Why Visit Iceland? My Top Five Reasons

I had just booked my second trip to Iceland and I excitedly told my friends and co-workers that I was going back; their first impression was all the same. Yay! Cool…that is so amazing! followed by a common second reaction: Wait! Iceland? Why Iceland? Isn’t it cold there?

Which way Akureyri

Which way Akureyri?

 

I can answer this common question for all of you out there wondering the same. Iceland is awesome! Its natural beauty is incomparable to any other place I have ever been. Iceland is a land of extremes, marked by bubbling natural springs, enormous glaciers, active volcanoes, and dramatic rushing waterfalls.  If that is not enough Reykjavik, the capital city is a sophisticated urban destination with trendy restaurants, welcoming pubs and plenty of shopping.

There are so many reasons to visit Iceland but I will try to break it down into five major reasons: affordability, adventure tours, the summer solstice and Midnight sun, Icelandic cuisine, and geothermal spas.

Reason #1: Iceland is Affordable

Currently prices for travel packages to Iceland from the United States are at an all-time low.  Icelandair offers a variety of packages that include both airfare and hotels. For example currently Icelandair is offering a “Volcano Tour and Glacier Walk” package that includes RT airfare from a variety of US cities from $845 per person; with add on nights at an extremely low rate of 55.00 per couple. The highlights of this tour are the off-road Super Jeep tour of Eyjafjallajokull Volcano area and also a Glacier ice hike tour on Solheimajokill Glacier. This is just one example of affordable tours, I recently booked a package that included a Northern Lights tour, 3 days in northern Iceland Akureyri, international and domestic airfare, 8 total days with hotel and breakfast for $1150.00  with tax and everything included. Of course these prices are subject to change. The trip was highly organized and the hotels were both four stars-the money we saved on the trip we used for shopping and more expensive tours we wanted to do.

Reason #2: Adventure Tours and Opportunities

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Geysir!

A staggering number of tours and activities are offered through tour companies in Iceland. One can go horseback riding in the morning and later the same day-Whale Watching. Most tours can easily be arranged through your hotel or through the tourist information center located in Reykjavik. One popular tour iconic to Iceland is the Golden Circle tour. This popular day or afternoon trip takes visitors usually by bus to Iceland’s main natural highlights: Geysirs, Godafoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park.
The difference between the full day and the half day option is the length of time at the locations. I have been on both tours. The main difference I noticed was that on the half-day tour we only briefly stopped at Thingvellir National Park. We heard a short explanation of what the park was and looked out from the overlook at the park. During the full day tour we had ample time to walk around the park and get a close up view of the spring where the tectonic plates are actually visible. During the full day tour we also stopped at the geothermal facility and learned about how Iceland uses geothermal heat and power. One huge benefit to the half day tour was the stop at Kerid eruption crater I was excited because it was different that the other tour I had been on.

There are a number of adventure tour options available for those looking for more activity. Tours to volcanic hot spots are very popular. Many people around the world have heard of Eyjafjallajokull volcano when it made international news in 2010 when it spewed a massive cloud of ash into the air shutting down air traffic for weeks. A number of tours are offered to view the aftermath or to check out this sub-volcanic glacier. There is a wide range of tours and activities to choose from that range from high activity tours such as Kite-boarding, dogsledding, ice climbing and snowmobiling to those less strenuous like whale watching and puffin spotting.

Reason #3: The Summer Solstice and the Midnight Sun.

Iceland is a great place to experience the summer solstice and the phenomenon known as the Midnight Sun.   This occurs naturally on June 21st when the day is the longest of the year but in Iceland or other Nordic countries the sun is visible for up to 24 hours. The first time I visited Iceland was in June during the summer solstice and the days seemed endless with bars and pubs filled and people out having fun in the city streets till all hours of the night. We also stayed up all night losing track of time sightseeing and taking photos taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight. When it was time to sleep the guest house had heavy curtains to block out the sunlight making it easier to sleep.

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Sun Voyager!

 

Reason #4: Interesting Icelandic Cuisine  

Are you a foodie or an adventurous eater? Icelandic cuisine offers a variety of food and drink choices most people have never heard of let alone tried. Hákarl or fermented Greenland sharkmeat is a traditional Icelandic delicacy. Because the Greenland shark is poisonous it needs to buried underground in sand and gravel for a period of 6–12 weeks to allow for the toxins to be expelled from the body before it can be consumed. Once the toxins are removed the shark meat is then cut into strips and dried. You can sample Hákarl at the Kolaportid flea market in Reykjavik city center. Traditionally the shark meat should be washed down with a shot of Brennivín or Black Death. Although Black Death is technically a liquor, I felt like a was drinking a shot of very strong vodka or grain alcohol.

Most restaurants offer an Icelandic feast which can be any combination of Icelandic specialties. One of my absolute favorite restaurants in the world is Tapas Barinn located in city center Reykjavik. They offer tapas with an Icelandic twist. Their version of the Icelandic gourmet feast starts with of course a shot of Brennivin, followed by Icelandic Sea Trout, Lobster tails baked in garlic, Pan-fried line catfish, Icelandic lamb, Minke Whale, and for dessert White chocolate “Skýr” mousse. Skyr is a delicious white creamy yogurt specific to Iceland.  Many locals do not support eating whale meat and I actually asked that they substitute this item for another one of their 70 dishes. They also serve great sangria. This is just one of a number of great restaurants in Reykjavik.

Reason #5 Geothermal Spas in Iceland

Reason number five is certainly not the least of the reasons for a visit to Iceland. The spas in Iceland are both natural and luxurious! Every visit to Iceland must include a trip to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a luxury geothermal outdoor spa located near Keflavík International Airport. The minerals contained in the spa mainly sulphur and silica are said to have anti-aging and healing properties. Visitors can float around all day regardless of the season in the toasty 98-102 degree water and afterwards indulge in a number of spa services or have lunch at Lava restaurant located on the premises. There is also a Lagoon bar you can swim up to for cocktails and snacks.

Laugardalslaug is Reykjavik’s largest city pool. The pool and spa is a short bus ride from Reykjavik center in Laugardalur Valley. It is an enormous spa that has an indoor and outdoor pool, 7 outdoor hot pots, a salt water Jacuzzi, a steam bath, sun lamps, and an 86-meter-long water slide. I loved the outdoor “hot pots”; each one has a slightly different temperature. It was fun to move from pot to pot until you find the perfect temperature and then afterwards cool off in the large heated but cooler-temped pool.

ablog2These are only my five top reasons to visit Iceland there are actually so many more wonderful experiences in store for anyone traveling there. I highly recommend visiting as either a full vacation destination or as a stop-over en route to another European destination.

Copyright Christine Zenino

Don’t Freeze! How to Pack for a Winter Vacation in Iceland

“For most people, the thought of Iceland conjures up images of extreme snowy conditions and sub-zero temperatures, but actually the climate in Iceland is quite mild. Temperatures during the winter months range anywhere from 25 to 35 degrees, much warmer than that of Chicago or New York in the winter! Even so a lot of the activities and excursions in Iceland are outdoors-so packing correctly is critical to making your stay enjoyable.”

What is Winter Like in Iceland?

Reykjavik
A Christmastime holiday or winter vacation is the best time to experience what Iceland has to offer. Can you imagine how amazing it is to look up and see the Northern lights shining brightly in the night sky  or how much fun dogsledding with a team of huskies on a glacier can be?
So I suggest-brave the cold and head out to Iceland to explore some amazing adventures firsthand.

Winter Jackets and Outer Layers

Tour operators in Iceland offer a number of exciting outdoor activities such as glacier hiking, dogsledding, and whale watching or snowmobiling. Even for those not this adventurous you may spend a great deal of time outside visiting Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls, geysirs or just walking around shopping. Although the climate may be a little milder in Iceland, weather conditions may change rapidly; you may be exposed to rain, snow, sun and extreme cold all in one day. Because of this wearing wind and water resistance outer layers is the key to comfort. Look for a good winter jacket that is water and winter resistant but also has some insulation like fleece or down to provide warmth. Some coats have a weather rating that lists the range of temperatures you will be protected from. The weather rating is important-don’t assume one that provides a colder rating is necessarily better. You might actually get too hot! Keep in mind that a lot of the tours like snowmobiling or whale watching will provide a heavier outer layer for you to put on over your jacket. So if your jacket is too long or puffy it may not fit under your jumpsuit or you might get too hot. If you plan on going skiing or snowboarding you may need more of a ski type jacket which features a waterproof and windproof shell that you will need to add a base layer of insulation too.

Next it is important to purchase heavy mittens or gloves, hat and scarf designed specifically for cold weather. Wearing a stylish hat may look cute but you need to make sure these items are not just fashionable but actually designed for cold weather. Purchasing products made from wool is a safe choice for winter conditions.  Many Iceland shops sell high-quality woolen mittens, hats and scarves at reasonable rates so don’t worry if you have to buy additional ones on vacation. Tours typically will do not provide these types of items.

Winter Boots or Hiking Boots?

Depending on what types of activities you will be doing I would opt for a winter style hiking boot as opposed to a heavy duty snow boot. Most of the tours and activities in Iceland requires one to walk over rugged terrain and wet or rocky conditions. Recently on a visit to Iceland I went glacier hiking and ice climbing, for this tour snow boots or furry boots would not have been a good selection as we used crampons over the hiking boot to walk on the ice. If you do not want to purchase a pair of hiking shoes for just one day-ask the tour provider.   Most of the tour companies do rent equipment for either free or a very small price.

By far the most popular tour is the Golden Circle, which highlights three main attractions: the geysers Geysir and Strokkur, Þingvellir National Park and the massive waterfall known as Gulfoss. Although you will be traveling by bus you may be exposed to different conditions while walking around the parks. When I took this tour, the day started out sunny and mild but within a couple hours the temperature dropped and an unpleasant icy rain started, my furry boots, while good for walking around Reykjavik, got soaked as they were not water resistant. They also provided little traction on the gravel that most of the trails were made from. A good waterproof hiking boot would have been a better choice.

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Layers, Layers, Layers

One of the best items I purchased for trip was a warm long underwear base layer from Columbia. Look for a mid-weight base layer that will help you generate or keep in your own heat. It is also important if you are going to be active that the material wicks away moisture to avoid sweating-which is why cotton leggings would not work well.  Many other brands carry a similar base layer like North Face or Koppen. This additional layer underneath leggings or jeans kept me warm the entire trip. During my ten day stay in Iceland, I also visited the Northern capital of Akureyri, which is a little colder than Reykjavik by a few degrees. But there was a noticeable difference in temperature when we traveled further north to go whale watching in Husavik.  Onboard the ship, the crew provided us with warm heavy jump suits to put on over our clothes. Once we got out near the Arctic Circle the temperature plummeted and the wind increased sharply. I was happy I not only had on my windproof jumpsuit but also warm base layers to keep my core body temperature high.Akureyri

If you will be out for extended periods of time beyond a short tour you might want to purchase performance style pants with a wind and water resistant soft shell designed specifically for winter sports. These pants are lighter and less bulky than snow pants but will provide more protection than just hiking pants. The pants paired with a base layer should provide you with the comfort and warmth needed for longer activities like glacier hiking or other outdoor adventures.  Most pants carry a weather or wind rating as well, it is crucial that they are wind resistant. REI, North face and Columbia are good products to look into and their sales associates can help you pick the appropriate pants.

Wear a wool sweater! While in Iceland I bought my first wool sweater. I cannot describe how warm these wool products are. There are a number of shops selling high quality Icelandic wool products and I encourage you to wait to buy your wool sweater there.

Bathing Suit in Iceland?

Don’t forget your bathing suit. Yes seriously, Iceland is known for its hot geothermal spas such as the Blue Lagoon. The luxury outdoor geothermal spa is a destination you cannot miss and it is open year round. The pool is heated by underground geothermal springs the heat of the water rises so you will not be cold while floating around this pool for hours. Plus there are a number of public spas located in the city center and sometimes in the hotel.

Blue LagoonRemember to pack some nicer clothing as well. No matter what the weather conditions are in Iceland people tend to dress stylish when going to bars, restaurants and nightclubs. There a number of popular restaurants in the city center where dressing in hiking clothes would not be appropriate.

 Shopping in Iceland

You may also want to leave some room in your luggage to go shopping in Iceland. For all your winter or outdoor gear needs shop at Cintamani. There is a large shop located conveniently in Reykjavik’s city center. Cintimani sells functional and stylish outdoor wear designed specifically for Icelandic weather conditions.  I bought the stylish Jóna zip-up which can be worn alone or under a jacket-It is warm and looks cool. You can even purchase the items online to ensure you will have the highest quality gear designed for Icelandic conditions before you even get there!

Iceland is easily one of my favorite destinations. I would go anytime during the year. But if you need some coaxing check out the tempting travel packages offered by Icelandair. I suggest the affordable Experience the Arctic North package which includes round-trip airfare to Iceland and lodging in both Reykjavik and Akureyri. So do not let the weather deter you from visiting Iceland this winter. With some careful packing you will have a blast and stay warm!

Reykjavik Iceland’s Top Attractions

Reykjavik Iceland encompasses the best of both worlds; a sophisticated urban destination complete with luxury spas, world class dining and a lively club scene, tempered with outdoor adventures like glacier hiking, geothermal spas, and whale watching. A trip to Reykjavik would not be complete without a visit to one or all of these top attractions.

Reykjavik; Sun Voyager

The Blue Lagoon-Luxury Geothermal Spa

Start the vacation right with a trip to the world famous Blue Lagoon; a luxury outdoor geothermal spa located near the airport. Buses are conveniently stationed at the airport to transport passengers straight to the Blue Lagoon. The enormous locker rooms are equipped with large sized lockers, locks, blow dryers and towels for guests. Spa-goers can recharge after a long flight by floating around in the six million liters of warm geothermal seawater that fill the lagoon. Silica mud masks are provided in boxes around the lagoon to apply to ones face and skin. Visitors can spend an hour or a day and afterwards the bus will drop them off at their final destination.

 Super Jeep Glacier Volcano Tours

Iceland’s landscape is literally defined by volcanoes. This tiny island is a volcanic hot spot because of its position over the mid-Atlantic ridge; the spot where the Eurasian and North American plates are separating. Tours are available to visit Eyafjallajökull; the volcano that made global headlines when it recently erupted shutting down air traffic in Europe for weeks. Although it is not currently erupting, tours are available to view the aftermath. Most tours can be combined with a dog sled or snowmobile adventure on the neighboring sub-glacial volcano named Katla, located on Myrdalsjökull glacier. The usual mode of transportion in Iceland is super jeep 4 x 4, these monster trucks are needed to navigate the icy road conditions leading up to the glaciers.

The Golden Circle Tour; Thingvellir National Park

The Golden Circle tour consists of the three pinnacles of Icelandic tourism; Geysir, Gullfoss, and Thingvellir National park. The first stop on this eight hour tour is to view Geysir; a massive blow hole so big it’s rumored that all other geysers in the world have been named after it.

IMG_6927Although Geysir doesn’t spout regularly, nearby Strokkur faithfully erupts every few minutes shooting a giant stream of water 30 meters into the air. The next stop is the famous double- layered falls of Gullfoss. Visitors can walk along the scenic trail leading to the 32 meter high cascades. The tour ends with a trip to the beautiful Thingvellir National park. The historic location of Alpingi or the national parliament of the first settlers of Iceland is housed in the park, as well as the location of the only spot in the world that the rift between the continents is clearly visible.

Kolaportid Flea Market

The Kolaportid flea market is a popular shopping destination for locals as well as tourists. Open only on the weekends, the market is housed in an industrial-style warehouse at Tryggvagötu 19 in the Old Harbor. Shoppers can browse through a wide variety of books, clothes, knick-knacks and other fun items.

The flea market is a great place to sample traditional Icelandic delicacies such as Hákarl; chunks of fermented shark meat. The shark meat is prepared by burying it underground for up to six months to remove the toxins so that it is safe to eat. It’s traditionally washed down with a shot of Black Death or Brennivín; an alcoholic beverage similar to snapps, made from fermented potato pulp, and flavored with caraway seeds. Visitors can purchase Hákarl and other delicacies such as dried fish, lamb pate, or horse meat sausages from the food section of the flea market.

Party on the Weekends!

Taking advantage of the longer daylight hours during summer solstice, the party starts around midnight and lasts well into the morning. Most of the clubs and bars are located on the main strip in the city center and stay open late. Afterwards, follow the hoards of hungry partygoers for an Icelandic hotdog, customary after a long night of drinking.

The Perlan

The Perlan is a fun destination for a few hours or an entire afternoon. It’s reflective blue dome sits on top of six gigantic circular water tanks that hold the city’s water supply. Sitting on a hill high above the city, the Perlan’s viewing deck offers the best panoramic view of Reykjavik and the surrounding area.

The top floor is home to one of Reykjavik’s best restaurant; a revolving fine dining restaurant that boasts the best city vistas. The second floor houses a cafeteria style restaurant that serves great food, desserts and coffee. The Saga museum is located on the ground floor where Icelandic history is recreated daily for visitors. The Perlan is surrounded by beautiful gardens, walking trails, and an artificial geyser.

Puffin and Whale Watching Tours

The Puffin is an adorable little orange beaked bird that can be spotted off the coast of Reykjavik. For a close up view of the flocks, take a fun puffin watching tour through Elding; the leading provider of whale and puffin watching tours. Visitors may get lucky and even spot a whale! During the months of April to October, Orca whales, Minke whales, Humpback, porpoises and dolphins are typically seen in the surrounding waters of the harbor. For a longer excursion take a whale watching tour.Whales!

Whale and puffin watching tours both depart multiple times daily from Reykjavik harbor. Elding even supplies warm red and blue jumpsuits to keep their passengers warm as it tends to get cold and windy once out of the confines of the harbor.

A visit to anyone of these top attractions will give visitors a sense of the essential spirit of Iceland. This charming European city with its trendy shops, wild nightlife and fun adventure tours will stand out in any visitors mind as the trip of a lifetime.

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