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Iceland and the Northern Lights

 

Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik

Blue lagoon

Iceland is one of those locations that few considered visiting until very recently. It was exotic and cold and well… rather icy. But over the last few years it seems that Iceland has become the location du jour.  It feels like everyone is going or has gone to Iceland.  It seems that way for a good reason.  Last year, at the height of travel season (in the summer) there were more tourists in Iceland than residents!  Thats pretty incredible considering that the location is not a typical vacation location – the beaches don’t inspire swimming, the weather is cool to freezing and at times daylight can be at a premium.  

And yet, Iceland’s dark and severe beauty inspires travelers from all over the world for an adventure like no other.

I traveled to Iceland in October and my experiences, like the experiences of so many travelers will inspire me to come back many times to explore this island.


The first think you should know about Iceland is that it was misnamed.  The legend says that in the first century war broke out among Norwegian Vikings.  Some fled and encountered a beautiful, green island that was just perfect for them. But they were afraid of their enemies pursuing and taking their land so they send word back that they landed on a cold icy land.  It worked and no one ever came after them, they lived in peace and prosperity for all future generations.  The history of this story does appear to be dubious but one thing is definitely true – Iceland is beautiful and green and very habitable.

When traveling to Iceland you have two main options for transport.  Wow Air and Air Iceland.  Wow Air is a discount airline and we all know what that means.  Still, its a fast and cheap way to get to this beautiful location and as long as you are packing my travel kit and the price is right go for it.  Air Iceland is a more traditional airline with more traditional service.

For many people who come here, Iceland is not their final destination. In fact, the reason for Iceland’s new found popularity is that its halfway between United States and Europe. Recently Iceland became a stop-over for many people on their way to London or Berlin or Barcelona.  As a stop-over it can be awesome too – one day here gives you enough time to visit the famous blue lagoon and party in Reykjavik for an evening.  But this incredible places deserves a lot more exploration and my longer trip is what I will be writing about in this blog post.


Two major options for your stay in Iceland

Iceland's blue lagoon makes great pictures.

Sunset in Iceland’s blue lagoon.

When traveling in Iceland you have two basic options for location. First is to stay in Reykjavik and use it as your home base for getting to attractions in proximity to the capital.  The second is to rent a car and drive around the island stopping in different locations along the way.  Our trip was only five days so we stayed in Reykjavik. The disadvantage is that of course you are limited geographically with this strategy, but there was still plenty to see.

We chose not to rent a car and so we used tour companies to get to all the attractions.  There are two main companies in Reykjavik: Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line Iceland.  They are big and impersonal but they also provide solid service and good prices.  The advantage of renting a car is the flexibility, however, car rental is not cheap and a few travelers have mentioned to me “additional fees” some companies add when you bring the car back. Be careful and check out the reviews if you decide to get a rental car in Iceland.

warningIceland Travel Tip: Always check out online reviews for rental car companies in Iceland.  Some companies have been known to charge exorbitant fees when you return your car.

 

Northern Lights:

Beautiful Northern Lights in Iceland.

The Northern lights are breathtaking.


Almost all northern cultures have a myth that explains the northern lights phenomenon. The people of Siberia believe the lights are the souls of the recently departed. The Inuit, people of Alaska, believe they are the shapes of animals that they have hunted like whales and seals. The people of Iceland don’t have a mythological explanation for the lights, but do believe that if a pregnant woman looks at the northern lights her child will be born cross eyed. When traveling to Iceland northern lights are on everyone’s list.

There is no guarantee you will get to see the Northern Lights, but traveling in the fall, winter and spring gives you the best chance (the summer months are usually too light). Northern Lights  are only visible on clear nights but the local companies have developed a nice system that increases your success of catching the lights. If you are going with a tour company, book your northern lights tour on the first night of your stay. At 5 pm that evening the company will make a call if the trip is worth doing. If they believe the chance is too low they will cancel it – and give you an opportunity to try again the next night. You can keep trying every night until you get lucky. As for me, I got to see them the first night 😉 some girls have all the luck 🙂

warningIceland Travel Tip: Book your northern lights tour for the first night of your arrival. If the weather is inclement you’ll get a chance to go the next night and the next free of charge.

 

The Blue Lagoon:

Iceland, blue lagoon - beautiful picture.

The blue lagoon

Blue Lagoon is an iconic Icelandic experience and one that should not be missed. A huge pool of naturally warmed volcanic water, it is located halfway between the airport and the city of Reykjavik.

The best time to get here is directly after landing. A shuttle bus will pick you up at the airport, leave you at blue lagoon for as long as you wish and deliver you to the door of your hotel. The locker area is equipped with large lockers where you can store your luggage. To access this special area you must purchase a ticket at least a month in advance and you can arrange for your shuttle during that time. Bring with you your bathing suit and flip flops, a towel can be rented. If you are in the mood for a splurge enjoy several unique spa treatments available only here at the blue lagoon – and no where else in the world. Best time to visit is any three seasons other than summer, when it gets too crowded and also too warm.

warningIceland Travel Tip: Book Blue Lagoon tickets at least a month in advance. Book the shuttle to take you from the airport to Blue Lagoon and afterwards to your hotel.

 

Pingvellir National Park:

Pingvellir or Thingvellir national park is part of the golden circle.

Pingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park at sunset.

Pingvellir, an Icelandic national park and a UNESCO heritage site was once a seat of an ancient democracy. The assembly, known as the Albingi began to gather here shortly before 930 AD. They gathered here for a few weeks every summer to enact laws and rule on legal disputes. The assembly was open to all, and anyone had the right to address the assembly from the Logberg (the Law Rock). The assembly functioned until 1662 when Iceland swore the allegiance to the king of Denmark. Old trails used for the assembly have been reconfigured to hiking and riding trails and are accessible today. The remains of old shelters used for assembly are located on the parliament site.

Besides hiking the park boasts ample fishing opportunities.  The lake in this park has been landlocked for 10 thousand years. Fishing is permitted here and permits can be purchased at the information center. Through this park runs the “plate divide,” the division between the North American and the Eurasian continents. The plates continue to move apart even today, at the rate of 2 cm a year. The Pingvellir national park is one of very few places in the world where you see this divide on land (most of the divide runs in the depth of the ocean). We visited this park as part of our golden circle tour.

 


 

 

The Incredible Shrinking Glacier:

Sólheimajökull glacier is the incredible shirking glacier.

Sólheimajökull The incredible shrinking glacier

Sólheimajökull glacier, also knows as the incredible shrinking glacier, has shrunk by over a kilometer in the last decade. The lagoon you see in front of me in the picture used to be part of the glacier but has now permanently melted. This glacier is an outlet glacier type, basically an overspill from the greater Mýrdalsjökull glacier which covers a powerful (and currently dormant) volcano.

The Sólheimajökull glacier is considered to be very easy to explore and is a perfect beginner glacier. There are multiple tour companies that can take you here, all of them hire a professional ice guide and provide you with ice climbing equipment. Icelandic mountain guides is one company I would recommend if you chose to visit here. This is not an experience you can do in jeans or a sweatshirt, make sure to have waterproof pants and jacket and lots of non cotton layers. If the weather is inclement your tour may be cancelled and your money refunded. The glacier is still worth a visit – even if you never get to go on. Catch this one while you can as it’s going to recede every year for the foreseeable future.


 

The Capital: Reykjavik

Opera house in Reykjavik

Reykjavik capital opera house

Iceland is considered one of the safest countries in the world, and Reykjavik , its capital, one of the nicest country capitals. The reputation holds true – locals are incredibly polite and helpful, atmosphere is relaxed. Reykjavik is an expensive place and a modest lunch will run you around $30 to $40. One fun trick to save money is to hit local happy hour (from 4 to 6 pm most days) atthe bars.

Harpa is a large building in the center of Reykjavik, both its cultural and architectural center. Attend musical performances here, catch a cinema or just wonder the beautiful building’s museum like shops. Harpa boasts one of the fanciest restaurants in the country, Kolabrutin, be sure to hit it for a high end romantic dinner after a musical performance. Harpa is beautifully situated on the water, the waterfront here is a lovely place to take a stroll any time of year – just be sure to bundle up.

warningIceland Travel Tip: Hit the happy hour in Reykjavik and get food and drinks at half price (from 4 to 6 pm).

The Original Geyser:

“Geysir” is an Icelandic word that means fearful, powerful blower. A geyser is a vent in Earth’s surface that periodically ejects a column of hot water and steam, the ones located here at Geysir site release water and steam at about 100 degrees Celsius – boiling hot. When visiting the area there are signs everywhere not to touch the water, yet some tourists do not adhere to this request and get hurt. Currently the most active geyser here is called “the strokkyur” it normally erupts every 10 minutes although when I visited it was closer to every 2 minutes. Watching a large geyser erupt is an amazing view and one activity you shouldn’t miss while in Iceland. We visited here as part of our golden circle tour.


Iceland’s broody, severe beauty is most evident when the weather doesn’t go your way. Pick a stormy day, the kind of day best spend inside, and dress warm. 4 layers or so is a must. Drive out to a secluded volcanic beach, leave your familiar trappings of civilization far behind. Here, faced with a powerful storm, you alone can see nature as it has been seen by our ancestors for millions of years – untamed, dangerous, beautiful.

Be careful, the waves are powerful and unpredictable and hundreds of people have died swept away into the sea here. Stay on your feet and be prepared to move if the water moves – fast. Feel the wind and rain on your face. Listen to the powerful pounding of the ocean, your world suddenly transformed to black and white. To be alone, but safe, while nature is raging around you, on this island formed by millions of years of volcanic activity, trapped between two tectonic plates, between two worlds, is a privilege afforded to few.

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