Iceland!!! All the cool kids are going, so hurry up and book your trip before you miss out!
Easter break was a great time to go as it was the last chance to see the Northern Lights before the winter season ended. They say the best time to see the Northern Lights is between November and March. Let me add my name to the clichéd long list of people who claim that seeing the Aurora Borealis is top of their bucket list. But it really was. Iceland has so many amazing natural delights to see and experience but I will not lie by telling you I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I hadn’t seen the Northern Lights. They were ALL I wanted to see! Sure the glaciers are breathtaking. The geysers are pretty amazing. The snow covered landscape and turquoise Blue Lagoon is spectacular BUT the tempermental, not guaranteed, totally dependent on colliding-gaseous-particles-in-the-atmosphere-lights were the thing I had my heart set on. Obviously. Unattainable goals is my speciality!
My friend and I booked a three night package with Travel Department at the end of March and at €720 (flights, accommodation in a 4* hotel and 4 tours/activities), I felt it was worth the small fortune it cost. I’m not usually a tour holiday person, preferring to explore and find my feet, but when you have so much to see and do in such a short space of time, we picked the easy/ lazy option and went with a tour group. For convenience sake it was great. If you want to research booking everything separately don’t panic when you see the crazy prices start to hurtle towards you. Be flexible with your holiday dates. You have a November midterm, a post Christmas holiday, a February midterm and Easter next year to play around with!
With our tour package the bus picked us up from the airport and our guide regaled us with ‘fun facts’ about Reykjavik on the drive into the city. En route to our hotel we stopped off at The Pearl, a dome shaped building with a panoramic observation deck. We had the chance to photograph the beautiful views of snow capped mountains and colourfully painted buildings before our fingers almost froze off and we popped back in for a pricey soup and sandwich. Iceland is expensive.
It turned out that our trip from the airport to the hotel was now actually a city tour and we were brought to various local monuments and sights before being dropped off at Grand Hotel, our base for the trip. Handy. We stopped off at the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. Which, fun fact, it took 41 years to build and has an observation tower at the top, accessible by lift, from which you can see out over the city and to the mountains beyond. We did not go up to the top as we were ushered in and out and didn’t have a lot of time. But, as a structure, it is certainly very impressive. And pointy. And there is a statue of Leif Eriksson outside. Which I thought was kind of cool since he is one of the few Scandinavian names I knew already!
Onward ho. Our accommodation was the Grand Hotel. About a 35 minute walk from the main thoroughfare. Eateries and bars are very sparse in that area but there is a free shuttle offered by the hotel to drop you into the downtown area, if you so wish. Or walk. It’s not taxing. Plus you might get to see a sneaky glimpse of the Northern Lights, albeit faintly, for a few seconds, on your last night! Yep that happened! I’m getting ahead of myself.
Day 1: Arrive in Iceland to be collected by super friendly driver and tour guide. Enjoy fun facts city tour and visit to the beautiful Hallgrimskirkja church. Find restaurant on Trip Advisor that is close to the hotel and realise just how freeking expensive eating out in Iceland is. I think my burger was about €25. It was grand. I mean it was just a burger.
Day2: Can I just point out that at the breakfast buffet in our hotel were mini meatballs. They were yum and you should try them. I am not a fan of meat at breakfast but these, were tasty. It’s an Icelandic thing. Dig in! The bus collected us about 9am and brought us on our Golden Circle Tour. I already mentioned that this was late March, what I have not perhaps mentioned is how cold it was. It snowed on our first night so we awoke to a city, lightly blanketed in snow. In almost April. We were DELIGHTED!
Honestly, the powdered sugar coated landscape added so much to our Icelandic experience. I loved being there in the snow. I did not love the frostbite conditions when I took my gloves off to take photographs but whatchagonado! Day 2’s Golden Circle Tour takes in the UNESCO listed Þingvellir National Park, the site of a magnificent rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, and the home of the largest natural lake in Iceland. Walking down through a literal crack in the earth’s surface is pretty amazing and again, the recent snowfall made it look so crisp and picturesque.
Our knowledgeable guide informed us that Northern Europe’s first parliament was formed in this national park and so its cultural significance is as great as its geographical. It’s kind of a big deal.
Next, on to see the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. The header photo for my blog post on Iceland is from Gullfoss waterfall. The only photo I managed to get of it because after I took my gloves off to snap the thunderous, cascading icy rapids I almost lost my fingers (mild exaggeration) to the cold so I spent the rest of the stop trying to get feeling back in them. I must have had my hands out of the gloves for a minute, two max. Two minutes too long, friends. I learned my lesson. Snap quickly or not at all. My fingers are fine now. Thanks for asking. The tour bus takes you from place to place with sufficient time for a wander around, guided tour, photo ops etc. We didn’t feel rushed on our Golden Circle Tour day, which does by the way take the whole day.
Finally our tour brought us to the spouting geysers in the geothermal active valley of Haukadalur. It wasn’t as sulphurous as I was expecting. It’s no Rotorua but none the less, the smell of eggs abounds. There are two large geysers, with one that erupts less frequently than the other. Strokkur spouts every few minutes to a height of about 10-20 metres but sometimes as high as 40metres. The larger geyser, Geysir, is less frequent but when it does erupt we were told it is quite the sight to behold with spurts of 50m to 170metres. Silica has clogged up the spout after years of build up so the eruptions are greatly decreased now. It was certainly one of the most amazing natural phenomenon I have ever seen and while the constant stream of tourists from arriving tour buses detracts a little, it is nonetheless a reminder of the sheer power of nature.
Our package included a Northern Lights tour, which is entirely dependent on weather. They make no guarantees that you will see the lights but as I’d mentioned earlier I had the highest hopes of seeing them this trip. While Iceland had been amazing thus far and had already given me a wealth of memories I am not going to lie, the lights were all I wanted to see! I had the aurora forecast website on constant refresh. Our aurora tour had been originally scheduled for the following day but when got back to the hotel we were informed that the chances of seeing the lights were higher than night. No hesitation, back on the bus we all went!
The tour drives you at least 90 minutes outside of the city, to give you the best chance of seeing the aurora. It was most certainly the most nervously excited I had felt in a long time! The anxious anticipation of a light show that is entirely dependent on nature is nail biting. I wish I could share the feeling I had with you when, after staring almost unblinkingly at the dark Icelandic sky for an hour impatiently waiting for any glimmer of the lights, I noticed a barely perceptible green shimmer start to emerge from behind a stretch of cloud. The AURORA!!!! The faintest of glimmers turned into long ribbons of dancing green light. Slivers snaking across the sky, exactly as I had seen in videos and photographs before. It is definitely one of the most wonderful experiences of my life and one I feel I could never tire of witnessing over and over again. The vivid green ribbons edged with pink tinges stretching across the sky above us is a memory I know I will always cherish and I reckon you should book your Iceland trip now so you can experience it for yourself! I am going to apologise for the photos of the lights I am posting. I know they aren’t great. I just felt that trying to catch such an every changing phenomenon with my phone wasn’t doing it justice and I just put my phone away and watched them.
I could die happy now. I am not kidding. Phenomenal! The envy I feel for people who get to see these on a regular basis is all consuming! How could you ever take something this magical for granted. I know the photos are faint and I didn’t have a dslr with me to play around with long exposure. It is something to be experienced for yourself, to truly appreciate the beauty and wonder of a 30 minute window into nature’s jewellery box!. Right enough faffing about in the freezing cold, because it was, freezing cold.
Day3: We had a free day to explore Iceland as we did not decide to go on the 8 hour trip to the south of the island to see volcanic sand beaches and birds. While I am sure it was a fab day I wanted to sample some of Reykjavik’s culinary delights. Lobster rolls!
I knew I planned on steering clear of the fermented shark and horse that we were repeatedly told was an Icelandic traditional food. Nope. Just no thanks. Having been pony trekking, show jumping and mucking out stables for years in my childhood I cannot participate in the horse meat frenzy. And fermented shark sounds grim so that left lobster! We found a spot by the water front called Verbud 11 Lobster and Stuff and while it isn’t the highest ranking eatery in Reykjavik and certainly not the cheapest, it was tasty. The food portions were small but yum. Lobster fix for the day, sorted.
Can I recommend the app Appy Hour for deals in Reykjavik’s bars. Alcohol is very expensive so this app showing when deals are on is a god send. We used it, a lot!
A wander around the pretty town centre revealed a contrasting architectural mix from the new, angular glassy Harpa concert hall at the water front to the wooden paneled buildings off the main thoroughfare in the town centre. It is worth checking out what exhibits are in the concert hall during your visit.
A lovely little restaurant worth mentioning because of the delicious food and not extortionate prices is Glo. They are a vegetarian restaurant and specialise in vegan meals and while I’m not vegan I cannot rave about this place enough. Give it a go! It’s on the main street but you need to look out for it as it is upstairs and has a very unassuming sign outside.
Our last day in Reykjavik coincided with a trip to the Blue Lagoon, on the way to the airport. We had prepaid for a package and I hadn’t done any research into what other packages were on offer, because I was lazy and it was all done for me. But top tip: While the Blue Lagoon is worth a visit and is the most touristy of the lagoons there are other options available if you have hired a car during your stay and are willing to drive a little. Click here for a link to a list of alternatives, from public swimming pools in Reykjavik, secret lagoons with aurora views, to the Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow and Ygritte love cave location. The basic package at the Blue Lagoon is about €40 and includes your entry fee and you can scoop some of the silica mud from bowls around the pool to make a face mask. We also had a towel included in our package. It goes up to €70 for a comfort package including drinks, bathrobes and algae masks. But to be honest I’m not sure you need to bother with all that. The cloudy blue waters and novelty of the springs visit was enough for €40 for me.
Iceland and its breathtaking scenery and landscapes will claim a piece of your heart for its own. I would certainly go back and still have plenty to see and do. A friend of mine went during the summer months and hiked some of the trails we saw in the snow. She also recommended a whale watching trip in the summer. You just keep on giving, Iceland!
Do your research, choose a tour company that will take care of all the details for you in a quick hop 3 day visit or put a holiday together for yourself. Either way, enjoy Iceland as much as I did. You’re worth it!