The land of fire and ice, our first European stop, made for a perfect week long winter layover. Stopovers are heavily promoted by Icelandair with flights to the Nordic Island country costing around $650 return from Orlando, quite a bit cheaper than direct flights to London from Miami. We would then continue on to England with one of the European ultra low cost airlines. Hopefully we would still have enough funds available after the renowned Icelandic expenses!
After seven hours from Stanford, FL we arrived at Keflavik International Airport at 6am, two hours prior to sunrise – we expected Iceland to have far less daylight hours at this time of year being so far north. We also expected frigid temperatures, especially being located just below the Arctic Circle. Our entire week was spent between –3°C/ 26.6°F and 3°C/ 37.4°F, although an almost permanent wind-chill did make conditions feel substantially worse. This temperature range was far less than the north of the United States was experiencing.
Our first port of call, breakfast in Reykjavik, was an icy 50 kilometer drive away. Was our decision to go with a compact car and decline insurance from Sixt the right one? Thank goodness for Capital One Visa car insurance! The roads were most definitely slick but having snow tires provided more confidence the more kilometers driven – not sure I could ever be as confident as an Icelander behind the wheel, where some drivers flew by us. It would definitely have been nice to have one of their big wheeled off-road trucks.
With many winter tours available, some priced well outside of our budget, we reluctantly skipped anything lasting more than a day. A few hours exploring an ice cave in the south of the island and a day trip diving in between the North American and European tectonic plates would suffice for paid excursions. Icelandic horse riding, northern lights viewing and the Golden Circle were also possibilities this time of year, the latter being a popular three stop drive beginning an hour outside of Reykjavik. We chose to head out in search of the GC highlights on the day of our arrival in Iceland, starting with Þingvellir National Park, moving on to Geysir and finally Gullfoss.
These photos were not taken in black and white, the weather was so overcast giving everything just a different shade of gray.
With a two wheel drive car, the perimeter road around Iceland is mostly guaranteed to be passable this time of the year. Andrea was howling when I wanted to do the Golden Circle route which took us off this main road. We drove three kilometers on our first attempt before turning around to find a better route. On our second attempt we pulled over and almost quit again, but we were soon passed by something resembling a tiny smart car, encouraging us to continue. Neither of us had ever been in such poor driving conditions, with wind blown snow providing zero visibility and forcing us to crawl along following the yellow markers along the road. After more than thirty kilometers we eventually reached the visitor center, alongside other tourists who had braved the same conditions, although mostly on tour buses.
It was amazing how fast Icelandic weather changes from wind and snow to relatively clear skies, and straight back again. During one of these breaks we did get to wander around the fissures where two of Earth’s tectonic plates collide, the North American and European. In a few days time we would get to dive in one of these same fissures, Silfra.
The weather for the rest of the day remained terrible, something we hoped wouldn’t follow us around for the following six days. Both the geysir and waterfall were a struggle, becoming more of a coffee break than scenery viewing, with the waterfall being almost completely off limits due to the gusty winds. I vowed to return on a clear day as the photo opportunities would have been endless. We eventually ended our day at Hotel Selfoss , both shattered and glad to be out of the miserable weather, also knowing the hotel had an attached spa felt even better. It was well worth the additional cost!
Next up was a four hour drive to Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, once again in windy and snowy conditions, taking us to the meeting place for our scheduled ice cave tour. We are definitely not tour people and would much prefer to visit somewhere independently, but on this occasion our Chevy Cruze was no where near beefy enough to get us even five meters off of the main highway. The highlight of the southern region, and one of Iceland’s most popular attractions, is the iceberg filled Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, perfected located at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and massive Vatnajökull icefield.
Managing to get a couple of places on the ice cave tour was an accomplishment in itself, everything was initially showing fully booked for our travel dates – that is until Extreme Iceland materialized a couple of afternoon spaces. Unfortunately on the day we picked a film crew decided to take over the cave and barely left us enough room for pictures! It was a bit disappointing, but still magical. I have traveled across the surface of many glaciers but never had the opportunity to get down and personal underneath of one. Ice with various shades of blue that shimmered with light sourced from many meters above and amazingly smooth to the touch provided us with an amphitheater and enough crawling space to move into the depths of the cave. The ice caves are constantly changing and this one might not be there next winter.
We continued along the southern coastline to Höfn, a small town in the southeastern corner of Iceland – this would be our turnaround point before heading back to Reykjavik. We’re sure that in the summer the town has a lot to offer but we were not impressed, even less so with the price of their specialty food, lobster, being so high. Our accommodation at the Hofn Inn was okay, albeit overpriced for what we got. We should have done more research and we’d have realized that there was certainly no need for us to leave the stunning beauty of the Vatnajökull National Park area.
Our final night before arriving in Reykjavik was spent at Fosshotel Núpar, looking something like it was constructed out of shipping containers, but having been offered a remarkable deal, we couldn’t resist. We had been driving for many hours over the past couple of days so checking into a hotel mid afternoon was perfect for refueling and relaxation.
The next morning we awoke to the best weather yet! After a wonderful breakfast we headed back to Reykjavik. Little did we know that we would need to traverse a very dangerous pass to get back into town. I really did not want to be driving as it felt like I was driving on solid ice, although our little Chevy did seem to be holding up well. We were probably the slowest car on the road, but it wasn’t worth Andrea nagging at me every two seconds and again, no rental insurance! Never had we been in such unpredictable wintery conditions, blue skies one minute, interspersed with a wind whipped blizzard seconds later. Andrea and I both agreed that we were in no way disappointed visiting Iceland this time of year, with the hit and miss weather ensuring stormy skies, rough seas, and the chance to wear our little used down jackets! Being with the masses in the height of summer would have provided us the chance to get off the beaten track, but with elevated prices, unavailable accommodation, and zero chance of seeing Aurora Borealis, would not have suited us, at least not on this visit.
Incidentally, the only Aurora sighting we witnessed was from the plane window as we flew over the Canadian coast – luck was not on our side this week, whereas a week later a powerful solar storm generated some of the best viewing in a decade. Oh well, just means we have to head to Scandinavia for another opportunity.
Using our preferred accommodation reservation system, airbnb.com paid off in Reykjavik where we found a decent room in Mosfellsbær, located on the outskirts of the city. The owner was a teacher who also ran summer hiking tours into the hills around the east of the island, providing us with great information for our next visit. We prefer spending time in locally run accommodation and private rooms, where we’re usually provided the chance to learn about the country and meet the locals.
Surprisingly, our expenses now dropped, mainly due to budget accommodation and the end of pricey excursions. We found the cities main highlights conveniently located close to the harbor, where restaurants and shops were in abundance. The weather continued to be mediocre at best, adjusting our plans from being outdoor based to frequenting the cities cafes, bars and restaurants, establishments that Icelanders are more than at home in. Following advice on Tripadvisor we made sure we visited one such restaurant, the Red Baron, known for its amazing lobster soup and minke whale – neither tantalizing our taste buds! In our experience the number one place for lobster soup was Kaffi Bryggjan, located on the waterfront in Grindavik. For around $12 each we had as much soup and coffee as we could consume, and given the extreme conditions outside on the day of our visit it was more than appreciated.
Reykjavik was clearly a busy destination for other Europeans and Americans, with English speaking tourists catching up on the latest Premiership football action, gift shops selling locally made wool clothing and puffin ornaments, alongside travel offices offering nightly Aurora excursions into the less illuminated areas close to the city.
Our final night before departure was spent at A10 Deluxe B&B in Keflavik, a couple of miles from the airport, and a very friendly family run guesthouse. The town had nothing to offer, other than being the home of Iceland’s international airport, and its convenience for getting to the famous Blue Lagoon hot pools. A couple hours in the geothermal pools were the perfect ending to our week long adventure, hopefully not being the last time we get to spend in this amazing country.
For me, the highlight of our week long trip was being able to dive in the crystal clear waters of Silfra, located an hour from the city in Þingvellir National Park. We had already seen where the North American and European tectonic plates met on land and now we were about to see it underwater. The water here is so clear its not unrealistic for visibility to be over one hundred meters! With Dive Iceland there were four divers and a much bigger group of snorkelers, alongside other similar sized groups from other companies – we had chosen wisely, having only a small group accompanied by a Polish instructor and German divemaster.
This type of cold weather diving was familiar to me, with fifty or so drysuit dives undertaken in the frigid waters of Stoney Cove quarry close to my hometown of Leicester. For the other three, it would be an interesting learning curve! With a safety conscious instructor we eventually made it into the water, totally unlike anything I’d had the fortune of seeing before – the visibility really did go on forever. With a maximum depth of around fourteen meters the dive could easily last an hour, although this would be dictated by the speed that our fingers and faces went numb. The rest of our bodies were temporarily insulated with regular clothing and a full thermal undersuit.
We made our way between the fissure that divided North America and Europe, occasionally narrow enough for us to reach out and touch both continents. With no supported marine life we were left to meander along in the slight current taking in the seemingly endless views. The amazing clarity is due to both the cold (2°C – 4°C year round) temperature and the 30-100 years the glacial water takes to penetrate through porous underground lava into the lagoon. This makes for some of the purest drinking water on the planet.
This place is certainly big business, even when temperatures drop well into the negatives the clear waters beckon divers and snorkelers from all over the world. Other than freezing to death after the dive and the almost $300 per person price tag it was a great experience and one of Iceland’s bucket list items.
Our recommendation: avoid the masses and go visit winter Iceland
Oh, and did we mention Icelandic horses – energetic, playful and extremely photogenic…
March 4th – March 11th 2015