Every person I talked to prior to leaving for Iceland had the same conclusion; it feels and looks like what being on Mars would feel and look like. Otherworldly, to be specific.
Those people were exactly right but verbal descriptions or even pictures don’t do it justice. Iceland is unlike any place I’ve ever been, unique to its core in terrain, language and metropolitan spaces. The weather is so dubious I wonder if meteorologists just spin a wheel and go to broadcast, knowing whatever they hit will surely come that day. You can drive for miles without seeing other headlights then stumble upon a lone restaurant in tiny town with a 20 minute wait. The ups and downs were constant, keeping us on our toes and in a perpetual state of excitement for what greeted us ahead.
In late February, we took the red eye from New York and landed at Keflavik Airport at 5am, stocked up on alcohol, and rented our car. We set off for our first hike and venture into the Icelandic wilderness, braving the elements and seeking a storied series of hot springs, heated by volcanic lava below the earth’s surface.
Two hours later brave was not the word that anyone would use to describe me. The boys forged ahead on the ice-covered trail, clearly meant for seasonal summer use. I slid and stumbled, pummeled by gales of wind that rendered us deaf, and losing hope as the so-called trail winded on. Eventually, our friend Nikki and I turned back, retreating to the car and finding a grocery store and coffee shop to warm up. After returning to pick up the boys at the trailhead and learning that the hot springs were, let's just say, less hot in the winter, we headed back to the airport to pick up our second group of travel companions.
Rocky hiking start behind us, we ate lunch at Cafe Babalu in the heart of Reykjavik. I was immediately taken with this little harbor city. Quiet alleys and brightly colored rooftops mixed with lively street art and a distinct Scandinavian sensibility that christened shop fronts, signage, and architecture throughout the city. Nestled on the waterfront, Harpa Concert Hall boasts a bold black geometric facade. Hallgrimskirkja Church, located in the center of the city, is a sight to behold itself, with the mighty Leif Ericksson poised heroically out front. If you have time, go up to the top for 5 euros for sweeping views on Reykjavik.
We left Reykjavik a bit reluctantly but knowing we’d be returning before our flight out. Our plan for the trip was to complete the Golden Circle drive, the sister drive to Iceland’s famed Ring Road, for which you need at least a week to drive. Daylight is short during these months and my boyfriend Cenzo had planned everything perfectly so as to maximize the sunlit hours we had.
After reading numerous reviews and speaking to friends, we decided to skip the Blue Lagoon and spend the evening at the Secret Lagoon, closer to Fludir on the Golden Circle. The Secret Lagoon, whose moniker is slightly misleading, was packed to the brim. While I wasn’t exactly sold on wading through essentially a large, sandy-bottomed hot tub, the experience felt like a must for Iceland and therefore, we did it happily. We floated around groups of people for about an hour before hopping out, exhausted and in desperate need of dinner and a bed.
It’s odd being a place that literally encompasses the term “middle of nowhere.” The closest thing we could see from our Airbnb that night was a small flickering light from a gas station who was closing up shop as we drove by. It was pitch black, silent, and a remote speck in a vast expanse of Nordic countryside.
We woke up and headed out in the dark to for a jam-packed day of sights. Two waterfalls located along the Golden Circle, Faxi & Gulfoss, were both epic in size, dwarfing us as we posed for pictures.
My must see were the pint-sized, thick-maned Icelandic horses that dotted almost every field we drove past. We pulled over and several moseyed up to the fence, allowing for the perfect picture opportunity.
Next on our list, was Geysir and the surrounding area, home to a series of natural fumaroles and geysers. Geysir has stopped erupting the past years but Strokkur erupts every 5-7min and elicits a range of responses from gasps and claps, to dramatic slow-motion Insta stories - a tourist haven but a must-see.
Our next stop was a bit off the map and turned out to be the group’s favorite sight thus far. Brúarfoss waterfall, about a 20 minute hike away from the road, is much smaller than it’s more famous counterparts but the bright turquoise water running down the center makes up for what it lacks in height. We walked across the bridge and slid down to the riverbed and could not stop snapping photos.
That afternoon, we drove to Thingvellir National Park for our snorkeling (SNORKELING!) adventure. Thingvellir National Park is home to Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It’s also home to Iceland’s first parliament established in 930 and it became a government and social center as Iceland established itself as a sovereign state. (ALSO, a filming location for Game of Thrones *cue GoT theme song playing on repeat for entire drive*).
We suited up in drysuits, with nothing exposed except our lips, and waddled across the road to the entry point at Silfra Lake. The rift between the two continental plates offers crystal clear water (accidentally swallowing gulps of water as you struggle to breathe in 36 degree water is totally fine!), & visibility over 200 ft down. No marine life lives in this water, (I double checked about sharks…in the lake) but the sight underwater is rather spectacular. While the price was steep and we lost feeling in our hands for about 30 minutes, snorkeling between two continents in glacial water was well worth it.
Things we learned in our first few days:
Part II coming soon, x