Flying into Iceland during the Winter is just how I imagine landing on the moon must feel. A powder white covered landscape with craggy cliffs and cobalt beaches with a single snaking black ring-road around the edge carrying a few cars. We were heading to Iceland for the first time and from the plane journey alone, I knew I would return.
On arriving at the airport you are immediately reminded that you are in the Nordics, its chic, efficient and cool. It is also EXPENSIVE. But don't let this put you off. There are so many ways to experience Iceland without breaking the bank.
If you are looking for somewhere to clear your head, get away from everyone and experience other-worldly landscapes brimming with volcanos, lakes, natural thermal pools and lots of cosiness then Iceland is the place to escape to.
Here are my tips for making the most of this incredible country during the Winter. Standby, this is a lengthy one!
WHERE TO STAY
I am a planning freak. There I said it. I make itineraries in spreadsheets with colour coding, I research everything meticulously and read every article there is to read about my chosen destination. I wanted to do this trip a little differently. If you have a short time I would always recommend doing some planning before you go, especially in Iceland as there is a huge amount of ground to cover, however we had five days so could afford to take things at a slower pace so we felt Airbnb would be our best option. We decided to stay in Reykjavik for one night so we could experience the city atmosphere and check out the shops however we really wanted to spend the majority of our time out in the wild. After much searching (there are some INCREDIBLE Airbnb options in Iceland) we landed on a small cabin in a gated area just next to a stunning lake called Þingvallavatn (I still have no idea how to pronounce this!). Far enough away from the city to feel secluded but not too far so that we felt isolated. Driving up the pine lined pathway we felt like we had entered a winter wonderland.
The cabin was small and perfectly formed with, bonus, a naturally heated hot tub! This was such a treat after a long day of intrepid adventure, it required expert maneuvering, warm cabin, in bikini and robe, dash outside in the snow, throw off robe, jump in hot tub. But looking up at the stars in the forest was so cool. I cant lie, when we got inside the cabin we all did a victory dance. If you want to experience the real Iceland, I cant recommend this enough. We relished in having a big dining table to enjoy family meals and loved settling in with the big fluffy blankets and some red wine while waiting for the magical light show to begin. When choosing your cabin try and make sure you are off the beaten track to avoid the light pollution and if you can find one with a deck, it makes for an amazing platform to see the Northern lights.
Not only is Iceland one of the most thrilling places to drive (no cars, great roads and epic landscapes), it is also the most effective way to get around and allows you to avoid the majority of the organised tours and tourist traps. We hired our car from the airport with Budget car and went for a 4x4, which although expensive, was a total god send. The snow and ice can be a little intimidating at first but Icelanders are more than familiar with heavy snowfall and the ring road is almost always cleared during the winter; however there are patches of ice and if you really want to explore then getting off road is a must and this requires a bigger car. Bring lots of atmospheric music with you, we went from Alt-J to Enya to the Frozen soundtrack!
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
After speaking with friends that stayed in Reykjavik and joined tours for the Northern Lights, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by their experiences. Many companies will pick you up from your hotel during the night if there is a good forecast and take you out of the city in a coach. Some friends of ours waited on the coach for three hours in a car park and didn't see anything. Because sightings are so weather dependant we decided that we didn't want to base our trip around seeing the lights but tried to give ourselves the best chance of seeing them just in case. By staying outside of the city you can see the lights from the comfort of your sofa without having to pay hefty tour fees and you have them all to yourselves instead of with lots of tourists. It requires a dedicated night watch but tracking the forecast is so much fun and it is much nicer to be able to go in and out of the cabin with a blanket and snacks than sitting on a bus!
We were incredibly lucky and managed to see the lights on our first night in the cabin. It was genuinely one of the most unbelievable experiences of our lives. Standing on the deck in absolute silence with the eery, green lights dancing around you is both trippy and spectacular and all the more special for being in your own exclusive bolthole in the woods.
I cant recommend taking a good SLR camera enough. It is almost impossible to capture the lights on your phone and it requires a lot of practice to get the camera settings right. We used the Nikon D700. If you don't have one, I would suggest hiring one, Jessops have a great hire service in the UK. We didn't see the lights for the rest of the trip so it really does pay to stay up all night when the forecast is good. The most accurate forecasts for the lights are available here
EATING AND SHOPPING
There is some brilliant shopping to be had in Reykjavik. Especially if you are obsessed with Scandi homeware as much as I am. Hrim was one of my favourites, I had to be dragged out of the shop kicking and screaming before racking up a hefty shipping bill. The coolest road for shopping is Laugavegur, Vogue have done a great round up of the best places to take in here.
We were on a budget when visiting Iceland so decided early on that we would stay in self catering accommodation, however, we knew that Reykavic had a booming food scene so we wanted to sample at least one fancy meal. After our Whale watching tour in Reykavik we came across Kopar, a low key harbour side restaurant with truly delicious and stylish Icelandic food. We all had fresh fish and wine and although not cheap it was totally worth it. If you are looking for something cheap and cheerful we also sampled some AMAZING fries at Reykavik chips.
Now I know its odd to recommend a supermarket but Bonus is really fun to visit, we did a big shop here for the rest of the week and although very expensive, it was so much cheaper than eating out. A top tip I read in another blog was to bring your own wine and I would highly recommend this. Buying alcohol in Iceland is eye wateringly expensive.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Iceland is mind blowing. In any other country you would come across a smattering of what Iceland has to offer, once you start researching the possibilities it can be quite overwhelming so my advice would be to accept that you cant see everything and break your trip into sections, depending on how long you have. We broke our trip into four. Reykjavik, The Golden Circle, The South coast and The North West. At a stretch we were able to drive to them all from our cabin and really felt like we experienced a wealth of what there was to see. Here are a few of my personal highlights.
The Golden Circle
The Golden circle can be very touristy however it is busy for a reason. the route covers some of the best natural wonders in Iceland and includes the mighty Gullfoss waterfall. It really is epic and still so unspoilt. seeing the ice formations and hearing the bellowing water was spectacular.
A Rainbow and a waterfall. Need I go on. Just make sure you go here!
Driving down south to Vik was pretty special. There are so many things to see along the way including Skogafoss above but the black sands are something else. Game of Thrones was filmed here along with a few other places we visited and you can see why. There are stalagmites inside the caves and etherial rock formations towering out of the sea. It was also teaming with wildlife when we visited we saw a lot of birds and seals.
Snaefellsjokull National Park
This drive is not for the faint hearted. It was around a seven hour round trip, but if you really want to experience the true isolation of Iceland then I would recommend this detour. As you leave Reykjavik to the north, the cars on the road become less and less frequent until eventually you are the only car for miles. It is liberating and challenging at the same time. At one point we passed over the mountain range which winded up through the low clouds, the anxiety kicked in at the top when we could no longer see the road immediately in front of us, but we felt like we were discovering uncharted territory and when we eventually reached the coast on the other side we felt like we had reached the end of the earth.
Driving further along the coast road you eventually come to Kirkjuffell, a striking mountain that featured in last weeks Game of Thrones episode. Travelling back in land you reach jagged lava fields and if like us you are driving in snow, it is easy to get lost between the sky and the snow around you.
WHAT TO WEAR
We visited Iceland in early March, and despite my fear of the cold, it was actually much milder than we expected however there are some key things that I would highly recommend taking with you. Walking boots or waterproof boots will serve you well, a good lightweight down jacket and a larger snow proof jacket. A fleece lined hat, waterproof gloves and trousers and some good quality thermals.