When I tell people that I went to Iceland, they often ask me ‘Really? Why? What is there to see? ICE?’ They would then break into profuse laughter. It seems like many people are simply unaware of the beauty and mystique that Iceland possesses. If you’ve already done the usual European tourist hotspots, I highly recommend considering Iceland for your next holiday. It’s the perfect destination for people looking for the unexpected. Something out of the ordinary.
Located in the North-Atlantic ocean, Iceland is very much a bridge between continents. Sitting along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it marks the division between the European and North American tectonic plates. It takes approximately five hours to fly from New York to Reykjavík (the capital of Iceland), and three hours from London. We flew from London and Icelandair, WOW and Easyjet all operate flights daily.
When to go
Given its isolated location, Iceland is a vivid landscape of contrasts and extremes. Planning your trip will inevitably be dictated by these natural wonders that are literally littered around the island. We spent 5 days enjoying Iceland’s surreal summer, during which the skies never get dark. At the peak of summer you will have 24 hours of continuous daylight, and even in in May when we went we experienced the briefest period of twilight between sunset and sunrise. This can play havoc with your sleeping patterns, but walking around at midnight in broad daylight is something I’ve never experienced before.Contrast this with the Icelandic winter, where you can experience up to 18 hours of varied darkness. During the winter, the twilight hours also become extremely exaggerated as the sun hangs around in the sky but doesn’t rise all the way. This means long sunrises and sunsets, and makes for great photography! The darkness, cold temperatures, and its geographic location near the north pole mean that Iceland is also an excellent place to try and catch the aurora borealis, AKA the Northern Lights.
Since Iceland is so sparsely populated, getting away from light pollution is easy. Speaking of the cold, Iceland is actually not that cold due to the warm Gulf Stream current. The average temperatures in December stay around 0 degrees Celsius, and don’t vary much more than about 2-3 degrees warmer or colder. In summer, the average temperature range is 10-13 degrees Celsius, but can reach 20-25c.Deciding when to go then will really be dictated by the kind of activities that you wish to do. In summer, the snow and ice will have melted away and road access will be a lot better, allowing you to see parts of Iceland that you may not get to see in winter. You’ll also be able to travel faster, and have PLENTY of daylight to see things. Lush greens, flowing waterfalls and whale watching all await. Great if you like self-driving at your own pace like J and I. But I would also love to go back in the winter. From what I’ve seen it truly is a winter wonderland, and the northern lights are something to treasure. In the winter, you can also go ice caving – something you can’t do in summer. Our itinerary was by no means comprehensive, but it did allow us to see a lot of what Iceland has to offer.
First up, we flew into Reykjavík and picked up our car (Toyota Landcruiser). We spent two nights in Reykjavík, staying at 101 Hotel @ 101 Hverfisgata 10, Reykjavík. This was a beautiful boutique hotel with a great location and spa/steam room to relax. We allowed a day to explore Reykjavík itself and a day to visit the Golden Circle, which includes Þingvellir national park, Geysers and Gullfoss Fall. You can easily do the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavík. In my opinion, there really isn’t much to see at Þingvellir or at the Geyser so if you’re running out of time I would give those 2 a miss. However, you MUST not miss Gulfoss Fall. It is one of the most and if not, THE MOST amazing waterfall I’ve seen in my life. The sheer force, size and power of that waterfall just left me speechless.
There are plenty of restaurants in Reykjavík and there are two we would recommend. If you feel like something casual, there is a great Thai restaurant called Krua Thai . It is a bit weird to eat Thai food in Iceland but seriously, you can’t beat tom yum soup on a cold day! If you feel like something fancier, try Grill Market. There is also a casual restaurant called Noodle Station that everyone seems to rave on about on Tripadvisor but I did not like it at all.
For some reason, I became obsessed with Icelandic waterfalls. And so after Gulfoss came Skógafoss. Being one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland, it’s impossible to miss as you’re driving along the ring road from Reykjavík to Vík.
Our next stop was the beautiful little town of Vik. With its untouched black sands, blue skies, clear waters, basalt cliffs and undulating landscape, it’s as charming as the puffins that roam about in the evenings. This little town is so much more than just a stop over. It is an attraction in itself. It really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
We stayed at the Icelandair Hotel Vik. This little Icelandair hotel is, in my humble opinion, as good as you can get in Vík. It boasts brand new scandinavian inspired furnishings, floor-to-ceiling windows, excellent albeit pricey food, and genuinely friendly staff. Of particular note is the inviting hot and strong shower – I absolutely despise showers where the water pressure resembles that of a canine marking its territory. When booking, be mindful that the old wing of the hotel is called Hotel Edda Vik but may show photos of the new building. The new wing is Icelandair Hotel Vik. I highly recommend making a stop here for a night or two on your travels around Iceland.
From Vik, it’s then possible to visit Jökulsárlón Lagoon. Being an easy 2 hour drive along the Ring Road, you can actually do it in a daytrip. Jökulsárlón Lagoon is a glacier river lagoon, full of icebergs shaped like sculptures and coloured beautifully by their surroundings. Literally hundreds and thousands of these icebergs adorn the lagoon.
Taking a ride on the amphibious vehicle is a must, allowing you to get up close and personal with these remarkable pieces of ice. Going in and amongst the field of icebergs is quite a majestic experience, not to mention a feast for the senses as you take in the deep blue aqua colours of the water and icebergs as far as the eye can see.
The last stop on our Iceland road trip was the otherworldly ION Luxury Adventure Hotel. Set in the middle of nature, the hotel is truly isolated and is a perfect example of how Iceland can make you feel like you’re living on another planet. We didn’t actually explore Selfoss, but used this hotel as a stopover on our way back to Reykjavík.
The Blue Lagoon
On our way to the airport for our flight home, we made time to pull into the Blue Lagoon. This would have to be one of the most popular attractions in Iceland, and the number of tourists (including us) confirmed it. However it’s popular for good reason – it’s literally a giant bathtub that pools six million litres of geothermal seawater from 2000 metres beneath the earth’s surface. By the time it reaches the lagoon, the mineral-rich milky, aqua blue waters simmer at temperatures between 37 and 39°C. I opted for a massage whilst floating in the geothermal waters and would recommend it.
The Blue Lagoon is a fantastic albeit pricey experience that you should do at least once. It’s a short 20 minute drive from the airport so it can literally be the first or last thing you do in Iceland.
What to pack
Although it is not icy cold during summer in Iceland, it can still get quite chilly especially when you are near a waterfall! In terms of clothing I brought along with me:
1) A chunky roll neck – I wore this throughout the entire trip
2) Thin knits – for layering over my thermals
3) Leather pants – more for looks than anything but it did keep me warm
4) Jeans – extra pair of pants in case something terrible happened to my leather pants
5) Skirt with opaque stockings – just in case the weather gets a bit warm
6) Parka – a slightly waterproof one with a hood will be handy
I ended up wearing everything that I brought along with me.