of the blog.
Free Reykjavik Walking Tour
A walking tour with a local guide through the downtown and old city of Reykjavik was an interesting, if not entirely accurate (no, most Icelanders do not believe in elves) introduction to the city. Wear good walking shoes. Pay by donation.
Reykjavik Food Walk
Our guide “K” (as he suggested we call him because his name is unpronounceable to non-Scandinavians) is a foodie and intellectual who enthusiastically escorted a group of us to several local food stops: a gourmet food purveyor, hot dog stand, seafood dive, ice cream shop, and fine dining restaurant for samples of 13 traditional Icelandic dishes still regularly enjoyed today. Our first stop was at the gourmet food shop where we sampled several meats and cheeses. Rick was adventurous and tried everything; I didn’t work up the nerve to try horse meat. Cheese making is a new skill in Iceland and in my opinion has a ways to go.
Our next stop was at the original hot dog stand near the waterfront. It has been in business since 1937. New construction is going up around it, but the stand is still there. The lamb hot dog is an Icelandic tradition; as it is available at many convenience stores and gas stations throughout the country, it is seen by many as a cheap eats solution.
At another stop, I tried lamb soup which was delicious and nutritious, becoming my own cheap eats solution as it is often served bottomless and with bread. It was followed by unique and surprisingly tasty item; rye bread ice cream.
We also tried Lobster soup at the hole-on-the-dock Seabaron – pretty tasty. We also tried Skyr, a tasty yogurt like food available on many breakfast menus and finished our tour with a rich chocolate and mango dessert at a fine restaurant. We highly recommend this tour but wear good walking shoes and book in advance.
As we meandered through the city streets K pointed out toy figures, adventure heroes and army men, set up on signs. This is the de-facto National Army because Iceland doesn’t have a military.
Græna Herbergið / The Green Room
Wow, what a great peek into Icelandic culture! This is a small bar owned by three musicians who can often be found playing piano and singing. We lucked into one of those nights. This spot was packed by locals on a weeknight till 1:00 a.m. closing time. They played English pop, some movie themes (it’s said, Icelanders watch more movies than anyone), Icelandic pop, and favourites. As the music switched to Icelandic, the crowd stood and began belting out the tunes. We tried a few fab cocktails with unknown ingredients. When we pointed out that we didn’t get charged for all of our drinks we were rewarded with happy hour pricing for “our honesty”. We highly recommend this spot for cocktails, entertainment, and people watching. Wear black and be prepared to stand until a seat becomes available.
Beer & Pubs
Our food guide K recommended two beer pubs. Skuli Craft Bar had a good selection of brew but not much offering of wine. Rick enjoyed his Borg Surtur 47 Coffee Imperial Stout in this quiet spot with a few tables of locals and another tourist couple. A few nights later, we showed up at Micro Bar before it opened and waited on a comfy leather couch while Rick studied the menu refining his tasting list. When they opened we picked a nice table near the bar which turned out to be well positioned between an English & Scottish couple Karen & Ian and an American couple who we chatted with through the evening. Karen and I are now Facebook friends. Rick enjoyed more than a few selections here. Sorry, he doesn’t remember what they were, and he can’t look them up now because the selections vary.
Landnamssyningin / The Settlement Exhibition is an interesting exhibit of Iceland’s Viking history and built around the recently unearthed Viking longhouse from 871 (plus or minus 2 years.) It takes about an hour to peruse the whole museum. A good bet.
The Reykjavik Museum of Photography was free and still not worth it. I saw one interesting photo of a girl playing chess with a puffin.
We did not see The Icelandic Phallological Museum, aka the Penis Museum, even though we saw a giant vagina in City Hall. Rick just didn’t see why anyone would want to see the 15 penises of The Icelandic National Handball team cast in silver.
We booked Northern Lights Tour thinking that they would know the sweet spots to find the best views. The skies must be clear and there must be sufficient geomagnetic activity to see the lights. Spottings vary from night to night, and from locale to locale. We booked the tour early in our trip because you can keep re-booking until you get a sighting. The first couple of nights were too cloudy. After we moved to a cabin on the Golden Circle there was a forecast for good Northern Light sightings so we took the three hour drive back to Reykjavik to get on a bus out of the city to look for the lights. We did eventually see them but as I was gazing up I asked “uh, what are we looking for”. Turns out that opportunities to see great Aurora Borealis by the naked eye happen infrequently (years). Most of the amazing photos are the result of clever photographic techniques. I was disappointed but Rick did manage to get one acceptable photo using his brand new camera. Dress warmly and bring a tripod and a red, green, or blue flashlight/headlamp to protect your night vision while setting the camera.
As we returned to Reykjavik, a heavy snow storm moved in which made the roads unnavigable and our GPS confused. Although we missed spending the night at our beautiful log cabin; we thankfully found a nearby basic hotel with availability. Winter weather in Iceland is unpredictable.
Rick continued to look for Northern Lights each night during our trip. On our last night he ventured out in a suburban neighbourhood in Keflavik and was treated to an exciting display which resulted in these fab photos.
Viking Horse Ride
On route to Golden Circle, we made a detour to Viking Horse Tours, located on the southeast side of Reykjavik (not to be confused with similarly named outfit on the opposite side of town). Iceland loves and protects their Icelandic horses; no other breed of horse is permitted in the country and laws require that every horse be given a three month vacation on the range every year. These gentle souls are a stout and hardy breed with two additional gates compared to other horses and become furry in winter to protect them from the elements. The rainy, overcast windy 3 degree day didn’t put a damper on our experience. We geared up with provided rainware, met our steed and saddled up. Because of our delay (which they graciously accommodated) we were alone with our guide, the horses, and the outdoors. This was Rick’s first time on a horse and “Blazey” treated him well. Our hour + ride through horse specific backcountry trails included history about the area. Afterwards we were hosted by the young couple who owned the business in their airy above-stable apartment for a light Icelandic lunch. They had a bitch “farm-dog” which had just had puppies. They told us that dog ownership is not all that common in Iceland, and true enough we didn’t often see dogs. This outing was my second favourite activity of the trip, after the ice caves.
There are two scenic drives in Iceland: Ring Road and Golden Circle. The Ring Road lives up to its name and encircles the entire island near the water. It takes about 28 hours to drive non-stop in perfect conditions. Tourists often take a week during summer to see the highlights and camp or stay in hostels along the way. The Golden Circle, our selected route, is a 300km ring east of Reykjavik which includes geysers, waterfalls, hot springs and Pingvellir National Park.
When we were visiting with Viking Horse Tours we mentioned that we might be sore from our ride. They suggested that we go to one of the local hot springs on the way to Golden Circle. (Who knew that it’s a good idea to have your swimsuit handy in Iceland!) They suggested either Secret Lagoon or Fontana. We opted for Fontana Hot Springs in Laugarvatn because it was on our route. The hot springs had several pools of different depths and temperature and a group of three steam rooms above the actual spring which you could hear bubbling. It was a relaxing oasis in the cold under a starry night. There is a fresh cafe where they served meals and snacks. Towels were available for rent but sandals were not.
In Golden Circle, we stayed at a quaint log cabin in a secluded valley which we wouldn’t have found at night without GPS and Rick’s strong navigational instincts. If left up to (directionally-challenged) me, we would have spent the night in the car in a ditch. Although there are a few other log cabins and a farm nearby, we seemed to have the valley to ourselves. The cabin was a comfortably furnished three bedroom house with large windows streaming in vast views. It was also equipped with an outdoor hot tub which would have been relaxing but…the last earthquake disrupted the geothermal patterns and the water doesn’t get quite hot enough anymore – at least for me. The geysers were close by so that was our first stop after a brisk quiet walk along the deserted gravel roads.
The English word geyser came from the original Geysir, the exploding geothermal spout in Iceland. As with most geysers, Geysir was energized by an active volcano, but it has paused erupting in recent years. Happily, Strokkur is only a few feet away and erupts frequently, but not predictably; sometimes with double other times single spouting. Rick spent some effort getting his timing right for this video.
Gulfoss waterfall is near Geysir. The visitor centre is situated above the falls looking over. It was a pretty setting but pales compared to Skogafoss. The paths were icy and crampons would have been helpful. Watching tourists climb over the railings to get to the edge for the best photo ops caused me some distress; but thankfully everyone made it back to the trail.
The unused hot tub was not a problem because we took an evening trip to The Secret Lagoon which is one large pool in a natural setting surrounding by scalding hot springs. We were able to buy wine and beer to drink in the pool.
This hot springs was our favourite of the three we visited because it was not crowded, inexpensive, and a relaxing natural setting.
We visited Pingvellir National Park (known with various spellings because there is no exact English translation), a historic national centre where many celebrations are still held today. It is the boundary between the North America and Eurasian tectonic plates and has a large fissure running through the park. It is also where the ancient Icelandic tribes met each summer, held a congress, and a court to settle disputes. Althing, established in 930 AD, is said to be the first national elected parliament in the world. Walkways are built over the fissure to points overlooking Thingvallavatin lake, a historic church, and mountains. In winter walking can be treacherous because, as elsewhere across Iceland, the road and pathways are not salted or sanded. Crampons would be useful. In summer, one can swim between the tectonic plates.
Glacier and Ice Caves
The ice cave and glacier walk were the absolute highlight of our trip and were worth a 5 am departure from our guest house. We met our group of 10 or so at a highway convenience store where several similar tours were organizing. There was a sense of excitement in the air. We loaded on every layer of clothing we had, anticipating that ice caves are cold, loaded into the van, and began to sweat. We headed up the highway a few kilometres, pulled off the road onto a snowy lane and drove for another twenty minutes. The driver got out and let air out of our oversized tires in preparation for driving on the glacier. The ride was rough and the sights were awesome. We were on Jokulsarlon Glacier! Actually there is only one glacier but the guides name different sections to make navigation and communication simpler. Since we were adjacent to Jokulsarlon Lagoon, the area was named Jokulsarlon Glacier.
We fell out of the van into a frigid wind that made us grateful for our layers. We then kitted out with crampons. It is hard to get these things on your boots when you are too layered up to bend over – but nevertheless, we managed. We then received a brief lesson in glacier walking, which involves heavy marching so that the crampons sink into the ice. We followed the guide towards the entrance of the ice cave. We could see through clear bluish endless ice under our feet as we were batted around by the wind on the curved ice. I marched like my life depended on it as I saw someone’s smart phone slide by me. The Asian tourist chasing the phone followed none of the marching rules and didn’t go over the side; so perhaps my trepidation was overdone.
There was a narrow path through thick snow towards the entrance of Jokulsarlon Ice Cave. The guides had used ice picks to enlarge the opening to make it easy to enter. I’d walked into Superman’s ice fortress crowded with tourists. It was beautiful, and not so cold, just above freezing. The ice appears blue because the weight of the glacier forces air out making the ice denser. After an hour or so, it was time to take our last photo and return to the glacier.
On the return drive, we stopped for a photo-op while the driver aired up the tires again.
Lagoon & Black Beaches
After the glacier and ice cave, we visited Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. As the glacier slowly melts water flows from it forming a lagoon and large pieces of ice fall off the glacier. These mini icebergs float towards the ocean and then get washed back onto the black beach by waves and tides.
The beach is strewn with ice that slowly erodes in the waves and sun forming unusual and beautiful shapes. When the sun shines on the beach, it is easy to see how it became known as Diamond Beach. Plan to spend some time roaming the beach amongst these ice diamonds – your imagination will see amazing things.
We explored more black sand beaches in search of the Basalt Columns on the southeast coast, near Vik. We first tried approaching from the north side but encountered blustery winds, fog, and sleet so heavy we could only see shadows. So we jumped back in the car and drove south through a small mountain pass where the skies cleared. We then found another Black Sand Beach to approach the Basalt Columns from the south. This beach was bordered by a cliff of geometric shapes that could have inspire some modern art pieces I’ve seen. They also provided an alcove-like cave that offered a barrier from the gales. From here we could see the Basalt Columns, looming like phantoms of the sea.
We had to fight our way against the gale back to the car, so we took a break at a nice beach cafeteria that had good soup and sandwiches and watery hot chocolate.
Warning to would be summer swimmers, this beach has dangerous currents which have drowned a number of swimmers.
Along this drive we also had a “who did it better” photo challenge. I saw a quaint church along the road and asked Rick to stop to take a photo. He bundled up and stood out in the cold to get the perfect photo. I sat in the warm car, rolled down the window, stuck my smart phone out the window and snapped the same photo from the comfort of the car. So who did it better? Well, Rick. Who did it “smarter”; Deb of course. That’s why they call it a “Smart Phone”; and also why he calls me a “Smart Ass”.
The Troll of Skogafoss
Even in winter, when Skogafoss flow is a quarter of Summer and Spring’s volume, this waterfall is breathtaking. We were lucky enough to see Skogafoss when the sun was shining and the rays through the fall’s mists displayed a bright rainbow.
We also took the stairs beside the falls to get a birds eye view. The second photo above is taken from a ledge mid-way up the stairs. As I’ve mentioned before, sidewalks, paths and stairs are not serviced. The ledge was just that, an icy narrow uneven ledge on the side of the cliff and not an engineered overlook. I do not recommend going out on the ledge, especially in winter, unless you have the balance, agility, and sense of a mountain goat. I wouldn’t have done it had I known, but there was no turning around once started. I’ll let you make your own judgement about how much sense we have.
By the way, there is a local competition among herders for rescuing goats from precarious ledges!
And we have since learned that there is a rock formation that resembles a troll overlooking the falls from this ledge. Another example of the mystical creatures that fill Icelandic lore. Rick wishes he had known about the troll so he could have taken the troll’s picture. And there is also the legend of a chest filled with gold and treasures hidden behind the falls. Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir (https://guidetoiceland.is/connect-with-locals/regina/the-beautiful-waterfalls-of-south-iceland) writes: “Þrasi Þórólfsson, the Viking Settler at Skógar (Eystriskógar) in around 900, hid the chest and it is said that the first man who goes there will find great treasures.” Rick’s contribution to Icelandic lore is that the troll is guarding the treasure. We’ll see if that gets passed down.
Blue Lagoon is a man-made resort and spa which bills itself as one of the 25 Wonders of the World. The 9 million litre pool is nestled amongst lava rock covered with a smooth white finish and is surrounded by walkways, spa buildings, and peaks of lava hills.
The water itself is geothermal heated and naturally instilled with silica, algae, and minerals which give the water is soft blue colour and is credited with health benefits. While relaxing in the pool, you can stop by the facial bar and treat yourself with a complementary silica mask and purchase additional treatments. There is also a waterfall, steam rooms, and a swim-up bar where you can purchase a healthful beverage or something more indulgent. Since their helpful website warns to stay hydrated, I tried a green veggie smoothy which was surprisingly tasty. The website also says to use conditioner before entering the pool to protect your hair; despite precautions, my hair was dry for weeks.
There are several packages available, but unless you are opting for one of the high end packages, bring your own towel and flip flops. We opted to indulge in floating in-water massages – a unique and relaxing experience. There are excellent facilities with nice change rooms, secure lockers, luggage store, etc. There is also a well rated restaurant but it was above our budget. I was also happy to learn that the pool is accessible for those who use a wheelchair.
Despite Blue Lagoon’s very efficient operation, the 3,500+ guests per day makes this feel as I imagine a large cruise ship would (not ever having been on one.) If you are able to venture further afield and you prefer a quieter setting or a more natural environment, Fontana in Laugarvatn or The Secret Garden in Fudir would be better options. They are both significantly less expensive as well.
Airport Transport: We took an airport bus from the airport in Keflavik to the bus station in downtown Reykjavik where we picked up a local taxi to take us to our hotel. At most times of the day, you could take a city bus to a downtown hotel. https://www.re.is/flybus/
Rental Car: If you are staying in downtown Reykjavik, a car is not needed. You can book coach tours from Reykjavik for most of the places we went. You can even arrange for a stop over at Blue Lagoon on you way to the airport. If you rent a car during winter or fringe Spring or Fall, be sure to get all wheel or four wheel drive with winter tires which may not be available at the standard North American chains. We booked a Subaru Forester with Lagoon Rental Car, picked it up in the city on our way out and dropped it off at the airport a few days later. Beware that Google Maps doesn’t have the exact location of the Lagoon airport car return centre; so get specific directions and allow extra time.
Holt Hotel downtown Reykjavik: A nice, conveniently located hotel with breakfast included http://www.holt.is/english
Log Cottage in Golden Circle: https://www.vrbo.com/893491ha#
Affordable room in suburbs near airport: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/15704024?eluid=1&euid=a51feb9b-4491-a2b4-11ec-d2cbf7f76807
Restaurants: We didn’t have a lot of luck with restaurants. Most were average and expensive. It was hard to find a restaurant outside of Reykjavik that was open in winter. So when we saw something, we grabbed it gratefully. Once again, I suggest soup, everywhere.
Reykjavik Food Tour: https://www.re.is/day-tours/reykjavik-food-walk
Walking Tour: https://citywalk.is/tour/free-walking-tour-reykjavik/
Icelandic Horse Tour: http://vikinghorses.is/ Phone Number:+354 660 9590
Ice Cave Tourby Vatnajokull Glacier – Departure from Jokulsarlon Cafe: https://guidetoiceland.is/book-holiday-trips/glacier-caving-in-vatnajokull
Northern Lights Tour: https://guidetoiceland.is/book-holiday-trips/northern-lights-deluxe-1
Tips: Aurora Borealis forecasts by geographic locations can be found online and at the “My Aurora Forecast” app.