Trips That Do Not Disappoint: Iceland

Of all the travel I have done so far, the one trip I have been asked about the most is my recent journey to Iceland.   As I get a lot of questions about traveling there, here is some advice and recommendations on a trip to Iceland based on that experience.

Getting To and From Iceland

None of the US airline carriers offer direct flights from the US to Iceland.  Most rely on their European alliances; as a result, traveling to Iceland typically means flying to an airport in Europe and then a flight to Iceland.

One option that greatly reduces the travel time is to fly one of Iceland’s two airlines that provide service to the US – Icelandair and WOW.  Icelandair flies between Reykjavik and 11 US airports (Anchorage, Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Minneapolis/St Paul, New York JFK, Newark, Orlando, Portland, Seattle, and Washington Dulles).   In 2017, it plans to add service to Philadelphia and Tampa. Icelandair has a partnership with JetBlue that enables you to book a flight via JetBlue (and thus your bags are checked all the way through).  However, you do not get any JetBlue mileage points for the Icelandair legs.  WOW is Iceland’s low cost airline that flies to 5 US airports (Baltimore, Boston Logan, LAX, Newark, and San Francisco) with Miami and Pittsburgh coming in 2017.  As with other lost cost carriers, there is a charge for almost every comfort or add-on.

For those traveling to Europe and wanting to sidetrack to Iceland, Icelandair has a nice program where if you book cross-Atlantic travel with them, you can stopover in Reykjavik for up to 7 days with no additional cost.

All international flights to Iceland land at Keflavik International Airport (KEF).   The airport was originally built by the US during War World II and is located on the southwest tip of Iceland about 50 km/30 miles from Reykjavik.  There are two large tour companies in Reykjavik, Gray Line Iceland and Reykjavik Excursions, that each offer airport shuttles that ferry people between KEF and Reykjavik.  You can book those transfers before you depart on your trip.  Both offer options of being dropped off at their respective bus terminals in Reykjavik or your hotel for a higher rate.   Both also have options to stop at the Blue Lagoon since the Blue Lagoon is only a few miles from the airport, but you need to have purchased tickets for the Blue Lagoon in advance to enter.

Reykjavik

Iceland has around 330,000 people that live there.  About one third of them live in the capital Reykjavik, another third in the towns and suburbs around Reykjavik, and the rest in remote towns and villages along the coast.

Most people end up staying in Reykjavik since it is the population center of the country.   My advice is to stay at a larger hotel in or near the city center.  Much of what there is to explore in the city is then within walking distance.  As well, if you stay at a major hotel, tour companies will pick you and up and drop you off at your hotel.

The sites to see in Reykjavik include Hallgrimskirkja Church.   For a fee, you can ride an elevator up to the tower to an observation area that gives great views of the city.   In front of the church is a statue of Leifur Eríksson (Leif Ericsson), the Viking who discovered America 500 years before Columbus. It was a gift from the United States and designed by Alexander Calder. It was installed in 1932, and actually pre-dates the church, which was constructed later.

The street between Hallgrimskirkja and the city center is Skolavordustigur, which features a lot of shopping and dining.  It eventually runs into Laugavegur, the main shopping and boutique street that is well worth a stroll.

In the city center are several government builds as it is the capital.  As well, its city hall since on a small lake.  On the waterfront is the new Harpa Concert Hall that illuminates in many colors after sunset.  A stroll eastward along the water finds the sculpture of a Viking ship called Sólfarið (“Sun Voyager”).  Further east from there is Höfði House.   The house was originally built in 1909 for the French consulate, and later the house was physically moved to Reykjavik. It is famous for being the meeting place in 1986 between Regan and Gorbachev in what would be the start to the end of the cold war.   On the property is a piece of the Berlin Wall donated to the city recently.

If you do the above, you will on your own take in about 90% of what you see on a city tour.  Not within easy walking distance of the city center, but also worth a visit are the Perlan (“Pearl”) building and a visit out to the old lighthouse.  The Perlan is actually group of water tanks that a glass dome structure was installed on top of that includes a restaurant and 360 degrees of the city and surroundings.  The Grótta lighthouse is located to the west of the city on a rocky strip of land that has a beach.

There are many fine dining establishments in the city.  Most restaurants are in small spaces, so the number of tables is limited.  As such, you should book reservations at more popular restaurants.  Like many things in Iceland, dining out is very expensive. So, be prepared for sticker shock when you convert your bill back to US currency.  Fish and lamb are the most popular dishes in Iceland.  I had terrific meals at Fiskfelagid Fish Company downtown and Resto, a small neighborhood restaurant to the east of the city center.  Fiskmarkadurinn (The Fish Market) was often recommended as excellent for seafood.

The Things To See and Do

I stayed in Iceland for a week, and I still did not have time to see all that I wanted to.  There is no shortage of places to visit or activities to do.   The limitation, besides time, is weather.  As multiple tour guides reminded us, the weather in Iceland is hard to predict in advance.  It can rain or snow for several weeks at a time or be sunny.  Most of my trip in December was filled with rainy and foggy days.  Even on dreary days, much of the beauty of Iceland’s scenery can be appreciated.   Iceland sits near the Gulf Stream, so its weather is moderated by the proximity.  Winter can bring snow and cold temperatures (20s and low 30sF), but not typically the brutal cold of other countries that are near the Arctic Circle. If going in the winter, it is best to dress in layers as restaurants or even tour busses have the heat on high.

As noted in the introduction, there are two main large tour companies that offer a couple dozen tours.   Most of these tours involve sitting on bus to drive from Reykjavik to the destination.   On the plus side, both fleets of busses from those tour companies have Wi-Fi installed.   The tour guides typically talked along the way or answered questions about Iceland, so you learn a lot about the country and the people.  Aside from the two large tour operations, there are multiple other operators that offer tours, including specialty adventure tours.

Northern Lights

The two most popular tourist activities for visitors to Iceland are hunting the Northern Lights and going to the Blue Lagoon.   The time to see the Northern Lights is during the months of winter when daylight is only for a few hours due to the northern latitude.  In December, sunrise is between 10:30 and 11AM and sunset about 4 hours later.  To see the lights, you need some geomagnetic activity, darkness, and clear skies.  If you book a tour, typically the tour operator tries to forecast the likelihood of seeing the lights that night.  If there is a low chance, they will cancel the tour for that night.   Typically, they contact the major hotels around 5 or 6PM to let them know if the tour that night is a go or not.  If it is not, you just reschedule for the next day at no extra charge.

If the tour is a go, there is a good chance you will see the lights, but no guarantee.  If the tour goes and no lights are observed, they typically will let you reschedule for another day.  If your trip is ending, one of the tour operators mentioned the re-scheduling is valid for 2 years if you keep the receipt and confirmation number for a return visit to Iceland.

A tour is typically going to leave Reykjavik around 9PM and drive well away from the city to eliminate light pollution.  The location will vary depending on where they forecast clear skies and activity.  On my visit, we ended up driving north about an hour to a remote area.   Dress warm since you will typically be standing outside looking up at the sky for 1-2 hours.   The lights can appear in several colors, but green is the most common color seen in Iceland.  To photograph the lights, you will need a good camera with a tripod and longer exposure.

There was much activity on the night I went, but the lights made a brief appearance

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa located close to the airport.  It is actually a relatively new man-made attraction to Iceland as the water comes from the geothermal plant nearby.  People started bathing in the water in the belief it helps with some skin conditions.  As popularity grew, it became an attraction in the 1990s and has become one of the biggest attractions for visitors since.  The blue color of the water comes from the silica and sulphur in it.  The temperature of the water is between 99-102F degrees year round.

As the Blue Lagoon has become a very popular activity, it is important to book tickets for it in advance.   Many of the tours provide only transportation (shuttles hourly from the city to the Blue Lagoon), but do not provide the admission.  Because it has become so heavily visited and the number admitted is managed, you run the risk of not getting in unless you have a ticket already.  As noted in the intro, since it is close to the airport, some people will schedule a visit either upon either arrival or departure.

Ticket prices vary depending on additional services you can get.   If you purchase a premium ticket, you get a towel, robe, and slippers.  You get a free drink at the poolside bar with the premium ticket as well.  As well, it will enable you to have a reservation at Lava, the upscale restaurant on-site.  (As an aside, you are allowed to dine in the dining room in your robe).   Like every place else, the food at Lava is more expensive, but the food is well done and you have a terrific view to the lagoon outside.  If you dine at Lava, go upstairs to the spa area and walk out on the balcony to get a nice view of the lagoon.

To enter the pool itself, you will need to get over any modesty.  There is a strict hygiene code in effect that requires anyone going into the water to shower before.   It is not required to shower after you are done with your visit, but you will want to use the showers available to completely wash and condition your hair as the minerals in the water will dry it out.   If you wear contact lenses, you will want to avoid getting the water in the lagoon in your eyes to avoid irritation.  That is not really an issue since the water is not clear, so there is nothing to see by going under and looking around.

At the time I went in December 2016, construction was well underway to build a luxury hotel on the property itself.

South Shore/Highway 1

Looping around the entire country is highway 1, the Ring Road.   Traveling east from Reykjavik, the road takes you past several nice attractions.   I took a tour that traveled as far east as the town of Vik.  Between Reykjavik and Vik, worthy stops include Sólheimajökull Glacier, Reynisfjara, the town of Vik, Skógafoss, and Seljalandsfoss.

It is about a 15 minute walk from the road to Sólheimajökull Glacier.  The glacier is currently retreating about 200 ft each year to recent warming.   If looking for an adventure beyond just taking in the scenery, there are tours that allow you to do an ice walk on the glacier itself…with the assorted gear required to do it provided.

Sólheimajökull Glacier and a hearty group of ice climbers about to walk it

Reynisfjara is a black volcanic sand beach and features an amazing cliff of basalt columns resembling a rocky step pyramid. The scene is otherworldly and beautiful.  Note that, aside from being cold, the water is not swimable due to “sneaker waves” that pull people out to sea at high speed.   Tour guides will insist not getting close to the water because it will suddenly rise and the force of the waves has pulled people out to sea.

There is not much to the small town of Vik.   It is a very small village that is near the southernmost point of Iceland, but it, likewise, has a black sand beach that is beautiful to take in.

Beach of the small village of Vik

Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss are two large waterfalls along the route. “Foss” is the Icelandic word for “waterfall.”  Skógafoss waterfall is 65 meters tall. There is a path of steep steps that take you to the observation deck at the top of the cliff that allows you to look down at the falls.   The tour I took only allowed 20 minutes for this stop…all that summer cardio paid off to run up them and get back down in time.

It is not a problem to save Seljalandsfoss for last.   In the winter time, that means visiting while it is dark.   However, Seljalandsfoss is lit during the dark evenings that makes it visible.   I would suggest you bring a small flashlight if you visit at night.   The US government does not do many things very well, but the National Park Service is an exception.  Most US national parks are well marked, have paths for people with disabilities, are well lit at night.  That is not the case many times outside the US.   In this case, if you don’t have a flashlight, the path to the falls is pitch black.

Skógafoss

Seljalandsfoss after dark

If I had the time, I would have liked to have continued down the Ring Road to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.   Tours to it in winter are available only on a couple of days during the week.  The eerie blue icebergs and surroundings of it are on my to do list next visit.

Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is three sites close together about an hour or so outside of Reykjavik.  Tour options include a half day version that quickly takes you to each spot.   Longer versions give you more time to visit each one.

One of the stops is to Geysir.   This is essentially the Iceland version of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.   Geysir is the name of the main geyser, and its name is where the word “geyser” derives from.  However, it no longer erupts regularly and sometimes many not erupt for years.   Often, an earthquake will wake it from its hibernation.  As such, most people come to see Strokkur, which erupts about every 6-10 minutes.   Old Faithful in Yellowstone is a more impressive eruption as Strokkur’s height is about 20m when it erupts.  It also is very brief.  If you are looking to photograph it, you need to be quick as it lets out one quick burst each eruption.  The show it puts on only lasts for a few seconds.

Another stop is Gullfoss.  Gullfoss is Iceland’s answer to Niagara Falls and Iceland wins that contest easily.   Located out in the wilderness with no buildings, casinos, hotels, or any other distractions, all there is to see majestic falls surrounded by untouched nature.

The other major destination on the Golden Circle is Þingvellir National Park.  This area is where the North American and Eurasia tectonic plates are drifting apart creating a rift valley.  Aside from the geological importance, it is a historic site in Iceland as people across Iceland in the 900s began coming here yearly for a general assembly (parliament).  As such, it is considered to be the early founding of Iceland.  From the observation points, you can see the rift valley and nearby lake Þingvallavatn.   For those looking beyond sightseeing, the northern side of the lake has a fissure that is popular for snorkeling.

Strokkur on a very rainy day

Geysir hibernating

Gullfoss

Þingvellir National Park with nearby lake Þingvallavatn.

Langjökull Glacier

Langjökull Glacier is the 2nd largest glacier in Iceland. In 2015, a new attraction opened up that allows you to go inside the glacier itself.   A man-made tunnel was drilled into the glacier that allows you to walk around inside the glacier.   It is a unique experience.  The tour I took stopped along several more waterfalls along the way.   Eventually, we made it to a meeting point where we would be transported up onto the glacier.   The vehicles are old, repurposed NATO missile launchers with over 50” tires that the crew can inflate or deflate as necessary for traction on the glacier itself.   Part way up, we made a brief stop at the base camp and then proceeded up the glacier.   The tunnel was built up on the glacier since melting is cause the edges of the glacier to retreat each year.  Once inside, it is a fascinating walk.  The tunnels were originally carved straight, but not have bends to them as areas inside of a glacier actually move at different speeds.

Snæfellsnes

The other tour I would have liked to have done would be a visit to the Snæfellsnes peninsula.   Tours during the winter only run a couple of days a week.  Aside from seeing a little bit of all Iceland has to offer in one area (volcanoes, glaciers, dramatic cliffs against the shore), the area is known as the setting for Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” novel.  I have this on my to-do list whenever I return on a future trip.   This is likely a tour better in the summer since ice and weather often cancels the tour during winter or makes some of the sites not reachable.

Additional Notes

There are more than 300,000 people worldwide that speak Icelandic.   Not surprisingly, most of them live in Iceland.   As such, Icelanders figured out a long time ago it would be good to know more than one language to interact with the rest of the world.  So, they learn a second language – usually English – in school.   As a result, with the exception of some older citizens or those living in rural areas, most people speak English.   So, traveling in Iceland and communicating is easy as there is very little of a language barrier.

Iceland has its own currency, the Krona, and thus everything is priced in that.  For the last several years, US$1 has been worth about 120 Krona.  I did get some Icelandic money when I arrived for odds and ends or in the event I needed cash, but there was not any place I visited that did not take credit cards.

Aside from the tours I took above, other popular tours include whale watching, both from Reykjavik or from some of the fishing towns on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.   As the popular “Game of Thrones” TV series was shot in Iceland, there are also a few tours that will take you to some of those filming sites for fans of the show.

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