In September we were able to visit Iceland to go to my sister’s wedding. We love to travel but initially, Iceland wasn’t top on our list of places in the world to visit. We were pleasantly surprised as Iceland over delivered on any expectations we had. On the way to the airport, we even did a little planning for a trip back in the future. We loved our experience in Iceland. I can’t recommend visiting enough, especially considering how close it is to the east coast of the US. I’ll run through some of the things I thought you might be interested in hearing about, but please let me know what questions you have- I’d love to answer them!
We were in Iceland from August 31st through September 6th, 2016. It ended up being a great time of year to go. It rained a bit, but there were also beautiful sunny days. The daytime temperatures were mostly in the 40s & 50s, but they were a chilly 40s & 50s- I’m not sure if it was the breeze coming off the cold water or the fact that we live in Charleston and were used to summer, but it was definitely cold (check out the gear below, which definitely helped).
We ended up flying out of Jacksonville, FL since our amazing friend, Jessie was watching Hazel the dog while we were gone. We could have easily flown from Charleston- we flew on Icelandair and they’re partners with Jetblue (our favorite airline), so we flew from Jacksonville to Boston and then Boston to Reykjavik. The flight to Reykjavik was easy. It was five and a half hours and an overnight flight. The displays were at each seat on the plane and they were big and clear, which was a definite plus. The food situation wasn’t great on the plane (not too many choices, little included), so I would definitely plan to bring a snack with you and eat at the airport before you take off. All in all, we enjoyed Icelandair, and would definitely fly them again. I’ve also heard good things about Wow Air (my sister, the bride, flew them and liked it). One of the major benefits of both of the Icelandic airlines is the stopover. Your flight isn’t technically from the US to Iceland if you do a stopover. It’s to your other location- you get a free trip to Iceland (for up to 7 days) on your way to or way back from your European destination- ours was to London so we could go visit with my other sister.
We love an overnight flight, so when we landed, we were mostly ready to go and get our day started…which led to the longest driving trip of our Iceland trip (and one of our favorite things): the Jokulsarlon & Fjallsarlon iceberg lagoons. Make no mistake- it ended up 12-13 hour operation from the Reykjavik airport, but was definitely worth it. We rented a car from SixT (which operates in the US, as well) and stopped at a gas station/market (it’s on the left as you head out of the airport toward Reykjavik city) to get a SIM card for our Blu travel phone. We got a Siminn carrier card and we’re so glad to have done it. We mostly used it for GPS navigation while we were exploring. It was nice to be able to message in the car, but it was fantastic to have it to search for things to do online and then pop them into Google Maps. We didn’t have any issues and made for happy, harmonious car journeys (read: no navigational squabbles). I think the bus service is relatively good in Iceland, but many things outside of Reykjavik are very isolated, so if you’re planning to do exploring, definitely plan to rent a car.
We always tend to order travel books leading up to trips (even if our first chance to look at them is while traveling to the destination) to get a good idea of what we’ll do. I love the internet (especially Tripadvisor), but it can get a little overwhelming…and some planes don’t have wifi- so having a book is a definite plus. For this one, we go the Eyewitness Travel Top 10: Iceland (which was okay- it was a good starting place) and the Lonely Planet Iceland book (which we loved). Additionally, we got the National Geographic Iceland Adventure map, which we only used to confirm which roads were F roads (more on that below). The Lonely Planet book was our favorite because it was comprehensive. It had pretty much everything you might like to do in Iceland within its pages. I definitely recommend ordering it from Amazon before your trip. Keep in mind that while things are written in Icelandic, almost every sign is also in English and every person we encountered spoke English and was very friendly…so asking locals for recommendations was an an option, too.
Before we get into our Top 10 things to do, as I reflected on our trip, these are some items I’m glad I did or wish I’d done:
- Bring Platypus containers to bring water on your adventures. The water in Iceland out of the tap is glorious…I mean it’s from glaciers! It was nice to have water in the car and not have to stop, which really wasn’t even an option on some of the more remote areas. (I would get the hose kit that is available for it- dumping the water from the Platypus to the bottle was a little ungainly)
- Buy drinks at duty free BEFORE you leave the airport. Seriously, alcohol is expensive in Iceland and there’s some pretty interesting stuff in the duty-free (I got a rhubarb liqueur) (If you really like your wine while you’re traveling, here’s a Pro Tip: I bought a white wine (because clothes) Wine Cube from Target, wrapped it in plastic and flew it with me. I was glad I did).
- Unless you’re there for a bachelor/ette party, get a house outside Reykjavik rather than the downtown area. Reykjavik is a pretty small city, it’s easy to get around, but it’s just like every other city. The magic is outside of downtown. Especially if you’re going during Northern Lights season (September-March)- you’ll want to be away from the lights of the city. We stayed here and it was perfect. The hot tub was an added bonus for spying the Northern Lights and we loved the wood stove.
- Bring snacks for in the car- just like with the water, sometimes stops are few and far between. Often, there will be gas stations that you need to use your card for (make sure you have pin/chip) and there is no market. Either bring car-ready snacks from home or visit a grocery store and stock up. You’ll be glad you did- no one likes being hangry.
- If you’re planning to Offroading? Get an SUV for F roads- they’re the more rugged roads (read: often ones that take you to amazing stuff like glaciers). It’s illegal for you to take a ‘regular car’ on an F road and they’re pretty strict about it, so don’t. If you think you’ll want to be on F roads, get an appropriate SUV.
- Dress warm- even in August/September, I was cold. See my gear list below. Plan to dress in layers…warm ones.
- Bring some warm, waterproof boots. I was in mine the whole time (except during wedding events) and was glad I had them.
Our Top 10 Things to do
- Jokulsarlon & Fjarllsarlon iceberg lagoons: these two lagoons were amazing. Hands down. My sister sent a photo from there and from the second we saw it, we knew we wanted to go. Full Disclosure: this was the 12-13 hour day of driving, straight from the airport. It’s a great trip, it also drives you right by #7 on our list (which we stopped at). If you can, go to both lagoons. Jokulsarlon was more crowded and you can see it from the road. If you make it there, you’ve just passed Fjallsarlon- it’s back about half a mile on the right- go there too. There are zodiacs there that will take you out into the lagoon- we did not do that, but it looked pretty great.
- Northern Lights: this was tied for the number one thing we did on our trip and it was no surprise. Seeing the Northern Lights was a bucket list item for me, so do be able to do it was such a treat, especially because while the ‘season’ for them starts in September, you have to get lucky to see them before October. Our first night in Iceland, in a hot tub, drinking wine and the sky went crazy. If for no other reason, go see the Northern Lights…it was magic.
- Over mountain/glacier on rt 54 (Snaefellsnes peninsula): this one was a bit of a surprise. The day after my sister’s wedding was a bright, blue sky day- basically perfect for adventuring. The wedding was at the Black Church/Hotel Budir (stay there if you can- it’s charming), on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula- running from the Hotel Budir to Olafsvik is route 54 which drives by a glacier. When we were there there wasn’t a whole lot of glacier left (end of the summer), but I can imagine that it would be pretty spectacular, since it was beautiful when we were there. We even slid down an icy/glacier bit.
- Golden Circle: If you check out our ‘next time in Iceland list’, you’ll see that Ring Road is on there. It takes a long time to complete and I’m not sure that we’d really do it anyway, but the Golden Circle is a lil’ bit of Ring Road- and only takes a day. We enjoyed this day trip- we went with my extended family (it’s a good one for kids & older people), very tourist-friendly. The Geysir area was definitely a highlight- Strokkur it erupts regularly (every couple of minutes or so), which gives you the chance to see it from multiple angles.
- Blue Lagoon: I loved the Blue Lagoon. We spent an entire day here, and considered going back during our layover from the UK. Blue Lagoon is a relaxing, slow day. You’ll certainly want to book it ahead, and choose an early reservation- once you’re in, you can stay as long as you like. A couple of things to note- don’t wear your best new swimsuit- the silica in the water did a number on mine. A friend of mine stayed at the hotel and posted photos of the private pool for hotel guests- I would definitely think about booking that should you have an overnight. Blue Lagoon is a close drive to the airport, so you could use that as your stay over hotel.
- Waterfalls: Visiting the waterfalls was a high point for us- we love visiting waterfalls wherever we are (except at home…none here). Two of our favorites were Skogafoss and Gulfoss we ended up joking that we #LoveTheFoss (since all waterfall names end in -foss).
- Vik Black Sand Beach: As I mentioned with #1, this is on the way to the iceberg lagoons and a nice leg-stretch stop point. There’s another spot in Iceland that is supposed to be black sand that turned out to be black pebbles (bust), but this beach truly is black sand. Matty has been to a black sand beach in Hawaii, he said that one has nothing on Vik. It’s tar-black sand. Don’t miss it.
- Coast Hike (Arnarstapi): This hike goes right along cliffs next to the ocean. It’s beautiful, although it can be breezy and chilly. It’s a short drive from Hotel Budir. There were a good number of people walking along. The trail is well-cared for and lovely. Just keep an eye on the littles if you’re traveling with kids.
- Lunch at Hraun in Olafsvik: Hraun was a delicious surprise. After we drove route 54 (see # 3), we were looking for something to eat. Options were slim since September is apparently off season (keep that in mind when traveling outside of Reykjavik), but Hraun was a wonderful surprise. The food was all fresh and delightful. Matty, my mama, & I all had a cod special with roasted vegetables. It was perfect- the fish was fresh and had enormous flakes- like bigger than I’ve ever seen. There’s even a bakery in across the street to the right that has nice treats. We went for a walk on the beach after we ate, which was also nice. There are steps to the beach next to the shower (you’ll see it).
- Scenery & taking photos: I knew there would be beautiful things to see, but didn’t realize how much there would be. If you have a DSLR, bring it- you’ll regret it if you only have your phone camera with you. Iceland is breathtaking.
My must have gear list:
- Down coat (with hood), long if possible. It’s cold & the wind is a little rough.
- Sorrel Boots (these made my feet very happy, indeed)
- Travel Dress (it’s true, I love to travel in a dress and this one was comfy for sleeping and looked great)
- Platypus water containers (two of the 2-liter size/~$9) these are a necessity- we were very thankful to have them and they compress flat when empty.
- Unlocked travel phone- we have this Blu phone (it $60 right now) it was easy to get a SIM card, pop it in and go. The only slight issue was that the activation texts were in Icelandic, so that took a minute to figure out. Our carrier was Siminn.
- Lonely Planet Iceland travel guide
- Car snacks (I brought kind bars and fruit leather- both from Costco)
So, surprise! We ended up loving Iceland far more than we thought we would. As we were driving to the airport we did our classic reflection, where we write what we loved in the book. To our collective astonishment, we made a: What would we do on our second trip to Iceland? list.
- Glacier Tour
- 4×4 tour (Highlands)
- Hidden/Natural geothermal pools (there’s a big list, and I really wanted to go- but we ran out of time).
- Krossneslaug (pool on arctic ocean)
- Myvatn nature baths
- Northern Lights (again)
- The volcano
- Ring Road?
All told, we were so glad my sister got married in Iceland. We’ve been doing a lot of recommending for the same trip. What did you love about Iceland? What would you if you were able to visit?