I am happy with sun or snow, but my Steve is more of a 'winter in minus temperatures' kinda guy.
Our previous trips to gorgeous Iceland in February/ March had exceeded all expectations and had induced a little obsession, and we were intrigued by the idea of returning when the days were at their shortest and darkest.
Southern Iceland isn’t quite north enough for 24 hours of darkness but with a flight time of less than three hours from Stansted and the lure of stunning bleak winter landscapes to explore, a week’s pre-Christmas road trip was meticulously planned to include Keflavik, Hella, Vik and Reykjavik.
We were not only now wise to the cost of bar drinks, but also that alcohol is only sold at government-regulated shops called the Vínbúðin, which are only open on certain days at fixed trading hours. This time we were ready for them!
Duty Free at Reykjavik’s airport is conveniently located in the baggage collection area - ideal for purchasing some lower priced beer and wine to pack into your suitcase with the hire car making a handy mobile fridge too!
With a wealth of attractions outside of Reykjavik, a hire car is highly recommended and a 4WD is a good option at this time of year, as the snow and ice in the 'Highland' regions cannot be accessed safely in a standard car.
Arriving at night, our first port of call was the Hotel Keflavik, located on the Reykjanes Peninsula just 10 minutes from the airport. This is a traditional style hotel with delicious food, including the locally caught fish served as a gratin, a warming and unctuous dish which we have successfully managed to recreate at home.
The sun finally rose at around 10:30 the next morning and we took advantage of the limited daylight hours for driving. Our destination was Hella (pronounced Hetla), a small town located just over a couple of hours drive along the infamous N1 scenic ring road that runs around the whole island.
We stopped for pics and to take in the dramatic waterfalls at Selfoss, where the melting glacial water tumbles down before flowing off to the Atlantic Ocean, which is visible on the opposite side of the highway.
The Hotel Ranga, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is situated just outside the town of Hella and comes with river views and panoramic scenery. Its log ranch appearance, outdoor thermal pools, hot tubs and state of the art observatory had caught my attention and we dined like kings here on freshly caught Arctic Char and the most expensive bottle of wine that I have ever had the pleasure to consume.
Daylight starts to fade around 14:30 with sunset an hour later, which allows for plenty of star-gazing time either in the observatory or on a wooden ‘sun’ bed, installed specifically for Northern Lights viewing. If you wish to be woken for the Aurora Borealis sighting, a request can be lodged with reception, who happily provide snow suits, an alarm call and warming drinks.
The following day we journeyed for an hour to the Solhelmajokull glacier for a pre-booked guided walking tour which included access to essential equipment, crampons, safe harnesses and walking poles.
Although it is permitted to walk the glacier independently, I'd strongly advise against it as there are many dangers - crevasses being one! The expert guides, as well as knowing how to avoid them, are also a mine of information about the geology and geography of the region.
We walked for around three hours and were grateful for our thermals as the weather provided a four-seasons in one day experience. It was the land of ice, snow, hail, sunshine and wind!
Vik is a remote seafront village, sitting in the shadow of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers the Katla volcano. It’s an extraordinary place with its black sand beaches and rocky outcrops set against the backdrop of the raging North Atlantic waves. It has featured in TV series such as Game of Thrones and Black Mirror.
We spent the night at the Black Beach Suites and wished we could have stayed longer, as once more the accommodation, food and scenery blew us away, and from here you can also reach several additional places of interest.
From Vik, we took a circuitous route towards Reykjavik, visiting Geysir where the geothermal activity periodically throws boiling sulphurous water up to 70m skywards.
We continued to the Gullfoss Falls which cascade downwards through the canyon from the Hvítá river and the view from the top must be seen to be truly appreciated.
The gift shop and café were incredibly busy and with a large influx of American tourists. It felt a bit too commercial and disrespectful of this area of incredible natural beauty.
It was easy to park in central Reykjavik and our hotel here, The Apotek, a modern and stylish boutique hotel, is a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Laugavegur. I’d sent many clients here previously but had yet to personally experience it.
We didn’t take a city tour this time as it’s easy to walk around and manage without a guide if you know what you want to see. Get some sturdy walking shoes on along with your Fitbit and explore the Sun Voyager, the Harpa Building, the Saga Museum, Hallgrimskirkja and the Old Harbour.
Taking a whale watching trip is a must here and one of the best things we’ve ever done. We sailed 20 miles out to Faxafloi Bay, witnessing northern gannets diving into the sea at breakneck speed, surfacing several seconds later to eat their captured fish as they bobbed around on the waves.
The whales were more reluctant to make an appearance until the return leg. Most passengers had retreated to the ship’s lower decks for warmth, but we stayed in hope on the top deck and were handsomely rewarded with a pod of Orcas spotted surfing along the bow waves created by the ship.
It would be an understatement to say this created a fair bit of excitement.
We wanted to revisit the sleepy fishing town of Keflavik for our final night but this time with a stay at the chic and recently refurbished Hotel Berg, the only hotel that I know of with a roof top geothermal pool and a neighbouring Troll’s Cave.
We dined at Kaffi Duus, an eccentric local eatery with plenty of freshly landed seafood and local beers.
With some time before our flight on our final day, we took an hour-long tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula, which with the feel of dusk at midday, gave the adventure a strange and unworldly vibe.
The town of Gardur was a delightful discovery, with its two lighthouses, beaches and magnificent sea views, as was the Lighthouse Inn, where we’ll be staying on our next visit 😉
On the drive to Sandvik, the plumes of steam from the geothermal plant can be seen for miles before arriving at the famous Bridge Between Two Continents, where you can observe the fascinating split between the Eurasion and North American tectonic plates.
Continuing around the peninsula and heading back inland you’ll reach The Blue Lagoon, an outdoor geothermal spa. We didn’t partake this time, having enjoyed it previously but with its proximity to the airport it’s a popular way of beginning or ending an Icelandic stay.
We always leave Iceland making plans to return. Some destinations just do that to you and there’s lots more to explore. A long weekend here needn’t mean spending the duration in Reykjavik but there are some key hacks with which I’ll sign off that will help you get the most from your time and budget:
Hire a car to increase the scope of your trip
Note my tip to stock up on soft/ alcoholic beverages at the Duty Free on arrival. It will save a fortune and store them in the boot of your car.
Plan your visit for when there are more than four hours of daily daylight availability to max out driving opportunities. November until early March will give you wintery conditions with longer days and safer roads
Ask me to put together a road trip itinerary for you because I know what I’m doing
Don’t visit the Blue Lagoon during the UK school holidays!
Don’t visit expecting to see the Northern Lights. I have visited three times and am yet to witness them.