In November, I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland for my first time. For the past couple of years, I had read articles about Iceland, seen pictures on travel websites, and I was intrigued at the opportunity to see the northern lights in action! So off I went on an Icelandic Adventure!
Luckily, I was able to meet up with an old traveling friend (if "old" can characterize someone you've just met in the summer of 2016 while traveling in Africa, and then later met up with in NYC for a girls' weekend?) - Sara! After having done my fair share of solo traveling, I have learned that having friends around you when you travel makes the trip SO much more enjoyable!
Our first day in Iceland
We arrived in the early morning to Iceland and transferred to our hotel. For this trip, we stayed at Hotel Klettur (which apparently means "Big Rock" in Icelandic). It is a fairly centrally-located hotel, only steps from one of the main walking/eating streets in the capital city of Reykjavik. We spent the first few hours settling in, warming up, getting ourselves maps and a daily outline, then venturing out for coffee. I first stepped out wearing ballet flats and a light jacket, because the temperature read "30" degrees. It took about 1/2 a block to convince me to walk back and opt for my wool socks, Keen boots, and winter coat. I seriously underestimated the arctic chill of the air! When packing & planning, I thought, "no big deal - the 30's & 20's in Iceland? Meh." In my defense, I was raised in northern Montana near the Canadian border at a particular point where cold winds whip through the valley and sting your face. Dodson, Montana is undeniably cold and the winters are rugged and bitter. In my new home in Wyoming, I often feel like the winters are much more mild and the snow is wetter - thus making for a more pleasant winter experience. I thought I was tough. Really tough. And then --- Iceland happened. And I felt cold. Shaking off my disillusionment and my insensible ballet flats, I re-focused on touring Reykjavik for the day! Our first destination was Hallgrimskirkja!
Reykjavik City Center
Reykjavik is a beautiful town. I imagine it would be beautiful in any season. It offers up the true European feel of a city and tall colorful buildings at every turn. It is clean, and even more importantly, it is friendly! It turns out that many people who live there are immigrants from other places - sometimes travelers who visited and loved the landscapes so much that they wanted to make it their home.
Hallgrimskirkja is a beautiful Lutheran church that will not disappoint. It is the largest church in Iceland, and seems to be one of the very tallest buildings as well. On the outside, it is a bit plain by European "cathedral" standards, but the design is impressive. I would describe it as "powerful-looking." Like most churches, it is free to enter and look around. However, the best part of visiting this church is the view at the top of the bell tower. The fee to ride the elevator (the only point of access) to the observation deck at the top was 1,000 Icelandic Krona, equivalent to about $9.90 in U.S. dollars. The views back down were pretty impressive, but the wind at the top made me think twice about staying for long! The wind coming off the arctic sea at Reykjavik's coastline is seriously cold.
Next up for us was city-wandering and an attempt to eat and drink All. The. Things. So... we did!
We spent the majority of our day sightseeing throughout the city, visiting the coastline, and then having dinner out to sample Iceland's seafood scene and local beers.
For the following three days of our time in Iceland, we took tours/excursions away from the city - or at least we attempted! And we spent our nights on "northern lights hunting excursions" via bus. My favorite day was our 12-hour long excursion around Iceland's Golden Circle paired with our evening of "Northern Lights Hunting." This excursion introduced us to Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss Waterfall, and several geysers. If you intend to take this same trip - I highly advise that you bring back up batteries, chargers, etc. It seemed a common occurrence that our phones' batteries died quite quickly (maybe because of the extreme cold?) - which can be a stressor when trying to capture all of your memories and still have the ability to take night photos of the lights! Before our night time Lights Hunting - we stopped for a local meal where we were served a wonderful lamb supper. In Iceland, expect to eat a lot of seafood, and a lot of lamb! I bet I ate lamb six times during our five-day trip, and it was excellent each time. What impressed me most about Icelandic cuisine was their use of extravagant sauces. Every time I ate lamb, it tasted completely different, unique, magical, etc. because each time it was accompanied by an exciting new sauce. That evening we also visited a local hot springs to enjoy the hot waters at night time under the starry sky.
The Northern Lights
Okay - so... November is supposed to be a prime time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. And we did see something each night we went out. But did I really see the Northern Lights? For me, this was the part of the trip where expectation did not meet reality. We met other travelers from other countries who would show us their amazing photographs of the lights and they would rave about how beautiful they were. Then when we saw them, they just looked like white streaks across the sky to me. They almost seemed like very strange clouds. Our guide assured us that they were beautiful and bright, but where were the colors? When using our cameras, we could get pretty shots of the lights, and they would glow green because of the camera lenses, but I saw no colors in the sky, and I felt let down a bit. I spoke with others who were out on the same nights from different groups, and they relayed that they had seen colorful lights, but all I ever saw were white streaks. Hmmmm. Makes me wonder if we were being duped, or if the northern lights really are mostly white when seen by the naked eye? I needed a science teacher with me to explain the effect. While I understood going in that seeing the lights in the arctic sky was going to be weather dependent, and there were no guarantees, I was still a bit bummed about the lights (or lack of colors) we did get to see. Perhaps this will require another trip soon to investigate? :-)
The rest of my Iceland trip was spent eating, wandering, and exploring further out from Reykjavik. For one of our day-long excursions, we visited the Snaefellsness peninsula which was beautiful. I especially liked visiting Church Mountain, and eating the traditional plokkfiskur.
Of course, no trip to Iceland can be complete without a stop at the famous Blue Lagoon. If this is on your list, I would recommend visiting on your arrival day, or on your final day. The blue lagoon is essentially between Reykjavik and the airport, so it makes sense to visit the lagoon directly following your arrival flight or before your departure. It also offers constant shuttle service between the airport and the lagoon. We visited on our final day, which worked out perfectly for us! With a later flight, we were able to spend all morning soaking and relaxing. Then the facilities there are great for showering, preparing, etc - complete with toiletries, hairdryers, etc. - really anything you could need following your soak! For our final meal in Iceland, we dined at the Blue Lagoon's onsite restaurant, and I'm so glad that we did!
Very rarely in this life do I ever feel like I'm treated like "first-class," but I absolutely loved my time at this restaurant, primarily by chance. We walked in at the perfect moment, when they were seating a two-seater table at the large window overlooking the lagoon. For me, it was a surreal experience to sit and enjoy my last meal of ----- you guessed it ------ LAMB! We watched the unbelievably blue water strike a stark contrast against the dark black lava rock, and we toasted to another great trip before transferring to the airport and heading home.