Picking Island as my next destination was a bit of a practical choice. I only had few days available, it was December and going to a warm place would waste too much time. Plus I never knew anybody who went there. You know this kind of people that always talk about seeing the northern lights or going somewhere weird exotic and when push comes to shove they go to Egypt or Tenerife.
I read some stories about Iceland and there were few places I wanted to see as they captivated my imagination. I still haven't seen them because they turned out to be less accessible than others.
First thing I noticed was the smell. I have never smelled something like that before. I know how the snow smells, in the mountains like Tatra Mountains or the Alps but this was different. As if I was breathing frozen sea water. Of course more inland the fragrance changes, more minerals, like sulphur appear in the air - that would be due to the geothermal works of the geysers.
My first encounter with Icelanders was fantastic. It was a lady behind the Hertz counter. For a long time I haven't come across a person so happy to talk about her country, so ready to help and find solutions to any problems. She was calm, no sign of stress that I'm normally used to. I could see how she enjoyed talking about elves and some beautiful places that I could visit. I took some notes and had a plan almost ready for the next few days.
As it was December, when I arrived it was getting dark already. My first stop was the Blue Lagoon. What a place!!! Although tricky to find for a first timer on dark Icelandic roads. The architecture was simple yet majestic in a way and then you submerge yourself in the hot murky-white waters of the lagoon. The only thing I could see was the steam raising up which made the place look mystical and the snow on the shore. You don't really swim there, you kind of have to crawl or squat-walk - it's 9 degrees below zero outside so you want most of your body to stay below the surface. I didn't really see any people although I could hear their voices. As soon as I was approaching a group I just changed direction. Funny enough the first language I heard in the dark was Polish. I learned later that we are the third biggest minority on Iceland - I think we're just everywhere.
Whenever I rent a car I drive and listen to local radio stations - it usually allows me to get to know the culture from yet another angle. This time I must say I was disappointed. All day long old American Christmas songs. I gave up quite soon and bought a Bjork CD that she recorded in the 90ties with a jazz band. So now I had jazz in Icelandic all day long. On a positive note I love the choice of teas they had everywhere I went. Might have been due to the cold but I was in paradise.
Since then I have visited the island one more time with a friend so I will combine here both experiences. Some places we have seen were the same ones I have visited before, but they looked so much different at the beginning of April.
So first of all you have to see the geysers. The name itself actually comes from one that people here called Geysir. It used to erupt very regularly but years of tourist abuse - people would throw in all kinds of things inside - made it quite unpredictable and much less spectacular. The star now is Strokkur - it erupts every 6-7 minutes and the experience never lets you down. It's fascinating to watch the water "boil", getting uneasy and culminating with a fountain up to 4 meters high. But that's not the only attraction. As you walk around all the geysers you will be able to notice the amazing colours the sedimenting minerals are leaving behind. So many shades of red, yellow and green it made it possible to believe the elves picked this island for their kingdom for a reason.
Not far from the geysers there is a waterfall called Gullfoss. Very powerful and spectacular. In December I saw it half covered with ice as if the waterfall itself was just ice ready to break off and follow the river. It was bit difficult to get to as you need to walk down a long flight of stairs and they were covered with thick layer of ice at the time. Much more accessible beginning of April, although you can still see some ice and snow the juicy green starts emerging all around it.
Both places, the geysers and the waterfall are quite close to each other and reachable via road 35. From Reykjavik you can get there via southern road. And on the way you can check out a small meteor crater - little warning: if you saw the one in Arizona this one might seem bit underwhelming, but if you have never seen a crater like that before definitely an interesting place to visit. It gives you an idea of how a possible impact can look like.
There is apparently amazing diving in the lake there and we did see a group of brave youngsters under an experienced supervision that were getting into what must have been freezing water. What we did was wonder around. I definitely recommend it if you have 3-4h to enjoy. Some paths are not clearly marked so we did worry about getting lost - the only direction markers are the hills around and we are not the most experienced wild hikers. In the end we got to the ruins and a waterfall we were looking for.
Another route to this destination leads on route 36 from the capital via the Þingvellir (also possible to spell: Thingvellir - similar to how you pronounce it) National Park - since 2004 World Heritage Site. Although I don't recommend seeing all that in one day, the route through the park is much more scenic. In Thingvellir itself you can spend a whole day. There are couple of things to see there and it's a great place for a walkabout.
Another crazy geological site is a bridge between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. Fun picture opportunity and I guess an interesting site for people interested in geology. It is quite tricky to find. I didn't manage it the first time I was there. And the second time we really only found it by coincidence - without looking for it. The bridge is visible from the road on route 425, half way between the most southern part of the road and a town called Hafnir.
One more thing you should try in Iceland: horseback riding. The Icelandic horse is a special breed. For centuries they were separated from all the other horses from other continents. What's special about them is that they have 2 additional gaits. They developed them to be able to move on the volcanic ground. That ride is definitely an experience.
And now to the highlight, the main reason a lot of people visit Iceland during winter months: Aurora Borealis. I saw it both times. The first time I didn't even realize what I was looking at. It was quite late as I was driving back to my B&B. At some point I thought I needed to stop and get some fresh air (ciggie break) as I started seeing things. I was looking at the sky, it was half covered by those funny clouds that look like sheep but instead of silvery they had a very weird pink taint and shimmered. It wasn't a full on classical Aurora that I was used to from the postcards but it was definitely incredible.
The second time we left our B&B in Mosfellbaer around 10pm and took route 36 towards the national park. There is no artificial lighting there and quite few viewing points where you can park, get your tripod, your camera and wait. For the lack of better words I can only say that it was epic! The lights moved and shimmered on the sky very quickly, they covered half of the sky and in my ears I could hear music. Maybe it was my imagination giving me a proper background for the event but it felt very real to me.
I don't really have any good pictures from this particular show of northern lights as the excitement took over me. I haven't noticed that my lens got covered with hoarfrost and by the time I cleaned it the lights were almost gone. To be honest, it doesn't matter. I saw it and I remember it.
Pages you might want to check out before going: