Perhaps the best time to visit Iceland is not when you must wear three layers of thermal underwear in order to keep warm, but I prefer to think it’s the absolute best time to see Iceland in its true form. Iceland was not a typical destination choice for us. I only occasionally venture outside in Seattle in the winter, and it doesn’t exactly get cold in Seattle – ever. I’m generally even much less inclined to do it on vacation. We are fair-weather travelers. But when prices are low and crowds are even lower, who am I to pass it up. Thus, we overstuffed our backpacks with gloves, hats, scarves and aforementioned thermal underwear, and we set off on an Icelandic adventure. It was actually more of a short jaunt than a full-blown adventure, but I take what I can get. There are so many great things to do in Iceland.
Prices for flights in March were astoundingly low (a mere $480 for a direct flight from Seattle and the norm is almost twice that much), as were hotel rates, and there are all manner of pre-packaged trips to be had this time of year. Plus, as I mentioned, the crowds are much smaller than during warmer months. The combination of all of these things led to a very satisfying trip. It’s really a no-brainer to travel during the shoulder season.
I found that most flights are of the red-eye variety and land very early in the morning in Reykjavik, which leaves you with a couple of options. We chose to go straight to our hotel because we wanted to change into warmer clothes, drop off our suitcases, get some breakfast and spend the first day exploring the city. Another popular choice is to go directly to the Blue Lagoon for a few hours of soaking, since you often can’t check in to your room that early. We were just too tired upon arrive to really enjoy the Blue Lagoon, so we opted to hit it up on the way back to the airport. That worked out much better for us.
We stayed at Hotel Odinsve, which is located in a quiet, yet very convenient location within close proximity to everything the typical tourist would wanted. We found ourselves patting our own backs for making such a wise hotel decision. There was the somewhat overpowering sulfur odor from the bathroom to contend with, but since Iceland is primarily heated by geothermal, we assumed we’d deal with that no matter where we’d stayed. The room and bathroom were cozy, but comfortable and clean, which is of upmost importance. I’m somewhat picky about hotel rooms. It doesn’t have to be 5-star to please me, but I don’t want to feel like I’m bathed in hundreds of other travelers’ leftover filth. The bedspread particularly.
We ran into a strange phenomenon here that we’d never encountered before – a double bed with two individual comforters. Apparently they’d heard about my husband’s propensity to steal the covers at night. Downstairs at the hotel is a nice French restaurant called Snaps that was doing some very brisk business while we were there. Call ahead for reservations (that goes for all the other restaurants in the city, as well).
The food in Iceland holds many surprises and adventures for the typical American who has never tried such exotic delicacies as minke whale, puffin, reindeer or langoustine. We were in foodie heaven in Reykjavik. I don’t think I’ve encountered so many incredible eating options in such a small radius before. We were bummed that we didn’t have more time to partake. (Read more about food & drink experiences in Iceland).
Our first foodie stop was SÆGREIFINN (Seabarin) where we indulged in the local’s favorite lobster soup and a skewer of monk fish. Both were delicious and warmed us right up for the next foodventure – the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog with “the works”. The “works” simply means ketchup, mustard, onions and a special roumalade with relish. It sounds pretty awesome. Even Bill Clinton stopped by for a dog once (and his picture is hanging proudly at the stand). Also the line at the stand was winding down the road at 11am. But, sadly, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. I mean, it was okay. The dog did have a nice snap to it. But the best hotdog in Europe?
For dinner, we had an early reservation at Grillmarkadurinn (Grill Market). I am still thinking about that dinner, and that’s a pretty remarkable statement. Hands down the best bread and butter service ever. You can see from the picture that our camera even thought the bread outshined the trio of reindeer, langoustine and whale sliders we ordered as an appetizer.
They have a chef’s tasting menu, as most places in town do, which looked pretty amazing, but we had our sights set on specific menu items so we went a la carte. For our main courses, we chose the Tenderloin of Horse (which I realize some people may be upset by – but being that we were in a different country and had never had the occasion to try horse before, we had to embrace the moment; you only live once), and Grilled Lobster with champagne sauce. When the plates were deposited on our table, our jaws dropped at the giant mound of lobster tails, and despite having eaten almost the entire basket of bread already, we knew the challenge was on. There is an unspoken rule, isn’t there, about never leaving lobster uneaten? If there wasn’t, there is now.
After dinner, we were picked up from our hotel by Iceland Excursions for an attempt at finding the Northern Lights. This natural phenomenon of electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere is said to be at its peak from September to March and is coming off an 11-year peak of activity in 2013. We were intent on seeing the lights, and braved the subzero temperatures for over 5 hours for the privilege. The tour isn’t much for comforts. They basically drop you off in the middle of nowhere with 200 other overly eager loonies and you stand with your face in the wind for hours at a time, staring up at what may or may not be a very faint glimpse of the elusive Aurora Borealis. After returning to the bus to regain feeling in your noses, the driver exuberantly proclaims that we were lucky to have just witnessed a rather active night for the northern lights. Most of the passengers, ourselves included, could be seen forlornly looking at each other with that, “Were we looking at the same thing he was?” face.
When we arrived back at our drop off spot, a few blocks away from our hotel, at 2am, we stepped off the bus into the darkness and were greeted with an honest-to-goodness flash of green across the sky that lasted for a good 30 seconds before disappearing into the clouds. So after paying $100 each to stand outside looking at nothing for 5 hours, we got our only true sighting of the lights for free.
With only three hours of sleep, the next day we set off on a Golden Circle tour around the southern part of the island with a company called BusTravel. While this is a really touristy thing to do, and would be better done at your own pace in a rental car, it was a good way to get a peak at some of Iceland’s natural wonders without having to drive in blizzard-like conditions. The tour included stops at the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir geothermal area and Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year. We were so lucky to be out on a day with 50 mile per hour winds. At times we weren’t sure we’d be able to push our own body weight back to the bus.
With only a couple of meals left to enjoy, we hit up Icelandic Fish & Chips in the marina area for lunch. They have some of the crunchiest, tastiest fish options, along with a dozen or so dipping sauces for your chips.
And we made a stop at MicroBar, inside the Center Hotel, which supports local breweries and offers the largest selection of unique, imported beer choices in Reykjavik. We got a taster board of all the current tap offerings and enjoyed them all very much.
Next stop was Tapas Barinn for a late-afternoon snack. We hadn’t yet tried the Puffin and didn’t want to go home without having tried the national liquor, Brennevin. Not wanting to ruin our dinner, we only ordered the Smoked Puffin in Blueberry Brennevin sauace and two shots of Brennevin, but after looking at the menu, we wished we could order a dozen other items. I would highly recommend this place. It’s tiny inside, and it gets packed immediately upon opening, but it’s definitely worth it to try small amounts of such unique and delicious Icelandic dishes.
Next up was dinner at Fridrik V. I’d been looking forward to this dinner for awhile. I made the reservation about a month in advance, since I learned they were the top pick on TripAdvisor. It’s a small family-owned restaurant focusing on fresh and local Icelandic ingredients and they make sure you know exactly where those ingredients come from as you’re eating. They offer a three- or five-course surprise menu with non-alcoholic, beer or wine pairings.
We chose five courses with wine and were very pleased with the offerings. Also dining there that night was a local tomato farmer’s family, so the showcase that farmer’s product, they were serving a shot of tomato soup in a tiny soda bottle. The rest of the courses we enjoyed as well, particularly the cappaccino glass of Mushroom Bisque. Delicious.
On our last day, I previously mentioned, we stopped off at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. Since we weren’t flying out until 5pm, we had all day to enjoy the facility. As part of our pre-booked arrangements, BusTravel picked us up at 9am for our transfer. We arrived an hour later at the Blue Lagoon and were very glad, once again, that we are light packers. There was a giant line to check your larger suitcases at the main gate, which we avoided. We arrived right at opening, so there were no many people when we got in. We went with the lowest-priced entry ticket, which was 35 Euros and didn’t include any extras, and we found that to be the best choice. Other options include a drink, a mud treatment, a robe and towel. You don’t really need the slippers and robe, as you’re just coming and going from the water to the locker room (unless you choose to have lunch in your robe), and the towels were all the same color, so yours would quickly get lost in the sea of other towels hanging on the racks. We brought our own towels from home and saved 30 Euros in the process.
Before I left home, I’d read a lot of discussion about the need to shower naked before going into the blue lagoon and how they didn’t offer privacy for that shower. I’m not one of those who’s terrified to shower naked with strangers, so it didn’t bother me, but I also found that there were plenty of private stalls to shower in and if you didn’t want to, you didn’t have to share your nakedness with others. It was more important to me that everyone was showering first anyway. They also provide conditioner for your hair that you can leave in while you’re in the Blue Lagoon to counter the effects of the sulphur. I put my hair up in a bun and did what I could to keep it out of the water and I didn’t have any need for the extra conditioning. If you stand under the waterfall or dunk your head a bunch, it might become necessary.
We wandered around the vast pool experiencing the different heat levels of the water, tried on the mud mask that they offer for free out of boxes around the water’s edge, slurped up a yogurt smoothie, and when we found ourselves becoming too pruny, we decided we’d had enough soaking and went for some lunch at Lava Restaurant, the more expensive of the food options that are available on location. It was worth the extra expense. The Blue Cafe serves plastic-wrapped sandwiches and other quick picks, but it felt more like a lunchroom cafeteria. Lava was not only much nicer, less frantic crowds, it was also quite delicious. We had our last dish of lamb and a delicious cod. Then we bid adieu to Iceland and made our way back to the airport.