Iceland has been on my bucket list for a while now. However, there have been two obstacles that have continually put me off- the price, and the fact its bloody freezing. However, after saving sensibly and stocking up on various forms of unfashionable outdoor clothing, Iceland finally seemed like a tangible possibility.
After a lot of research, we decided to go as a birthday trip for my boyfriend in mid-January, purely because the flights and hotels were reasonably cheap. Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Saga, was actually only 30 quid more than what I’d paid for a hotel in Dublin back in December, so try and keep an eye out for some deals as you’ll be able to touch lucky if you’re not too fussed about when you go.
It’s not really hard to see why the country has experienced a tourism boom in recent years. Iceland is defined by dramatic landscapes such as glaciers, mountains and volcanos, as well as hosting swells of hot springs and lava fields. Routes across the country are now far more accessible than they used to be; not as easy as things in central Europe by any means, but there’s always a few tourist coaches knocking around if you’re not overly keen on driving across the country by yourself, which can actually be quite dangerous if you’re not familiar with the roads.
We arrived in Reykjavik just as the sun was rising- a very aesthetically pleasing start. What wasn’t so pleasing was the 100 quid flight transfers, but we soon consoled ourselves by diving into the nearest (and cheapest) bar to our hotel. It happened to be a student union, but it was nice to grab a couple of pints and pretend we were students again.
After a bit of exploring, more drinking and the occasional snowball fight, we went on a restaurant hunt. If you’re hoping to hit the upper echelons of Reykjavik’s dining scene, be prepared- you’re realistically looking to shell out at least £100 each for tasting menus at the likes of Nostra and Fish Company. As this option wasn’t really available to us, we decided to find a less expensive eatery off the beaten track, which led us to Ramen Momo.
Cheap, friendly and atmospheric, the dishes here are bloody lovely. Ramen dishes are around 11 quid and can be served really quickly if you’re in a hurry. It’s also worth exploring the area after your din dins, as there’s a few decent craft beer bars nearby that offer those all-important happy hour deals. This is a novelty in Reykjavik; full strength beer was actually illegal here until 1989, so be sure to take advantage of the multitude of new brewpubs and taprooms such as Skuli and Micro Bar.
So to the first activity on our list, and it was a biggie. A northern lights tour, where you’d spend the night freezing your arse off trying to get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Not exactly glamourous, but we were dead excited for this one.
We were driven to Thingvellir National Park, about 50 minutes outside of Reykjavik. A bit of advice- wear as many layers as humanly possible. You can get on and off the coach as much as you like, but bear in mind you might end up missing the lights if you’re not out on the viewing platform. We were gutted that we didn’t end up seeing anything as it started to cloud over about 3 hours in, but this particular tour gives you a full year pass to come back and look for the lights again if you can’t see them first time round. We booked this tour on TripAdvisor, which you can find here.
Day 2 passed in yet another haze of snow and alcohol. Armed with a hipflask of whisky and several bags of snacks, we embarked upon the next activity in our itinerary- whale watching. This cost us £60 each, but you get a full afternoon out on the water and there’s also a very handy bar on board.
We faced yet more disappointment as we saw a grand total of zero whales (my boyfriend maintains he saw a fin but I don’t believe him) but it was a great experience regardless. We were only too happy to spend a few hours looking across the sea and mountains while snug and tipsy in emergency blankets. Plus, like the northern lights tour, if you don’t see anything you can come back and try again. For this one, you can take another tour within two years free of charge.
While we were generally very conscious of our budget, things went slightly out of the window at this point. I’ll be honest- we got drunk, I got whiny and wanted to go to a slightly more swanky restaurant as a ‘treat’ and wouldn’t take no for an answer. So we ventured over to Messinn, a quaint little seafood restaurant that offers a carefully resourced menu that features everything from fresh Arctic Char to fish burgers. It cost us £80 for two mains, a bottle of wine and a dessert, which was all bloody lovely.
While we’re on the subject of more food, it seems foolhardy to write a review of our trip without acknowledging the culinary pinnacle of our visit. Our favourite food stop by a mile was Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, which is in fact the most famous hotdog stand in Iceland (and it’s been in business since 1937 dontcha know). It might not seem much in comparison to fancy restaurants, but it is sublime in every possible way. Ask for a hotdog with everything on it for a mere £1.60, and pay special attention to the extra crispy onions. We wolfed down a fair amount of these during our stay- the stand is open until 1am, so they serve as an excellent drunken snack when you’re staggering back to your hotel.
Another highly recommended activity is a trip around the Golden Circle. There’s hordes of tourist operators that offer Golden Circle tours, but we again decided to use TripAdvisor to book in advance in an attempt to keep costs down.
The Golden Circle is the definition of a physical geographer’s dream. It’s a route that covers about 300km that loops from Reykjavik to the southern uplands and back again, including stops at Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermal region of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers of the Geysir and Strokkur. They’re the big hot springs that shoot up into the air in case you were wondering.
If you happen to own a big fancy camera, make sure you have it to hand during this tour. We were grateful to have a chance to explore Thingvellir in daylight, as the scenery is absolutely unreal. There’s winding rivers, lakes, valleys and mountains that really do demand admiration.
The same holds true for both Gullfoss and Haukadalur. Gullfoss has double-tiered cascades (apparently) which causes all the mist and occasional rainbow. You also get to view some glaciers from the lookout point, which is something pretty special. The geysers and hot springs of Haukadalur are highlight though, and helpfully erupt every five minutes to ensure you get that perfect shot.
To end our trip on a high, we’d decided to book a trip to the Blue Lagoon. As expected, its hideously expensive, but it is SO worth it. You pay the same price whether you go for 2 hours or 7, so make the most of your time there. Just prepare yourself a sneaky packed lunch if you’re not willing to part with a fortune at the onsite restaurant.
The ‘comfort package’ is the most basic package you can get, and includes your entrance fee, a face mask and any drink of your choice (yes, this does include booze before you ask). We’d also booked hotel pick up and transfers for this one, as its pretty impossible to get there otherwise (this came to a total of £214 as an FYI).
Once you’re in, it’s an experience on another level. There’s quite a lot of things I’ve enjoyed in life, but floating around in hot springs with a beer in the middle of a blizzard is probably one of the most memorable. If you want to go all out with your Blue Lagoon experience, you can also enjoy spa treatments, in-water massages and private, butler-serviced rooms if you’re feeling particularly flush. Whether you’re going for the basic package or full-on luxury, its something pretty special to tick off the bucket list regardless.
Yes, Iceland is pricey. Very bloody pricey. Overall, we must have paid just over a grand for 4 days away, which is more than I’ve blown in New York. But- and I really do place emphasis on the but- it is quite possibly the most rewarding minibreak I’ve ever actually had. The scenery is obviously stunning, but what really got under my skin was the feel of the place more than anything else. Life is relaxed and quietly unassuming, and the locals are absolutely wonderful. I know I’m probably idealising Iceland a bit, but I found a lot of pleasure in taking life a bit slower and spending time outdoors. Despite the astronomical prices, you’ll have an absolute ball here. And some amazing photos for the gram, obviously.