In addition to New Years Eve and experiencing the Northern Lights, the last week has been jam packed with adventure. From hiking the glacier to snorkeling in ice water, Iceland has no shortage of things to do in the winter. Here were some of my favorites:
(Photo credits to Michelle for the snorkeling pictures)
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Pingevillir National Park
Part of the Golden Circle, the national park marks the spot where the first parliament in the world ever took place, as well as where the two Tectonic Plates of North America and Eurasia meet above sea level. You can walk through them when you visit the park, as well as snorkel through the silfa fissure between them (more on that later).
As the clouds started to part on New Years Eve Day, we decided to hop in the car and drive to check out this first stop of the Golden Circle; a popular tourist route in Iceland.
The first thing we came upon was this giant waterfall, where we had to climb up stairs covered in sheets of ice to get anywhere near it at all. We only fell a couple of times, but it was totally worth it.
From here, we found our way to the visitors center, where the main attraction of the park lies; the opportunity to stand between the two continental plates of North America and Eurasia. This is also where the Alping (the first Parliament) used to meet around 900 AD.
En route driving to the Geyser and Gullfoss (Waterfall), we came across beautiful Icelandic horses on the side of the road. These horses are full purebreds who have remained untouched for hundreds of years.
The first of its kind, of which all other Geysers around the world are named after, no longer reliably shoots water into the air, since a tourist put rocks into it in the 1950s. The one right next to it however, still shoots almost 100 ft into the air consistently every 5 to 10 minutes.
This is the largest water fall in Europe. When we finally reached it, the sky was dusk again and the snow had picked up a bit, so we knew we did not have too much time to before the dark arrived for our drive home. Still, the waterfall here is absolutely stunning with a double cascade, surrounded by fields of snow and mountains.
Exploring Lava Caves
Throughout Iceland there are 20,000 lava caves that sit just below the rugged terrain of the country. These tubes were formed when hot lava ran through them forming caves underneath the ground. Our guide from Artic Adventures picked us up and drove us about an hour into nowhere, pulled over on the side of the road, then had us a walk a bit through the snow until we came across a large hole that led underground.
After sliding down an ice a crevass off ice into the cave, we crouched and crawled, exploring the geological history of this amazing land.
We learned that the caves used to be used by outlaws who would retreat there to live and protect themselves from the elements. The caves also were used as homes for elves supposedly, whom which many icelanders still believe exist.
Snorkeling in a Fissure
Located in the National Park, there is the Silfa fissure that feeds out into Pingvallavatn; the largest lake in Iceland. The water that feeds through the fissure into the lake is glacier water that takes 20 years to reach the lake, as it travels through lava caves being purified. Anytime of the year, the water is 2 degrees celcius, so we thought to ourselves “What's the difference?”
The answer to that was very clear when we pulled into the park, again surrounded by nothing but fields of snow, and then it started to snow some more. I mean really coming down and pelting you in the face, snow. Our van pulled up to a clearing where there was another group who had clearly just come out of the water and looked, quite frankly, miserable. Eventually, we were instructed to get out of the van and the most ridulous preparation process began.
First, we had to put on “teddy bear” suits over a base-layer. These were supposed to keep us warm under the dry suits in the water. Girls were instructed to get dressed back in the van, while the poor men had to stand outside and get changed. Thank you sweet, old-fashioned, chivalry!
After snuggling ourselves into these human air-bags, we went back outside and were each given a dry-suit. The only problem was that because the group before us had just used them, they were completely frozen. I mean, they looked and felt like like mannequins.
After we were fully suited up, sealed with chokers and straps at our wrists and necks, hooded and masked, we were reminded that the gloves were not dry gloves, so try and keep our hands out of the water as much as possible so as not to freeze them. Really?!?!
At this point, everyone in the group was serioulsy questioning the sanity of deciding to snorkel in freezing water, in Iceland, in the middle of the winter. To make matters worse, they then had us trek across the snow until we saw a little ladder that led down into the stream. After pulling on our flippers, we were supposed to walk down these icy steps, fully masked and choked, hoping not to fall.
Then they basically hold you down and tell you to hug yourself so as to get the rest of the air out of your suit.
But hey, it's all good!
Seriously though, it was pretty cool to be able to swim through the two continents plates.
And really, it wasn't THAT cold.
The Blue Lagoon
A must-do on anyone's trip to Iceland, I went into the Blue Lagoon experience a tad skeptical. Unlike most normal women my age, the thought of a spa day was not at the top of my list of things to do, especially in a place like Iceland. I was wrong. The Blue Lagoon was awesome and far exceeded my expectations.
When we arrived, we had already booked the comfort package from home, so we checked in, were given a bracelet, a towel, and a robe, and directed to the lockers and showers upstairs. From what we had read before we arrived in Iceland, and from tales of other travelers we had met along the way, we were all somewhat dreading the part where everyone had to get ready. We had heard that there were community showers, where everyone must get completely naked, before going into the Lagoon. When we arrived in the locker room however, it was very modern and clean, and while the process was a bit confusing…”wait, we shower, then change into our bathing suits?” “Do we bring our robes?” “What do we do with this face cream?” etc, ….it wasn't NEARLY as embarrassing or uncomfortable as we had predicted. To our delight, there were indeed private showers with doors on them, and you could quickly tell the Europeans from Americans, as one freely paraded around with no shame, hopping in and out of the un-doored stalls, while the rest of us, stood wrapped in our robes until the last possible second, waiting uncomfortably for one of the private showers to open.
Shout out to our Puritan ancestors!
When we finally made our way outside to the Lagoon, I was taken aback by its beauty. Also, I was freezing my butt off wearing nothing but a robe and flip-flops in the middle of Iceland, in the middle of Winter. Gina and Michelle went off to get the massages that they had booked, and the other Michelle and I made our way as fast as possible into the water. It was soooooo warm, it felt amazing! To make the experience even better, the comfort package included a free drink from the swim-up bar (yes, there's a swim up bar), and a free algea face mask. Sitting there, sipping prosecco in a geo-thermal pool, surrounded by snow-striped mountains, the sun finally popped out for the first time since we had arrived in Iceland a week earlier. It was complete contentment.
The history of Iceland reads like a fairy tale. Stories of elfs and trolls, and sagas of Vikings. Everywhere you travel in Iceland, you come across the influence of Vikings. Our curiousity had gotten the better of us when we all decided to visit the Viking Village, a couple of kilometers outside of Reykjavik. The “village” unfortunately consists of a campy restaurant that sits next door to a Viking hotel. Though we imagined it to be a fun and cheesy place to visit in the summer, when we showed up a bit early for our 6pm reservation, we realized that there was a slightly different atmosphere here in the winter. They did however, have on the menu, the Viking starter plate, which consisted of all the weird Icelandic food that Gina and I had left to try; everything from sheeps testicles, to the infamous, fermented shark.
Even though the food left much to be desired, we still managed to have fun and laugh a bit, and of course, dress up as Vikings!
Whether snorkeling in a lake filled with ice water, crawling underground in a lava cave, or relaxing in a geothermal pool sipping prosecco, I was constantly reminded that we were just 4 degrees south of the artic circle, and in fact, it did feel like we were on top of the world.