Winter Wonderland in Iceland

01/18/2017
Panda Berries

This past year we were fortunate enough to spend our Christmas in Iceland.  Calling our time in Iceland adventurous and exciting is an understatement!  We drove through thick snow covered roads, were stuck in a snowstorm, were toppled over by gale force winds, and dined in a restaurant with no electricity.  Days were short in Iceland during the winter months.  Sunrise was around 11:30am and sunset was around 3:30pm.  That left us with only 4 hours of daylight to explore the country.  All in all, it was the best time we’ve ever had on vacation.

Shorter days mean constant sunset glow

Our 6 day trip began in Reykjavik and we traveled counter clockwise on Route 1 (Ring Road), exploring only the southern region of Iceland.

Day 1 – Reykjavik

The first day in Iceland, we wanted to relax and enjoy our time in Reykjavik because we had a packed itinerary for the rest of the trip since time was against us.  We stopped off at a church that is tallest landmark in Reykjavik, the Hallgrímskirkja.

Hallgrímskirkja

From there we wandered down the streets to a small hot dog stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.  Iceland locals are known to eat an assortment of fish, lamb, Puffin penguins, whale meat and hot dogs.  Yes, hot dogs!

Having lunch at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur

Their hot dogs aren’t something Americans haven’t seen before but their toppings were a bit unique.  Each hot dog was topped with ketchup, brown mustard called pylsusinnep, raw onions and crispy fried onions.

After, we walked around the city, being the tourist that we are, visiting all the other landmarks until sundown.

Harpa – Concert Hall

Inside Harpa

Day 2 – Thingvellir National Park, Öxarárfoss, The Great Geysir (Strokkur), Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss

For our second day, we followed the Golden Circle. From Reykjavik, we set off in the morning on Route 36 toward Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park.

Walking between North American and Eurasian plates at Þingvellir National Park

The road on Route 36 was a bit difficult to drive during snowfall since they weren’t plowed, tread slowly.  The national park is quite big but you’ll want to look for Parking Lot 2 on Google Maps so that you could take a short walk up a hill to the Öxarárfoss waterfall and walk in between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Öxarárfoss

Continuing along the Golden Circle, we arrived at the Great Geysir (Strokkur).  The geyser is famous for its frequent eruptions that shoot up scalding hot water 60 feet into the air.

Strokkur geyser

Eruptions happen every 5-10 minutes but the anticipation of getting the camera ready for the picture seemed like an eternity. The geyser erupted twice within seconds of each other and it completely drenched several people.  Did I mention the smell?  The hot water in all of Iceland has a strong sulfuric smell.  They smelled like rotten eggs!

Our last stop of the Golden Circle was Gullfoss.

Overlooking Gulfoss

The massive volume of water coming from these waterfalls is unreal.   We came down Route 35 back toward Route 1 and went to Seljalandsfoss.  This is one of the only waterfalls where you could walk behind it, but it was very windy and icy that day so we thought it’d be too dangerous to do so.

Seljalandsfoss at dusk

It was getting dark, so we stopped off in Hella and rested for the night.

Day 3 – Skógafoss, DC3 Plane Wreckage, Black Sand Beach (Reynisfjara)

We continued along down the southern region of Iceland on the Ring Road.  We had an impromptu photo shoot at Skógafoss because it was so beautiful there.

Mini photo shoot at Skógafoss

Skógafoss from above

Next stop was the DC3 Plane Wreckage at Sólheimasandur Beach.  It is a 2.5 mile guided trail to the crash site.  The turnoff for the parking lot can be easily missed but enter the coordinates (63.4912391, -19.3632810) into Google Maps and you arrive to the entrance of the trail.  We followed the yellow cones down to the beach and found the wreckage.

DC3 Plane Wreckage of 1973

Inside the fuselage of the wreckage

The weather worsened while we were at the plane so we started walking back.  We were pummeled with hail and 40mph winds.  We had to cover our faces because the snow felt like tiny needles poking our skin.  Afterward, we drove to the Black Sand Beach but the wind was still so strong that we could not stand upright.

Black Sand Beach near Vík

At times, we were blown away and had to seek shelter behind some rocks just to wait for the wind to die down.

Seeking shelter in the monster’s cave at Black Sand Beach

We had reservations at a restaurant in Vík that night, but we noticed something peculiar upon arriving.  The whole city was dark!  Apparently the town was experiencing a blackout.  We were hungry and had nowhere else to go since it was Christmas Eve.  Admittedly, dining in the dark with only candles was a bit romantic.  But during dinner, our fun came to an abrupt halt.  The waitress told us that the road from Vík to our hotel was closed due to the weather.   We were stranded!  We stopped off at a gas station, and a local tour guide said they were turning around and would not recommend anyone heading east on Ring Road.  Luckily, we managed to book another hotel 15 minutes east of Vík.

Day 4 – Ice Cave Tour, Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón), Diamond Beach, Svartifoss

In the morning we were constantly checking road conditions and debating whether or not we should continue east toward the glacier lagoon.  We had a tour booked and did not want to lose out on $300.  We were fortunate enough to meet someone who was also stranded in Vik and booked the same tour as us.  We caravanned together on a journey that kept us at the edge of our seat every minute:  visibility was extremely poor, winds were fierce and roads were slippery.  Along the way we saw several cars stuck in a ditch or flipped over.

Outside the ice caves with 4×4 vehicles

We arrived unscathed and hopped into a modified off-road vehicle to the ice cave.  From November to March, ice cave tours can be booked via several companies.  Tourists are not allowed to go into the caves without a guide.

Inside the beautiful ice cave

On our way back we took pictures at the Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach and Svartifoss.

Lone piece of glacier at the Glacier Lagoon

Pieces of the glacier washed ashore

Svartifoss after a short hike

Day 5 and Day 6 – Return home and Blue Lagoon

On the 5th day we drove back toward Reykjavik near the Blue Lagoon.  We spent the night at a lovely guesthouse in Grindavík and went to the Blue Lagoon before catching our flight back home the following morning.  The absolute one thing to do in Iceland is go to the Blue Lagoon!  It is a natural geothermal spa with mineral-rich water that is supposed to make you look years younger.  Remember to pre-book weeks in advance because the time slots sell out fast.

Bathing in the Blue Lagoon

Bonus Picture: Catching the northern lights