Iceland – Day 4

The wind picked up after midnight, and the entire hotel creaked and groaned under the stress of the Icelandic winter. Though we were warm and safe inside, that wind sent a chill through our bodies.

The hotel has a nice common room with guests gathering for coffee and waffles. The owners are Icelandic, but the staff person from Spain was there. We met a lot of non-Icelandic workers in the tourism industry. One of our guides was Belgian. Many people love Iceland even though it is expensive.   

The staff person told us Iceland had closed the roads due to the storm. The high wind was dangerous, and we should not drive in it. However, she told us not to worry about checking out and enjoy the morning. The coffee was good, and I was on a roll reading Love In The Big City by Sang Young Park, so I was happy to just relax.

It’s funny how age and experience change the way you travel. When I started to travel, I wanted to tick off every box on my traveler’s checklist. I wanted to be efficient and see as much as I could. My motto was always, “there’s only one life and far more to see than I have time for,” but as I got older, I realized traveling isn’t just about seeing everything but also about taking a minute to see myself. So I was happy to fall deeper into my book and simply take the morning to myself.

While I was enjoying my waffles and coffee, a young couple walked through the lobby toward the door. Everyone enjoying their breakfast looked up from their plates/phones/books and watched them make their way toward the maw of the storm.   

“I am not really sure you want to leave,” said the staffer.

“We must go to the airport. Our flight is not canceled,” said the dude.

(Did I tell you they were dressed like fabulous urban Instagram models? They were. Knee-high boots and a shiny puffer jacket. Incredible.)

The calm after the storm at Loa’s nest.

I am certain the flight was canceled; however, they continued out the door. Everyone in that lobby looked at each other as if we collectively saw the final living minutes of 2 human souls. They walked out the door, and I didn’t read about two dead eastern European tourists in the following days, so let’s assume they defied the odds and survived.

We left the hotel around 12:30. The winds had slowed, but there was still a lot of snow, so it would be a short day. Unfortunately, one of the roads we planned to use was closed due to the storm, so we found ourselves driving through the town of Reykholt. There is a tourist restaurant in this town that is famous for tomato everything. It’s called Friðheimar, and it is set in a massive greenhouse that grows tomatoes and is known for its tomato soup. ​​

We had some expensive soup, bread, and tomato-based beer for lunch. This meal was alright, but I do not recommend it. If I could rewind, we would have stopped at the Icelandic restaurant in town and had some local food. Those it’s all grown right there; nothing feels Icelandic about it. It’s expensive, the people eating and serving all seem non-Icelandic, and it’s just soup and bread. 

We drove to see the geyser known as “Geysir.” It’s a cluster of geysers that shoot boiling water into the air. The big one is known as Geysir, and it is pretty rare for it to erupt, but we did see a smaller one called Strokkur erupt. This area is tourist central, and there is a big complex. It’s a great place to grab a coffee and hit the bathroom.  

You can tell there is a lot of hot water under the ground because there was a ton of snow leading up to this area. Then when you are walking, these huge areas will be on the ground without snow. Along the path are the bubbling pools of water that will not blow but are obviously quite hot. 

After seeing Strokkur erupt, we were returning to the car, and I saw a full-grown man step across the barrier and start walking toward one of these steaming and bubbling pools. He started to bend over, and without thinking about it, I yelled, “Hey, don’t do that!” He was surprised someone called him out, maybe misidentifying me as someone with authority, and quickly got back on the path.

Have tourists always been this bad?

We were ending our shortened day at our first thermal pool. I was excited about this because when we decided to go to Iceland in the winter, I wanted 2 things out of it. Hot springs and the northern lights. I had not seen the northern lights yet, so I was thrilled about this stop. We went to the Secret Lagoon, which Icelanders call Gamla Laugin. It is in the town of Flúðir and was created in 1891. It is old and relatively simple. When we exited the locker room, it was still snowing and quite cold, so we got in the water quickly. Sinking down to your chin and enjoying the enveloping heat was hot and so lovely. While you enjoy it, your hair freezes, and your body gets almost hot, so it’s a delightful contrast in sensations.

We will visit three thermal pools. This one was the most basic. It was nice, and the scene was memorable. Derelict concrete shacks sit near the back, making the entire set rather rustic. I loved it.

Relaxing at the Secret Lagoon.

Nothing is happening in the village of Flúðir, including not much food. We stayed at the Skyggnir Bed and Breakfast, which was okay but not great. I was purposely finding hotels outside of town to reduce light pollution in the case of the northern lights. We ended up in a private room with a shared bathroom and no dinner. We put together a meal from car snacks and some leftovers from the previous day’s lunch.

If you end the day at the Secret Lagoon and stay at Skyggnir Bed and Breakfast, have a bite to eat at the pool.   

Next Day: Iceland – Day 5

Iceland – Day 3

Monday was dedicated to a guided glacier hike, but before we get to that part, I want to talk about how good the breakfast at Hali Country Hotel was that day. They served a cured/smoked lamb made locally, which was really delicious. I ate it with bread and found it superb.

Most of the day was spent with Local Guide of Vatnajökull. This is a tour agency that specializes in hikes on the Vatnajökull glacier. We were with them for about 6 hours and had a fantastic experience. This day was the most memorable of the entire trip. We hiked to the glacier and then across it to an ice canyon. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it is due to the previous day’s rain; the top layer of frost and dust had all been washed away. Our initial hike felt like we were walking on glass. We could see deep into the clear ice, with the only visible disruptions being a web of trapped air or cracks that had since fused back together. It was breathtaking.

They gave us a serious set of crampons on the glacier. So while you are walking, you feel incredibly steady, and you never slip. Unfortunately, while we were walking, my boot came out of my crampons, and I touched the ice with my boots. It was unbelievably slippery and felt very dangerous. Luckily the guide was there to get my boot back in the crampon.  If I was taking that crampon for granted before that, I immediately and promise to do so in the future.

I dropped a lens cap on my camera on our what to the ice canyon. The second it hit the ice, it started to slide. There was no stopping it, and it slid out of sight and presumably to the bottom of the glacier. (That reminds me, I need to order a new lens cap.)

The ice canyon was beautiful, and the walk into this ice slot canyon was harrowing. An interesting feature was the juxtaposition of the glacial ice and the recently frozen rain ice. The glacial ice is so compressed is has a beautiful azure color, while the freshly frozen water is white and quite cloudy. It’s a beautiful phenomenon. Unfortunately, the floor was full of water due to yesterday’s rain, so we had to kick the sides of our boots into the side of the ice wall. I HATE wet shoes, so I worked hard to ensure every step counted and my feet stayed dry.

After the canyon, we entered an ice cave, but the canyon and hike were the real standouts of the day. We weren’t back in our car until about 4 PM, so it was a full day. Our guides told us that the weather warnings for that night and the next day were terrible. We told them we were planning to return toward the west, and they thought that was a good idea.   

We drove a lot that night and made it to Hella. We stayed at my favorite hotel for the entire trip. Its name is Loa’s Nest. It’s cute and modern, and though the breakfast is less substantial than others, it is fresh waffles!

The wind and snow were already picking up, but we were hungry, so we headed into town for dinner at Restaurant Kanslarinn. I had the typical Icelandic dish called Plokkfiskur. They translate it to fish stew, though I do not consider it a stew. It’s like a fish and potato casserole. It’s good, and I liked it enough that I plan to make it someday, but it is much thicker than what I think of as a stew.

Here is an insider tip, Kanslarinn will sell you a beer to go. This was a nice treat when we returned to the hotel and settled in for the evening.

Next Day: Iceland – Day 4

Iceland – Day 2

We started the day by backtracking a few miles and visiting the Reynisfjara black sand beach. The weather was much warmer than the day before, but now it was raining. The wind was so strong and the waves so enormous that there was a warning at the entrance to the beach to not get anywhere near the water; however, at the opening of the beach, it was hard not to be impressed by the immense power of the Atlantic. I was thinking about the Vikings and others who landed on these shores ages ago; it must have been extraordinary.  I can’t imagine sailing on these seas, with no land in sight, only to land on an empty black sand beach with hail and sand stinging your face.  And that welcome must have been a relief compared to the voyage.

We got in the car and returned to Vik and on to Fjaðrárgljúfur. Fjaðrárgljúfur is a canyon with a lot of hiking available in the summer. We walked along the trail for a minute and peered into the canyon. It’s beautiful, but the weather brought in some clouds, which obstructed some visibility. It was much warmer than the day before, so it was raining rather than snowing. This made many of the trails covered in a winter’s worth of ice rather treacherous.    

Fjaðrárgljúfur has a lot of water in it!

Afterward, we headed to Svartifoss, the day’s first waterfall. I really wanted to see this one because of its geologic features of it, but when we arrived, it was inaccessible in the winter. Oh well, I will see it next time. We returned to the road and stopped at the Veitingasala Restaurant, Shop, and Gas, where we discovered a few things.  

  1. Never take off your crampons. We were sliding the entire way from our car to the gas station. The pavement was nothing but ice-slicked with rain.   
  2. Samer’s 15-year-old boots were dead. The sole rotted out ages ago, and we did not realize it until he stepped in a puddle. Check your footwear before you leave home!
  3. I had my first Icelandic lamb hot dog, and it was great. Unfortunately, Iceland isn’t a fantastic culinary destination, but it is known for its hot dog. I can do without the remoulade, and the sweet mustard (pylsusinnep) is a bit cloying. 

After lunch, we drove on to see two glacial lagoons. The first was Fjallsárlón. The rain had really started to increase while we were driving, so when we arrived at the lagoon, we decided to turn around. Everything was very wet, the ice was dangerous, and neither of us wanted to get a boot full of ice water. So we went to the far more tourist-friendly lagoon called Jökulsárlón. Not many glaciers were floating in the lagoon, but there were a few. We were disappointed when we drove across the street to see the famous Breiðamerkursandur Beach in Iceland. It’s a black sand beach with blue, transparent, and white ice chunks that catch the sun and glint like diamonds. There were only a handful of shards on the beach, so it felt like the day was a bust. The following day, I was told that January had been so cold in Iceland that icebergs were not breaking off and floating down the lagoon to the beach to smash into pieces, which is why the beach was bare.

The rain was causing waterfalls where none were marked on the map. These seem to be happening in someone’s backyard.

We stayed at the Hali Country Hotel, which also serves as a museum to a famous Icelandic writer, Þórbergur Þórðarson (Thórbergur Thórdarson). I had never heard of Thórdarson and visited the exhibit of his life while we were there. Unfortunately, there is not much of his work translated into English, and I did not buy the one book they were selling (The Stones Speak) while I was there. He seems quite interesting; he wrote for socialist papers, often penned essays about his life in the middle of nowhere, was funny, romantic, etc. A country character that made it to the big city and became a writer. I probably should have bought the book.  If you want to know about him, there is an ios museum app (android here) that you can download.

I had the fiskisupa (Icelandic fish soup) and a beer for dinner and hit the sack as soon as I returned to the room.

Next Day: Iceland – Day 3

Iceland – Day 1

The flight from Newark to Reykjavik is only about 5 hours, so we only got a little sleep. Iceland Air is basic, but we were in business class and had a lovely meal. The highlight was the pre-dinner snack. I was served these cheese, seed crackers/biscuit things as a snack. It was like a Cheezeit on steroids. It was amazing. It is the best snack I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, while I was in Iceland, I searched for it and couldn’t find it online.

We landed a few hours later at about 6 AM local time. It was very early, pitch black, and the wind was extreme. We rented a Jeep Renegade from Blue Car Rental and hit the road. If you are traveling in winter, change into your tights and other winter clothes before leaving the airport. I didn’t suit up appropriately and was chilly the entire first day.

Our first destination was Seljalandsfoss, about 150 KM from the airport. We stopped at the Almar Bakery in Selfoss for coffee and breakfast. We also stopped at the grocery store to buy a few supplies for the car. Unfortunately, my cheese snacks were not available. When we finally left the bakery, we started to see our first hint of daylight at 9:30 AM. I knew there was going to be very little daylight, but darkness at 9 AM left me feeling uneasy.   I was very relieved to see daylight. After that, we made a quick unplanned stop at a waterfall called Urriðafoss. It’s not a cascading waterfall but more like a set of rapids. It was next to the road and let us put on our crampons.

Unfortunately, the wind and snow hadn’t relented, and we were exhausted from having so little sleep. So when we arrived at Seljalandsfoss an hour later, we decided to take a 30-minute nap in the car before we did anything else. The rest lasted almost an hour, but we both felt a thousand times better after taking it.

Seljalandsfoss is a 200′ massive waterfall. Waterfalls always impress me. I think of them as messages from Mother Nature reminding humanity of access to an awesome amount of unrelenting force. The temperature was such that the spray from the waterfall turned into snow and fell back on us. It was gorgeous to see.  

We walked down the path to see the Gljufrabui waterfall. The pictures of these waterfalls are stunning, but the water level was too high for us to enter the cavern. We would have gotten our boots soaking wet to go in to get that picturesque view. Instead, I could see a glimpse of it through the fissures. Tourists were trying to balance on rocks to get in, and most were misstepping and plunging their feet into the ice-cold water. We saw one guy remove his boots and socks and wade into the water as we left. My only thought was, “what an asshole.”

One of the things I noticed about Iceland is that there is a breed of disrespectful tourists that is highly pervasive. A couple of times on the trip, people disregarded the signs stating where they could and couldn’t go. On our way to the parking lot, an open clearing was roped off, marked “do not enter.” Its backdrop was Seljalandsfoss, so it is a nice photo, but you are not supposed to go in. Of course, I see a couple telling their kid to cross the barrier and stand there for a photo. Someone says to the guy, “You are not supposed to cross,” and his response “go call the cops.”

Icelandic people are amicable and may not know the malevolence British and US tourists can bring to their land. I advise Iceland to be stern with our rule breakers because we are the worst.

Our next destination was Skogafoss, which is just as tall as Seljalandsfoss but much wider. Now that we were rested, driving in sunlight, and energized by the awe of nature in Iceland, we turned to our playlists to keep us entertained. We road-tripped most of our time in Iceland, so we relied on: the audiobook How Iceland Changed the World by Egill Bjarnason, The Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools playlist by the Elska Magazine creator Ian Campbell, and The Iceland Roadtrip! Playlist by Iceland With a View creator Jeannie.


Skogafoss has a thunderous amount of water, and getting anywhere close on a windy, snowy day is not easy. We parked at the bottom but planned to walk up to the observation deck on top. Unfortunately, it was closed due to the weather and season. Several people were stepping over the chain and making their way up. Though many rules are made to be broken, genuine public safety is not one of them. We didn’t go up to the deck; we took a few photos and returned to the car.

Our next planned destination was Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, but while we were driving, we saw a bunch of cars in the parking lot, so we pulled in to see what was happening. We found ourselves at the Sólheimasandur airplane crash. At this site is a DC-33 airplane that crashed on a black sand beach on November 21, 1973. When planning the trip, I was never interested in seeing a junky old plane on a beach. It’s an Instagram destination more than anything. I grew up in the rural midwest. I’ve seen more decaying vehicles on wide-open fields than I can count; nothing seemed interesting about it, so I ignored it from the plans.

However, here we are, and the shuttle to the plane is leaving any minute. How much could it cost? We jumped on the shuttle, and it departed immediately. Samer paid the driver and asked me to confirm 6000 ISK is about $4, right?   

Wrong. Very Wrong. The round-trip shuttle for two people was over $40! It was quite a bit more than we expected. It’s a 2-mile hike to the black sand beach of the plane, and on a nice day, it’s probably a decent way to stretch your legs. When we got to the plane, the driver told us to get out and that he’d pick us up in 30 minutes. For 30 minutes, we were pelted by hail and sand from the high winds on the beach. We couldn’t get near the water because it was too difficult to walk into the wind. The weather worsened, and it was pretty cold, so instead of taking photos in the otherworldly setting, I sought shelter in the dilapidated aircraft’s remains. My instincts were right, and this was a tourist trap.

The shuttle driver returned, and not everyone that boarded with us returned with us; some needed more time. MORE TIME! I cannot fathom how you need more time in this windswept beach nightmare. So I happily got on the shuttle and shook my head at the misery people put themselves through for a few “likes” on Instagram. (Unlike the dignity I get from my blog … lol).

From here, we traveled on to Dyrhólaey Lighthouse. Dyrhólaey is this arched rock formation that extends into the ocean. It reminded me of the Raouché in Beirut, and I kept referring to it as the Icelandic Raouché while we were there. We parked at the lighthouse parking lot, and to this day, it was the strongest wind I have ever experienced. The lighthouse is at the top of the hill, and we had to hold on to one another out of fear of being blown over. It was pretty remarkable and slightly terrifying; more than once, I thought, “oh, I can totally see some fool getting themselves killed up here.” We walked the loop, and I got to snap a photo of Dyrhólaey rock before retreating to the car.


It wasn’t very late, but it was already getting dark, and we were exhausted, so we made our way to Hótel Vík. It was a very nice hotel with modern amenities. After dropping off our bags and freshening up, we hit the local craft brewery to end the day. Smiðjan Brugghús had good beers and served American-style barbecue, which was much better than I expected. If you find yourself there, I thought the buffalo cauliflower paired with their pilsner was smashing.  

Next Day: Iceland – Day 2

Iceland – Introduction

Our trip to Iceland caused a wee bit more anxiety than I am comfortable with for a trip. I love planning a vacation, and this trip did not allow much planning. As a kid, I always wanted to travel and have an adventure. I was obsessed with stories that took people around the world. Before I was ten years old, my mom picked up Great Illustrated Classics’ abridged version of Around the World in 80 Days, and it set me on a path to see as much of our globe as possible.   

At some point in the 1990s, I was at a bookstore in Defiance, OH, and I bought the 1995 edition of Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. I had no trip planned to Europe, so most would think a teenager buying a travel guide was weird. Looking back on it, I admit it was, but I read that book front to back more times than I could count. This was a very early internet, so websites were a feat to create, and discussions were on IRC and Usenet, so a travel guide was worth its weight in gold.

I relay this anecdote only to highlight that I love planning and sorting trips almost as much as traveling. It makes a great trip even better when you reflect on the flight home and think, “That was fantastic, and I get some credit for it.”

Iceland in winter is a travel planner’s nightmare. The weather is so unpredictable you cannot predict how far you can get on any day. At first, I thought we could do the entire Icelandic ring road in about a week. I read that this is indeed possible in the summer. I loosely mimicked an itinerary I got from the Incredible Iceland Road Trip Itinerary and Planning Guide by Renee Hahnel.

After sketching an early itinerary, I posted it to the Visiting Iceland Reddit community. I got some very direct feedback that was inevitably helpful but, at the moment, reminded me that the internet is full of know-it-alls. The tone was not really “I’m here to help” but more like, “you idiot, how can you even consider what you’re thinking.” It was a blow to my plan, but I decided to reduce my ambitions and drastically reset them. I heavily relied on the Iceland With a View site and even purchased the ring road map they created. I thought it was very helpful, and I recommend it.

This is one of the first trips in memory where I did not have accommodations planned for every night. We got to Iceland with the first couple of hotels booked and the last one, but we had a few nights in the middle where we would see where we ended the day, and this plan worked out. I would do a few things differently, but the uncertainty added a new sense of adventure I had traded in for comfort and luxury on some of my recent trips.

Let’s start the trip: Iceland – Day 1