I organised a surprise birthday trip for my girlfriend, without her knowing the destination. She knew I was taking her on a trip lasting a few days and what kind of clothes she needed to bring but apart from that she knew nothing. I did some research before hand and had a fairly solid itinerary planned as we only had a few days, normally we like to travel without too much of a game plan but for a trip like this I think it made sense.
From the airport we were picked up by the shuttle service from the Blue Lagoon Spa. They whisked us off to the spa, with our faces pressed against the glass taking in the stark surroundings. If you search for things to do in Iceland, hitting up the Blue Lagoon is at the top of the list for a good reason.
Our flight was only three and a half hours but what better way to wind down after a day of travelling. We spent longer than expected in the warm water, enjoying silica mud masks and our first taste of Icelandic beer. We jumped on the shuttle that would take us to our AirBnB in downtown Reykjavik and settled into our home for the next few nights, excitedly discussing what we wanted to see over the following few days. Then Sleep.
Exploring the City that doesn’t feel like a city
I’ve never been anywhere quite like Reykjavik. Ok that’s not exactly true. Ushuaia, the most southern point in Argentina feels similar. Colorful buildings with a strong tourism presence. When you look down the roads from some hilly vantage point you can see the dark coastline and beyond that, snowey peaks. The grey clouds and a touch of cold in the air gives a feeling that bad weather could arrive at any moment.
Now take all off that and mix it with a rural town in Sweden or Finland. Then make it a bit bigger, but not much bigger. That’s Reykjavik.
And Reykjavik is awesome.
Our first full day saw us taking in all of the above mingled in with a sampling of some local food, think lamb, smoked ham, fish and Skyr.
Not seeing the Northern Lights
If you come to Iceland at the right time of year it’s highly likely that you’ll see the northern lights. We unfortunately did not.
I had booked us onto a Northern Lights tour to maximise our chances of seeing the Aurora. They picked us up from a hotel nearby our Airbnb and along with tourists from all over the world we drove an hour and and a half outside the city. It quickly became obvious that there were at least 10 other coaches all heading to the same spot, at the same time. We even stopped for a 45 minute break at a gas station, swamped by people buying late night snacks for the bus. I felt like a cow being herded from one place to another, Certainly not a tranquil experience. Once back on the bus I checked and rechecked my camera settings while all two hundred of us tourists made our way to the “spot”. Unfortunately we were out of luck, too much cloud and no aurora activity. The huge crowds of people were too much for me, I had to walk away from all the people talking loudly. We were in the middle of nowhere Iceland trying to spot the Northern Lights and they were huddled in groups talking about football.
With this all being said if we’d have experienced the Aurora in all it’s glory I would have probably forgotten all about it. The great thing about the tour is that if you don’t see the lights your ticket is valid for up to two years, unfortunately we had a pretty busy schedule and didn’t have time.
Vesturbæjarlaug Geothermal Pool
We me up with some Finnish friends that have been living in Reykjavik for a little while, it was super interesting to get there perspective on the Icelandic way of life and pick their brains about what to see and do. Upon their recommendation we decided go visit another geothermal bath, albeit a very different one. The short walk west to Vesturbæjarlaug got us away from anything remotely touristy and through residential areas. The pools here are completely different style, think local swimming hall rather than spa.
The best thing about it was that fact there were hardly any other tourists and it was really quiet. Icelanders often visit the pools to relax after a day of work and chat with friends, very similar to the Finnish Sauna culture. We spent an hour or so moving between the steam room, hot pools and I even braved the ice bath a few times. Refreshing.
Pie on the Road – Time to get out of the City
So after picking up our rental car the next day we would he’d east on Icelands main ring road that circles the entire island. From the modern vibrant city of Reykjavik we headed into the surrounding suburbs and before long had white mountains and open expanses in all directions.
Our first port of call were the two fishing villages of Eyarbakki and Stokkseyri, we went in search of charismatic fisherman to photograph and the tasty fare they may have brought ashore. Instead we found two villages with very little signs of life. We did find ponies though. Or strictly speaking Icelandic Horses. We made friends with them.
I knew Iceland had waterfalls but not one every couple of kilometers. Sometimes not overly researching a country and what it has to offer really enables you to have a sense of discovery when you arrive. How much of an adventure is it if you know when and what you’re going to see at every point along the way?
But yeah waterfalls. Lots of them. Epic ones.
We spent almost an hour exploring the different falls at Seljalandsfoss. We got wet, then we got cold, then we got in the car.
With the heaters cranked we continued east, the ocean to our right and the jagged mountains to our left. I’m still so surprised with how much variation in the landscape we saw even though we only saw relatively little of the country. Having a rental car gave us infinite flexibility to stop as often as we wanted to take photos. I think the journey is really what made the trip so special, the sights were great but I enjoyed just passing through some of the scenery and going round the bend only to have another wow moment.
A taster of Icelands brutal weather
Just as we stopped for lunch the winds started whipping, moving around the rental car and flinging sand and gravel at us. As we stepped out the car the wind caught the door and flung it open, I thought it was going to fly off the hinges. Our waitress at lunch told us to “finish your lunch and head straight to your hotel, it’s only going to worse”. She also mentioned that sometimes car windows have shattered from the wind hurling rocks. With warnings like that from a local we didn’t hang around. We made the drive to Vik in about an hour, the winds getting fiercer and fiercer and the knuckles whiter on the wheel. Then the rain started.
The 20 second sprint from the car to the door of our guesthouse was enough to get us wet and cold and happy to have a warm shower and thick blankets. We only braved the storm once to grab a bite to eat before returning for an early night.
We fell asleep with the wind and rain loudly pounding on the windowpanes but I awoke at 3am with a strange confused feeling. There was no more sound, I looked out the window and there was no more wind, no more rain. Just clear, starry skies and the waves breaking on the black sand in the distance. Tomorrow was going to be a good day.
The Sun Comes Out
After a great breakfast laid out by our welcoming hosts at the Carina Guesthouse, we drove up to the church in Vik that overlooks the small town before backtracking on route one to visit the famous black sand beach of Reynisdrangar. My middle of the night predictions were correct, today was a good day. We had bright sunshine for the majority of the day, enabling us to really appreciate the beauty surrounding us.
Although the beach was very busy with tourists taking photos of the rock formations and crazy patterns in the seaside cliffs, it was well worth the stop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a dramatically beautiful beach. The sound of the waves hitting the black sand whilst we explored the beach really made me think how tough the first settlers must have been to create a life for themselves in this dramatic landscape.
Our hosts from the hostel had recommend that we keep heading east on the ring road to the Glacier Lagoon of Jökulsárlón. It would mean a two and half hour drive there and then a five hour drive from there all the way back to Reykjavik but our host whole heartedly assured us it would be worth it. They weren’t wrong.
Icebergs on a black sand beach and the long drive back
So I’ve been lucky enough to see glaciers in Southern Argentina and have even spent some time in Antartica (I Should probably write a post about that trip). What I’ve never seen though is huge pieces of ice that have broken free from a glacier, floated down the lagoon and then settled on a black sand beach with the ocean crashing all around them. That’s a site I’ve only seen at Jökulsárlón and one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. If you’re spending some time around Reykjavik I highly recommend making the trip out there to witness it.
After an hour or so observing the huge pieces of ice moving backwards and forwards and taking photos we had to start making our way back to Reykjavik as we had to return the car and had a super early flight the next morning. The drive was long but didn’t feel it as we took turns driving while the other one stared out the window. Our evening in Reykjavik was spent eating and having a few beers with our Finnish friends before catching a few hours sleep and waking up at 3:30 am to catch our return flight.
Iceland really lived up to everything I wanted it to be and I only wish we had more time. I could easily spend a few weeks driving around the entire island, visiting the various thermal pools and making friends with fisherman. I also now have grand plans to hike all the way across the country, to really see the country, smell the moss and be battered by the wind. I just need to find some friends to do it with, I don’t think that will be too hard though.
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