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Iceland in the Dead of Winter and the Dusk of Summer

Author: Juli Zall
Date of Trip: September 2011

The five-day stopover between Copenhagen and Toronto was the second time I had found myself in Iceland this year. The previous visit, three days in January, was the first, darkest and coldest trip I had even taken. The beauty of the island lies in the comparison between its two seasons: freezing and tolerable, dark and blinding, off-season and accessible. But the dramatic landscapes, natural wonders and thermal pools are impressive any time of year.

Winter veiled the island in darkness, but the little daylight that came was spectacular. In January daytime was twilight: a perpetual sunrise, followed by an equally long and beautiful sunset. The sun never rose very high, illuminating in rich and colourful strokes. On overcast days the grayness and damp chill felt heavy. There were plenty of warm cafes serving homemade treats to lift the spirit in the city. It was when my husband and I decided to drive out to explore the Golden Circle, (the ring road that covers the major sites in the vicinity of the capital, the Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss falls, etc.,) that we confronted a real Scandinavian cold. I wore just about everything in my suitcase and could still feel the wind gusting through me. I’m used to Canadian winters, but it was the desolate landscape of rock and ice that defeated me.

Late summer with all it’s shimmering light was by far the friendlier season. The sun rose early and so did we, giving us plenty of daylight to explore what the winter had shielded from us. With only a few days to spend on the road, we decided (on recommendation from local friends) to drive to the Westfjords, the least populated and probably least visited corner of Iceland. A topographic view of the area reveals what looks like a hand with too-many fingers stretching out towards the North Sea. Only each of the fingers is a range of mountains and the only way to get from one to the next is by driving (sometimes on long stretches of gravel road) all the way around.

Villages are few and far between, in fact, you can drive for an hour before passing a car going in the opposite direction. The mountain guardians and speed patrol in these areas are the domesticated producers of much-needed wool: sheep. They’re everywhere, outnumbering Icelanders 5:1. We covered 1300 km, 4 villages, 3 thermal soaks and countless waterfalls in three and half days and I’m willing to do it again during puffin mating season in late spring. Huge colonies settle on cliffs in the northeast areas of the fjords. This time we missed them.

Regardless of season, one of Iceland’s most attractive features is the abundance of thermal water, which not only powers the entire island, but also pampers locals and visitors alike in fountains of eternal youth. Municipal swimming pools are filled with it, it runs from hot water taps, and resort-like spas capitalize on its liquid value, with the Blue Lagoon offering the most famous soak in the country. However, there wasn’t a village seven buildings or less that didn’t have it’s own ‘spa’ nearby and this was the highlight of the thousand-mile drive. One of our most memorable stops was Djurpavik, a tiny town with seven structures and an oversize cement carcass of an old herring factory. The sleepy settlement is particularly photogenic: the old factory, a rusted abandoned ship in the harbour and a soaring albeit svelte waterfall overlooking the town are just a few of its unique features. The nearest thermal soak was a thirty-minute drive further north. It’s a tidy open-air municipal pool on the edge of the world, overlooking the Denmark Strait. This spa with a view is maintained but not staffed, just put a few hundred Kroner in the box.

Getting there: Iceland Air flies several routes between Eastern North America and Reykjavik, connecting to most major European cities. In the winter, due to the seasonality of the Toronto-Rejkjavik flight, I travelled from Boston. The rates are very competitive and free stopovers are the trick to getting a mini vacation en-route to Europe.

Renting a car: Most major car rental companies can be found on the island and are generally cheaper than home-grown competitors as you can find deals and book online. Many rental agencies offer hotel drop off and pick-up if you’re not renting at the airport. In summer we got a 4×4 from Hertz for $50/day, some local companies were charging up to $200 (ridiculous considering the competition).

A note about driving on the island: keep to the speed limit on major roads, even in remote areas. I got a $250 fine sent to my home address in Canada a month after returning. A speed camera captured the license plate of my rental and a less than flattering photo of me behind the wheel. Not sure what would happen if I didn’t pay it, but I’m not willing to take the chance as I plan to return to Island.

Accommodations: Reykjavik is a bargain in winter. We paid $60/night in a 4-star hotel in the centre (Center Hotel Thingholt). The same place was charging $200/night when we returned in the summer, so we opted to stay in Reykjavik 101 Apartments, $75/night (promo price found on through a flash sale) for a studio with kitchen, larger than the Thingholt.

In the Westfjords, with the exception of Isafjordur, the largest settlement of nearly 3,000, each village along the way has only one hotel and possibly a bed & breakfast or guesthouse. It’s only necessary to reserve in summer. Even in late August we were the only guests in most villages. However, it may be a good idea to call ahead to find out if a place is open to visitors at other times of year.

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