Iceland in Winter
Iceland, our first vacation in the year 2020. Who would have thought this would be our last trip of the year and also for the next couple of years. It sure feels like it was a long time ago. Just as the pandemic drastically changed our lives, I also ended up taking a break from my blog. Nearly two years later, here I am, sharing my experiences from the most incredible vacation of my lifetime.
When we first told our friends and family about our plans to go to Iceland in January, they were shocked and called us insane for traveling to Iceland during the peak of winter. What most people don't know, neither did we until we started planning this trip, is that winters in Iceland aren't too bad. However, the internet constantly warned us about how quickly conditions could change, especially how the winds could blow your car doors off if you don't hold on to them. Lack of awareness and preparation for these changes could make or break your vacation.
We flew Icelandair from Orlando to Keflavik and the journey was just over 6hrs. Iceland observes GMT, which means it's 5 hours ahead of US EST. So, we landed in Keflavik International Airport the next morning.
Day 1: We landed an hour earlier than our scheduled arrival time. In summer, when the sun never sets, we would have jumped with joy for having that extra hour. But in January, when the nights are long and the sun won’t rise until 10:30am, we did not really appreciate early landing. It meant we had to spend few hours doing nothing and nowhere to go. Anyway, we finished our airport formalities and took a shuttle bus to Blue Car Rental company, which was actually very close to the airport and walkable. We rented a 4WD off-road mini SUV and quickly hit the road.
Golden Circle Drive
First things first, we checked the weather forecast, and then every hour since. It was snowing already when we landed and it snowed all day, but still it turned out to be a beautiful day. We picked up our car and headed towards the Golden Circle. On the way we stopped at Mosfellsbakari for breakfast and filled up gas nearby.
GOLDEN CIRCLE: Golden Circle is a sightseeing route on the west of Iceland and a tourist hotspot. It is well known for Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. But there are many hidden gems on the circle which not many people tend to explore. We planned to cover some of those hidden gems along with popular sights depending on the availability of light.
We arrived at our first stop, Porufoss, a hidden waterfall on route-48, only a 5km detour from the main circle. Time seemed to be moving really slow that morning. It was 9am and still pitch dark outside. We wanted to park at the falls and wait for the sun to rise before we headed out to explore. That was impossible because we couldn’t even see where the parking lot was under the snow, even with headlights and flashlights on. So we decided to make a u-turn and move on to our next stop.
Thingvellir National Park/Oxararfoss
Thingvellir National Park is one of our favorite places on Iceland. We arrived there at 9:30am, more cars and tour buses soon followed. We waited at the visitor center just until the crack of dawn and then started hiking the trail. There were many trails at the park and some of them were completely submerged in snow. We quickly hiked up to Öxarárfoss before hoards of tourists could get there. Freshly snowed in trails, beautiful frozen falls and the views were simply magical.
Thingvellir National Park/Geysir
The sun had risen and the drive was quite beautiful. It was white in all directions. As there were less tourists during winter, ours was the only car on road for most of the drive. We drove at our own pace taking in the scenery around, waving to gorgeous Icelandic horses and sheep along the way. We took another detour to another hidden gem, Faxifoss, without realizing we would be driving that route later anyway. Faxifoss was short and wide, stunning nonetheless. We had the falls and views to ourselves.
Next we headed to Stokkur Geysir, the next most popular spot on the loop. We waited along with other tourists for the geyser to erupt. The geyser erupted in quick loud startling bursts every 10 minutes or so. There were other small steaming thermal pools in the area as well. Opposite the geyser there were cafes and restaurants where we grabbed our lunch. We had the traditional lamb soup and fish & chips for lunch. We also purchased couple of traditional Icelandic snacks - Fish Jerky and Kleinur - a sweet deep fried dough, which is our favorite Icelandic snack.
Our next stop was the majestic Gullfoss where the waters of Hvita river thunderously flow into Gullfoss gorge. There were many trails to hike to different viewpoints. No matter how many angles you look at this falls from, you are never gonna be satisfied.
Our final stop of the day was Fridheimar, a greenhouse tomato farm. When we prepared the itinerary for this trip, we marked this farm as low priority. We realized not going would have been a huge mistake and in fact this should be one of the must visit spots on Iceland. Rows and rows of tomato plants with hanging vines of juicy fruit and their fragrance just filled the room. We were quite full from lunch to try the bottomless tomato soup. Instead, we went for tomato beer, bloody mary and tomato ice-cream, which were all unique in flavors and tasted delicious.
It was dark out when we left the farm so we had to skip all the other hidden gems which we could have easily covered during the summer. Háifoss, Hjalparfoss, Gjáin, Thjofafoss are some of the sites that require more than an hours driver further east from the loop. On our drive back to our hotel, we drove in foggy barely visible conditions but arrived safely nonetheless. We checked in to our home for the next 4 nights, Hotel Kriunes, which was located on the banks of Lake Ellidavatn. The hotel was cozy, clean and comfortable and had a great view of the lake from our room.
Fridheimer Tomato Farm
Day 2: First thing we did every morning was check the weather. The weather forecast for the day looked ok, so we decided to drive to the South. We booked a room in Hotel Skaftafell for the night, quickly packed our things and hit the road. And since it was a sudden decision we kept our booking at Hotel Kriunes as it is. We tried to hit the road early while it was still dark as our first stop was 2 hrs away and we wanted to make full use of day light.
South Iceland drive was amazing with some incredible sights and beautiful scenery. Snow from previous snowfall had melted for the most part exposing a diverse landscape. Dry grass, mossy lava rocks, snow capped mountains, ocean views, many beautiful waterfalls, semi frozen pools of water, rapids and cute little villages were all part of South Iceland’s breathtaking landscape.
Our first stop was the gorgeous Seljalandsfoss. The main falls itself was gorgeous, and there were also other smaller falls down the mountain. We did not spend a lot of time there as it rained quite heavily and the wind chills pierced through our bones. Just a short distance from there was the stunning Skogafoss. Mist from the thunderous falls combined with the wind prevented us from getting too close to the falls.
Next spot on our list was the plane wreckage site, though we did not go. It was a 4km hike(one way) to the wreckage which would have taken us more time to and fro than the hours of daylight left. Also, we were cold and damp from the rain. We weren't too confident about hiking an open trail on a windy day like that. So, we told ourselves "It’s ok, may be next time" and moved on.
Reynisfjara Black Beach was the one place I read a lot about and saw tons of videos of on the internet. The black sandy beach and basalt formations were truly amazing. Dangerous sneaker waves that this beach is also known for is no joke.
Reynisfjara Black Beach
From the beach, we headed to our hotel for the night, stopping only a couple of times to get pictures of random waterfalls and a gorgeous sunset. Hotel Skaftafell is in an excellent location, only few kilometers from Skaftafell National Park. The hotel itself was very clean, comfortable and served great food.
Day 3: It was the most adventurous day on Iceland and we will never ever forget this day in our lives. Morning weather forecast said snow showers and 25mph winds throughout the day. We decided it was safe to drive and so by 9 am we checked out of the hotel and headed to Jokulsarlon Lagoon and Diamond Beach.
It snowed all night so the scenery outside looked completely different from the previous day. The mountains looked more gorgeous covered in snow; all the little water pools were fully frozen; green moss on the lava rocks was under snow; and dry grass was no more visible. It was truly magical.
Diamond Beach and Jokulsarlon Lagoon were on opposite sides of the road but were connected under a bridge. We parked at Diamond Beach and went to the beach first. There were a surprising number of icebergs on the beach, smooth and shiny, washed ashore by the waves. We spent quite a lot of time clicking pictures despite the piercing cold wind. When we were satisfied with the pictures, we walked to the lagoon from under the bridge. Honestly, we did not expect to see that many icebergs. We were completely mesmerized by the lagoon full of huge blue chunks of ice.
Jokulsarlon Lagoon/Diamond Beach
The lagoon was the farthest we had gone on the south side of the ring road. On our drive back to the west we stopped at the Svinafellsjokull glacier viewpoint. We could see not one but two glacier tongues from the viewpoint. It began snowing just in time and the views were amazing.
On our drive west we didn’t have any stops planned but wanted to stop at random waterfalls, if they were not frozen, and anywhere we found photo opportunities along the way. As I said earlier, we checked the weather every hour and there appeared to be a slight increase in wind speed but nothing alarming. The gusts blew snow across the road creating an image of moving clouds. It was surreal.
That surrealism soon turned nightmarish. When we checked the weather again we noticed that there was a Yellow weather alert issued for some parts of Iceland including the South. Since there weren't any driving restrictions we continued on our journey. Minutes later we ended up in the middle of a blizzard completely blinded by the swirling snow and winds blasting at our car. It lasted only for a short span of time but we found ourselves getting stuck in few more of those blizzards throughout our drive. Though we arrived at our hotel safe and sound, this has been the craziest weather we've ever experienced.
Day 4: Yellow alert was still on for the South and some other parts of the country. The weather was clear for the West, so we decided to explore Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The true beauty of Snaefellsnes Peninsula cannot be aptly described in words. Driving through the vast frozen landscape was like being in the middle of nowhere. We rarely saw people or cars pass by. It felt quite strange and unearthly. It felt more rugged than the rest of Iceland creating a feeling of being truly lost in nature.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula/Gorgeous Icelandic Horses
We thought we had seen the best of Iceland in the past 3 days, we couldn't be more wrong. Some of the sites at Snaefellsnes Peninsula are unimaginable and incredibly beautiful. We even got to see lots of Icelandic horses on the drive. Some of our stops on the peninsula were Ytri Tunga Beach, Bjarnarfoss and Londrangar Basalt Cliffs. Bjarnarfoss was completely frozen at the time. The ocean views from Londrangar Cliffs were incredible.
Ofcourse we wouldn't miss the famous Black Church, Djúpalónssandur Black Beach and Kirkjufell. There were many viewpoints and trails to hike at the Black Beach. No amount of time spent there is enough to take in the raw beauty surrounding this beach - stunning mountains on one side and gorgeous ocean on the other. Kirkjufell mountain again is one of the most photographed spots in the country.
Black Church/Londrangar Basalt Cliffs
It was our last day on Iceland and we had half a day to spend before we had to head to the airport. So we decided to take a quick tour around Reykjavik. We drove into the city, parked at the famous Hallgrimskirkja church and did a little walk around. Reykjavik is a charming city with lots of colorful buildings, brightly lit shops and plenty of colorful street art. We didn't have time to visit the museums or any other sites except for the church.
Reykjavik/View from Hallgrimskirkja
After strolling around and clicking a bunch of photos we finally toured Hallgrimskirkja. The church is well know for its facade that resembles basalt columns. A climb to the top of the church offered a spectacular 360 view of Reykjavik. With that, our time in the most beautiful country on earth by far had come to an end. Though we anticipated a flight reschedule or cancellation due to bad weather, nothing of the sort happened. We were able to fly as per schedule and bid goodbye to Iceland.
Weather: It is extremely important to check the weather regularly, by that I mean every hour. Iceland’s weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly. The two websites - road.is and vedur.is are reliable for road and weather conditions. Emergency: 112 is the number for all kinds of emergency services. Currency: The currency in Iceland is the Icelandic króna (ISK). Major bank credit and debit cards are accepted everywhere. Some gas stations accept only debit cards. We did not find the need for cash anywhere we went. Car Rental: Best way to explore Iceland to the fullest is by driving around yourself. Definitely rent a 4WD for winter travel. Many car rental companies are just outside the airport. We rented a 4WD off-road mini SUV from Blue Car Rental. Driving: Iceland is a massive country. Do check the distances properly beforehand and book hotels at comfortable stops. If you are doing the ring road, plan and book hotels at multiple places to have a more relaxing trip. Where to stay: We stayed at Hotel Kriunes in the west and Hotel Skaftafell in the south. Here is a list of some other hotels you can check out in the west - Hotels around Reykjavik and in the South - Hotels near Diamond Beach and Hotels near Vik. What to wear: Multiple layers. Anything that keeps you warm and dry like thick woolen sweater, thermals, thick woolen socks, cold weather waterproof/windproof jacket with hood, woolen head cap, sturdy waterproof cold weather boots and gloves.