Iceland in winter, is to no one’s surprise, cold and dark. In January, there are only about 4 hours of daylight. I thought that meant you had a quick up and a quick down of the sun, but it’d still reach the “normal” Colorado winter height and you’d have maybe an hour of full noon-time sun. Nope. It skims the horizon in a perma-sunset. All of our pictures look like we’re outside just as the sun is rising and just as it’s setting, because it was. And because the sun doesn’t even start to make an appearance until 11 a.m. or so, when we arrived from our overnight flight in Reykjavík at 6 a.m., I began to be worried that we’d never see the sun again. We were told this type of winter darkness anxiety is common amongst non-Icelandic visitors and immigrants, but the darkness doesn’t bother the natives. Sure, in summer, the sun more than makes up for its lack of attention to the northern climes with full days of sunshine, but in the winter? It’s a missed friend indeed. I’ll get to the northern lights, but first, our favorite moments in Iceland.
Waterfalls, glaciers, volcanos and other natural wonders are the stars of the show in Iceland. Skógafoss Waterfall is part of the “Golden Circle” tour and you can hike right up to the base of the falls. In summer, it’s awash in green, but in winter, all you see is ice.
Did you know that “geyser” is an Icelandic word? It’s one of the few words in their language that’s made it past the shores of Iceland. It’s an extremely isolated country, so much so that it’s never really taken part in geopolitics, and the locals claim the language has stayed so similar to the language the original Viking settlers spoke that they’d be able to speak fluently with ancestors from 1,000 years ago. This particular geyser goes off every minute or so, and in cold temperatures the scalding hot water hits the air and immediately vaporizes.
You can also hike around the entire geyser basin in the park, which like almost every national park and site to see in Iceland is completely free to access. Steam from these vents powers almost most of the heat in Reykjavík, where the vast majority of the country’s 300,000 people live.
Reykjavík’s performing arts center, just a few years old, is situated directly on the water, and hosts cultural events year-round. The star of the show for us was the multi-colored light show that displays across the angled glass, which itself is modeled after the rock formations on the southern coast.
Friendly and always looking for a snack, horses in Iceland are primarily raised for meat in a country that doesn’t cultivate cows or pigs. Sheep are raised for similar reasons. We had no carrots, alas, but we did get to say hello.
Protestant churches are in stark contrast (literally) to the opulent Catholic cathedrals of Europe. Sparse, with few decorations, stained glass or statues, the main church in town is still quite dramatic and lends a good vantage point to orient yourself from wherever you are in downtown Reykjavík. The city center was still decorated for Christmas in mid-January, with white lights, candles and pine boughs and trees hung and clustered around every shop door. When there’s no sunshine, you get cozy candlelight instead. And you eat a lot of soup. One of our favorite meals was at a tiny second-floor bar where the special was your choice of two soups in a bread bowl and a pint of the local beer. Simple, hearty and satisfying.
In addition to the “Golden Circle” tour, the south coast is another must-see in Iceland. These giant rock formations are the southern-most point of the island, and if you were to swim or sail due south, you wouldn’t hit land until Antarctica. Just another example of how isolated this island nation is. Legend has it that the three biggest stones were trolls out fishing. They got caught in the sunrise as they were distracted by their haul, and turned to stone.
One of the best places to view the Northern Lights in Reykjavík proper, the Viking Ship is a welcome monument to visitors.
Our tour included one evening excursion by bus to find the Northern Lights. We left Reykjavík around 8:30 on our first night (this was after getting into Iceland at 6 that morning, touring the city all day and only taking the smallest of naps to stave off jet lag), and were told it could be a 90-minute drive before we got to our intended destination. We all fell asleep quickly, but were awoken shortly thereafter by our tour guide shouting “There they are!” We looked outside and could see a faint greenish cloud outside the bus window, but after pulling off the road, turning the lights off and letting our eyes adjust, you could see the wisp of lights over the mountain. Because camera exposures can capture more light than the human eye, the pictures make it look brighter and more vibrant than it looked in real life. It was still a sight to behold, even though like most of the trip, it was below freezing, the wind was blowing and even with crampons and heavy hiking boots, you were in constant danger of slipping and falling.
With a busy international travel schedule in 2016, we had a lot to compare this first Europe trip to, but Iceland is the place I keep telling everyone they have to visit. Going back in summer, traveling the Ring Road around the edge of the country and seeing it in a whole different light (rather, seeing it in full sunshine) is a mandatory for these Bespoke Travelers.
The Bespoke Travelers are Annemarie & Justin Miller. Words by Annemarie. Images by Justin.
Follow them on Instagram for more travel moments: