19 Sep Iceland….In February
You are probably thinking I need to rethink my life choices...who goes to Iceland in the winter? Me, and like eleven other people.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect of Iceland, I knew it would be cold and dark but I didn’t expect to see the most stunning terrain I’ve seen in my entire life, hike a real glacier, see the Northern Lights, and meet the friendliest people on earth. None of this is exaggerated, if anything it is understated because it’s almost impossible to put into words.
I’m a big sleeper and the limited daylight was right up my alley! No guilt sleeping until the sun comes up at 9am! But really, the main reason I went to Iceland in the dead of winter was to see the Northern Lights. I have always wanted to see them and the end of February through the beginning of March is ‘high season’ for them – I say that loosely because nobody can predict a solar phenomenon. Not to mention, IcelandAir started a non-stop flight to Reykjavik from Denver last year and at 6 hours 50 minutes, that is a pretty zippy flight to Europe.
This is going to come as a complete shock but Iceland is FREEZING in the winter. I thought winters in Munich were tough, LOL! I was definitely not over doing it when I bought long underwear. I went to Target a few days before to shop for some of those breathable long Under Armour and I thought jeez I might be going overboard here. I mean Iceland is green and Greenland is ice…Umm no.
I also went ahead and bought about 20 hot packs, I used them daily and I even slept with one! It’s not like my hotel was cold but you just get so cold it made me warm and cozy and then I got something akin to a second degree burn from laying on it for several hours – so maybe just skip that part. I showed these hot little magic wonders to my new Icelandic friend Katla and she was both bemused and bewildered as to why Icelanders do not use these.
I met Katla at the SIXT rental car pickup. I arrived at Keflavik airport (where I saw my first DoucheBags luggage) around 7am, it was pitch dark, and there was maybe a foot of snow on the ground. I couldn’t find the SIXT counter anywhere, I did two solid loops around the airport before someone told me it was outside! I huffed and puffed and dragged my heavy suitcase through the snow all the way to the SIXT building (normally I carry-on but the night before it was clear packing for winter in Iceland would not fit in a carry-on – see my blog about what to pack for Iceland) . How insanely inconvenient I thought. I immediately complained to Katla about having to drag a suitcase through snow in this weather and she looked at me with complete stupor and politely said ‘well there is a shuttle, you didn’t need to walk.’ OMG what is wrong with me?!
Katla was really nice and offered me what was BY FAR the best gadget I had on my trip – a mobile personal wifi dongle (that word really offends me, but there is no other word than dongle). For about $10 a day I had unlimited wifi at my fingertips! I used this and connected it to my phone to use for mapping, whatsapp, imessage, email, etc.
She also offered me a GPS to go in the car – of course I knew better and said I would be set with my dongle and Google maps. She told me most of Iceland is not on Google maps. Preposterous I thought! Google has covered the whole world and even witnessed murders on its earth view, if you need proof just Google it. She was right. Google maps does not support Iceland – not like doesn’t support outside of the capital city – no it just doesn’t support the country. I HIGHLY recommend renting a GPS if you are going to do extensive driving in Iceland. Additionally, rental insurance also a must. Everything is just volcanic rock so even though your driving down a nicely paved highway there’s just like little rocks everywhere that bounce onto your car and windshield.
Naturally after our exchange I asked her if she wanted to hang out. I casually said I was traveling alone (desperate!) and if she was going out one night I would love it if she invited me. To my surprise a few days later she messaged me and we went out. She, like all of the other Icelanders I met, was extremely nice, friendly, and we were instantly friends. I still force her to talk to me to this day.
I cruised into Reykjavik early in the morning and thankfully the locals didn’t honk or seem too irritated that I kept stalling and sliding all over the road. I can drive a manual, but it’s been awhile and the roads were very icy. Fun fact – did you know Reykjavik is the Northernmost capital in the world? The more you know….As long as we are learning here, I truly didn’t know how to even pronounce Reykjavik, I just said to people ‘I am going to be in Iceland’ – I waited to hear it pronounced locally, it is pronounced RayKehVeek.
I stayed at the City Hotel Arnavoll, I had a beautiful view of the harbor and the hotel itself was great. It was a little bit of a walk to the main drag of the city, not really, but it just felt like that in the cold. But with the view of the harbor and of Harpa concert hall, and free breakfast it was perfect. Plus, there was free parking behind the hotel. FREE PARKING. What is this amenity you speak of?
The Northern Lights
I obsessively checked the Aurora Forecast daily before my departure hoping I would get a good chance to view them. I used this predictor to gauge my luck, and it looked like there was going to be one night of high potential for them to appear. I got lucky and they did appear that night, but out of six nights they only appeared once.
To see the Northern Lights you must have some patience (ugghh eww). There are countless land and boat tours you can sign up for to see them. The cool thing about all of these tour operators is that if they don’t appear on the night you go out, you can go as many more nights for free until you do see them! I did the land tour my first night and we drove out to the middle of nowhere to stand in gale force winds and stare at a black sky for a few hours. Yawn. No sightings the first night.
The second tour I did was a Northern lights boat tour. I preferred the boat tour – probably just based on the deadliest catch life suits you get to wear.
You think Iceland is cold in February? Guess what, it’s even colder at night, at sea. Who would wear that? Me! You can’t possibly enjoy the lights without that fluffy awkward body suit. We got incredibly lucky that night, the skies were crystal clear and we got to watch the bright radiant lights dance and bow across the sky for several hours.
Did you know that the South Pole has the same view at the same time? Me either, but I also didn’t know really anything about them like they’re from solar storms and it takes a whole day for them to reach earth.
Mission accomplished, I saw the absolutely stunning Northern Lights in Iceland. The boat came back around 11pm but my sea facing room (bragging, but to be fair Iceland in winter is pretty cheap) still had a view of them. I put my pillow at the foot of my bed so I could lay facing the window to continue to watch them wave through the sky. I think around 4am I finally fell asleep. I got to watch them for hours. It was absolutely a spectacular phenomenon.
If you know me, you know that I am adventurous but certainly not ‘outdoorsy.’ Two nights before my trip I was like what should I do in Iceland besides wait for the Northern Lights and swim in the Blue Lagoon? Google turned up Icelandic Mountain Guides where they have glacier hikes for even the wimpiest of folk like me. Perfect, I signed up and three days into my trip Thor came to pick me up for my trip. Yes, Thor, God Bless him. Again, I thought this would be a light hike and we would see the glaciers from afar. I nearly had a panic attack when he said we would be hiking the glacier – crampons, ice picks, ropes, and all. I didn’t even bring ski pants! Luckily Thor had an extra pair for me.
On the way to Solheimajokll we stopped at the Skogafoss waterfall, went swimming in a geothermal pool, and saw the volcano Eyjafjallajokull that erupted in 2010 and halted all European air traffic for weeks. P.S. you are not alone, nobody can pronounce that.
You are probably wondering how that waterfall is not frozen? Iceland is nicknamed the land fire and ice because it is made up entirely of volcanoes. It sits right on the fault of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. The water below is warm water heated from magma. Fun fact #2 – Iceland is the greenest country in the world, Reykjavik runs exclusively on geothermal power.
When we finally set out for our hike I really struggled to keep up, and we were at sea level. I was breathing heavily but I had a little voice inside that said ‘just keep going you can do this.’ I stayed close to Thor should I actually pass out, he heard my heavy breathing over the sound of the wind and asked once if I was ok, I was thinking considering I didn’t bring ski pants to hike a glacier how do you think I am doing? Once we got to the top and started our decent down the scenery was breathtaking, I felt like I was in a NatGeo special on Iceland. The sun was starting to set but the snow was powder white and I was so proud of myself for challenging myself to take on such a hefty feat.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon was so awesome I made its own post located here.
Yes! Eat several of them. No, these aren’t your NYC street cart dogs or even the thick bratwurst you get in Germany – these may or may not have horse meat in them and they are delicious! Ignorance is bliss.
Icelanders are legit the nicest people I’ve ever met in real life. Have a hangover and missed your tour? No prob, we rebooked you for free. Need a dentist because you have a massive infection in your face? We’ll figure it out. Can you park my car Sven? Ok.
It could be that since the entire population of the country is only 300,000 so everyone knows everyone and has to be nice to each other, or perhaps they are so remote from the rest of the world the cynical asshattery found most other places just hasn’t reached them.
They all speak English better than you, are well dressed, and have names like SvenBjorn. Santa also actually lives there.
Skip the whale watching in the winter. When you sign up to set sail in the North Atlantic think about how rough the waters will be….We saw like six orcas before we had to turn around because everyone was so ill.
I literally saw hundreds of Dolphins on a Greek ferry ride from Athens to Paros one summer and that a total freebie.
In short, go to Iceland. It is affordable, amazing, and one of the greatest places on earth.
And here is Thor:
To see more photos, click here!