Iceland is as spectacular as they make it to be. The magazines, the videos on repeat, the pictures, yes all of it. This strange land with its tales of the Huldufólk, skies painted by the Aurora fairies, landscape so dramatic, all make it worth that crucial spot on your bucket list! I honestly think that it has distinctive summer and winter characters, so yes, this enigmatic island floating in the Atlantic deserves at least two visits in this lifetime for sure. I am already looking forward to my next one eagerly.
I went to Iceland last winter, enamoured by the stories of the Aurora. It’s when I reached there that I realized there is so much more to Iceland in winter than just these elusive lights. I did manage to spot them on three of the nights I was there, with more than a little help from my friends, but that’s another story for another rainy night.
Here are my top 9 experiences in Iceland in winter.
- Land of Fire and Ice: It is amazing how the 300,000 islanders who populate this country, live so close to active volcanoes and glaciers and make no big deal about it. But for us ‘earthlings’, seeing these natural forces play such major roles in their day to day lives and yet have them completely unfazed by it, is quite fascinating and ever so humbling. You can hike up the crater of a volcano or do down its magma chamber or go for an ice cave expedition to the Vatnajokull to know exactly what I’m talking about.
- Fishing villages on the coast: Those visiting Iceland typically hope to cover the ring road, but the winters make the roads awry and prone to closing. Thus, most visiting the country go westward till Snaesfellsness and then move southwards till the Vatnajokull. But worry not, there is enough to cover in this region.
For example, ever since I saw Kristen Wiig sing ‘Space Oddity’ in the ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, I was so taken in by this cute town with shoebox houses. And you know what; when I went to Stykishholmur (yes, that is what it’s called), the houses were just the same, boxed into nothingness. There was one super market in the town and the harbor to the fjord was right there.
Other fishing towns like Borganes and Budir in the peninsula are also spellbindingly beautiful and melancholic. Budir’s church is sought out by couples to get married in, something that would surely make for dramatic wedding scenes.
- Hot Springs, Hot Pools, Hot Tubs: Iceland is a hub for hot springs and pools due to the high presence of seismic activity in the country. So the island is blessed with many natural hot springs and pools, the biggest being Blue Lagoon, which though swarming with tourists, is an absolutely amazing experience. Drinking beer in a pool with the water at 40 degree centigrade where the outside temperature is -5 degrees will definitely be something you will remember for a very long time.
For those looking to escape the crowds, there are more private springs like the ones near Reykjavik like Seljavallalaug and Reykjadalur. You can find more about hot springs Here
Most hotels away from the city have a hot tub of their own. The thrill of running through windy corridors in your swimwear and jumping into the warm lap of the hotel hot tub is quite an exhilarating feeling, trust me!
- Strange food: Fermented shark meat served in a shed in a faraway town in the Snaessfellsness peninsula, was quite a bit of an adventure even for a meat loving Bengali like myself. Even the generous doses of Brenvin (Icelandic liquor) served with it, did not help the cause. But apart from that there was plenty of strangeness on the menu during my time there: Rye bread and boiled egg, cooked in the seismic heat of the Geysers, raw scallops fished out of a fjord and served to us fresh from the nets on the boat, with some wasabi, soy and ice cold winds on the side.
Overall in Iceland, being a non-vegetarian helps. Horses, reindeers, puffin, sheep’s head, everything that you can see in the wilderness around you is pretty much up for grabs. For those who can’t stomach that, you can always rely on the pylsnur or Icelandic hot dog as a great snack. It’s easy on the tummy and the pocket. The Bejarns Cart near the harbor is said to be a favourite with celebrities from around the world. But vegetarians unite! There are fantastic vegetarian cafes in the cities where you can get your share of the greens.
One Icelandic thing I really enjoyed was skyr, which is pasteurized skimmed milk and available at every supermarket in a variety of flavours. The Icelanders drink and eat it with and as everything; dips, breakfast, a drink and even dessert. It’s also zero fat so yaay and tastes like flavoured yoghurt, so it was win-win all the way!
- Fairy Tales: I’m a sucker for fairy tales. So when I heard about this island’s obsession with elves, fairies, trolls and gnomes it surely got my interest further piqued.
The Icelandic take their “Huldufolk” or hidden people quite seriously. Taken from Norse traditions, these hidden people are said to dwell in the land in rock formations .There have been many instances where plans of roads and bridges have been altered, as they don’t want to disturb the resting places of these creatures.
The sparse 300,000 odd locals of this vast island have made these “hidden people” a part of their daily life. The strange dreamy landscape, the ever changing weather adds to these myths and I personally loved hearing the tales and brought back a book too, to remind me of these people so far far away who still believe in their bit of magic and mystery.
- Icebergs on a beach: Vantajokull Glacier is the largest glacier in Iceland covering 8% of its total area. It is also the largest glacier mass in Europe and it is quite spectacular. So when you get to visit one of its openings at Jokul Sarlon, which is a slow moving river that drains out to the sea, it is definitely more than a mere sight seeing spree.
The icy cold river has pieces of the glacier broken and floating into the ocean, at glacial pace and when you see the movement for yourself, it is not a sight that you will forget easily. I walked over to the beach where the river meets the sea, and the pieces of ice lay there on the black volcanic sands like sparkling diamonds. We made ourselves quite a gin party there, mixed with some Fanta and some floating ice to power our drinks on a lazy Wednesday afternoon. Skal to that!
- Weather change: There is a saying here; if you don’t like the weather, then wait for 5 minutes, it will change. This change is more drastic in winter though. You may begin the day with bright sunshine and within an hour you will find yourself driving through 10cm of snow with wind speeds so high, that your bus will be stopped for fear of being blown away. The drastic changes are insane, and it gives us much needed perspective when all it takes is a gust of wind to topple us over along with our expensive gadgets and lofty self-opinions!
- Reykjavik: The city is an experience in itself. Pastel coloured two storied buildings with Christmas decorations almost all winter will steal your heart away. Because the daylight hours during winter are quite less (6 hours ) they light up the town in fairy lights and beautiful twinkling décor so that the atmosphere is not morose, and you almost look forward to the sunset (at 3 pm) for these lights to come and sprinkle your days with their bit of magic.
Apart from that, the city has a great cultural base, with plays and theatres and live music with regular features. The people take their live music very seriously, with great artists like Bjork and Monsters and Men coming from this country. Hell, they even have a museum of punk rock and it’s literally underground.
The street art in the city is gritty and spectacular and every turn you take during your walk around the city, you will spot something amazing, rendering it a never-ending treasure hunt of sorts.
The Hallgrimskirkje Church which looms over the city with its stoic exterior is one of the highest points in the city and the views from the top is so worth the climb. Built by celebrated architect Guðjón Samuelsson, he used nature as an inspiration for his work here. The wing and steeple of the church is modeled on basalt columns that one can spot on the Rejnisfjara beach near the village Vik.
- Northern lights: If you are going to Iceland in winter, you are hoping to spot the lights. You are praying, you are checking reports once the sun sets, you are constantly looking at the sky and when you finally spot it, it seems quite otherworldly. And that’s all you remember, that you spotted the Aurora Borealis and can sleep a good night’s sleep. But let me give you a disclaimer, it is hard, hard work, so be ready for a bit of a slog.
Of course you can get lucky and just spot it one evening while you are lounging on your patio with your neighbor and exchanging stories, but if not, then you’ve got to wait. Wait, wait and wait. Amidst gusty winds and sub-zero temperatures, the chances of spotting them in winter are much higher as the nights are much longer. But then it’s not that simple you know. Check one, you have to have clear skies, which is a rarity in winter: Check two, you need to have Borealis activity on the skies for the night. Just to make matters more interesting, the Borealis activity is highest 3 am onwards when its way below freezing outside. Biting cold and gusty winds don’t keep away enthusiastic travelers though, who catch these lights and capture them in photographs for the world to see.
On the flipside:
- It’s not the shortest ride from India: There are no direct flights. If lucky you get a one stop flight, stopping at Copenhagen or Paris or Amsterdam. You wait there for 4-5 hours and then take off for Reykjavik. So prepare for 15-19 hour journeys, after accounting for the layovers. So pack those books and go slow on the wine on the flight; a long journey lies ahead.
- Not easy on the pocket: There is no way to sugarcoat this. Iceland is expensive. Very expensive. Even though the Icelandic Krona is worth 60paisa, everything just costs a lot. A plysnur/ hot dog costs about Rs 450, a bottle of beer during happy hours costs Rs. 450 and a glass of wine around Rs 550. So if you are planning to do a bar night, keep the credit card ready for some serious dents.
- Some regions are only accessible in the summers: Some regions of Iceland like the mysterious Westfjord and the East, are accessible only in summers. While you can cover the whole Ring road with some irregularities, to reach the Westfjords and the East you will need to get off the main highway, and that you can do only in summer. And summer has a completely different flavour to it. With really long days ending at 11pm or later, water adventures like scuba diving between continents, climbing inside the magma chamber of a volcano at Thrihnukagigur and horse riding for the less adventurous, are all realistic options. There is plenty that this country offers for a summer trip. I know I am going back to explore the mysterious Westfjords.
WHAT: Iceland , Europe
Language spoken: Icelandic, closely related to Norwegian and Faroese
Currency: Icelandic Kronas (1 krona =.60 Rs)
Say cheers: Skál
Winter: October- March