It was the trip of a lifetime.
I could be trekking through the wooded area in my own suburban town and feel that I’ve practically climbed Mt. Everest. As long as I have my husband and boys by my side.
But not this adventure. This one was different and memorable. This past November, we took on Iceland.
Due to such overwhelming response to a recent post on this adventure, I decided to write on the subject, and am hoping I deliver. I tried to condense all the ‘pearls’ we gathered while there, but they’re also summarized below if you don’t have the patience for my words.
Happiness Happened. Here’s how.
(If you’d prefer bullet-points, just scroll down to the end)
Our trip was in November – Iceland’s wintertime. We chose to travel during this particularly chilly time because of two main reasons :
1. We wanted to see the Northern Lights – known also by their other, cooler sounding name, Aurora Borealis, more fit for when I’d like to come off as more ‘scholarly’ – a fantastic display of brightly colored puffs of air that shine in the sky at specific hours of the evening, and only seen in several countries in the world – Finland, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Canada, and, of course, our very own Iceland . Underneath is a photo of the experience, but honestly, the true feeling couldn’t be captured on film, even if I got the quality to be better.
Mind you, they can only be seen on certain months of the year, in the wintertime. Even when you’re there at the right time, you may not be lucky enough to see them. The key is to go the first night you’re there, because they’ll let you go again and again, until your luck turns. The best views happen when the skies are clear, and the Icelandic people even have a system for grading this clarity, and for the probability of seeing the Lights.
2. We got a good deal. Now, mind you, travel to Iceland is cheap. Very cheap. You can find a plane ticket on Iceland’s own airline for just a few hundred bucks a pop. But here’s the caveat – they normally charge for all bags, even carry-ons. No extra fees for under-eye bags, ladies.
Second caveat to the ‘deal’ are the exorbitant prices once you’re there. Iceland is expensive. It’s possibly because most things need to be imported in. A bowl of soup one day for lunch for the 5 of us put us in the hole $80.
So be prepared.
You could, of course, shop at the local grocery store, but you have to find the right one. Even those can be quite pricey.
Reykjavik was fabulous. The city center is filled with shops and lights up with activity at night. There’s even – and cover the little ones’ ears on this one, and maybe even brace yourselves a bit – a Penis Museum to explore. We didn’t go, but posters hung up around town ensured an abundance of giggles for our family – Every. Single. Night.
Everything is pretty much walking distance. That being said, let’s face it, the country offers a fair – if not uneven – share of physical challenges and you have to, for the most part, be prepared for that. Excursion-wise, this is especially true, and covered below.
To the right is a goodie I found while trekking the streets: magnetic sheep, herded together on a stretched fabric board, sold in right in the heart of Reykjavik – for, like, a gajillion dollars, and displayed adoringly, now, in my kitchen as a memory. You can check out the actual item, hanging on the wall of my home, on my Instagram account.
Hours-wise, be aware that daylight is limited, when you go in the winter, as we did. The sun came up around 10 AM, and set around 4 PM. Keep in mind the shortest day sees light a total of less than 4 hours a day, from what I remember the local folks telling us. Don’t bet on getting a tan. Not there.
Excursions We took On.
Keep in mind we are of the adventurous type, but certain activities were limited due to my son’s age (the youngest being 6). We had to skip the glacier walks, and some ice adventures. Believe it or not, it didn’t matter. Still amazing.
We focused on the South coast, but traveled up the midsection of the beast, too.
The Golden Circle is the main attraction, and is basically a circular path more or less made for the tourists. It was a bit crowded, but the things were saw were still well worth the times we felt like sardines. Plus, I love sardines, they have so much omega 3 in them!
I found that the beautiful clearings, waterfalls, volcanoes, and glaciers all required a fair degree of physical stamina that even the fittest among us – even some in our tour groups – could not take on. Furthermore, safety becomes an issue in a land that’s so naturally beautiful, but doesn’t have the safety features that the US has in place. You can literally be walking down a path, alongside a waterfall, and have the edge of it – with the finality that comes along with a misstep – just one foot away. One wrong turn and you’re waking up in an ambulance. Take a look at the photo to the right. We may look all happy-go-lucky, but we were cringing in fear. We’re good at pretending.
Same with ice. Lots of icy patches, which actually limited some from proceeding, specifically in our glacier pitstop. It was impossible to walk past some patches without taking the time to look for appropriate spots for your footing.
Don’t get me wrong, you can choose not to tackle anything that appears too big a challenge. Just keep it real.
We saw glaciers, more 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. That irony isn’t lost on me. Oh, and if you get a chance to snowshoe there, it looked like so much fun. We didn’t because of age restriction reasons, but if you go, maybe I could read your blog post about it and laugh at the nerdy things that you say.
Animals. The animas there were limited: sheep (so, so cute – little curly balls of black and white dotting the roadsides) and Icelandic horse, their own breed and apparently special because of its ability to gallop 5 different ways, compared to the Americans’ 3. They say an Icelandic native can hold beer while riding on a galloping horse without even spilling a drop. This makes them proud and I get it.
Didn’t get to see the puffins, but apparently they’re deliciously cute, and come out in the droves when it’s summer. Again, will read about it on your blog.
Wow. Just wow. This excursion was my own personal favorite. We saw waterfalls.
A crater, where it felt like we stood on another planet. Could have easily been the setting of The Martian, Part II, the sequel.
Lakes to die for.
Adventurous terrain, home to so much 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 memories made: (and the best part? You can create them too because the place is so freakin’ cool!)
It was worth every moment. We even stopped at a little village that reminded me of the one from Monsters, Inc, near where the Yeti lived. It was covered in snow, and set off on the peninsula, so close to the edge, and away from anything else for miles! My kids are pictured playing in the backyard of a cafe, with a church in the backdrop, where a movie was being filmed as we watched! They’re goofballs.
A Must See. I just don’t have pictures of this one, because it consisted of warm water, naturally made into the craters in the ground. Just amazing. We went at night, and I actually really enjoyed that aspect. I am told you can even see the Northern Lights, if you’re lucky, which we weren’t on that particular night. But what was incredible to experience was a snowstorm while outside, in the water. It literally hailed on our heads, while we walked around in a pool of hot.
It’s a bit touristy, yes, but it’s worth the time and money. We loved it, and it was the kids’ favorite spot, by far.
It was cold, so bundle up. But it was bearable. And if you’re part of a tour, your guide will take care of you. There is always the shelter of the warm bus, if need be. It also tends to change at the drop of a hat. A famous saying we kept seeing there:
If you don’t like the weather, just wait a couple of minutes.
We took two different tour companies, and they were both fantastic. I don’t think you can go wrong here, except there is something that was worth the difference and that was a smaller tour. The days we took a smaller tour bus were the days we enjoyed the most: much less people, so no waiting around and less crowded, more personalized stops and attention.
Here’s another 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 we booked were that way. We used a shop in the center of Reykjavik, which seemed to work with all the companies, and we got some fantastic deals because we didn’t plan ahead (oops). That meant tours that were normally $130 were closer to $100. That added up for a family of 5. Additionally, some tours have a ‘buy one child, get another free’ policy, and yet others go free, somewhere under age 6 or 7.
Whichever tour you end up choosing, you will feel on top of the world!
In A Nutshell
- Blue Lagoon – a must see.
- Snaefellsnes Peninsula – another must see. My favorite trip. We saw waterfalls, a crater, cliffs.
- South Coast – glacier, waterfalls.
- Golden Circle- the basic sightseeing tour, I would do it and see the Geiser and tectonic plates.
- Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights: if you’re there during these months, an absolute must see! Only seen in certain months (winter), go first night because you can go a second if you didn’t see the first time. Sky has to be clear.
- Tours: (by bus. There’s either smaller or bigger bus- we preferred smaller, if you’re willing to spend a bit extra). But it’s more $ so you have to decide if worth it. For one, we paid for big bus but got smaller one so that can happen, too.
- Ages restrictions: make sure you can participate in physical tours. Our youngest was too little (had to be above 8), but they looked amazing. For example, trekking the glacier using snow shoes, or snowmobiling.
- Prices: finding a package for flight and accommodations can be very affordable but once you’re there, it’s very expensive (a cup of soup will cost $15, glass of wine $20).
- Limited light: In the winter, sunlight is limited. Can be 4 hours long in December.
- Discounts: if you can wait until the day before a tour, many of them get discounted. We paid $100 pp instead of $130, for example.
- Weather changes at the drop of a hat, be prepared with some warm clothes if you come wintertime.
- They say their water is as good as bottled, so no need to keep buying.
- Store hours only open certain times of the day. Best place for snacks and produce at their market called Bonus, but again, closes early, opens late.
- Flight back from Iceland will charge you for each piece of carry on (about $60 each) in addition to luggage ($70 each). That may be a part of our airliner, WOW- Iceland’s airline, but I’m not sure and it may an airport-wide rule.
- The trip is not for young kids. We took our 6, 10, and 13 year old boys. It was a physically demanding trip and it was cold. I don’t think taking younger kids would make sense.
- Go. Feel the exhilaration.