Land of Fire and Ice: Things to See and Do on a Winter Break in Iceland

February 2016

Even with three pairs of socks and hiking boots, the numbing cold was nibbling away at our toes. But when you are ticking off a bucket list item you expect to make a few sacrifices. Counting our blessings that the winter night sky was clear and that Northern Lights had made an appearance, we made it back to the warmth of our hostel at 2.30am with all digits intact. There are plenty more things to do in winter in Iceland.

Turns out it was cheaper to fly to the UK via Iceland than flying directly. The saving covered the cost of our accommodation whilst in ‘the land of fire and snow’. Unlucky for us though, a snowstorm hit Boston cutting a day off our 4 day trip. Nonetheless, our tour company were able to rejig our activities and we didn't miss a thing, well apart from some sleep.

Our flights were courtesy of WOW Air, a funky new (ish) Icelandic airline. Online reviews were mixed with lots of negativity regarding the strict luggage allowances. With that in mind we off loaded a few things. At check-in, including tripod and yoga mat we were each carrying 15kg, well under the 20kg limit. The one carry-on bag per person was a challenge though at just 5kg. As for the service, the staff were excellent; young, trendy and ready to have a laugh.  No bad reviews from us.

We arrived at our hostel on the edge of town at 5.00am and crashed for a few of hours. We awoke feeling the need for food but not having a clue where to go. We have concluded that this when we are most likely to fallout with each other, hungry and aimlessly wandering the streets, so we had to find somewhere quickly. The footpath resembled an ice skating rink. Arms flailing as we slip-slided, we eventually found a veggie cafe called Krusha. The food was very tasty but like the rest of Iceland, blooming expensive. With no alcohol lunch came in at NZ$50 for the two us.  Ouch.

Julie had yet again found a gem of a tour company, the family run Time Tours. However, we didn't make a good first impression. Thinking that we were being collected at 9.30pm we were chilling in our room when there was loud banging on the door. Turns out the tour started at 8.30pm and our driver, Runar, had been waiting downstairs. When Julie apologised for our lateness, she was scolded like a schoolgirl. 

That was the low point of our Northern Lights safari, from then onwards it was all good. The driver turned out to be a great guide and a pretty good photographer. Our minibus with just 12 other folks was cosy. With Mother Nature there are no guarantees but the forecast was good and our expectations were high. 

The Kp index is a global measurement for aurora activity. Zero is go home and plan for another night; whilst a 9 is a very rare full-on aurora storm. Our guide had seen a 7 just once in his many years of doing tours. Tonight, the forecast was for level 3 activity, so it was time to find a secluded spot away from the glare of the city lights.

With the naked eye, we could just make out a faint glow. But stick a camera on a tripod, hold the shutter open for 15 seconds and you capture the full glory. The activity level this evening didn’t quite make 3, but we still managed to see lime green swirls on the black night sky. The aurora stirred higher in the sky as the evening progressed, until it was arced right above us.

Despite not getting to bed until after 2.30am we were up bright and early determined not to be late for our Golden Circle tour. Again using Time Tours we jumped into the minibus with a chatty bunch. Heading out of Reykjavik, the snow started to fall and by our first stop it was coming down by the bucket load.

We pulled up at one of the only private sightseeing locations in Iceland. A volcano crater (who’s name we can’t remember).  Aggrieved that it had been privatised, Alex, our guide, advised us to hand the attendant a large note as payment. Nine times out of ten they don't have change so will wave you through. Bingo, I guess every little saving helps when in Iceland.

The snow fell thick and fast as we drove through the Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Heaven knows how Alex managed to stay on the road; it was almost a total white out.

We pulled over so that we could feed some Icelandic horses. Apart from being super cute these animals have a unique fast paced gait. And if a horse goes overseas for a competition, it’s a one way ticket. This is done to protect Iceland’s only species of horse from diseases. The next stop was a waterfall that served as a warm up to the main event. A large horseshoe shaped fall with a salmon ladder running up one side.

The star of the Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, a wide, three tiered waterfall that looks like it disappears to the centre of the earth. Walkways lead to great vantage points. Mind you like most footpaths in Iceland there are tourists falling over every five minutes. Pop trivia, Gullfoss featured on an early Echo and the Bunnymen album cover.

Next up, the Great Geyser or Strokkur as the locals call it. Now having seen geysers in New Zealand, Chile, Bolivia and USA we were slow to depart the warmth of the bus. Unlike the other geysers that we have visited you can get up close and personal with Strokkur. Erupting every few minutes and sometimes reaching 40 meters high, it’s certainly worth braving the ice skating ring that surrounds it. We were warned not to stand downwind as the steam comes down as freezing rain. Clearly others didn’t have Alex looking out for them.

As the final stop of the day beckoned the snow was falling heavily again. Alex informed us that we would be going for a 30 minute walk. We all burst out laughing, you have to hand it the Icelandic’s, they have a great sense of humour. But we soon realised he was serious. We were about to walk from North America to Europe, across the rift between two tectonic plates. This location was also the site of the very first Icelandic parliament. Snowflakes the size of marshmallows added to the breathtaking scenery to make a spectacular last stop.

On return to Reykjavik, we were dropped off in the city centre and had a brief wander whilst looking for somewhere to eat. The stunning lego style 73 metre (244 feet) tall Hallrimskrka, the largest church in Iceland sits atop a hill over looking the heated paved streets of the tourist district. This striking structure took 41 years to build. We settled on Nora Magasin for dinner, a laid back bar serving up pretty decent food. A five minute taxi ride back to our hostel stung us NZ$24. Mind you cheaper than breaking your neck trying to navigate the icy streets with a couple of beers inside you.

Before flying out, we spent the morning at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and pool. The water is fed from a nearby geothermal power station and hits the man-made lagoon at between 37-39 C (99-102 F). Here we discovered the rudest receptionist I think we have ever come across. Snarling ‘not to argue with him’ when we questioned where the sign was for the baggage lockers. 

The freezing stone floor between the changing rooms and pool motivates you to move quickly. But once in, the stream rising off the lagoon creates an eerie feel. At times, it’s hard to see anybody at all despite the full carpark. A blissful couple of hours breezed by. 

Iceland is a fascinating country; the scenery other-worldly. The countless photo opportunities day and night blow your brain. The locals are a happy bunch, most related to each other. It’s not unusual for a couple to be dating not knowing they are second cousins. Tourism in recent years has boomed from 20,000 to over 1.2 million. We are so glad we picked a small family run tour company.  It made all the difference. Fleets of 52 seater coaches ferrying around an army of tourists are not our style. Our three days were bitterly cold but they flew by. It’s not often you look forward to arriving in the UK mid-February, but any increase in temperature would be most welcome.

For further information on visiting Iceland click here

Next Stop, clotted cream and cornish pasties.