Winter in Iceland: Part 1 – Borrowing Britain

Rock on. That’s one thing I kept repeating glacier by glacier on my journey around Ring Road. To be fair, I stuck mostly to the Golden Circle bit during my winter in Iceland, exploring Reykjavik, Vik and all the astounding waterfalls in between. Before this trip, I didn’t once consider Iceland to be a must-visit destination, but my, how my opinions have changed. It is a MUST. VISIT. From the unique landscapes of fire + ice across the volcanoes, the ice caps, the geysers, the lava fields and the many geothermal pools to the incredible take-your-breath-away experiences like dogsledding, snowmobiling and Northern lights viewing, 5 hours of sunlight each day just wasn’t enough!

This was my mother’s first international trip – lucky I broke her in easy with a place that uses words like “Klofalækjarkjaftur” eh? That’s a town, by the way. We opted for a 4×4 rental car with snow tires with the kind of optimism only a virgin traveler could have. You see, we’re from the South, so driving in wintery terrain (especially the kind which is so prone to falling rocks, avalanches, blizzards and other hazards) is not a skill we’ve had yet to test. We realized things might be a littleeee different when our rental car company handed us the keys with a quick reminder to “hold onto your car door any time it’s open, or it’ll blow right off! It’s happened 7 times this week.” Cue the schlump into your skin emoji.

After driving about 40 minutes through scenic lava fields and wind levels I’ve already blocked out, we made our way from KEF to the center of Reykjavik where we stayed in an Airbnb. Everyone recommends hitting up the Blue Lagoon on your way from the airport since it’s so close, but we had a bit more flexibility using a rental car anddddd it was 3:30pm when our flights landed which (can you believe it?) is when the sun sets in Icelandic winter.

Our first dinner was at Grillmarket, which was sort of hidden in plain sight! Chicken skewers, winter bisque and corn on the cob festooned with lava salt are just a few of the delicacies we enjoyed at this swanky, must-visit gastropub! We were originally scheduled to embark on a Northern Lights boat tour post-meal, though sometime during dinner, I received an email saying it had been canceled due to cloud coverage. (The first of many cancellations…) They aren’t kidding when they say you have to be flexible with your plans when visiting Iceland! Luckily we had 4 more days to play around with, so we put the boat tour on hold and trudged around the city in our freshly cut winter gear!

The next morning, we got an early start at Reykjavik Roasters where we enjoyed toasty lattes and freshly baked croissants. We had to put our flashlights on to find the place because it was pitch dark in the wee hours of 8am. We hit the road with unearned confidence and a penchant for adventure. It was snowmobiling day! Along our drive to Gulfoss Falls, we passed distinctive red + white churches, exploding geysers and most importantly, Icelandic horses! At one point, I glimpsed a little feeding box with 5 horses gathered and slammed on my breaks so face, it’s a miracle this wasn’t the last thing we saw. Tiny cups of feed were distributed in this box for passerby-ers to share with our new stout + shaggy friends.

After our spontaneous visit (and there were lots more like it on our drives along the Golden Circle), we made it to Gulfoss Waterfall which is the largest volume falls in Europe, located in the in the canyon of the Hvítá river. A spectacular site of gushing waters plummeting over 100 feet, I’ll never forget the poetic sound. Or nearly being blown over the edge by the larger-than-me winds!

We shuffled up the icy stairs to the restaurant/shop onsite, where our snowmobiling tour would meet to embark on the excursion. After hurriedly grabbing some hot cocoa for the road, we piled into a huge all-season terrain bus that puts monster trucks to shame. From there, we rode about 40 minutes up a glacier on a bus-carved dirt road, taking in every mind-blowing view along the way. Our first stop was a small little hut where English was not spoken and chaos ensued. About 50 of us from all parts of the world gathered that we needed to change into the snow suits + helmet gear they had for us here. I’m not gonna lie… my mother looked vividly like Randy from A Christmas Story with 10 layers of puffy jackets. ICONIC.

By the way, I bought this hooded parka from RAB specifically for this trip, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made! Complete with these leather gloves and my black ski pants from Amazon (under $40!), I was ready to brace any blizzard that came my way.

From there, we road another bus up to the glacier point where our sweet rides were waiting. Little did I know, we wouldn’t be riding with a trained rep from their team. The keys were all ours. Mild panic ensued once I realized I would be driving one of these things (I’ve never even ridden a Sea-Doo or tried ANY winter sport most 26-year-olds have had the pleasure of experiencing up to this point!). As they shouted instructions to us in broken English, the wind shouted louder so it was truly all a guessing game once I mounted that snowmobile with my mother in the backseat. But boy, was it exhilarating once I made like Elsa and let it go!

We soared through the filmy layer of snow with rocky hazards at lightning speed and felt that intoxicating high from action-packed moments that I imagine only 007 or Ethan Hunt feels on the daily. In fact, this is the very site where the recent Mission Impossible film, Fallout, was shot!

I’ll be honest, as we soared farther and farther from civilization, so did the feeling in my fingers and toes. It was an absolute must-do experience, and I’ll remember it forever, but because of a sharp chill I was soooo not used to, I think I’ll let this have been my first and last experience on the snow mobile.

As we made our way back down the glacier, the most majestic sunset poured its light over the snow-capped hills and rushing waters of Gullfoss. It was a moment I’ll never forget!

We dressed to the nines for our dinner at Apotek – a swanky establishment which gave me the best ribeye of my entire life… and then swiftly threw it away (or perhaps in the mouths of shocked servers). Let’s just say “to-go box” is not a word that translates in Icelandic. Literally. Our server in his 30’s said this was the first time he had gotten this request, though it was already too late. The language barrier got the best of my feast that will live on in my memory forever. That being said, Apotek is a must-visit if you’re looking for places to eat in Reykjavik!

With our first full day under our belts, we slumbered pretty darn hard once back at our Airbnb. But the best was yet to come!

Day 3 presented a whole new realm of possibility with exploration a little bit closer to city life. We moseyed around Reykjavik for a lazy morning, taking in the colorful buildings and local fare as we shuffled along the quiet streets. We found one of the best bird’s eye views of Reykjavik to be from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church. For a small sum, we took the elevator all the way up and were blessed with a sunrise view of the city coming to life. Labyrinthine streets, empty ports, rooftops in blue, red, moss and tangerine… I stood there for what felt like hours taking in the majesty of the manmade scene.

From there, we wandered into a local ceramics shop – HEAVEN for me (a ceramic addict). I perused glazed egg cups + creamer dishes in all kinds of different patterns and hues, and we spoke to the shopkeeper about traditional Icelandic Christmases and winter sports.

We brunched like kings at Snaps Bistro and then made our way through those volcanic rock fields once again. It was time for the Blue Lagoon!

I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it felt to be submerged in 110 degrees Fahrenheit waters while my upper half embraced the crisp chill from above. We opted for the Premium Blue Lagoon package which I’d highly recommend to anyone who visits. This little baby gets you a robe and slippers (luxuries not included with the most economic option), plus two masks and a free drink in the lagoon. It also gets you a reservation at the Lava Restaurant onsite though we opted out of this gourmet experience on our own visit.

We stayed in the lagoon for about 2-3 hours, embracing the different hot spots, watching the steam fade into past and admiring the Icelandic nature so present all around. A lot of people have said this lagoon is something you can skip because it is so popular these days, but I’d disagree. Even with a crowd, it’s still one of my favorite memories and since they only let in a select number of people at a time, I never felt inhibited in terms of space. What I will say is that you DEFINITELY need to take the recommendation of conditioning your hair before entering the water, and even so, putting it up in a bun or ponytail for your lazy swim. It will feel like straw for a couple days following even if you take the precautions, so imagine how yucky you’d feel if you didnt’!

All in all, we were completely entranced with our time at the Blue Lagoon. Feeling rejuvenated, yet relaxed (exactly how otherworldy you feel after a Swedish massage), we shuffled back into the city for some comfort food and hot cocoa at Stofan Cafe where we could sit by the fire and catch up on reading. Cue bliss.

What came next was something you’ll never be prepared for until you experience it yourself… the Northern Lights! We booked a boat tour originally for two days prior, though it was canceled only 1 hr before due to cloud coverage. Luckily, we had another night to try and all things were looking up for this night! We mistakenly thought there would be parking at the Old Harbour… instead, we squinted through the pitch black darkness to where the ship might be, and after 20 minutes of circling, found a spot about a 15 min walk away. Silly us, we thought we’d be early.

We ran to a kiosk that said “Whale Watching” ’cause, hey, there was nothing else! Luckily this tour was owned by the same company and they directed us to the right boat. My mother and I ran like we were escaping hell itself, as our boat was departing in a mere 5 minutes! Unbelievably, we made it. And the second we trudged up the plank, we were off. Much to our chagrin, there were about 60-70 people on this tour. I assumed there might be 20. We laughed (and cried?) past the cozy tables with cushioned seats all the way down to steerage where the only seats left were 2 metal folding chairs inside the rows of smelly wetsuits. I vowed to arrive an hour early to something like this from now on.

When the Aurora Borealis decided to put on its electromagnetic show, it was chaos. After about 30 minutes of nothing, suddenly everyone was clamoring to the deck like they spotted a leak on our level. I couldn’t see anything at first. And then, in a millisecond, a silver shadow appeared like a beam from a lighthouse. I thought, surely this isn’t it. Where is all the green? Where are all the waving colors? Turns out, the naked eye never does see the multi-colored show. You get that romantic green effect from a camera lens, so it’s a totally differnet look in person.

Taking its time like a symphonic progression, the electromagnetic forces grew into a heavenly glow of sheer curtains dancing amidst the stars. I stood there in awe of this splendor… millions of particles colliding in the atmosphere. I took it all in until my fingers grew numb once again, and even then, I couldn’t leave.

Would you believe my very favorite memory from this trip hasn’t even come yet? That’s how incredible this place is. So stay tuned for Part 2 of my Icelandic adventures soon!