Not-coincidentally timed with it being the hottest destination aside from Cuba (figuratively certainly not temperature-wise), this past New Year’s I treated myself to my all-time bucket list destination, Iceland. Deemed as such from that first layover in 2003 when I bought Renee an overpriced shot glass and could afford nothing else. Tourism is on the rise which made it an interesting time as ever to explore the land of ice and sea and to put myself into deep debt.
One thing I hadn’t done was mentally prepare for the lack of light, extreme cold, shortage of vegetables or the draining expense. My biggest dilemma of all while packing was whether I bring snow boots or hiking boots; and I had no regrets of leaving anything luxury behind and bringing both!
In our 5 days exploring trendy downtown Reykjavik, the famed natural beauty of the Golden Circle and the Black Sand Beach of coastal Vik, there were a few things I was surprised to learn along the way.
They say weather in Iceland is unpredictable, snowing one minute and dry hours later. Yes, it is Iceland after all but I’ve never before experienced the fury of mother nature as I did at her best there. A snowstorm of fluffy snowflakes on our first day made it feel like Christmas, contrasted against heavy rain and hail with wind so strong an umbrella was useless on our second.
Driving back from Vik, the steering wheel would shake as heavy snow was blown across the arctic tundra onto the road, so fast and thick you couldn’t see in front without searching for the yellow marker on the side of the road. On that day it was so fierce I could barely open the car door to take a quick snap of Skogafoss waterfall but it was worth it!
Slippery, black, and constant, there is no shortage of ice and Iceland is well named for its surplus of frozen water in the winter months. Traveling to the arctic on budget-airline easyJet, I was frustrated my flight was delayed only to have learned by a friend who had already landed, the wind at Keflavik Airport was so strong she sat on the tarmac for 2-hours because it was too windy to bring the exit stairs to the plane door.
If heading to Iceland in the winter you will need a hooded lined jacket, snow and/or hiking boots, thermal layers, waterproof gloves and a good hat to keep the heat in. The lowest it got was -6C (21F) but the windchill was so unbearable at times I don’t want to dream of knowing what it actually was.
2 . Self-drive is the way to go
On the one side renting a car allows you the flexibility to choose your own adventure whilst maximizing the few hours of daylight you have. On the flipside, when two Australian’s volunteer to drive then only realize once it’s too late that neither has driven on the other side of the road or in the snow, we might either truly have a proper road trip or a serious problem.
Trying something different, we opted to try Carrenters, an Airbnb-style car rental company where locals rent out their cars to tourists, and insurance and such is legit. In fact, we found the locals so nice and accommodating it came as a bit of surprise especially when we were in the wrong. Our car rental was actually about a 15-minute drive outside of the city, but our rental gladly dropped it off and picked it up from the city center to make things easier for us clueless tourists.
The road signs aren’t the best so I advise using a GPS to read out the few turns in advance. As the roads can be very icy, even on popular routes of the Golden Circle or down the south coast to Vik, utilize daylight hours to the best of your ability, drive slow and be prepared for volatile weather.
In a place where the primary attraction is the natural beauty, it honestly looks as if you are on another planet, self-drive gives you the opportunity to go slow through the landscape as it so drastically changes at each turn; to pull over to pet wild Icelandic horses, or to arrive into your next destination witnessing majestic sunsets and sunrises.
It can be eery when setting off, being in the middle of nowhere in deep fog with few cars around, snow tornados dancing on the landscape, driving further into what feels like a white nowhereland, but it also means you can time your visits to the popular attractions when the masses of tour buses are elsewhere and you can chase the Northern Lights night after night.
Big applause and thank you to Jake who put in the tiring hours, kept us safe during crazy weather, and made it awesome!
3. The great outdoors
It goes without saying that seeing the Northern Lights was my biggest goal for this trip and I’m sad to share that I never saw them, yet! The wild winter weather meant that most evenings the skies were cloudy, the opposite requirement for the dancing light spectacle.
The closest we got however was on a clear night in Vik. After a great meal and awesome service at Suður-Vík, we hiked up past the town’s cute little church on the top of the hill, albeit a bit buzzed with a local beer in hand, and stared into the night sky. The North Star shined so bright I finally got why it was such a big deal. A new discovery came as we stumbled upon the church’s cemetery. Illuminated crosses lit up the graveyard, a huge surprise but a totally cool experience, honoring Christmas tradition.
Not far from Vik is the magnificent, and ever melting Sólheimajökull glacier (a part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap). Icepicks and crampons were required for our 3-hour glacier hike with Arcanum Glacier Tours led by chatty Maya. More fascinating than the details of the glacier and the rate at which it’s melting was the fact that neighboring volcano Katla could blow this century and the emergency back up plans are so outdated that the farmhouse a few miles down the road could never cater for the 3,000ish tourists who climb the glacier each day.
The Golden Circle is a must drive for any visitor to do once. While it’s not a circle, it certainly is a loop of approx. 237k, typically starting at Þingvellir National Park where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are split apart creating deep fissures in the ground. Many go scuba diving or snorkeling in the fissure called Silfa which is full of freezing glacier water but that surely didn’t sound too appealing to me.
The next stop is Geysir in Haukadalur, where geothermal pools bubble and geysers erupt at the surprise of the masses of tourists who stand around to witness. The colors alone are spectacular in addition to the water shooting up to 100 feet from Strokkur every 15 minutes or so.
Gulfoss waterfalls puts Niagara to shame! Very icy were the paths to get across both the upper and lower viewpoints to watch the Hvítá river viciously flow over various ravines and into the deep earth below.
Like something out of a movie, seeing the ice form lines in Kerið Crater Lake was beautiful and I only could imagine how piercing blue the water must be when not frozen. Despite an entry fee to maintain the grounds, it was totally worth walking the perimeter as the sunset over the neighboring mountains.
There is a big divide between great food in Iceland, and things you don’t want to write home about. Then again, your budget alone may determine if you will eat well at all. In addition, there was strong evidence of a lack of green vegetables, compensated by really good potatoes with every meal, and unluckily for us the local fisherman were on strike.
In Reykjavik, new restaurants are popping up all over town to cater for the surplus of tourists thanks to Icelandair’s clever marketing and free layovers between the US and Europe. Of those we tried, I recommend:
Messin: On our first night the 3 of us shared the traditional Icelandic dish of fish stew. In our unexpected favor, cod was the only fish on offer due to the strike and bad weather. One giant pan was served with mashed fish, garlic, white wine and cream, dressed with potatoes (as is everything), lime and cherry tomatoes accompanied with customary sweet local rye bread. A very moreish meal indeed.
Ostabudin: This delicatessen and restaurant is one of the most popular in town and for good reason, the menu is limited but standout. We shared an over generous cheese board before devouring the arctic char and salted cod, ‘must-haves’ if you are in Iceland.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: I would have never imagined I would stand in a line for 45 minutes for a hot dog but let me tell you IT WAS WORTH IT! There’s a reason why The Guardian named it the best hot dog stand in Europe. Go with ‘the works’ and let them pile on all the toppings including ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish aka the special sauce. The combo of all of the above made me wish I got two!
There are other traditional Icelandic dishes to try like smoked trout (the smokiest I’ve ever tried anywhere), rye bread ice cream and Jake took one for the team and tried fermented shark followed by a shot of local liquor Brennin to remove the taste. “Tastes like feet and smells like rubbing alcohol,” he said. Your breath after is apparently the worst, and I was even still going to give it a shot until I saw Rob gag. If interested, touristy Café Loki across from Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja is your spot.
Note that most cafes open late since it’s dark until about 11 am. That can make it a bit difficult to find a cafe for a good coffee or breakfast if heading off in the early am.
For one, I never expected Iceland to have such fantastic local brews. Even more surprising is the locals don’t know much about them. There were a lot of Christmas beers on tap, with a tradition for most local breweries to change them up each year. That meant that we were often asked which Christmas brew we wanted to try, but no one could actually explain how it tastes other than “Christmas”.
Common brews are Viking and Gull but our favorites were the numbered microbrews from Borg such as Leifur Nordic Saison NR. 32 and Garún Icelandic Stout NR.19 as well as a variety from Einstock. Happy hour does exist at most bars so take advantage of it and save yourself the ISK.
The overall lesson is, they like their beer and have some good ones, just don’t ask them what it tastes like or if you can have a try otherwise they will be dumbfounded.
If you like wine expect it to be overpriced and underrated, totally not worth it. For a great whisky selection, you could spend all day at relaxed rock bar Dillon on the main street Laugavegur.
And don’t be that tourist and buy bottled water. The local water is as fresh as it comes, although because of the sulfur the smell may have you guessing otherwise.
There were tons more interesting and fascinating elements to this trip but that simply means I’ll just have to return once my wallet replenishes. In the meantime, here are a few more snaps to enjoy: