This expedition was unexpected, and a complete 180 from my original plans for the end of 2016, though I couldn’t feel more grateful for having done it. The idea of Iceland—a bucket list travel destination—in the midst of winter, sounded amazing, and my heart was set. I wanted to feel the spirit of Christmas, dance in the snow, and enjoy a winter wonderland. Iceland called to me for a number of reasons. First, the Northern Lights would be coming into the end of their 11-year cycle, after which they would be seen less frequently. Second, Iceland has some of the most picturesque landscapes on Earth. Third, the Blue Lagoon was calling my name. Boom, Iceland was booked.
For many, Iceland is a stopover, a passing point on the way to another destination. People travel through but rarely stay long. But I think that is soon to change. If you haven’t yet heard, WOW airlines (Iceland’s budget airline) is offering a fantastic deal. You can fly direct from many cities in the US—including Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York—for as little as $99 each way. This is insanity, and a steal I highly recommend taking advantage of before the rates increase.
Some bonus insight…
Let’s talk about the Aurora Borealis: one of the Earth’s most incredible natural phenomenons.
What is it, aside from one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world? The auroras are caused by the solar wind’s stream of highly charged particles escaping the sun and interacting with Earth´s atmosphere. The particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field begin to spiral back and forth along the magnetic lines of force and circle around the magnetic poles. As all of these magnetic and electrical forces react with one another in constantly changing combinations, these shifts and flows can be seen as colors, seemingly “dancing” along the atmospheric currents. Pretty impressive, right?
What is the best time to see them? They can be seen only when the skies are dark and clear, and they can occur year-round, but they’re best seen between September and April. That being said, the Northern Lights are expected to appear less frequently throughout the next 10 years, starting now. The Northern Lights work in accordance with an 11-year solar cycle, and as we enter 2017, we’re in the downswing of the cycle. This will likely last until 2025, which means fewer nights will be filled with the Aurora Borealis. If that doesn’t inspire you to book a flight now, I don’t know what could.
(for display only, not my personal capture)
So let’s dive into my journey through Iceland…
Arriving Christmas Eve morning, it was quiet yet peaceful in Reykjavik, the capital city. We stayed our first few nights at the Grand Hotel, a stylish 4-star hotel about 2 kilometers from central Reykjavik. The hotel has a large, open lobby, an attractive and chic bar lounge, and a restaurant.
Picturesque view from our room. We couldn’t wait to get out in the snow.
Shops and restaurants remained open on Christmas Eve, so we went into the city to immerse ourselves in the holiday spirit. We got our first local meal and lingered in the restaurant before getting out in the crisp white snow.
In the city center we walked by shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. It had snowed most of the day and was cold, and a bar sounded appealing. We warmed up with some fine whiskey on the rocks (a new favorite).
On Christmas Day, much of the city was closed, but we were fortunate to stumble upon one of the best, most highly recommended restaurants in the city, Apotek. It was the best choice we could have made.
Dinner started with by far the tastiest butter I’ve ever had: truffle-infused butter spread on slices of fresh bread. The main course, lamb filet, was so decadent, it seemed unreal. It was flavorful and exactly the right mix of complementary tastes. Accompanied with delicious red meat for an ideal Christmas dinner. I highly recommend this dining experience in Reykjavik. Book in advance!
Rack of Lamb
Slow-cooked lamb filet, leeks, pickled shallots, carrots, baked celeriac, dill spinach cream, and mustard sauce.
The next day was our much-anticipated time at the Blue Lagoon, one of the 25 wonders of the world.
Some might consider it a tourist trap, but there are a few ways to avoid that:
- Book the earliest time slot: 9am. Even though the sun won’t rise until around 11 am in the winter, getting there before the crowds is the way to go.
- I recommend getting the Luxury pass to avoid the crowds in the locker room later in the day. We opted for the Premium pass, which offered us a quicker entrance, and only later in the day did the locker rooms get busy.
- Book in advance, as time slots will fill up. In my opinion, the Blue Lagoon is something not to miss
- Protect your hair by tying it up or by applying conditioner and leaving it in before going into the Blue Lagoon. I did do this as they recommended and my hair was still difficult to brush through after. I ripped out a good portion of it, and it was very dry. Do yourself a favor and tie up your hair or lather the heck out of it.
- Plan to spend several hours here; well worth it.
Learn more about the Blue Lagoon and book your ticket here: http://www.bluelagoon.com
I would say a trip to Iceland would not be complete without visiting the iconic Blue Lagoon. Some might suggest missing it or not worth the money. I beg to differ. Soak up and indulge. Reap the benefits of the geothermal water that consists of: Silca, Algae, and rich Minerals. Also it’s quite relaxing soaking in the 37-40 C (98-104 F) milky white water (the blue color is created simply by the cast from the sun)
We dined at the Blue Lagoon’s restaurant, LAVA Restaurant. The great perk was that we could walk into this fine dining restaurant in our robe and slippers.
The atmosphere was very appealing and the food was Aaa-mazing! A great portion per dish, and another impeccable combination of flavors that paired together perfectly.
Langoustine soup (garlic marinated langoustine and seaweed), which was full-flavored goodness.
Torched arctic char (fennel, pearl onion, cucumber, toasted bread, and aioli).
Cod filet (cauliflower, barley, fennel, and demi-glaze sauce)
Lamb filet and shoulder of lamb (artichokes, carrots, dates, and thyme).
The majority of our day was spent in the Blue Lagoon, and on our way to the next destination, a storm hit. In Iceland, the weather can change in the blink of an eye. To drive in Iceland, you must be aware and reactionary. Most places in Iceland are good distances apart, so you can take tours out of Reykjavik or rent a car and drive yourself around. I recommend renting a car to allow yourself more freedom and to avoid tourist nuttiness.
Hótel Rangá is a luxury countryside hotel and the only 4-star resort in southern Iceland, though there’s nothing pretentious about it. It’s a little more than an hour east of Reykjavik, which in Iceland means you’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere. With a volcano behind and the sea in front, Hótel Rangá boasts incredible scenery all around. And then at night, when the Northern Lights appear, prepare to be astonished. The hotel service is exquisite: warm, personable, and superior. The hotel features an acclaimed riverside restaurant with outstanding cuisine, a lounge and well-stocked bar, a game room, massage facilities, and 3 perfectly placed outdoor hot tubs, each heated with geothermal water (my favorite). Hótel Rangá has 51 elegantly decorated rooms and 7 suites, each with a different continent as its theme. Hótel Rangá is a member of Great Hotels of the World and has its own observatory with high-end telescopes for serious stargazers. I highly recommend this hotel.
I was impressed by the welcome we received here. The staff truly made us feel at home. The owner, Friðrik Pálsson, gave us a heartfelt welcome and wanted to make sure we were content with our experience at Hótel Rangá. He graciously asked us to join him for dinner at the restaurant. My goodness, this was the best dinner we had in Iceland, my favorite being the reindeer capriccio. All of the food was exquisite, as was the company of Friðrik, who shared with us the background of the property as well as Iceland’s culture.
Reindeer carpaccio with parmesan, truffle oil and rucola
(my favorite by far I’ve ever had)
Salmon “sous vide“ with celeriac purée, watercress vinaigrette, herb mayonnaise and kale
Pan-fried Arctic char with potatoes rösti, spinach, cauliflower foam, cauliflower tops and apple demi-glaze
It was freezing outside, but walking right out of our suite to jump into the Jacuzzi was well worth the moment of cold. Heavenly!
If you are going to stay outside of Reykjavik, I recommend going here. It’s remote, but I think you’ll find yourself enjoying this aspect, and the offering of such a unique stay.
We toured the Golden Circle to take in some of the attractions for which Iceland is known.
First, a unique experience at Seljalandsfoss (the only known waterfall of its kind, and perhaps the best-known waterfall in the country) was walking behind it.
Gulfoss is another popular attractions in Iceland, and for good reason. Its close-up view of one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls was awe-inspiring. Its two-tiered waterfall cascades into a deep crevasse below.
Often, a rainbow or two will appear across the falls. It was truly picturesque.
Another great stop along the Golden Circle is the world-famous Reynisfjara shore, near the village Vik in Myrdalur on Iceland’s South Coast, a black sand beach edged with interesting rock formations. We had to take a little track to get there, but it was worth it. The waves here can be especially aggressive and unpredictable, and you will likely find yourself running from them. Expect sudden shifts in the weather during winter, but this place is not to be missed. Capture and embrace its beauty.
The third place we stayed was Hotel Glymur, a remote hotel in west Iceland, although only 30 miles from the city center. It’s situated high on a mountainside, overlooking the “whale fjord”. One of the highest waterfalls in Europe is at the end of this fjord, but unfortunately due to weather, we had to miss the hike out there. This hotel features 6 uniquely designed villas, great for large parties or your own spacious stay. This hotel also offers wonderful views of the Northern Lights.
ION is an eco-friendly 4-star hotel that has received a myriad of awards for both design and sustainability. Only an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, this hotel is perfectly placed: close enough to the city, but far enough away from air pollution and light disturbance to reveal the magnificent Northern Lights when they’re active. ION also provides easy access to many of the better-known attractions in “The Land of Fire and Ice”, including Thingvellir National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and just off the Golden Circle route.
Before the ION was a hotel, the older part of it was built to house the employees of Nesjavellir Power Station. The plant is a source of pride, as Iceland leads the world in geothermal technology. ION was founded by Icelander Sigurlaug Sverrisdottir, an expert in adventure and travel. Every guest can enjoy an adventure of their own and return to a luxurious hotel.
ION is where modern design and eco-conscious luxury meet Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. The hotel boasts 45 rooms, in which guests can expect a mellow mix of concrete chic and earthy ambiance. Modern and sleek, the rooms combine warm accents of locally salvaged driftwood and lava, innovative materials, and sustainable practices; all handled by design studio Minarc, based in Santa Monica. The hotel provides organic room amenities that are made locally from Icelandic herbs. Everything from bed linens to the restaurant´s food is organic and fair-trade. Also, the tables and chairs are built from recycled materials.
The Deluxe Suite
The hotel’s Silfra Restaurant & Bar offers delicious, farm-fresh cuisine, and an impressive menu with savory tastings. Everything was absolutely impeccable.
One end of the hotel offers an open-air view at their Northern Lights bar, which provides a comfortable atmosphere in which to relax and enjoy the surroundings, and to dine on delicious fare. I loved their burger and garden salad. The staff was highly accommodating and made us feel right at home.
The best part of the hotel was the natural hot pool underneath it. The surrounding hot springs provide geothermal water and energy to the pool, heavenly to relax in after an adventurous day.
As stated, ION provides one of the best locations to view the Northern Lights. We stayed here at the end of the year, though we were originally uncertain if we were going to spend New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik to see the spectacular fireworks. New Year’s Eve ended up being the first night the Northern Lights were active, so we decided to skip the extravagant fireworks in the city and instead await the fireworks and Northern Lights here.
As we finished our enchanting New Year’s Eve meal at the hotel’s restaurant, the Northern Lights appeared as anticipated. Walking out of the hotel, we saw stretched across the sky a green iridescent light. We ran inside to grab our gear and set up our cameras, but by the time we went back out, the light had unfortunately disappeared and did not return. Still, we saw it. We saw it! Bucket List check.
Our night started off mellow, enjoying a few cocktails in the Northern Lights bar, and ended in complete silliness. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end one year and bring in the next.
I always want some extreme adventure in my travels, so we decided to spend our last day exploring an ice lava cave. The weather was wet and nasty, so it was the perfect day to spend sheltered in a cave. With the great service from Lava Tunnel, we were able to explore the magnificent lava tunnel Raufarhólshellir, one of the longest and best-known lava tubes in Iceland. Our guide led our small group of 8 directly into the inner workings of a volcanic eruption that occurred 5,200 years ago. The total length of the tunnel is an impressive 1,360 meters (4,500 feet), the main tunnel being 900 meters long (3,000 feet). The tunnel is up to 30 meters wide, with headroom up to 10 meters high, making it one of the most expansive lava tunnels in Iceland.
We were provided with gloves, helmets, headlamps, and crampons. It’s best to dress in layers, since it gets hot and humid inside. Climbing over boulders of lava rock makes for a challenging, heart-pumping trek. Be careful if you have any physical limitations.
Throughout the cave we learned the history of it and saw magnificent lava falls and formations. Did you know it takes more than 500 years for lava to harden?
We returned the same way we entered, completing the tour in 3.5 hours. Thank you, Lava Tunnel, for an unforgettable bucket list experience.
To end our final night, we took one last dip in the ION pool and admired the beauty of Iceland. Iceland was truly memorable adventure.
Thank you ION Adventure Hotel for your gracious welcome and for having us as your guest.
Due to weather, we couldn’t make it to some of the places on our list of attractions to visit that I would highly recommend.
A friend has visited a few months prior: visiting the US Navy DC-3 Wreckage in South Iceland. The US Navy DC-3 super bus plane crash-landed on a black sand beach in 1973, and luckily everyone survived. It has since become an iconic image to capture. The 4-kilometer walk from the road to the wreck is otherworldly; the landscape is harsh, and the wind from the ocean can be intense, as I’ve been told.
I like this description of how to locate the wreck: https://expertvagabond.com/airplane-crash-wreckage-iceland/
With every journey I embark on I set an intention. My Word, My intent I chose for this travel was Vitality
Full of life and energy. Living passionately with great drive, get up and go punch. Exuberant physical, mental, and emotional vigor. Having the capacity for survival and the continuation of a meaningful, purposeful existence.
Remaining energetic and lively is essential to my well-being. I have Vitality. With great drive to live and continue to grow.
get your word at https://www.myintent.org
Valuable suggestions for Iceland (especially during Winter times)
-Bring layers! Weather changes often and you want to be prepared.
-Get several pairs of fleece leggings, I wore these every day. Very versatile, doesn’t add bulk, and still flattering.
-Get a great pair of waterproof boots. I wore mine everyday since it was either raining, snowing, or walking through snow. I absolutely loved my Sorel Boots.
-Save yourself quite a bit by buying wine, beer, or liquor at a local market (we learned this after the fact of ordering a bottle of wine at every dinner for 4x the price)
-Entering into Iceland’s airport, is another great time to buy all your wine and liquor, you will thank me.