Brrrr. But it's not what you think.
This time last year I had just gotten home from Iceland. "Iceland?" you might ask. "What on earth for?" Well, I'm here to tell you. Not only did Iceland surpass expectations, it's one of the few places I am dedicated to revisiting.
How I got there: This trip started, yet again, with a Groupon. A flash deal online through everyone's favorite discount site and a quick phone call with my travel buddy, Cody, and we were booked! It of course included all our flights and lodging for a mere $599 plus taxes and fees. We chose December because you stand the best chance of seeing the northern lights during the coldest, darkest months of the year.
We flew Iceland Air from JFK directly to Reykjavik (Ray-ha-vick..."j's" are silent), Iceland's capital city. Iceland Air was a very nice airline, similar in perks to Delta. It's a surprisingly short flight at just under four hours. Many airlines even offer what is called the Icelandic stopover, particularly when flying to and from Europe. You get a night or two layover in Reykjavik at no extra charge. I mean, you are flying right over the country anyway.
How much it cost: For only $599 we got a round-trip flight out of JFK in New York directly to Reykjavik and 4 nights lodging at the Centerhotel Plaza. Our hotel was very centrally located, accommodating, clean and welcoming. I have no negative comments about the hotel. They even helped us reschedule a couple of tours and recommended local dining spots. Our Groupon package also included breakfast each morning at the hotel and a northern lights tour. We booked a few extra tours, including the Golden Circle tour and a morning stay at the famous Blue Lagoon hot spring. Both were very much worth the expense.
Is English widely spoken?: Oh most definitely. "Icelandic" is considered the local language, but for all intents and purposes it's an English speaking nation...and very welcoming to tourists! Also, the exchange rate is somewhere around $0.75 cents to 1 Icelandic Krona. Not a bad rate unless you consider how expensive Iceland can be to visit. Being an island nation, almost everything is imported so it makes a majority of items more expansive than normal. It's manageable, just don't be shocked.
We had an uneventful flight into Reykjavik and arrived around 4:00 am. Although the flight was a short one, the time difference was 5 hours ahead and we were in for a very, very long day. The airport is about 30 minutes north of the capital, however we were lucky to have a bus waiting to take us to the hotel. Even though we couldn't check-in, the hotel held our luggage until we returned later in the day.
During this time of the year, because Iceland is so far north, the sun did not rise until close to 10:30 am and it would set around 3:00 pm, making any daylight very valuable. We changed clothes in the hotel restroom and headed to catch our bus for the first tour of our journey.
The temperature, despite popular belief, is not drastically different than the temps we might see here in the Northeast. I would estimate the days were around 45 degrees and the nights around 35 degrees. It's not the polar wasteland some might envision. On the contrary, our first tour took us around the countryside of Reykjavik full of green fields, mountains and waterfalls. One of our first stops was Skogafoss, a glorious waterfall 60 meters high, pounding down on a jet black pool of fresh water and cold black pebbles. At the tour guide's suggestion, we drank right out of the creek flowing from the waterfall. It's as clean as it comes, created by water rushing down the mountain from glaciers high above. It was spectacular.
From there, we toured the southern portion of the island, with amazing view after amazing view. I would say that if one word describes Iceland accurately, it's "views." From mountains, to waterfalls, to glaciers, geysers and oceans...every angle offered a magical view. I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings.
We were originally scheduled to take a northern lights tour our first night. However, well, rather thankfully, it was rescheduled due to cloudy skies. I say thankfully because by about 5:00 pm, I was done. We'd had no sleep; we were flying by the seat of our pants in Reykjavik; we had just toured the entire southern portion of the country and we still weren't in our hotel room yet. So, thankfully, our night tour was rescheduled and we were able to rest.
Iceland is volcanic. The entire country essentially has an unlimited supply of hot water. It's so plentiful that Icelanders don't even have to pay for it and they use it for energy. Needless to say, this continual supply made for a very nice shower each morning and evening. I could have stood in that shower for hours, but in order not to miss out any adventures, I kept them to a reasonable time :)
Speaking of volcanic hot water, day two took us to the famous Blue Lagoon. This was an outing not included in our package and luckily we booked the morning long before we arrived. Everyone that goes to Iceland takes a trip to the lagoon, so getting a coveted spot is something that takes preparation. Speaking from experience, splurge and book the premium package. It'll cost around $80 but it is just a few dollars more than the comfort package, so why not? The upgrade gets you entrance to the pools, a bathrobe and slippers, a cocktail ticket and two natural face masks. Lord-have-mercy that place was amazing. It's a giant hot lake that you float/walk around in while you have a beer and a facial. I mean, I certainly wasn't complaining.
We headed back after our fingers were thoroughly wrinkled and did some shopping. Iceland is known for its wool, cashmere, black liquorish (gag) and volcanic stone. I scored some sweaters, spices and volcanic rock jewelry but passed on the liquorish. Surprisingly one of the items Iceland is well-known for is its hot dogs. Yes, you heard me. Icelandic hot dogs are everything. They are very different than our American franks, but most definitely hold their own. That's all I'll say about this delicacy. You'll have to make the trip to find out for yourself.
Reykjavik is a beautifully walkable city. The tallest structure is the Hallgrimskirkja - a Lutheran Church commissioned in 1945 but completed in 1986. It is certainly unique in design and offers a gorgeous view of the city atop its 244 foot tower. Its design is meant to mimic the shapes of Iceland's rocky landscape. There's even a statue out front that was a gift to Iceland from the US to honor the 1000th anniversary of Iceland's Parliament.
Our last full day was by far the most exciting! We booked an additional tour of the Golden Circle, covering the remaining southern portion of Iceland. Without getting into each and every stop along the tour, suffice it to say that we saw our fair share of glaciers, geysers and waterfalls. This portion of the island was far more frozen than what we had seen earlier. From the North Pole-esk Þingvellir National Park, to the dramatic geysers at Haukadalur, to the freezing winds brushing off the Gullfoss waterfall and glacier, we saw a buffet of natural beauty. This leg of the journey most definitely required snow boots, long Johns and a nice thick scarf.
My favorite part of the Golden Circle tour, and the place where we ended the afternoon, was the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Formed from years of ocean slamming into volcanic rock, the fine pebbles of the beaches make for a stunning reflective surface at sunset. If you are like me and love photography, it's the Mecca. I'm no professional, but I consider the photos I took that day at the black beaches to be some of the best in my collection. Standing there gazing across the frigid Atlantic, framed by ancient basalt sea stacks, is a breathtaking moment. I'll never forget it.
The trip would not have been complete without a sighting of the northern lights. After two cancellations due to cloudy skies, our last night was just right. We were bused out of the city, far from the light pollution and high up on a mountain just outside the capital. We waited hours. The cold night turned colder and many folks were getting impatient. The guides called us back to the bus. It was time to throw in the towel and go back. Sometimes the lights just don't want to dance, it was explained. Everyone piled on and just as the last person was climbing in someone yelled "wait!" We looked out the bus window and pointing to the sky was a tour guide. He had spotted a glimmer of green and blue in the night sky. Before long, that glimmer erupted into a horizon full colorful lights intersecting and waving above us. We had almost missed it, but the very thing that lured us to Iceland in the first place had made its appearance. It was magical and, also, something I will never forget.
Bucket list - check!
If you're wondering about the cuisine, I'll fill you in. It was nothing to write home, or blog, about but it wasn't bad. Very similar to heavier dishes you find in the US, there was lots of fish and meat options. Aside from the hot dogs, Icelandic food isn't what you're visiting for.
This trip was absolutely one of the best I have ever experienced. Iceland is dramatic, refreshing and unique. I am counting down to my next visit.
Enjoy the journey folks, it's never over.