It’s a peculiar feeling when you visualize being in a foreign land you have never seen. Based photographs that you’ve glanced at you imagine the surroundings and fill in the missing dimensions within your mind. You can be close in some regards such as the colors and shapes and details of a specific landmark. When you arrive however, the place is not exactly as you envisioned it. Which is why no picture, no book, no facebook or instagram post can quite do accurate justice for any place—all your senses need an opportunity to absorb a place like a sponge. Just like seeing a great band live. The vibrations, improvisations, and distinct differences you hear that separate it from the original recording make it special and intimate. Nothing will equal it, and the feeling you get sticks with you since that moment is gone forever. Make no mistake, I’m not claiming to have had the best nor worst experience, but merely a glimmer and perhaps some motivation for others to explore this vast hunk of land in the North Atlantic Ocean.
For years, Iceland has been on the radar as a place to go as soon as possible, specifically to see the Northern Lights. In 2016, my Father and I took a 13 day trip to Norway for the same reason—to see the Northern Lights. For those of you who are familiar with the lights or the Aurora Borealis; it happens most frequently in the Arctic and closer you are to the North Pole when gases in the Earth’s atmosphere run into charged gases from the Sun’s atmosphere. The phenomena typically occurs during the darkest and coldest nights from September to March when there is little or no moonlight. If there is poor weather such as clouds, rain and snow, your chances are slim to none. During our Norwegian adventure, we were blessed with seeing the lights one evening, and our forecast for Iceland? Rain and snow the whole 6 days.
Planning your trip solely with the expectations to see the Aurora would be a mistake, as there is no guarantee, but there are plenty of reasons to go somewhere like Iceland other than the lights. We went in January where the daylight hours were roughly from 11:00am to 4:00pm to give us the best chance of seeing the lights during the end of the moon phase. Before departing on our journey I drew a map of Iceland on a blank piece of white paper and listed the most important places that we ideally would like to see. A few of the places we made it to and most of them we didn’t. Going for only 6 days anywhere only gives you a only glimpse really in a place as diverse as Iceland. The places we did make it to I will share with you below.
Taking WOW Airlines for the first time was limiting coming from LAX since the only option we had was to take a redeye flight. After landing at the Keflavik Airport at 5am, we weren’t really sure what we’d do that early, not to mention the sun didn’t come up till 11:00am. In Reykyavik, we attempted to check-in to our hotel, but they reassured us we were too early and to check back after 1:00pm. The concierge referred us to a little bakery restaurant that was open called Sandholt. My Dad and I each enjoyed a BLT, even though it had mayo on it—we are not mayo fans (yes we are weird!). Clearly we were hungry and didn’t want to deal with sending our sandwiches back for our first meal in Reykyavik. It was there at Sandholt where we decided that we would drive the Golden Circle to make the best of our time on the first day.
From Reykyavik the beginning of the Golden Circle drive was about an hour. At that point we were zombies and could barely keep our eyes open. On the snowy road we found a decent place to pull over even though it wasn’t entirely clear where the road ended and where the embankment began. About an hour or so after resting our eyes we got back on the road as the sun was coming up. The first picture shown above absolutely captivated us—literally stopped us the middle of the road as we left our doors open to take a look. The next major place on the Golden Circle road we came to was Geysir which is a geothermal field with spouting geysers. We didn’t stay long due to the way the light was hitting the mountains (pictured below)! It turned out to be incredibly ephemeral as I got a shot just as the clouds rushed in!
Gulfoss, the waterfall shown above (the 2nd picture) was the main attraction however. There’s no doubt in my mind that I could’ve stared at that waterfall for many hours. So many fine intricacies in every curvature of those rocks as water shifts and slices through every crevice perfectly. The wind howled and light snow brushed our faces. Gazing off at Gulfoss that day really gave us an adrenaline rush so much so that I feel I overlooked and totally missed Kerio Crater Lake, which is less than an hour from Gulfoss! We were also pretty anxious to get back to the hotel in Reykyavik and get some rest.
The following day we had reservations for the Blue Lagoon, but postponed it due to what our hotel concierge said, “there’s going to be some bad weather tomorrow.” Without question we could’ve made it and let it be a lesson to do your own weather research and not trust the words of someone else. The weather was almost equivalent to the prior day we drove the Golden Circle with a mostly rainy and cloudy forecast. Without a doubt we did make the best use of the day and walked around Reykyavik and got a good look at Hallgrimskirkja—the tallest church in Iceland (pictured below). The rest of the day we walked around and on the coastline we found the Harpa Concert Hall, which is a real spectacle from the inside and out with geometric shaped glass panels that glow different color patterns 24/7.
The following day we did make it to the Blue Lagoon, but the stops we made before the lagoon were some of the most memorable. In Hafnir, on the way to the lagoon, like a magnet we were pulled to these beautiful Icelandic horses with luscious locks (displayed in the 2nd to last picture). They were so friendly and hardly scared of two random Americans taking pictures of them.
Further down the road we encountered a place called the Bridge Between Two Continents in Reykjanes. A walkable man-made bridge that connects the mid-atlantic ridge—two diverging tectonic plates: the The North American Plate and Eurasian Plate. At the time, it really didn’t seem like much, but thinking back and wrapping my head around such a prominent geological landscape that diverges about an inch a year just jogs my mind. The area is covered with lava rock and volcanic remnants and the sand is a black thick ultra-soft powder.
Our road trip continued, and about 20 minutes later a picturesque lighthouse caught our eye (Reykjanes Lighthouse), as well as a display of a handful of unique rocks that stood unscathed by the violent waves. It was so cold there. At one point I took one of my gloves off to adjust my camera and my hand felt completely numb. My Dad felt the same way. At one point he came up to me and placed his hand on my cheek to show me how cold he was and I couldn’t feel it whatsoever. That scenery though was worth the pain. Probably one of our favorite stops of the trip. As I shivered in that 20 degree weather while a storm rushed in, that was the first time I’d seen so much beauty staring off at the ocean.
Approaching the lagoon, beside the road were a dozen or so Icelandic sheep. A couple of them came to greet us and were friendly. Most of the others stayed back and watched what we were up to. For some reason, just like the horses they were so charming. I’m not sure if it was the contrast of the black volcanic landscape mixed with the greenery, but these little guys were so appealing to our eye.
An hour or so before our reservation, we arrived at the Blue Lagoon. They had no issues with us entering before our time slot. We lucked out because we got there right at sunset with a gorgeous red hue hovering over us. It is required that you take a shower upon arrival and use their conditioner to keep the lagoon in its pristine condition. It couldn’t have been more than 25 degrees as we entered the lagoon. Its a pretty bizarre contrast going from below freezing temperature to over 100 degrees in an instant. The attraction really lived up to the hype. The exfoliating lava face mask was truly refreshing and my skin felt like it had a renewed layer. A couple hours is all we needed there before heading back to Reykyavik.
The following day we took a tour called the South Coast Classic with Reykyavik Sightseeing, which I would highly recommend. The tour itself lasts about 9 hours in total and while that may seem like a lot, it goes by actually quite fast. The night before our tour it dumped about six inches of snow and we weren’t too excited about driving in that weather and we opted to take the bus excursion. It was obvious due to weather we would miss some of the views like the Helka Volcano and Eyjafjallajokull, a glacier capped volcano, but it seriously was so worth it. Our guide was comical and gave a clear understanding of the surrounding area and how to pronounce Icelandic words. Other than a quick stop at a gas station for everyone on the bus to get snacks, the first stop was at the glacier tongue called Solheimajokull apart of Myrdalsjokull(pictured below).
This glacier was breathtaking to say the absolute least. Words can’t describe how much admiration I had for this marvelously contrasted landscape of volcanic rock and glacier. This place made me fall in love with Iceland. Although we didn’t do the hiking on the glacier, I would love to do it at some point. This area alone took the cake for me on the trip. Places like this make you feel so small and insignificant in nature and the grand scheme of life, as it should. Our trek back to the bus was a downright blizzard that flurried on top of us as we charged against the storm. It furiously snowed sideways at us full speed which felt like thousands of little daggers stabbing your face as they made contact. All of a sudden we couldn’t see more than fifteen feet in front of us and head to toe—we each looked like a snowman. What a compliment that was to seeing such a magnificent glacier and it really exemplified of the power of Iceland and its weather.
Following the glacier we stopped at the Black Sand Beach in Reynisfjara. The roads leading up to this area resembled the one that Ben Stiller skateboards courageously in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). The energy at the black sand beach was astounding. Our guide mentioned specifically to not get close to the waves because they’re incredibly dangerous due to “sneaker waves”. They creep up on you and suck you in unexpectedly if you’re too close. Many tourists obliviously get too close for a selfie and die or nearly drown as a result. This is proof that mother nature is no joke and unpredictable. Beside the beach are the basalt sea stacks, which also form into a larger columns that forms a cave. These uneven and jagged columns are part of whats called Garoar Cliff where plenty of Glaucus sea gulls were swarming around. During the summer months the famous Puffin birds are hanging out here.
Following Reynisfjara, the bus makes a stop for lunch in Vik. You have a couple of options and we ended up in the cafeteria and my Dad didn’t like his food (spicy noodles) however I really enjoyed the Icelandic meat soup with lamb. It was a refreshing and hearty meal after being on the cold Reynisfjara beach.
The final two stops are at Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss (pictured below). It was the tail end of sunset when we got to Skogafoss, and it looked so mysterious and precious as the water fell swiftly down from the cliff. The constant mighty roar and flow of the waterfall is just something to marvel at when you are in its presence. Seljalanfoss is more quaint in its beauty than Skogafoss, and if you’re lucky enough there’s a cave you can walk into just behind the falls and watch from a different perspective. It was closed because the walkway had frozen over a couple of days before we arrived.
Our last day in Iceland was mild due to a severe snowstorm once again that willingly posted us in Reykyavik. We did go to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, which was the major highlight of our day. In the observation deck it was clear for a few minutes before a blizzard took over and forced most of the visitors back down the stairwell and into the elevator line. If you have the opportunity to go up there you will get a pretty cool birds-eye view of all of Reykyavik. It’s a really neat looking town surrounded by water and the lovely mountains.
What we learned in Iceland.
It is really expensive! You may get a cheap flight like we did on WOW Airlines but once you get there the prices are close to triple the price and sometimes quadruple to what it cost in California what we’re used to. A common meal for two often ended up being over $40 USD and sometimes more. The cost of labor is expensive in a country whose population is about 300,000 people. Most of the food and goods are imported from other countries driving up costs.
Don’t buy water bottles. The water from the tap is the same as the bottled water and it tastes just fine. In the U.S. in some places we aren’t used to that, so if you bring one empty water bottle with you on your trip you should be good refilling it just about anywhere even your hotel sink.
Rent a 4-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle. Half of our trip would’ve been shot had we not rented a car. Originally we hadn’t planned on doing the Golden Circle and had we not rented a car we would’ve totally missed out on what was a really amazing road trip (although tours are offered for the Golden Circle but they were overbooked and worked out because we wanted to go at our own pace). The roads especially in the winter can be really sketchy. We must’ve seen a dozen abandoned cars throughout the trip that were on the wrong side of embankments. There are no guard rails or anything preventing your car from going into dangerous territory. With that said, driving careful and using common sense will get you just about wherever you need to go. We drove the Golden Circle and could have done so much more had my Dad not been as overcautious. A friend of mine was there at the same time and drove from Reykyavik to the Westfjords and even a bit more north during the snowy weather! The drive may take you much longer than normal but it is no doubt doable if you drive careful and pay attention to weather forecasts!
Get outside as much as you can! For this reason I really want to go back regardless if it is the winter or summer. So much of the time we were inside at bars and restaurants where we could’ve driven to a new place or explored just a bit more. Granted it was winter, and cold, and only a handful of hours of daylight, but we were prepared and dressed appropriately and had every opportunity to go elsewhere. Like Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” and I feel we missed some shots on this outing. The KP index (tells you the strength of the Northern Lights in a particular area) was pretty low for the 5 days we spent there (0-2 most of the time), although it was still possible to see the lights at a moments notice during breaks in the clouds. If you’re lucky you can see the lights in places like Reykyavik, but I’d recommend renting an AirBNB somewhere far from the city for at least a couple days so it forces you to get outside and just be relentless about seeing them. My friend who was in Iceland at the same time as us had amazing results and saw the lights a couple nights with stunning shows! The more time you have there the better and will give you the best chance of seeing the Aurora.
The preconceived vision I had of Iceland exceeded expectations to the point that I’m considering living there someday. Crystal clear air, friendly people,gorgeous landscape, and a hip artistic culture. No questions asked this on the top of my list for places I’ve been to, and for that I am eternally grateful for having the opportunity to have been. Alaska is the most extraordinary place I’ve been to and Iceland is the second, therefore if there’s any opportunity to go back to either of those places I will go in a moments notice. There is so much more to see and we only got a brisk taste! That is it for now and please get in touch if you have any questions or comments about this amazing country called Iceland!