Iceland: the land of Fire & Ice
Iceland, a land of adventures, the land of fire and ice, filled with extraordinary beauty amongst its volcanic landscape.
I experienced far more of the ice than the fire, and being a sun worshiper at heart, I hadn’t expected to fall in love with this country blanketed in snow. The scene as the flight descended into Reykjavik could have been titled '50 shades of white’, not a spot in sight that wasn’t being blasted by the falling snow as my mind turned to whether I had enough clothes to handle what was awaiting me.
February is a great month to visit Iceland if you are keen to experience a good Nordic winter. The days are around 7 and a half hours long and winter mode is still on, but there is something special in the atmosphere of the darkness and the harsh Arctic weather. February is also one of the best months to experience the Northern Lights, which is a reason enough in itself for your visit. Hiring a car is key to making the most of your trip and will allow you to get a little off the beaten tourist track.
The base for our 6-day stay in Iceland was Reykjavik, a city full of life. Pretty colourful buildings brighten up the darker days and its position next to the glistening sea brings a fresh life to the city. It is packed full of amazing restaurants making it ideal to stay as many days as possible. Accommodation gets busy so book in advance and stay as close to the city centre as you can, walking on the icy paths is only funny for so long.
The centre of Reykjavik conveniently packs a lot into a small area. The stand-out sight being the Cathedral which looks more like a spaceship and has views out to the entire city. Solfar located along the city's waterfront resembles a Viking long-ship and provides a great photo opportunity as the sun is setting.
We drove out towards the route of the Golden Circle. The Pingvellir plain which covers a great part of the Circle, sits on a tectonic-plate boundary where North America and Europe and being torn away from each other at roughly 1-18mm per year, resulting in the plain being scarred by dramatic fissures, ponds and rivers. Having a car and driving the route yourselves means you can stop off whenever a pretty landscape catches your eye, which happened quite soon into our drive, stumbling across a typical Icelandic church seemingly placed perfectly in the middle of nowhere. Iceland is dotted with tiny churches which are seldom ever used but provide for fantastic photos.
Our first day took us to Gullfoss, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world where the water rushes along a 3-step staircase before plunging 32m into a double cascade, resulting in a magnificent wall of spray. The powerful crashing of the water is truly humbling and awe-inspiring and the scene totally mesmerising. A small snowstorm arrived just as we did and I don’t think my face has ever felt that cold, but it was well worth the experience for such an impressive sight.
Continuing along the Golden Circle is the famous sprouting Geysir Hot Spring Area with boiling mud pits, exploding geysers and the lively Stokkur, shooting an impressive 15-30m plume into the air every few minutes before it then vanishes back down its enormous hole.
Feeling a little like we’d just been on the ‘tourist trail’, we decided to go off the beaten path the following day and seek out some more unique sights. Also located within the Pingvellir National Park, Öxarárfoss is a waterfall that was created by man several centuries ago due to a water aversion. Arriving in thick snow, it wasn’t clear if there were any marked paths and there wasn’t another soul in sight so our climb up, over and down the rocks to arrive at the water felt like quite an expedition and made the experience even more special.
Taking the number 1 road heading south of Reykjavik leads you to another beautiful waterfall, Seljalandsfoss where the powerful water cascades into a pretty meadow. A path behind it allows you to feel as though you have walked inside it with a spectacular view of the waterfall itself and the surroundings behind it.
A little further along you arrive at Skógafoss, another of the big waterfalls in Iceland. Due to the amount of water and the spray that it produces, a rainbow is often created and we were lucky enough that it was shining when we visited. You can walk up close to the water here, but be prepared to get wet if you do this.
Vik is Iceland’s southernmost village. Facing the Atlantic Ocean, it is framed by a long black volcanic sand beach. A church sits high up on a hill, making the whole scene look like something out of a fairy tale. We found ourselves here on a stormy day with the wind attacking us from all directions but there was no way we were going to miss seeing the Reynisdrangar from the black sand beaches so we walked out for a fresh blast of Arctic air.
Visiting the geothermal spa of the Blue Lagoon is the perfect recovery to warm-up from the blustery days. The milky blue water and striking surroundings make it seem like something out of a dream. We went for the ‘luxury’ package meaning that we had private changing rooms, a lounge area with food & drinks and most importantly, were able to access the water from inside so we didn’t need to get cold. Whichever package you go for, you can use as much silica mud as you like from the buckets around the lagoon and there are bars in the water so you really can pass away a few hours. Make sure to book ahead, we learnt the hard way that you can’t just turn up and get in to the Blue Lagoon and had to go back the following day.
While at the Blue Lagoon, continue on to Garður. Gardskagi at the very tip of the peninsula provides magnificent sea views as well as picturesque lighthouses and churches.
Top of everyones visit to Iceland must be the Northern Lights. While clouds had prevented any sightings during the first nights of our trip, we insisted on going out on our last night, just in case. As we left the city lights behind, we spotted a faint green flow in the distance. And as we got further into the darkness ahead, the dancing lights came more into view. Hours were spent gazing, photo taking and drinking hot chocolate. It’s worth noting that the camera on a phone would not be able to pick up the lights, so have a good camera and tripod with you in the hope that you will also be in luck.
And what a perfect ending it provided to our Icelandic Saga, making us already excited to return and take on the full outer circle next time, Viking style!