Oh, the land of fire and ice. To say a trip to Iceland had always been a dream of mine would be an understatement. No, it wasn’t because I watch Game of Thrones. I realized several years ago that I had the ability to get “nature drunk,” and a small volcanic island between Greenland and Ireland seemed like just the place to get a good buzz. I wanted the opportunity to see the northern lights, but I also didn’t want to be miserably cold (a difficult task for someone who doesn’t like temperatures below 75 degrees). I did my research and decided that March would be a good time to visit.
My flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Keflavik International ran me about $950 with upgraded seats on Icelandair. I booked about eight months before I left, which was a good call since prices increased to $1,400 less than two months after I began planning. In January – about six weeks before my trip – Icelandair cancelled the flight to and from KEF because they were no longer serving DFW. This caused a bit of panic, but their customer service reps rebooked me on a flight that left a day earlier with a layover in Boston. Coming home, I stopped in Denver and almost missed my connecting flight home to DFW thanks to a 35-minute wait on the tarmac and a painfully slow customs process. Lesson learned: always have at least two hours between flights in Denver, or any airport for that matter.
I saw and did so much that I decided it was easier to break the trip down by day. I have included cool sights as well as some tips on what to expect in this neat little country. Here we go…
We landed at 6:00am GMT. There are not many places to eat when you arrive at KEF… Most of the restaurants you will see in the terminal are for departing guests and you must present a boarding pass to place an order. However, there is a gas station-type store with drinks, pizza and sandwiches and another sit down restaurant around the corner as you head to the rental car counters.
Rental car companies in Iceland are… weird. There are a ton of them in the airport and off the airport property. We booked through Guide to Iceland with Car Rental SS and were really happy with how it turned out.
Warning: they will try to sell you insurance for everything. And I mean everything. Sheep insurance is actually a thing. Gravel insurance might actually be a good idea. Collision damage insurance is actually a must. We only chose collision insurance, and for the next week, we questioned whether we should have gotten more coverage. In the end, everything was fine, and we were not charged any extra fees, but if you will be driving on F-roads (which are unpaved), you will need extra coverage.
You must be prepared to wait a while for a shuttle to come pick you up at the airport. We waited 2.5 hours for a shuttle that was supposed to run every hour. Icelanders are on island time. And when you ask the information clerks about whether you missed the shuttle, they are not the most helpful. They are not rude; they just do not go out of their way to accommodate. This was hard for someone that lives in the American South where hospitality is everything.
After we picked up our car, we drove to the lighthouse in Garðskagi, where we got our first taste of the ruthless Icelandic weather. I got off the plane wearing leggings, a sweatshirt, and tennis shoes. I threw my parka on when we got out of the car and grabbed my camera. I knew we would only be out of the car for a few minutes while we looked around, so I didn’t think I would need gloves or a hat. I was so, so wrong. In less than three minutes, I could not feel my hands, and my ears ached so badly I was crying.Krýsuvík Seltun, a geothermal park with boiling mud pots and steamy ponds. It was beautiful, and the wooden walkways make exploring easy for those who have been on a plane all night with minimal sleep.
We had a two-hour drive to our AirBnB in Bláskógabyggð, which was brutal with no sleep. If I were to do it over again, I would get a hotel near the airport and make the drive after I had rested.
After sleeping for 12 hours straight, I woke up ready to take on the Golden Circle in the southern region of Iceland. We went to Gulfoss, Geysir, and my favorite, Þingvellir National Park. These are some of the most popular destinations in Iceland, so be prepared for crowds. We were able to view the magnificent power of the Gullfoss waterfall earlier in the morning before the throngs of people descended, but by the time we made it to the Geysir, hundreds of tourists were already gathered around waiting for the water to shoot far into the sky. It was worth fighting all the people, though! Þingvellir was absolutely beautiful. Spend as much time here as possible!
If you like waterfalls, Iceland is the place for you! We set out on the Ring Road and visited Seljalandsfoss and also hiked to a secret waterfall about a half mile down the path. Skógafoss was incredible, and I would highly recommend hiking up to the top to get a view of the countryside below. However, if the winds are strong, you should definitely stay down below. Once again, Icelandic weather graced us with its presence. We had received an email saying that our glacier hike had been cancelled for the following day due to a severe storm. We laughed and thought they just didn’t want to take us. We were eating our words when, just a few hours later, we were battling 60mph sustained winds with gusts of 80mph as we hiked up Skógafoss. The gales picked me up several times, making it a dicey trek. Then, as we drove further southeast, the wind reached 80mph with gusts over 100mph. It was so strong that the car would not go over 55km/h, even with the accelerator floored. We decided to turn around, but first we wanted to take a video of the ice that was swirling around in the violent storm. We rolled down the window of the car to document the sheer power of nature when the wind ripped the window out of the frame of the door. Thankfully, it didn’t shatter, so we fixed it quickly and headed back to Bláskógabyggð. That night, winds reached speeds of more than 150mph in the southern region of the country. That is the equivalent to a category 4 hurricane. Icelandic homes are incredibly well-built.
Since the glacier hike had been cancelled, we took the opportunity to visit Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, and we were able to add the DC Plane Wreckage to our itinerary. Reynisfjara is beautiful, but the waves can be deadly. I saw too many people wandering out to the edge of the water to get a photo just as a sneaker wave rolled in and doused them with cold, powerful water. Thankfully, I did not see anyone fall victim to the rip tides, but just don’t be that person.DC Plane Wreckage site may deter many people who do not have a lot of time or do not like to hike. The sign at the entrance of the path says it will take 4-5 hours to get to and from the abandoned shell of a plane. I’m not sure how slowly the people who timed it walked (maybe as slow as the rental car shuttle drivers drive), but we walked out to the plane (the path is completely flat), spent about 20 minutes exploring, and walked back in an hour and 45 minutes. That was even with me stopping to take Dramamine and drink a lot of water because my vertigo is relentless and even walking on flat surfaces makes me dizzy. *sigh*
We left our cute little cottage in the south and visited the Blue Lagoon on our way to Reykjavík. This was the most touristy thing we did while in Iceland, but it was also one of the most fun. The changing rooms are incredibly confusing to navigate, but once you get into the warm water, it is heaven. The color of the water is incredible, and the face mask actually does make your face glow. I could have spent days relaxing here.
We stopped at the Bridge Between Two Continents on our way to our next AirBnB. This was a bit underwhelming, but it is a cheaper (and less wet) replacement for snorkeling or diving between the Silfra Fissure. You still get to say you’ve been between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. Yay geology!
We spent the day in Reyjkavík and visited Perlán. I spent hours reading about the history of Iceland in this neat little museum with an incredibly cool observation deck on top. However, if you want an even better view, go up to the top of Hallgrímskirkja. It costs about $8, and you’ll have to get uncomfortably close to strangers on a rickety elevator, but Reykjavík is even cuter from above. We quickly drove by the Harpa Concert Hall and the Maritime Museum, but I’m not sure if I would have spent the time or money to go inside each of them. At this point, I was ready to go back out into nature. We did eat in downtown Reykjavík. Icelandic hot dogs and crepes are some of the best things ever!
In Texas, we joke that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. In Iceland, if you don’t like the terrain, just drive five kilometers. Western Iceland is the dreamiest place I’ve ever been. The AirBnB we booked was in Grundarfjörður, right across the street from Kirkjufell – the most photographed mountain in Iceland. If you’re into whale watching, Láki Tours leaves right out of Grundarfjörður harbor during the winter months, and you will most likely see whales. You will also most likely see people vomit, which is a no-go for me. Highly recommended if you have a strong stomach and no inner ear issues, though!Landbrotalaug Hot Springs is said to be one of these secret locations. However, I learned that even if the GPS coordinates are on a hard-to-find website, it is no longer secret. We arrived and there were five other groups of people splashing around and exploring the apocalyptic landscape. There is a thermal pond and then a smaller hot spring pool across the pond, and you can technically swim in either. The pond is larger but much more shallow, while the deeper pool only has room for two to three people. The shallow pond is very warm, especially close to the water source (it once provided water to an abandoned farmhouse). The deeper pool is more temperate, but it is not as clear, which may cause some anxiety for those who like to know what their feet will touch. Even though I didn’t swim, I got some of my most favorite pictures at this location.
On our last full day in Iceland, we ventured out to Snæfellsjökull National Park.
“Hey Alexa, play ‘Wow.’ by Post Malone.”
It was beautiful. Just look at the pictures because words won’t do it justice.
We hiked up Saxhóll Crater, which looked awe-inspiring from ground level, but this won the award for the “most disappointing” sight. Holding 3-4,000 year old lava is cool, but the actual crater just looked like a rocky hill from the top.
We ate a traditional Icelandic meal at Bjargarsteinn Mathús down the road from our AirBnB for our last dinner. I got a vegetarian dish, and I truly wish I could tell you what all was on my plate. From what I could tell, it consisted of a type of yam, some pineapple salsa, a risotto-type concoction, figs, and vegetables. It came with a salad with drool-inducing dressing and a bowl of pasta with a cream sauce. The atmosphere at this restaurant, with a full view of Kirkjufell across the water, made it even more memorable.
Some other things you should know about Iceland:
- You probably won’t see the Aurora Borealis. We saw them very faintly one night, but they weren’t even bright enough to capture on camera. It was still an incredible experience to see the whitish-green glow dance and undulate across the pitch black sky.
- Only about 20% of the population speaks fluent English. Nearly everything is written in Icelandic, so be prepared to either use a translator app or to be okay with surprises.
- BÓNUS grocery stores are the ones everyone talks about, but Krónan is actually a better option, in my opinion. Netto was also great for quick stops.
- Ísey Skyr is the best thing I have ever eaten. Coconut and banana are the best flavors. Coconut and banana mixed together is even better. Still looking for this stuff in the States.
- Iceland CAN be done on a budget! I heard hundreds of time how expensive it is. I am here to tell you, I spent about half the amount of money I expected to spend. We grocery shopped and made most of our meals at home and packed lunches to take on our daily adventures. We ate out four or five times, and none of the bills were more than I would expect to spend at a decent restaurant in America. Alcohol could get really expensive, and hotels are outrageous, but if you plan ahead, book early, and use AirBnB for accommodations, you can afford it!!
And now it is time to plan a summer trip to Iceland so that I can see the northern part of the country! And Puffins! Mostly just for the Puffins…