Winter Holidays: Iceland

This December, I had a week’s holidays from work that I had to take before 2012, or they’d disappear into whatever ether bureaucratic allowances go. So off I flew to Iceland. In winter. Bear with me, it’s not as mad an idea as you might think…

Yes, Iceland in winter is, um, icy. And snowy–as the plane descended, I leaned out the window looking for my first sight of land, because I’m a kid like that, but it took me a few minutes to realise that I’d been staring at it for several minutes. I just hadn’t recognised it, because it was just all snow. And there is only about four hours of daylight.

But it’s also cheaper than at any other time of year, stunningly beautiful, and still has a lot to offer if you’re willing to bring the thermals. I saw the Northern Lights, did the most challenging diving of my life in one of the most beautiful locations ever–Þingvallavatn–ate fantastically well, and even ticked something off my Life List.

So, here are my non-patented travel tips for a wintry Iceland:

  • Keep your eyes open: Reykavík has lots of street art, from instructional to fun to dramatic PSAs to just plain interesting.
    small selection of street art in Reykjavík

    It also has a lot of vintage clothing shops.  And though the daylight is short, sunrise and sunset last a looong time, so you have plenty of chances to drink in the gorgeous pink and gold light bouncing off the snowy mountains without leaving the city. Plus you can sleep in til at least 10:30am and still be on time to catch the dawn. Septimus Hodge would love it.

“What a bracing experience! The dawn, you know. Unexpectedly lively. Fishes, birds, frogs . . . rabbits . . . and very beautiful. If only it did not occur so early in the day.” – Septimus Hodge in Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Excellently planned, Iceland.

  • Bring thermal undergarments and boots suitable for snow. It isn’t actually that cold, as daytime temperatures in Reykjavík were in and around freezing–probably all you Canadians and New Englanders are laughing at me right now–but if you’re used to a more temperate climate, then you’ll need them. And a hat. And gloves. And if you go outside the city, which you will, a balaclava is useful to stop that awkward it’s-so-cold-your-eyes-are-watering-but-it’s-ok-because-you-can’t-feel-your-face thing. Windchill of -20C will do that to a person. They all wear the thick wool jumpers for a reason.

    Sigur Rós-related street art outside the hostel

 

  • If my camera was visible, everyone spoke to me in English straight away. Other times, they gave me the benefit of the doubt and went straight for the Icelandic. I adored this–Icelandic sounds gorgeous and has an exacting history–even though the Icelandic I knew was limited to “Thank you very much,” “Good day,” and “Do you speak English?” Your mileage may vary, though, and perhaps it only worked like that for me because being and looking Irish–blue eyes, pale, freckles–gave me an in. (Approximately 70% of the original female settlers of Iceland were Irish, Scottish, or Hebridean. And the closest relative of the Iceland horse is the Shetland pony. Thank you, extensive Icelandic genetic research and the 871+/-2 Settlement Exhibition).

 

  • If you want privacy but can’t afford a hotel for long, book a private room in a hostel. I stayed in the HI Downtown hostel in a private ensuite room, and it was great: the room was spacious, warm, and clean; the kitchen was good enough to keep you going; they had free wifi for checking out all possible Golden Circle options; and they’re a short walk to the harbour and the city centre.

 

  • Speaking of the Golden Circle tour: if you’re just doing the basics (Geysir, Þingvillir, Gullfoss), there’s no need to pay a buttload of money for it. On the advice of the receptionist at the hostel, I booked a company I wouldn’t have looked twice at based on its flyer. But my tour cost at least half of some of the others, and the only difference I saw was that the vehicle wasn’t quite as snazzy, but still comfortable and safe. We went to the same places–and some extras–as the other, more expensive tours, and I had a great day, learned some tidbits about Iceland from the guide (such as no-one knows how many horses actually live there, and how exactly women were executed at Thingvillir) and saved myself at least 10,000kr…

    Thingvillir at sunset
    One of the prettier execution sites I've seen (Thingvillir national park)
  • … Which is good, because I’d already spent at least that on one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten: at the Fish Market, owned and run by a badass lady, the absurdly young head chef and co-owner, Hrefna Rósa Saetran. The lobster coconut soup with mussels and mandarins has been appearing in my dreams on a regular basis.
  • On my last night, I went to the Blue Lagoon outside Grindavík, and also a short–when the roads are cleared–drive from Keflavík, where the international airport is. I stayed at the Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel, which seems impossibly posh, but–given that it was winter–was very reasonably priced, especially since it gave free entry to the Blue Lagoon itself (a short walk away), with free towels and robe, and free breakfast. Plus views like this from the window:

    View from my hotel room

In high tourist season, I can see how the Lagoon could be too crowded, but in winter, it was perfect. The water was beautifully hot, and then evaporated into steam as soon as it touched the freezing air. The pool is large enough to easily find your own space, and I floated happily, surrounded by steam, snow, and the stars for hours. I also got an in-water floating massage–not a euphemism, I promise–from a quiet man called Aron, dressed for the job in swimming shorts, winter jacket, and wool hat. It’s up there with the most perfectly relaxing and blissful experiences of my life.

The greatest compliment I can give somewhere is that I feel like I only scratched the surface of what it had to offer and I’d go back in a heartbeat–New Zealand is one place that fits that description for me, and Iceland is another. Iceland in winter is not as crazy a proposition as people may think, although next time I’d aim for spring or autumn to be able to access more of the country and drive myself around a bit.

Have I convinced you to go to Iceland now right now? What other places would you recommend for a winter holiday?

All photos copyright of me. No stealing, please.

28 thoughts on “Winter Holidays: Iceland”

  1. I’ve wanted to go to Iceland ever since watching an archaeology show about it on the History Channel with my dad. It seems like such a beautiful country, and as a tough Canadian person I can definitely handle to cold (-20? More like summer!). I’ll have to save up money and get a passport and go sometime.

    1. I was only able to see the areas close to Reykjavík, but what I saw was beautiful, and it’s supposed to be even better elsewhere. It’s totally worth the passport fee, I promise:)

      The history is interesting as well – the settlement museum I mentioned is named after the archaeological dating of the oldest excavated longhouse in Reykjavík ,which agrees almost too perfectly with the written records, which names it as 873CE.

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