Some time ago I was talking with my husband to go on our honeymoon to a place where not so many people will actually go. It was later, much later when we discovered that there are a lot of couples spending their honeymoon in Iceland.
For the past few months we were planning a trip in 3. I wanted to spend this Christmas with my father. Unfortunately, the weather was too bad and his flight was cancelled.
So we went on our trip.
At the landing, we were told to look through the window on our right – the sky was on fire! We saw the aurora borealis or the Northern lights. I had a window sit – so lucky! The cabin crew won’t turn off the lights and will not dim the lights either. I tried to take a picture of it, but it’s not clear and with a lot of reflections…too bad, I thought, but there are many other opportunities to actually see the aurora borealis, perhaps soon after landing.
At Kefavlik airport was a great weather – snow storm – but who cares? The ground was all white and I haven’t seen so much snow in ages! I was so happy, excited and all smiles.
We knew that Iceland is notoriously expensive and we did some research. First, we gave up on self drive and opted for tours – I know, it sounds very laid back, but in WINTER time is better this way. It is the safest option!
Then we decided to take a bus, instead of a taxi. Much cheaper – if booked in advance – and it takes you to your accommodation. There are 2 companies, one is Reykjavik Excursions and the other one is Airport Express or the Gray Line. Have your tickets printed out, to avoid delays.
Due to our party – 3 people – we have searched and booked a room for 3. We have got a spacious room with 2 singles and a sofa. It was clean and warm. Our breakfast was simple, but delicious. Withing walking distance from the old town, Reykjavik Lights, was a good choice for us. If you do not like walking (about 25-30 minutes), then consider a hotel much closer to the downtown. Attached to this hotel you will find a restaurant serving pizza and at 2 minutes a Vietnamese restaurant which is much better than the one on the main street. A lot more restaurants are lined up on the way to the city center, so plenty of choice.
Keep in mind that in winter some of the guesthouses and hotels are closed. At Christmas and New Year, the country almost shuts down – you will have to book in advance your restaurant otherwise you may find yourself in a very interesting situation. Supermarkets are closed, shops as well, tours are very few, if any, and a limited number of restaurants are open for business.
We have had various foods, but we could not not try the Icelandic cuisine. On Christmas day, we went to Lækjarbrekka. Lækjarbrekka is a classic Icelandic restaurant, operated since 1981. You cannot miss it, it is not too far from Harpa and from the city hall. It is located in one of the main streets. The building is one of the oldest and most iconic in the city.
We have tried the Icelandic lamb and the salty cod.Both dishes were delicious. Be aware of the price. Food in Iceland is more probably more expensive than you’d expect. A glass of Bordeaux at this restaurant is about £16. Do not skip the desserts. They are very nice too!
On another occasion, we have had dinner at a different restaurant – Matwerk. It seemed new because the staff was not too familiar with the arrangement (which table has which number). It seemed a bit hectic, but the food was delicious. It is about on the same price range as Lækjarbrekka, but it has a cosy and modern twist.
If you do not have a reservation, try to have your dinner around 5:30pm. It seemed that locals and tourists are going out for dinner at 7pm. In this way you avoid crowds and you may be lucky to have a table at your desired restaurant.
Coffee shops are plenty. We could not try one of them – Kaffibrennslan. Their cappuccino and hot chocolate are good, but do not take the carrot cake, unless you like very sweet cakes. It is worth to mention that the portion of the cake is quite generous too.
If you want to do some shopping and depending on what exactly you are looking for, go to the Red Cross shops first. You may find something you want, at a discounted price. Icelandic sweaters are very nice and most of the shops sell the same models, but prices may vary from shop to shop. Do not wait to buy at the airport. At the airport these sweaters are a bit more expensive and you have few models to choose from.
Because we went on Christmas Eve, we had plenty of time to enjoy Reykjavik. We had enough snow to build a snowman and it seemed that people in the city were doing exactly the same thing. We saw a kangaroo, a fat Buddha and many smaller or taller snowmen.
Harpa, I have mentioned about it earlier, is the concert hall. We were planning to go to Björk Digital – an experimental VR project, a total merging of Björk’s music and cutting-edge technology that expands the musical experiment realm – but we could not make it due to late return to Reykjavik. Besides Björk Digital, there are many other events to choose from.
Due to poor visibility and low clouds, we did not see the aurora borealis, but our guides were brave or I should say VERY brave to go ahead with the tours on snow and rain storms. You probably read in many places and blogs about how expensive Iceland is and how unpredictable the weather is. Well, this post will not make an exception. The weather is changing every 30-45 minutes. You do not know if it will be raining, snowing or you’ll have clear sky above your head – and if you do, for how long it will last.
Winter in Iceland does not mean snow, it means snow, rain, strong wind and if you’re lucky clear sky. We saw a rainbow on our last day, so everything is possible! Bring warm, waterproof, windproof clothes, shoes, gloves and bags. A protection for your face will come handy as well. Fat, moisturizing cream is what you will need. Don’t forget to buy one, if you do not have it already.
We selected 3 tours: the Golden Circle, the South Coast and horse riding. Our favorite was the South Coast part, and this mainly because the guides were funny and we had a great time. The landscape everywhere you go is just amazingly beautiful.
On these 3 tours (3 more were cancelled due to weather conditions) we have learnt some interesting facts about Iceland and its people. Here are some (that I remember):
- Icelanders do believe in Elves. The nation believes that these creatures/spirits live in stones. When the country was building the ring road, the constructors stumbled upon a large stone in the middle of the road. As they could not simply blow it up, they have stopped the works and invited an elf specialist to give them an advice. The decision was to remove the entire stone and transport it to an island where the elf will be happy and safe.
- Besides Elves, Icelanders believe in Trolls. These guys/girls live in caves and go out only in the night. At the sunrise they hide. If they do not manage to do it, they become stones.
- Iceland is located on 2 tectonic plates – North American and Eurasian. Where these 2 plates move apart one from another (with an impressive speed of 2 cm per year) earthquakes and volcanoes erupt. In one of the villages a deep crack in the ground appeared. Initially, builders were thinking to fill it with concrete, but it was decided to cover it with a thick glass instead. If you go to the Golden Circle tour, you will probably stop over there.
- Warm thermal water is used for heating not only houses, but also greenhouses. The same water is in the Blue Lagoon and in any pool of the country – even in your shower 🙂
- Icelandic horses are unique. Icelanders take a national pride in these horses, do not call them ponies! The first impression of the horses is that they are very fluffy, shorter than their cousins on the continent (Europe) and have strong legs. Regardless of your experience in riding horses, you will be given the chance to ride one – it’s the mindset of learning by doing.
- Talking about horses, there are no wild horses in Iceland. All the horses are owned by someone, but they are left to roam free. Their owners, however, will make sure that their horses have enough food when it’s snowing or the weather conditions are difficult.
- There are no large carnivores in Iceland. The largest of all is the arctic fox. It is a very beautiful animal with red fur in summer and white in winter. Because their favorite food are the mountain lambs, these animals were close to extinction. The government intervened and now these animals are safe, but their number is controlled to make sure that no harm is done.
- All the salmon produced in Iceland is wild salmon. Some of the rivers are so clean that one can drink water directly from the river. (You can drink tap water. That’s what Icelanders do.)
- The country is self sufficient. It produces vegetables, berries, meat and fish it needs. In fact, the largest banana plantation in Europe is also in Iceland. Who would have thought about it? 🙂
- Dairy products are very very good and not expensive. Skyr is one of my favorite products. It reminded me of one of the products we have at home in Moldova – brinzica.
- More and more tourists are including Iceland in their “to do” list. Icelanders understood that having not so many natural resources, they need to do something about it and ran a promotion campaign worldwide after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. The news channels and their promotional campaign helped the country to gain more visibility and interest from people around the wold. If in 2015 about 700,000 people visited Iceland, in 2016 the estimated number is around 1,700,000 tourists!
- Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon and cannot be predicted or told with 100% certainty when and where it will appear. There are several websites which can help you understand what will be the chances for you to see it, but in clear winter nights, you can see it also in Reykjavik – just find a less bright place. One such website is Vedur.
- Do not drive in winter. Some people do, but to stay on the safe side, better trust professionals. The wind is very strong and roads can be slippery. As the saying goes, better safe than sorry.
- All the tall trees are not native to Iceland…at least this is what we have been told. The native ones are not very tall and look more like a bush.
- Do not walk or drive on the moss. If you do that then you will seriously damage the moss. Let’s respect the nature and keep it beautiful for many other people 😉
We have stayed 5 nights and at the end of our stay, we knew that we will probably be back before the winter ends. We still want to see the aurora borealis and few more places we have missed.
Travel safe and wise!