Winter getaway to an (even colder?) country — Iceland Part 1

If you are only here for tips to travel around in Iceland during WINTER, to save your time, below are some helpful tips for you:

  1. Spend money on renting a good car. Get a good 4 x 4 automatic vehicle if you could afford it.
  2. Winter in Iceland is no better than Toronto. Play the layering game for the harsh winter and wind.
  3. To keep on your budget, buy your own groceries and make your own food. We made sandwiches for almost every lunch and dinner. Everything in Iceland is expensive.
  4. Spare batteries for your camera. They die out very quickly under extremely cold weather conditions.
  5. Spare heat packs too. It is necessary. We tried — but we hardly found any in Iceland.
  6. The daylight is short. However, you shall be able to see things from 10 am to 4:30 pm. That’s not too bad.
  7. If you spot the northern lights, don’t forget to take time lapse! That’s what we forgot to do!
  8. The safe speed under the harsh winter conditions is +- 60 km/h in Iceland.

Check our video out!

Why Iceland?

It was October, the time of the year where we started to get busy with school work. It was also the time to think about where I should go during my winter break before the flight tickets rocket. My boyfriend and I have been traveling with two of our best friends every winter break, and we were thinking of flying to somewhere exotic, warm and humid — Hawaii. But, things happened. Hawaii plan got called off.

I was browsing on Facebook while procrastinating, saw the link for watching the Northern Lights in a comfy glass igloo in Finland. So, why not Aurora this year? Experiencing the northern lights myself is one of the things to check off on my bucket list. I have also been told that the solar activity will be weaker and the chance to see Aurora will be lower in the coming decade. (Another reason for me to go to the Auroral Zone!) We decided to go to Iceland and not Finland (the glass igloo is not cheap!), Yellowknife, Northwest Territory, or Yukon because surprisingly the flight ticket was cheaper to fly over to the Europe than within Canada. We decided to depart on Dec 28th, just because it’s the cheapest and we want to celebrate Christmas while doing some shopping in Toronto.

My boyfriend and I did a lot of research to “evaluate” if Iceland will be a country worth spending our winter break, considering a few facts — the days are very short, driving could be horrible, and high living expenses. After a few days of hesitation, you know what — let’s just do it — get the flight tickets and have our mind set! Iceland is not a country that we can often visit. Plus, I really want to check out its unique geology and glaciers! Let’s explore what Iceland has to offer! We get the itinerary almost set, rented a car and made reservations for some attractions. Now we are only waiting for the days to come.

Day 1 (Dec 28, 2016)

Today is the day, after Christmas parties and massive shopping on the Boxing Day.

Today was the day we en route to Iceland. Our scheduled flight time was 5:50 p.m. While finalizing our plans to ensure the trip would be a smooth sailing, we found out that we might have issues with navigating in Iceland because the names of the places are in Icelandinc and Garmin we bought didn’t have Icelandic keyboard. We ended up with noting down the coordinates of each spot we planned to go and keying them one by one into our Garmin.

Around 3:15 p.m., we all have finished packing and embarked our journey. My boyfriend and I were forgetful so we always tried our best to pack everything we need. However, my boyfriend still forgot to bring his anti-fog sticker for our GoPro camera and extra batteries for his camera. (To all travelers, don’t forget to spare your batteries!) While we were on the train to the airport, we just noticed that the flight got two hours delayed. So we could be relax and chill for a bit, instead of rushing to the airport.

WOW airline is small, but the plane is new. They have funny texts all over the airplane, and even their boarding passes are cute.

I think they are quite creative in their own way.

Day 2 (Dec 29, 2016)

We got a SIM card from Vodafone and picked up a manual Toyota Auris, which included the Premium insurance. We want to make sure everything is covered, to be on the safe side. (We were still hesitating if we should get an automatic car instead.) We took the car anyways and planned to go to Reykjavik for breakfast and grocery shopping, then visit Krisuvik before checking in with our Airbnb host in Selvogur.

The wind was horrendous since we landed. I’ve never experienced such strong gusts before, not in Toronto. The wind speed was at least 12m/s, and we could barely close the vehicle doors as easy as it should be due to the opposing wind.

The unlucky star struck us today. Long story short, our car broke down on the way to Krisuvik. Check out this article here for more about what happened.

We were stuck in a car in the midst of hails, gusts and snow.
This was how strong the gust was, while we got stuck in the middle of the highway.

After three hours of wait, we got an automatic Kia Cee’d — a much better car and escaped from the predicament. What’s next? We stopped by Krisuvik briskly and headed to our cabin in Selvogur. Our first night here was horrible — strong gusts and dark nights. When I first arrived, my response was,

“NOOOOOO, the bathroom and the kitchen are not attached! It’s super cold out there. I am not going to shower for three nights during my stay here!”

The Airbnb Hosts Mr. Gudmundur and Ms. Gudrun were cleaning the cabin when we arrived, and told us their kitchen was free to use at any time. (That’s not too bad.) But I have made up my mind not to shower. We even needed to use a lot of strength to close the door. Everything today was not in our favour.

We brought up the car rental issue to the hosts while preparing dinner. Mr. Gudmundur was willing to help us! (Jeez, after the heavy rain, here comes the sunshine and rainbow!) I was a little relieved, it made me believe that tomorrow will be a better day!

Picture with Mr. Gudmundur, Ms. Gudrun, and their cat at the kitchen of his cosy house he built himself.

Day 3 (Dec 30, 2016)

Despite the accident, we tried to be positive to proceed with our journey so that our time in Iceland will not go to waste. The plan of the day was to complete the Golden Circle. Although it was snowing and icy, the weather was pleasant.

  1. Kerið, the volcanic crater. I suggest skipping this spot if you don’t have much time. As you can see from the picture, it was just a frozen lake in winter.
  1. Gullfoss a.k.a. the Golden Falls. It wasn’t as enjoyable because a) it was too cold, b) the slippery walkway and stairs were crowded with tourists, given the fact that it’s one of the Game of Thrones filming scenes. Nevertheless, it is quite magnificent to see the partially frozen enormous waterfalls.
In front of Gullfoss.

3. The Geysirs. It was also my first time seeing this phenomenon. There were tiny little pods of geysers fizzing hot steam along the way to the twin brothers — the younger brother, Strokkur, which is currently active, and the older brother, Blesi. My boyfriend and I have decided that if we were to own a pet dog in the future, it shall be named Blesi! We waited for a couple of times to shoot a perfect video of the geysers spurring, and it was a lot of fun.

Playing at the geysirs. Thanks to my roommate’s tripod!

4. We went to Reykjavik downtown for dinner, as we didn’t get a chance to explore it yet. We went to the “famous” Sægreifinn — The Sea Baron Restaurant for lobster soup and tried whale steak for the very first time. The soup was not bad, but the whale steak was too bloody and chewy for me (I’m sorry whale. D:). Not a big fan of Icelandic food to be honest. We ended up having expensive fish and chips at another restaurant just because the meal was not filling enough. But, the fish and chips are still not fulfilling for me. D: (Forgive me, I am a big-eater.)

Left: Lobster soup served with bread; Right: Whale steak.

Day 4 (Dec 31, 2016) — The last day of the year

The plan of the day was still to complete the never finishing Golden Circle.

  1. Þingvellir National Park for the rift valley. I wanted to go to this place for so long, to walk between the two continental plates!
It’s a series of unfortunate events.

We set off early when the sun rose (at around 9 a.m.). On our way, we decided to stop at Olís to get some gas. The gust was so strong that the side mirror of our new car was hit by the door of another car. So we did nothing, and another obstacle came up stopping us to cover our Golden Circle. :/

We contacted our car rental company for the accident that just happened. The guy told us that we have to pay USD$ 750 to fix that stupid side mirror although it is not our fault, not to mention that we paid for it’s so-called “Premium” insurance, (DAFUQ?!) while the car owner who rented the car from Avis said that Avis would cover the damage cost. Another RIDICULOUS thing that I have ever heard from the same car rental company. I had a sudden urge to stop this vacation to leave Iceland, but meh, the only flight ticket available was only January 3rd, which did not make a huge difference, so plan’s off.

Nevertheless, we HAD to fix this — because the broken side mirror wouldn’t hold against the strong gust. It was new year’s eve, and no auto repair shop was open. Luckily, we got a contact of a mechanic from the gas station. He was kind enough to help us out. His workshop was close and he came all the way from home to help fix our side mirror.

When we finally arrived at Þingvellir, it was already 3 p.m. and the sunset was at 5 p.m., so it was just a brief walk for us around the park, while my poor boyfriend was communicating with the credit card company in the States to see what we can do with our car rental issues. We walked along the trail until Öxarárfoss, it was so quiet because the waterfall was frozen and most tourists had left.

One section of the Þingvellir rift.
Öxarárfoss during sunset.
The series of unfortunate events stopped tonight.

Heading back to the cabin deflated, although it is new year’s eve, we were not feeling the festive vibes probably because of the incidents happened during this trip. The only thing that could light us up was the northern lights! On our way back at 7 pm-ish, we started to see some very, very, very vague green clouds in the sky. They looked like spotlights shining into the sky (it is logical because it’s new year’s eve and there was probably a concert going on in the city.) Our wild guess was they were the northern lights! And that got us very EXCITED. Naively, I looked it up on the Internet to confirm if what we saw was the northern lights. (Haha! No, I didn’t find anything helpful.) So, in case you are reading this to know how we spot the northern lights — before the northern lights peak, you will see extremely vague, bizzare-looking green clouds floating in the sky. (It was so vague that you might think that you have blurry eyes, you have to trust yourself, you are looking at the northern lights!)

Starting at 8 p.m., we spotted strong aurora activity in the clear sky. Seeing the northern lights dancing around was magical yet unbelievable. We were very lucky to be able to watch the northern lights at our cabin with minimal light pollution and clear sky. Fortunately, we came to Iceland prepared with some knowledge in taking photographs of aurora (Because we were so excited.). However, one should be prepared for the cold. One of my friends couldn’t finish drying her hair before coming out to see the northern lights. Her hair was totally frozen! No joke.

Here are several tips for northern lights-watching:

  1. Get some heat packs (we can’t find any in Iceland) and a lot of fully charged batteries to keep your camera working.
  2. Long exposure to capture the northern lights.
  3. If you are including yourself in the picture, the shutter speed has to be quicker, or you will be blurry. A trade-off between capturing you and the northern lights.

You might also realize that dummy phones can’t take photos of the northern lights while your eyes could! So instead of busy taking pictures, cherish the moment with your friends and family at such a beautiful scenes too.

After 2 to 2.5 hours, the northern lights started to cease. Our host invited us to his secret spot to watch fireworks over three towns (Hveragerði, Eyrabakki, and Stokkseyri) to welcome the year of 2017. They also told us that the fireworks are not set off by the government but by the families. Whoever can light up the firework and it is said that the wealthier the family is, the more the firework is lit up.

It was our last night staying in this cabin, walking in the cold to the shower is not too bad after all. We had great conversations with the host with a cup of HOMEMADE hot chocolate (my host melted actual chocolates!), the story of the 13 Santa Clauses, and warmth until 3 a.m. We also bought a lopayesa sweater, weaved by Mrs. Gudrun with wool of their own sheeps! You can tell by touching the sweater that it can keep you very warm. Despite the incidents happened during our journey, this night has been the most memorable night for me.

Heitt Sukkuladi in a Heitt Sukkuladi mug!
The Yule Lad’s parents and the evil Christmas Cat.

Check my another article to know more about what’s next during our trip in Iceland!