Usually I leave a trip to a new place feeling like I knocked that one off the list. Iceland is a little different. It wasn’t disappointing in the slightest, but I just need more time, money, and energy for this country! We managed quite a bit on a budget and in 4 days.
The whole trip came to be from a breakfast conversation between my roommate and I. The northern lights are on my ‘bucket list’, and he suggested we go for his bday… so Iceland it was. We rented a car (I made him commit to being the driver) & an airbnb apartment just a block away from the church, Hallgrimskirkja. Our best chance of catching a flight out was from Minneapolis, and we had to take a 6am flight from Dallas just to get there. So, we started the trip on no sleep and spending the day at the Mall of America the Saturday before Christmas.
The flight into Reykjavik is a redeye on any Iceland air flights out of the US, so we arrived at 7am. It was dark, but we had planned to go to the blue lagoon immediately as it’s on the way into Reykjavik. The entire process at the lagoon was impressive. The locker room was very modern and clean, and hair dryers and wash/conditioner are provided. You MUST shower before entering the lagoon for hygiene, and you aren’t allowed the even exit into the lagoon area with shoes on. It’s expensive, $54 for the entrance plus towel and skin care samples, but it’s ran very well and very much worth it. Your wrist band is used to open your locker as well as charge drinks at the bar, and you pay your tab as you leave.
The lagoon was very relaxing. It’s as large as I had hoped and the water really has the creamy blue color you see in pictures. There are a few places throughout the lagoon where you see steam, and then definitely feel the hot spring and the thermal water entering the pool. They fence these off, but even standing around them when a big spurt of water comes out you have to move back it’s soo hot. As I mentioned it was dark when we arrived, but I loved it that way. The lights around the lagoon hitting the steam coming off the water really gave it a mystical almost unreal feel. And when we arrived there weren’t many people there at all. We stayed in the lagoon until the sunrise around 11. I say sunrise loosely, because we never even saw the sun. The day was very cloudy with freezing rain on and off the entire time we were there.
I was with 2 Mexicans, a Texan, Dustin (the only one to have lived in the snow/cold before), and myself. We really didn’t know what to think about the weather, but we were on a mission to see the northern lights and a little cold wasn’t going to get in our way.
We checked the forecasts for the aurora borealis and saw that it was super active that night, so (after a nap) we loaded up and headed out of the city to hopefully catch a peak through the clouds. What we got was our first realization that the weather in this country is crazy. The roads were covered and it snowed on and off on our adventure out of town. After realizing that we still couldn’t even see the moon through the overcast sky we called it quits and went home. We tried to buy some beer and go out, but apparently they don’t do either of those on Sundays in Iceland. So, we played cards at the house and ended up having a fun night in.
The next morning we woke up early. Really early if you think about 8am feeling like 2am. We headed out, in the snowy dark, to do the golden circle drive. This is a 300km road trip through the countryside to some of the most popular tourist attractions in the South of Iceland. The roads were completely covered in snow at some points, and all we were seeing were big greyhound tour companies and these ‘super jeeps’ that provide tours. No other little Ford station wagons were out braving the snow covered 2 lane roads in the middle of the country. It probably wasn’t our smartest decision to be out driving in those conditions…. but as Dustin would say to Ricky (the backseat driver) and myself (gasping in the passenger seat), “but did you die?!”
The first stop was the Þingvellir National Park where the Icelandic parliament was established, and also the spot where the continental drift between the Eurasian and North American plates lies. The plates are moving in opposite directions literally pulling Iceland apart. Granted, 7 meters in 10,000 years isn’t too much to worry about but it was still really cool to walk through the deep gap it created.
Icelandic people are very prideful, and with good reason. I can’t imagine settling and surviving in the conditions we dealt with. Most everything mentioned in the national park had to do with it being where the first parliament took places and left out the Continental drift (which I thought was way cool). I suppose the political stuff was pretty significant lol. But really, The foundation of the Icelandic parliament is said to be the founding of the nation of Iceland, and the first parliamentary meeting here in 930 laid the ground for Iceland to become a country years later. Þingvellir played a central role, and obviously was a very important place to the people and to Icelandic culture. However, we didn’t stay longer than to appreciate the views, understand what we were looking at, and high tail it back to the car and my seat warmer.
2nd stop… Geysir & Strokkur, the 2 geysers. The first being how all ‘geysers’ got their general name. Again, freezing rain, windy, and snowing… we watched Strokkur erupt (which is does every 8ish minutes) & went into the little rest stop for some hot soup. Miserable.
3rd stop… and one that truly impressed me was the Gulfoss waterfall. This fall is actually 2 waterfalls in 1 making it even bigger and powerful. It drops 100 feet all together. It was miserable next to a body of water and the spray/rain mixture, but I wouldn’t trade anything about getting to see the fall in all its winter glory. Giant icicles, the snow backdrop on the sides, and just the sheer size of these falls made it pretty magnificent. I wiiiiish we could have gone to the bottom and got the view from there too. I have FOMO (fear of missing out) for real and the thought of missing that view kills me, but it was the weather was that terrible.
This is when we decided to add on to our Golden Circle drive, and extended it to include the black sand beach and column like cliffs of Vik. The roads deteriorated on the way… Dustin is a saint for putting up with me jumping in the passenger seat saying I was nervous, and Ricky telling him to slow down every 15 min from the middle backseat. Then just as quickly as they were completely covered in snow it seemed to thaw out or just not have snowed at all and we were able to cruise along the paved 2 lane for about an hour (I gave Dustin a break and drove for a bit). We stumbled upon Selfoss waterfall along the drive. This part of the country was my favorite. There would just be sporadic waterfalls coming off the snow covered cliffs behind tiny little farm houses and their land. The mountains and volcanoes were beautiful and snow capped, and then the green of the land, black of the volcanic rock, with the waterfalls was a beautiful contrast! Absolutely picturesque, and we ALMOST had some sunlight.
The roads and the weather worsened near Vik and we were racing the clock and sunset. But, we made it to that dang beach. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. We ran down to the water to have time for pics before we lost light. The beach is black sand, really it’s volcanic ash, but the black sand and massive black rock cliffs behind are pretty cool. The Arctic ocean looked brutal and apparently is the cause of the column like appearance of the cliffs edges. Vik is the southernmost point of Iceland. There is no landmass between Antarctica and here, so the ocean just beats the crap out of the once cliff side, somehow creating these perfectly edged columns. Folklore says that these stacks are former trolls who were caught at dawn trying to drag their boats to sea. I can see how on a pretty day this beach was once voted one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. However, on the day we were there…. We hid from the wind inside a cave for a few minutes before heading back to the car.
Never in my life have I experienced weather like that. The wind was so strong that I was literally running against it and barely moving. The freezing rain felt like needles on any exposed skin. The sand is deep and hard to run in anyhow. If we thought the earlier parts of the day were miserable, we were quickly proven wrong. My hands felt like they were going to fall off they were so cold (I forgot my gloves in the car), like absolute pain in my fingers when they were thawing out. For some of yall reading this, it may not have been as dramatic of an experience. But, as they say it Iceland… ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes’. We didn’t, but at least most of the drive home wasn’t bad. Please note… it was a little clearer of a night, but the aurora wasn’t as active. No lights.
We got home around 6 or so… yes, we did all of that driving and were still home by 6. We napped and rolled out to have dinner and see what a Monday night on the town was like in a city known for its nightlife. We had a very interesting and delicious dinner. I had chicken cigars, chicken rolled with fig, cheese, and a few other things I don’t remember, and a lamb shank doughnut. A sweet doughnut ball filled with Chipotle pulled lamb. It was served with an apricot side/dip and was sooo good. We also had a local beer sampler. All very very good! We hit up the big Lowbowski bar afterwards.
I met a local at the bar who was very interesting to chat with, Dale screamed at the DJ because she didn’t like her classic rock selection (and she was on the phone), and the boys drank their beer.. that was about the extent of our wild night out.
It was still a night out, and after a Mexican dance party in the apartment, we probably went to bed around 2. So when Dale woke us all up at 7am because the clouds had cleared, it was a struggle to get out of bed. But, being committed to the cause we all put on our 3 layers and boots and stumbled to the car to drive out of the city again. We did, we parked, we looked up, we didn’t see shit. Again, no cloud cover but barely any activity by the lights either.
Soooo, we drive back to town and get breakfast. Sleep would have been a marvelous thing considering it was like 4am according to my body. But, I decided I HAD to see the sunrise over the harbor. Hello, the SUN was actually going to be out!!!! Luckily Dale agreed and joined me. While the boys went back to bed, we walked 11 miles through the city as the sun rose. It took all afternoon to ‘rise’…. which is about halfway into the sky, then it starts its long ‘setting’ process.
We went and woke the boys up since it was pretty and only the good Lord knows how long that lasts in Iceland. We paid to go to the top of the church, Hallgrimskirkja (the tallest building in Reykjavik), and took in the view of every angle from the tower. The city is known for the colored rooftops/buildings, and with a slight dusting of snow I will say it was a very pretty.
We took the day to do the touristy things. We hit all the photo ops, and yea know… hit up the penis museum (when in Rome?) which was really bizarre and not sexual in the slightest. The next day I finally got my Icelandic meal before we left town. Mashed fish was my favorite, the smoked fish over rye coming in 2nd, and the sheephead jam in dead last. I was not a fan of picking out brain pieces in my ‘jam’. But, if the locals eat it I will at least try it. We rolled out to the airport and all made our flights home for Christmas.
As I stated, the main purpose of the trip was to see the Northern Lights and that didn’t happen (it actually did, we got to see them dance on the flight in but I don’t count it). I know that I can go to Norway or Finland and try again, but honestly I want to go back to Iceland. It wont be the time to see the lights, but I really want to experience that landscape in the summer when it’s surrounded by green. There are lots of natural lagoons that you can hike to that I NEED to take a dip in, and I am sad that I wasn’t able to hike or walk on a glacier. The black sand beach could be pleasant in 60-70 degree weather, those little Icelandic horses want me take me on a tour. I think the nightlife deserves a chance on a weekend.
All in all… Iceland was a place I will never forget, and like nothing Ive ever seen or experienced before. For that, I am very thankful!