“The sand is so black and smooth which contrasts with the white foam of the sea and the greyish sky overhead. The tide was out but the waves were quite angry as they came roaring and crashing on to the shore.”
I watched a documentary on Iceland in 2008 and my sister went there in 2009. Ever since then, I had waited and waited for the chance to visit the land of fire and ice for myself.
The opportunity didn’t present itself for a while with so many other things over the years, so many other countries. When my cousins told me they would be visiting Reykjavik before flying on to New York, I booked on to the first part of their trip in a heartbeat! While I would have loved to have gone to New York, I’m in the middle of buying my first house alone so this time it was not to be…
There was SO much preparation to do for those 3 days in Reykjavik and the internet was a goldmine for research. I had to buy so much cold weather gear that will probably sit in my wardrobe unused for a long time but at least it’s there for any future trips.
In this blog post, I’m going to pass on what I did, what you need for a trip there and key information for getting the most out of three days.
What clothes you need:
- Waterproof and windproof lined coat (I got mine from Jack Wolfskin, the Svalbard jacket)
- Thermal hat
- Thermal tops (one per day)
- Thermal tights and thermal leggings
- Waterproof over-trousers
- Thermal socks
- Waterproof walking boots
- Crampons (boot spikes)
- Thermal gloves
We visited in February and the temperature was averaging around 0 degrees. That doesn’t sound exceptionally cold however the wind is cutting so you must be prepared for that with a windproof jacket. I like being cold (strange for someone who lived in the hottest city in Europe for a few years) so I enjoyed it and especially the skies that clear coldness creates.
We hired a car for the whole trip and I would say that this is an imperative. You can go on tours but they are very expensive. It cost around £300 for three days for a minibus.
The Golden Circle comprises of:
- Thingvellir National Park
- The Geyser
- Gulfoss Waterfalls
- Kerid Crater
It took around 6 hours to complete the drive around each location with around 50 minutes drive between each one.
It looks still and peaceful in the picture but it was wildly windy which made it hard to take photographs, either because my hair was blowing all over the lens or because I felt like the wind could easily blow my phone out of my hands.
In order to take a picture, you have to remove your giant thermal space gloves and your hands feel so frozen in even just five seconds, all the blood drains away and your fingers become numb.
As with most of the Icelandic landscape, the park is a vast scene of lava fields and ice hence the country’s nickname, the Land of Fire and Ice. The sky was a lovely clear, pale blue with just a tint of peach coloured sun behind a few wispy clouds.
It is here where you can see the rift between two tectonic plates: the North American plate and the Eurasian plate.
The next stop is the geothermal geyser fields. There are plenty of mini geysers dotted around the field which you can see and hear bubbling away with stem drifting away but the main geyser is called the Strokkur, or grand, geyser. I don’t have a clear enough photo of the grand geyser and when it erupted whilst we were there, it was only quite small (I guess down to a lack of air pressure at that time).
Still, walking through these geyser fields, it looks as if you’re walking across the moon’s surface with all of the craters and rocky ground. The smell of sulphur is quite overwhelming but you just have to try to get used it.
This was one of my favourite things that I saw on the whole trip. The wind was so strong and absolutely freezing from here as the spray from the waterfall whips across your face but it feels so wild and so fresh it’s actually really nice.
Again, photos are hard to take in such conditions but it really is a treat for the senses. The sound of the crashing waterfall, the white water, the black cliffs and blue ice and the feeling of the cold spray are so powerful.
You have to descend quite a lot of steps so the crampons came in useful for not slipping whilst doing this. It is so dramatic and such a fierce display of nature and something I felt so privileged to have seen.
Driving around, you see lots of Icelandic horses in the fields so it’s easy to see them by pulling over and going over to the fences where they usually congregate, waiting for food from passers-by.
Iceland does not allow other horses to enter the country and if an Icelandic horse is exported, it is not allowed to return to the country. They have kept this breed the same with no other mixing for a long time and they are very proud of the beauty and uniqueness of this horse.
They are so cute; they resemble little ponies with their short height and silky manes. They seem very gentle in nature too, they allowed us to stroke them and feed them from a little stand where the owners have left horse treats and a donation box.
Dogs were totally banned from Iceland in 1924 up until the 1980s due to a disease that had been spreading round.
The final stop on the Golden Circle route, this volcanic crater was created by a geothermal hotspot as the land shifted over time. This was the only natural site where we had to pay an entrance fee (it was around 3 euros).
The surface of the crater itself was frozen over with thick ice which we walked across (tentatively) and we walked the circumference of the top which was an amazing view despite it taunting my fear of heights.
It took me a while typing the name of this church (and checking the spelling too). It goes without saying that the design of the church is so striking, you can’t stop staring at it. The architect based it on the rocks, volcanoes and glaciers of Iceland.
I didn’t go inside it but apparently it also houses an observation tower.
Food, drink and nightlife
We bought bottles of spirits in Manchester airport to take over for having a drink in the hotel room as we knew about Iceland’s famously expensive alcohol prices.
There isn’t a nightlife to speak of anyway, there are a few bars which close early and only a handful of restaurants. (East Asian restaurants seem very popular there with several Vietnamese noodle bars which I’d highly recommend).
My cousin picked up some cans of ‘Gull’ lager when we landed at Reykjavik airport for a good price and it was a good job he did as it is very hard to find alcohol to buy in Iceland.
Beer was banned from 1915 to 1989. Other alcohol had been banned during the Prohibition years but eventually they allowed wine and spirits. For some reason, beer must have been considered more dangerous…
Alcohol has to be purchased from state-owned off licences called ‘Vínbudín’ which are kind of off the beaten track. They can mainly be found along the motorways.
We didn’t really try any Icelandic delicacies because fermented shark isn’t that appealing to a British palette. However, what is very British (and Icelandic too, as we found out) is the good old chippy. There are a few chip shops around Reykjavik city centre and we went to one that’s menu consisted only of…. chips. 7 euros gets you a cone of chips with whichever dip you choose and they sell lager too if you fancy it. The most expensive chips I’ve ever had (but they were very nice though).
You can visit The Blue Lagoon during the day or during the evening, as we did. It is 40 euros cheaper to go in the evening and while I had wanted to see the blue lagoon looking all bright and blue during the day, it was a brilliant experience being there in the darkness.
The mists rise above and the water looks milky from the minerals and if you can spot a gap in the mists above, you get a clear view of the stars.
On the basic ticket, you get entry and wristband which entitles you to one drink from the swim-up bar and a face mask made from the clay of the lagoon. There is a woman with a bowl of the clay who just spoons it into your hands which you apply on your face. It immediately hardens in the cold air then you wash it off with the lagoon’s water. It did work, my skin felt very clean afterwards!
The water is naturally heated from geothermal springs and it feels like swimming in bath water. You don’t feel the cold above because of the way the body regulates temperature. There is also a sauna and steam room and cold waterfalls to stand under.
There is a shop where you can purchase their beauty products but they’re very expensive.
It was such an amazing and different experience and one I won’t forget.
Vik- Southern Iceland
We visited another two waterfalls. They weren’t as dramatic as the Gulfoss waterfall but they were still impressive and again, cover you with their freezing cold spray even when you’re several metres away.
This was another favourite place and possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It is so striking and so different to anywhere else I’ve been.
The sand is so black and smooth which contrasts with the white foam of the sea and the greyish sky overhead. The tide was out but the waves were quite angry as they came roaring and crashing on to the shore. It reminded me of a pint of Guinness, sounds strange but the white foam on the black smooth sand resembled one (in my eyes, anyway).
Overlooking the town of Vik is this little church which looks like something from Hansel and Gretel. That simple, clean Scandinavian is evident here with its plain white walls, arched windows and pink icing roof. It reminds me a bit of a wedding cake.
Iceland in Iceland
In Britain, we have a chain of supermarkets called Iceland. This means that whenever I told people I was going to Iceland, I had to clarify that I was going to the country and not the supermarket. When we drove past an Iceland store in Iceland itself, I couldn’t resist taking a photo, so meta.
This was yet another favourite, maybe the best thing I did. We went to the glacier and started to walk across the thick, compacted snow and ice.
It looks so vast, it felt like we were walking across it for a good two hours. Like most things there, it was the colours that were the most striking thing, Three colours- white, black and blue. The thick, compacted ice takes on marbled colours that look like soft icing sugar but it is absolutely solid.
The Northern Lights
Most people who go to Iceland hold hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. We went at the right time of year (February) but it wasn’t meant to be. The sky was too cloudy at night and it was snowing on one of the nights. The ‘Aurora’ app we had been using showed that the lights were visiting Canada but not making an appearance in Iceland that week.
Another time, another place.
There are plenty of other things to see and do such as ice caves, entering glaciers, seeing puffins (only possible in another season), visiting the ‘diamond beach’ and more but this was what we managed to fit into three days.
Iceland surpassed even the high expectations I had of it and definitely ranks as one of the top places I’ve ever been. I highly recommend anyone to visit Iceland at least once in their lives to see a very unique part of the world.
We flew to Reykjavik with Icelandair and stayed at the Midgardur Hotel.