After celebrating the new year in the Bahamas, we selected a diametrically opposed climate - Icelandic winter - in what would be a whirlwind trip along the southern coast of the wintry isle. In January, the sun rises just slightly over the horizon at around 10:30 am and dips back down just after 3 pm, creating a sense of perpetual sunset, We flew overnight from Tampa airport, and, due to our change of flights at the last-minute, we were stuck in different rows in the back of the plane on a very bumpy flight into Keflavik Airport. We touched down at 7am, picked up our rental car and arrived at the Blue Lagoon for opening at 8am in the pitch blackness.
Since we last visited Iceland in 2008, its popularity with tourists has blown up. The Blue Lagoon is an Instagram dream, and now advance reservations are required as most days the geothermal pools are filled with tourists. Luckily, we visited midweek at opening time, and we enjoyed a couple of hours with the steamy opaque blue waters mostly to ourselves. We picked up complementary green smoothies at the in-pool smoothie bar and smoothed mineral and algae masks on our faces while we explored the giant water spa facility, all before the sun even started to rise.
Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss Waterfalls
We got our fill of the waters just as the tour buses started to pull up. Despite the crowds, the Blue Lagoon is still definitely worth visiting - the color of the water, steam rising up into the clear skies and the otherworldly, moon-like natural surroundings make the spa very special, even though it is no longer an "in the know" spot. We jumped in the car and started a two hour drive down the southern coast of Iceland toward the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls. One road traces along the southern coast, with the rough sea on the right, and crazy landscapes of mountains, fields of Icelandic ponies and glaciers pass along on the left. We pulled up to small parking areas near each waterfall, hopped out of the car into the frigid air, and within minutes were at the base of giant waterfalls, sparkling with misty rainbows in the dim sunlight. We slid along iced-over paths and took in these magnificent natural wonders for as long as we could without freezing.
We hopped back in the car and headed to the Solheimajokoll glacier, where we took a 30-minute walk along the edge of the blue ice glacier sliding out from over the rocky mountains. Despite Iceland becoming more touristy, we were happy that it is still open and accessible. Almost anywhere, you can pull over to the side of the road, hop out, and explore without restriction. The landscapes are surreal, treeless and lunar.
Black Sand Beach
For sunset, we headed to Reynisfjara black sand beach in the town of Vik, made famous by Game of Thrones, where we climbed on the lava stones formed into pillars and watched giant waves crash over towering rock formations just offshore. It was far out to watch the sun dip down under the sea when it had never truly risen. Once again in utter blackness, with zero street lamps to light the coastal road, we shut it down for our early start the next morning,.
We stopped at a local grocery store and picked up sandwiches, fruit, drinks and snacks that would make up our meals for the rest of our trip. Despite there being a few great restaurants in Reykjavik, Iceland is known for having super-expensive food, so we decided to keep it simple for the short trip. We ate our groceries in bed and passed out for the night, waking every few hours to check for the Northern Lights.
Skaftafell Glacier Trek
The following morning, we woke up before dawn to drive 2 hours through the pitch black darkness to Skaftafell, where we had an appointment with Extreme Iceland for a glacier trek and ice cave exploration. We arrived for sunrise around 10am, where we were fitted with crampons that fit over our hiking boots. We loaded with other trekkers into some sort of garbage/monster truck hybrid and drove off-road for a bumpy 15-minute ride onto the base of the glacier.
From there, we broke into small groups and began our ascent onto the ice. Just as we began our trek, a snowstorm blew in, creating an virtual white-out that made the whole scene all the more surreal. As we acclimated to trekking on the ice, we stopped to check out various crevasses, glacial ice formations and scenic viewpoints as the snow swirled around us. Our guide explained to us how the glaciers were formed and how fast they were receding, to the point that in 10 years time the glaciers may completely vanish.
After exploring the glacier for about an hour, we headed down a slippery slope into an ice cave, and were astounded by the smooth, bubbly tunnel sitting under the snow. The daylight shone through the walls of the ice cave, creating a neon blue glow that illuminated the curves of the walls, floor and ceiling. Looking closely, you could see trapped air bubbles deep within the ice walls. We took our time exploring the temporary wonder before using our crampons and ice axes to escape back up on top of the glacier. Our guide let us know that each spring, the ice caves collapse as water from the glaciers melt. He predicted that this one would only last another month.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
From there, we drove along the Svinafellsjokull Glacier, made famous by Batman Begins, Game of Thrones and other Hollywood movies and then continued our path along the southern coast, heading toward the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and diamond beach for sunset. We pulled off the road to what appeared to be a crystal blue lake, and as we walked closer, we noticed giant chunks of ice - clear and opaque, white, grey and blue - in various shapes and sizes floating in the lagoon. We arrived around 3 pm, when the sun started dipping back down below the horizon, and we examined the colors of the sun reflecting on the silvery ice lake. It felt like we were on another planet.
For our last site in the quickly darkening sky, we drove across the street to diamond beach, a black volcanic sand beach filled with icebergs washed ashore. With the deep black background, the ice chunks sparkled like diamonds, especially with the setting sun reflecting upon them in pink and gold. We climbed and slid on the bigger pieces, and walked along the beach taking in the site, unable to put our cameras down for more than a few seconds. Despite the freezing cold (Erin's face went numb and she couldn't talk properly for a few minutes), we couldn't bring ourselves to stop wandering down the icy shore.
Firework Trail to Civilization
We had to tear ourselves away from the sunset reflecting pink, orange and yellow on the sparkling ice, but we had a 4.5 hour drive ahead of us through uncertain weather, back to civilization, for our flight the following morning. We returned our hitchhiker karma from Ireland by dropping off a pair of Russian visitors to their tour group that left them behind, then started the journey in utter darkness. It turned out that this night was an Icelandic troll holiday, celebrating the 12th day after Christmas, so all along our seemingly never-ending drive, the night sky lit up with fireworks and bonfires.
We made it back to Reykjavik in what seemed like the middle of the night, but was actually 8pm, and we spent a few hours sleeping in a dingy hotel on the outskirts of town before heading to the airport for an early flight back to mainland Europe. Our second trip to Iceland was ambitious for our short time and cold, but memorable. The hours and hours of night driving were challenging but the feeling of standing within an glacial ice cave was indelible and rewarding. And under it all Iceland...you had us at "ponies."
Check out our Iceland Travel Edit
Expat Adventure Blog