Iceland. Your must read guide!
Iceland...where do I begin? It wasn't so much a holiday as it was a gruelling, challenging, epic journey across what felt like another planet. Let's just say you don't go to Iceland to relax so if that's the kind of trip you're after, better you scoot off to a Greek island you can't pronounce the name of but who cares because it's a stress free holiday in the sun that requires minimal physical and mental activity. Iceland is not for relaxation, it's for adventure! it's for people who love a good challenge. I hope after reading this you might just change your mind about that Greek Island though, because although it was difficult and frightening at times it was the most unforgettable trip I've been on yet.
What I really wanted before we jetted off was to find a brutally honest guide to Iceland on the web that somebody had written based on their own real experience, I couldn't find one! so I hope that this post provides what I failed to find. If you're still with me and haven't decided to zip off to Corfu, here are the 3 most valuable tips that I can give you;
1. Stay in an apartment
if you're only going for 1 or 2 nights or have loads of money at your dispense you could get away with staying in a hotel, but if like me you're scraping the barrel most of the time and are planning on staying in Iceland for more than just a night or two, take my advice and stay in an apartment where you can self cater. If we had opted to stay in a hotel and eat out everyday we would be hard wired to find two pennies to rub together right now. Yes I'm afraid the rumours are true, Iceland is very expensive. To give you an example, you'll pay around £20/£25 for a standard burger meal at a pub and a pint will set you back around £5/£6. The cheapest beer we managed to find was at an Irish pub 'The Dubliner' where in happy hour beers were around £3. As you can imagine we became locals at The Dubliner for the week that we were there! They had free foozball too which provided us with endless entertainment, no matter where you are in the world you can always rely on an Irish pub! We stayed at 'Reykjavik Perfect Apartments' http://www.reykjavikperfectapartments.is and I can't recommend them enough, our stay was perfect - I can vouch that the apartments' name stands to be true. The owners (Ymir and Hebba) welcomed us as if we were old friends, in their dressing gowns cups of tea in hand and their pet chihuahua Lucy nestled snugly in Ymir's arms. For 8 nights in such luxurious, homely and central accomodation the price was very comparable too.
2. Hire a car
We hired through a company called 'Geysir' and I highly reccomend them http://www.geysir.is But make sure you book through them direct! If you use an umbrella company they'll charge a whopping fee of around £10 per day. Reyjavik is a nice little city in its own right but you don't go to Iceland to see it's capital. It's not so much a city as it is a tiny little fishing village which half a day is more than enough time to explore it. Public transport is virtually non existent and taxis are very expensive! to get the most out of your trip a car is a necessity so that you can get out of Reykjavik and explore Iceland in all it's natural glory.
We hired an economy car which in hindsite was poor decision making on our part! We were given a Toyota yaris. A car such as this will do the job for the most part, in summer it would be totally fine. But if you're not going in summer the roads will be icy and snowy, with thicker snow on less frequented roads. For this reason I highly reccomend hiring a 4X4 if you can afford to. There are some tourist sites that you won't be able to get to without a 4X4 in the colder months and in general it would make getting around a lot less stressful than the experience we had. Credit to that little car though, we named it 'Arnie' in the end because it was so tough! there were times we were driving in snow at least 5 inches thick, how that car managed I will never know. It wasn't all smooth sailing though, we had to get down on our hands and knees in the snow a few times to dig Arnie out after getting him stuck but that little car defied all odds and ploughed on! he managed to get us out of those sticky situations and back to a main road every-time. As you can imagine those situations were so stressful at the time, the boyfriend and I screaming bloody murder at each other and probably spitting legitimate venom which I don't doubt our glands would have been capable of under the circumstances. Those moments are funny now to look back on and they make a good story to tell but I still reccomend hiring a 4X4, we were lucky that we didn't end up in a far more serious situation. I also don't recommend attempting to get to the base of one of the all famous Icelandic volcanoes in a Yaris. Just don't do it ok. You need a 4X4 for that. I'm sure most people can see the logic, volcanoes are in mountain ranges which means high altitude which means more snow. But of course my partner and I threw that logic out the window with a "we won't know if we don't try!" attitude. Safe to say we should have listened to our gut instincts which were screaming "NO! GO BACK. BAD IDEA. GO BACK." and of course they were right. Also if you do hire a 4X4 and wish to attempt the arduous drive up into mountain ranges, please only do so if it's nice weather. We went ahead and tried this out not only in a Toyota Yaris but also in windy, snowy conditions. I know right, what were we thinking?! What happened next wasn't desirable. We were halfway up a mountain crawling along through snow that was way too thick for our yaris to handle when out of nowhere BOOM, a blizzard hits. As I say, not ideal. We had no choice but to try and get out of that situation so there we were reversing down the cliff we'd somehow managed to get on, everything around us blindingly white, can't see 1 metre in front of us in any direction, me crying, certain that I'm approaching imminent death. But miraculously, we made it back down. I have to say the moment we reached the bottom of that mountain and were safely back on a main road was the most relieved I have ever felt in my entire life. Do yourself a favour and hire a 4X4 or if that isn't an option for you financially then stick to the main roads!
3. Getting to and from the airport
It's much cheaper (I'm talking 60 pounds cheaper) to prebook transfers from the airport to your accommodation. We booked through a company called 'Iceland Excursions' which is one of the two big tour companies that operate in Iceland http://www.icelandexcursions.is/Tours.aspx?Tourid=220 For my partner and I it cost £40 for return transfers (£20 each) compared to the £120 a taxi would have cost (around 60 pounds each way)
The all important packing list, which in this case is more of a 'WILL REGRET IF DO NOT HAVE LIST'
• Hiking boots or snow boots Snow boots aren't necessary, we wore hiking boots and they did the job just fine so if you've got a pair of good quality hiking boots don't bother going out and buying snow boots. If you've got both I'd say take the hiking boots and leave the snow's at home, unless you're going in the dead of winter in which case you'll need the extra warmth snow boots will provide.
• A thermos Trust me you will be so glad that you have it! it was our little ray of sunshine on more than a few tumultuous days.
• Thick socks For obvious reasons.
• A wind and rain proof jacket With a hood is even better. The weather is unpredictable and can be nothing short of horrendous sometimes!
• Thermals Don't think you won't need them, you will!
• Sunglasses This is something I wish I'd packed but didn't even think of. The sun reflecting off the snow is blinding and really strains the eyeballs! especially when driving.
• Swimmers, flip flops, and a robe You'll need all of this for your visit to the blue lagoon, it's a must do/see which I'll go into more detail on further along. The apartments we stayed at provided us with robes so it's worth checking ahead with your accommodation to see if they will provide you with one, it'll save you the hassle of trying to stuff it into your bag!
• A deck of cards Especially if you're staying in an apartment. Some of our most memorable nights were spent playing cards after dinner with a bottle of red, some Icelandic dark chocolate (the best kind in my experience) and Ryan Adams playing softly in the background while we watched the snow fall outside. Glad to be indoors, warm, dry, and snug in our robes courtesy of Ymir and hebba! Legends.
• A small backpack You'll need it for your day trips. You'll need to take tissues, your thermos filled with whichever hot drink you favour, maps, sunglasses, water, snacks etc. Iceland is a barren and sparse country, once you leave Reykjavik to go exploring there's no toilet or snack stops to be found! The tissues are a saviour ladies when you find yourself squatting all across the countryside.
• Do I need to state the obvious and say camera? There's incredible photo opportunities all the time everywhere you go, the landscape might be barren and unusual but in its uniqueness it really is beautiful.
• Binoculars I didn't have binoculars with me but I wish I'd thought to pack a pair. When searching for and hopefully finding things like the northern lights, puffins, and whales, a pair of binoculars could really heighten the experience.
6 things you MUST see and do in Iceland
1) The blue lagoon It's nothing short of amazing. I've never seen or experienced anything like it. In a nutshell it's a natural geothermal hot spring, already sounds amazing right? The water is a milky cobalt blue and it's as warm as a nice hot bath. There's even a swim up bar which is totally overpriced but worth it for the one off experience of having a beer in a natural hot spring surrounded by volcanoes and mountains, seriously where else in the world will you do that? They've even got free face masks in the lagoon made from natural minerals in the earth that you can apply at your own leisure! my skin looked and felt amazing the next day. Essentials to take with you on the day are obviously your swimmers and a towel, and moisturiser, your skin will be as dry as the sahara afterwards so it was nice to be able to moisturise my face after a shower. I also reccomend taking those flip flops and that robe I mentioned earlier, you're there for most of the day (we were in the water for 3 hours) mind you it was freezing cold and blowing a gale outside so it was pretty hard to coax ourselves out of the water! But once we did, the robe and the flip flops were a much appreciated luxury. We sat in the cafe in our robes and had a coffee before we went off to shower and head home. You can hire towels, flip flops, robes, and even swimmers there but it'll cost you a small fortune. To hire a robe it was around £10, towels I think we're £5. Better to take your own from your apartment/hotel. Getting there you either need to drive or pay to go on a tour bus. It's an hours drive from Reykjavik. We went through 'Iceland excursions' http://www.icelandexcursions.is/tour/All_our_Day_Tours/AH29_The_Blue_Lagoon/Iceland.is for the bus and entry to the lagoon it cost us around £60 (for both of us) we arrived to the lagoon at 14:00 and had the option to be flexible with our departure. We chose to head back on the 19:00 bus which was the perfect amount of time for us to have spent there. We really enjoyed our day at the lagoon, it's a day which I will always remember as one of the best in my life.
2) The golden circle The golden circle is a popular sightseeing route in Iceland, on this route you'll see incredible sights including magnificent waterfalls, national parks, and the geysirs which shoot boiling hot water metres into the sky! be warned though the stench of sulphur is quite overwhelming! You can do the golden circle on a tour bus but we drove the route ourselves in the Yaris. I reccomend doing it this way, it was so much fun! although stressful and testing at times, it all made for an unforgettable experience. We could be completely flexible too, stopping for toilet breaks and snack breaks whenever we felt like it. And in regard to finding your way, honestly you don't even need a GPS. All the roads in Iceland come off of and therefore eventually lead back to the 'number 1 road' the number 1 road is the only main road in Iceland, it loops around the entire coastline of the island. It's literally impossible to get lost.
3) Try an Icelandic hotdog Yum. At around £2 a pop it's the cheapest form of food you will find on the island, unless you caught and prepared your own fish from the sea. I'll take the hotdog thanks! and they're so good. Seriously though, it might sound like a silly thing to recommend but Iceland doesn't have a 'national' dish as such. Other than petrified shark which is exactly what you're imagining it to be - rotting shark. No thanks!
4) Do a 'puffin tour' This is something I bitterly regret not doing myself. Iceland is home to more than half of the worlds puffin population so while you're there you really should try and see the cute little guys! you probably won't get another chance. They don't just fly around though, you've got to do a boat trip out to cliffs on the west coastline, just north of Reykjavik. I think it's around £50 to do it and the tour goes for an hour or 2, definately worth it!
5) Helicopter ride over an active volcano Another thing I wish we'd done while we were there, but we couldn't afford to. If you've got the budget I suggest you take a helicopter ride over one of Icelands active volcanoes, because when will you ever get the chance to see inside a bubbling active volcano again?! It was around £200 - £300 per person hence why we didn't do it but as I say, if you can afford to you should.
6) Try to catch the northern lights Most people I know who have been or are interested in visiting Iceland have the mystical northern lights, and that only in mind. But you can't go there with that mindset because if you aren't lucky enough to see them you'll end up leaving bitter and disappointed. Yes the lights are a magical sight to behold, but you've got to go to Iceland with the mindset that seeing them would be a bonus on top of all the other amazing aspects of the country. There is of course things that you can do to maximise your chances of catching the lights, my partner and I were lucky enough on our 8th and final night to see them. It took some planning though! I've written all about it here; Chasing the Northern lights in Iceland!
And with that I seem to have emptied my pool of knowledge about Iceland, I hope I've been of help. Enjoy your trip to the rugged, unique, and beautiful land of fire and ice. I unexpectedly learnt so much, not only about myself but about my partner and our relationship too. In fact it was so good and so fulfilling that I'm surprised to find myself sitting here whilst a wave of nostalgia washes over me thinking that I miss it! I'd go back and do it all again, turmoils and all in a heartbeat.
Over and out x
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