Destination Review: Iceland (Winter)
Don’t be fooled by its name! As a rule of thumb, remember that Iceland is green and Greenland is ice. The story goes that the native settlers called it Iceland because they didn’t want anyone coming to visit the island. For centuries that worked pretty well and it really shows when you visit Iceland. The country’s population is still minuscule compared to its distant Scandinavian relatives in Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The biggest winner of Iceland’s minimal number of tourists (until 15-20 years ago) are the tourists who go to visit this amazing country and all of its amazing natural wonders, scenery and culture. During my trip to Iceland, my wife and I did the following tours and activities which I will highlight in this review: Small Group Golden Circle Tour including Glacier Snowmobiling by Super Jeep, Small Group Northern Lights Sightseeing Tour by Arctic Adventures, Large Group Southern Iceland Tour including Glacier Hike, Waterfalls and Black Sand Beach by Grey Line, and last but not least, the iconic Blue Lagoon.
Small Group Golden Circle Tour including Glacier Snowmobiling:
I booked this tour with Super Jeep which is a local tour company offering a variety of tour itineraries in Iceland. The tour was absolutely great because they picked us up from our hotel in downtown Reykjavik and it was a small group of only 15 people. Our guide was very courteous and offered brief (very brief) explanations of each sight during our trip. For my wife and I, this was perfect and it allowed the breathtaking scenery and natural wonders to speak for themselves…which they did! On this tour, we saw the Gullfoss Waterfall, Strokkur Geyser, the continental divide (where the Eurasian continent collides with the North American continent) and we ended the trip snowmobiling on a glacier. The tour cost approximately $350 per person but most of that cost was for the snowmobiling. You can do the same tour without the Snowmobiling for about half the cost.
I would definitely recommend this tour to anyone traveling to Iceland. The Golden Circle Tour is an absolute must when visiting Iceland, so the real decision is whether or not you want to snowmobile for an additional $200-$250 per person. I felt that the snowmobiling at the end made the tour really unique and exciting. Without the snowmobiling, it still would have been a very nice tour but I think I would have personally missed out on something special. This decision is purely a personal choice, so it’s up to you in the end.
Northern Lights Sightseeing Tour: If you are not familiar with the science behind the Aurora Borealis, aka Northern Lights, not to worry, we are not going to get into the science too much. In broad terms, here is what you need to know:
1. Seeing the Northern Lights is not guaranteed. Book a Northern Lights tour your first night in Iceland. If it doesn’t happen, the tour companies will give you a voucher to come back another night while you are in town (we had to do this).
2. The Northern Lights only occur under the following conditions – Clear Skies, You must be relatively close to magnetic field of the North Pole / Artic Circle, and there must also be solar flares and/or solar activity from the Sun. I recommend regularly checking the solar activity forecast through the NOAA website. They have a Northern Lights Forecast which can be helpful to let you know which night during your trip may have the best viewing potential.
The first night of our Northern Lights Sightseeing Tour, we did not see any activity in the sky. Our driver and tour leader was very patient and took his time to ensure we had a chance to see them but unfortunately they never appeared. If you want to see the Northern Lights, they will test your patience, so do remember that patience is a good virtue on this tour.
After our first night produced no results, I booked us through the same company (no additional charge) to try to see them again. I confirmed us to go back out when the NOAA solar forecast was predicting very high solar activity level and thus a high probability of seeing the Northern Lights. Although the NOAA forecast is never a guarantee that you’ll see them, they definitely got the forecast right the night we went out. Here are some of the incredible pictures that I took: ***Disclaimer: These pictures are my actual images and cannot be redistributed without express written consent of The Travel Maestro, LLC. ***
Large Group Southern Iceland Coast including Glacier Hike by Grey Line Tours: This is an all-day tour that picked us up at our hotel at approximately 7am and we did not return to the hotel until 6pm. The tour was a group of approximately 50 people and we were transported on a large motor coach from Reykjavik to the Southern Iceland coast to Hella and surrounding towns. This tour featured a very seasoned tour director who provided excellent perspective and descriptions of each destination along our journey. You can tell that he had been doing this for a while but in a good way. He enjoyed his job and wanted to share all of the joys, sights and culture of Iceland with the group. Although we chose to go with a large group for this trip, there are small group or private tours available through other companies that will take you to the same places. This tour was approximately $160 per person and given the length of the trip and the tour director’s in-depth knowledge and guidance, I would absolutely recommend this tour option to anyone going to Iceland, especially if you don’t mind being with a larger group. It was a fantastic value for everything that we did which included a spectacular glacier hike, visiting black sand beach, stopping to see two of the largest waterfalls in Iceland, a visit and great photo opportunity of Eyjafjallajökull, one of the smaller ice caps in Iceland but more notably known as the home to Iceland’s most recent volcano eruption in 2010. The Blue Lagoon - Iceland’s Most Iconic Attraction: If you’re considering a trip to Iceland for the first time, then you have to visit The Blue Lagoon. The first thing people think of when they think of Iceland is…The Blue Lagoon! Okay, maybe some of you think of ice or cold weather but right after that, it’s The Blue Lagoon. As I did with our other tours and activities, I booked our trip and tickets to visit The Blue Lagoon about 5 weeks prior to our trip. I purchased tickets to visit The Blue Lagoon on a Saturday, our second to last day in Iceland, with the thought of “saving the best for last.” Our tickets for The Blue Lagoon were standard tickets which do not include towels or a bathrobe. So, remember to either bring a towel with you in a backpack or you can pay to upgrade your standard ticket to a deluxe ticket at the check-in desk when you arrive ($14USD upgrade per ticket). Upon our arrival on Saturday late morning arrival at approximately 11:30am, we walked up to the entrance of the main building and were greeted by a herd of people, at least 75-100 people in line waiting to simply check-in at the welcome desk. I would compare it to a TSA airport line nightmare situation but instead of people knowing (for the most part) how a TSA security line works…this was a far more chaotic and unorganized process. We tried to stay positive during the wait but this was hardly a “spa-tranquility” atmosphere as we waited our turn to enjoy Iceland’s “Fountain of Youth.” After about 30 minutes, my wife and I made it through the line and completed the check-in process and agreed to meet up in 15 minutes on the other side of the locker rooms. Thankfully this happened without any issue and we found each other pretty quickly upon exiting the main building near the entrance to the Blue Lagoon. It is worth noting that our arrival experience overall was VERY overwhelming and quite stressful. My wife and I both experienced the same volume of people in the locker rooms when we needed to change before going to the Blue Lagoon and it was truly over-crowded and I had to wait about 5-10 minutes for a locker to become available from a departing patron. But now that we met up with each other and found a place to hang our towel, we entered The Blue Lagoon and our stresses from earlier were definitely melted away. The Blue Lagoon is truly a unique, one-of-a-kind experience and I felt this way despite the large number of people around us. Everything from the silicon mud mask that you can apply to your face and body to the saunas, water features and of course the unique volcanic rock surrounding, make this a must-see attraction when visiting Iceland. Overall Recommendation: The Blue Lagoon is a must-see and I would highly recommend it. Our arrival experience was definitely less than desirable and it felt like a complete tourist trap on the day we were there but I didn’t want to allow that to take away from its uniqueness and the positive aspects of our visit. My biggest take-away and piece of advice for anyone visiting The Blue Lagoon… Visit The Blue Lagoon during the week (don’t visit on the weekend, if you can help it) and make sure to buy a ticket for early in the morning before the bigger crowd arrives. If we had done that, I can promise you that I would still be ranting and raving to all of my friends about how amazing it was but the experience was diminished by the overwhelming number of tourists when we were there.