Before It Gets Too Hot
I visited Iceland (from London) in April on a whim – just before the advent of summer but not before the snows had melted – and it was awesome!
What I brought:
- A down jacket with a hood
- Flat soled (weatherproof) leather boots
What I should’ve brought:
- Binoculars (for puffin-viewing!)
- Zoom lens (for puffin photography)
- Towel (for thermal baths)
Also, had we planned better, we would’ve timed our trip earlier so as to see Aurora Borealis. This phenomenon we missed by one week!
So first up, we rented a car from Reykjavik’s Keflavik Airport. It’s important to remember that Iceland might be the ‘Land of Fire and Ice” but it’s also home to a merciless, frigid wind.
Pro Tip #1: Open the car door with care. There’s nothing worse than destroying your rental vehicle on holiday. Or someone else’s!
It was mid-morning when we got to our fabulous Air BNB rental on Laugavegur, basically the single main thoroughfare in Reykjavik. The ultra-modern second-level apartment was huge, with three bedrooms and an open-plan kitchen, dining and lounge area.
Images courtesy of AirBnB.
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After we unpacked, we had an afternoon to see the city sights including Hallgrímskirkja, a church in the shape of a viking ship and Harpa, a stunningly contemporary concert hall by the water.
We made the executive decision to skip the Blue Lagoon as locals told us on several separate occasions that:
- The place was a tourist trap;
- The water that fed the pools came from a power plant; and
- It was “popular” with couples (this single fact made the decision for me!)
At tea time, we felt it was appropriate to try the traditional dried fish snack known as harðfiskur með smjöri. Icelanders eat this with butter. I did this the other way round on account of the strong smell. To me, it was like eating fishy tree bark, but locals must love it judging by the woman who sat near us on the flight from London who pulled one out of her bag to munch.
Pro Tip #2: If you don’t have much time, you’re probably best taking the Golden Circle route. We decided to leave the tourist trail until last and go south first.
On day 2, we drove pretty much the entire day, visiting all the famous waterfalls in the south. Our first stop: Seljalandsfoss. This is a really pretty cascade which you can walk behind – just be prepared to get really wet!
Now, here’s the thing – Seljalandfoss isn’t the only attraction here. Keep following the path around this waterfall and you’ll find Gljúfrabúi. This ethereal wall of water can be seen in two ways:
- Following the river through a narrow crack in a cliff; OR
- Hiking up a muddy path. Like many attractions in Iceland, you explore at your own peril. At one point on this track, there is a chain helpfully fastened to a huge boulder so you can traverse a section barely wider than a small person. If you get here and are afraid of heights, don’t look down. At the top, there is a rickety wooden ladder against a rock, which you can climb on to (on your belly) to look down at the waterfall. A thrilling reward!
Not far down the road was yet another waterfall – Skógafoss. This one had stairs and various lookouts constructed around it, but there were also a number of “off road” trails people had made to the edge of cliffs for death-defying selfies. Do anything in Iceland, but at your own risk.
Pro Tip #3: Make sure you wear waterproof boots and clothing at waterfalls and protect your camera – you will almost certainly get wet.
Next up was the infamous volcano that grounded many of Europe’s planes in 2010 (side note: it’s funny that few people remember what they ate yesterday, but everybody remembers this event). Icelanders will make you try and say its name so you might as well practise before you go. Say it with me: Ay-yah-fyad-nevermind.
A little past the volcano, we pulled over to look for the site of the Solheimasandur plane crash. Apparently, Justin Bieber made a video clip out here which brought a lot of subsequent visitors. The land upon which the wreck rests is private and the constant stream of tourists (sometimes getting lost) started to piss the owners off so they closed it to vehicles. So thanks to the Biebs, we had to walk.
I think this site is a bit macabre but it is a great way to stretch legs and to get some surreal photographs. Also, any attraction that requires serious walking tends to put off around 90% of visitors so we had the plane mostly to ourselves.
Pro Tip#4: The walk to the plane took us just under an hour both ways – it’s bloody long. Wear comfortable shoes and bring drinking water. It can get warm in the sun and like the rest of Iceland, there are no trees for shade.
After this, we stopped at Vik, a pretty coastal hamlet and Iceland’s southernmost settlement for lunch. The town is gateway to Dyrhólaey, a very scenic stretch of black sand beach flanked by majestic basalt cliffs. Up on the rectangular columns amid tufts of vegetation were hundreds of puffins – adorable!
So how do you tell a puffin from other seabirds? Easy. Scan the skies for birds that look like nature didn’t intend for them to fly. This is where binoculars or a good zoom lens will come in handy. They also nest in the many nooks and crannies on the cliffs of Dyrhólaey so keep your eyes or lens trained on movement amongst the greenery.
Pro Tip #5: Puffins spend most of their time at sea, returning to land only for a short period in late spring to breed. We were lucky to see them so early in the year (climate change?). Iceland is home to a large population of these birds – the majority living on far-flung islets. Dyrhólaey however, is one of the few places accessible by car where you can view them.
Given that we had about three hours of sunlight left (official sunset was 10:00pm), we made the decision to reach Jökulsárlón, the site where a glacier named Breiðamerkurjökull (try saying that!) terminates.
The drive was taxing (over two hours) but totally worth it. We passed some breathtaking scenery including rugged moonscapes and snow-capped mountains. Then with sunlight fading, we finally made it to Jökulsárlón.
At this magical place, you’ll find on one side of the road a massive lake filled with icebergs in all shades of blue and white (ok, brown too, from dirt). On the other side, there’s an enchanting black sand beach where shards of ice wash up to shore with every wave that breaks. AMAZING.
Pro Tip #6: Plan to stay somewhere midway between Reykjavik and Jökulsárlón so you’re not driving all day. Perhaps at Vik? We covered some 400km on this particular day which was a bit exhausting.
Be aware that Icelandic roads have no side barriers, are single-lane in most places and are unsealed to account for seismic activity. They may also be icy. Consider this photo a warning about falling asleep at the wheel or speeding.
The next day, we booked a cycling trip with Ice Bike Adventures. As there was a good carpet of snow up in the hills, we had to go on fat bikes. This is basically a bicycle with really wide, flat tyres.
Our guide Magné was great – like all Icelanders we met, he loved his country – and he got extra brownie points for two things:
1. Being really easy to talk to. At one point he referred to his method of transporting his bikes as “hillbilly”. One day, I’m gonna buy me a ute so I can cart my bikes around like this:
2. He carried a backpack full of chocolate. The calories were really welcome when the wind picked up and we had to seek shelter behind some rocks. Later, he had Icelandic doughnuts and hot chocolate for us in the truck – epic!
While icebiking was expensive when compared to a helicopter tour, I strongly believe that nothing beats being out in fresh air, discovering a new place on two wheels. The other benefit is that being outdoors whets your appetite like nobody’s business!
Pro Tip #7: Hungry? Get a (lamb) hot dog or pylsur from the servo with the works: special tomato sauce, mustard, raw and fried onions. This combo is considered its own food group in Iceland.
We followed cycling up with a dry suit dive with DIVE.IS at the very deep Silfra fissure in Þingvellir. This is one of the few sites on earth where you can drink and dive. Water, I mean. It’s glacial melt that has been filtered through porous lava rocks for centuries. Bottled, it would probably sell for $20 a pop or something crazy like that.
The appeal of this dive is the opportunity to “touch two tectonic plates”, the North American and Eurasian ones specifically. The waters are also incredibly clear – visibility was a stupendous 100m or more – but almost devoid of life due to their low temperature. I did spot one teensy, tiny fish dash away between the algae-covered rocks – a rare sight, apparently!
The experience of gliding through deep, pure water between sheer rock walls was really memorable. However, the first dive left me so cold I almost chickened out of the second. To illustrate just how frigid, my mouth (which had been exposed the entire time) was totally numb which meant I was drooling like a baby when I emerged out of Silfra! Luckily, much less appealing was the thought of getting out of my toasty dry suit. Which is basically a doona in the shape of a jumpsuit, over which you wear a waterproof wetsuit with inbuilt feet and tight seals around your face and wrists. So warm!
Pro Tip #8: Don’t wait too long between dives, if you can. This will depend on your group dynamics and guide. While I waited for our second dive, I smashed a packet of Hobnobs (English bikkies rule!) and piping hot cocoa. Just so you know, you can’t pee in a dry suit, so don’t go too overboard.
We saved the iconic Gullfoss for last – it was very busy compared to the other waterfalls we’d been to but worth a visit nonetheless. The paths surrounding the site are slippery and my guess is that they must get treacherous in winter.
We also made a stop at Geysir, where the word “geyser” originated. The star of the show here is Strokkur, which faithfully erupts every few minutes. It didn’t disappoint.
As we’d skipped the Blue Lagoon, we went to the “Secret Lagoon” or Gamla Laugin (outside the village of Flúðir) to experience an Icelandic bath. Frequented mostly by locals, this open-air pool is warmed by a natural thermal spring that flows right by it, and you can order drinks from the bar while immersed in the mineral-rich, eggy-smelling water.
Central to Icelandic culture, these baths are not dissimilar to Japanese onsen in that there are strict rituals to follow before entering the water. Bathers are required to strip nude and wash (if only I could’ve photographed the sign in the ladies’ change room about removing all traces of faecal matter!). Only after this, can they enter the pool.
Now, having grown up in a conservative society where public nudity isn’t commonplace, I had to spend about ten minutes trying to build up the courage to strip off in front of strangers. Everyone has got everything I’ve got. My body isn’t weird. As I gingerly approached the communal showers, a little kid walked in and said really loudly “Mum, why is that lady naked?”. I almost died of embarrassment. Bloody tourist.
Pro Tip #9: Abide by the rules – wash before you swim (nobody likes poo particles in the water), don’t pee in the pool and don’t get scalded by the thermal waters surrounding the swimming pool.
On our final day in Reykjavik, the weather turned from cold and sunny to a squall. So much so that our helicopter trip got cancelled. The horizontal rain and accompanying gale-force winds explained why Icelandic bowsers fill up your car so quickly, why reindeer skins are such a hot commodity and why the green man appears almost as soon as you press the button to cross a road.
We took to walking briskly around the city’s shops, wandering the harbour, and sheltering in a couple of local restaurants. I don’t often get cold but on this day I was grateful for both my padded hood, gloves and scarf, which I wrapped around my nose and mouth.
Pro Tip #10: Yes, Iceland is pricey. However, fine dining doesn’t cost much more than pub grub, so go all out and sample succulent Icelandic lamb chops or ocean-fresh cod in a moodily lit establishment full of gorgeous blonde people. You deserve it. Unless you’re really partial to hot dogs eaten standing up. If so, do try the ones from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Ask any local for directions.
Then it was goodbye. Iceland is a truly spectacular place with lots of warm, friendly people. At the time of my visit, tourist numbers were on the up and up with no signs of slowing down. I hope that in time to come, Iceland’s roads remain relatively free of traffic and that its sights remain as refreshingly uncrowded as when I got to see them.