Iceland was every bit as magical as I’d expected it to be. An 8 day roadtrip around the entire country, a few days in Reykjavik, and a 4 day trek in the highlands provided enough memorable moments to fill this blog for the rest of the year. But for brevity’s sake, I’ve arbitrarily narrowed it down to just *a few* to share.
In chronological order, here are my 13 favorite moments in Iceland —
1. Soaking in a hot pool with the locals in Drangsnes
On a tip from my trusty Lonely Planet guide, we rolled into the Westfjords on the lookout for a cluster of hot pools nestled in the rocks just along the coast in Drangsnes, population 60. We spent the better part of the evening soaking in one of the pools with a local family, including three adorable blonde children.
What really stuck with me was how content the mother was. “I love the freedom I have here” she told us, with an aura of calm unknown to New Yorkers. After claiming we could never endure winter here, she insisted it wasn’t so bad – that it’s much warmer than you’d expect (the average winter temperature in Iceland is just around freezing, in fact). “The real Iceland comes out in winter”, she declared. I thought about what it’d be like to live in this tiny Nordic town during dark winter days, with every house and building covered in lights at all hours. I don’t think I could handle it for long, but it’d be quite an experience to make it through one Icelandic winter.
2. Reaching the red sand beach in the Westfjords
There were multiple variables working against us on our day of exploring the Westfjords. We’d woken up at 5am, our tents flooding and flapping around in the wind, and immediately hit the road in dire need of gas and coffee. Heavy wind and rain coupled with unpaved roads that curved perilously around the fjords made for a very slow-going and stressful drive. As Becca drove us deeper and deeper into the peninsula, we questioned why we were heading so far in, and whether we should just turn around to seek refuge from the weather.
But alas, we continued further and further down Rt 60 because it was SO DARN BEAUTIFUL, even in the rain. We approached our turnaround point of Rauðasandur seriously fearing our safety while maneuvering our car down the steep, curvy road in extreme wind. We were all anxious and cranky, to say the least.
And then we saw it: a red sand beach. We forgot about everything we’d been through that day, if only for a few minutes, and took in this spectacular scene.
3. Sleeping in an old schoolhouse
We made it out of the Westfjords later that day, desperately seeking overhead shelter for the night as all our camping equipment was still soaked from that morning’s soggy wakeup call. Lonely Planet mentioned an old schoolhouse-turned-hotel in Laugar that sounded good to us – only, we arrived to find it seemingly closed for the season.
While I was roaming the property and eyeing the hot pool just up the hill, Karolina did some schmoozing with a family that lived just nextdoor and somehow convinced them to contact the hotel owner to let us stay for the night. Though the hotel itself was not open, she was nice enough to put us up in an old classroom complete with cushy mattresses. Aside from a small group of foreigners occupying the floor below, we had the whole place to ourselves. Shame that we had a massive kitchen at our disposal and all we had to make in it was pasta!
4. Impromptu yoga photoshoot in middle of the road
I’m usually the one begging my friends to pose for pictures, so I was elated when Becca and Karolina wanted to pull the car over in the middle of nowhere to get some shots of them doing yoga poses in the street. Karolina is a yoga teacher, and it was super humbling watching her bend her body in ways that mine cannot. Cranking out photos of her working her magic, well THAT I can manage – especially with light and a backdrop this beautiful.
5. Pre-sunset wine and chocolate at Reynisfjara Beach
The 4 of us popped over to Reynisfjara Beach from Vik late one afternoon, ogling the black sand and climbing the hexagonal basalt columns that formed a massive cave on shore. I had quite the enjoyable little frolic before half of our group wandered off without any warning. Rather than waiting for them in the car, Nicki and I shrugged, opened our bottle of wine and bar of chocolate, and sat on the beach watching the sun go down over the cliffs. It was platonically romantical (to coin a new and relevant phrase).
6. Hiking the green cliffs of Hjörleifshöfði
With vague directions like “drive along the west side of the cliffs, park in the parking lot, and follow the light footpath uphill”, I half-expected not to find an actual trail at Hjörleifshöfði. Surely it would be one of those times where I took my travel companions on an abbreviated wild goose chase (for which I’m never sorry, by the way – it’s all part of the adventure!).
I must say, I was thoroughly surprised to find a very obvious parking lot, with a very clear trail nearby. We frolicked through the lush green hills, their only occupants for the afternoon save for a few sheep. I stopped frequently to take in all the green, symmetrically framed by the surrounding black sand beach and blue water-meets-sky. Nothing but green, black, and blue for days. The best part was standing on the cliff edge, at the intersection of all 3 colors, where I had a brief *holy crap this exists* moment. Beeeeautiful.
7. The massive rainbow at Skógafoss
Okay, I KNOW Iceland is famed for its waterfalls among other wonders. Waterfalls just happen to fall low on my list of things in nature that I find super-cool. Don’t get me wrong, I contentedly shuffled from fall to fall during our roadtrip. When we pulled up to Skógafoss I was fully ready to see a bunch of water thundering down from above – but I hardly expected to see the biggest, brightest, most approachable double rainbow imaginable. I got soaked from the falls (side note: I hate getting wet, which is why I rarely swim at the beach), but I didn’t care because DOUBLE RAINBOW! Boom.
8. Having a hot river to ourselves
On another *I’m not sure if this place actually exists, but what the hell let’s see* jaunt, we passed back-and-forth along a short stretch of road before finding the turnoff to Hrunalaug hot spring. A quick walk from the car park over the hill led us to a hot river set amidst a whole lot of greenery (sensing a pattern here?). When we arrived, there were a few folks relaxing in the main pool. Nicki and I noticed a little trough just in front of the changing hut, and conveniently enough it fit the two of us perfectly – with the added bonuses of being unoccupied and having hotter water than the pool. I loved sitting there, looking down the steaming hot river that led into the hills downstream.
9. Staying warm with some late night cocktails at our campsite
One night we ended up in a random little town, camping in a near-empty field just across from two families in campervans. We sat bundled up at our picnic table waiting for our pasta to cook over our tiny stove, the scent of smoked meat wafting over from the locals’ BBQ feast. It was a pitiful scene, to say the least.
We were hanging out in the dark with our headlamps and books when one of the campervan guys walked over to us and inquired if we’d like to indulge in some warm adult beverages. “This will keep you warm all night!” he assured us, releasing an armful of liquor bottles and mixers on our table. Tia Maria mixed with coffee brought back memories of my 21st birthday in New Zealand, but the Austrian spiced rum with hot chocolate was what really did it for us this night. The Icelander was right: it DID keep me warm all night. And he didn’t end up being some crazy psycho in the woods so, you know, that worked out well.
10. Lounging at Blue Lagoon
I 100% approached our Blue Lagoon excursion out of obligation rather than enthusiasm. It’s one of those overhyped tourist attractions you don’t particularly want to subject yourself to, but know you’ll regret missing out on.
I threw $50 at the hot pool gods for the privilege of showering naked and then catapulting myself from the cold air into the hot blue water. I soon found myself lounging in a little nook of volcanic rock, glass of sparking wine in hand, thinking the Blue Lagoon was pretty freaking excellent. I highly recommend frequenting the swim-up bar, if not for the alcohol then for the skyr smoothies. They make it easy (read: dangerous) to spend money by scanning your bracelet for each drink ordered, which you pay for on your way out. The saunas were a bit too stifling hot for me, but I quite enjoyed having the thundering hot waterfall pummel my knotted shoulders.
PS – It’s definitely worth reading up on how to pay for things in Iceland before you go. (Spoiler alert: you can probably get by without having to use cash at all!)
11. Live music at Cafe Haiti
After being cooped up in a car for 8 days with 3 other people, I was ready to hibernate and be by myself for awhile in Reykjavik (hooray introversion). I’m pretty sure you can wager a guess as to where I hid out.
I holed up for the day at Cafe Haiti, a colorful coffee shop on the waterfront run by (gasp!) Haitians. I was already content curled up on a comfy armchair catching up on all the internet things, but when a local band stopped by to play an acoustic set, things got really good. They played a beautiful mix of Icelandic tunes and pop covers that gave me goosebumps at times. I clapped after every song, sometimes by myself. It was a wonderful solo afternoon in Reykjavik.
12. Arriving at our first hut on Day 1 of the Laugavegur Trek
The 4-day Laugavegur Trek was the best thing I saw/did on my Iceland trip, and I could have easily filled half of this list with moments from it. But let’s save that babbling for a future post, shall we?
One of my favorite parts of the trek happened at the end of the first day, when we reached our hut after several grueling hours of uphill climbing. I spent a few minutes at the top of that last hill, taking in the insane view – and when I trudged up to our hut, I was greeted with warmth and the sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, courtesy of the hut warden and his guitar. Fantastic.
13. Seeing the Northern Lights in Reykjavik
I’ve already told the story of how I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland, but I’m still not quite over it. How bizarre that it happened on our last night in Iceland when we weren’t even on the lookout for them. Do you know how many times I crawled out of my tent at night to relieve myself slash check the sky for signs of color the two weeks prior? (A LOT, believe you me).