Iceland at its Best

by Diana Ballon

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In winter, people often think about going south to maximize hours of sunlight. So when I first considered going north to Iceland in December, when there is less than seven hours of sunlight, the idea seemed a bit crazy. But by taking the plunge (more on geothermal plunges later), what
I learnt was that quality of light can trump quantity.

On our recent Exodus Travels tour of Iceland’s natural highlights, we let light be your guide – and of course in our case, our awesome Exodus tour leader Oskar Gudjonsson. That meant boarding our van every morning by 8:30 am or 9:00 am, so that we could arrive at our first destination when the sun was up. And what this light revealed to us was a beautiful, sparsely
populated island where natural wonders abound — where you can walk on glaciers under a bright blue sky; gaze out on turquoise icebergs, sticking out of the water like irregularly-shaped turquoise crystals; visit erupting geysers; pass volcanoes and hot springs, and encounter countless waterfalls on your travels. Even in the early morning, during the transition from dark
to light, as we drive along the tundra-like terrain, with volcanoes and mountains like black inverse cones in the distance, the sun rises gently in front of us, like a flattened rainbow across the horizon.

Our Exodus sightseeing tour had been billed as a Northern Lights tour, but we unfortunately were not lucky enough to see the Aurora. Although chances of seeing them are good in winter— because of minimal light pollution and maximal darkness —you can’t always predict the
workings of the sky.

What I can attest to is witnessing many other extraordinary sights on our tour. Here are some highlights.

Thursday, Day 1: We left the capital, Reykjavik, early to begin our drive along the south coast of Iceland. Our first stop is Gallery Flói, an artisan shop where you can find everything from cool glass beads, to funky jewellery and pottery. We also visit the Ullarvinnslan Gilhagi Woolmill next
door, where they sell a huge range of beautifully-coloured Icelandic wool and the sweaters from which they are made.

Back in the van, the mountains are beginning to adapt a purplish hue, and we pass many short stocky Icelandic horses grazing along the side of the road. Our next stop is the “impressive” 60-metre high Seljalandsfoss waterfall, and then a bit later, Skógafoss Waterfall, where we ascended 360 stairs and were rewarded with view of a field beneath us, glowing golden in the setting sun. Our final stop for the day is the Dyrhólaey peninsula in the southernmost part of Iceland. It is cold and windy when we arrive, but that hardly detracts from its impressive vista overlooking the North Atlantic, with a huge black arch extending into the water, and a lighthouse that looks more like a castle standing stalwart against the shoreline.Then we drive again. It is dark by the time we arrive at Hotel Laki, our base camp for the next two nights.

Friday, Day 2: We rise early, this time for a bucket list experience—to walk on a glacier! We traverse along the Skeidararsandur floodplains and by 11:00 a.m., have arrived at Falljokull, the outlet glacier where our walk will begin. At the base, with pebbly volcanic rock underfoot, we strap a harness around our waists, fit crampons on our boots, don a helmet, and grab a pick
axe. From there, we start a slow and gradual ascend, until we are surrounded by the blue ice of the glacier, against a deeper blue sky overhead. It is magnificent!

After a hearty bowl of meat soup we head to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, a lagoon created when the glacier retreated from the coast about 70 years ago, leaving a 20-kilometre lake filled with icebergs, with the occasional seal that bobs its head to the surface. There we walk along a volcanic black sand beach where big pieces of glass have washed up, creating random shapes:
one looks like a whale, many others like birds.

After 90-minute drive, we arrive back to our hotel, to a delicious buffet dinner, and then – sleep. It’s been a long and very full day.

Saturday, Day 3: This last day we tour the three main attractions of what is known as the Golden Circle, a well touristed route that can easily be covered in a day from Reykhavik. We see the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Þingvellir National Park, where the first parliament in Iceland resided, back in 930 AD, and where scenes from the popular Game of Thrones TV series
were shot. We drive to the Geysir Geothermal Area, site of the famous (but dormant) Geysir and also Strokkur, which we can see erupting, its boiling water and steam bursting some 50 feet in the air. And we see Gulfoss (or “Golden Falls,” one of Iceland’s beloved waterfalls, of which there are about 10,000 in the country!

Then it is back to Reykjavik for our final good-bye dinner.

Day 4 and beyond: Although we have bid our fellow companions good-bye, a friend and I spend a few additional days in Reykjavik. With its bustling night life, fun cafés, beautiful architecture, 18 public swimming pools with tons of hot tubs, not to mention the thermal spa, Sky Lagoon, there is tons to see and do.

We also visit the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa that is only a short drive from the airport, so great to visit at the beginning or end of a trip. We are lucky enough to spend an overnight there at the luxurious Retreat at Blue Lagoon, but its less expensive neighbour the Silica Hotel is also a worthy option.