Saturday, April 22, 2017

How to Make the Most of Your Winter Trip to Iceland

A trip to Iceland had been on bucket list as soon as I started seeing pictures of the Blue Lagoon.  I had also always wanted to see the Northern Lights so this was the perfect trip to get both in one trip.  Visiting during the winter allowed the only chance to catch the Northern Lights.

1.  Find cheap airfare on WOW airlines or Icelandic Air.  Book early and you can find amazing deals for about $300 roundtrip.  Pack light and with a small backpack that fits under your seat, you wont need to pay baggage fees either.

2. Book a camper van.  That way you can tour all the sights you want to see without having to drive back to your home base.  Since normally you will have to book a rental car and a place to stay- why not combine the two and stay in your transportation?  It was actually a lot of fun and there were plenty of places to camp, we would find a nice parking lot and wake up to views of  a waterfall.
Our campervan parked at a waterfall, waking up to this view.
It also saves a lot of money by eating breakfast and lunch in the campervan using the mini-fridge that is provided, along with a cooking stove. It really is a mini-house on wheels, and our mattress in the back was comfortable.  When booking and comparing companies, note that some include sleeping bags and pillows, plus dishes, cups, etc. Other charge extra for each one of those.  Also, some campervans don't include the heated back area.  You will want to make sure to book one that does have a heater if you are going in the winter.  The batter for the heater charges when you drive during the day, and will keep the van plenty warm all night.
View of the comfy back of the van
3.  Book your tickets to the Blue Lagoon in advance, it does sell out a few weeks in advance.  You may hear that it is touristy, but we loved it and I think it was a great part of our trip.  We spent the entire first day there from 8am to 4pm.
Warm comfortable water in a beautiful icy setting at sunrise
Since we took an overnight flight from the states in which we didn't sleep, it was a very relaxing first day in Iceland.  When you book your Blue Lagoon tickets you must arrive within that 30 min window for entrance.  My advice is to book the first slot (which is cheapest) and then once in, you are allowed to stay as long as you want.  Book the most basic package, then when you arrive add on the bathrobe for $12.  It was so worth it.  The bathrobe acted as our towel also since we didn't have room to pack one. There are restaurants and cafes there, and even a swim up bar in the lagoon, so you have reason to stay for awhile!
Light blue water with a swim up bar...The Caribbean? Nope, Iceland!
Glacial-blue stream leaving the Blue Lagoon amidst black lava rocks, stunning!

4. Pack light by packing only the necessities.  You will need waterproof hiking boots (which I advise wearing on the plane for space sake), waterproof jacket AND waterproof pants, hat and gloves, waterproof iPhone bag, car charger for iPhone- the kind that goes in the cig lighter, a

5. Buy beer in the airport duty free shop when you land.  This is where you will find it the cheapest.   You can store in your campervan mini-fridge.  Always nice to have after a long day of hiking.  We enjoyed a few beers over a miraculous show by the Northern Lights out our campervan window. 

6. Buy food at the grocery store.  We though the grocery stores were pretty reasonable priced (comparable to the United States), but the restaurants were very expensive compared to back home.  There are lots of grocery stores around.  We bought skyr,  tortillas, peanut butter, bananas, apples, raisins, ritz crackers, oreos, and peanut m&ms to fuel our adventure.  Each day for lunch was a peanut butter banana roll up. 

7. Before you leave the States, download an app called 'Here' onto your phone.  Then download the Iceland map from it. (It's all free).  That way you don't have to use any data on your phone to get around via GPS.  We had our phones on airplane mode the entire time in Iceland since international data usage (and texts, even incoming) are very expensive.  The GPS will still work in airplane mode, and the map downloaded to your phone via the app will allow you to use it.

8. Download an app to check for the Northern Lights.  We used 'My Aurora Forecast' as it provided a nice hourly forecast, including the chances of cloud cover and where open / clear skies may be.
Watching the Northern Lights before heading to bed
9.  Fly on the left side of the plane to Iceland so you look out to the North.  Since the flight is usually an overnight red-eye you will be looking towards the Northern Lights out your window at night and could get a nice show as you get closer to Iceland.  On the way back, fly on the right side of the plane, again so you are facing north. Since the flight is usually during the day, you will get a nice view of Greenland to the north, along with icebergs in the ocean coming off the Greenland glaciers.

10. Visit the Golden Circle.  It is also touristy like the Blue Lagoon. But there is a good reason a lot of people visit it.  It has a great overview of Iceland that you can do in one day if you start first thing in the morning.  We did it clockwise, and you can see (in order):

  • At the Pingviller National Park, you can see the continental rift (where the North American Plate is splitting from the European Plate), you can literally stand between the to continents, geographically speaking.
    North American Plate to Jim's right, Eurasia Plate to his left. Separating 1" per year, Jim giving it an extra push!
    The park is also the location of the first settlement and government assembly on Iceland from the Viking era, the Oxrarfoss Waterfall, and there are even places to scuba dive in the lakes there (we didn't do the scuba diving!)
  • The geyser / hot springs area in Geysir (from which all geysers in world get their name from). Strokkur geyser erupts every 5-10 minutes, here is a picture we got of it:
    Geyser eruption! The people standing close get wet, we did that once!
  • The Gullfoss Waterfall
  • And the Kerid Crater.
There are guided tours of the Golden Circle, but it is easy to drive and that way you can spend as little or as much time at any of the locations.

11. Park your van so the back is facing north. That way you can look out your back window while in your sleeping bag and see the Northern Lights dance.

12. After the Golden Circle, you can park the van to sleep at the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall at sunrise

View of the waterfall from the hike behind it
It is beautiful itself (and even lit up at night, you can see a couple miles away approaching it!), but it is also a great launching off point the next morning to more great places on the southern and southeastern portion of the Ring Road:

  • The Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (that erupted in 2010 and cause flight cancellations across all of Europe)
    There's the volcano, don't erupt now!
  • The geothermally heated Seljavallalaug Pool.  It takes a short, but beautiful, hike. There are changing rooms there, and the while the water is warm, it is not as warm as the Blue Lagoon. 
    Beautiful vistas on the hike to Seljavallalaug Pool
      The pool and changing rooms. The swimmers are Dutch tourists, not us.
  • The  Skogafoss Waterfall.  This may be the most photographed waterfall in Iceland, since it is easy to access directly from a large parking lot and has a great chance of seeing a rainbow there. Supposedly the Vikings hid some treasure behind the waterfall so if you find it please give me a cut!
    Rainbows show up here often, and there is an easy hike to the top for a nice view
  • The Solheimajokull Glacier. There are guided tours on the glacier (and you can self-hike up to the base of it)
    The glacier in the background, about 1/2 mile hike to the base
  • The remains of a DC-10 Air Force Plane that crashed-landed on a black sand beach. It is a 2 mile hike (flat and easy to follow with the markers), we did it as a run. The wind is pretty wicked there so use your wind breaker even if it doesn't feel windy at the car.  The parking lot has been greatly expanded in the last year or two and it is pretty heavily visited now.  Most guides from 2015 or earlier make it seem hard to find, and even the Google Maps street view just shows a small driveway with a little gate at the entrance to the hike.  However, you won't miss the huge new parking lot that is there now, and the hike was well traveled by other tourists. You won't be alone and won't risk getting lost.
    Running to the plane crash

    Victory! I shot it down! jk
  • We didn't make it further than that (so the next three pictures aren't ours, just from websites), but if you keep driving on the Ring Road you can find:
  • The Reynisdrangar rock formations at Vik.

  • The Skaftafell Glacier, which is the biggest glacier on the island and has guided glacier hikes and guided ice cave tours.
  • The icebergs at Jokulsarlon Lagoon

We didn't spend too much time in Reykjavik, but the downtown was easy to park and stroll around. The city seemed larger than we though it would, and had malls, stores, and supermarkets. This is on the downtown waterfront looking across the harbor:

There are also lots of horse farms, and I enjoyed meeting a few of Icelandic horses off the Ring Road:

We can't wait to come back again, there is so much to see!

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