A self driven tour, hot springs, waterfalls, and fireworks.
Day 1 & 2 - Jet Lag and Roundabouts
This trip began with me simply doing a Google search for "Best Places to Spend New Years". After seeing Iceland and Reykjavik on every list I purchased my round trip ticket....in May. I figured I would have plenty of time to plan what exactly I would do later, just needed to motivate myself to commit to this trip. Once the travel day arrived, me and a Friend left Saint Louis on a 6 hour direct flight to Reykjavik. Day one in Iceland was the first time I can honestly say I've experienced jetlag. I've taken red eye's within the US, but this was on another level...and partially (mostly) my fault. After a sleepless flight and the time change, we set off at 4am to drive north.
Knowing we would have only 3-4 hours of sunlight per day, we didn't want to squander any of that time and knew once we landed at 4am we would need to begin driving if we wanted to see our first stop - Kirkjufell Mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss. Any avid Game of Thrones fans may recognize this place...I would like to point out we did go before the final season so we were a lot more hyped then than we would be going now. One thing I did not expect was the number of multi-lane roundabouts along the path. It's a good thing I was learning early in the morning with no traffic because it took me a few to understand how the lanes and turnoffs worked (I will admit the first time I got to one with other cars it felt like I was back taking my Driver's Ed Test). After a couple of hours driving, we had to pull over and take an hour power nap - the no sleep was finally setting in - but after that it was an easy drive at sunrise to our destination.
After snapping some pictures, and a quick lunch in nearby Grundarfjörður, we pulled off the road to admire the mountains and scenery of the area. After a break from driving, we set back off to Reykjavik for the night. We checked into our Hostel then decided to walk around the city and try to get some dinner (even though I had absolutely no appetite). We were both beat from the flight and day of driving, we called it a night somewhat early to rest up for Day 2.
The one food I think my stomach could handle - French Fries with a huge variety of flavors to choose from.
While walking around the city, stumbled on some unique street art.
Day 3 - Snorkeling Between Continents
This title is a little bit misleading. We didn't actually snorkel between continents, but snorkeled between two tectonic plates - the North American and Eurasian plates. Before sunrise, we left our Hostel to head to þingvellir National Park and the moment we stepped outside I began to question my life decisions leading me here. It was snowing, I knew the water was going to be cold, and the temperature was currently freezing. We braved nature however and after a while we arrived to the park at sunrise to meet with our guide.
We changed into our wetsuits to help insulate against the water and took a short walk across a fresh blanket of snow and I'll admit, I wasn't as cold as I anticipated. After saturating our goggles with spit to fight against fogging up, and taking a sip of the cleanest water I've drank, we began our swim. Of course, I didn't want to rush my way through this and probably annoyingly went slower than our guide wanted. The water was clear and a slow current helped carry us through the fissure towards the exit point. Overall, the experience lasted 30-45 minutes and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area who's not afraid of a little swimming.
Once we got out of the water we changed into our dry clothes and enjoyed some hot chocolate before driving back to the city. After a short break and grabbing our trunks, we set off back the same route we'd driven once already today to head to the Fontana Hot Springs. It rained for the duration of the drive, but luckily once we arrived that cleared up allowing full relaxation. After changing into swim suits, we eagerly headed into the warm water. With steam rolling off each pool into the cold air and not many people currently bathing, I could have easily taken a nap. After an acceptable amount of time being submerged, we migrated into the saunas to begin cooling down and drying off. Once back into our regular clothes we grabbed our dinner at the buffet which would be the first full meal I've had since landing, then set off back to Reykjavik. A little more time spent at a nearby pub, and it was time to call it a night.
Me lighting fireworks dangerously close to other fireworks
Day 4 - Golden Circle and Fire(works)
Today started about how most people would expect knowing how I spend my weekends - screwed up the alarm and woke up two hours after we had hoped to already be driving. We had a full day packed of sights in our short window of sun and had hoped we'd be at stop #1 at sunrise to optimize our time. We hustled to get into our winter clothes because, believe it or not, the temperature was below freezing. For most of the morning I would have to warm my hands in my pockets, take a few pictures, and shove them back into my pockets before they got too stiff.
Walkway to reach Öxarárfoss, lots of slick spots!
Stop #1 took us to Öxarárfoss at the edge of þingvellir. The spot to park wasn't obvious to us so we missed it the first time and had to back track a bit. Once out of the car we had to brave the strong winds, cold temperatures, and a path seemingly covered in a sheet of ice to reach the waterfall. I only fell a handful of times (or more) and each time had to take the bruises to protect my camera.
The next stop on this circle is technically Bruarfoss, but we could not visit it on this trip. The path to this waterfall goes through private land, and due to our limited time and uncertainty how to get permission we chose to skip this stop. When I go back, I'm going to try and include this on my to-do list. For now, we continued on to Geysir for stop #2.
Map of the area Geyser area
The steam made one portion of the walkway icy, we saw a few people take a tumble
After walking along the paths, and taking a quick break in the gift shop, we set off to stop #3 - Gullfoss. The path to get closer to the waterfall was closed off due to the cold weather and ice, but the view was still amazing from the overlook above. After some pictures and taking in the sights, we headed to our 5th and final stop - Kerið Crater. Heads up to those like me who didn't know, there is a small fee to park here but it's not much. After a walk around the upper level, and down to the water, we loaded back into our truck and set off to celebrate New Years in Reykjavik
View of Gullfoss from the observation deck.
Kerid Crater overview.
Tonight was going to be filled with large bonfires and plenty of fireworks. Throughout the city there are small and large bonfires lit to symbolically burn away the old year to start fresh in January. I of course made sure we went to one of the larger fires even though it took us about an hour to walk to the closest one from our Hostel. After a bit of confusion, we finally made it to one of the largest piles of scrap wood and pallets I've seen in person, and once lit the heat coming into the crowd was immense.
Local fire fighters light and maintain the fires. Often I would watch one walk up with a bucket of what I assume kerosene to throw on a spot not burning well to try and even out the flames.
With our fill of fire and the size dying down, we walked back the way we came in search of a spot to watch fireworks. I must say, Iceland does it right. Make sure to buy what you can since most of the proceeds on the sales go to the islands volunteer rescue group, the ICE-SAR. Fireworks can be seen in all directions above the city, and especially right in front of our Hostel near Hallgrimskirkja. A small plot in front of the church is roped off for everyone to light their fireworks. We were slow to purchase and could not figure out how to do so before now, but luckily a few friendly bystanders gave us some of theirs to shoot off into the sky. After the midnight finale, we managed to buddy up with a few guys from England who had a mobile backpack for gin and tonics since all the businesses would be full. After a bit of chit chat and proving I don't know much about the British government we parted ways and called it a night. (We would find out later that this is the only night the Northern Lights would have been visible for us but not in the city).
Day 5 - Free Time & Shopping
The following morning had no real agenda, so it was spent roaming and exploring the city and spending all of our hard earned cash. Later that night, we did go to a second hot spring, the Secret Lagoon, which was an experience in itself. An all natural pool of water from a small geyser run off. We would find ourselves in the 'hot' end since that area was the first to be heated up by each eruption. Not many pictures were taken this day, but that was mostly due to us spending most of our time in stores to stay warm. We did take today as an opportunity to eat an Icelandic hot dog since I kept reading how this was a popular food on the island.
The Harpa Concert Hall - Plenty of shows to see
The text on the Leir Erickson monument
Day 6 - Heading South
Today was the day we leave the city and head to the lesser populated southern side of the island. We had our reservation in Skaftárhreppur, but had stops along the way for sightseeing to break up the drive. Again, to save us all from a lot of text to read and write, I'll again include descriptions with pictures instead of long paragraphs.
Up first was Seljalandsfoss, and we got absolutely soaked visiting this waterfall. On top of the light rain, the heavy winds blew the falls onto the crowd ensuring your clothes were no longer dry. We still decided to walk behind the falls since that part of the trail was open, and between each picture I would have to wipe my lens and camera to keep it dry and not ruin any pictures. There are some other smaller waterfalls along a small trail that are neat to see as well. After return to our truck we had to change into dry clothes and put our dripping wet jackets in the back.
After a short drive, we then found ourselves at Skógafoss and this one was MASSIVE. There are also trails that take you to the top to overlook the area, and a small trail leading back further that gets you to another scenic waterfall. Based on how many people I saw walk up the stairs but then turn around without going down the trail leaves me to think it's not a widely known view, but worth the extra 5 minute walk.
After a while above the falls, the sun started setting so we had to call it a day. We drove the remainder of the drive to our hotel and check in. By this point, it began to rain a bit harder so after cleaning up we dined at the hotel then retired to the hotel bar for the night. We were in luck though, after a bit of talking we ended up befriending two other travelers staying at the hotel as well as one of the employees working at the bar and front desk. We all stayed up way longer than we should have, and hopefully our new friend wasn't in too much trouble coming home that late.
Day 7 - Rainy Hikes and Glaciers
Spoiler alert, it rained again most of today. We decided to dedicate this day to heading further east along the shore starting with Svartifoss. This is a unique waterfall in that it is surrounded by lava columns with a distinct hexagon shape. This is a good hour-ish hike from parking lot to falls so half of the day had to be dedicated to the hike. There is one other waterfall about halfway through the hike, but don't be fooled you must keep going to reach the end. It starts out rough going up a hillside, but after that it's a relatively easy hike (unless it's raining and has sheets of ice in random places like we had to deal with). Because of the weather we didn't get that picturesque photo I hoped, but enjoyed the time regardless. The worst part about this is after about 20-30 minutes into the hike, I realized I forgot all my camera batteries back at the car and would have to go back....adding onto our stop more than we had hoped.
Part of the trail was washed out from all the rain we had up until now.
Some of the lava columns around the water fall - would be a lot clearer if the weather cooperated
Soaking wet and back to our cars, we set off to use our remaining sunlight to see Jökulsárlón - AKA the Glacier Lagoon. Seated at the foot of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, bits and chunks of ice slowly float around this small lagoon. With blue tints within each chunk of ice and listening to the clatter as the current forces collisions, it was hard to believe something like this existed in the wild. It was dusk when we got there, so our light was limited, but I could have easily stayed much longer (plus we were soaking wet, cold, and extremely windy so we couldn't just stand outside forever).
After contemplating if we caught pneumonia spending so much time in the rain and cold, we set back to the Hotel. We grabbed dinner after warming up a bit, and relaxed in the lounge before ultimately calling it a night to prepare for the next day of activities.
Day 8 - Ice Caves and Black Sand
Our final day on the south shore of Iceland included hiking into an ice cave, and see the sights along the black sand beaches. I don't want to spoil too much again, but it did rain most of the morning. We set off early to reach Vik in time to grab some snack food for the day, then meet with our guide in his mega van (not sure the technical term but that's what I'm calling it). We headed inland off road to our destination, then trudged through a short walk to the cave itself. Due to all the rain there was significant runoff and miniature streams we had to cross - luckily planks of wood and metal plates were laid out for us to cross on.
For as far as the eye could see, black sand was met with walls of alternating rows of ice and soil. Our guide explained that unusual weather melted a lot of the ice and that there is usually more - both higher and further out from the cave.
One of our makeshift bridges to get to the cave.
View looking out of the cave entrance
Once the tour was over, and we departed from the group, we chose our next stop was to walk to the sólheimasandur plane wreck. Honestly, if you're short on time go ahead and pass on this. With our limited sun I would have rather spent it on other sights and activities. The walk itself is not an issue. It's lengthy, but the wreck is just that - a plane fuselage stuck in the sand. It was neat to check off a to-do list, but I wouldn't make the effort to go back.
The entire walk from car to plane
Next we found ourselves at the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, mostly by accident. As we were looking up directions to our next stop we noticed this was between our current location and where we were going, so we figured why not - it is an elevated lookout and we had some time still in the day. This was a time I was glad I had a manual truck to drive, the steep climb and winding road was a lot of fun to drive up and down.
Once up top, we could see as far as our eyes (and fog) could let us down the beach. At this point we could look down and see sea birds flying below up and nesting cliffside.
Once again we set off to our final stop of the day - Reynisfjara Beach. Little detail about me, but I am a Star Wars fan, so stopping and seeing black sand beaches that Rogue One was filmed on was a must do. This beach stands out since there is a small cave with more basalt columns surrounding it. Plus off in the water there are distinct rock pillars that stand above the waves. At this point, the sun began to set and we lost our daylight, so back to the hotel to enjoy the snack food we purchased earlier in the day and watch some TV (British Panel shows were on BBC so that was our marathon).
We brought some of our Hákarl (fermented shark) down to the bar to share with our new pals and anyone willing to try. The best way I could describe this food is - remember in chemistry we learned how to 'waft' ammonia? Imagine eating it instead. You'll need a chaser for the first few pieces.
Day 9 - My First (and last) Helicopter Ride
We woke up for our final full day to check out and drive straight back to Reykjavik. The clock was ticking, so no time to waste on the drive. Early morning (or early after sunrise) we had to be at the Reykjavik Airport to catch a helicopter ride around the city and to an overlook above (what I think was) Kleifarvatn Lake. This was a boundary pusher for me. I already don't like flying in planes but being in the helicopter pushed that anxiousness to a new level. It didn't help too when our pilot told us "We have to fly close to the mountains otherwise the wind could push us into the side of it", and with no warning begin landing only a few feet away from the rock. But I will say, the view once we landed was remarkable, and timed perfectly. As we climbed out of our machine the sun came out from behind the clouds.
Lava fields stretch for as far as the eye could see for the entire flight
Once back on the ground, we took a quick stop at the Perlan to look out on the city. We roamed a bit and walked the giftshop, but decided we already spent enough money on this trip and headed back to the Hotel. We took some time to relax, and then to close out our trip headed to the Blue Lagoon.
I didn't take many pictures for this last part for the same reason I didn't take many at the other two - it's a hot spring and I didn't want to feel like a creep taking pictures surrounded by a bunch of people in bathing suits. We did snap a couple quick selfies, had a couple beers while in the warm water, and indulge in a couple complimentary face masks. As the sun began to set, we decided it was time to call it a trip and head back to our Hotel. We walked the city once more, had a final fancy dinner (that we were completely under dressed for), then retired to watch cartoons and pack.
Day 10 - Heading Home
Just as the title for today says, it was only a day to return back to the US. We checked out of the Hotel, headed back to the airport, turned in our less than clean truck, then walked to the airport to wait for our flight.
From what I've read and been told, Iceland is essentially two different countries to visitors - Summer time and Winter time both offer unique experiences and opportunities. This trip was in the middle of winter, and I'm already looking forward to going back during the summer. 20 hours of sunlight will open up a lot of doors to hiking and being outdoors. Regardless, I'd go back again during any season of the year. I only had a brief experience and saw a slim portion of what the island has to offer, but I'm hooked and ready to go back.