Iceland is Ice-ing on a Cake: Tips from Our Family Vacation

Iceland was a trip of a lifetime. Here is an exhaustive list of where we went, what we saw, and what we'd now recommend.

The Trip of a Lifetime.

(edited in April 2021, for a website revamp)

Though I say this after each and every adventure we take on, this one was the real deal.

Though we’ve traveled quite a lot, since taking a vow to regularly do so back in summer of 2018, this trip remains one of our absolute favorites.

It was November, 2018, and we took on Iceland with all three kids in tow.

To this day, memories from that time can be conjured up in a snap; they’ve been seared into our brains due to sheer fabulousness.

I don’t even recall having written about any of our adventures at the time. But after feeling the overwhelmingly positive response to a post on our adventure (in a physician traveling group), and so many questions hurled my way, I decided to write on the topic. This way, I surmised, it could adequately reach many more, and get the coverage it deserved, right here on my personal blog.

 

leafing through the Icelandic Times.
leafing through the Icelandic Times.

 

Below is my feeble, but honest, attempt to condense all ‘pearls’ gathered while there, in what looked so much like a foreign planet to us, but where surroundings were as real as ever.

But they’re also summarized below, for those of you who don’t have patience for a long-winded post. Just click here to skip.

My bottom line: ‘happiness happened’, in Iceland, and I outline it all below.

 

Happiness Happened, an Iceland Narrative. 

(remember: if you’d prefer bullet-points, skip there now)

We set foot in Iceland in November – Iceland’s wintertime.

 

Pulling our luggage behind us. I don’t even really remember whether this shot was taken upon arrival or departure. I just know this was the route we took.

 

The following are the two main reasons why we chose to travel to this destination during particularly bitter cold:

1. ‘Northern Lights’.

Also known by its other, cooler-sounding moniker, Aurora Borealis (much more fitting when I try to come off as ‘scholarly’; in fact, I typically search for my bath robe – a la Hugh Heffner – & pipe when preparing to say it), this natural marvel is a fabulous display of brightly colored ‘puffs’ of air, shining in the sky at only specific hours of the night (and very specific conditions, too).

Only a few countries in the world are privy to this spectacular display, and they are (by order of no particular importance):

Finland

Norway

Sweden

Scotland (we traveled here and guess what? I wrote about it!)

Canada

.. and, of course, our very own Iceland.

Below, a photo of our experience.

Quite honestly, the emotions that were elicited by our being there – seeing the lights live – cannot adequately be conveyed through film; nor through words.

You really have to just be there to experience it for yourself.

 

(images were caught on my iPhone, my preferred medium because, quite honestly, it’s with me everywhere I go).

 

As mentioned above, the ‘Lights (I’ve already nicknamed ’em) can only be seen on certain months of the year, in the wintertime.

It’s also prudent to mention that you won’t necessarily always see them, even if you’re there at the right time of the year.

Why?

Because being able to see them properly depends on a variety of factors that include:

sky visibility,

winds,

geomagnetic activity (you’ll have to consult with a specialist on this one, as I’m not really certain how this concept works)

The Icelandic people have a system for grading the clarity each night, in fact, and use it to judge the probability of seeing the ‘Lights.

I got all nerdy on you & found a good link to check out on this here and here.

The key is to book a tour to see the Northern Lights (it’s an hour’s drive from Reykjavik to get the best view) the first night you’re there, because they’ll basically let you go again and again – one night after the next – until your luck turns and you see them clearly enough to be satisfied.

2. Good Deal.

I’m a sucker for good deals. That’s the truth. And we got ourselves a good one!

Now, mind you, flights to Iceland (when I wrote this blog post back in 2018) were cheap anyway. Very cheap.

You could find a plane ticket on Iceland’s own airline, in fact, for just a few hundred bucks a pop.

But there were still a few things to consider, when calculating out price:

Consideration A:

The airline typically charges for all bags – even carry-ons!

Though I will say this – no extra fees for under-eye bags, parent friends. Score!

Consideration B:

The exorbitant prices once there.

I mean, they’ll really get ‘ya.

“Damn, Iceland is expensive!” is definitely a statement heard repeatedly, while there.

One reason things are pricey, I found out, is that most products need to be imported, rather than locally grown.

A quick example: 5 small-sized lunchtime bowls of soup at a gas station-like pit stop (on one of our bus tours) will set you back 80 bucks.

You could, of course, shop at the local grocery store and stock up on food, but you’ll have to find the right one.

Even these can be quite pricey.. and sometimes even closed, depending on time of day.

Did you know Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice? Did you know that scenes from ‘North of the Wall’ in Game of Thrones were filmed here?

Reykjavik.

The capital city of Iceland is fabulous. No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.

Its center is filled with cute little shops, and lights up with activity once the dark sets in.

There’s even – earmuffs may be necessary for this one, and you maybe even need to brace yourself a but here – a Penis Museum to stretch out in. We didn’t go, but the posters that were hung (pun TOTALLY intended) up around town ensured an abundance of giggles from my boys – Every. Single. Night that we passed by.

 

 

Lay of the land: Everything in Reykjavik is pretty much walking distance.

That being said, the country offers a fair share of physical challenges and you have to, for the most part, be prepared.

Excursion-wise, this is especially true, and covered below.

 

Magnetic sheep, herded together on a stretched fabric board, sold in Reykjavik, and displayed now, adoringly, on my kitchen wall.

 

Above is an ‘artsy find, which we bumped into while trekking through the streets of Reykjavik; magnetic wool sheep, herded together on a stretched fabric board, for a gajillion bucks (but, really, around $70 for a small board), now displayed adoringly on our kitchen wall.

You can check out the actual item, among other random photos, on my Instagram account.

Light:

Keep in mind that daylight is limited, when you’re there in the wintertime.

The sun came up at around 10 AM, and sets at around 4.

In fact, the shortest day there sees light a total of less than 4 hours, from what local folks told us.

Bottom line?

Don’t bet on getting a tan in while vacationing in wintery Iceland.

Excursions We Took On.

Keep in mind, while we are of the adventurous type, certain activities were limited due to my son’s age at the time (my youngest was 6).

We had to skip the glacier walks, for example, and some ice adventures.

But believe it or not, it didn’t matter. It was still amazing.

We focused on the South coast in our adventures, but traveled up the midsection of the beast, too.

 

When you work hard, you can play hard, too. But be smart about it. Play hard and stay smart.


Get Golden Circle.

The Golden Circle is basically the main attraction of Iceland, and follows a circular path that was created, more or less, for tourists: that’s us!

It was a bit crowded when we were there, but the amazingness of the wonders we took in far outweighed the discomfort of feeling like sardines. (Plus, I love sardines – there’s so much omega 3 packed into ’em!)

I did find that the beautiful clearings, waterfalls, volcanoes, and glaciers, all required some degree of physical stamina; even the fittest among us could not always take every bit on. I noticed, in fact that the ‘elders’ in our tour group hesitated at various points along the way, and some even turned back.

 

Our family of five. Posing on an icy ledge. We may seem happy-go-lucky, but inside, we’re trembling from the fear. OK, OK, it’s ME that’s nervous and trembling..

 

Furthermore, personal safety is an issue to keep in mind, as you’re in a land of natural wonders.

Precautions aren’t exactly “built in”. So don’t take any potential dangers for granted.

I realize that this may be the mother in me speaking. Or maybe it’s the doctor (or quite possibly just the concerned, rational human), but you’ll literally be walking down a path, alongside a waterfall, with the edge – and the steep drop beneath it – an inch from the side of your shoe.

The cost of a misstep is a steep one – one wrong move and you’re waking up (maybe!?) in an ambulance – so be careful.

My kids always say I sound like Beverly Goldberg, and they say it for a reason.

 

Trust me, be wary.

More nervous nellie concerns.. this time about ice.

There were a lot of icy patches, especially in our glacier pitstop.

It was impossible to walk past some of these, in fact, without taking the time to look for appropriate footholds.

Don’t get me wrong, you can choose to abstain from anything that appears like too much of a challenge.

Just keep it real.

 


South Coast.

Glaciers, sandy black beaches and waterfalls.

Cute tour, but probably our least favorite of the three main touring days.

 

 

That being said, the glacier we took on was spectacular to hike to, albeit very icy.

(I know, I know – we’re in Iceland. The irony isn’t lost on me..)

Oh, and if you get a chance to snowshoe, it looked like so much fun.

We didn’t partake in snowshoeing because age restriction limited participation on our end.

If you go, I’d be happy to read your blog post about it, and then laugh at the nerdy things that you say. Tag me if you do.

 

The black sand on the beaches was out-of-this-world cool. Haven’t seen anything quite like it. And being that the weather was so cold, it was ‘interesting’ – for lack of a better term – to be hanging out at a beach. My son, making sand angels..

 

Animals.

The animals there were limited to:

A. Sheep – so, so cute! Little curly balls of black and white, dotting the roadsides.

and

B. Icelandic Horses – Iceland’s own breed and apparently special because of its ability to gallop 5 different ways, compared to the American variety, which can only take on 3.

Fun fact: They say an Icelandic natives can hold a beer without spilling a drop, while riding on a galloping Icelandic horse. Cool.

This makes them proud, and also makes me smile when I pass it on.

 

My son gently pets an Icelandic horse.

 

Oh, and apparently, there’s also puffins.

And if you’re like me, the first thing you say when I mention them is, “The cereal?”

No, not the cereal.

But yes, the creatures do grace the cover of that cereal box.

We didn’t get to see any puffins – mainly because they come out in the summertime – but apparently they’re deliciously cute, and come out in droves when the weather is right.

 

Me, getting into the action with the Icelandic horses on the side of the road..

Snaefellsnes Peninsula (try spelling this out without looking!)

Wow. Just wow.

This excursion was my own personal favorite.

 

We saw:

Waterfalls.

A crater, which felt to me like we were on a completely different planet. I’m talking straight out of The Martian.

Lakes to die for.

Adventurous terrain, home to such amazing Icelandic folklore. We heard so many stories along the way – tall tales that not only intrigued us, but kept the boys quiet and (somewhat) interested.

Black sandy beaches.

Take a look at the photographic memories we made, below.

(and the best part is that anyone can create these because the country is so easy to get to.. and so very cool! Plus, all you need to create is an iPhone and fingers!)

 

 

This tour was worth every moment.

We even stopped at a little village that reminded me of the one from Monsters, Inc, in the scene with the Yeti lived.

This one:

The Yeti from Monsters, Inc, who quite possibly lives in the Iceland town that we visited.

 

Covered in snow, this beautiful town was set on a peninsula, close to the edge, and away from anything else for miles.

I snapped a shot of my kids, playing in the backyard of a cafe. The nearby church was being used to film a movie.

Did I mention this place is ‘hella cool? Check out the purple sky hue.

 


 

Blue Lagoon.

This is a must-see.

I didn’t get pictures of this excursion, because I couldn’t bring any belongings into the water with me.

The place is basically built of naturally-made craters, filled with the warm waters of what can only be described as a giant jacuzzi, wrapped around a main building.

It’s very much like a lazy river for adults, complete with alcoholic beverages served inside the water.

Our kids were with us and had a blast, too.

The best part is that it’s cold outside; like, freeing cold.

And you’re submerged inside this lazy river, which is located outside, right in the freezing cold. But you’re warm.

It’s a lot like a hot tub, really. A long and windy hot tub.

 

Not the Blue Lagoon (because I failed to get shots wile there), but a photo of me, jumping on a bridge in the frigid weather.

 

You’re basically wearing almost nothing – depending on bathing suit preference – in freezing weather, submerged in a natural pool of hot water.

We were advised to go at night, because we would get to see the Northern Lights, once again.

However, while there, a major snow storm decided to rear its ugly head upon us and literally pelt hail at our heads. The Icelandic gods were apparently unsettled that evening, it seemed, and took out their anger on us all.

Still, we enjoyed the experience, and so did our kids.

In hindsight, and from what I’ve read since, the Blue Lagoon is considered a bit touristy. However, we found the experience worth it.

In fact, it was voted by my boys as their favorite excursion spot.

 


 

Weather.

As expected, it was really cold.

So bundle up.

Get thermals and jackets and boots and gloves and hats.

Hand and foot warmers are optional add-ons, too.

(need to order some quickly, and get free shipping from Amazon Prime? Just press here for 24 pairs – for both toes and hands. Take note that it is, in fact, an Amazon Affiliate link).

At the same time, it’s bearable, especially if you’re coming from the East Coast, like we were.

You get used to it. You just have to wear the right gear.

If you’re part of a tour, your guide will take care of ‘ya.

And that way, there’s always the shelter of the warm bus, if need be.

Oh, and here’s something else that’s interesting about the weather: it has a tendency to change at the drop of a hat.

We kept hearing a famous saying, in fact, uttered again and again by the locals:

If you don’t like the weather, just wait a couple of minutes.

 


Touring.

Which tour companies: we used two different tour companies, and both were fantastic.

I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them, except there’s something to be said about having a smaller tour.

We enjoyed the smaller-sized tours much better: less people, less waiting around, more personalized stops and attention.

Tidbit of sage advice: if you don’t mind booking last minute, they have great deals on tours the day before (at least the ones that we booked, a fact we happily discovered by chance.

Where we booked: we used the shop in the center of Reykjavik, which works with all companies (seemed like they were the main hub), and got some fantastic deals because *clears throat in shame* we didn’t plan ahead.

Turns out not planning ahead is the way to go, eh? *again, clears throat*

Tours that normally run $130 per person were closer to $100 per person for these latecomers (things really add up for a family of 5!)

Additionally, some tours had a ‘buy one child, get one free’ deal.

Others were even free for children under 7. BIG TIME SCORE.

 

 

The end.

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