Iceland in Winter
Iceland in Winter
Everyone thought we were crazy, “why would you go to Iceland in January?”
“The sun only shines four hours a day”
“The storms are awful”
It’s true, Iceland in the summer sounds fairly wonderful, with basically 24 hour sunlight, endless greenery and with limitless opportunity for outdoor adventure. However, to be honest, I wouldn’t have preferred this trip to go any other way than how I planned it.
Iceland in Winter
The entire point of going to Iceland during wintertime was so that I could see and do things that I had never before experienced other than in dreams. For once, I wanted to go on a trip that wasn’t based solely on eating my way through a country. I wanted to go outside the bounds of a city’s limit to explore greater depths of nature that may not be around much longer in our lifetimes or that of our children. And I wanted to push my comfort zone. I wasn’t looking for luxury, I was looking to seize life and do something that I envisioned as intense and “badass”.
I got what I wished for. This trip did not disappoint at all. Iceland in the winter was exhilarating. We lucked out with the weather and had mostly sun during the precious few hours of daylight. I saw glaciers and mountains, hot springs and geysers, oceans and rivers. The colors were beautiful; with some areas more desolate in tones of brown, purple and burnt orange, while other areas were filled with mossy greens juxtaposed against turquoise water. At night, I slept in a tiny van, snuggled up in mounds of blankets listening to the storms that continually passed through. The trip allowed me to be really physically active. But also sleep and rest a lot, which was needed after an intense year.
The hours of driving to attractions allowed me to reflect on the year and plan for the future, I finally had time to get my head and priorities straight.
Iceland is such a visually stunning country, so much so that it reminds you how small you are. I was reminded that there is so much more to life than the small city bubble of society that I live in. It was life-changing to get out there and get a different perspective. It made me realize that I waste a lot of time and energy on meaningless anxieties that don’t even bring me happiness. I’ve returned from this trip refreshed and renewed, with a lot of inspiration to lessen some of the stressful pressures in my life that do not serve me.
We decided to go to Iceland on the 30th of December and stay until January 8th. I think this is a good amount of time because we got to do a lot from our itinerary. The main point to note here is that we were in Iceland for New Year’s Eve. This was the best NYE celebration I have ever had. It was amazing! The night kicks off with massive bonfires, however, the main event is the firework display. We partook in the Reykjavik display. I say partook because we were not merely observers.
The search and rescue organization of Iceland, is the only legal purveyor of fireworks in the country, and as such, their valiant efforts are funded by these sales. Citizens walk around shooting off their own fireworks, but the main display is right in the city center. I have never seen anything as magical as the Reykjavik firework show. It lasted for hours and it was literally right in my face as we stood just meters from where they were let off. Post fireworks, we hopped around local bars, singing and dancing into the night.
Where We Stayed
There are a number of different hotels, hostels or air b n b’s to choose from if you decide to stay in the city of Reykjavik, which we did for the first few days of our trip. I can only recommend based off of my own experience and I definitely do recommend our choices.
The first night of our stay, we were at the Kex Hostel. This was honestly one of the nicest hostels I have ever stayed in! My friend fought long and hard to even get a one night stay in this central hostel, we only got lucky enough to stay there due to a cancellation. The hostel room themselves are pretty standard with both private and dorm sharing options. It was the character of the place that I loved so much.
Call me a sucker for the prohibition era, but I thought that the hostel was very charming and cozy, which is a crucial characteristic to look for when traveling to a location that is cold and dark almost 24 hours a day. The main social area housed a large tiled bar, a very comfortable library reading area, and even a small, old-school barber station. Cozy nooks were around every corner and the common spaces were always filled with friendly people.
For the next two nights, we opted to stay in a hotel in the city center.
As we were in the city for New Years Eve celebrations, we wanted to be close to the action. We stayed at the CenterHotel Midgardur which was pretty run of the mill as hotels go. It was affordably priced, included breakfast, and came with use of a very lovely fitness and spa area complete with a relaxing sauna along with both indoor and outdoor slate hot tubs. It was during these two days that we rested from our initial journey and basked in the luxury of robes and slippers before the next segment of our trip.
The best advice I can give for traveling through Iceland is this: rent a camper van.
I cannot see how it would be remotely possible to actually experience the majority of the beautiful offerings of the country without bringing your accommodation with you. Many tourists stayed in the city center and took daily tour groups or buses to the sights, but this is extremely expensive, slightly less personal, and you will spend the majority of your day sitting alongside a bunch of strangers, being shuttled about.
Others still, rented cars and planned their accommodations throughout the country each night at different hotels or hostels. This works out fine, but doesn’t really allow for any changes in the itinerary, which is 100% going to happen due to extreme weather or chance discoveries along the way that cause you to want to pivot in your plans. Personally, I recommend a mobile home situation. There are all sorts of options, ranging from no-frills to larger decked out sprinter vans, but I think that the freedom that comes along with renting a camper van cannot be beat.
It was very exciting to do whatever we wanted and go wherever we wanted.
If we heard there was a beautiful secluded hot springs a few hours drive away, we could go right away. We were able to drive to most of our planned out activities the night before and wake up ready to go. If we got tired on the way, we could just pull over to one of the many rest areas and set up camp for the night. I also really liked the sense of adventure associated with renting the van. It was definitely outside of my comfort zone as I had never done so before and frankly have limited camping experience in general.
I chose this option because I wanted the experience in its entirety, from the excitement to the uncomfortable, which included cramped space, periods of seclusion, limited amenities such as a bathroom, and the stresses of driving on pretty treacherous winter roads. There are numerous different companies to go through if you choose this route, we went with Camp Easy. They were awesome. They have a range of different vans to choose from to suit your own needs.
We created a master list of all the activities we would do in a perfect world, however, we left a lot of our trip up to chance because we weren’t sure what weather issues might arise. There were only a few big ticket items on our itinerary that we were sure to book ahead of time. These were some pretty momentous experiences so I absolutely recommend they are not missed. The tour companies are really good about canceling or re-booking due to weather or travel complications so I think that it would be a good idea to plan your trip around the main geographical points of each excursion, then fill the rest of your time with nearby attractions.
Honestly, I feel this could be skipped. The lagoon is very large, with this cloudlike robin blue water, which is pretty cool. There is also a swim up mud mask kiosk that allows you to slather silica mud all over your body for free. Other than that, I would prefer to stick with the numerous natural hot springs all over the country. Less people, closer to nature, same benefits. Note that my opinion might be tainted because our scheduled time was on the worst weather day of our trip, New year’s day, which was a grand idea for the hangover but the weather did not comply. It was spitting rain and freezing on us the entire time we were there.
Snorkeling in Silfra
This was one of the highlights of the trip! How many people can say that they went snorkeling in crystal clear, literally freezing degree temperature water, between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates? This was the most out of my comfort zone during the trip. You can choose to snorkel in a wet or a dry suit. Choose the dry suit, even if it is more expensive. I repeat, Choose the dry suit!
The only part of my body exposed to the water were my lips and they went instantly numb. We were warned before going into the water that once we got out, our lips would swell like a Kardashian due to the freeze and all the blood rushing back. My experience was pretty intense, (and hilarious) to say the least. The experience itself was very cool. After getting all suited up, we slowly floated through the water for about 45 minutes. There weren’t any fish to see or anything like that, but the visibility was insane, with up to 100 meters deep.
You can choose to meet at the site, or hitch a ride from a tour group and get some additional sites along the way. We chose to do a golden circle tour, culminating with the Silfra snorkel to finish. I think this is the way to go because we got to see a lot of the golden circle sites and knock them off our life bucket lists. Our tour group was led by Troll Expeditions and I cannot recommend them enough. They were very informative and also really funny, my little group felt like a family by the end of the day.
Glacier Hiking in Jokulsarlon
This was the absolute best part of the entire trip. I have never even seen a glacier before, but on that day I actually climbed one and then descended into all of its caves. We drove to the base at sunrise, and while we strapped spikes onto our shoes for traction, (called crampons) we were rewarded with the first glimpse of full sun I had seen in Iceland. As the sun rose into the sky, we hiked across the glacier towards the water’s edge. The ice was obviously frozen solid for many meters, but it was a trip to look down and see right through, it made me feel as though I was going to fall into a lake with every step.
Eventually we hiked down and around the beach to a more isolated area where we could observe Icebergs. We finished the day by going through the ice caves at sunset. This was magnificent. It was really interesting to hear the tour guide talk about his experience. He told us that every single week the caves were radically changing because they would melt in different ways, always expanding or changing. The wonderful tour group we went with for this excursion was Local Guide.
Other Points of Interest
After a lot of deliberation, we opted against heading towards the north of Iceland. We decided to conserve gas and negate the high probability that we could get stuck in a storm. Thus, we stuck to explorations of the south, which gave us no shortage of options. There were numerous waterfalls along the way, most notably the Gullfoss, Skogafoss and my favorite, Seljalandsfoss, an enormous waterfall that you can walk behind.
There are also loads of lagoons, hot springs, and geothermal areas to explore.
The two that we got a chance to check out were son unbelievably amazing that I urge all to go as well. The first was the Seljavallalaug swimming pool, an outdoor pool built into the side of a mountain. In order to get there, you need to park and hike about 20 minutes, over a small river crossing and around the side of the mountain. We didn’t expect this and went around sunset time but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We were astounded by the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
The second outdoor swimming experience I had was at the Reykjadulur Geothermal River.
We drove to the destination the evening before because the area was said to have the highest probability of Northern Lights sightings that day. We stayed up most of the night and caught glimpses of green but eventually fell asleep. I woke up to a blanket of snow over the land. It was beautiful! Not to be discouraged, I made the hour long hike up the mountain by myself. It was very steep and windy.
Doing this in the winter must be very different from the summer and I can only imagine how nice, though still difficult, the hike must be during that time. It was a mental and physical test to arrive at my destination but as I had learned in the country of Iceland, hard work reaps rewards. I found myself alone beside the steaming river. The further up I walked, the warmer the water became. I eventually stripped down and spent a solid two hours lying in the stream, observing the feeling of the different temperatures of water that rushed over me as they collided from different locations.
There were a few other notable stops along our journey.
There was the Reynisfjara black sand beach, which is indeed very cool, but also very overcrowded with hoards of tourists walking perilously close to the highly dangerous waves. Then there was the DC3 Plane wreck , which was interesting to see, especially at sunset when we finally arrived at the destination. I say this because we severely underestimated the length of the walk to get there from the parking lot. From the initial vantage point, it seriously just looked like a 15 minute straight shot. However it turned out to be the never-ending straightaway that took about an hour along flatlands. The cool bit was that we got to see pretty much every type of weather during that walk as it went from sunny day to storm, to double rainbow and then back to clear skies.
Notes to be Aware of
Winter is no joke in Iceland. Prepare accordingly. Bring layers: thermals, fleeces, overcoat layers, extra socks etc. I cannot stress enough the importance of a waterproof layer. It rained every day and it does this year-round. Besides apparel, be aware that storms can affect the driving conditions, and thus, your itinerary.
Iceland doesn’t have a complicated highway system. There is one main road with two lanes, often winding around cliffs and mountains with frequent one lane bridges over rivers. Winter driving in Iceland is an undertaking only for those who are familiar with such conditions. Besides the high possibility that a strong wind and precipitation storm can close down roads for a day or more, fog can also be a major concern. During our trip, fog was ever-present and I got used to it fairly quickly. But you need to have confidence enough to properly handle the obstacle.
We were told before our trip that everything in Iceland was expensive. We read countless online guides and articles, we joined facebook groups and participated in many discussions. Still, I cannot for the life of me figure out why nobody elaborated more on this point. It is not just expensive in Iceland, prices are exorbitant. I had prepared for food by bringing a lot of what I was going to eat with me in the forms of bars, dried grains and sauces ect, but still balked at the prices of everything edible that I encountered.
Black coffee was frequently eight dollars and the prices go up from there. I brought my own alcohol as well but on the day we searched for the northern lights we wanted beer. We spent about seventy dollars on six local beers. We also got burgers which were forty dollars each. However as I said, I expected high food prices to a certain extent. What I wasn’t prepared for was the cost of transportation. Forget about taking a cab anywhere, just don’t do it. You will be out hundreds of dollars. Gas is pretty obscenely priced as well so no matter what, you will be paying a lot to get around.
This is the first trip I’ve ever taken that didn’t center completely around food. I do not really have particular restaurant recommendations but I do recommend eating as much soup as you can find! Iceland is a bread bowl culture and I am all for it. I had vegetable stew in a bread bowl, fish stew in a bread bowl, and the famous lamb stew in a bread bowl. Additionally, I had some pho on New Year’s day, which is basically the hangover dream. Besides soup everything, go for lamb everything, and also seafood everything. There are plenty of coffee shops, my favorite was a really cozy cafe called Stofan Cafe that I spent an entire afternoon in, drinking unlimited refill black coffee and reading a book.