Day 64: Ten Reasons Why You Should Go to Iceland Now.
As you all know, we just got back from a week-long trip to Iceland over New Year's. The trip was phenomenal and I wanted to share a few pictures and travel tips with you all, in the event that any of you are planning a trip there. Though I'd love to experience road-tripping through Iceland in the summer, when there's nearly continuous daylight, I personally loved being there in the winter. It was so beautiful to see the snowy landscape, hike on glaciers, soak in geothermal hot springs, witness 11:30 a.m. sunrises, and see the Northern Lights. With no further adieu, here are ten reasons why you should go to Iceland now!
1) Cheap, quick flights.
For New Yorkers, a flight to Reykjavik takes 5 hours and 45 minutes – quicker than a flight to California – and you can get tickets for as cheap as $500 roundtrip.
Two quick tips when you arrive:
-At Iceland's Keflavik airport, you'll notice that there are TONS of duty-free stores. In your middle-of-the-night jet lag haze, you may not think about buying bottles of wine, but you should! Wine (or any alcohol for that matter) is 50% cheaper at the airport than what you'll find in the rest of the country, so grab a few bottles on your way out.
-The trip from the airport into the city is about 45 minutes and taxis are expensive. Take a bus instead: either the Airport Express (book ahead and they'll take you directly to your hotel) or the FlyBus (which drops you off at the bus terminal). Both run regularly and are about $20.
2) Reykjavik = Portland and Copenhagen's lovechild.
A few fun facts: Reykjavik is the world's northernmost capital, and it also has one of the smallest populations of any capital city. It feels more like a small town than a big city: just 200,000 people live in Reykjavik and the surrounding areas, which amounts to 2/3 of Iceland's population!
The city is ultra clean and super-safe, with beautiful scenery (water + mountains), brightly colored homes, and cobblestoned streets. You won't find any high-rise buildings, but you'll find plenty of great little cafes, bars, restaurants, and a vibrant music scene. It combines Copenhagen's sleek Scandinavian style with Portland's bearded scruffiness. Some of our favorite spots: Hotel 101 (for drinks by the fire), Fish Market (for sushi, fish dishes, and smoked puffin), Hallgrimskirkja Church (THE place to see fireworks on New Year's Eve; also you can take an elevator to the top for an amazing view of the city), the new Harpa Music Hall (their much-cooler-looking version of Lincoln Center), Le Bistro (cozy French bistro), Kex Hostel (hipster hangout + locavore pub grub), Grai Kotturinn (locals' favorite spot for great coffee + breakfast), Vitabar (best burgers in town), and Dill (see #4).
NOTE: Food in Iceland is expensive, and drinks are even more expensive. We had massive sticker shock looking at menus, so be prepared!!
3) The Blue Lagoon (it's as amazing as you've heard).
A day at the Blue Lagoon is an absolute must. The milky blue geothermal lake is full of minerals believed to have healing abilities, but it's basically a gigantic, steaming, outdoor hot tub. The combination of the cold air outside, the steam coming off the water, the mountain backdrop, and the dramatic sunset is just incredible. There's a spa as well, with mud masks, water massage, saunas, steam rooms, and more. Oh and did I mention there's a swim-up bar? This place is like nothing I've ever experienced!
4) The tasting menu at Dill.
Dill, the innovative 22-seat restaurant run by Iceland's top chef Gunnar Karl Gislason, is an experience like no other. His whimsical 3-, 5-, and 7-course tasting menus are prepared in a tiny open kitchen, and feature ingredients sourced from the best farmers, fisherman, and artisan producers in Iceland – as well as many ingredients grown and/or invented by Gislason. The picture above shows a few starters before the tasting menu – soft little butter balls rolled in dried catfish, dirt-smoked lamb with spicy homemade mustard, and mini gingerbread cookies topped with red currant jelly and Icelandic blue cheese – totally unexpected and amazingly delicious. Dill is also the only restaurant in Iceland with a sommelier, and the wine pairings nearly rival the food in creativity.
NOTE: After nearly 5 years in the Nordic House, Dill is moving to a newly-renovated historic townhouse in the center of Reykjavik, next door to the Gislason's brand new pizzeria.
5) You can hang out with wild Icelandic ponies.
The most amazing experiences await once you get outside the city. We took a 2-day trip to the south coast of the island with a tour company called Extreme Iceland (which I'd highly recommend) and our guide pulled over so we could see a herd of wild Icelandic ponies. They were gorgeous, and weren't afraid of people at all. In fact, they let us walk up and pet them! (Maybe they weren't so wild after all...)
6) Black sand beaches, volcanoes, and waterfalls.
The scenery in Iceland is just stunning. Everywhere we looked, we saw something photo-worthy. On our drive along the south coast, we visited enormous waterfalls, black sand beaches (with crazy shapes made from volcanic rocks jutting out of the water or in the sand), and our tour guide pointed out numerous active volcanoes. (Slightly scary, but fortunately none erupted.)
7) You can hike on glaciers.
Glacier-hiking was one of the highlights of the trip for me. On our Extreme Iceland tour, we had the chance to strap on crampons, grab ice axes, and trek across the 1000-year-old Vatnajokull Glacier. (Not across the whole glacier...but we walked around for an hour or so.) We also got to visit a black sand beach covered with chunks of ice (washed to shore from the nearby Jokursarlon Glacier lagoon) at dawn. Brandon captured this otherworldly scene in the opening shot above.
8) You can stay at a hip, new hotel in the middle of a lava field.
The incredible year-old ION Luxury Adventure Hotel looks like a big glass box suspended over lava fields. (My favorite features: an all-glass lounge with 20-foot ceilings overlooking snow-covered mountains and a massive outdoor thermal pool.) Less than an hour's drive from Reykjavik, the hotel still has a completely remote feel. On the edge of Iceland's largest freshwater lake, Ion is the perfect base to explore the nearby Thingvellier National Park and check out many of the sites of Iceland's famous Golden Circle tour. Most of all, this is a great place just to relax. Soak in the thermal pool, enjoy the farm-to-table fare, and cozy up in the Northern Lights bar with a glass of wine and a good book.
9) The Northern Lights.
According to scientists, 2014 is one of the best times to see the Northern Lights in a decade. Though they're rather difficult to see (and you'll freeze your buns off trying), if you do get a chance to watch this otherworldly light show, it will be well-worth the effort. You can only see the Northern Lights when there is plenty of darkness, so the next few months are the ideal time to go.
10) You'll see stunning sunrises and sunsets...every day.
I'm not usually one to get up in time to watch the sunrise (especially on vacation!), but in Iceland during the winter, given that the sun rises at 11:30 a.m., you'll get to see it everyday. The sun sets around 3:30 p.m. so you'll get to enjoy an epic sunset as well.
I'm going to end this post with a few more stunning pictures Brandon captured on the trip. Iceland truly is one of the most epic places we've ever been. The only competitors would be New Zealand and Chilean Patagonia, each which require 24 hours of travel time. If you're looking for otherworldly beauty, unique culture, and an easy flight, Iceland's the place to go.
(Photos 1, 8, 12, 14, and 15 by Brandon Carl; photo 10 of ION Hotel courtesy of © Art Gray, Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson, Torfi Agnarrson, Kristbjorg Sigurjonsdottir; the rest were shot on my iPhone!)