Iceland may be a bucket list destination, but sky high prices can put even the keenest travellers off. Want to make the most of your money in the land of fire and ice? Cram as much as possible into a short period of time. Last year, we managed to see a jaw dropping number of sights in under a week.
Despite feeling like a world away from the UK, Iceland is a mere 3-hour flight from the UK. We flew with Iceland Airways, who had a decent entertainment system and even northern lights themed lighting!
We arrived in Reykjavik in the pitch black of early evening – it was November, and days at this time of year are short. As we left the airport, we experienced our first taste of the biting Icelandic cold. There’s no escaping the chill in Iceland – it will freeze your shampoo and drain your phone battery in minutes, but with the right gear, it’s not unpleasant. We felt pretty smug bundled up in our thick down jackets and merino wool base layers.
We checked into Kex Hostel, probably the city’s most popular budget accommodation. Kex has a hipster-bar-meets-remote-arctic-outpost sort of vibe: all low lighting and vintage world maps. Many of the windows overlook the harbour, with awe inspiring views of Mount Essa. With the winds howling outside and the snow coming down, it’s a pretty surreal atmosphere. Despite its remote feel, Kex is slap bang in the centre of Reykjavik, meaning it’s just a short – if cold – walk to check out the city. The first tip – if you’re doing Iceland on a budget, make the most of the happy hours – there is even an app for scouting deals. We decided to channel our inner dude and headed to the Lebowski Bar where we (naturally) indulged in some White Russians and a decidedly American, yet delicious, meal of burger and chips. Iceland seems to have a bit of a thing for bars named after movie legends – we were almost tempted by the Charles Bronson Bar en route.
The next day we hopped on a Greyline bus to the famous Blue Lagoon. It takes over an hour to get to the blue lagoon, and transfers are best booked in advance. Sometimes tourist hotspots can be a bit underwhelming, but the blue lagoon was everything we hoped it would be. Entering the balmy colgate-blue water, we were engulfed by dense mist, making it feel like we were alone in some ethereal heaven-pool. Time stands still in a blue lagoon – you may think it would be hard to spend six hours in hot water, doing very little at all, but you’d be wrong. We went for the Comfort package which included a green juice (all about the detox) a silica mud mask and algae mask. If you do get bored(!) you can indulge in massages or a meal in the on-site restaurant. We grabbed a snack at the onsite canteen, where prices are reasonable for Icelandic standards – a sandwich will cost you around £10.
That night we headed out to sample some traditional Icelandic food at Cafe Loki – a casual restaurant near the Church of Hallgrimur that is renowned for having the best reasonably priced food in town. It was here that we discovered the joy that is Icelandic rye bread. Banish all thoughts of sour English rye from your head- Icelandic rye is made with a hefty dose of golden syrup, making it taste like malt-loaf’s less fruity Nordic cousin. In fact, we were so impressed that we finished our meal with some Rye Bread ice-cream, which is an absolute must-try.
Now is the time for my first confession – we missed the northern lights. Yes, it hurts even to type it. We were tucked up in bed when our dorm-mate told us that the lights were dancing out over the harbour. Feeling cocky and confident that the coming days would provide multiple opportunities for better sightings, we stayed in bed. Yep, you read it right; we chose sleep over the northern lights. Spoiler alert – the coming days did not provide any northern lights sightings.
The next morning was the beginning of our action packed 3-day tour with Arctic Adventures. The tour would cover all the highlights of Southern Iceland at a hopefully not too brake-neck speed. The tour is something I would recommend and was made even better by our tour guide, Jonas, who made the long drives as much fun as the sightseeing with his tales of local folklore and Icelandic playlists. A snowstorm had turned the landscape into a glittering blankness, and when Jonas told us tales of Icelandic ghosts, it felt like they could almost be true.
The next two days were a blur of sights: sunrise walks on black sand beaches, towering geysers, the vast expanse of the Thingveller national park. My highlight was the ice cave, which we entered at the end of the day as the sky was turning lilac. While it was full of tourists jostling for the best photos it was incredible to see this natural phenomenon to see up close. The three-day tour included accommodation at a couple of hotels where meals could be picked up for around £20 for a main course. While it was nice to eat with everybody else, there was no pressure to have expensive meals and the second night had a cheaper restaurant close by for those who wanted it. Breakfasts were included both days and were hearty buffet style, with lots of Icelandic yoghurt and pastries.
Our final day was the one I was most looking forward to the Jökulsarlón glacier lagoon and a glacier hike. When I first started researching the tour I was entranced by photos of the glacier lagoon – I didn’t know you could see things like that outside the ‘real’ Arctic. The lagoon was even used as a standing for Svalbard in the tv show Fortitude. We spent ages taking photos and drinking in the atmosphere, before heading off for the glacier hike.
Now for my second confession – the glacier hike was awful. I had imagined a short traverse across a relatively flat glacier but was instead faced with a genuine hike up and down a 30-degree incline on the ground that was as slippery as an ice cube. It was probably all very safe, and we were fitted with crampons, but the moment images of slipping into icy crevasses entered my mind it was game over. Once your legs start shaking it’s hard to get enough momentum to push the crampons into the ice, making it much harder to get traction. That, combined with my fear of falling, meaning that I reverted to full on the damsel in distress mode and had to have my hand held all the way down. If there’s one thing I hate it’s bad at things, so I spent the evening in a bit of a huff, comforted slightly by the fact that an old ankle injury had flared up and it hurt to walk – at least I could blame some of my ineptitude on that. This experience, and my subsequent drive to prove that I’m not rubbish in icy conditions may or may not be behind my current plan to enter the polar night race in Tromso next year.
Despite its inauspicious end, our trip to Iceland was the trip of a lifetime and made me a full on cold-weather-holiday convert. Yes, we missed out on the northern lights but, as we discovered, there’s so much more to Iceland than the aurora.
Helen Cross | @Helen_Estelle