Ever thought about going to Iceland? Here’s why you should.
First of all, check out our photos from Iceland: Photos galore!
Iceland is amazingly picturesque.
I wanted to put “beautiful” but beautiful isn’t really the best word to describe Iceland. Sure, there are many areas that are beautiful. Looking over horse fields to snow-capped mountains across a fjord is beautiful. The sun setting on a glacial lagoon filled with icebergs is gorgeous. But It’s also a little alien. Lichen-topped lava fields – the bright green mixing with deep black is unlike anything else you’ll see on this planet. Black sand beaches with sparkling white chunks of ice is simply an unforgettable sight. Watching the aurora dance and flicker across a glacier will give you the chills. And then there are times when it’s just majestic as heck. Seeing an ice cap for the first time is breathtaking – the brown-green of the fields giving way to a bright white expanse of snow and ice. Watching steam rising out of the ground to remind you that this place is alive and still being created is humbling. That is Iceland. To call it beautiful would be a grievous understatement because it is so much more than that.
Iceland is accessible.
We flew from Boston Logan and it was a five hour flight. That’s it. No big deal. You can drive to New York in that amount of time. Instead, hop on a plane, relax, and next thing you know, you’re in a foreign country. I found tickets via Icelandair.com for less than $500 roundtrip. You can’t travel to most places in the US for less than that. You might even get to see Greenland along the way! “But I don’t speak Icelandic!” you say. Luckily, the people of Iceland (and most people in the world it seems) speak more than just their native language. Most of them are incredibly fluent in English (making me feel ashamed for myself and most other Americans that can’t even master our ONE language). They’re also super friendly and willing to help in almost any way possible. While it’s always a good idea to learn a least a few cursory words in the language of the country you’re visiting, don’t let your inability to pronounce ‘Eyjafjallajökull’ keep you from going there.
What about the weather?
Did you grow up in New England? Good. Then you’re not a wimp and you can deal with the cold. Believe it or not, it’s not that cold in Iceland. What really surprised me was the wind and how quickly the weather can change. The wind really rips across the open expanse of lava fields. But it also brings in warmer air from the ocean when that happens. Two of the days we spent in Iceland were windless and the temperature dropped to about 25 degrees. I was completely comfortable (and I am ALWAYS cold) but that was the day I heard everyone complaining about the cold. I will warn you that when the wind gets whipping with the rain/sleet/snow it can be pretty miserable, but it’s not the frigid wasteland that most people think that it is. Iceland in November is a pretty odd time to go but we wanted to see the aurora and it’s really the only time to do so. I’ve heard that summertime is completely different and we’ll probably try to go then at some point.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, can you tell I loved Iceland? To be honest, I’ve always been a warm-weather gal – Iceland was NOT where I imagined my first trip abroad would be. Yet, for all of the reasons above, it ended up that way. Regrets? None. I went in with a very loose idea of what I wanted to do, keeping in mind that the weather changes in a second there and we might not be able to do anything other than bum around Reykjavik. As it turns out, I got to do almost everything on my list AND still bum around Reykjavik. We used airbnb.com to find a cozy apartment (Daniel was a great host) right in Reykjavik, one street over from the “happening” street of Laugevager. We spent our first two days familiarizing ourselves with Reykjavik and the promise of a nice forecast later in the week.
Our first big trip was the Golden Circle. This includes Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss. Þingvellir is a really unique area geologically and historically. It’s the site of Iceland’s parliament from 930 to 1798. It is also the site of the crest of the ridge between the North American and European continental plates – in essence, you can see the separation of these two plates on the surface of the Earth’s crust. I really enjoyed walking around all of the trails and paths there. It’s a beautiful area and we got some great photos there. Next stop is Geysir. This is the site of the geysir to name all geysirs. Yes, it’s name is actually Geysir and the word ‘geyser’ comes from it. Unfortunately, old Geysir doesn’t do much erupting these days so it’s up to Strokkur to supply the entertainment. It erupts on cue every 5-10 minutes. It was pretty cool to watch it erupt a few times over. The whole land here is pretty active geothermically so you can walk around see hot springs and fumaroles all over the place. It was very windy here so I was pretty uncomfortable, but Kevin walked to the top of a nearby hill and said the view was pretty spectacular.Our last stop was Gulfoss, an impressive waterfall just south of the Lángjökull glacier. It was extraordinarily windy there which whipped up spray from the waterfall and I was pretty miserable. We stayed just long enough to snap a few pictures and then stopped at the small cafeteria-style restaurant for our fill of lamb soup. Mmmm lamb soup. Our drive back took us to Selfoss, a city south of Reykjavik. We stopped at a cute coffee shop there for a bit before taking Route 1 back to Reykjavik. I was totally unprepared for the view we got as we passed Hveragerði. We wound our way up the side of a mountain to a snow-covered field of mountains and geothermal activity. The view in the setting sun was enough to take your breath away.
Friday was horseback riding day! Obviously being a horse person, I was pretty stoked for this. It did not disappoint. They assigned horses by riding ability and I was given a fiesty little pinto named “Pinto”. Seriously, he was so new that he didn’t really have a name. He was a good kid, but just interesting enough to ride that I didn’t get bored. Once we got underway, they separated the experienced riders from the inexperienced riders. It was in this way that I got to gallop through lava fields. Kevin stuck with the inexperienced riders for the first half, and when they gave us the opportunity to “swap” groups, he switched over to ours. He had so much fun that he wanted to book another ride! Unfortunately the weather went downhill on us and prevented that, but I’ll get to that later. I seriously recommend riding to anyone going to Iceland. There are a number of stables within 30 minutes of Reykjavik and there are horses for all levels. We used Ishester for our tour but there are many to choose from.
Saturday was our big day. We wanted to travel from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon. It’s about a five hour drive with no stops and we got going WAY later than we planned. Luckily the drive is amazing since you pass several volcanoes, three ice caps, beautiful farmland, lava fields, glaciers, epic waterfalls, and more. We stopped only a few times – once to see Seljalandsfoss( and amazingly gorgeous waterfall), once at Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that erupted in 2010 and screwed up air travel all over Europe for a few weeks) and once at the Skaftafellsjökull glacier at the start of Vatnajökull National Park.
We also saw the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers the caldera of Katla, a historically troublesome volcano in southern Iceland. Because of all this, we ended up in a mad rush to make it to Jokulsarlon before sunset. And we made it. Just in time. We had the most gorgeous sunset I’ve ever seen. The sky was pink, the mountains were white, the ice was blue. Jokulsarlon is a glacial lagoon filled with icebergs that have broken off of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. This is one of the most amazing and disturbing things I’ve ever seen. The Breiðamerkurjökull glacier used to go right to the Atlantic ocean. Sixty years later, there is a deep and expansive lagoon between the glacier and the ocean. As sad as this is, it is also incredibly gorgeous. The icebergs are a vivid blue due to years of compression, squeezing all of the oxygen out. Many of the icebergs are bigger than houses and will float in that lagoon for up to 5 years before they melt enough to escape the canal to the Atlantic. Speaking of that, if you walk to the other side of the road, you will encounter a black sand beach where the mini icebergs have floated up and beached themselves. The contrast is simply breathtaking. Kevin and I spent quite some time here, up until it was just about dark. Because Kevin had data service to his cell phone, we decided to check the aurora forecast since it was supposed to be a clear night. When the forecast deemed it an active night aurora-wise, we decided to stay in the area.
We ate a delicious dinner at Foss Hotel Skaftafell (Beef Cheeks and Arctic Char…yummm) about 45 minutes from the lagoon and then headed back. It was quite dark at this point and we got our camera stuff out to try to photograph anything that might happen. It was when Kevin was testing his settings that he first noticed a trace of red and green on his camera screen. It was the aurora! To the naked eye it looked almost like a mist or snow blowing off the ice cap, but the camera’s long-exposure saw it for what it really was – the aurora borealis. We hung out for a bit but to be honest, I was feeling a little underwhelmed. It never was the vivid green I’ve seen in photos. We decided to start the long drive home to Reykjavik around 10pm. It was as we were passing the Skaftafellsjökull glacier again that I chanced a look up out the car window and saw it. A long line of green, arced like a rainbow across the sky. I knew we were going to get a real show. I asked Kevin to pull over as calmly as I could, and told him to get out and look. The long green line across the sky slowly began to curl and bend. Next thing I knew it was dancing. The lights flicked and wavered within their line, much faster and livlier than I ever would have expected. I was breathless – it was, and still is, the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Our whole drive back to Reykjavik was punctuated by stops to see the lights as the waxed and waned. We didn’t make it back until about 4am and were exhausted…but happy.
Unfortunately Sunday and Monday, our two remaining days, were a wash. We got a storm with 45mph winds that shut down even the Blue Lagoon. We holed up in a cozy hotel room and tried to relax. While it would’ve been nice to have explored the Reykjanes Peninsula, I can’t say I hated our downtime.
Things that I really was NOT prepared for.
- How freaking expensive the food is. You want a meal for less than $15? Good luck. If you’re content to eat hot dogs (Icelandic hot dogs are seriously good) for every meal you can probably accomplish this. But a meal at even a no-frills restaurant will run you at least $30 for two people. Meat soup is your friend. It’s seriously delicious and one of the cheaper options out there. Or there’s always the hot dogs.
- KFC, Subway, and Quiznos everywhere. That honestly just surprised me. Never saw a single McDonalds or Burger King but those three chains were pretty prevalent.
- The wind. I can’t stress this enough. The wind was so bad at one point it ripped the rental car door out of my hands, breaking the hinge. The cost to pay for that was a pretty unpleasant surprise when we went to return it. Learn from our mistake – hold on to your car doors!
- No lights at all, especially at midnight when you’re five hours from Reykjavik. It was a little unsettling to feel so isolated. Be prepared for that and have at least minor supplies in your car with you in case something happens. We drove for over an hour at times on Iceland’s MAIN HIGHWAY without seeing another living soul.
- Pay attention to the speed limit. It wasn’t until AFTER we got back that we learned that the use of traffic cameras is pretty prevalent across Iceland. We’re not speed demons by any means, but it’s pretty easy to let the odometer creep up when you’re driving on a particularly flat, open stretch with no one else around. The speed limit caps out at 90kmh on most roads which will feel pretty slow to most Americans. Pay attention to that! We’re still waiting to see if we get any traffic tickets…which we’ve heard can be VERY expensive.
- In November, the sun rises for about 6 hours a day. It doesn’t get more than 10 degrees above the horizon, making it look like sunrise or sunset ALL day. It was absolutely beautiful. I had some abstract knowledge of this going on, but it is really disconcerting for it to look like sunset ALL day. It also made dealing with jetlag more difficult when it didn’t really get light out until 10am every day.
So seriously? What are you waiting for? Go to Iceland.