Iceland has been on my bucket list for at least 7 years and I have always wanted my first trip to be during the winter. The fantasy was for me to sit in the Blue Lagoon while staring up at the Northern Lights during the middle of winter. You might be thinking winter is not the best season to go to Iceland, after all it is called Iceland, but I’ve been wanting to see the Northern Lights and it’s hard to see them when sunrise is at 3AM and sets at midnight during the summer. Also, everyone knows it’s a misnomer as Greenland really is the country that colder. I heard 2017 is supposed to be one of the best winters to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. So, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to Iceland I go.
My plan was to meet up with my brother and sister-in-law. They live in Germany and we figured it was a great halfway point, besides the fact that we all had been wanting to go. We only planned for a long weekend, so I booked a flight that left at 6PM from Boston (arriving at 4:30AM in Iceland) on Thursday and I would leave Iceland on Monday afternoon at 4PM. This gave me 3 ½ days to explore.
I booked through Wow Airlines because, let’s face it, I’m cheap. I’m also a light packer so I was able to pack all my winter clothing for the extended weekend into one personal sized carry-on bag that I was not charged extra for. Here is a link to their baggage allowances. Wow Airlines allow 1 personal bag at no extra cost and 1 carryon bag for a fee. They, as expected for a budget airline, also charge for checked bags. To be honest, I actually didn’t mind this airline. I’ve flown many budget airlines in my travels and this seems to be one of the nicer services. They still try to sell you a bunch of junk you don’t need and will charge you for water, but as long as you plan ahead and grab your diet coke and pretzels at the airport before boarding, then the flight won’t be that bad. I had a chair that was moderately comfortable and it reclined, although not a lot of legroom – which I think is expected on a budget airline.
Althought my brother and sister-in-law are not utlra light packers, they don’t tend to over pack either. They knew they would need to check a bag and when looking at the prices for Wow tickets plus baggage fees, it ended up not costing much more for them to fly the nicer airline, Icelandair. They raved about the service and leg room. I’m short, so I don’t tend to need a lot of leg room. My sister-in-law in 5’10” and brother is 5’11” so they like to have the extra space. If you keep an eye on the Icelandair site, you can sometimes find some great deals. I would suggest signing up for their mailing list so you will know when they are offering a great deal. They also don’t charge extra for a layover in Iceland. So if you are planning a flight between the US and Europe, you might as well see about a stop in Iceland for a few days.
I flew during the middle of a blizzard. Apparently Boston and Iceland are pretty much okay with flying through blizzard weather – who knew! Well, obviously everyone in Boston and Iceland knew. We were actually only 1 of 5 flights that left from Boston that day, but I made it and I was very excited to be in the warmer weather of Iceland than being in a blizzard in Boston. Iceland was overcast with some snow showers and I was, unfortunately, not able to see the Northern Lights, but hey, it was warmer.
Oh, I should mention, even if you type Reykjavik in when you are looking up flights, you don’t actually fly into the Reykjavik airport. The Reykjavik airport is for domestic flights only – the airport for all International flights is about 45 minutes south of Reykjavik. This actually didn’t faze me until my brother mentioned it when we were planning my pickup from the airport. That is, on Thursday night while I was sitting at the airport waiting for my flight to board.
I’m a lucky girl and my brother picked me up, so I didn’t have to worry about an airport transfer when I arrived. However, his flight left at 7AM on Monday morning and my flight was booked for 4:30PM later that day. Since I didn’t really want to spend the day near the airport and, more importantly, didn’t want to wake up at 4AM, I decided to take the bus back to the airport.
It was relatively easy. I ended up booking through flybus which picks up/drops off in Reykjavik at the BSI Bus terminal. It’s close to downtown Reykjavk so super easy to access. There is also a nice park close by, which I walked through on my way to the bus terminal. It’s a great spot to hang out if you have a little extra time on your hands. The airport transfer cost about $25USD and is an extra $5USD to have them pick you up/drop off at your hotel.
Another option is Greyline, they seem to be a little cheaper as a hotel pick up is €24. If you want to go to Blue Lagoon before returning home or when you first arrive, this shuttle service offers up the option of a 2 hour layover at the Lagoon – I would suggest only doing this if you have extra people with you as it is a private shuttle and cost a little extra. Lastly, taking a taxi seems to be around $100USD.
To car or not to car? That is the question.
We rented a car. This was a big debate for us as when we were booking as we were not sure what the weather would be like and therefore not sure of the road conditions. If it was summer I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but, being winter and in a country I had never been too before, we were a little concerned. It ended up being totally okay, but that might have been pure luck as a few weeks later it snowed heavily. We mainly stayed on paved roads and only went to gravel roads when we didn’t realize it was changing. Having a car gave us a lot more flexibility in our schedule and let us explore more of Iceland.
My brother booked the car through Sixt. This tends to be one of the bigger companies throughout Europe. At least I’ve seen them in a few different places I’ve traveled. It seemed to be a good company, but again, my brother booked the car so I don’t have full details on the experience.
A few items to note. They will offer extra insurance which is Gravel Protection and Sand & Ash Protection. My brother opted to get the Gravel Protection as we, again, were not sure what the roads were like. This ended up being a great option as we would be driving on a larger, paved road and then all the sudden it would turn into a gravel road. All-in-all, it was only about $40 more during this trip for this extra insurance, so we thought it was a good investment.
We did not get the Sand & Ash Protection. This would probably be necessary if it was the summer and we were planning on going to the different beaches, since we were not planning any beach vacations in Iceland during the winter, we opted out of this protection.
Where to STAY.
Our plan let us stay in the Golden Circle area for 1 night and then spend the remaining 2 nights back in Reykjavik. This worked out well as we left Friday morning to head towards the Golden Circle, spent the day driving through Þingvellir National Park to Gullfoss and Gesyir then checking in at our cabin. The next day, we went to a spa in the area then finished the circle driving down the East then South side of Þingvallavatn Lake and back up to Reykjavik. See below in the ‘Things to do’ section for a map of our drive. This essentially gave us two days in the Golden Circle region which I believe was a prefect amount of time to spend there, if you are on a short trip.
When planning our trip, I was searching all the sites for options. It turns out that Iceland LOVES AirBnB. Most businesses use it as another way to market their space. I was a little nervous about using this site, as I had a bad experience when I used them in NYC. Since it seemed like a lot of businesses use this site in Iceland, I figured it would be okay. Another concern was cancellation policies. Since, again, we were not sure about the weather, we didn’t know if we would need to cancel our cabin and try to stay in Reykjavik the whole time. When researching where to stay, I made sure both places we booked had 24 hour cancellation notice, so we were not stuck paying for a cabin that we couldn’t even get to.
We booked the Uthlid Cottages in the Golden Circle area. As we booked through AirBnb, we didn’t realize they had different cottage option. I kind of wish we did know as some of them have private hot tubs and that would have been very nice on the cold snowy night we were there. We ended up with an Economy Two Bedroom which was perfect amount of room for 3 people. Four might have been a little crowded, but definitely bigger than a hotel room.
For the last two nights in Iceland, we booked someone’s private apartment through AirBnB. While researching where to stay, it was cheaper to book through AirBnB then a hotel. As I stated before, I’m very budget aware. Although I was nervous from my past NYC AirBnB experience, I figured I would be with 2 other people and it was worth the lower price to be a little nervous. The owner was vacationing in San Francisco and decided to rent out the apartment. We communicated a lot and I even wrote a blog to help guide her on options to do in the Bay Area.
WHAT NICE DIGS! It was actually a little bit awesome to rent the apartment and gave us plenty of room to spread out. It ended up being a great choice and I will need to re-evaluate my feelings on AirBnB. The only downside I found with our apartment was the water smelled and tasted very sulfuric. We didn’t have the issue in the cabin, so I’m assuming the cabin might have water trucked in, or it’s because it’s just a different water source. So, beware! Reykjavik water can be a little overwhelming.
Things to do.
As I mentioned above, we did the golden circle. We did it in 2 days, which I think was prefect for this trip, but if we had more time, I would have loved to hike and snorkel or scuba in Þingvellir National Park. If you haven’t read in your research yet, Thingvellir is situated on two tectonic plates, the North American and Eurasian. Year round, you can swim between the tectonic plates, which is supposed to be amazing. The water temperature doesn’t change much between summer and winter, which is why it’s not an issue to go during the winter. You will need to hire a guide for the trip. Here is a link to some more information on this topic. We unfortunately did not go since we were short on time, but it is on my list for next time.
If you research Thingvellir’s history, it was a site of the Alþing, or Althing, which is Iceland’s parliament. The assembly site of Alþing is Lögberg or Law Rock. For about 1000 years, the Althing would meet at this site, which is why it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Besides the rich history and snorkeling between tectonic plates, Thingvellir has lots of hiking and is great for a drive through the park. Since it was cold and we were on our way to Gullfoss, we opted to just drive through the park and stop at one of the many resting points. I would suggest packing a picnic lunch if it is nice weather as almost all resting points we saw had tables and beautiful views.
As mentioned above, we drove through Thingvellir on our way to Gullfoss and Geysir. Timing worked out perfectly, as we just stopped a few times in the park for picture opts and then spent about an hour at Geysir. There are some hiking trails around there but you can stay with the main path through the most popular geysers. I would highly suggest have a good pair of shoes while at Geysir and if you plan to walk around Thingvellir.
The last stop was Gullfoss. What a sight. In winter they block off part of the path so you can’t walk as close to the waterfall as you can during the summer. I kind of prefer that as we didn’t have random tourist in our photos, which I’m sure we would have if the path was open. The water was over flowing and ice was formed along the sides of the fall. It then gushed into a small canyon below. There are two levels in which to see the falls. We started on the lower level and then went up the very rickety stairs to the upper level. There are parking lots at both levels but the visitor center was at the top level. I actually preferred the bottom level. I felt closer to the falls and I think the view point for photos is nicer. Oh, and don’t worry about the stairs, they are currently building a nice sturdy metal stairway and it looked like it would probably be completed soon.
Spa / Heated Pools
Going to the spa, or thermal baths, is a major pastime for Icelandic folk. They have them everywhere and they aren’t too expensive, depending on where you go. I highly suggest working in some spa time during your visit, you will not regret it. For the areas we were in, we were debating between 3 different places, which I have listed below.
Not the closest spa, this one is close to the airport. My sister-in-law wanted to come here because they are supposed to have a great mask and it was in my original Iceland fantasy tour. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this place, but I’ll be honest, since I had this picture in my head of visiting Iceland for the past 7 years which involved this spa, I kind of really wanted to go. I know a lot of places say it’s super touristy and other say it’s a must see. After choosing the spa we did, I think we made the right choice for our first trip to Iceland. My feelings are, if you have extra time, you are close to the airport, and it seems like something you would like to do – then you should go. Beware, it is pricy. The other spas we were looking at cost around $30USD and this one is around $50-80USD depending on the time of year.
I really wanted to check this spa out but there was just not enough time. This lagoon is situated within the Golden Circle. We were originally debating between this spa and Blue Lagoon. After Gullfoss, we rushed to our cabin to check in, only to discover we had to wait another hour. We decided to drive around looking for a markets and ended up in Flúðir, which happens to be where Secret Lagoon is located. If we had realized how close it was to our cabin and we could have already checked in, we might have been able to spend a little time here. As it was, we were all tired and wanted to veggie out after eating our pizza. Yes, we had pizza in Iceland. It probably worked out for the better since the spa has tour buses in the afternoon, and we would have ended up in a crowded place if we visited. Instead, we decided we would try to go the next morning.
I guess I should probably let you in on why I really wanted to check out this spa. It is built to have the look and feel like it is all natural. Although it is man made, they have rocks and sand and it has the feeling of being in a natural hot spring. I liked the idea that I would feel a little more like I was in nature. It brought me back to my hot springs skinny dipping teenage days in Utah, not that they would allow you to go skinny dipping.
While my sister was on her cushy flight over to Iceland, she saw an ad in a magazine about a bakery tour at Laugarvatn Fontana. In the tour, guest would be taken to a special spot which they bake bread using the hot springs. After pulling out the loaf, they would then slice it and service it to the tour members with Icelandic butter. Oh, and they also have a spa.
My sister loves to bake bread and the idea to bake it using a hot spring really intrigued her. I was curious as well. It seems like such a cool tour to go on. Since we were in the area while staying at our cabin, we wanted to check out this tour in the morning. We decided we would go to the morning tour, check to see what the spa looks like and if it looked good, we would stay there instead of heading to Secret Lagoon – because, you know, we were already there.
About the bakery tour, let me give you the run down and then you really don’t have to do it. It is only about 5 minutes long. If there are more than 5 people in the tour, you won’t see anything anyway. If you are walking around the building of the spa, you will stumble upon the hot spring bakery spot (see photo below). They place a sign saying ‘warning, danger’ in hopes that people won’t go into that area, but then bring you to the area on the tour. You can feel the warm water on the edge of the lake and warm sand without paying them to tell you about it. If you’d like to try the bread, just show up around the time of the tour and I’m sure you can snag a piece when all the tour participants have finished consuming their share. On the plus side, the bread was good and apparently from an old Icelandic family recipe. See below for the recipe. Oh, did I mention that they are never really sure if the bread will come out? So you might not get to try it anyway – even after you just spent $15 per person on a tour that took 5 minutes. I’m telling you. DO NOT GO ON THIS TOUR.
Now that I have completed my rant about the bakery tour, let’s talk about the spa. During the tour, I asked our guide if they expect any tour buses coming through. She said the first one was at 1PM. By 11AM we were done consuming our fill of bread (the tour started at 10:30 and most of it was just standing around eating the bread – sorry! Apparently, I was not done ranting). This gave us 2 hours to check out the spa before it started to become super busy. Since we were already here, we decided to forgo Secret Lagoon and just relax in this spa – it was an excellent decision.
I highly recommend this spa. It is more modern in character and has artistic sculptures in the pools, but the best thing about it is the lake. It is situation right on the lake. The idea is that you ‘swim’ in the cool lake water for a bit then rinse off and warm up in the thermal pools. It’s supposed to shock your system – and it does. The water of the lake is freezing. Don’t be fooled by the lake water you felt on the other side of the building during the ‘bakery tour’. This water is super cold. We decide to brave it, and try the shock of cold water. We unfortunately already started to warm up in one of the pools before jumping into the lae. We should have just stood outside in the cold for a bit to bring our body temperature down. Oh my god. It was cold. I walked down the steps into the water and almost jumped right back out. I then proceeded to run to the outdoor showers and jump back into the thermal pool. I think I did it more to say I had done it, not to try a new experience.
We spend the next hour or so trying out the different pools. There were 4 in all at 3 different temperatures. After the pools, we went to check out the saunas. They have the natural ones which use the hot springs to warm them. They are different temperatures depending on how close to the spring each unit is. The first one we tried was not hot at all. We went to the one next door, which was right over the spring and felt like we would perish if we stayed longer than 3 minutes due to the heat and the fumes of the spring. We finally decided to be wise and went to the end unit. It was an electric sauna and therefore we could adjust the temperature and it didn’t smell bad. It also had this beautiful view of the lake, right were all the people would enter and swim around a bit. They all looked so lovely and enjoying themselves. My sister said she thought it would be a good idea to try the lake out one more time before we leave. My brother and I were like, “hey, sure. It looks nice. I’m sure it’s not as cold as we thought it was. Why don’t we even try to swim to the end of the dock!”
WTF were we thinking?!?!? It was the cozy warmth from inside the sauna that melted our brain cells. We went outside and were immediately struck by the cold air. My sister started to waiver. She wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to enter the lake again. We wouldn’t let her out of it. It was her idea and we would persist! Serious. What. Is. Wrong. With. Us? We went for it. My brother and I even tried to swim to the end of the pier, about 25 feet. We got half way there and went running back. We couldn’t take it. We needed warmth! Why would anyone do this? AND WHY did we decided it was a good idea to do it TWICE?!?!?
Needless to say, we had a great time – quirks and all. The tour buses showed up and we didn’t notice at first – as it takes a bit of time for them to all get dressed and into the spa. We left around 2PM, so we had about 3 hours of bliss (and pain and torture) at the spa.
The Westfjords & Hvalfjörður
On the last day we were all in Iceland together, we decided to go for a drive. From Reykjavik, we headed north to the Westfjord region. One of the closest fjords to Reykjavik in Hvalfjörður. You will drive by another one of the way, which is beautiful, but Hvalfjörður is impressive. It’s about an hour north of the city and takes about 1.5 hours to drive around it. What’s great about this fjord is Iceland built a tunnel under it which takes 7 minutes to get from one side to the other, allowing you to drive around the fjord and back through the tunnel when heading back to Reykjavik – which saves a lot of time.
Hvalfjörður is remarkable, I didn’t know which way to look. The whole fjord is beautiful. We stopped every few miles to take photos and it took us about 2.5 hours to drive through it due to all of our photo opts. There is also a hiking trail at the inner most tip of the fjord that heads up to Glymur, the 2nd tallest waterfall in Iceland. We were tempted to hike it, but we were not well equipped and being winter it would have been a difficult hike – part of the hike requires going through the river.
At the end of the ring road of Hvalfjörður, we had the option to turn left and head south back through the tunnel to head back to Reykjavik or turn right to explore more. The adventurer in me said ‘turn right!’ and so, we did. Just north of Hvalfjörður is more fjords and therefore, more picturesque views. We were looking for a Bonus, a budget friendly market, and found one when we arrived at Borgarbyggð, which is about 30 minutes north of Hvalfjörður. We pulled into the parking lot for the Bonus Market and discovered a coffeeshop next door. Since it was cold, windy and frankly we didn’t have any other plans, we decided to pop in for something warm to drink and a quick snack. We were at the coffee shop for about an hour when, in mid sentence, I stop what I’m saying and blurt out, “I think they filmed Walter Mitty here.”
I am a HUGE fan of the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. When I watch it I want to go exploring. When I’m exploring I listen to the soundtrack. I don’t know what it is about this movie, but I LOVE it. So much so that I made my brother and sister-in-law watch it while we were in Iceland.
So here I am. Looking out a big beautiful window at a foggy fjord with impressive mountain in the background. I looked at the top of the windows and I see photos of scenes from the movie. Not only are we randomly in a stop that they happened to film Walter Mitty, we are at THE SPOT where they film the Papa John’s scene. Apparently, the coffee shop we were sitting in for the past hour was transformed into a Papa Johns for the movie. Anyone that has seen the movie will know this scene.
I was in awe. I could barely see the mountain that Walter’s text message appears on in the movie, as it was covered in fog, but I couldn’t help my giddiness. It was the perfect ending to a perfect first trip to Iceland.
Go explore, have fun and thanks for reading!