It has been a dream of mine to travel to Iceland for a long time. I remember the first time I discovered the small Nordic island nation, I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school, when I happened upon the unusual land of fire and ice. I was awestruck that such a bizarre place really existed; a place where the bigger the van, the cooler your social status. Geothermal hot springs surrounded by snow capped volcanoes. Flowing rivers sky blue in color surrounded by snow and ice. I had to go! So, when I learned of Iceland for the first time fifteen years ago, it was not yet a popular travel destination as it has become over recent years, thanks to good marketing.
I didn’t realize it then, but it would be another 15 years until I would rehappen upon the idea to visit Iceland. I had been shopping for good indie music festivals, like Coachella, but with fewer well-dressed hipsters, a lower ticket price, and more indie musicians. I was surprised when I dug up what I was searching for on YouTube. The Iceland Airwaves Festival. I remember thinking, wait, what?! There is an Iceland Airwaves Festival?! A music festival hosted by the nations premier airline (there are only two), hmm…at first glance, I worried that this was some sort of heavily corporatised subpar music festival. My skepticism dissipated as I watched footage of the festival, which displayed music venues with performances held in the blue lagoon geothermal spa, hostels, coffee shops and record stores with native musicians singing in Icelandic and adorned in their wool Lopi’s (Lopi: the fashionable Icelandic sweater).
In that moment of discovery, I knew I had my case, we would go to Iceland under the guise of the music festival. Okay, not exactly a guise, but I would dangle the carrot in front of my husband’s nose, as I knew this international festival would certainly satisfy his dog-hungry appetite for music. And at long last, I would visit my coveted, offbeat Iceland, and he would satiate on music and Nordic culinary adventures, because to his palette fermented shark (Kæstur hákarl) is a delight! To read more about the Iceland Airwaves Festival, click here.
Prior to our arrival, with some searching as there is an abundance of places to stay through Airbnb and the like, I found a cool place to stay on VRBO in the quiet neighbourhood of Seltjarnarnes (pronounced: selt-yar-nar-ness), which is only 10 minutes West from downtown Reykjavik on a peninsula. The quiet and ease of parking in the more remote neighbourhood of Reykjavik during the time of the festival enticed me to book along with the fact that the apartment also came with a car. Yes, a car! Albeit, the car-apartment combo wasn’t any cheaper than renting a car on your own, but the opportunity presented far less hassle. Our host offered to pick us up and drop us off from the airport for a fee, and while I have nothing against public transportation (I encourage it), Iceland is not known for its public transit, so it seemed to offer more independence after a long flight than taking the bus into Reykjavik from the airport and coordinating further transit. Traveling hassle free and staying with locals is always a good bet, so we booked right away with Siggi (short for Sigurður), a nickname he uses with unfamiliar international travelers to Iceland. If you are not already aware of Iceland’s active subterranean, due to the plentiful supply of geothermal water, homes are heated with ambient heating. In other words, if you leave your socks on the floor, they will get nice and cozy! No furnace or vents in the apartment, just a simple knob thermostat you turn to select 20 or 25 degrees Celsius. Pretty cool! Also, the water that comes out of the faucet is divine, drink up! I didn’t smell any sulfur smells as I read in other posts online. Delicious tap water straight from the faucet. As a side note, if you are looking to stay with Siggi, you are forewarned that Siggi’s stovetop didn’t allow for any elaborate cooking, and yes, you will want to cook while you are in Iceland because if you haven’t heard, everything in Iceland is expensive. Define expensive? How about $20 draft beers and $40 sandwiches! Yes, Iceland is expensive.
Leaving Seltjarnarnes to head towards downtown Reykjavik, a short jaunt in >10 minutes. Also, beyond the difficulty in trying to enter Icelandic characters into Garmin, your GPS will and can let you down about half the time. Stop at a gas station and grab some maps. However, don’t expect a lot of detail in the maps, you may have to use your common sense through a couple of intersections while navigating with maps too! Don’t worry you get used to this! Ah, rugged Iceland.
Siggi’s beloved and trusty Mercedes steed.
Here is where I come in with my slogan as “an honest traveler”. Iceland is a fabulous place to visit and we will absolutely be back. We were even lucky to see the Northern lights the last night before our departure (more on all of these details later)! Iceland has so much to do and see! Really tons to see. Here is where I advise that if this is your first trip and you are trying to make the difficult decision as to when to visit, that you should probably seriously consider going during the winter months! I knew full well that we were visiting during a time when winter had already been underway. I was happy to go during winter, in fact, I insisted on it! When I spoke to a friend of a friend who had formerly lived in Iceland about our plans to go in November, she said, “yeah, you are going when it is not that nice of a time to go”! I brushed off the negativity, I was excited to go, and especially not during the warm three month period, when Iceland gets hit by a mass of tourists, thank you very much! I wanted to see the real Iceland, the cold, short day wintery Iceland. But let’s just say that on this trip, I learned why they don’t do daylight savings time in Iceland. Since, Iceland is situated between 63 and 68 degrees North latitude, in the deepest of winter, they may get four hours of light. In early November, during our visit, I was amazed to discover that the sun did not come “up” or rather no light at all until 9:30 a.m, and it was gone by 5 p.m.! Due to the heavy cloud cover and the angle of the sun during winter the light appears to barely touch the horizon, in other words the sun is a tease! Icelander’s are truly a tough bunch! We rarely saw the sun, just the glimmer of its radiance!
You may have heard the bit about the gulf stream and the warming effect, and how Iceland winters are really not that bad, more like New York winters, Greenland should really be called Iceland, and Iceland should be really called Greenland? While this is all true, you should know that southern Iceland is a decently, cold and wet, soppy place, at least during the month we visited. Local attire can consist of a one piece snow or tracksuit and boots to keep dry in their native climate while spending time outdoors. That is how wet it is, and we are not talking your average rain, no! I mean Icelandic HAIL rain, and it comes down in buckets. So, what does that mean? Cloud cover? Yup, practically constant! They have so much water, they pack it into bottles and sell it for a premium as an export. Pack waterproof boots, you will thank me later.
So, if you are traveling to Iceland to see the sights, you may not want to be stubborn like me and come to see the “real Iceland” during the colder, darker 9 months of the year. Because it is expensive. Because it is cold. Because the light of day doesn’t begin until 9:30 a.m. combined with jet lag, and the lack of bright sunlight coming through your windows, there were days we often physically couldn’t bring ourselves out of bed until noon! And yes, we hold day jobs! The Icelander’s propensity for resilience is seen in the country’s weather patterns. Our host Siggi was up by 9:30 a.m. to go to his workshop, incredibly, Icelander’s still manage to keep fairly regular hours, although business hours adjust to the shorter days. You have to, I think, with that many months of darkness.
And there you have it, in a country with so much to do, see, and discover, this is tough on a traveler and their wallet. I encourage you to consider coming to visit when the smart European travelers come, in the summer! This is when the days are very long and you can traverse the whole island (they close highway 1- the road that circumnavigates the island- after the summer months to protect travelers from getting stuck and into deathly accidents). That means you can’t get up to Akureyri without a plane and see all that Iceland has to offer. We drove back in the hail rain from Snaefellsness peninsula in the dark, semi’s drove by one after the other, splashing buckets onto the windshield and the hail rain was torrential, we could hardly see, I can only imagine driving in a blizzard and how challenging and dangerous that would be. Again, we didn’t see as much of this beautiful peninsula because seven hours of total daylight doesn’t allow for too much sightseeing.
Here is another hard lesson learned. Don’t rent an apartment that comes with a car unless it comes with 4WD! (Let Siggi know if you don’t want to use his car, he had some other guests that rented their own.) Iceland has roads that are especially designated for vehicles with 4WD ONLY, which in our case meant we could not go see the infamous volcano that shut down air travel in Europe in 2010- Eyjafjallajökull (I am not trying to pronounce this one). We did want to head Southeast to see the glacier Vatnajökull (pronounced: Vat-na-yu-kull) and couldn’t because of road accessibility that did not permit vehicles like Siggi’s trusty old Mercedes. So, again, consider going when it’s warm, when you can see everything and make the best use of your travel funds in the land of fire, ice and $20 (very tasty) drafts. With a week’s time and the long daylight hours you could easily drive around the island. If you are going when it is warm and trying to decide between traveling around the island versus focusing on the southerly portion and visiting the Golden Circle instead (this was a big question mark for me in planning my travels). My suggestion is to not to stress about the Golden Circle! It really can be done in less than a day, if you are really trying to decide how to fit it all in. That is not to say that the Golden Circle and southern Iceland are not exceptional. Gullfoss (Gold Falls) and Geysir (Pronounced: Gey-zeer, the Geysir that named all Geysers) were indeed impressive and you can stand very close to this very impressive and powerful waterfall. Strokkur is the geyser that erupts every 10 minutes, Geysir is no longer active. You can also snorkel the Silfra River in a 2mm wetsuit at the old Parliament site, Þingvellir national park (pronounced: “thing-feh-leer”).
Visiting the Geysir (gey-zeer) that named all geysers!
Visiting Iceland’s first humble beginning’s, it’s first parliament in Þingvellir Park.
Gulfoss waterfall (gold waterfall) on the Golden Circle. It is one of the largest in Europe, and yeah, I was standing that close! Pictures and words pale to describe it’s glory. Between the mist of waterfall and the hailing rain combined with the freezing temperatures, I couldn’t feel the skin on my legs for a full 3o minutes after, it was an exhilarating visit, but consider waterproof clothing while traversing the Golden Circle.
Keep in mind if you would like to see the Northern Lights (also know as the aurora borealis) and that is most important to you, more than any waterfall or other feature Iceland has to offer, then late fall-early winter is the right time to go! I have read that the months of October and November are when they are at their strongest. We were in Iceland for nine days and managed to see them.
Here are some “honest traveler” tips to share on viewing the Northern lights from Reykjavik as well. Due to Iceland’s heavy precipitation patterns there are nights when it is sometimes more difficult to view the Northern Lights, you have to wait for a clearing, which is usually in the later night hours (see the link above for agreement). We paid for a boat tour that departed from the harbor near the Harpa (Reykjavik’s incredible music hall and where you pick up your wristbands for the music festival) and it wasn’t cheap! $100+/per person for a two hour excursion. The idea is to view the Northern Lights away from the city lights while further out on the Atlantic. However, we didn’t see much of anything because of the partial cloud cover and the lights that did appear were weak in strength that night. If you didn’t get an opportunity to see the lights, the company did offer the opportunity to participate in a whale watching tour during the day with your ticket stubs. However let me tell you, although we enjoy a good boat excursion and majestic whales, we did not want to step foot on another boat after that experience. The icy cold became too much to bare even in a full track suit to sport to try and stay warm. We weren’t the only ones, but perhaps we were a little wimpy coming from coastal California.
We are smiling, but cold! We thoroughly enjoyed the boat ride. The waterproof gear they give you to withstand the freezing Atlantic night air, while trying to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but you will still struggle with standing on deck due to the unforgiving icy cold of the Northern Atlantic air and sea.
Still, we were incredibly fortunate during our one week stay as we did get our chance to view the aurora borealis. Words cannot describe how spectacular! Not that you had doubts, but this phenomenon is not overrated! I was awe struck to just have had the chance to witness them. They start in green and fade to shades of pink and purple and move across the night sky in bands like rivers. If it had been an even clearer night, I think I would have just flipped out and decided to never come back home. That is how spectacular the viewing was, which leads me to yet another exciting tip I can’t wait to share with you all, you can thank me later for this one!!! By incredible dumb luck and coincidence that I didn’t even plan, it was the last night before our departure, and as mentioned we were still staying in Seltjarnarnes, which is practically at the edge of the world for the southerly inhabited part of the island. Around 11:30 p.m., we simply turned the corner in the neighbourhood where we were staying, as I recalled on our first night in Iceland, this neighbourhood is pitch dark at night as all the houses come to an end including the traffic. Low and behold, there it was, waiting for us! We were around the corner from perfect, local viewing of the Northern Lights the whole time!!! And it was ridiculously easy! We did not have to climb mountains, camp outside, pay for ritzy hotels, just make a simple turn around the corner and look up. I have to admit, I didn’t anticipate having put together such good planning. We couldn’t have left Iceland the next day on a more positive note!
Some of the best images I captured with my canon digital slr, the quality of images could be higher, however you can see how incredible these colliding atoms really are!!
In short, there is far too much to describe regarding Iceland to fit in one blog post. I hope this post gave you some much needed answers to questions in your travel planning that other travel blogs may not offer. Iceland has some fantastic topography and since the country is small, you can see so much different terrain all in one day. I think this is why people love Iceland. One minute you are on the coast looking at puffins, the next you are standing next to a jaw dropping waterfall, a geyser, the continental divide and then grab a soak in a geothermal hot tub! We will be back! The music scene in Iceland is impressive. There were more music venues in a small radius in downtown Reykjavik that I have seen in the U.S. or Europe. Impressive for a small country. We have more to see and discover, we couldn’t possibly see all that Iceland had to offer in those nine days, let alone with the short days. So, we will have to come back and it will be fun to return at a different time of year and have a different experience. The rest of my adventures in Iceland I can tell with photos below including our day trip on the ring road, and more honest traveler tips on the blue lagoon and other excursions!
Our journey traversing the Golden Circle. Major stops include Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss.
Sheepshead dinner at Hotel Viking. Sheep are one of Iceland’s important local agrarian products. There is so much rain and grass as a result, they are all grass fed. Surprisingly, my beloved husband’s palette did not appreciate the sheep’s head (I give him a lot of credit for trying)!
Hotel Viking Restaurant Interior- Íþróttahúsið Strandgötu, 220 Hafnarfjörður
Delicious Icelandic Rye Bread and Tapenade at the Hotel Viking Restaurant. Yes, tapenade, is Mediterranean not Nordic, but they love it. A common dish on the menu in Iceland is lobster bisque. Their lobster is smaller and sweeter giving the bisque a unique flavor. We enjoyed! Try Saegreifinn to get the best lobster bisque the country has to offer at the harbor downtown.
A view of southern Iceland on the way to Grindavík, decomposing volcanic glass covered in moss, the Blue Lagoon neighbours this small village. The blue lagoon is about 35-40 minutes from Reykjavik.
The inside of the blue lagoon, and not much of a photo. We opted to leave our cellphones in our lockers. At this point, the selfie stick was (perhaps still is) laughable. Be sure to prebook!! With some research, we went with the premium package from what was offered. This comes with slippers (flip flops) and a robe (never used it, too cold to be out of the water), a care package of travel size Lagoon skincare products (I treasure this and still have in my bathroom), and one drink, along with a reservation at their premier restaurant, Lava. We never went to the Lava Restaurant, as we were too eager to explore Reykjavik. I have to share we had our first drink right in the lagoon, it was the perfect introduction to Iceland. We shared an Icelandic Gull draft lager (oh sweet nectar) and a green juice smoothie. Icelander’s love their mixed juices, my green drink was a mix of apple, banana, mango and ginger, it was a refreshing welcome. The water was just perfect! In Iceland, thermal baths are a popular past time, remember to fully bathe and shower (get naked!) before leaving the changing room, and to fully dry off after bathing. They are sticklers about this!
The entrance to the Blue Lagoon. We booked a reservation in advance from home, a must if you are to visit the famed site. We booked our visit on the day of our arrival and I can’t think of a better welcome to Iceland. Plan for later around 2 p.m. as you will very likely arrive at 6 am jet lagged and too exhausted.
A lunch buffet is included with entry to the spa. Here you can try an old Icelandic recipe only offered here (I think). Geothermal bread. Rye bread baked in geothermal heat for 24 hours, the sugars in the bread crystallize giving a dense sweet texture to the bread.
Look the bigger the van, the cooler your social status! Okay, it looks like things have changed since the documentary I watched at 15 years old, as I did not see pimped out vans everywhere, but the lifted cars with the oversized tires are for climbing glaciers.
Flúðir (Fluh-der) the town with geothermal greenhouses everywhere after the Golden Circle. Growing vegetables is challenging in Iceland, they produce some local veg in geothermal heated greenhouses. You can stop at certain spots and buy greenhouse grown produce on the honor system. Cool!
Icelandic horses pose like fashion models and are found on gravel backroads running freely.
Fermented Greenland shark. The smell of ammonia lived up to its reputation!
The site where Snorri Sturluson was killed by a raid orders of the king of Norway. You have to visit this museum to learn an important part of Iceland’s early history.
Horseback riding. I will emphasise that I did not experience the infamous third gait of the Icelandic horse. Haha! 🙂 A rather bumpy, but very enjoyable ride! Good memories.