February 2017 was the best time to see the lights for the next 10 years, so we made sure we made a special trip there to make the most of the opportunity! We visit Iceland, together with our friend Andrew MacLeod, to see the Northern Lights.
Iceland sits high in the Atlantic Ocean about halfway between the US and mainland Europe. Travelling to Iceland from either the US East Coast or Europe is fairly straightforward. There are plenty of flight options departing from the major airport hubs in the Northeast US and throughout Western Europe, and Iceland has a number of low-cost airlines that offer cheap flights to Rekjavik. Easyjet for example, flies direct to Rekjavik from my home of Basel in Switzerland. The flight from the US East Coast or Europe takes somewhere in the region of 3-4 hours.
Compared with getting a hold of the keys to your rental car once you reach Rekjavik, the actual trip to Iceland is a piece of cake. You can imagine that every visitor to Iceland arrives and wants to collect their campervan to head off on their vacation. We’ve visited Iceland three times – once during the summer and twice during winter – and without a doubt, collecting our hire car each time was the biggest ballache! Honestly, I have no tips for you here other than to be prepared, be patient and suck it up! I’ve tried both on-airport and off-airport hire companies as well as small local and large international hire companies. Nothing makes any difference. Anyway, once you have the keys to your hire car, your vacation can start in earnest.
The first thing that you should know about Iceland is that, even in the dead of winter, it’s not a cold as you‘d expect. That isn’t to say that it’s not cold – it is – but it’s a very cold day in Western Europe cold, rather than Ernest Shackleton kind of cold. The second thing you notice about Iceland is that it’s bloody expensive! We live in Switzerland, so we know expensive when we see it – and Iceland is at least on a par with Switzerland and Norway when it comes to the cost of things. Clearly thats a factor of everything needing to be shipped in from the US or Europe.
Anyway, regular readers of this blog will find it no surprise that we decided to stay at the Hilton in Rekjavik. The hotel is a bit out of town, but as we had a car, the 10 minutes to get into town wasn’t so much of an issue. If you are looking for more of a “downtown” location, then the Hilton is probably not the right choice for you. I find the “feel” of Iceland to be an interesting blend of Danish and American influences. You can follow your burger from the Chuck Norris Grill with roasted puffin and fermented shark at Þrír Frakkar. And you can top it all off with a hotdog from the Bæjarins Beztu hotdog stand made famous by Bill Clinton in 2004.
The Northern Lights:
There are a great many tours available to take you to see the northern lights. I specifically wanted a tour guide that specialized in photographing the northern lights. This turned out to be a great decision - even if I do say so myself! When you’re trying to photograph the northern lights, you need to find as dark a spot as possible, away from the lights of Reykjavik city. Our guide, Bragi from Arctic Shots, knew spots where there was no impact from the city lights and that also had some cool derelict buildings that we were able to use as additional points of interest in our photographs. Make sure you check out their website - the pictures alone are worth the visit!
Bragi picked us up from our hotel after dinner and we drove for approximately 45 minutes in a 4x4 with massive tyres for full-on snow. That day Reykjavik had experienced a record snowfall with 51cm (20in) falling in 24 hours! So, in the last 10 minutes of our drive we put those tyres to good use - but that ensured that we were far from any unwanted company and unwanted lights. One thing you need to prepare for is to be standing around for a few hours in -15C weather. We encounter -15C quite often skiing. But it is one thing to ski and keep warm in -15C, and yet another altogether to stand around in -15C for 2-3 hours. So be prepared and be warm.
You also need a tripod. Because of the super long shutter times, you need to have a very solid tripod to hold your camera absolutely still while the aperture allows the maximum light in over an extended time period. If you want to get any decent pictures of the lights, you will need to go equipped with a proper camera, tripod and the knowledge of how to use it all. That was the major benefit of going with a specialized tour guide, he was able to give us an enormous amount of help getting the camera settings right for the occasion. It wouldn’t be much fun to go through all this and end up with crappy photos.
After about three hours out in the cold, we packed up and headed for home. We arrived back at the Hilton around 11pm and crawled into bed.
Things to do around Rekjavik:
The Golden Circle is a tourist route that starts and ends in Reykjavik that can be covered comfortably in 3-4 hours – depending on how much time you spend in each stop along the way. The Golden Circle is a route between 3 natural attractions around Reykjavik: the Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area and the amazing Gullfoss waterfall. Instead of driving out to these locations and returning the same way, people usually keep driving in a clockwise fashion around Reykjavik in the form of a circle that's about 250km (155 miles).
Þingvellir National Park is a natural park that includes the remains of the first parliament in Europe? As well as the exposed tectonic plates of the North American and European continents. One can stand with literally one foot on the American plate and one foot on the European plate – this is extremely cool! For those daring enough, you can also make a dry suit scuba dive between the plates which our friend Andrew MacLeod managed to do in this video.
The Geysir geothermal area is a highly-active hot spring Area with boiling mud pits, exploding geysers and the lively Strokkur which spouts water 30 metres (100 ft) into the air every few minutes. The newly opened Geysir Center offers exhibits and informative presentations year round. The Geysir hot spring area is one of the most popular tourist stops in Iceland. The geothermal field is believed to have a surface area of approximately 3 km². Most of the springs are aligned along a 100m wide strip of land running in the same direction as the tectonic lines in the area, from south to southwest. The strip is 500m long and culminates near what once was the seat of the lords of Haukadalur. The area became active more than 1,000 years ago and comprises more than a dozen hot water blow holes.
The Gullfoss Waterfall is the largest waterfall in Europe. While it doesn’t compare to Iguazu, Niagra or Victoria falls, it still is a spectacular sight in either summer or winter.
Rekjavik actually has a ski resort - Bláfjöll ski resort. It’s highest peak is all of 500m, but it is a genuine ski resort. Unfortunately for us, on the day we visited, it was closed due to too much snow on account of a record snowfall overnight! It was a shame to schlep our ski gear all the way from Basel for nothing, but what can you do? Luckily, while we were futilely trying to go for a ski, our friend Andrew MacLeod was having much more success in his morning activity which was a dry suit scuba dive between the tectonic plates of Europe and North America (Click here for the video).
Places to Eat:
One wouldn’t normally associate Iceland with Steak, but a trip to the Hereford Steakhouse will quickly show that Iceland can surely put on a steak. Located in Laugarvegur 53b in the downtown area, this rustic setting serves local specialties such as puffin and fermented shark, along with tender sirloins and tenderloins.
If you fancy a burger, then a trip to the Chuck Norris Grill in Laugarvegur 30 will satisfy your cravings. This smallish burger joint is certainly not fancy, but its burgers will rival anything you can find back home.
Made famous by Bill Clinton in 2004, the Bæjarins Beztu Hotdog stand at Tryggvagata 1 in Reykjavík near the Radisson Blu gives you one of those iconic Instagram photo opportunities. The hot dogs themselves are somewhat underwhelming and expensive, but it is one of those things that you simply have to do when you visit Reykjavik.
Being the middle of the north Atlantic, you would expect seafood to be high on the menu. And if you fancy a fish dinner, The Lobster House is the place to go. Set in a rustic old house in the heart of Reykjavik, the fish house offers all sorts of local and imported fish dishes to suit everyone’s taste. The Lobsterhouse was built in 1838 and is located at Bernhöftstorfa, downtown Reykjavík. Stephen Gunnlaugsson, the head of state, built the house. Through the years it has hosted famous Icelandic poets like Hannes Hafsteinn and Stefán Thorarensen. It is certainly not cheap, but if you’re after a memorable meal in an iconic setting, this is the place.
The Blue Lagoon:
The Blue Lagoon is fantastic in both the summer and the winter. But, in the winter it’s better. It is situated about ¾ of the way out to the airport from Rekjavik, so it is something that a lot of folks do before catching their flights home. You need to book online before you arrive, so make sure you do this well in advance. There are a number of packages you can select, and my tip to avoid the queues is to take one of the more expensive packages that get in you through the fast track lane. Waiting in queues is not my thing. They give you a robe, a towel and a pair of flip flops. You head into the changing room, take a full shower with soap and then get into your bathing suit. Wrapping your robe around you, you shuffle outside in your flip flops and find a peg to hang your robe. Then you enter the steaming water. It’s thermal water heated to a constant 38C. And it’s BLUE! In the winter it’s steamy like Martin Sheen rising from the misty river in Apocalypse Now! kind of steamy.
As you start to explore the huge volcanic pool, you’ll find a bar on the right hand side, and to the left is the mud station. Here you can cover your face in various volcanic muds which, without any shadow of a doubt, will cure all known skin blemishes, spots and pimples. So, drink in hand, face covered in mud, you float around in the steamy blue water with snow falling on your head. What is not to like about that? I really can’t recommend the Blue Lagoon enough. The last time we visited they were well underway to complete a 5 star wellness resort actually at the Blue Lagoon complex. I would imagine that that is well completed and up and running by now. In my opinion, this would be a very jolly way to spend a day or two in Iceland.
Anyway, Iceland – a geographic land of wonder a short hop from both the US and Europe. Iceland Air also offers some great deals between the US and Europe which include a 24 hour stop over in Rekjavik. That’s a real winner in my book, so keep your eyes out for those.
Lynn and Andrew Mitchell are 50-something travelers who enjoy travelling in comfort through some pretty interesting places. We started Einhorn Travel Accessories because of our passion for travelling the world, seeing amazing things and enjoying unique experiences together. We believe our extensive travel gives us a unique perspective, and we understand how important it is to have the right gear. We source travel accessories from around the world and offer them on one site. We would really appreciate you visiting our store and making a purchase or two.
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