Travel: Winter (wonderland) in Iceland

If you had asked me about Iceland ten years ago, I would have answered that it was a country covered in ice all year round and was somewhere in Antarctica. I probably would have said polar bears roamed free and people lived in igloos.

However, over the past few years I learnt that none of the above were true. But the “real” Iceland did not fall off my bucket list – thanks to Facebook. My Facebook feed loaded deals on flights and articles about why one should go. And as I am easily influenced, my desire to go grew and grew.

We (Gambit and I) and another couple had talked about going on a couple’s trip. They live in Boston and were also interested in Iceland – so the destination was an easy decision. We booked to go over Thanksgiving (November) because of work schedules which may have increased prices somewhat and pushed us into traveling into winter (short days) but it gave us the potential to see the Northern Lights and go on a cave tour (only available during some months).

From my research of Iceland, I created a small bucket list:

  • Go to the Blue Lagoon
  • Eat a hot dog
  • Pet an Icelandic horse
  • See the Northern Lights

Tuesday November 21

Gambit and I flew from NYC into Reykavik on Icelandair. The flight was only 5.5 (ish) hours. We left at 7:40pm local time and arrived approx. 6am local time. Unfortunately, I am not one that can sleep on flights (I think it’s because I am too tightly strung) so I didn’t land feeling particularly “refreshed”.

Wednesday November 22

We met up with our friends at the airport, signed for our hire car, bolted from the airport to car park because it was super windy and freezing cold, and headed straight to the Blue Lagoon to kick off our holiday for some relaxing lagoon time.

Tips for the Blue Lagoon:

  1. You must book your day and time in advance or else there is a high chance you will miss out, especially during peak periods.
  2. If you want to take photos while “in” the lagoon, bring a water proof case for your phone and a selfie stick.

So.. I didn’t do tip #2 so I didn’t get any photos of our time in the lagoon. Next time…

The Blue Lagoon is a great experience. It is very organized, and you will be guided throughout. Upon entering, you are directed to the changing rooms and then to the showers where you are instructed to shower without your swimmers which is great as you are about to share a pool of water with hundreds of people. You will be advised to shampoo and condition your hair and to leave the conditioner in as the salt in the lagoon will strip your hair. You’ll also be advised to tie up your hair (if it is long) so it doesn’t touch the water).

The standard admission includes a facial mask (a mud one I think) but our tickets included a drink at the swim up bar and another facial mask – I think it was algae or aloe vera. To apply the mask, we scooped it out of a large communal bucket, slopped it onto our faces and washed it off in the lagoon after about 10 minutes.

I had timed it that we would see the sunrise while in the lagoon and since I don’t have photos to remind me, I think it was too cloudy to see it properly. But the view was breathtaking – the steam off the water, the clouds in the sky.

After visiting all the areas in the lagoon, we had lunch at the LAVA restaurant onsite – again, a booking is required to guarantee you a spot. The food is served in a set menu or ala carte. The food was delicious and considering everything is expensive in Iceland, I didn’t think it was crazy expensive considering the quality and location. We ate from the set lunch menu.

After we left the Blue Lagoon, we checked into our accommodation for the night, Ambassade Apartment.

We headed out for a quick wander around town. I found the hot dog place I wanted to try, The Hot Dog Stand, and we grabbed a dog to go.

We popped into Bonus for some groceries (milk, eggs, bread, butter, etc) and later had dinner at Icelandic Street Food.

I had a traditional Icelandic Christmas dinner (featured bottom right) which consisted of slices of Hangikjöt (smoked lamb), with potatoes in Béchamel sauce, peas, something similar to shredded cabbage and bread or crackers of some sort. Gambit had a lamb soup served in a bread roll.

Thursday November 23

We left the apartment mid-morning to start our Golden Circle adventure.

We stopped off along the water in Reykjavik to take a few photos of the Sun Voyager sculpture – described as a dreamboat, or an ode to the sun. The artist intended it to convey the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom. I would’ve thought it was whale bones if I saw it a far without my glasses on.

We were not on the road for long before we were hit with heavy rain. It was so heavy that we were unable to see a few meters in front of our vehicle. We crept along the road at a snail’s pace, window wipers on at the front and back, headlights and emergency blinkers on.

Eventually the rain ceased, or we had just driven out of the storm area. We arrived at the Great Geysir. Everyone popped out of the car and headed over to the Geysir but being very uncoordinated and having never mastered balance, I took baby steps over the icy grounds towards the Geysir. I freaked out when the winds picked up and I lost control as the wind pushed me along the ground. There was nothing around to hold onto to prevent falling. I have no idea how I didn’t fall over.

I wasn’t sure exactly what everyone was looking at as I was approx. 15 meters away from the Geysir, so I took out my phone to take a few photos and to call it a day. Luckily, it was at the moment the geyser spurted! Jackpot!

We checked into our accommodation that night at Gullfoss and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for everyone.

We were originally booked in for the next two nights in Höfn at the Hali Country Hotel. We were booked on a cave tour on November 25. Unfortunately, Iceland was getting hit with several snow storms and the roads to Höfn were closed. We spent that night re-planning the next couple of days to areas we were able to access instead.

Friday November 24

We headed out mid-morning and stopped at Gullfoss waterfall, an iconic waterfall. This waterfall was ginormous and was very tourism friendly. There is a café close by with a large car park. We stopped in for a bit of lunch.

I purchased a tree ornament from the gift store attached to the café. The tree ornament is of an Icelandic Yule Lad. Yule Lads (also known as Yuletide-lads, Yulemen) are supposed descendants of trolls that live in the mountains (Icelandic folklore). There are currently 13 of them and they are said to come down from the mountains 13 nights before Christmas to create mischief. I bought Gluggagægir, the “Window Peeper”, the 10th Yule Lad because he comes down on the 21st of December, Gambit’s birthday.

As described in the Yule Lads book:

The Peeper, as tradition has it, is a very shifty character. He loiters around windows, peeping in when nobody is about. He is always on the lookout for knick-knacks that he can pilfer later on when everybody is tucked up in bed, fast asleep. If a child catches him looking in, Gluggagægir has a reputation for pulling funny faces to make himself look scary. This Yule Lad believes that fair exchange is no robbery and, as he always leaves presents in shoes, he considers a little pilfering perfectly acceptable. You can be sure he often gets the blame for ANY small objects that go missing at this time of year.

We stopped at a farm that had a bunch of Icelandic horses hungry for treats which tourists could buy from a ‘honesty box’. These horses were the highlight of my trip. Icelandic horses are a unique breed of smallish horses that came to Iceland with the first settlers from Norway 1100 years ago. These horses are known for being sure-footed and able to cross rough terrain. What I love about them is their funky manes and pudgy bellies. Like a pot-belly horse.

Our accommodation for the night was at Klara’s Cottage, set on a working farm that has Icelandic horses, chickens, sheep – and my favourties, a cat and a dog.

Saturday November 25

I woke up early and headed down to the stables to find the cat and the dog to say goodbye. As I walked down and waited in the shed, calling out to them, I gave up after a minute or so and decided to leave. But when I took a step, a “meow” screamed up at me – the dog and cat had appeared out of nowhere and had been waiting for me at my feet.

What happened afterwards was so awesome. The three of us walked, in a line, in the snow, up to the cottage. It was as if we were in a movie or something. I would not have even known how to train them to walk like that.

I sat outside the cottage with a cup of hot tea, the cat jumped up and made itself comfortable on my lap, and the dog at my feet. The three of us just hung out together, in the freezing cold, and watched (more so, I watched) the sun creep up over the farm and I thought “what an amazing life”.

We headed back on the road and stopped at a few more waterfalls (I was waterfall-ed out by this time) and Kerid Crater Lake – a large crater lake frozen over.

We also stopped at another place that had a lake which I have no idea where it is since this was when we had to detour from the original plans.

We stayed at The White House that night. We had a room with a small balcony and as we hadn’t yet seen the Northern Lights, we knew we had little time left to catch a glimpse of them.

Fortunately, we were able to see them that night. Well, I was only able to see them after Gambit took photos of them on his camera using certain shutter speeds etc – otherwise it just looked like wispy clouds in the sky.

Sunday November 26

Another day, another waterfall. Iceland is extremely beautiful and even if it wasn’t winter and I had gone to yet another waterfall, I would have been tuckered out on waterfalls. We were to an area which had three waterfalls! The excitement was fairly over for me.

We stayed at Icelandair Vik hotel that night and had dinner at a close by restaurant.

Monday November 27

We drove from Vik to the airport and took one last stop to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. The nearby cliffs are set in jagged columns. At first look, it reminded me of something from Game of Thrones.

We watched the sun rise slowly over the water before popping back into our vehicle to the airport.

In summary

Overall, Iceland was wonderful. It is as beautiful as you see in the photos (not mine in particular but if you do a google search, those ones) and I actually really want to go back in the summertime to experience it in a different way where hiking paths would be open and the mountains would be lush and green.

If you are planning on going to Iceland, just note a few things:

  • Food is expensive but there are options around that if you are open to renting a place that has a kitchen or a kettle, and you can cook your own meals, even if it is 2-minute noodles for a night.
  • Not everyone speaks English but a majority do. I note this because I feel like I’ve been living in the States for too long and just expect everyone in the world to speak English! Just as I learnt in South America – they don’t. So best learn a couple of things like greetings and pleasantries, and that will make you a less ignorant tourist.
  • November, which isn’t even winter-winter, was bloody freezing. I was fortunate I went to UNIQLO the day before we flew out to grab a few of their cheap thermals. I doubled up thermal leggings and popped a thermal top under a windbreaker jacket under a winter coat most days.
  • Learn how to spot and take photos of the Northern Lights. They are spectacular and if it were not for Gambit’s photography skills, I would have missed out. My iPhone 6 would not have done the trick.

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