I have a confession to make. I’ve plodded through 26 years on this planet, largely living less than 3 hours away from a mystical and wild island called Iceland. I only went to visit it for the first time last week. I’m genuinely ashamed of that.
Good things come to those who wait I guess. Before you travel to the Land of Ice and Fire (which you have to do 2017) I implore you to read on…
Is Iceland Really As Expensive As They Say?
Let’s get the single negative out of the way early shall we? In a word, yes. Yes, it is.
It’s borderline farcical how expensive certain things are in Reykjavik. Currency fluctuations are mostly to blame for the eye-watering receipts. Four years ago, €1 would get your 174 ISK. Last week €1 fetched me only 117 ISK. That’s a 33% drop in value for a Euro. The result is a €25 bill for a Heineken and a vodka/blackcurrant (sobs uncontrollably) or €35 for chicken wings, chips and a soft drink.
Duty-free purchases are key if you want to enjoy some libations in Iceland. To be honest, this sensational island means a big night out is entirely unnecessary to have the best time of your life!
If Your Time In Iceland Is Limited, You Must Maximise It
Iceland isn’t a place for laissez-faire travellers. If you want to relax, unwind and read a good book, then go somewhere else (Blue Lagoon aside). On the other hand, if you want entirely unique experiences, other-worldly landscapes and sleep deprivation that will permanently etch the most satisfying smile on your face, then come to Iceland right now.
Our trip was to last four full days, flying back at stupid-o-clock with WOW Air on Monday morning. As organiser-in-chief, I’d already made peace with the fact that lie-ins were outlawed and the further we ventured from Reykjavik, the more we’d be rewarded (and boy were we right!).
The Blue Lagoon, The Golden Circle, The Black Sand Beach, Glacial Hikes, Whale Watching, Northern Lights Hunting, Ice Caving, Skiing, Hiking, Hot Spring Searching, Snowmobiling, MMA training…just some of what you can get up to while here.
Top Tip: Decide what you want to do before you go, plan each day around hours of daylight etc, get tours booked in advance.
The Blue Lagoon. Believe The Hype?
“Yeah, but I liked that band before they were cool”.
You know those people who shun things when they become popular? This is happening to the famed thermal spa as those irritating travel snobs cry that it’s become too commercialised.
I can tell you all now, for an absolute fact, that listening to these people about the Blue Lagoon is a waste of time. It’d be a travesty to miss what is an unmissable experience, especially when it’s 3 degrees below zero in January.
The standard €40 (5,400 ISK) entry fee is all you need and grants you access to the changing facilities and the Lagoon itself, which is a lot bigger than you’d think!
Seeing as Keflavik airport dissects The Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik you’re better off going there either directly from the airport on arrival or before departure. You will not ever want to leave so avoid a missed flight and go straight from arrival like we did.
Booked in for 17:00, we arrived at 15:15 and had to enviously watch people enjoy the Lagoon from the adjoining restaurant, Lava. We were given the green light to go through at 16:30 and once changed practically sprinted into the Lagoon!
The water is perfect (and it’s never deeper than 4.5 – 5 feet if you’re not a great swimmer). We stayed there for over 3 hours (don’t mind the hour long slot, it’s not enforced), had a couple of drinks (€12 a pint but who cares, you’re in the Blue Lagoon!) and even withstood a vicious blizzard that was both a bizarre and brilliant experience.
Hunting for ‘hot spots’ with a bunch of random ‘Lagooners’ became one entertaining sport!
Top Tip: Don’t avoid the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s busy but it’s huge and a perfect way to start your visit. Don’t overspend on the luxury packages either, standard all the way is perfect.
Tracking The Stunning Golden Circle
This is Iceland’s most popular tourist activity and a tour 95% of visitors will go on. As it was January, we only had about 4 hours daylight so we needed some hustle. Thankfully the tours are well aware of the premium on natural light and collected us long before sunrise (10am).
Thingvellir National Park is the only place in the world you can walk, above sea level, between two tectonic plates. It’s also where I captured the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life. No filters!
An hour long drive brought us to Gullfoss, Europe’s biggest waterfall. Already, what I thought qualified as a breathtaking landscape had been redefined twice. My trusty drone played a blinder over Gullfoss and captured some memorable footage below…
Next up, we had to go meet a Geysir…
Geysir itself, rarely blows it’s top these days (only a handful of times a year) but it’s slightly smaller brother Strokur was more than accommodating for a show, spewing out boiling water 50ft into the sky every few minutes. The entire field is smoking and it’s really mind-bending knowing all of this is happening a couple of metres below you.
Top Tip: There is nothing wrong with a bus tour but having a rental car is a better way to do the Golden Circle. It also lets you squeeze in Kerid Crater, a fascinating place the bus bypasses. It also gives you the freedom to stop for pics whenever you want to.
You Think Iceland Can’t Get Better, And Then It Does
Having ticked off the two most popular activities in Part One, both thoroughly enjoyable, it was time for something a bit more wild – Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
The fourth largest in Iceland and on the southern slopes of Katla, Iceland’s biggest volcano, this was a proper adventure.
Stretching 14km north to the ice cap that sits atop Katla, the sheer scale of the place left all of us speechless. “We’re going to climb that thing?!” Ok then.
Heavy duty hiking boots, crampons, harnesses and an ice axe we’re all working to save us from falling into the 60ft crevasses that streaked through the glacier like a gigantic hot knife through, well, a glacier. The ice is absolutely as blue as in the pictures below and the surrounding ash had all been piled high, as a result of Eyjafjallajökull’s (pronounced ay-ya-fyatla-yo-kootl which doesn’t really help much) eruptions in 2010.
Our guide Martyn, explained to us how the glacier forms – compacting hundreds of metres of snowfall into the stunningly blue ice. 12 metres of snow is required to freeze into 1cm of glacial ice. Think about that for a second…
Martyn also explained how this glacier has retreated over 1km since 1996, carving out the valley you can see below. It was the first time in my life I’d seen the visible effects of climate change. Pretty scary stuff in truth.
We remained on the glacier for about 90 minutes. It was humbling to feel so small and cast your eye on a landscape that has taken many thousands of years to form. Not something you’d forget in a hurry.
Top Tip: Pack food with you on any day long excursions. You’ll get fed after the glacial hike but Oreo’s, Pringles and Haribo were as crucial for survival as the crampons!
Chasing The Lights Into The Night
For most visitors to Iceland, seeing the Northern Lights is the pinnacle of a trip. The pictures and timelapse’s that are vividly splashed across the net are stunning but I always wondering whether they were misleading…
We came, we saw, we slept.
Northern Lights Tours are very fair to tourists as they will cancel if the forecast isn’t conducive to seeing the auroras and offer a refund if you can’t go on a rearranged tour. Thankfully, at 7pm that evening we got the green light (sorry) that we’d had a fighting chance of seeing them.
4 hours and three locations later, just as we were about to give up, the lights switched on across the horizon. Initially the faintest of glows, the sky lit up a shimmering colour of green as if someone had flicked an enormous paint brush at a canvas. They danced over our heads for about five minutes and were gone.
Our guide flatly commented that the intensity of our lights experience was pretty poor but I left the experience feeling ever so slightly underwhelmed. Although glad to have ticked it off the Bucket List.
Top Tip: If you’re chasing the lights by car, they’re at their most intense and common between 11:00 – 12:00. Chasing them into the early hours is a waste of time and will likely leave a sour taste in the mouth. You’re better off sleeping after 1:00am.
Spontaneous Sunday And Finishing On A High
As I said, being organised to get the most out of each day is a necessary art form for a trip to Iceland but we’re explorers, being spontaneous is just as important. With that in mind, we left Sunday completely free.
Whale watching suggestions were quickly rain-checked having spoken to a UK couple in an Irish bar (The Drunk Rabbit) in Reykjavik the night before. They’d gone the previous day, saw no whales and coated the deck in vomit. Maybe next time eh?
Instead, we hopped in the car and found Hveragerdi, a geothermal park complete with some epic (and very doable) hiking trails. Up we went to the top of the 401m peak. Fittingly the blizzard which threatened to put us in a ditch while driving to the park (scary!) had cleared leaving us with some incredible views.
During our descent, we were joined by a stream meandering alongside us. With steam rising from the ground all around us, unsurprisingly the water was gorgeously warm. Further down we found a small pool which gathered from two separate streams. There we stood for 10 minutes, in minus 5-degree conditions…
“Will we regret it more if we don’t jump in?”
That was enough for me. Clothes off, in we jumped and it was the best decision of the holiday. We spent nearly two hours in this natural bath, surrounded by the most breathtaking landscape and totally removed from the world, reflecting on the most satisfying and rewarding trip any of us had taken.
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