Iceland - Rewards of Doing Things the Hard Way
When my travel agent daughter Katie first suggested that we take a family trip to Iceland over the New Year holiday, my initial reaction was, “um…that’s doing things the hard way.” I am not, by any measure, a cold weather girl. In my mind, the very phrase ‘arctic vacation’ was a glaring oxymoron. And the idea of Iceland in the Dead Of Winter? My first inclination was to dive under a blanket and hide until the madness passed.
But… Katie was convinced. When she gets an idea in her head, she is pretty much exactly like me: undeterred. She immediately started looking into travel deals and adventure tours. The rest of the Robinsons were similarly intrigued: both by the prospect of going off-the-beaten-path, and by the exotic notion of kicking off 2018 under the Northern Lights.
Plus, to be blunt, they’re Southerners: they wouldn’t recognize Real Cold if it bit them…which it was about to. So, a movement was born, and a decision made.
Fast-forward to the first week of January, 2018. The 5 of us found ourselves in an Icelandic field, bundled up side-by-side like mummies on the frozen ground… surrounded by ice and lava rock, eagerly scanning the night sky for the Aurora Borealis. We’d laid on the ground in an attempt to dodge the wind (in Iceland, it’s brutal). An hour and forty minutes of watching, waiting, and shivering. Madness.
Then, what appeared to be a drab gray streak of cloud inexplicably began to shimmer and come to life. In a matter of minutes, it was glowing preturnatural green, taking over the vast sky. Lights sparkled and danced at one end, then flicked across the arc and vanished. Cameras whirred and clicked. The half-frozen tourists on the field let out a collective cheer of victory – and I heard my voice mix right in with the rest. On the advice of a fellow star-gazer, I'd downloaded a Northern Lights photo app (yep - there's an app for that) and pointed my iPhone at the sky to capture the magic the best I could. It was breathtaking and in that moment, the cold was forgotten.
We had just witnessed a primordial dance of cosmic energy: electrons released by nuclear explosions on the sun’s surface, drawn toward earth by the giant magnet that is our North Pole, to collide with atmospheric dust and create an ephemeral display in the night sky. Something I had previously thought little about, suddenly became the experience of a lifetime.
I think that night of battling the cold to witness the Northern Lights is a good allegory for Iceland itself. This is a place where life is done “the hard way”, but the payoff is a chance to experience natural beauty and moments that will take your breath away.
We toured Iceland in January, the peak of their 9-month-long winter, (you read that right: 9 MONTHS)! The sun rises at 11 am and sets at 4:30 pm, leaving long, icy, wind-blown hours of darkness to fill the void. But what you can see during those 4-5 precious hours of daylight is nothing short of magical.
If you take a day tour from Reykjavik to the Golden Circle in the country’s southwest corner, you can watch the earth literally boil under your feet and explode in a violent and majestic display of geothermal force at Strokkur Geyser, surrounded by vast plains of ice and volcanic rock. Conveniently, the geyser puts on its show just about every 6 minutes, so you can thaw your frozen fingers in your pockets (disposable hand warmers recommended) while you count down to the next photo op.
If you can handle the biting wind, there’s even an ice-encrusted bench where you can sit and contemplate the mysteries of an island formed by an eons-old tug-of-war between volcanoes and glaciers, while mini-geysers gurgle around you. Or, if you’re sensible, you can snap an artsy photo of this bench (as we did) and head back to your warm vehicle to await the next stop, which for us, was Gulfoss Falls.
Here again, nature is staggeringly beautiful – and unrelentingly fierce. Water thunders over the ice-blue falls while 45-mile an hour winds try to sweep you off your feet. The sky is huge; the landscape moon-like, and every so often a grouping of Icelandic ponies press their shaggy manes Into the wind and nose about the earth for something to munch on – though what vegetation there might be on this frozen plain, I have no idea.
Other not-to-be/missed experiences in the Golden Circle include the tectonic divide between the Eurasian and North American continents (simply a jagged gash in the landscape, but it’s cool to cross 2 continents in a matter of seconds), and the Secret Lagoon.
This is one of Iceland’s many geothermal outdoor pools – you don your bathing suit, step into sub-freezing air (madness once again) – and immerse yourself in deliciously hot water fed by underground volcanic springs, while steam rolls away across the frozen landscape. The light here makes it impossible to take a bad picture. Seriously. An Icelandic troll could hop in this pool and look pretty. I know because I personally arrived in Iceland sporting 2 black eyes from a face-plant onto a concrete floor back home. The diffuse light just sort of softens every flaw with an artistic blur. My selfie-snapping daughters were in heaven.
This seems like a good place to insert a travel disclaimer: Iceland is a volcanic island, so if it were to have a national fragrance, it would be sulfur (a.k.a. the smell of cooked eggs). This is especially true at the natural pools. But you do grow accustomed to the smell, and the hot, mineral-rich waters feel heavenly after cramped airplane travel and backpack-toting.
The Blue Lagoon
Another, more famous volcanic pool outside of Reykjavik is the Blue Lagoon. Even though it’s touristy, definitely go. You get to slather a silica mud masque on your face, swim through delectably warm water, thumb your nose at the biting wind that has stalked you since your arrival, and enjoy a pricey but worth-it drink. My daughter Kayla reports that her smoothie was the best she’s ever tasted. I had a “meh” Chardonnay and would instead steer you toward the crisp Somersby cider that Katie ordered – it's the perfect complement to warm sulfuric soaks and bone-chilling air...who knew?
Like the secret Lagoon, the Blue Lagoon has a sort of magical quality to it. The rolling clouds of steam are not only photogenic, they offer a sense of privacy - even with lots of fellow bathers (at least in winter) .
And everywhere is a picture...
The drive between Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon is spectacular in its own right. On a January “evening” (4 pm) we passed through more ethereal moonscape terrain, a frozen sea of ice out my right window, volcanic mountains backlit by a fiery sunset out my left. Contrasts.
The entire country of Iceland has only about 325,000 hardy souls, roughly two-thirds of whom reside in this seaside capital city. The downtown oozes old-world Nordic charm, and a trip up the tower of the Hallgrímskirkja (~$10) is absolutely worth the photo opp on a reasonably cloudless day.
You’ll see the delightfully colorful rooftops of the quaint city center, the harbor and snowy mountains off in the distance – 360 degrees of postcard-worthy views.
There's a charming city pond where a local suggested we feed the arctic birds that congregate (you can order inexpensive bags of day-old “duck bread” at local bakeries).
The restaurants and shops are all a bit pricey – tourism has recently taken hold of this town, even in the winter “off season”, so be prepared to spend at least $20-$30 per person for a casual entrée here. We enjoyed soup in a bread bowl at Svarta Kaffid and it was delicious, filling, and expensive, at ~$20 per person for lunch. But it was soul-warming!
ATV's, Geology, Diplomacy
While in Reykjavik, we also did an adrenaline-pumping ATV tour up a mountain, to be rewarded with a sparkling nighttime view of the city. We signed a safety waiver, received about 5 minutes of instruction, donned a balaclava, helmet and snowsuit likely designed by the Michelin Tire Man, and were off on yet another adventure: an icy, ditch-pocked trail that skimmed alongside a frozen lake before twisting up the mountain. It was spectacular fun...and led us to surmise that lawyers must be few and far between in Iceland.
Chilling out in an Ice Cave
Other edifying Reykjavik cultural landmarks Included the Perla museum, where we toured an ice cave (-14 degrees F)...
and Hofdi House
- where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated the end of the Cold War and altered the course of the nuclear arms race – and modern history.
þrettándin - Twelfth Night
The icing on the Icelandic cake occurred our last night in Reykjavik: January 6. This happens to be the last official night of the Christmas holiday in Iceland. People build giant neighborhood bonfires with their Christmas trees, while a Santa-esque Icelandic elf serves the crowd pudding and leads them in traditional songs. Firework displays light up the skies in every corner of the city until the wee hours of the morning. If you happen to be in Iceland on January 6, it’s a bucket list item.
Finally, a note about the Icelanders themselves. Initially, they have a sort of stoicism about them. After all, their home is a part of the planet that requires one to look inward, dig deep into reserves of inner strength, and grapple with untamable forces of nature on a near-daily basis. Whether it be ice, wind, extended darkness or simmering volcanos, life in Iceland is indeed “doing it the hard way.” Weaklings need not apply.
However, get them talking and you’ll discover that Icelanders are as gracious, kind and accommodating as any people on the earth. They have a can-do mentality, a deep and authentic care for the environment, and a self-deprecating humor about their frosty homeland that pops up easily in conversations with foreigners who visit from cushier climes. Like the brutally beautiful world around them, Icelanders embrace toughness. In my book, that earns them an extra measure of respect.
As I board my purple WOW airline flight back home, I’m so thankful that Katie and my family saw the possibilities in Iceland! I’ve had the chance to witness a land of fire and ice, and to be reminded - once again - that many of life’s most rewarding moments begin at the end of my comfort zone. I’m also thankful to the Icelanders for showing me part of their spectacular homeland, and demonstrating the willingness to do things the hard way: it has enabled them to steward one of most starkly magnificent places on the planet.
Top Tips for Visiting Iceland (in January)
Plan to dress in layers. Windproof clothing will be your best friend. The temperature is cold (20° - 33°F/ -6° - 0° C), but the sporadic, fierce wind is what will get to you, especially if you do a day trip through the Golden Circle, which you absolutely should! If you're properly bundled up, you'll enjoy the incredible sights in comfort.
Take a bus tour tor the Golden Circle. Our family rarely joins tour groups when we travel. We tend to enjoy striking out on our own. But for Iceland, we decided to make it easy on ourselves, not worry about navigating icy terrain, and book tours. Probably a bit more expensive to do it this way, but it ensured that we got to see and do everything we wanted in our weeklong visit. There's a lot to be said for letting an experienced tour company do all the planning and logistics, not to mention you get to learn about this amazing place from the perspective of local tour guides, which you wouldn't if you forged your own path. For the Golden Circle tour, we used Bus Travel Iceland, which offers multiple tours, and our experience was fantastic! Here's their website: https://bustravel.is/
ATV Tour - Like I said earlier, the group we used (Safari Quads) didn't spend a lot of time fussing over us beforehand. They were very straightforward and we got to the adventure pretty quickly, but we definitely felt they were keeping an eye on everyone and were experts. I recommend them: https://www.quad.is/
Pack your bathing suit and be sure to take in the Secret Lagoon and the Blue Lagoon - you won't regret it!
Other things to pack:
A waterproof case or zip-up bag for your camera (for picture-taking at the lagoons). Your fingers will get pretty cold while snapping those amazing photos so it's nice to be able to submerge them in the warm waters
Backpacks - they come in handy for the day trips.
Snacks for the bus tours (they don't provide snacks, and ask that you not eat on the bus, but it's nice to have snacks when you hop off at your various tour destinations. (And, the places they stop do offer snacks/lunches for purchase)
A good camera and tripod if you're serious about getting pictures of the Northern Lights. If you're sticking with your camera phone, download one of the Northern Lights photo apps to help get the best performance out of your device. And, here's a link to a daily Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) forecast - they can't be predicted with 100% reliability, but this forecast gives probabilities based on weather and the moon phase, etc. http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/
Cheers to You!
As you plan your trip, try this yummy cocktail, in honor of the Aurora Borealis: