I’m terrible. I have not done a good job of keeping up with my travel blog. I spent a week in Iceland during Thanksgiving week in 2017 and I’m only writing about it now. I’ll do my best to recollect the trip, but that shouldn’t be too hard because it was a very memorable one.
My friend, Cindy, and I travelled to Iceland for the first time. We decided to visit when the days were shorter in the winter so that we would have a better chance of seeing Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. the Northern Lights. That’s ALL I wanted to see. We definitely saw it and more…
A word of caution if you plan to visit this part of the world in the winter: beware of treacherous weather. We had no clue how violent the weather could be. Iceland is a country accessible only by car when you get there. Volcanic activity, harsh winds, and snowstorms make subways and trains unviable modes of transportation. We rented (as many visitors do) a 4 wheel drive SUV and faced the strong winds and snow day and night. Cindy and I took turns driving and whether I was at the wheel or not, my palms were sweaty from nervousness. There were times when I felt like we would be blown off a cliff, although I would never admit it to Cindy so as not to frighten her. We drove so carefully and slowly into what looked like nothingness. The heavy downfall of snow mixed with the wind made us see only in white. Imagine driving in this at night! Needless to say, we had to make slight travel modifications, which you’ll read more about later. The country does have up to date road and weather conditions on a widely used site called road.is. It is also best to not go offroading or take shortcuts when weather is in question. To be quite honest, I’m so happy we made this trip during this time. Despite being in such dangerous predicaments, it was like being in a snow globe. It was surreal and extremely beautiful.
There is a popular route visitors often take called the Golden Circle, which starts from Reykjavik and loops around southern Iceland and back. We didn’t have time to do the entire route, but we visited some of the famous sights from this route. Like most people, we started in Reykjavik. Once we landed, we headed straight to the Blue Lagoon. It’s incredibly touristy, but I like to think it was less crowded than usual when we visited given the season. But we had so much fun and everything in and surrounding the area made it so picturesque. The week was filled with some really unbelievable sights but Blue Lagoon was one of the best experiences I had. The soft turquoise color of the water and the mystical look of all the steam had me snapping photos left and right.
Afterwards, we made our way to the South Shore. We did not explore the glaciers of Sólheimajökull but we did visit the Skógafoss waterfall - one of many waterfalls we would eventually see. We also ventured to Vik to see the Reynisfjara black volcanic sand beach - this was the most east we drove. I’d love to explore easter Iceland one day as I’ve heard it’s absolutely beautiful there as well. VIk is a small seafront village whose beach is made up of black pebbles and offshore rock formations. Nearby Vik, we made a short hike up to Dyrhólaey, which overlooks Reynisfjara. In Icelandic, Dyrhólaey translates to “door hill island” due to its natural arch and doorway-like hole naturally shaped by the force of the Atlantic waves over millenia. South Iceland is also home to Sólheimasandur Beach, another black sand beach. However, this beach is known for a plane crash that happened over 40 years ago. The airplane wreckage was never removed and the site has now become a tourist destination. Directions to the site can be found here. It is true what they say, it really is like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.
Other than the horses (which I’ll get to in a bit), one of my favorite things we did in the south was hiking through the snow filled trails with nothing but snow capped mountains and frozen rivers surrounding us. It was only a short hike in order for us to reach this hidden gem: Seljavallalaug. It is a hidden swimming pool sitting in a narrow valley that only locals knew about. It is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, built in 1923 and is still standing. In the early 1900s, many Icelanders didn’t know how to swim, even though many people lived off fishing. So the pool was created as a place to teach locals how to swim. Directions to this pool are here. When we were there, there was a man crazy enough to jump in the naturally heated pool (the water comes from a nearby hot spring). Mind you, there wasn’t anyone maintaining this pool at the time and the locker rooms looked very small.
When you drive through Iceland, you’ll notice herds of horses on ranches and farms off of highways and major roads. You will see MANY of them and you will want to pull over and pet them and play with them. And guess what? You can! It was truly one of the most amazing things we did while there. As we would drive (before the storm intensified), often we would stop and pull over to take photos of the horses and to pet them and hang with them for a little a while. The first time we did this was on our way out of South Shore. I swear, we spent at least an hour just hanging out in this field filled with so many pretty horses. They let us pet them and photograph them and get very close to them. They were so friendly. Apparently, “ponies” are an offensive term to refer to these beings because they are pure bred Icelandic horses and carry few diseases, if any. Once an Icelandic horse is imported out of the country, it cannot return for fear of mixed breeding. These horses are unique because they are much smaller than the ones we’re used to elsewhere and are much furrier - this coat of fur helps them withstand the harsh winters of Iceland. I hear in the sheep herding months of September, you something similar to this all over the country, but with sheep!
Our next stop was to north Iceland to the small town of Mvatn. This was about a 6 hour drive from South Shore because there was is no direct route. And you have to drove over mountains to reach this area. And during this drive was when the snow storm began. Oh, and did I mention that we only got 6 hours of daylight each day? Yeah, so 6 hours of driving ended up being longer and we were scared for our life. But we got through it and as we were passing the second largest city, Akureyri, and getting back on the highway to Mvatn, that’s when we finally saw it: THE NORTHERN LIGHTS. I remember we were listening to music from the band who did the theme song to Stranger Things, so it was extra eerie. It was like looking at aliens in the sky, green lights just dancing in the dark directly above us. As I mentioned, we just got onto the highway and the snow had subsided so the dark sky was clear enough for us to see the green lights. No one else was around us - it was almost like everyone had deserted town, so i stopped in the middle of the highway and we both got out of the car to see this wonderment. I will never forget it. And just like that, it ended and we got back in the car and finally got to our Airbnb in Mvatn. When we arrived, we’d see faint green lights in the sky and because this got us all excited, we stayed up until 3am standing outside in the freezing cold, patiently waiting for Aurora Borealis to show itself again. It wasn’t as strong as what we had first seen earlier in the night. My photos of Aurora Borealis didn’t come out the best. Ultimately, we gave up and went to bed.
We had many plans for Mvatn. We planned to hit up another lovely hot spring , the Mvatn Nature Bath, and because we are such huge Game of Thrones fans, we wanted to see the cave of Grjótagjá (another hot spring). This is where Jon Snow lost his virginity y’all!! SADLY, both places were closed due to the insane weather. I can’t tell you how disappointed we were, especially about the cave. Mvatn is such a small town, so getting to either hot spring would have only taken minutes. But mother nature took her course. We spent that entire day milling about at a very cute nearby cow farm/cafe/gift shop. (They make their own cheese there!) And to make things worse, we had to stay one more night in Mvatn than intended because of road closures. This is how bad the snow was, people! We were not the only ones whose itineraries were affected. Our host’s incoming guest also had to cancel and we had to cancel our night in Flúðir. Our Airbnb host was extremely kind vowed to help us whether it meant staying there for an extra night or helping us find another place to sleep. I believe all people of Iceland are very helpful and kind.
Once the weather calmed down, and the snow storm passed, we slowly made it out of Mvatn and back towards Reykjavik. Although the snow had stopped, we had to be weary of road conditions. One time we almost went off-roading very slowly on an icy path. We were about 15-20 minutes in before we realized we needed to get back on the larger, safer road. We spent the last few days visiting final sites we wanted to check off our list, and pulling over to play with horses here and there. We went to the Gamla Laugin Secret Lagoon in Flúðir (we wanted to fit in as many hot springs as possible!). Btw, this lagoon is not so secret. We also saw the geothermal Geysir and massive multi-tiered waterfall of Gulfoss. The wind at this point had a strong windchill factor. My face hurt so much from the cold but seeing these sites, like Gulfoss, in these frozen temperatures made it so impressive and unique looking - like straight out of Game of Thrones. :)
We spent our last nights in Reykjavik. It reminded me of being in a ski village like at Whistler Village in Canada. I loved this city and wish I could have spent more time there. We did try the world famous lobster soup at Sægreifinn where you can also try shark and whale meat if you’d like… They also have all kinds of fresh fish. It was amazing. We also spent the evening at Harpa Concert Hall to roam around the very modern architecture, even though there were no exhibits open or concerts happening. We just spent a lot of time there exploring and photographing. What can I say? We’re easily entertained.
This was one of my longer posts but a lot happened and I needed to unload my memory before I forgot. I’m looking forward to another adventure in Iceland.