If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, give it 5 minutes! by Jini Ryan
Iceland is touting itself as the perfect stopover destination on the way to Europe. It’s perfectly situated for this — just a few hours from major cities on the east coast of the United States. Since 2000, the number of tourists has been on the rise, and the country now has many amenities available for travelers, making this a must-see destination.
Reyjavik is the capital city and that was my destination on my first visit to Iceland. I had done a lot of research and found most people recommended at least 4-5 days to enjoy the city and sights, while planning for weather disruptions. As they say in Iceland, if you don’t like the weather, give it five minutes! It was the perfect length for a first trip. My friend, who doesn’t travel much and hates long flights, also tagged along with me to celebrate his 50th birthday. Since we flew out of Washington Dulles Airport, the flight was a little less than six hours.
I travel a lot and Icelandair is probably one of the better airlines I’ve flown. The airline provides short documentaries about the different parts of Iceland and the attractions available there, and some of the tour companies also showcase ads on the flight, so I saw some new things I hadn’t come across during my research on things to do in Reykjavik. Note: The airline doesn’t serve meals, even though it is an international flight. They have food and snacks for purchase, but the options are limited, so make sure you grab a bite to eat before the flight, especially if you have dietary restrictions. The flight landed after 11:00 p.m. Local time, and I had made arrangements with the hotel for a cab. It costs about $115. Reykavik Excursions, the primary tour company in the city, also offers bus rides from the airport to your hotel, but you may not be dropped off right in front of your location because some of the streets are narrow.
When looking for a hotel, many of the reviews on Trip Advisor mentioned finding a spot near Hallgrimskirkja, the Lutheran church in the heart of the city that offers breathtaking views of Reykjavik. Hotel Holt (http://www.holt.is/english) was in the top 10 list, and was located a few blocks away from the church, on a quiet side street. Note: Some hotels don’t include breakfast as part of the room rate, but the hotel was offering a special deal when I made my reservation so breakfast was included.
Reykjavik: I kept the schedule open on the first day due to the late arrival, and we spent the day wandering around Reykjavik. The hotel is ideally located near all the major spots in the city. Hallgrímskirkja was the first stop. You need to buy tickets to go up the tower (ISK 800, about $6), and the view is definitely worth it.
You can see through the clock face and there’s a short flight of steps to the viewing deck where you can see the ocean, the mountains and the colorful houses that make up the city. We got to the church just before 11:00 am, so we got to hear the organ playing leading up to the church services.
We also got to hear the church bells tolling the noon hour. Note: It can get really loud up in the tower, so several people warned us to make our way back down to the ground before the bells starting ringing. Good advice! There’s only one elevator, so plan accordingly.
Cafe Loki (http://www.visitreykjavik.is/cafe-loki) is just across the street from the church and noted for their meat soup and bread. The reviews were spot on. The soup, made with lamb, is very flavorful and light and the rye bread is rich and nutty. If you’re a foodie, this is a good place to try some of the local cuisine.
Skolavordustigur, the street across from the church that leads you down to the historic district and other popular venues near the waterfront, has some of the classier/elite shops in Reykjavik.
Laugevegur, the main shopping street, is just a few blocks over. There are really good restaurants on both streets. Yelp provides some great reviews, but you must try the local lamb, cheese and butter. Rossopomodoro, Le Bistro, Kol, Cafe Paris and Einar Ben are some of the restaurants we went to on our trip.
With Hotel Holt within walking distance, we were able to pop back in for a short nap on the first day, which really helped us adjust quickly to the time difference (they’re five hours ahead of the eastern time zone). We headed back out in the late afternoon to explore the shops, and ended the day along the waterfront to watch the colorful lighting display of the Harpa — the concert hall and conference center. Take some time to walk inside and admire the architecture and the use of glass and mirror. We did this while there was still daylight, then went back after sunset to see the lights.
The National Museum of Iceland is supposed to be really nice, but it was closed the day we stopped by so we didn’t get a chance to see it. (http://visitreykjavik.is/national-museum-iceland)
The Sun Voyager sculpture is just a short distance from the Harpa and is set against a backdrop of sea and mountains.
Blue Lagoon: The second day of the trip started out rainy in Reykjavik, but I had booked a day of pampering at the Blue Lagoon. The venue lets you reserve bus rides from your hotel or the central bus terminal. Trust me, you’re going to want to be picked up and dropped off at your hotel, especially if the weather is bad. If you have treatments set up at the spa, you will need to be there at least an hour before your appointment. It’s a 45-minute ride through some of the most unique terrain you’ll see anywhere in the world. As the tour guides will tell you, most of the landscape is very young due to the constant volcanic activity. As we drove out of the city, the weather shifted, becoming slightly overcast, which was just perfect for a day of lounging in the thermal spa. As you drive through the other-wordly looking terrain, you suddenly come upon a bulding emitting steam — the Blue Lagoon.
The water is ice blue in color and the bed of the thermal spa is black lava rock. You can’t see beyond an inch under water because of the murky white silica mud that the lagoon is famous for (it’s available in buckets at the lagoon for visitors to use). Visit their website in advance to book spa treatments because they’re limited and spots fill up quickly (http://www.bluelagoon.com/). You can also purchase your entrance tickets online. Since we had booked spa treatments, we also got a towel and sandals to use during our visit. There are plenty of lockers and your valuables are safe, but they are pretty narrow, so limit what you take with you. Tips: Apply sunscreen liberally. You don’t realize it, but you can tan/burn, pretty easily. Ladies, they recommend applying conditioner in your hair before entering the water. The silica mud is very drying and can damage your hair (it took 3 days of shampooing to get my hair texture back to normal!) and skin, so don’t leave it on for more than 5 minutes.
At the spa, I opted for the algal wrap treatment which involved a salt scrub, then an application of an algae mask before I was cocooned in a plastic bag, covered in towels, and left to float on a mat in the warm water for 30 minutes. The massage therapists move you around the treatment area and frequently dunk your towels in the thermal water to keep you warm. Then you’re unwrapped and rinsed off before receiving a 40-minute oil massage. I conked out and woke up feeling so relaxed and fluid. I would highly recommend this experience, provided you’re not claustrophic. It’s a little pricey, but how many times are you going to be cocooned in an algae mask?!
The evening wrapped up with a meal at Lava, the restaurant at Blue Lagoon, featuring one of Iceland’s top chefs. I don’t normally eat fish, but a few people back home had told me to try the Arctic Char. I selected the Arctic Char appetizer and was amazed by the flavor. Filet minon was my main course and I capped my meal with a decadent dessert and some prosecco.
The last bus leaves at 9:00 pm, so the trip to Blue Lagoon took up the entire day. As I mentioned, opting for the hotel drop off was a smart decision because we were wiped out after a day in thermal water under the sun. Note: If you go in the fall/winter, the therapists say they have seen the northern lights overhead on occasion.
Golden Circle tour: This is the most popular day tour in Iceland because it covers the primary sights on the island. I selected the small bus tour, which is a group of only 15 people in a smaller van, but there’s the added Secret Lagoon attraction at the end of the day. Our driver started out near the geothermal fields so you can see where Iceland taps into the landscape for their heat source. It was really windy, so our group got a taste of how fierce those winds can get on the small island nation. Our next stop was Thingvellir National Park. Here you can see some amazing vistas and walk between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Then we headed to the Geysir Park geothermal area where we watched the Strokkur geyser go off several times (it erupts every 5-7 minutes).
The tour also takes you to Gullfoss, a stunning waterfall, which features a rainbow if the sunlight hits the mists just right. It was drizzling and cloudy when we first arrived, but the sun peaked out just long enough for everyone to be amazed by the beautiful rainbow in the mist.
Our last stop of the day was the Secret Lagoon, a natural hot spring located in a small village. It’s been kept very natural, so you can see rock and fields all around you as the steam rises up from the warm water. There’s even a small geysir at the edge of the pool. The facilities are really good, with lockers and showers. Our tour guide gave us towels to use too. Unlike the Blue Lagoon, there’s no silica mud, so the water is crystal clear.
There are many Golden Circle tours, but I booked mine through Viator.com, which was run by Reykjavik Excursions (http://www.viator.com/tours/Reykjavik/Small-Group-Golden-Circle-Tour-and-Secret-Lagoon-Visit-from-Reykjavik/d905-7205P1).
Northern Lights: Iceland is close to the Arctic Circle and is a perfect spot to watch the glorious northern lights. You do need complete darkness to see them however, so if this is on your bucket list, the best time to go to Iceland is in late Sept through early March. We traveled in mid-September and happened to be in Iceland when the Aurora Borealis activity was high. The lights are created by a large number of electrons that stream from the sun as solar winds along Earth’s magnetic field and collide with air particles in the sky. The colors reflect the gases in our atmosphere. Green is the most common color, but on occasion you can see red lights too.
This is a late evening excursion, with the bus pick up around 9:00 pm and you’ll be out until at least 2:00 am. Tip: Plan this excursion so you have a couple of opportunities to try and catch the lights in case your first outing is unsuccessful. We set up the excursion on a Sunday, with Monday night as our backup day. Some tour companies offer you a free second shot at the lights. We booked our trip for about 6400 ISK (about $50) through Reykjavik Excursions (https://www.re.is/day-tours/northern-lights-tour) with pick up and drop off at our hotel.
To capture the lights, you will need a professional camera, or at least a point and shoot with a manual option — your cell phone isn’t going to capture a thing. You want to be able to time your exposure and keep your aperture wide open (https://photographylife.com/how-to-photograph-the-northern-lights). I only had my Canon point and shoot, but it did have a manual setting. Since the lights were at a five on the aurora forecast scale, I got very lucky about 30 minutes into the light show when the intensity increased. It was awe inspiring to see the lights dancing across the sky and wave after wave being painted on. Tip: Dress in layers because it can get windy in the open fields.
Iceland is a magical place with friendly people, amazing landscapes and fabulous food. If you don’t like long flights, this is a great place for a quick layover before continuing with your journey. Many of the people we met on our trip had been to Iceland several times already. Each season and each section of the island offers a unique experience. I’m already planning to go back in the late spring/summer to see the colorful landscape of Thingvellir when the flowers bloom, to visit the puffins, to descend into a dormant volcano, to check out the lava fields and to walk on a glacier.