Iceland: The Southern Coast

[December 2017 – January 2018]

I went to Iceland in the winter with four hopes:

  1. Experience New Year’s Eve
  2. See the Northern Lights
  3. Tour an Ice Cave
  4. Snorkle in Between the Tectonic Plates

Mother Nature didn’t feel that this was the time for me to meet Lady Borealis, and the winds and white out conditions spoiled my plans for the Ice Cave, but I had an incredible time in Iceland and I can’t wait to go back, rent a camper van, and explore the entire country.

Car Rental:

I decided I wanted to gradually make my way east and stay along the way, so I did not base myself in Reykjavik like many do. That meant renting a car. I arranged a car rental through Lagoon Car Rental. They picked me up at the airport, transferred me to their property, sold me all sorts of insurance, and sent me on my way.

I read about renting through Sad Cars for cheap rates on older used cars, but unfortunately it wasn’t an option for me on this trip because they were closed for New Year’s Eve and the following two days. Lagoon was pricey (as is gas in Iceland), but the car (Kia Sportage) was comfortable and I felt very safe, especially during the storm. Driving in Iceland is extremely easy, so I recommend having a car and driving yourself.

Day 1: New Year’s Eve

I stayed at an AirBNB my first night, New Year’s Eve. The sticker shock in Iceland is serious business, so when I found a place for about 80 Euros, I jumped at it right way.

The New Year’s festivities kicked off with a bonfire on Ægisíða street under a great big moon. It is right on the beach with plenty of free street parking available. It started at 8:30pm.

I stayed for over an hour as the bonfire provided all the warmth that the bitter air did not. As I was leaving, I stumbled upon a family singing together. Just about melted my music teacher heart.

I drove around hoping to find an open restaurant. Anything that was open was about 47 times more expensive than I had hoped to pay. Instead, I grabbed a sandwich near the church and waited for the fireworks to begin at 11:35. They begin before midnight because there is a New Year’s broadcast that everyone goes to watch. As soon as it’s done, KA-BOOM! And they just get bigger and better! 360 surround! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was by far the most outstanding New Year’s celebration I’d ever experienced.

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When the cold got to be too much, I made my way back to the car. Honestly, I was terrified of getting blown up by firecracker’s along the way. The Icelandic people light them off EVERYWHERE. No exceptions.

Here’s your guide to planning your NYE.

Day 2: Reykjavik to Hella via Golden Circle

As it was New Year’s Day, NOTHING was open. Nowhere to buy some groceries or breakfast, so I started my drive hungry with just a packet of ginger snaps to hold me over. The hunger was soon forgotten due to Iceland’s outstanding beauty. And horses. Those DARLING horses!

As the sun was almost up, I pulled over to watch it cross the horizon.

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I drove through Pingvellir National Park. This area is said to be the heart of Iceland. It is famous for being the only place in the world where you can snorkel or dive between two tectonic plates. The rift between the North American and Eurasian plates goes right through Iceland in this park. I didn’t stop to walk around on Day 2 because I was already booked to snorkel in Silfra later in the week.

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The next stop was the ever famous Strokkur Geysir. I recommend staying for awhile. Walk around and see the geysir from different angles. It erupts very frequently, so if your back is turned like mine was two or three times, don’t worry. You’ll catch another one. Since it was winter, it was quite slippery, so if you have crampons for your shoes, you’re better off.

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After a short drive you’ll come to the Gullfoss waterfall. There are two parking lots to viewpoints that are connected by a staircase, so it doesn’t matter where you park.

Since Iceland’s daylight hours are short in the winter months, it was already time to watch the sky change colors. The soft pinks and blues, the mighty rush of the water, the walls of ice… Gullfoss was stunning.

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At this point I caved and bought an overpriced sandwich at the restaurant on site.

To finish off a chilly day, I treated myself to a few hours at the Secret Lagoon. What a perfect way to end my first day!

Accommodation: Cafe Arhus Hella – A little cabin right on a river facing a brilliant full moon. Sadly, the restaurant on site closed at 9:00pm, so the sandwich I had at lunch would have to hold me over till morning. This little cabin was very comfortable. If I had more flexibility, I would have extended my stay and just relaxed here with a book. It was also very reasonably priced.

This was the only night that the forecast for the Northern Lights was a 4/9. The rest of my trip it was a 0 or 1. Sky was clear, moon was bright, light pollution low… Sadly, I didn’t see the lights. I don’t think I was committed enough. I should have stayed outside longer. I met someone later in the week that said they saw the lights this night but up in the Pingvellir National Park. Oh well… I’ll try again in Norway.

Day 3: Seljalandfoss, Skogafoss, and The Storm

When the grocery store opened, I hightailed myself in for some food. I picked up an incredible loaf of bread, yogurt, eggs, a can of tuna, Ritz crackers, bananas, and some juice. After making myself breakfast back in the cabin, I drove off for a day of waterfalls.

The first stop was Seljalandfoss. I believe it was here that there was a 700 krona parking fee. That’s the only time I had to pay to park on this trip.

Due to the ice, the entrance to get behind the waterfall was roped off. That said, a rope didn’t stop people from climbing up the stairs you see on the left in the picture below. It was entertaining to watch people scoot back down on their rear ends.

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The blue of the ice to the left of the waterfall was my favorite part of the stop here.

Next, not far down the road, was Skogafoss. I climbed the stairs first and walked along the path towards another smaller waterfall. The path goes on a long way, but the wind was picking up, blowing ice and gravel into my eyes. I could hardly keep my balance, so, not wanting Mother Nature to throw me into the waterfall, I decided to turn around and go back down the stairs.

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Now, take a look at those blue skies. Would you suspect a storm was on its way? No. I certainly didn’t. I was warned when I rented the car that the weather in Iceland could change at the drop of a hat. Boy, were they right.

I left Skogafoss, crossed a one-lane bridge and was hit with white-out conditions. The funny thing was, there was no precipitation. There was no accumulation on the roads. The high winds were just blasting snow from the fields.

Everyone pulled over. Tour busses turned around. I turned on my emergency flashers and waited with the other cars. At some point, everyone started driving forward. I thought, “I can’t be left here alone…And the storm is moving the other direction…” So I followed. It wasn’t long before I found a parking lot full of cars. It turns out that this was the lot for the famous plane wreck site that I had completely forgotten to add to my itinerary. Safe to say I wasn’t going to walk there now…

I saw people standing outside so I decided to ask if anyone knew when this was expected to pass. Nobody knew, so I called the Icelandic Road Administration. They said the road I was on was now closed and to try calling again around five.

There were two Romanians standing outside their car. They said that they had been walking for over an hour and they got separated from their friends who had the keys to the car. I insisted that they wait in my car. When they left, I decided to leave, too, and I looked up nearby hotels because I realized there was no way I was going to make it to my hotel over 100km away in this weather.

Less than 10km away was Farmhouse Lodge. I decided to slowly make my way there and ask to relax there until the storm passed. When I arrived, I was told that this storm was not going to pass within the evening, but there were no rooms available. Frankly, I would have been happy to sleep on the floor… She also said, though, that since the road was closed, there would probably be cancellations. I was welcome to have tea and wait in the dining room.

A young couple was in there reading. They said that they tried to drive to Vik for food earlier and turned around almost immediately because it was impossible get up a steep hill. I was uncomfortable listening to the howl of the wind and thinking about all the people still on the road. I was disappointed to have my plans changed by the weather, but I was also thankful to be somewhere safe and warm. I knew pulling over was the right choice. I said to myself, “I don’t care what it costs, if a room becomes available, I will take it.”

Sure enough, someone did cancel and I was able to settle in for the night. It was about 130 Euros and worth every penny to me. I would not normally pay that much, but again, I was safe and warm. I returned the favor by cancelling my own reservation where someone else was waiting for a room.

A group of four American university students arrived. The lodge provided breakfast but didn’t have a restaurant on site, so we cooked dinner together by putting together leftovers from travellers who had gone on their way.

I went to bed with the warning that tomorrow’s weather was supposed to be the same, if not worse.

Day 4: Reynisfjara, Reynisdrangar, and Dyrholaey

I woke up at about five in the morning and realized that it was quiet outside. I looked out the window and saw one car seem to drive with ease towards Vik. This was the day that I was supposed to go on my Ice Cave tour. It would take me roughly two hours to get  there from the lodge. With my tour leaving at 9:45, I waited for the road site to be updated at 7:00. It reported slippery roads all the way to Hof.

I hemmed and hawed, and ultimately decided that maybe it was best to cancel my tour. After e-mailing Local Guide, I got a reply saying that they understood and would issue me a refund, but they had just driven to Hof and roads were fine. I was devastated. At that point, I didn’t have enough time to get there for my tour so I called to see if they had spots in a later tour. Sadly, they did not.

In addition to the Ice Cave Tour, I was sad to miss Diamond Beach and the Glacier Lagoon. To drive two plus hours there, see what I wanted to see in the limited daylight hours and drive all the way back to Hella for my next hotel reservation seemed stressful, especially with the threat of similar weather… I didn’t want to get stuck somewhere again because Day 5 was scheduled to be snorkling day and I didn’t want to miss that, too!

If only I had added a day or two as a cushion… Always add cushion days!

So with that, I decided to go see the things I had missed on my agenda the day before: Reynisfjara (the black sand beach), and Reynisdrangar (the famous arch).

After a delicious breakfast, I drove to Vik to top up my gas tank. I was at only a quarter tank and I could hear my dad telling me to ALWAYS have between half and a full tank in case I got stuck in bad weather.

This is the church on the top of a hill that is the postcard image of Vik. I smile because many of the churches throughout Iceland look just like this:

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See those smaller rocks sticking out of the water there? That’s Reynisdrangar, my next stop.

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As everyone attempts to get their selfies on the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean, you hear screams of “WAVE!” as fellow travellers warn each other to run away from the incoming water.

Now, I’ve never been to Northern Ireland to see Giant’s Causeway, but I think you’ll notice some resemblance in the pictures below of Reynisdalur. Take all the natural beauty of this site and throw in an Ice Princess wedding photoshoot all while stomping around in your winter boots on the black sands of Reynisfjara. It really helped cure the woes I felt of missing my Ice Cave Tour.

I was happy to take my time here. I climbed the rocks all the way over until I could see the church in Vik that I stopped at earlier in the day.

And then I snapped this beauty of Reynisdrangar:

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Next, Dyrholaey, the black arch. First, go up the little mountain on the switchback road.

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Next, drive back down and take the road to the right and enjoy the sunset. As you can see, I didn’t hit any more bad weather.

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Accommodation: That night I drove back to Hella and stayed at Hotel Kanslarinn. It was 115 euros (more than I thought I had booked, but oh well). The hotel was getting an addition or a renovation, so my room was brand new. Bed was comfortable, staff friendly, and breakfast was wonderful.

Day 5: Silfra Snorkling

When I learned that you could go diving in between the tectonic plates with incredible visibility, I was sold. I HAD to get to Iceland! Who WOULDN’T want to dive into year round water temperatures just slightly above freezing?

The laws have since changed and you are now only permitted to dive there if you have a dry suit diving certificate. If you aren’t certified, you can go snorkling instead. I have my PADI Open Water certificate, but not dry suit, so I looked into what the new certificate would cost me. Yikes! Nearly $1000 to train and do the dive. I decided snorkling was fine, but even snorkling was nearly $160! There are slightly different prices for different times of day. I booked the 11:30 swim because I wanted the best light, and I got it! The sky was BEAUTIFUL.

GOPR0453.jpgI booked with Arctic Adventures. I was pleased when I got a reminder e-mail the night before giving me detailed directions on where to meet, park, etc. The guides were fantastic. Very friendly and kind.

Now, I’m short and plump. I needed an XXL dry suit to fit around my belly, but that left a lot of extra material on my arms and legs making it difficult to adjust on my own and very, very heavy. I was thankful for guides with great attitudes and strong muscles. Surely they must tire of dressing every dry suit newbie that comes through, but you wouldn’t know it! They did it with a smile.

When I got in the water, I was pleasantly surprised. Once you stick your head in the water and get over the initial shock, it wasn’t bad at all. When we got to the final lagoon, I wasn’t ready to get out of the water. I wanted to keep floating and enjoy the blues and browns.

After we changed, we all got a glass of hot chocolate and said our goodbyes.

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At that point, I drove back to Reykjavik. I caught a New Year’s Concert called “Pearls of Icelandic Song” at the Harpa Concert Hall. It was a great concert all about Icelandic folklore; trolls, fairies, the Christmas cat, and so on. They introduced the songs in English and sang in Icelandic while projecting the translations. I LOVE this kind of thing. I don’t know if it’s an annual concert, but if it is, I recommend going.

I tried to catch another concert at a different venue but the tickets were sold out. I finished off the night by finding some food. Just on the main road is a soup place called Icelandic Street Food. This was the most generous place I found in Iceland. They set out a tray of free desserts, gave free refills of the soup, and the owner even invited everyone to his bar two doors down for free drinks.

And with that, I was off to return the car and head to London.

Till next time, Iceland!

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