Our Winter Fairy Tale in Iceland.
Iceland is the wrong name. It should have been called Niceland.
Our tour guide.
Can anyone have warm memories about cold places? Sure, if this place is called Iceland. A year ago my husband and I had an amazing trip to this wonderful country. We celebrated a New Year 2012 there, and it was one of the most memorable trips we’d ever had.
Who are you, my Reader? The one who dreams of sultry Caribbean nights and turquoise waters surrounded by palm trees? Or are you anticipating winter vacations with its cold fresh air and crispy sparkling snow under your feet? I thought, I belonged to the first category. Until I traveled to Iceland. Living in Florida and not seeing snow for 4 years surely explains why I got hypnotized by Icelandic beauty. Constantly living through cold winters is one thing. Traveling on vacation to colder areas is different. There is always a place in a heated tour bus, there is always a warm meal in a hospitable hotel, there is a new pleasant adventure waiting for you each new day. Just enjoy!
Before taking you on this virtual trip, I would like you to ask yourselves: what do you know about Iceland? Honestly, I knew very little about this distant European country. I thought it was just covered with snow and it was extremely cold there.
Busting the myths, it is not always snowy in Iceland. We witnessed a change of weather a few times during the day, which is normal for Iceland. Snow melted around New Year, but then fell again. Although Iceland is located near the Arctic Circle, the winters are not very harsh and severe. It may be much colder in Northern part of the US, Canada or Northern parts of Russia than in Iceland in winter. What makes Iceland special is the combination of natural phenomena: waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, ice formations, geysers, fjords, glaciers, naturally heated baths and pools (including the famous Blue Lagoon Spa) and sky shows called “Aurora Borealis”, or “the Northern Lights”. Some of these wonders are even more charming in winter.
If you are a first-time traveler, you may wish to start with Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and its surroundings. This may be enough for 5 to 7 days. We had 5 full days to enjoy Icelandic miracles.
Traveling to Iceland was especially dear to me. It was our romantic New Year’s trip with my husband. Iceland met us with some blizzard and snow. Locals say, if you do not like weather in Iceland, wait another 5 minutes. We noticed, weather changed constantly throughout our trip. Smell of real winter relaxed me, and I surrendered to its cold and enjoyed every moment spent outside. Many of the first impressions came from the bus window, on our way to the hotel. Everything was decorated with Christmas lights: windows, bus stops and lamp posts… I noticed, Icelandic people did not tend to shut the blinds in the windows. So, we could see how their evening lives were unfolding before our eyes. The soft and cuddly Icelandic language heard from the bus radio was like a lullaby. We arrived at Hilton Reykjavik Nordica. I loved large windows in our room. We could enjoy ever changing views of the city and the bay. The hotel served great food and provided us with the high level of comfort and service.
On the first day, we went on a 5-hour bus tour, chasing ineffable Northern Lights. We did not see the lights as it was too cloudy, but we saw a lot of countryside: cozy looking village houses, lots of Christmas trees, and even two prisons. Pretty neat windows and decorated Christmas trees did not remind of penitentiary institutions. They looked like fancy cottages or nice hotels. While passing along the road by the graveyard, we were astonished to see Christmas lights on the Crosses there, too! Well, why should anyone miss the holidays?:-)
I did not give up on seeing the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. I watched every spare moment up in the sky, especially closer to the midnight. My patience and constant peering into the sky was rewarded later. I noticed the Northern Lights from our large hotel window around midnight and woke my husband up immediately! It was a mesmerizing view. Pretty modest, compared to photos you see online, but we were thankful for what it was.
On our second day, we were taken on a Reykjavik Grand Excursion. It was a very windy day, and when we got out of the bus, we could hardly stand on our feet while taking photos! We saw main landmarks, such as The Haunted House, Hallgrímskirkja (Lutheran Church), Reykjavik Harbor, the famous 101 Reykjavik neighborhood and a city building Perlan. We found out that The Haunted House had hosted the meeting of Gorbachev and Reagan during the Reykjavik Summit in 1986. Their discussion would later result in the end of cold war and in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reykjavik Harbor has a famous sculpture, The Sun Voyager, which I did not get a chance to take a good picture of. So, do not miss it, when you go there.
Then came a New Year Eve. We walked a lot around the city that day. One of the highlights was our stop at Tjornin, a small lake in the city center. You can watch and feed ducks, seagulls, swans and geese there. We also explored more 101 Area with its numerous nice restaurants and shops. Since we had the Vox restaurant in our hotel and we also had some meals on out tours, we only dined in a very few restaurants in Reykjavik. I highly recommend them all. One was Caruso, located in a busy area. The other was Cafe Paris. First is more for romantic dinners and a relaxing atmosphere, and the second – for “seeing and be seen”.
We partied all New Year’s night, so we first had to catch up some sleep, before we could move on to another adventure. In the evening we went to the Blue Lagoon. I would not mistake if I say, it was the biggest highlight of the whole trip to Iceland! We were relaxing after the party night, enjoying natural hot clean waters under cold winter sky. It felt like Winter Paradise. Starry night, steaming spacious pool, fountains and crisp air, – what else can one wish on January 1st? After bathing we had nice dinner in the restaurant with the warm name Lava. I did not take the camera inside of the Lagoon, so I only took few photos, when we were already dining at the Lava restaurant.
Next day we took the Golden Circle and Fontana Steam Bath Tour. It started early in the morning with the bus ride to the countryside. When the day was breaking slowly, we could enjoy all spectrum of the colors blue and pink. The skies were the most amazing I had ever seen! First, we stopped at Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall), which was so spectacular in winter. Then we were taken to Geysir hot spring area, where a Geysir’s neighbor Strokkur was shooting streams of hot water every 2-5 minutes. It was miraculous and a little bit scary. Original Geysir is not active now. Interestingly, it gave its name to all other geysirs in the world. There was a nice souvenir shop in the area, and a cafe. The tourists were unwilling to leave, as every new eruption offered a one-of-a-kind photo opportunity. The surrounding area impressed us with contrasting ice and hot bubbles on the same piece of land. Next in line was warming up in a Natural Hot Spring Steam Bath Fontana Laugarvatn. It lacked the grandeur of the Blue Lagoon, but it was a nice place to relax and warm up before our last stop for the day. Fontana is popular for its hot pools in the open air with a few adjacent steam baths full of strong sulfuric odor, deemed to be beneficial for one’s health. Our last stop was the Galleri Cafe and a souvenir shop. First, a tender Icelandic girl with the shovel took us on a short trip in her minivan. That was weird, but soon we were shown how locals baked bread in the ground, using natural underground heating. Just couple digs and place the dough in a cookware for 24 hours. Back to the cafe we were treated with the most delicious baked rye bread, yellow sweet butter, and a wood smoked local trout. The taste still lingers in my mouth…
Do you know the feeling at the end of traveling when you realize you did not do one more last thing? Your travel companion most likely would try to cheer you up, saying that you should leave something for the next time. That feeling… For me it was… Icelandic horseback riding. I could not squeeze the tour and wholeheartedly regretted it. There are great reviews on this tour. I have it as my dream for the next time, when I go to Iceland.
That was our New Year’s trip, that we took in 2011-2012. I hope you enjoyed this virtual journey. Experienced travelers say, Iceland has a lot to offer each season. I still think, it is better to fall off the horse on the snow, than on the grass:-)
Tips before traveling:
- Since Iceland is a relatively remote place, everything is more pricey there. There is Icelandair flying from US to Iceland. Nice and expensive, as anything in Iceland. If you are from Florida, I am happy to share this tip with you, that saved us some money. You may fly from Sanford, FL to Reykjavik (KEF, Keflavik Airport), Iceland on a non-stop flight. It will be less expensive ($800-$900 per person in winter) and definitely more convenient. Go to http://www.icelandair.us to check current rates. Sanford is the airport in the suburbs of Orlando. It may be worth driving there by car, depending where in Florida you are located.
- The Sun barely rises in winter, so the daylight can only be seen from 10-11am to 3-4pm. Keep it in mind if you are planning to take a lot of photos. If you are an amateur photographer with limited experience shooting at night, you might wish to practice in advance. You may consider getting a tripod as well. I have to confess, my tripod was my husband’s shoulder. He was not very excited, but at least I managed to take some nice pictures! On the contrary, when traveling in summer to the extremities of Iceland, you may enjoy the midnight sun.
- Electrical outlets are European in Iceland, so you will need an adapter if you are traveling from US.
- What to wear in Iceland in winter? You may already have some winter coat. Make sure you pack warm sweaters (not synthetic), thick corduroy/wool pants, water-repellent boots (as snow may melt), warm socks, hat, covering ears, thick scarves and couple pairs of warm thick gloves. The price for the sweater in Iceland may be up to $200- $300. Very popular are traditional Icelandic sweaters, a type of a Fair Isle Sweater. They are thick and warm handmade sweaters. It is a great purchase if you have cold winters.
- The Arctic air of Iceland is very dry. So, you should definitely pack a good amount of face cream. I used the whole small travel size jar!
- Even that Iceland is not a part of EU, citizens of some countries will need to apply for a Schengen Visa to go to Iceland. Visa is not required for US Citizens. When applying, count your travel days, too. If you plan to spend 5 full days in Iceland and need 2 more days for flights, specify 7 days on your application.
- You may save time by booking some of the tours in advance. We booked these popular tours beforehand: Golden Circle and Fontana Steam Bath Tour, Northern Lights Tour and Reykjavik Grand Excursion. Whatever tour combination you plan, never ever miss the Blue Lagoon Tour. It is one of a kind Geothermal Spa in the open air. Just imagine how magic it feels in winter!
- When traveling in winter, your choice of destinations within Iceland may be limited, as some roads may be closed during the so-called off season. Weather is very unpredictable in winter. Iceland in summer boasts a lot of cultural events, like music and art festivals. More tours are operating May to September. It only means you will see less crowds in winter, which may be additional attraction for some tourists. Yet, the prices for flights and hotels are less expensive during off season, too.
- The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, is a natural phenomenon. It can only be seen September to April, when the skies are clear. For those trying to take photos of the Northern Lights, here is a great article by Roy Hooper.
Some interesting facts about Iceland:
- Iceland is the most environmentally clean country in the world. It has one of the cleanest water systems. You can safely drink tap water! It tastes great, if you ask me.
- Most Icelanders can track their genetic line to the first settlers. There even exists a website (a database), that should help Icelanders find out if they are not dating their relatives:-) With the country population of 300,000 people it is not a bad idea!
- There is no standing army in Iceland. It is the most peaceful country in the world, with low-crime rate and high level of socio-political stability.
- Icelanders is one of top nations with the gender equality. The country had the first elected female President in the world in 1986.
- Although more than 90% of the Icelanders follow Lutheranism, it is noted that Icelanders are not too much into religion.
- Icelandic language hardly changed over times. Most Icelanders can read sagas and other scripts originally written more than a 1000 years ago!
- Icelandic people use their natural resources (underground lava and hot springs) to heat water for their household use and to pump electrical stations. They also have several natural hot springs, which let them bathe all year round. One of the world’s famous naturally heated spas is the Blue Lagoon. It was not formed naturally, but the water is heated from the nearest electric station, which is heated by underground lava. The Blue Lagoon is reputed to help people with skin conditions, such as psoriasis.
- McDonald’s was shut down in Reykjavik. Even that some health conscious people could feel proud for Iceland, the reason was less health related. The country’s financial crisis in 2009 made it too expensive to operate its franchise. For the similar reason, Burger King stopped operating there, as well. KFC is still there…
- Iceland has its own currency, Krona, which can be exchanged from most common currencies at the airport or at the banks. Depending where you travel from, you will notice that everything is a bit more expensive. Food, clothes, taxi rides, souvenirs and tours… mostly due to country’s isolated location. Even local natural resources, like fish, are not very cheap, as one may expect.
You can read about other interesting quick and fan facts here. There are more and more people traveling to Iceland each year, but whatever you read, there are things that are better seen once.
May all of you have your own Fairy Tale in a New Year!
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