While I am away on my trip, I have several readers who are contributing their adventure travels. Today’s post is written by Krissy and it is about her and her husband’s adventure last November in Iceland. Most people don’t think about traveling to Iceland in the winter but Icelandic Air often runs great specials. Read about her adventure and see if this is something you want to do this fall/winter.
Visiting Iceland in November
While many choose to escape the chilly fall/winter weather by heading south for a warm getaway, we decided to do the opposite and headed to Iceland to embrace frigid temperatures and shorter days. And it was definitely a worthwhile experience.
First of all, our direct Iceland Air flight was an easy 6 hours from Washington, DC. The tickets were very reasonable at $500/pp and based on conversation with other North American travelers many paid a similar price point. The land of fire and ice is becoming increasingly known for attractive flights to Europe with layovers in Reykjavik at no additional cost. The airport itself is actually located about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik in the city of Keflavik and per usual there are several transport options including car rentals, taxis or public transit. We elected to pre-arrange a car rental since we planned to explore Iceland without the aid of any organized tour groups. Three things to be aware of when deciding whether or not to rent a car in Iceland – first, gas is expensive; second, car rentals are also expensive due to the high car tax; and third, you need to make sure you get studded tires if you are traveling in the winter months (trust me it’s for your own good!).
We arrived in Iceland before dawn, picked up our rental car and not wanting to waste any time quickly jumped on Route 1 heading south east towards Skaftafell National Park. The four+ hour drive took us over windy roads, past lava fields and around mountain passes finally arriving at the information center near the park entrance. This is where you book tours and set out on your hiking and glacier trekking adventures. Since we visited Iceland during a less touristy month, we didn’t need to pre-book any tours so we had the luxury of being very flexible with our itinerary. However, in warmer, more popular months (i.e. June through September) booking in advance is highly recommended.
Our Blue Ice glacier walk with Iceland Mountain Guides was fantastic. The cool factor was driving up the “Batman” access road, named for director Christopher Nolan and his crew who filmed scenes from Batman Begins on the Svinafellsjokull section of glacier. Since it was just the two of us, we were able to get a more personalized experience than the standard tour. With the aid of our skilled guide and our crampons we had the opportunity to climb into and explore a crystal blue ice cave. This was hands-down the highlight of our trip. If you don’t get an opportunity to explore an ice cave (they come and go and thus are hard to predict), you still have picturesque Joksular Lagoon located 45 minutes down the road from Skaftafell. In terms of nearby lodging, we stayed at Svinafell Homestay in a dorm-like house and had a good experience. The area is somewhat remote, so your choices are limited to camping (in warmer months), homestays or two small hotels.
Driving back to Reykjavik turned into a six+ hour adventure as we navigated stormy weather and icy roads. At times the wind was so powerful we thought it was going to knock us right off the road. Nonetheless, we persevered (all the credit really goes to my husband who was driving) and arrived safely in Reykjavik. Due to continued snow storms over the next couple of days, we cancelled a two day trip up north and hunkered down in the capitol region to explore all of the activities it had to offer.
Our arrival in Iceland coincided with holiday merrymaking and Christmas decorating. Walking along the streets of downtown Reykjavik felt magical as the snow fell, lights glistened and splashes of green and red beamed from just about every doorway and lamppost. One of our favorite souvenirs was a yule lad ornament depicting Icelandic holiday folklore to always remind us of trip.
We also arrived during the qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup and had a great time mingling with locals at a downtown bar cheering on Iceland in the tiebreaking match against Croatia. Other highlights from our time in downtown Reykjavik include checking out the big Sunday flea market (across from the old harbor area), Harpa Opera House, Hallgrimskirkja Church for a great view of the city, disc golf a city park, archery and Laugardalur swimming pool for an outdoor hot pot experience. Several nights we optimistically hunted for the Northern Lights, but unfortunately the weather conditions were just not in our favor.
Within a short time of being in Reykjavik we quickly had two favorite coffee shops. First was Café Haiti on the old harbor, which offered good live music in the evening and is in close proximity to the Sea Baron which has the best lobster soup bisque. Second is the Laudromat Café. It was a hipster hangout, with a very chill vibe, good coffee, tasty food and you really can do your laundry in the basement. Our favorite late night food spot quickly became the Bæjarins beztu hot dog stand in central Reykjavik. We did decide to be a little adventurous and try horse steak, which was pretty good, but not as good as a real steak. In general the food was expensive and very so-so. We didn’t go to Iceland for a culinary experience so we weren’t surprised as all. We did find ourselves popping into the easily accessible grocery stores in the downtown area and taking advantage of lunch time specials at restaurants. In terms of lodging we stayed at the Hotel Metropolitan, which was very centrally located, basic accommodations.
A must-do day trip from Reykjavik is the Golden Circle. There are lots of bus options, but since we still had a rental car we were able to set our own schedule. Our trip included stops at Geysir, Gulfoss and the Laugarvatn Geothermal Spa. Neither of us had ever seen a geyser so it was fun to cheer along with the crowd as the water and steam shot out of the ground every couple of minutes. Gulfoss was an unexpected majestic series of waterfalls that attracted a lot of professional looking photographers. And the Laugarvatn Geothermal Spa was the perfect way to end our day. We got to relax in the outdoor geothermal pools long after the last tour bus left.
A few final notes on traveling in Iceland:
- There is no good way of predicting the Northern Lights. However, Iceland has established an aurora forecast online here: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/.
- The people are super friendly and helpful. Chat it up with the locals when you go visit!
- While Iceland is part of the European Union, they still use Iceland Krona. The conversion is about $1 USD = 118 ISK or if you look at in the reverse is 1,000 ISK = 8.45 USD.
- Drinks are really expensive at the bar. On our first night out we paid the equivalent of $22 USD for a small whiskey ginger (!). We recommend checking out the local liquor stores for more reasonably priced beer and wine.
While the stormy weather limited some of our travel plans, we would definitely still plug visiting Iceland in colder months for a more authentic experience and less competition with other tourists for tours and hotel space.