I know this may come as a shock to many of you but it’s not often that I’m at a loss for words or rendered completely speechless. Actually it has only happened only twice in my life and one of those times was in Iceland. It is a truly unique country that upon first impressions leaves you completely lost for words. After a few minutes of taking the landscape in, you are suddenly filled with so many adjectives you feel like your head is actually going to explode. I hope you are prepared for a very descriptive post!
Iceland is a tiny Island situated in an enviable position between Europe and the United States. A 2.5 hour flight from London will see you arrive in Reykjavik, the country’s capital. IcelandAir, being the clever cats they are, allow you to stopover in Iceland for up to 7 days at no additional cost when flying transatlantic between the US and Europe. I wish I knew this ahead of time! It is certainly a place you can visit more than once.
Iceland is out of this world. It is volatile, rugged and moon like. It is beautiful, magical and breathtaking. It is without a doubt, awe-inspiring. It was a place I’ve really only thought about visiting this year, and the idea to go before Christmas was only conceived in November. Our flights and hire car were booked no more than a week before we left. It was a last minute gamble that well and truly paid off.
I had attempted to do some research in to visiting Iceland and quickly found there was so much information that it was easy to be overwhelmed. What does one do when there is just too much to get through? Stop reading and start winging it!
Oliver and I were due to fly out late on a Monday evening and we received a text around midday to say that we had been rebooked for the following morning; at 7am which means a 5am check-in. Trying to get from South-West London to Heathrow by 5am without a car is virtually impossible so I Facebooked messaged IcelandAir to see what could be arranged. A couple of hours later we were booked in to a great hotel near the airport with a food allowance courtesy of IcelandAir. Thanks guys!
Most people tend to do 5-10 day road trips around Iceland. We landed in the middle at 7 full days and due to the limited daylight hours (around 11am-3pm) and unpredictable weather we stuck to the Golden Circle part of Iceland’s ring road and went as south-east as Hof.
This is how our week looked:
Day 1, Tuesday
We arrived in to Keflavik around 11am, were picked up by our rental car company and taken 5 minutes down the road to collect our car which within about 10 minutes was known as Sara, the Suzuki Grand Vitara.
The team at Green Motion and Iceland 4×4 are great. They were easily the most friendly, switched on and helpful Icelanders we met! They also gave us a free portable Wi-Fi device for our trip in return for a good review ;). They were great though, and the wifi saved our last minute butts on numerous occasions. We also had an issue with a brake light not working the next day and they fixed it straight away, while giving us road trip advice and coffee. As we set off on the 35-minute trip in to Reykjavík we were abruptly stopped by a road closure and absolutely no cars were getting through in either direction. Great. After about 20 minutes, we put Sara’s 4×4 abilities to the test and did a little off road driving (sorry Mum) and we were back on our way. I had really had enough of delays at this point and I was hungry. Never a good mix.
Reykjavík is a pretty peculiar place. At last count (Jan 1, 2015) the entire population of Iceland is 329 100 with two thirds living in Reykjavík and surrounding areas. We stayed at Guesthouse Galtafell and the location was great. It is only a 5 minute walk from the popular Laugavegur shopping street and Hallgrímskirkja Church. We wandered around both places and had some rather average and pretty expensive spaghetti and meatballs. This was our first introduction to what would be mostly disappointing food in Iceland and all with a hefty price tag! While some people we met got excited over trying Icelandic delicacies such as whale, puffin and shark, I personally couldn’t think of anything worse. After lunch we walked around the church and got great views of Reykjavik from 6 stories up. I was a little disappointed that this church had a lift taking you up to the viewing platform, not a spiral staircase. How non-European!
After the church we continued walking and being the stereotypical Australian travellers, got super excited about an almost frozen lake!
As it was starting to get dark, we went back to the guesthouse, jumped in Sara and went for a drive. We ended up standing right by the beach, realising we were looking out to the North Atlantic Ocean and it was so windy, cold and it became apparent that a) we were really far from home and b) wondered how on earth people lived right by the beach without being blown away.
A short wander and snowball fight later, it was time to defrost back in the car and see what other weird and wonderful things we could stumble upon. We saw a glass dome in the distance, started driving towards it, got out and discovered that it’s the The Pearl, Iceland’s only rotating restaurant. The platform had 360 degree views of the city and was a windier version of Brisbane’s Mt Coot-tha lookout.
Reykjavik is a cool place to checkout but Iceland has so much to offer that I would recommend only spending a day in the capital and then heading out of the city to explore.
Day 2, Wednesday
After clearing the snow and ice off the car we had to get coffee, breakfast, road trip snacks the aforementioned brake light fixed. Everything in Iceland is expensive but if you go shopping at Bonus Supermarket, it’s pretty on par with Australian prices and really, you can’t put a price on warding off hangriness. After the chores were done, we set off for Geysir, a small town known for its active hot springs and geothermal bread which is baked underground for 24 hours and tastes pretty awful to be honest! Strokkur is the most active geysir and explodes every 5-7 minutes, sending 100 degree water in to the air. It’s definitely worth seeing and and the contrast between with scolding water and snow is very cool.
By the time we got to Gulfoss it was quite dark and you could hear the waterfall rather than see it. We spent the night at Gesthus Selfoss and it was great! The cabins are pretty basic but anything surrounded by snow and trees wins in my book.
Day 3, Thursday
WE SAW THE NORTHERN LIGHTS!!!!!!!! But first… let me tell you about our day. From start to finish, it was completely amazing. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui waterfalls (I swear I’m not making these names up!). The waterfalls are incredibly powerful and equally amazing. It’s possible to walk right beside the falls (you get super wet as we found out) and also behind them. The slippery snow and ice surrounding the falls made it a little tricky but we persevered anyway, and spent more than an hour walking around and admiring the beauty of these natural wonders. You are literally driving along a regular road and all of a sudden you look up and there are these amazing falls, glaciers or black sand beaches. It takes you so long to get anywhere because you’re constantly stopping and excitedly exploring.
27km down the road from Seljalandsfoss is Skogafoss Waterfall. It is 62m high and surrounded by two glaciers. There are incredible views from the ground level, and even better ones after you ascend a pretty impressive staircase and jump over a step ladder to take in the views.
After seeing these incredible waterfalls we made our way to Vik. The best part about driving in Iceland is that there are signs that look like the command symbol on an Apple computer and it means there is something worthwhile seeing. We saw one of these signs, and stumbled across Dyrholaey. The rock formations are incredible and at it was a great place to be at dusk, which happened to be around 4pm.
Each day, with the help of our wifi modem, we figured out where we would like to go and booked our accommodation accordingly. One of the many pluses of travelling in the off-season is that places are much quieter and a lot cheaper. We struck gold with Hotel Katla. It is located about 5km east of Vik with views of the mountains and a lake. The staff were incredible, the food was pretty good and there is a geothermal hot tub and sauna. It’s also the place we had our first glimpse of the incredibly famous and rarely seen northern lights. Seeing the lights was number one on my bucket list. I was really keen on seeing them in Norway, but time did not permit travelling that far north so I was incredibly excited about the prospect of seeing them in Iceland. It is by no means a guarantee though. You need a high level of aurora activity, as well as clear skies and a few other things that I don’t really understand to all work together! We had heard whispers during the week that Thursday night would be the night to see them, but the locals are very wary of getting your hopes up. After a massive day of sightseeing and then being fully chilled out after lazing about in the hot tub, I was pretty keen to go to sleep. Thankfully Oliver decided to check for any sign of activity around 10:30pm and when I heard a very excited “Britt, hurry!!!” from down the hallway, it was go time. We could see a little bit of green in the sky from our hotel, but there was a mountain in the way and some light pollution from the hotel. We were both pretty sure the display wouldn’t get much better but decided to jump in the car and drive a few kilometres down the road where it was really dark and there were less mountains. As i said, we weren’t too confident we would see anything so we went in pyjama pants, a jacket and thongs… and it was about -5 outside. Of course as we started driving the lights really came out to play. It was out of this world. The sky was dancing with green colours, stars, spiral shapes and we could even make out a harp. I tried to get a photo, quickly realised my iPhone was not up to the challenge, and then decided to just take it all in. It’s honestly so phenomenal that you just want to be in the moment and not watching it through a phone or camera lens. We watched the aurora activity for a good 45 minutes and as our toes started to turn purple, we decided it was time to go home. We were on such a high and felt so lucky that we were able to witness the Northern Lights. If you have the chance, go searching for them, you will not be disappointed. It was the perfect end to a brilliant day.
Day 4, Friday
While it was going to be tough to top Thursday, Friday was also up there. The lovely staff at Hotel Katla arranged our glacier hike for us. Before arriving at Skatafell National Park, ready to walk on Svinafellsjokull Glacier Tongue we stopped at the base of Eyjafjallajokull, the rather naughty volcano that wreaked havoc on European airspace when it erupted in 2010. Let us hope it now remains dormant for another 200 years at least!
Ice caves and glacier walking are huge in Iceland and there are numerous tour operators to choose from. We went with Icelandic Mountain Guides and they were great! They supply you with hiking boots, crampons and lots of interesting information about the glacier and Iceland in general. We were so lucky to have perfect blue sky, very little wind and a group of 5 going on the walk. In the summer they take up to 30 people each time. Another reason why winter is a good time to visit! Actually walking on the glacier and checking out the ice crevices and formations was a very surreal and very cool experience (pun intended).
When we got back to the car it was around 4:30pm and starting to get very dark. I had booked a place to stay in Hofn and we punched the directions in to the GPS and it turns out the place was 90 minutes away, not the 20 minutes we had thought. I quickly realised I booked in the wrong town. Iceland have a place call Hof and another one called Hofn but is prounced ‘Hup’. Ooops. Lucky for me when I called the owner of the guesthouse, she laughed at my mistake when I mentioned I had a major blonde moment and booked the wrong town and didn’t charge us for the cancellation. We then ended up in Hof, a tiny village with about 20 permanent residents. We stayed at the Hof 1 Hotel and it was… interesting. The rooms reminded me a lot of a hostel, they charged $40 per person for a lackluster lasagne and the service was average. Like most places in Iceland, they have a sauna and spa that we were very much enjoying until one of the staff members came in with her male friend, rudely kicked us out out along with an unimpressed Swedish couple, switched off all the lights, closed the blinds and stripped off. Not much imagine needed as to why she was in a rush to get us out… If you can avoid staying in Hof, that would be advisable.
Day 5, Saturday
We headed to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon after the staff at Hotel Katla recommended it and said how it was great to do one of the boat tours there. We were rather amused when we got to the lagoon and saw it all completely frozen over. Just FYI, boat tours stop in October. On our way from the carpark down to the lagoon it looked like there was awesome snow. Oliver excitedly took off, slipped over and realised it wasn’t snow, but ice as his head came in to contact with it. Lucky for me I took the safer route but was on concussion patrol for the next 24 hours. The lagoon was very alien and highlights the impact global warming is having on our planet.
The drive from the glacier lagoon back to Vik was quite spectacular. We stopped off to say hi to some Icelandic Horses and also to get some photos of the beautiful surroundings.
We stayed at Hotel Katla again on Saturday night, they upgraded our room and threw in free breakfast. Now that’s how a hotel should be run! We chatted to a group of people in the hot tub who were on a tour and while they were having a great time, they were on constant time limits and couldn’t randomly stop at places along the way. If you have the time, DEFINITELY HIRE A CAR! it’s honestly the best way to see Iceland.
Day 6, Sunday
I had heard about black sand beaches in Iceland but to be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Coming from Australia we are accustomed to beautiful golden and white sand beaches and are very proud of our impressive coastline. Well Vik schooled me and took my beach snobbery down a couple of notches. Black sand beaches are actually really freaking cool! Especially when there is a light dusting of snow on the sand that you can write in like an excited 7 year old. The basalt columns that look like step pyramids are also awesome. Oh and so is the view out to basalt sea stacks in the middle of the ocean. Photos just do not do it justice. You have to visit!
After the beach we headed to another black sand beach, this time to see the famous plane wreckage from 1974. Luckily all the crew survived and seeing the completely gutted wreckage wedged in snow is pretty cool. Thanks to this blog from Expert Vagabond we found the site pretty easily and he explains the history well. The road was quite snowed under so you would definitely want a 4×4 if exploring in winter.
In the afternoon we traded the black sand beaches for the Secret Lagoon in Fludir. You absolutely have to go here. It is a geothermal lagoon heated to 39 degrees and you can float around with pool noodles for as long as you like. We got there at 3pm, changed in to our swimwear and made the quick dash from the bathroom to the lagoon as it was -11 outside! It wasn’t crowded and the Litli Geysir is nearby and you can watch it erupt from the lagoon. We spent about 3 hours here, were well and truly relaxed and entertained by the fact our hair was freezing together. I would hands down recommend it over Iceland’s most famous landmark, the Blue Lagoon.
Now when I’m in charge of getting us to our accommodation for the night it doesn’t seem to go to well. I had read the reviews of the hotel we were staying in that night and many said it was hard to find and it wasn’t coming up at all on Google Maps or the car’s navigation system. So we were kind of winging it. After I led Oliver 3km in to a snow covered forest we figured we were on the wrong track, oops. It turns out the hotel is actually right next door to the main tourist attraction in town. My bad.
We eventually arrived and the hotel was great. The room was nice and newly renovated however the food was absolutely terrible. I can’t even explain how bad it was. The receptionist kept telling us how lucky we were to have a room for so cheap as well. Um, hello, have you seen the AUD to oh I don’t know, every other currency in the world right now? Nothing is cheap. Unless you go to Poland or Russia. So the rooms were great at Hotel Litli Geysir but avoid eating there if you can.
Day 7, Monday
We woke up to it snowing on our last full day in Iceland. I still find snow absolutely magical and it made Iceland look like even more of a winter wonderland. Once again, we pulled over to take some photos!
On our way back to Reykjavik we stopped at Pingvellir, a place where the world’s first ever parliament met. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, a national park and also the place where the American and European tectonic plates are visibly divided. You can snorkel between the tectonic plate divide but given the weather we thought we would give it a miss!
We spent Monday afternoon at the Blue Lagoon. It seemed like one of those things that you absolutely HAD to do if you went to Iceland, so we did. While it was enjoyable enough, it was so incredibly touristy and still quite busy. I think it would be unbearable in the summer. If you have to choose between here and the secret lagoon, absolutely go to the secret lagoon!
We had an early flight on Tuesday morning and therefore stayed at Kef Guesthouse, about a 5 minutes drive from the airport. It was right next to our carhire place, and the guesthouse have a free shuttle service as well as clean rooms and free breakfast. It’s a great place to stay if you are getting in late, or leaving early.
After 7 days in Iceland I can safely say it is a place you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO VISIT. If you are looking for a holiday that is completely out of this world, unique and mind blowing, it is the place for you. It is an incredibly safe country (they are the only European country without a defence force), the Prime Minister is rumoured to not have security, it has a seriously unfair proportion of amazing natural wonders and the whole country is easily drivable. It is not cheap place to visit, nor is it a culinary destination but it is a easily the most incredible place I have seen. I have been left thoroughly charmed.
Have I convinced you to add it to your 2016 travel itinerary yet?!