This past January I traveled with my wife and two close friends to Iceland.
I know what you’re thinking, Iceland in January? In the winter?
Well, I must admit that it was sort of crazy traveling across the world in the dead of winter to a northern latitude that only has about 5 hours of daylight. Leading up to the trip I had a lot of anxiety about what this adventure would bring. I’m not much of a cold weather or snow person, whereas my wife and friends are avid skiers and snow-bunnies.
Furthermore, the Icelandic language is practically incomprehensible with extensively long words jammed with a slew of consonants and uncommon characters like ð, Þ, æ, that make the pronunciation and identification of the names of places with a foreign tongue practically impossible. In planning the trip we had a lot of ideas of things that we wanted to do, but our Lonely Planet guide was practically useless in helping us determine what was or was not possible during the winter months. We only made plans for our first few nights to stay in Reykjavik and then play it by ear depending upon the weather.
My experience was further complicated by the sudden onset of a flu-like illness that quickly developed into bronchitis the day immediately prior to our flight. Needless to say, the first few days in Iceland weren’t very fun for me and I was quite the grouch souring the good times intended by my happy-go-lucky travel companions. As they buzzed through the night with jet-lag wakefulness I just sought out sleep and more sleep. Never have I slept so much in the back of a car as I did during this trip, and this was primarily due to my illness, not for lack of spectacular scenery to fawn over.
As my mood continued to dampen due to weary coughing, my ever patient wife was determined to turn me around and find me some much needed antibiotics. The Lonely Planet wasn’t very helpful regarding direction to seek medical care and despite an intial misdirection after the Tourist office sent us to the Emergency Room, the ER advice nurse sent me to an amazing clinic. The clinic experience was unlike any primary care experience in the US. Within 25 minutes and only $80 later I had seen a doctor and had the needed antibiotics in hand. Just waiting in line at Walgreens can take that long.
Aside from the set back, being ill for my first few days, I really did enjoy the spectacular and bizarrely unique landscape that is Iceland. We had originally arrived at 6 am in pitch black darkness, rented a car and headed to the number one tourist destination, the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon is a mixture of sea water and geothermal water and the blue color is due to a special algae. Swimming in the lagoon was relaxing and opened up my congested lungs. It really is an experience that should not be missed. The following day after the lagoon we took an all day driving tour through the golden circle, heading inland and east of Reykjavik where we saw the Almannagjá fault, which is the continental divide between the European plate and the North American plate. We also saw Geysir, the original hot-spring geyser and the amazingly spectacular Golfoss falls, which is a half frozen, half flowing beautiful icy waterfall.
The following day we traveled south east toward the Skaftafell glacier where we stayed in a homey lodge like hotel for three nights with overpriced food and horrible beer. If there was one thing that I wish we had known before leaving Reykjavik, it would have been to stock up on alcohol and food because most of Iceland is desolate and empty. The entire country hosts a population of only 320,000 with approximately 200,000 living in the greater Reykjavik area. This means that there are vast areas of beautiful, unspoiled nature with only a few small towns of 3,000 or less.
In towns like Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Vik, and Hofn there may be only one restaurant available and you have to call ahead to let them know you’re coming so they can fire up the kitchen. This was quite a challenge for the culinary expectations of four San Franciscans, however I can say that what we did eat was delicious and fresh. The langoustines in Hofn were amazing and I never got tired of the fresh Artic char. Despite these challenges, we did make due with some provisions we stashed from Reykjavik and had a truly unique picnic of bread, cheese, and dried fish atop a chunk of ice sitting on the beach near the Jökulsárlón lagoon.
By far, my favorite experience during the trip was the day we hired a guide to take the four of us on a glacier walk near Skaftafell. The experience was frighteningly dangerous due to the presence of cavernous tunnels that would swallow us whole if we slipped on the slippery ice, but the walk was one of the most pristine and memorable experiences I’ve lived. Standing on the blue ice that has been flowing from the mountains for thousands of years is otherworldly and breathtaking.
The last day during our Southern adventure we took a 6 hour tour in a “super jeep,” a modified Toyota with massive tires and a corvette engine through the valley of Þórsmörk at the base of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the volcano that erupted in 2010 and shut down European air traffic). Our driver, Magnus, fearlessly drove through rivers (using ferry angles with the current!) and led us on a truly unique hike through untouched snow to view a hidden waterfall. He also drove us to the edge of another glacier with a beautiful cavern that was totally different from the many glaciers we saw near Skaftafell.
The super jeep day was my last full day in Iceland and after our tour we all headed back west to Reykjavik for a night of civilized dining and libations. Just as I was back to good health and enjoying myself I had to take leave from my three travel companions to get back home and go to work the following day. They stayed on for three more nights and explored the western region of Snæfellsnes. To my dismay, during this excursion they were able to experience the Aurora Borealis, which had remained hidden from my view my entire trip due to constant cloud cover and rain. Other than my illness, failing to see the northern lights was my greatest disappointment, however I am grateful that my lucky travel companions did get the opportunity to cherish the experience.