Date of Trip: December 2015
WOW – Why am I going to Iceland in the winter when I hate cold weather and snow??? It seems that this “cool” land of fire and ice has become a “hot” destination and now gets about one million visitors a year. Despite it’s name, Iceland has more lava field surface than glacier ice. The natives actually spell it Island. Located at the junction of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, it is closer to Europe than North America, but it’s closest neighbor is Greenland, which despite it’s name is much colder than Iceland. Reykjavik is the most northern capital in the world, yet winter temperatures here are milder than many US & European cities. Besides, it has the world’s largest geothermal heating system so lots of pools, lagoons and hot springs for soaking in the warmth. So I thought I’d go and have a look.
WOW Airlines has low cost flights from Boston to Iceland and as a budget traveler I snagged a good fare booking months in advance. After a 5 hour flight and a 5 hour time difference I arrived at 4:30am at Keflavik Int’l Airport which was built by the US as a military base during WW II. Although I did use the ATM to get a small amount of Krona, it really was not necessary as credit cards are used for everything and no tipping is necessary anywhere. The Airport Express shuttle guarantees departures 30-40 minutes after each scheduled flight arrival and it was a 45 minute drive to the Loft Hostel in downtown Reykjavik 50 km (31 miles) away. It cost 1900 ISK or $15 US. (One Icelandic Krona = .75c US).
My driver said the Northern Lights put on a brief show about midnight, but we see nothing more of them on the way. It is a clear 2 degrees C or 35 F. Sunrise will not be happening until about 11am. Because of my early arrival my hostel room is not yet available so I hung out in the lounge area and had breakfast for 1550 ISK ($12). The Loft is part of Hostel Int’l of which I am a member so I got a rate of 20,761 ISK which is $159.61 US for 6 nights or $26.58 US per night in a 6 bed room with an en-suite bath. Not bad for my budget.
WOW – Reykjavik looks like a festive Christmas card with thousand of white fairy lights everywhere and snow covered rooftops. Some stretches of the sidewalks seemed to benefit from the geothermal heat under them but there were patches of quite slippery packed snow that had not previously been cleared. I felt I had to be quite cautious.
Then a light snow started falling and it truly became a winter wonderland. This means no Northern Lights tonight as it needs to be very clear with no cloud cover.
The following day the snow became heavier and wetter and the sidewalks are slushy and even more slippery. It was difficult to walk anywhere and I got so wet just ducking in and out of shops and bars. Travel advisories were posted for a blizzard.
The hostel room had hooks above the radiators for drying outerwear. They also put out a big electric pot of meatsoup with crusty bread midday and the Happy Hour beers were 600 ISK ($4.50) whereas in most bars it was over $8 for a pint of Gull or Viking beer, both of which were very good. Interestingly beer was banned here until 1989 and Beer Day is celebrated on March 1st, the day it became legalized. And in 1966 when the government ran the only TV station, nothing was aired on Thursdays to encourage residents to get out and socialize and also nothing was aired for the entire month of July. This went on until the mid 1980’s.
Sun deprivation was already becoming a problem for me after just 2 days and I was finding it to be dim and dreary so I crawled under the covers and read until 2am.
Because the main roads were plowed overnight I was able to get on a day trip van at 10:30am to do the popular Golden Circle Tour, a 300 km (186 mile) loop. We had a good driver who knew how to get unstuck in the city’s still unplowed streets and we headed out to Thingvellir Nat’l Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the way we saw herds of Icelandic horses pawing in the snow. The sun had just risen above the horizon as we arrived at the lake and it gave off a soft dusky glow on the snowy landscape. There is a big rift in the ground’s surface where the European and North American tectonic plates are pulling apart at the rate of 2.5 c or 1” per year. Next we stopped at the geysers and there was one spouting off every 5 minutes or so shooting up 20m (65 ft). Here dough is put into wooden casks underground and using the thermal heat, the bread is baked overnight. We had the traditional Icelandic meatsoup with lamb and vegetables and the bread and as many refills as one wanted.
Fortified by this warmth, we walked to Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall. As impressive as it was, it was too cold to hang around very long as it is now past sunset at 3:30pm and light snow is again falling. I am glad we added on to our tour the Secret Lagoon, one of Iceland’s oldest natural geothermal pools surrounded by hot springs.
A thing to know about going into any of these pools is that you must get naked in front of strangers. It is an absolute mandatory hygienic and etiquette rule to shower with soap naked before donning your swimsuit as the hot springs, pools and lagoons are not treated with germ killing chemicals so cleanliness is a real factor.
Altho my hair is being covered by snow, it felt so great to be soaking in the warm water. I had on several layers of clothes all day, but I only put one layer back on and following up with a glass of wine, I felt warm all the way back. We spotted some stars but quickly the clouds took over so again no Northern Lights were seen that night. But it was a very long enjoyable day trip.
The following 2 days it was still snowing on and off and the streets and sidewalks of the city were still in a mess. I needed to entertain myself so I trudged thru the snow to the closest of the city’s 7 pools and enjoyed the outside jacuzzi and the steam room. The warmth stayed with me as I browsed through a couple of Art Galleries on the way back. My favorite bar was Lebowski’s where I drank White Russians while watching the 1998 American cult film “The Big Lebowski” on the big screen. The bowling alley theme was a hoot and everyone was enjoying hanging out there even in the middle of the day.
My hostel roomies were from Singapore, China and Australia and were one semester students in Dublin, London, Belgium and Paris. It was so interesting to hear about their experiences as they went snowmobiling, horseback riding and even diving and snorkeling. But these kind of excursions didn’t interest me and they are expensive so I focused on getting the best experience for my money and that meant having to just soak up the culture.
I learned of the tradition here of the Shoe in the Window. For 13 nights leading up to Christmas, Icelandic children put one of their shoes in the window hoping that each night one of the Yule Lads (Elves) will leave a small gift, but they must be well behaved or risk finding a potato in their shoe. Altho English is spoken here, all the signs and packaging in the supermarkets are in the Icelandic language consisting of so many letters. For example, the Hallgrimskikja Church is the best landmark in the city with it’s beautiful architecture and high basalt tower. We all heard about Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, the volcano that erupted causing major disruptions in air travel in Europe. Sykkulaoibitakokur is a chocolate chip cookie and most of the street names were just about as long. Sryntinger means toilets. Prior to their independence Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark so they have a Scandinavian Viking heritage. There’s a fine statue of Leif Erikson who was the first European to land in America in 1000AD, about 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Besides eating the wonderful meatsoup and fish I also experienced eating puffin, yep, that cute native bird is on their menu as they have about 10 million of them. The presentation of this was amazing as it is cured and served with liqourice/cherries and blue cheese sauce topped with beetroot. Also had MInke Whale as it is not an endangered species and it is a red meat like beef and does not taste fishy at all. Both of these were just tapas style and not full meals. Restaurant food is expensive though so I had their fast food Pylsa which is an Icelandic hot dog selling for about $2. They brag how Bill Clinton ate Pylsa while he was here. I also went to the supermarket and bought Skyr (skeer) which is a high protein dairy product resembling yogurt but not yogurt. It’s rich and creamy and they use it in desserts but it’s very low fat. I bought Svidasultra which is a jellied sheep’s head that is spread on bread and Hardfiskur, a dried cod fish jerky.
On my last full day here I finally decided to go to the most visited attraction, the Blue Lagoon. For $30 a Reykjavik Excursions van picked me up at the hostel and after collecting a group of us we went to get on a bigger bus to go 39km (24 mi) out of the city. This spa is located in a giant lava field and the nearby power plant pumps geothermal water from way below the surface to generate electricity and then the water is fed into this man made lagoon. Along the way out of the ground, the water picks up minerals and the silica is what gives it it’s silky feel and milky blue color. It is a soothing 38 degrees C or 100 degrees F.
Upon entering one gets a watch type device to wave to gain entrance, open and close lockers, to order beers or wine which are allowed in the lagoon or to get food in the restaurant. Then when the watch is turned back in, it has calculated what is owed. Admission is a pricey $40 and lockers are included in that but drinks and food are pricey here too.
I was there for about 4 hours as the buses run regularly back to the city or on to the airport. It was very nice in the water and much socializing is done. But then there are those who had to have their annoying selfie sticks out in the pool even as I guess if they don’t have a picture they weren’t there???? All the inside areas are very crowded as were the buses.
Also that day a ferocious wind picked up and the temperature fell to -25 C (-13 F) and roads are closed due to slippery conditions. So once again, nature has ruled out any chances for Northern Lights.
My last day and I am picked up at the hostel for my transfer back to the airport at 11:30am. The sun is up and shining more brightly than any other day I was there as it is so cold yet clear. And it was setting just as brightly at 3:30pm as I boarded my flight.
With a population of 329,000 in 40,000 sq miles, Iceland is the the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Despite the meltdown of 2008 when Iceland’s economy collapsed, it is a wealthy country per capita and has a high quality of life with poverty almost non-existent. It is a safe and peaceful country with no armed forces, it has clean pure water, renewable energy provides electricity, hot water and heat, it has a healthy lifestyle with one of the world’s longest life expediencies, has free health care, free education and is extremely well read.
WOW – This trip was out of my comfort zone and the slippery conditions and lack of sunlight were big issues for me. I was very disappointed that the weather conditions prevented seeing the Northern Lights even with a whole weeks time, but I knew going in there were no guarantees except the long winter darkness just offered the best possible chance. So I had to just put my mind to the fact that although I couldn’t even enjoy walking around the city as I had hoped to do, I was in a foreign country and that is always fascinating no matter what the weather. Things don’t have to be perfect to be special.
A quote from the Dalai Lama: Once a year go someplace you’ve never been before. Just don’t forget your swimsuit! And if you are there in the winter – bring a good book.