Iceland wasn’t on my list. There are SO many places in this world I want to go, but I have to say that Iceland wasn’t really on my radar. Then – Facebook. My friend Terri went to Iceland in September and it was amazing to witness her courage and enthusiasm for this remarkable, mostly untouched, part of the world. I loved seeing her pictures from this not always frozen tundra.
We decided to go home for Christmas and the cheapest flights I could find happened to be on Icelandair. In addition to selling inexpensive flights, they offer their customers the chance to experience an Icelandair Stopover at no extra cost. For example, you can layover in Reykjavik, Iceland for 2 hours or stay in Iceland for 7 days and the price of the flight is the same.
Greg was excited about this idea. I, on the other hand, was a bit apprehensive about the thought of going to Iceland, especially in January. It’s unusual for me to be intimidated by anything travel related but I just felt uneasy going there for some reason. But I pulled up my big girl panties and moved forward with the best chance we would ever have of getting to see this country. So, we booked our stopover for 5 days – in January.
Terri was a big help in giving me suggestions and recommendations. She invited me to join an Iceland tips Facebook group, which I did. I then started to learn a bit more about what to expect from our winter stopover in Iceland.
Iceland Winter Tour
One thing I thought I knew was that January is probably not the best month to travel to Iceland. It’s cold in January! It’s also very dark. On January 8 (the day we arrived) in Reykjavik, the sun rose at 11:09 and set at 3:59 giving us 4 hours and 49 minutes of daylight. WOW. No wonder they keep their Christmas lights on well into the middle of the month!
What we learned is that every season is a good time to visit Iceland – you just have to be well prepared for what you’re getting into. Just like most places, there are elements of beauty at each time of year, you just have to search out the jewels in the time you have available to you! An Iceland itinerary in the winter can be incredible.
It was recommended that we rent a car and drive outside the city while there. Iceland tourism is pretty amazing. They have figured it out and have done everything right to get people to their country and feature its best parts. So, it is absolutely possible to take excursions from Reykjavik and see quite a bit. But it’s much more flexible to rent a car, so that’s what we did.
Now, even renting a car is an imposing proposition. In winter, you want a 4-wheel drive with studded tires in case you run into serious winter weather. We couldn’t get our typical Fiat 500 for an Icelandic journey in winter. In addition, I don’t know HOW many blogs I read that said to be really careful opening the car door in Iceland in the winter. Really? I didn’t think it would be that big a deal, but the car rental agency also reiterated that piece of advice. The wind can be so strong there that it will whip the car door off the frame. What happens if you’re out in the middle of nowhere and your car door winds up in the adjacent field? Fortunately, we hung onto our doors and didn’t have to find out.
So, we planned one day in Reykjavik and a 4 day driving adventure. With only 5 hours of daylight, we wanted to maximize our time in the sun so we did most of our driving in the dark whenever that was possible. It was really weird to leave at what we thought was a normal time to start our day…let’s say 9:00….and have it be pitch black outside. We started exploring Reykjavik at about 9:30 am the day we arrived and there wasn’t even a glimmer of light outside. But even though the sun didn’t rise until after 11:00 am, there was a beautiful glow around us much earlier. The light really is special in Iceland. You could start to see things around you a bit before 10:00. We got more used to the dark mornings and pre-sunrise glow after a few days.
Our weather actually was not as cold as we expected. We asked for long underwear for Christmas and used them. Layering is important. But we just used our regular winter coats that we’ve been using for 2 years, covered by our rain jackets which kept out the wind. That seemed to work quite well for us. If it had been 20 degrees colder, we would have needed to buy one of those absolutely gorgeous Icelandic sweaters!
One thing I will say about traveling in a place like Iceland is that it is quite disorienting to not be able to read or pronounce ANY of the words in the local language. We had absolutely no problem using English everywhere we went. The 340,000 or so people who live in Iceland know that if their economy is going to survive, they need to communicate with the rest of the world, so nearly everyone speaks English. It is an incredibly tourist friendly place. But the place names were a fun challenge, to say the least. Reading a map was important – but I just couldn’t remember the names of the places we wanted to go. I had to look them up every single time!
Trip Costs in Iceland: Yes, it’s Expensive
We knew that Iceland was expensive. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension in going there. But we did what we could to minimize the costs while still getting the most out of our experience. It seemed to work pretty well! I’m going to be VERY transparent here. How much did 5 days in Iceland cost? Here’s our breakdown:
Rental Car: $209.79
*our ice cave tour was 2 for the price of 1 in partnership with Local Guide
This is $143.04 per person per day. This isn’t cheap – but it’s not as expensive as it could have been. We did some things to save money. One thing that helped is that we are having a “dry January”. Yes, I know that those of you who know us well are surprised by this! We decided to give our livers a break. It’s been good for us! We have saved calories and money. We are also really looking forward to February 1 when we will resume enjoying lovely wines and interesting brews in moderation. That said, not spending money on alcohol while we were in Iceland was beneficial to our pocketbooks.
We bought bread, peanut butter, fruit and water at a grocery store on our first day so that if breakfast was not provided by our hotel, we could enjoy breakfast in our room. We also bought a big bag of almonds when we were in the States which we often ate in the car between breakfast and dinner. We didn’t want to spend daylight hours – or Icelandic krona – on lunch.
Spectacular Icelandic Food
We really did enjoy our restaurant meals! The food in Iceland is absolutely fantastic! For dinners, we went where we wanted to go and enjoyed what we wanted without worrying too much about how much it cost. The prices are high, but we shared a lot of things and that worked out great. We absolutely loved all the arctic char and all the seafood was fantastic. Fish Market in Reykjavik was outstanding. We had grilled fish, langoustine soup, and green ling cod. Everything was absolutely fantastic, and we enjoyed great service. We LOVED it. The cost was 11800 kr. - $100. It was a splurge and it was delicious. On our last night we took a 10 mile detour off the main route and stopped at Fjorubordid restaurant in Stokkseyri so we could enjoy their langoustines and langoustine soup – both were absolutely amazing! Cost was $95.29, another splurge but worth every penny.
One of our most interesting food stops was another place Terri recommended (thank you, Terri!). Fridheimar is a tomato farm where they grow enough tomatoes in greenhouses to supply 18% of Iceland’s tomatoes! They heat the greenhouses with the hot water from the nearby geothermal pools. They pick every single day. It’s quite an operation and the greenhouses look so eerie lit up on the inside, against the dark surroundings of the Icelandic winter.
The restaurant is known for its tomato soup and I can see why – it is delicious! You get to eat in the greenhouse, with tomato plants all around you. The tomato soup buffet is all you can eat, along with fresh homemade bread and condiments including pickled cucumbers, sour cream for the soup and butter for the bread. It was expensive soup at 2390 isk (almost $20 each) but it was great – and so interesting!
Beginning Our Iceland Driving Tour
We wanted to see as much as we could possibly see in the short time we had in Iceland. After our day and night in Reykjavik we ate peanut butter bread in our room, packed up, checked out of the Galtafell (which is a wonderful guesthouse!) at a reasonable time and were in the car by 9:15. It was pitch black.
This day was all about touring the Golden Circle. There were lots of busses and tourists on this route. I wonder what it’s like in the summer! I sort of thought we might be the only tourists in Iceland in January, but I was wrong.
We drove to the visitor’s center at Thingvellir National Park. We couldn’t see much as we drove because it was dark – I bet it’s a pretty drive! We actually couldn’t see much all day because it was such a grey rainy day. It took about 45 minutes to get to Thingvellir National Park. This is an absolutely amazing area, where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving apart. We walked on the path toward the place where Iceland began – where Parliament was held in the 900s. It is an historic and amazing place.
Greg said he wanted to see waterfalls in Iceland and I do my best to deliver. Our first “big” waterfall was the waterfall Öxaráfoss. From the visitor’s center, we walked about 1.5 km down the path and saw pretty amazing volcanic rock the whole way as we walked along the fissure. The sun was coming up as we walked along the path, which was truly amazing. The waterfall was fantastic!
Our next stop was Geysir, about 45 minutes down the road. This is a very dynamic geothermal area and it is SO cool. I had never seen a geyser before. As we walked toward Strokkur, which goes off about every 4-5 minutes, there were pools of boiling water coming up out of the earth. There were extremely hot pools that were steaming and it was all so very interesting and almost surreal. In spite of the hot water all around us, it was pretty cold. I’m glad we had our raincoats on over our coats. It was rainy and windy but that didn’t stop us – we were there to see as much as possible in every minute of daylight we had available to us.
Our last big site on the Golden Circle was Gullfoss – another spectacular waterfall. It was amazing, even on this cold grey windy rainy day. It was absolutely beautiful. I wonder what it’s like in the snow or the sun!
Scenery in Iceland is Glorious
Each day we drove to new places along the southern coast of Iceland. Our second and third days took us to multiple waterfalls, hiking trails, glaciers and beaches.
Seljialandsfoss waterfall was right around the corner from our AirBnB. We parked at the lot down the road so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking. It was wonderful that you didn’t have to pay to see waterfalls or enter national parks, but we did occasionally have to pay for parking. You could actually go behind this waterfall. On a sunny day I’m sure you could see a rainbow. It is glorious every single day.
Gljufrabui was the next waterfall. We walked to if from Seljialandsfoss – it was about 500 m further down the path. You could see the top of the waterfall from the trail but the bottom was hidden by rocks until you went right down beside the stream and looked through the “keyhole” toward the waterfall. What a beautiful sight!
We drove to Skogafoss next. We saw lots of the same people at many of these stops. The tour busses often went on the same route we did, it seemed. This waterfall is massive and you can get right up to it. There are stairs leading up to the very top of the waterfall and the view from the top is spectacular. Then, there is a trail that leads up the gorge for miles! I don’t know how far we went but you could see glaciers on mountains above us, and grasslands and volcanic rock and blue, blue water – it was glorious.
Our last waterfall of that second driving day was Kvernufoss. This was our favorite. It’s not even marked. I read about it and found directions to it on theoutbound.com. We parked by some warehouse garages, walked along a fence and up and down a ladder to get us over the barbed wire. Then we walked east a bit and down the gorge until we saw the waterfall. It was amazing! We talked with Ronan McMonagle of Discovery Photo Tours out of Ireland. He’s leading a photography tour and was operating a drone, taking video and pictures of the waterfall. It was gorgeous! His group was a bit farther in, taking pictures of the falls. We loved this spot. We also saw Icelandic ponies along the way – fantastic!
We were running out of daylight. The sun rose today at 10:49 and it set at 4:02. We went to the Dyrholaey peninsula. We drove up this black gravel windy road to the top where the lighthouse is and even though it was foggy and not clear, the views of the glacier, the ocean with crashing waves, and the rock formations was amazing.
Then we zipped to Reynisfjana Beach to try to catch sunset but there wasn’t much to see that evening. We concentrated on the beach with lots of volcanic sand and pebbles and huge waves crashing against the shore. Just incredible.
The next day we tried to hike in Fjaorargljufur Canyon – but it was closed. This is a stop on many peoples’ lists. Beware that it is often closed during the winter months. The trails were soggy and hikers would damage the natural vegetation with their footsteps. We went into the little town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur and saw a tourist information office so we went in. The sun wasn’t up yet but it was getting lighter out at almost 10:00 am. The Norwegian woman inside was super nice and helpful. She showed us a film about the volcano that blew up beneath the Vatnajökull glacier in this region in 1783. It was fascinating, if a little over dramatic. The volcano created lava rivers that are now lava rocks covered in green moss. The words I would use to describe this landscape are vast, bold, hardy, empty, beautiful, amazing….
We hiked in Vatnajökull National Park so we could see Svartifoss waterfall. The volcanic rock in this area formed basalt columns which surround this waterfall. These are echoed in the architecture of Hallgrímskirkja, the famous Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík, pictured earlier. So very cool. We had made sandwiches from the breakfast buffet at our hotel and ate them beside the waterfall.
After the waterfall hike, which was about 5.5 km, we walked to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue. It was sooooo cool. We could see the beautiful blue in some of the ice, and the ridges in the glacier and the giant chunks of ice – mini icebergs – in the lagoon. It was incredible!
We were racing the clock to get to Diamond Beach before the sun set. We got there at 4:15, after sunset, but the remnants of the sun’s glow shown over the beach for 45 minutes or so. We explored this unbelievable black lava beach with giant chunks of ice and huge crashing ocean waves. It was stunning – truly something I never imagined getting to see in my life.
A Guided Ice Cave Tour Inside a Glacier
This was probably the highlight of an absolutely awe inspiring experience in Iceland. We left our hotel at about 9:15 in the morning and you could just see colors on the horizon – an anticipation of sunrise. We drove back to Diamond Beach. We parked where we would meet our guide from Local Guide of Vatnajökull for our ice cave tour and then walked out to the beach. The icebergs had moved from the night before and the river was flowing the other way – tide was coming in! The ice was even more beautiful as the sun was rising. We went out to the beach and looked there also but it was not as impressive as the night before because the tide was coming in and covered some of the ice.
We walked back to meet our guide, Siggi. He was absolutely terrific. I think you have to be just a little bit crazy – certainly you have to have an enormous sense of adventure - to lead ice cave tours. Siggi was that perfect blend of young/charismatic/adventurous/hospitable that helped to make this excursion fantastic. We had 4 other people in our group – a couple from Iowa and a couple from Montreal. The couple from Montreal filmed videos when we were out on the glacier for their Instagram and Facebook pages – Stephanie_White_Official.
I was just a little bit trepidatious about going inside a glacier. They warn you NOT to walk onto a glacier without a guide. You can SEE the crevices in the ice and imagine falling into one and not being able to get out. It’s cold on the ice. These were all things I was thinking about when we went out to the glacier in an enormous van with huge wheels with studs.
When we went off the highway onto the dirt road to get to the glacier, Siggi let air out of the tires so we wouldn’t bounce so much. Once we reached the glacier, we got our gear – a helmet and crampons – and walked out to another big van, this one had tires with chains. Another very interesting yet kind man drove us out on top of the glacier. Can you imagine driving on a glacier all day every day dodging icy holes that could swallow you up? He had absolutely no problem doing this and chauffeured us to the entrance to the ice cave. It was absolutely amazing.
We went into 3 different ice caves. They are so blue and so crystal clear. The ice bubbles inside are beautiful. There is water running through the bottom of the caves which digs the cave itself and the wind smooths out the sides. It is absolutely beautiful – so so blue. Sometimes there are layers of volcanic ash that you can see – from volcanic explosions eons ago. Incredible! We loved this experience!
We were so impressed with everything about Local Guide of Vatnajökull. They were professional from start to finish – from booking to wishing us well on our continued journey and everything in between. This is not an inexpensive excursion. I can’t imagine how much these vehicles cost to operate. They find the caves themselves in coordination with another company and they go out to the glacier and chop the ice so that we can go see this spectacular piece of nature. They make it possible to experience a unique part of Iceland in a safe and fun environment. They go out of their way to make us comfortable and to help us get pictures so that we can share our memories with our friends and followers. I am so grateful we were able to do this. It’s expensive – but worth it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I want to share that we were able to save some money on our ice cave tour through partnering with Local Guide of Vatnajökull. It did not sway our opinion in any way on this tour.
The drive back to Reykjavik was about 6 hours. We ate our sandwiches that we made from the breakfast buffet in the car and stopped in Vik to take pictures of the iconic church. It started to rain and snow a bit but the roads weren’t too bad. The road is just so long and empty. The landscape is vast and other-worldly.
What do Iceland and Sicily have in Common?
We learned a lot about volcanoes when we were in Sicily a few months ago. It was such a remarkable experience to hike up Mount Etna and hear the mountain “speak” to us. We didn’t hear the volcanoes in Iceland, but they were all around us. You can see the effects of volcanoes everywhere from dried lava rivers to black lava beaches. The stories of prior eruptions are both from the distant and more recent past. I remember the April 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull which disrupted air traffic across western and northern Europe for nearly a week. People were stranded for days because planes could not fly due to the ash clouds. I couldn’t have told you the name of the volcano, but I recall its significance. We drove right by that very volcano. The fact that it could explode at any time is disconcerting and extraordinary at the same time.
Where we Stayed & Hotel Picks along Iceland’s Southern Coast
In case you would like to replicate some of our tour, I’d like to share some more specifics. On our journey along Iceland’s southern coast we stayed in the following places:
Reyjkavik: Galtafell/$99.94. We absolutely loved Guesthouse Galtafell. They were lovely hosts and our room was terrific. The guesthouse is located in the perfect part of Reyjkavik, within walking distance of everything we wanted to see. Great value and terrific accommodations. We even had free parking!
Eyjafjoll between Hvolvollur and Vik: AirBnB called Ysti-skali hosted by Annika/$89.48 Our experience here was a bit odd but it was fine. This is a working farm. Our room was upstairs and we shared a bathroom with others on the top floor. The shower was downstairs. The farm is a little hard to find, especially in the dark. Annika is very nice and our stay was just fine, it was just kind of a funny place to stay. It was amazing to wake up in the morning and see the mountains right outside the door. We couldn’t see them when we arrived in the dark. Next time I might pay a little more and try the Hotel Anna down the road.
Kirkjubaejarklaustur: Hotel Laki/$100.39 including breakfast. We loved Hotel Laki. This was a great place to stay and a terrific value. Our room was nice and the restaurant was terrific! They even gave us a welcome drink (half a glass of prosecco – we accepted, even though we are participating in a Dry January……it was free alcohol in Iceland!!) Breakfast was terrific here, too. We found this to be a wonderful accommodation in this part of Iceland.
Hornafjörõur: Hali Country Hotel/$161.87 including breakfast. This was our big splurge. I’m kind of surprised it cost as much as it did but it was a fine and an interesting place to stay. There is a very unique museum incorporated into the hotel that celebrates the life of one of Iceland’s most significant 20th century authors who grew up at the Hali farm in this area. That is the reason for the “book shelf” look to the exterior of the hotel. We enjoyed a nice dinner here of artic char and seafood stew.
Keflavík: A. Bernhard Guest House/$90.56. This place was perfect for us to stay before departing on an early morning flight from Keflavík airport. We had a shared bathroom which was clean and nice and perfectly fine. The shower was great. The room was spacious and lovely. The bed was super comfortable. I really didn’t want to leave it at 4:00 am to catch our flight!
Sadly, we did not get to see the northern lights. The conditions just weren’t right in the 5 days we were there. That is all the more reason to return. Thanks, Terri. Thanks, Icelandair. I didn’t even know that I wanted to go to Iceland. Now, I want to go back – maybe when there are more hours of daylight.
Let me know if the comments section what you think about Iceland. Have you ever thought about going there on vacation? What would you like to see when you are there?
Are you planning a trip somewhere in Europe? We can help with that! Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, England and all of Europe. We also still have spots available on our small group trip to Tuscany in May and our small group trip to Piedmont in October 2019! Would you like to join us? You can always reach Betsy at email@example.com. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!