I’m taking a stab at penning a travel blog for the first time in like, four years.
It hasn’t been by any means four years since I’ve last traveled, but a weird combination of stress and laziness has kept me from writing about one of my favorite topics — escaping (a.k.a. travel. But I call it escape from the big, scary adult life).
Since 2013, the same year the Ben Stiller movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” came out, I’d been mentally planning an itinerary to Iceland. (It’s a great film, by the way. It’s one of those funny, but not too-funny movies).
In January of this year, a time-lapse clip of an aurora borealis posted on CNN’s Facebook page sealed the deal. I quickly rounded up three other females for a quick but eventful six days in the Nordic alpine (or arctic?) tundra.
Here’s a recap of where we went and how we went about our planning.
Prior to our trip, I researched numerous travel blogs to see how we could make the most of our time while still getting to visit the must-see’s. I also checked travel sites and various Icelandic tour sites quite religiously to see where we could get the most bang for our krona.
Flight: It was my first time flying with the relatively new airline, WOW Air. Popular for their staggeringly low flight deals from LAX, San Francisco, Boston, NY, etc. airports to Europe, we took advantage of their deals. Think of WOW as the non-American version of Spirit Airlines or Jet Blue (except I haven’t had a good experience with Spirit, but WOW was very painless–though I know some people have had issues with WOW in the past). You do have to pay for everything (carry-on or checked bags, in-flight food and entertainment, etc.), so consolidate everything you need into your personal bag and carry-on suitcase. And bring an audiobook for the loooong flight.
Season: Though it was springtime, it was much colder than any North American winter I’ve ever experienced. I generally wore triple layers up top and leggings under snow pants or jeans. It wasn’t really the time to be fashion forward; but I think I pull off the whole Patagonia-employee-on-vacation look better than what I actually wear every day in SoCal.
Timing: We took our trip in early April, towards the end of the Northern Lights season (and unfortunately, just a few weeks before the arctic puffins were supposed to return to the mainland). I would’ve loved to spend a month there, but you know, we’re all working lasses. Instead of taking a road trip around the whole island (which would’ve been amazing), we settled for the South Coast.
Wifi: Everywhere we went that had free wifi had excellent internet connectivity. Though three of us opted not to use international phone service, it helped that we had one person who had an unlimited phone plan. Super helpful for mapping out directions and scoping out the nearest restaurant/pit stop.
Budgeting: Everything in Iceland is more expensive, due to the fact that most things have to be imported. BYONP (Bring Your Own Non-Perishables). And for those who’ve been asking, I spent less than $1,200 on this trip, including flights. It helps a lot to split your car rental and Air BnBs with three other people and to not have a huge appetite.
Day 1: LAX to Keflavik International Airport & Blue Lagoon
After an 8ish-hour flight, we arrived in Keflavik at the beautiful hour of 4:30am. (Note: Keflavik is the island’s only international airport and is about a 45-minute drive to Reykjavik.). Since nothing opened until around 6am or 7am, we took our sweet time procuring our rental car (4/4 would recommend getting a 4 x 4) and then popping into a local bakery run by a nice Icelandic lady.
We were so jet-lagged!
By the way, everyone here is either an English-speaking Icelandic native, or a tourist, so language barrier was nonexistent for us (even though I could pronounce literally nothing). And everyone was super nice. Fun fact: the country’s jail only houses about 10 prisoners currently.
Just a 30-minute drive away from the airport is the Blue Lagoon. Though the entry fee was 90 USD (yikes), it was well worth the hours-long swim in the geothermal spa. I describe it to friends as a Jacuzzi the size of a pool, with a swim-up bar.
Pro tip: Don’t dip your hair in the water, unless you like having hard hair.
Day 2: Exploring Reykjavik: Hallgrimskirkja, downtown, Sun Voyager, Harpa Concert Hall, Northern Lights Tour
Our Reykjavik Air B&B was me-sized and minimalist. It had a kitchen, laundry facilities, Netflix (holla) and was a leisurely 5-minute walk from the giant Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja.
It’s a fairly modern church building built in 1945 and named after Icelandic poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson. If you go up to the third story in the bell tower, you can get awesome panoramic views of the city.
But I loved the main sanctuary. Whatever level of spirituality you’re at (if any), one can’t help but resonate with the below poem that was placed next to the candle-lighting station:
“Do not let the darkness prevent you from seeking the light! And when you have found it let other people see, rethink and be convinced. If you want the light to live then give rise to the same yearning in other people.
Light the light of frankness in the darkness of fear, light the light of justice in the darkness of corruption, light the light of faith in the darkness of denial, light the light of hope in the darkness of despair, light the light of love in the darkness of death. Light the Light!”
– Bo Setterlind
Downtown is an easy walk. We frequented a couple different coffee shops, including Reykjavik Roasters and Cafe Babalu (which had a Star Wars-themed bathroom for some reason…)
Here is the artsy Sun Voyager Sculpture built in homage to the vikings, the island’s first human inhabitants:
And here’s the Harpa Concert Hall. We didn’t see any concerts, but thought the architecture was neat.
Around 10pm, we trekked back to Hallgrimskirkja, where the tour bus for our Northern Lights Tour excursion was taking off. Although we tragically did not see any lights, it was a fun tour that I definitely do not regret doing. Honestly, the tour guide makes at least 50% of the experience. Ours was very knowledgeable and engaging, and fed us some Icelandic donuts (delish) and fermented shark bits (not so delish) while we hunted for lights.
We proceeded to look for the aurora borealis on our own throughout the week, but to no avail. The Northern Lights are fickle and wholly dependent on weather conditions.
Day 3: Golden Circle ~ Thingvellir, Gulfoss Falls, Geysir and Strokkur geysers, and Kerid Volcanic Crater
Given our limited schedule, we took the “Sparknotes version” of the Golden Circle self-drive tour. If you take this route, you can simply drive back to Reykjavik for the night.
The first stop, Thingvellir National Park, is the site of Iceland’s earliest Parliament meetings and a tectonic plate fissure. Apparently, it’s also a film spot for Game of Thrones. Not a GoT watcher, but that was a cool little surprise.
Gulfoss Falls translates to “Golden Falls.” It reminded me a lot of Niagra Falls and was one of my favorite waterfalls that we saw.
Geysir and Strokkur are two geysers located adjacent to each other. Geysir is inactive, but Strokkur sets off about every 10 minutes. The word “geyser” is actually Icelandic; everything that we refer to as geysers is because of the Geysir here.
Pro tip: It smells very sulfuric…because it is. Be forewarned!
Kerid Crater Lake looks down into a body of water (or ice, in our case) from a high-up perching spot.
We also got to meet some four-legged friends on the side of the road throughout our drive 🙂 Icelandic horses are the only type of breed allowed onto the island. And the ones we met were very sweet and docile.
Getting to know the locals.
Day 4: En route to the small town of Vik ~ Seljalandsfoss Falls, Skogafoss Falls, Dyrholaey Arch, Reynisfjara Columns, and Black Sand Beach
After checking out of our Air BnB in Reykjavik, we made our way to the tiny town of Vik (halfway point between Reykjavik and Jokulsarlon).
We stopped at a couple more waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, and battled the heaviest winds I’ve ever encountered to see Dyrholaey Arch.
Near our second BnB, we ventured to the Black Sand Beach, the location of the strangest rock columns that are nevertheless fun to climb.
Nature is our playground!
Day 5: Hof Turf Church & Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
En route to the east end of the lower half of the island, we stopped by Hof Turf Church, the last turf church in Iceland. It reminded me of a house of worship I imagine Hobbits might go to. If you’re like me and enjoy a quiet walk through old graveyards, there is a small cemetery next to the church.
Finally, we reached Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, which was totally something out of a National Geographic magazine. Apparently some other tourists thought so too, and took advantage of the gorgeous background and used it for a wedding photoshoot.
Pro tip: From Vik to Jokulsarlon and back, it is about six hours total. Plan your road trip snacks accordingly and don’t forget to gas up before you go!
Day 6: Horseback riding along the beach, and returning to Keflavik Airport
On our last day in Iceland, we decided to do something that wasn’t on the itinerary — horseback riding. Feeling somewhat bummed about not having spotted any Northern Lights or puffins, we were excited to see some of Iceland’s cutest residents again.
Of course when it comes to excursions that involve animals, it’s important to know that the business you’re dealing with is ethical and treats their animals with the utmost care. The horses housed at Vik Horse Adventure (about a 2 minute walk from our Air BnB) seemed very well cared for and happy (which is important to me…especially as a person who doesn’t like seeing animals used in circuses). I was pleased by our guide’s knowledge about the horses and the business’s plan to relocate to a larger property down the road.
The most disappointing parts of the trip have completely to do with two external factors: 1) not having had more vacation time to spend more days in Iceland and b) missing out on the aurora borealis (shortly after we returned home, we saw reports of Northern Light activity in the places we’d just been!). But what that means is I’ll definitely be back someday to play some more 😉
If any readers would like more trip details, my itinerary, or a suggested packing list, please let me know in the comments!