I’m slow to believe the hype on a lot of things, but the Magical Unicornland called Iceland is not one of them.
This teeny country has been on my travel radar since that very first flight I took to Paris in 2007. We had a brief layover on the way, and as I was 20 at the time, I only vaguely remember random bits about the airport in Reykjavík: there were indoor smoking lounges full of Europeans who were significantly cooler than me, you could buy fresh fish fillets right from the shops, and “Cool Ranch” Doritos were called “Cool American” instead, but still tasted the same (I checked).
It seemed like a strange country, but I desperately wanted to know more about it.
Luckily for me, one of the best things to happen to modern travel is WOW! Air. (This post is not sponsored, I just really like them.)
It seems like a gimmick, and I get it. “Fly to Iceland for $100 each way!” These days, travel and airline sites seem to be flooded with DEALS DEALS DEALS to Iceland, which I’m pretty sure exists in everyone’s heads as this floating frozen enigma somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
It was only a few years ago that this place started becoming oh-so-popular among bloggers and adventure seekers, and people actually started going there and discovering its wonders. And then it exploded onto the travel scene as not only magical, but affordable.
Firsthand, I’m here to tell you that everyone in the world SHOULD be talking about Iceland. And you should pretty much be boarding a flight there tomorrow.
ON THE FLY: How is a place so beautiful so cheap to get to? Well, value airlines are pretty much the only way to fly these days. But it’s important to know what you’re getting, and also what you’re not getting. Value airlines are what they are, and they don’t claim to be anything else. The price of your flight includes the base fare and taxes, and that’s it. No baggage fees, no meals, no in-flight entertainment. I honestly don’t know why people are shocked by this. You get what you pay for! This isn’t Emirates, dahling.
Seriously, though, value airlines are your friend! Here’s how to combat everything you DON’T get when you fly with them:
- Have a meal or, if you’re me, a few drinks in the airport before boarding. Make sure that tummy is full and that head is a little fuzzy!
- Pack snacks to sustain you during the flight. Most airlines, even value ones, let you bring unopened food with you, although you may have to remove it from your bags for security screening. (Pro tip: Mini bottles of alcohol are TSA-approved!)
- Bring a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated. Most airports now have water fountains installed for this purpose, anticipating travelers’ use of their own bottles. I take my S’well bottle wherever I go!
- Make playlists on your phone or download Netflix shows to keep you entertained until you land. Portable chargers are a great thing to bring, too, in case the plane doesn’t have a charging outlet for you.
- Challenge your mind with crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or write in your travel journal. Give your eyes a break from the screens they stare at all day.
- Do the old flight standby: Take some Dramamine and knock the fuck out until you touch down.
In truth, WOW! Air is a fine way to fly. Everyone was friendly and the flight was on-time. No complaints here! If you can get me from New York to Iceland for less than a flight to Vegas, I don’t really care if you have to strap me to the roof of the damn plane. I’ll do it.
So suddenly there I was, in the first country I’d ever been to where I didn’t speak the native language. (As it turns out, EVERYONE in Iceland speaks English, so no worries there.) By sheer happenstance, the gentleman who owned the AirBnB my friends and I had booked in Reykjavík was working in New York at the time, so I met up with him the day before we left to pick his brain about the ins and outs of visiting Iceland. He was very kind, and with every word he said, I could feel the love he felt for his home country. He told me that tourism has 100% revitalized the country’s economy, hence the boom of travel sites offering discounts to go there. It all makes sense now!
Our lovely host also suggested we rent a car and visit areas of the country’s southern coast, where nature truly puts on a show.
He wasn’t wrong, y’all. LOOK AT THIS SHIT.
Are you freaking kidding me?! I had no idea what I was in for.
It was February when we arrived in Iceland, and winter was in full swing. It was cold. I can’t lie about that. But believe me when I say that everything else was so spectacular, I forgot how damn cold it was all the time. And I grew up in the Northeast, where winters are often unforgiving.
Reykjavík is a small city, but it’s lovely. Distinctly European, vaguely Scandinavian. It’s quiet, but subtly in-your-face with its mountainous backdrop and seaside air. You can walk the entire city in a day, but there’s plenty to do. The food is decent and the beer is flowing. It snowed our first night there, and everything was so soft and hushed that it felt like living inside of a snowglobe.
The day we arrived, we had a hot date with the Blue Lagoon. This is a first-rate tourist trap, and we all knew it, but we also knew that we’d regret not going. So despite the jet lag, we made the drive and stood in line for ages. It seemed so silly to be getting ready to strip down to our swimsuits and when there was an actual ICE STORM outside. I remember being so cold in that line that I took a picture of myself to remember how cold I felt.
If you can put aside the fact that this place is crowded as fuck until you get into the pool, you’ll be fine. Europeans are notoriously better at being comfortable with public showers and changing rooms than Americans are, but just get over it and walk around in your Speedo. Everyone else is! Blue Lagoon rules stipulate that you need to shower once before you get into the pool (hooray, cleanliness!) and they provide special soaps and hair conditioners to counteract the minerals in the water. Just do as they say and get a little grimey. It’s all part of the experience.
And it’s worth it.
How often do you get to drink alcohol in a geothermal pool under the stars while it snows?!
When I say I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life, I mean it. There’s nothing like being out in nature, even if it is man-made and even if it is with a few hundred strangers.
On the ride home that night, after in-the-water face masks and swim-up bars and showering a lot more than I usually do in one day, it was quite dark, and all of us were delirious with exhaustion but more relaxed than we’d ever been in our lives. With our eyes upturned, we were in dreamland.
And then the Northern Lights appeared.
I kid you not, we hadn’t even been in Iceland for 12 hours before the sky lit up green for us.
We were all literally screaming out of the windows as we stopped the car and ran into a field (A SUPER SAFE IDEA FOR A GROUP OF GIRLS IN A STRANGE COUNTRY AT NIGHT DON’T DO THIS OKAY), gazing skyward like idiots. It was faint, and not quite what you see in photographs online (a symptom of being pretty late in the season for ideal viewing), but unmistakable.
By the time we got back to our apartment that night, I felt like my trip was complete, and we’d just arrived. That first day felt like five whole days, but we were only getting started.
Following our host’s advice, we’d planned a few things to do outside of Reykjavík. We were excited to get out of the city and see what this country had to offer. Be sure to follow this sign.
The next day, we drove out into the snowy countryside to begin our adventures on the famed Golden Circle. This is Iceland’s most touristic route, and it loops out from Reykjavík to the southern uplands and back again, making for an easy day’s journey.
We first stopped to explore Þingveiller National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true wonder. It’s unlike any national park I’ve ever been to, in that it’s basically a wide open area of untouched land, full of mountains, rock structures and waterfalls. There are paths to walk through, but it isn’t confining or restricting. In fact, it’s expansive.
The place is like a postcard, and it’s truly a display of Earth’s magnitude. It sits in a rift valley, which is essentially a lowland formed by the action of a geologic rift or fault; the park lies where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. (I secretly love earth science.) It also partially houses Iceland’s largest natural lake, Þingvallavatn.
I’ve seen photos of the place in other seasons, and it’s a sea of green. I’m glad I visited in winter, though; the snowy overlay made everything appear so stunning, like it was jumping out at me, and I’m not sure I’d have appreciated it as much if I’d gone in warmer temperatures.
After spending a few hours walking through the park, chasing waterfalls and posing for #snowselfies, we got back in the car and headed for the second stop on the Golden Circle tour: the Geysir of Haukadalur.
There are actually two geysirs (geysers) here: The Great Geysir, simply referred to as Geysir, and its smaller companion, Strokkur. While Geysir has been dormant for some time, Strokkur is rather active, erupting at 10-15 minute intervals. Watching a geysir erupt is another thing about Iceland that I’ll never forget. Strokkur’s name is Icelandic for “churn,” which is exactly what the water does before it shoots up out of the earth. You can actually see it beginning to react before it fully erupts, which is terrifying when you realize that this naturally occurs from within the ground every few minutes of every day. Why is it terrifying? Oh, I don’t know. Just reminds me of volcanoes and stuff, spewing hot ash and scorching lava for miles, destroying everything and everyone in their path. Earth is awesome and also insane.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss. “Foss” is a word you’ll hear frequently if you explore Iceland; it means “falls,” and there are lots of them. (Just you wait.) This one, however, is the most famous. If you need an easy way to think of this place, just picture Niagara Falls, but lower to the ground. It takes some walking to see the falls, because the flow of the river drops sharply, making the edge of the actual waterfall hidden from view until you approach the cliffside. But God, how majestic.
You can hear the thundering water from the roadside, and as you take it in, this place will again make you marvel at the planet’s natural beauty.
The Golden Circle eventually brings you back around to the city, and the stops along the way, though popular among tourists, fill up the day nicely with scenes that don’t even seem real. You’ll probably even meet some Icelandic horses by the roadside, who will happily nibble up your apple cores for you. How sweet are my new friends?!
I could talk for hours about this country! Literally, I’m only halfway done. I’ve still got to take you through Reykjavík in more detail, and show you what it looks like INSIDE of a glacier. Until then, mes amis, enjoy the adventure.