Iceland was not high on my destination priority list as I had always imagined the country to be very cold and bleak. Ruffing it does not appeal to me, especially for a New Yorker. I was glad to be proven wrong for once! An opportunity came up when my snowboarding group decided to go to Iceland this year and I quickly signed on board. Luckily, my friend had been to Iceland before and planned our itinerary based on what she had experienced. This post will detail our 5 day itinerary and tips we picked up along the way.
First, the pace for our 5 day road trip on Golden Circle was leisurely. This is a deviation from my normal jam-packed itinerary, however, it did forced me to prioritize the top two things I wanted to do each day and to slowly take in the scenery. A significantly amount of the time was spent in the car as the sites are one to two hours’ drive from each other. We also decided to visit Iceland in March to take in the last of the Northern Lights and ice caves at Langjokull Glacier. Most people expect to see the Northern Lights right away and this was not the case. The chance of spotting the Northern Lights comes down to luck, weather and solar activity. We checked the Northern Activity index at each day and were very lucky to see it on our last night. A lot of time in Iceland is spent marveling at the changing scenery and creation from Mother Nature.
Destination: Blue Lagoon / Reykjavik / Kerio Crater Lake / Seljalandsfoss / Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach / Langjokull Glacier / Fjaorargljufur Canyon / Reynisfjara Beach / Skógafoss / Keldur – Turf Houses / Selfoss / Litli Geysir Park / Reykjavik
Day 1: Blue Lagoon / Reykjavik
We took a red eye flight from JFK to Reykajavik on Iceland Air and arrived at 5am local time. We had booked our reservation time for the famous Blue Lagoon for 10am and quickly realized that we probably should have booked it earlier. After a quick trip to the car rental adjacent to the aiport where we rented a 15 people passenger van for 6 people. At first it seemed like the van was too big, but it ended being very comfortable for our long road trip. I would highly recommend renting our size van if you have at least 6 people. It was easy to drive according to the two guys that drove it and had enough room for our luggage and spacious seating to lounge on. My group quickly decided to drive to the Blue Lagoon, which opened at 8am, to see if we could move our reservation up. (You must book a reservation a few weeks before you depart as this is a very popular tourist destination.) Luckily, we were able to move our reservation since the lagoon just opened for the day. We also opted for the premium package, which included bathrobes, slippers, towel, 2 masks, a free drink at the lagoon bar, option to make a reservation at Lava and sparkling wine for lunch at the restaurant for approximately $100 per person.
The changing room in the Blue Lagoon was surprisingly small for the amount of visitors, so coming at 8am allowed my group to have a good portion of it to ourselves. After showering (mandatory) and slathering our hair with a ton of conditioner, we made our way out to the 30F misty weather. If you do not put conditioner in your hair before going into the water, it will be hard as a rock from the sediments in the lagoon. There was something magical about seeing steam rising from the 100F silica water and the incoming early morning fog to welcome us to Iceland. My friends and I spent the next 4 hours exploring the various grotto, nooks and other surprises that the Blue Lagoon had to offer. Most of the time, the depth of the lagoon is approximately 4 feet, but there were some parts that went over my 5 feet head that I clung on to my taller friends like they were flotation devices. We also received a good water exercise walking and swimming in the lagoon to get from one place to another. Next, we slathered ourselves with the silica mud mask and then an algae mask that are offered at a station at one side of the lagoon. Directly across the lagoon is the bar area where they offered a variety of smoothies and drinks. The lagoon slowly became busier around 10am, so the earlier you can make it to the lagoon, the better the experience will be.
Around 12:30pm, we made our way to Lava for lunch. I highly suggest making a reservation as there are not many options to eat besides a small café. The views of the lagoon from the inside are spectacular and our three course menu was delicious. The service like most of Iceland is at an island pace, so be prepared to spend 2 hours for lunch. After a delicious start, we drove 45 minute to Reykavik and checked into the Storm King Hotel. It is a small boutique hotel that resembles the Scandinavian version of Marriot Courtyard.
For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered aimlessly around city center and started to get sticker shock, even for New Yorkers, for Icelandic goods. We visited the outside of Hallgrímskirkja, the famous Lutheran church and received our first taste of the unpredictable weather when it started to rain hard on us for 5 minutes even though it had been sunny for the last hour. Funny enough the rain stopped as soon as we managed to get our ponchos on. Downtown Reykjavik is very small and there is not much to sight see. The city center has just a few streets of shops and restaurants. We made a point to visit Boejarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand on the corner of Tryggvagata and ordered a hot dog with everything on it. Each hot dog was topped with diced onions, crispy onions, ketchup, mayonnaise and Icelandic mustard. The combination of the higher quality meat than your average NYC street meat and various toppings make this one delectable afternoon treat. For dinner, we visited Grillmarkadurinn for dinner as the restaurant is known to specialize in different grilled local dishes. The décor for this restaurant is a modern- glam- industrial mash up. The dishes were well executed and tasty, although nothing innovative as suggested by the décor or the buzz. The flavorful soft duck and briny seafood soup was my favorite of the night. I also tried whale meat, which had a gamy flavor and texture similar to reindeer. It was an interesting dish to try…however I would not repeat it.
Day 2: Kerio Crater Lake / Seljalandsfoss
We piled into our van first thing in the morning and waved Reykavik goodbye. The scenery changed quickly as we made our way on the Golden Circle. Normally on a road trip, I would be considered a horrible wingman as I fall asleep as soon as the car moves. On this trip, my eyes were wide open. The mountains changed from earthy colors to snow covered peaks and then back to moss covered flat lands. I can completely understand why Game of Thrones would be filmed here. The scenery is out of this world!
As we pulled into the parking lot of Kerio Crater Lake, I saw ribbons of green, brown and yellows streaming along the top of the crater. This is a volcanic crater that has a small entrance fee and fewer visitors than some of the other sites. My group leisurely walked around the crater and then trod down a muddy and slippery path to the bottom where a frozen lake greeted us. The bottom of the lake afforded a different view than from the top and made it seemed like one could be completely alone. Overall we spent 30 minutes here taking pictures and freezing out butts off from the bitter wind.
Next we arrived at Seljalandsfoss and ended up chasing rainbows (literally). Seljalandsfoss is considered one of the most picturesque waterfall in Iceland standing at 65 meters or 123 feet high. Our friend suggested we all wear ponchos because there is a path behind the waterfall. She got soaked wearing jeans and a windbreaker when she visited last time and had cold jeans for the rest of the day. I looked around and saw numerous people with jeans on and mused that they were in for a wet surprise. We walked toward the waterfall and also in the direction of a bright rainbow seemingly guarding a pot of gold nearby. I could feel the force of the water just standing nearby the front of the fall with the spray hitting my face. We decided to take the path behind the waterfall and I was never more grateful for my waterproof outfit plus the poncho. My face got soaked and I had to wear my sunglasses so my eyes could be protected. The watery mess was worth it as the waterfall is very pleasant. This is not Niagara Falls by any means, but there is something charming about this waterfall that just puts a smile on your face.
The sun was setting so we rushed to make it to the Hali Country Hotel. This hotel reminds me of a cross between a camp ground and a hostel. There was not much of an option available to us. I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up to the stunning mountain range surrounding our lodging.
Day 3: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach / Langjokull Glacier / Fjaorargljufur Canyon
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is next to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier and is very popular with tourists. When we arrived at the lagoon, I was surprised by the immense wind that flows through the area. The views are stunning as chunks of ice melded with glaciers and frigid water. The ice formations are in various shades of blue that shone brightly against the black pebble strewn beach. We climbed a nearby mound to get a better view only to be hit with gusts of wind. I could barely hold my iPhone straight to take a picture. Once I got back down to the beach, the initial gust of wind was now much more manageable. My friends and I picked out ice chunks that we like and threw it at each other like school children. That is what Iceland does to you; it gives you this feeling of pure merriment. Across the lagoon is Diamond Beach where fragments of the glacier has ended up at the beach. We spent a few minutes here taking pictures and marveled at how these mini iceberg ended up at this beach.
Before we knew it, we had to meet up with Goecco Company for our ice cave tour at Langjokull Glacier. This was the last week that they allowed visitors to the ice cave. What we didn’t anticipate was the amount of people that were going to the ice cave at the same time and how small that cave actually is. I had assumed we would be going into tunnels, only to go a hallway length into an ice cave. The cave is still stunning, however it was completely packed with tourists. I would suggest not taking any picture until the end when the tours have cleared out a bit. My best pictures were from the last few minutes before we walked on top of the glaciers. The view is spectacular and I felt very much like an adventurer walking on top of glacier that extended as far as the eye can see. The tour guide was very strict with us as we walked single file, since you never know where the “holes” in the snow are located. The experience was cool although not as wild as the pictures made it look on the tour website. The whole experience took 3 hours.
As the time flew by, we raced to Fjaorargljufur Canyon before the sun set. The Fjadra River flows through the canyon creating this beautiful gorge and the rocks are covered in squishy thick moss that looked and felt like walking on pillows. There is a marked path and many “terraces” off the path that entice visitors to try their luck. Some of the terraces look sketchy, but there was one that had a wider path where we ended up getting some great photos. I would not recommend getting off the mark path unless you understand the risk and do not fear heights. As the sun set over the canyon and the sky showered us with flurries, I took in the sight and began my descent to the car for our ride to our hotel for the night.
Day 4: Reynisfjara Beach / Skógafoss / Keldur – Turf Houses
Being a New Yorker, my version of the country is upstate NY or the Poconos. When you are in Iceland, the country means your lodging is really in the middle of nowhere. When I looked outside my window as we were leaving our hotel, I could not help but be in awe of this vast area of land.
Our first designation of the day was the famous Reynisfjara Beach that has been an Instagram star. The black beaches made of lava stones with the fiery white waves crashing along the shores is a site of contrasts. In the distance, I saw looming stone structures that just seemed to pop out of the ocean.
As we made our way toward the water, I saw certain folks get soaked unexpectedly by these waves and I mused to myself, this would never happen to me because I was vigilant. Lo and behold, as we were exploring the area and taking pictures, a rogue wave came out of nowhere and made it way far up the beach where we thought it was safe and had all of us scrambling to get out of its way. I was block by the rock wall, so I climbed up the slick steps only to fall backwards and face planted into the crashing waves. Thank goodness I had my waterproof outfit on so that prevented me from getting completely soaked. I later found out that this beach is notorious for random waves that actually swept people out to sea where they drowned. My advice is to always have your eyes on the tide and to wear waterproof clothes. You don’t want to be that person that wear jeans and get completely soaked in the frigid temperature.
After the eventful time at the beach, we drove to Skogafoss, one of Iceland’s biggest and tallest waterfalls. This particular waterfall has a stair master workout equivalent of a long staircase to the top of the waterfalls, where I got great views of the area. After Seljalandsfoss, this waterfall was still great to see, but it did not give me the wow factor. If we had time, I would have preferred a different site. We did not stay too long at Skogafoss and headed to Halldorskaffi in Vik for lunch. It is a small restaurant that offers good food at Icelandic prices. The restaurant was charming and it really encapsulate a country inn vibe. My friends and I unwound from the day at this wonderful spot.
After lunch, we made our way to Keldur before the light left us. Keldur is a medieval farm in the southern region of Rangárvellir that features turf structures that is not present in other parts of Iceland. This is a small attraction, however, I really enjoyed visiting the site. Unfortunately, we did not realized that Keldur was closed for the winter. My group drove down some treacherous icy unplowed “roads” to get the Keldur. We decided to explore the area anyway and it worked out as we had the whole place to ourselves. I would love to go back to see the interiors and the lush hills fill with greenery. I saw pictures my friend took when she visited last year and it looked like it was made for a Discovery channel special. Overall our day 4 was eventful and at the same time, low key.
Day 5: Selfoss / Litli Geysir Park / Reykjavik
On our last day in Iceland, we made our way back to Reykavik. We discovered Sindri Bakari Café near Icelandic Hotel in Fludir for breakfast. They make freshly baked breads and pastries. There was something magical about staring out at the sparse winter landscape with a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino in my hand.
So far, we had not seen the elusive northern lights and were a very disappointed. It was one of the main reason that we came to Iceland. We found ourselves checking the solar activity every hour as we drove to our first destination of the day.
Selfoss is a waterfall located in Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. As the glacier melts, the water formed the river that cuts through the canyons and created this gorgeous waterfall. Selfoss is also much wider than the others that we visited on this trip making it an interesting stop for us. After an hour at Selfoss, we headed to nearby Litli Geysir Park. I had imagined the geysers to be similar to what we have at Yellowstone National Park, however, it was much smaller in reality. There is one geyser that erupts every 10 minutes and many mini crevices that makes up the rest of the “geyser” park. There is really not much to see beyond 15 minutes at this particular site. I can see that if you have never seen a geyser, this would be a novel attraction.
As we left Litli Geysir Park, our stomachs were protesting so we made our way to Fridheimar, a restaurant inside a tomato greenhouse. I highly suggest making a reservation before you go to Fridheimer as it is bustling. The menu options are all tomato based and the portions are huge even by American standards. Each of us ordered a tomato soup and a tomato ravioli dish. In hindsight, we should have only ordered the soup. You can refill it as many times as you want and they had the most gorgeous variety of breads to go with the soup. The atmosphere was very different than the typical restaurant as it does feel like you are surrounded by spring in the middle of the winter since we sat next to tomato vines and basil plants.
After lunch, we drove back to Reykavik to see if we could attempt to catch the Northern Lights that night. Lucky for us, the weather cleared up and we purchased a ticket on a boat going out at 9pm. We had time to kill so we visited Harpa, a concert hall and conference center by the harbor. It is a modern glass structure designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in co-operation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. If you are a fan of architecture, this is a must see stop. The inside is filled with interest linear contemporary design and has sweeping views of Reykavik’s harbor and nearby mountains.
We had just enough time after visiting Harpa for a quick dinner at Torfan Lobsterhouse, a gourmet French Icelandic restaurant. Torfan is situated in a historic house so it did feel like you were in someone’s dining room. I had the Icelandic lobster 200gr for approximately $65 a plate. Icelandic lobster is more like a supersized crawfish than US lobster, and has a more delicate taste. At this point, I’m adjusted to the Icelandic inflation so $65 a dish did not seem outrageous.
As the clock ticked toward 9pm, we bundled up in all the layers that we had as we would be in open water for an extended period of time. I had my thickest thermals, cashmere sweater, a thick sweatshirt and my snowboarding outfit over it so I looked like a waddling snowman. If you do not have a fancy camera, you can still capture northern light photo on your iPhone with Northern Lights Photo Taker app, which cost $2. When I first saw the Northern Lights, I was very surprised. It was not the bright green wave that you see in all the photos. In fact, it resembles faint white cloud threads. The long exposure shot absorbs the green elements in the air and turns the photos into those majestic sky art on Instagram. The lights does this “dance” where they morph into different shapes over the course of an hour. Seeing the Northern Lights in person was a bucket list experience and a satisfying end to our Icelandic adventure.
There are only a few places in the world that I would want to re-visit and Iceland is high on that list. I was surprised by how much I was in awe of the landscapes and I look forward to visiting in the summer when the island is filled with lush greenery.
For a list of items to pack for winter and spring travel in Iceland, click here.
Author: Chau Hoang
Featured Photo: Gleb Chuvpilo