It was 29 November 2014, four days before my scheduled trip to Iceland for my 30th birthday. I remember the doctors standing over me, trying to make small talk while they waited for me to fade into a drug-induced dreamland before a difficult biopsy surgery. I could feel myself fading, getting woozy, my words slurring as the anesthesiologist asked me about American politics. I cut him short, I had lost interest in his conversation, and looked up at the surgeon. I very poignantly told him he better be sure I make it through this surgery, as I had to cancel my 30th birthday trip to Iceland for this major medical inconvenience, and I needed to be sure I would one day make it back. They laughed at my bedridden bossiness, and then I passed out.
And now, two years later to the date, I’ve just returned from that trip to Iceland that almost never happened, and it was incredible.
Iceland is otherworldly. In all of my travels, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s lush and barren. It’s full of fire and ice. It’s desolate but overgrown. It is weird, and it is amazing. I think it may now be my no. 1.
Iceland was really put on the map in 2010, when the global news outlets covered the volcano eruption, piquing the interest of adventurous tourists. Tourism now makes up 60% of Iceland’s GDP, followed by fishing. Iceland’s land mass is 25% bigger than Ireland, but yet its population is only 330,000, just a mere 7% the size of Ireland. I’ve spent a lot of time driving through relatively uninhibited land in the American Midwest, but I’ve never seen anything so remote as Iceland.
Getting to Iceland was the easy part, myself and 7 of my friends all flew direct; four from London, three from Chicago, and one from Minneapolis. If you’re traveling to/from the USA and Europe, Iceland Air allows you to do a 7 day stopover in Iceland for no additional fee. This is a great deal, so if you’re planning a trip be sure to take advantage of this, because the rest of the trip is going to be costly!
Tip: You can negotiate prices in Iceland. It’s almost like they know how expensive the Icelandic Kroner is vs European currencies and the USD, and they feel bad so are willing to knock a bit off the price to make it more bearable. Our pizza delivery man told us we should’ve asked for a discount, so from then on out we weren’t afraid to ask, and most of the time got it!
Day 1: Arrivals, Blue Lagoon, & a night out in Reykjavik
Some of us landed on Friday night, with the others arriving first thing Saturday morning. For those that landed on Friday, we booked a room near the airport at the Geo Hotel, which had a free transport to/from the airport and the Blue Lagoon, which was a huge perk as cabs are wickedly expensive!
Since everyone landed at different times, we decided our meeting place would be the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool, and a good stop to coordinate when you’re arriving or departing, as it’s close to the airport. The Blue Lagoon is definitely full of tourists, but as far as tourist traps go, this one was pretty good.
We spent the morning floating around in the massive pool, dipping our hands between crevasses in the structure to fetch some silica mud to use as a mud mask. It really did make your face much softer! We went in December, which is the low season, but you still need to book your tickets a few weeks in advance as they sell out.
From the Blue Lagoon we headed to our flat in Reykjavik. We took a taxi, but there are plenty of buses to Reykjavik for a much more cost effective journey.
Tip: Driving in Iceland can be tricky. The weather is unpredictable at best, and there’s only one 4-lane road in the entire country. However, this is definitely the most cost effective means of transport, and the best option for exploration. I would highly recommend renting a car, but brush up on your bad-weather driving skills, and prepare to have your plans changed due to road conditions as you’ll inevitably run into some weather in the winter!
Our first night in Reykjavik we splurged on the tasting menu at one of the top restaurants, Grillmarket. Our 9 courses included some odd new foods, but no fermented shark! Reindeer, grouse and whale were foods I had never had a desire to eat, but they turned out to be pretty good! Although I still feel bad about eating a minke whale. They just look so cute. 😦
Tip: If someone offers you the fermented shark to eat, politely decline. The smell is wretched and something the locals do to watch the tourists cringe. Nope nope nope! Fermented whale does have deep roots in Icelandic culture. In tough economic times, it was sometimes the only food they had available.
Day 2: Golden Circle, Silfra Fissure, & Fighting Daylight
On Sunday morning, we were up early for a Golden Circle tour plus a snorkeling expedition at the Silfra Fissure. Some of the group had already done the Golden Circle two years ago, so we hired a private driver and added on a snorkel expedition to make sure they could experience something new.
Tip: if you have a bit of time, don’t try to do both of these in one day in the winter, as you’ll be fighting the daylight hours. When we were there in December, it was only daylight from 11-4!
The snorkeling expedition was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. The Silfra Fissure divides the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and some of the freshest water in the world occupies the space between. The 35F/2C water was so fresh you could drink straight from the fissure, and it was so crystal clear that you can see over 100m down! I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t cold, because it was, but it wasn’t unbearable and was actually much warmer than I had anticipated. On top of your clothes, you are also outfitted with a fleece jumpsuit, followed by a water tight dry suit, mask and mittens. I would highly recommend this for someone looking for an active adventure. And even better than snorkeling would be diving, so if you’re PADI certified add this to your list of dive sites.
The Golden Circle tour was nice, but something best explored on your own. You can easily drive to the waterfalls, geysers, and lakes on your own, so no need to do a tour unless you don’t want to drive while there. The sights were still beautiful though!
The cracks in this Earth!
Waterfalls on the Golden Circle
Day 3: Roadtrip to the South Coast
On Monday, three of the girls had to leave, so the remaining 5 of us rented a car and headed to the south coast. We drove Road 1 from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon Glacier, a 5 hour journey where the landscape changed drastically multiple times along the way.
Our first stop was in Vik, a coastal town on one of Iceland’s famous black sand beaches. Vik has a charming church overlooking the water, but the most impressive part of this town is the rock formations in the ocean and the black sand, caused from the volcanic explosions.
Black Sand Beaches of Vik at Sunset
Roadtrip to Vik
Wickedly cool Rock formations at Vik
The drive north then turned out one waterfall after another. At Selfoss, you can actually walk behind the waterfall to give you a different vantage point (and a misty shower).
An hour north of the mountainous waterfalls and the landscape changed dramatically again. Gone were the mountains, and instead they were replaced by a vast valley of mossy rocks that spanned for hundreds of kilometers. This was one of the most awe-inspiring views I’ve ever seen. Everywhere you turned were rolling hills (more like lumps) of volcanic rock covered in bright green moss. The mountains spanned the perimeter in the distance on one side, and the sea spanned the other. If you had told me I was on a different planet, I would have believed you.
The next change of scenery came as we got to the glaciers. Snow capped mountains sandwiched the glaciers, and the bright blue glacial ice magnified off the brown, barren flat lands leading to the sea.
The closer we got to Jokulsarlon glacial park, the more dense the fog became. We spent about 20 minutes driving in really dense fog, and had no idea what the scenery really had to offer until we pulled off the road to park the car. It was only then that we realized we were in a glacial lagoon, with seals swimming around the massive ice chunks that looked as clear as a perfectly flawless diamond.
It was here that we were meant to meet up with or ice cave tour, which we got REALLY excited about after seeing the lagoon. We waited around for a while, but our guide never came. When we called to find out what was going on, they told us the tour had been cancelled due to flooding in the cave. We assessed our options, then sprung into action and started approaching guides who were lingering around waiting for their tours to start. We just so happened to get into a glacier hiking tour with an expert guide. This was the best thing that happened to us. She was a local, independent guide who knew the glacier better than anyone it seemed. Her knowledge and experience was beyond impressive, and since she didn’t operate the large tour groups, she took us into parts of the glacier unknown by other guided groups. By the end of the trip, we were referring to her as the glacier cowgirl. She owned that glacier!
Outside the Crystal Ice Cave
Sunset on the glacier
Blue ice on the glacier
Tip: You should definitely book any ice cave or glacier tours well in advance. I recommend emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and asking for Laufey. But in case you don’t plan ahead, you could do what we did and ask the guides lingering in the car park to see if they have any extra space. You just may get lucky, we did!
After the tour, we stopped for dinner at the Hali Hotel, which was the only restaurant open for many miles. I had the best Atlantic char I’ve ever had, It was so wonderfully fresh and home cooked. From there, we headed to our simple cabin/bunkhouse for the night, located in the middle of nowhere.
Tip: with the exception of 1 ridiculously expensive luxury hotel, accommodations on the east coast of Iceland are few and far between. I recommend planning ahead, as you may end up driving for miles if you don’t have lodging pre-booked, especially in the high season. Also, there is no such thing as 24 hour reception, and most places have limited food resources, so be sure you pack your own or you may go hungry! Also, make sure you keep your gas tank full! If you run out, you may not get help for quite a while!
Day 4: Luxury at the Ion Hotel
Our last night in Iceland was spent at the Ion luxury adventure hotel. It’s an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, situation next to a power plant in the middle of nowhere. This hotel has been getting some serious accolades from the likes of Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveller, but it didn’t quite live up to its hype for me. The Ion is an ideal place to see the northern lights, or so we hoped. It even boasts a Northern Lights bar with glass walls to help soak in the aurora borealis. However, we failed at seeing the Northern Lights the entire time we were there. Had we seen them while at the Ion hotel, I probably would’ve rated this part of the trip higher.
A lone little tree all dressed up for Christmas outside our window at the Ion
Tip: Seeing the Northern Lights is really down to luck, not planning. The natural phenomenon requires no cloud cover, and a decent amount of particles around the sun. The Icelandic Meteorological office keeps an hourly Northern Lights tracker with a scale from 1-9 to help guide you to where you may see them. The highest we rating had the entire trip was a 4, and we sadly left without seeing them. On the upside, that just means our next trip will be chasing the lights in Igloos in Finland!
I highly recommend planning a trip to Iceland, and I guarantee however long you decide to stay, you’ll wish you could stay longer! I think I need to plan another trip in the summer to soak up the 24 hour daylight, explore the north, and take an adventure into a Volcano. Any takers?
And to my amazing gal pals, thanks for coming. And more importantly, thanks for being so near and dear to me over the last two years especially. Love you all!!