Matt and I are home from Iceland and are in. awe. I actually laughed aloud at the “Welcome to Orlando” photos when we got home and walked out of customs in the airport, where you are greeted by pictures of palm meadow bushes. Seriously Florida? Anyway, I’ve had a lot of questions about our trip to Iceland, so while it’s fresh here are a few lessons from our journey:
There are some things you just have to see while in Iceland. If you’re visiting from September to April, you need to make finding the Northern Lights a priority. We used Discover Iceland for our Northern Lights hunt. The tour guides are warm and knowledgeable, we felt very safe, and sure enough, they got us to the lights! Something to note- we were surprised that our cameras could pick up more of a show than the naked eye. The first night when we saw the northern lights, they only appeared white to us, while they were vivid green and purple hues in the photos. I felt a little bit guilty (not to mention disappointed) about saying ‘we saw the lights!’ when it wasn’t quite as it appeared. HOWEVER, the next day Matt and I drove about an hour and a half out to the same national park that the guides had driven us to just the night before, to search for the lights on our own. What we found were more brilliant colors and movement in the light, visible to our eyes without my camera. That’s the moment when I screamed at the sky “OH MY GOSH OH MY GOSH” and it felt like we saw them! There are varying degrees of the solar activity. Keep this in mind so as not to be disappointed! We were still glad that we went on a northern lights ‘tour’ the first night-we would have been really scared and unsure of what to do or where to go to see the lights without that first night. If you do decide to use Discover Iceland, be sure to book them online in advance! By the way, there are very specific settings a camera must be on to capture the lights. I m not a professional (or even a good) photographer and am not going to pretend to tell you how. We used a tripod (required), and manual settings, and focused to infinity. Be sure to do your research in advance on what settings to use, so you’re not trying to figure out your camera while you should be enjoying the experience!
Another must-do: the Blue Lagoon! (The blogs that say it isn’t worth it must not have actually gone. That’s a RIDICULOUS LIE. YOU SHOULD GO). Anyway, I read several blogs and unfortunately not one mentioned that the Blue Lagoon tends to sell out of tickets! When we arrived we found that every day we were there was booked, except on one day at the end of the night. We were grateful to get any admission, but we wished we could have gone in daylight. So book ahead ! They have a beautiful, spa feel there. You can book in-water massage, or take advantage of the mud and algae masks. Another tip- we didn’t think about bringing ‘shower shoes’ -but you should definitely bring ones that you’re willing to toss afterward. You’ll want to use them to walk from the locker room to get into the water. You can bring your own towel or rent one, but make sure to store your towel in your locker. Otherwise it is up against everyone else’s towel on a hook (ew) and you could risk someone taking your towel (double ew). And plan to meet your boy or girl friends at the entrance of the water. Matt and I got separated because I had to go to a different locker room because mine was full. But he didn’t know, so he was waiting for me outside of the wrong locker room, and I was already in the water (oops) waiting by the steps. Once we found each other, in we went! We entered in the indoor entrance (gladly because it was frickin FREEZING out)! The water is hotter in some areas than others. It was a surreal experience, one we will never forget. The beauty of the lagoon is undeniable, and the amount of area to swim is HUGE! It is absolutely incredible. The bottom you walk on feels rocky, mixed with algae, but no problems balancing. It’s actually cheaper if you book online (heyyy) and that way you don’t have to worry about whether or not they have availability! The earlier entrance time you book, the longer you can stay, as the entrance is good for the rest of the day. So if you get there at 11a, you can stay til closing at 9:30p. But if you go in at 7p, you still only get to stay til 9:30. IT. IS. A. MUST. DO.
The Blue Lagoon
We were really grateful that we drove the Golden Circle. It was so beautiful, we really feel it’s a must-do. Driving ourselves gave us the luxury of going at our own pace and enjoying the gorgeous views.The weather was absolutely perfect that day. We stopped several times for pictures along the road of furry ponies (only where there was space for pulling off- be careful!). Here is the blog we followed for a Golden Circle Day Trip! (lots of other blogs have driving directions for longer Icelandic road trips also fyi)!
He tried to nip me!
By the way, for the trip duration we rented our own car! We were SO glad we did! We picked up the car at the airport, and also rented a gps from the car company (Sixt) and it was the best money we spent the whole time. We found a great deal on Expedia if you’re wondering. If you’re debating, definitely rent a car! We were so glad not to be at the mercy of a bus/tour company. Iceland doesn’t have public transit because of the harsh weather (wind) conditions. So having our own car was a great resource to us! We felt safe driving there (well, Matt drove) because they drive on the right side of the road and left side of the car, just like in America. We looked it up before the trip, and an international driver’s license was not necessary to drive legally there. An American license was adequate. Bear in mind that there are roundabouts everywhere, and the inside lane has the right of way. And you can’t turn right on red unless you have a merge lane. Matt did a beautiful job getting us around safely! It was our first time seeing snow together, nonetheless Matt’s first time driving in snow. A friend of ours that grew up in Illinois said that the advice her mom gave her growing up always served her well while driving in the snow: do everything slowly. Accelerate, brake, turn, etc. We heeded her advice and it turned out great! Be SURE to check the weather before you go driving. It changes so rapidly. The last day we were there the driving conditions were dangerous and we were glad we weren’t far from the airport! We ended up turning in our car and heading to the airport early.
Ever heard of the fifth gait Icelandic horses have? My husband had never ridden a horse in his LIFE, (howwww?) and I’ve been dying to ride with him! I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ride a fuzzy magical Icelandic pony! I found the company the Icelandic Horse on Trip Advisor. Our experience with their company was exceptional. We went on a trail ride through a lava field in the snow, during a snowfall. It was absolutely breathtaking. I felt I really connected with my horse Mani (Icelandic for moon) and wish I could have brought him home with me! The horses behaved so well, we definitely felt safe and secure. You could tell they were very well trained and more importantly VERY well loved. Matt’s lady horse tested him a bit, but he ‘bit back’ so to speak, and she rode beautifully! He was a sexy cowboy, I won’t lie. The owner is a gem-and runs a 5 star business. Our advice for this is to be careful of the address. There are two roads in Reykjavik almost identical in name except by one letter. Our GPS auto-corrected to the wrong name, and took us to the wrong address. It made us a little late, but thank goodness not too late to go on the ride! If you’re interested, I suggest booking this online in advance so they have availability!
The capital city of Reykjavik, was.. fine, but TBH not too much to do there. There are a couple of museums all with pretty dull reviews on Trip Advisor. We did go to the whale museum (called Whales of Iceland) and enjoyed it very much, (but we also happen to be obsessed with whales and needed to get out of the weather for a couple of hours). I would give Reykjavik 2 hours of your time (to eat and walk the streets for a bit) (seriously not more than a short half day), but otherwise spend your time soaking in the beautiful landscapes outside of the city. We enjoyed Braud & Co bakery (GET THE VANILLA BUN, we went back the next day for another) and Kex Hostel for eating best in Reykjavik. (Yes, a sketchy hostel, but go in and you’ve entered the promised land). In the town we stayed (Reykjanesbaer) (aka Keflavik), we enjoyed Olsen Olsen (gourmet hot dogs, for some reason that’s a thing in Iceland-they just taste like hot dogs, it’s not that exciting, but they’re particularly good at Olsen’s), and Fernando’s pizza (pizza with cream cheese baked in ). And we can’t forget when we stumbled upon Valgeirs Bakari, clearly a local stop as this was the only place we went to where no one spoke English, and there was no Trip Advisor sticker on the door (thrill seekers, I know). What we found there, inside that cute little store, was a donut resembling a Boston Cream, but no. What it was instead, is pockets of nutella on the inside, so as not to create just one oozy bite, but many with it’s enjoyment. There is no going up from there and donuts are now destroyed for me.
Valgeirs Bakari in Keflavik
Kex Hostel in Reykjavik
We loved staying at an Airbnb, and we LOOOOVED the town we stayed in (Reykjanesbaer). It was so quaint with a walking trail, on the ocean, with plenty of small eatery’s, and it felt verrrry safe. It is close to the airport and the Blue Lagoon, and about 45 minutes from the capital city, Reykjavik. As far as the physical apartment we stayed in, it was fine, and the owners were so friendly that we will give it a good review just for their hospitality, but the accommodations themselves weren’t beautiful. I’ve never had a poor experience with any Airbnb. I feel you get a bit more authenticity out of your trip when you stay in a neighborhood. We loved it.
In Keflavik right down the street from our apartment
So, the ATM… We inserted our card and were guided through the usual prompts and selected to withdraw $100 of ‘just in case money.’ We were surprised at how great the exchange rate was and pleased we didn’t use the money exchanging teller because surely we ‘beat the system.’ Four days later we were at a cafe getting hot chocolate after exploring a beautiful waterfall in the snow. Matt pulled our ATM cash out of his wallet and I was taken back by how MUCH we still had left. So strange. It didn’t feel right. All of a sudden my mouth opened, but words weren’t coming out. Matt looked at me: “What!? What!? Talk!!!” “WE WITHDREW $1,000 FROM THE ATM!” I answered. Sure enough, we checked the bank and $1,000 was gone. I kid you not the ATM read 100.00. That is- one hundred thousand Icelandic Krona! FYI the decimal is used in place of a comma in Iceland. And also apparently they talk in thousands.. Oops!
The weather was mild in terms of winter for how far north the country is. I wore jeans with tights or leggings underneath for most of the trip. I was grateful to have ski pants during the nights we were hunting for the Northern Lights. The wind was very strong at those times. The coldest it reached was -7 degrees Celsius, which is 19 degrees Fahrenheit (although I don’t know what the wind chill was).
Whales of Iceland Museum, Reykjavik
If you’re looking for more adventure in Iceland, one of the people I met on horseback recommended the dog sledding tours, though I can’t speak from experience. Also, whale watching is common in Iceland, although we recently did that in Alaska, and as majestic as it was, felt we should spend our money doing new things. But truly, if you’ve never done a whale watching tour, it is the most serene, and the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed to see a pod of orca in the wild.
All in all, In Iceland we
- UNFORTUNATELY watched hundreds of tourists pose for pictures with hot dogs entering their mouth. Stop it.
- discovered that “WC” means water closet as opposed to what we thought it meant (waste catcher)..
- drove up a sidewalk when we couldn’t get to the road we needed because all entries were closed and we were stuck AND THERE WAS REALLY NO OTHER WAY OUT AND NO PEDESTRIANS IN SIGHT WE PINKY PROMISE.
- learned that Americans are really doing the whole fireworks situation up wrong (we were there on NYE and we’ll never have one better).
- were relieved to find that the little popcorn balls pouring on me were not asbestos from a torn-down building, but snow, (or maybe hail?). #floridagirlproblems #depopcornedonetoomanyceilings #imseriousitlookedlikepopcornceiling #itdidntmeltcausemyhandsweretoocold
- made snow angels
- saw more shooting stars than we could count
If you haven’t booked your trip to Iceland yet, you should- but here’s how. If you fly Iceland Air, you can fly to a different destination in Europe, say London for example, but have a week long layover in Iceland for FREE (without being charged by the airline for having 2 destinations). (Be warned, Iceland Air is nottt a cushy airline, bring your own food and drinks)! Regardless, I hope to use Iceland Air the next time I travel to Europe so I can spend one more night in Iceland and see those brilliant blue waters of the lagoon once more.
Until then I’ll be dreaming of fuzzy horses, vast waterfalls, and dancing lights.
The newly whale