Iceland: Why should you go in Winter?
Iceland was somewhere I had always wanted to go, the first thing that drew me to it was the thought of seeing the Northern Lights but the more I looked into Iceland the more it seemed to offer. The only problem was it was January- mid winter in Iceland and the thought of a country with ‘Ice’ in the name in the middle of winter was scary. As it turns out, yes it was cold, really cold sometimes and yes it was short days but there were so many benefits to travelling Iceland in Winter. This really is a country that has something different to offer in all seasons. Here’s a guide to travelling Iceland in the winter with a week up your sleeve..
Why go to Iceland in winter?
The amazing light
The days are short but not as short as I had expected. Th sun was up for about 5 hours a day in January and due to the long sunrise and sunsets there was about an hour either side where it was light enough to b starting out hiking or getting back to the car. But the 5 hours of sunlight that Iceland provided was the most amazing sunlight I’ve seen. The sun comes up and sits just above the horizon before heading back down meaning you have a permanent sunrise or sunset effect giving way to amazing light and amazing photo opportunities for the photographers out there.
There’s something exciting that comes with unpredictability. The weather in winter can be anything from amazingly sunny and calm to a bitter snow and wind storm making the roads un-passable. Although this may sound like a negative to some people, the unpredictability of the conditions mean that you never know what experience you are going to have but to find yourself stranded in the warm water of a hot spring while a snow storm blows above the water and waiting for the roads to be cleared makes you appreciate the country and nature for everything it offers.
There’s little on this earth like driving hours through amazing scenery, ocean on one side, mountains on the other on a long empty highway while hardly passing another car. The vastness of the country and the wide open spectacular spaces make you feel so special and lucky to be there. The scenery is arguably more stunning when its layered with snow and ice and makes for more of an adventure.
Hire a car. This is by far the best way to experience Iceland. Either in advance from the airport or get a bus into Reykjavik the first night and hire one there. It sounds scary with the harshness of the winter weather, and you do need to be careful and check roads carefully and stick only to the areas safe at that time of year (mainly the coastal roads), but it is by far the best way to get to smaller areas, to see the national parks and to be able to take yourself out in the evening to stare up at the sky away from light pollution with the hopes of seeing the northern lights!
Roads to need to be checked carefully before each drive by visiting www.roads.is which gives updated information on the the safety of the roads and therefore you can plan your day accordingly.
Bus services are extremely limited and stick mainly just to the main ring road and day trips are expensive and from what I saw nothing more than being driven from site to site.
What to do with one week
Where to start… I stayed in 3 different places and did day trips from there. Here are the highlights of a week in Iceland.
Stop 1. 2 nights: Reykjavik
The capital is a nice small city where you can take a nice stroll along the Main Street or along the water front or experience the nightlife but with only a week up your sleeve is not worth more than a day, or half a day, if you’re on your way in or out. It’s convenient to organise a hire car if you haven’t already done so.
Day trip- the golden circle
Popular due to its closeness to Reykjavik and the amazing scenery you will visit, it’s popular for a reason and there are many tour buses but if you can, take a car and go yourself. there are 3 main sites as well as a hot springs that you may as well fit in at the end. With a car you can stop at any moment for photo and viewing opportunities and to say hello to the amazingly adorable and playful Icelandic horses who love to Coe and say hello!
Thingvellir National Park: This UNESCO world heritage site straddles Europe and America… Literally! It is located across the two tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America and is one of the few places on earth you can see the rift between continents. You can even go snorkelling or diving in the gap between plates which offers crystal clear waters. Besides that the scenery is amazing to wander around and explore.
Gulfoss Waterfall: This spectacular waterfall is arguably more spectacular in winter and is well worth the absolutely freezing conditions from viewing platforms. Rug up in all your warmest cloths to be able to feel your feet and hands but if you do get caught out like me its worth the half hour of discomfort to experience the this amazing place.
Strokkur Geyser: Putting all other Geysers to shame, the biggest Geyser in the area bubbles away before shooting its underworldly liquids into the air 10-20 meters high, known to spray up to 40 meters high. Stand on the ice covered ground and experience first hand why Iceland is called the land of fire and ice.
Secret lagoon: After a tough day of seeing the above amazing sites and fighting the icy temperatures a dip in this hot lagoon is well deserved. Depending how brave you are a quick trip out dripping wet in sub zero temperatures to grab a beer to drink in the lagoon makes the experience even richer and the beer taste even better.
Stop 2. Two nights: Olafsvik
Olafsvik is a tiny fishing village. With a couple streets and a shop to buy essentials, it has charm but it’s the proximity to Snaefellsjokul National Park that makes it so appealing. And also we heard of a really cool cultural hostel there located in an old fishing freezer- The Freezer Hostel.
Day trip- Snaefellsjokul National Park
Named after the glacier and volcano in the centre! This coastal national park has amazing cliffs, coast, ruins, mountains and lava caves. Some hiking trails get a bit icy but that just adds to the fun! Well worth a day trip!
Half day trip: grundafjour
So we heard from another traveller at our hostel that there was a town nearby that orcas swim right up to the shore to feed, so of course we got overexcited and planned that into our next day. We drove about half hour to this town, asked a girl at a local café where we can go and have chance to see the whales without a boat tour and she directed us to the bridg we had heard about. After a couple hours sitting in the freezing cold we had no sightings but the amazing scenery on a beautiful sunny morning made up for this. Our hopes were restored when a local popped by to say he saw then just further up the road at the next bridge… We drive down there and wandered along the bridge… Still nothing. Almost losing hope, we were heading away to our next destination when out the car window I saw the long, distinct dorsal fins of these amazing whales! We watched them from beach as they fed, followed by flocks of birds who came to feed on the left overs.
Stop 3. 3 nights: Vik.
Vik is a small village on the south of the island and again there is a social hostel, complete with hostel dogs, to make the stay more social and fun! It also a great base for many day trips and sites nearby.
Day trip: Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon and Vatnajokull national park
A good 2.5 hours drive from Vik but well worth the adventure is this glacier filled lagoon on the edge of a glacier filled national park. Here you will be blown away by the large glacier backed lagoon filled with icebergs glistening in the sunlight. Across the road the lagoon empties into the ocean which is lined with icebergs scattered along the beach. If your lucky you will manage to spot one of the sealions cruising past the icebergs.
Half Day trip: Solheimasandur Plane Crash
A DC3 plane that crash landed in 1974. All passengers onboard survived but the plane, as with all wrecks in Iceland, has been left on the isolated patch of black sand, a couple of kilometers from the sea and mountains exactly where it landed. A surreal experience. The coastline in this area is worth making several stops and short hikes.
The northern lights
After dark, look up! Jump in a car and head out away from the lights of the town and wait in the icy darkness with the hope that the sky will dance. For me I saw them on my very last night from Vik and I got a spectacular show. If, where and when you see them is just luck. Head out after dark and keep your eyes peeled on the sky!