Monday, March 9, 2015

guest post: iceland in winter!

i'm incredibly pleased to annouce is4s's first guest blogger: my mom! she & my stepdad went to iceland a couple weeks ago -- i know, i'm super jealous too -- and their trip sounded so amazing i wanted to showcase it on my blog! i hope you enjoy it!


We went to Iceland! In winter.

Sounds crazy? Not really, it seemed to make sense to us! In January, we decided it was time for a get-away in February or March. So, where should we go? In the middle of a Virginia winter, we figured only the Southern U.S. or the Caribbean were viable alternatives. But, wait. Seeing the Northern Lights was on our “Life List” (I don’t believe in “bucket lists” – how depressing, to focus on what to see before you die!), and that had to be done during winter. So, instead of fleeing the weather, maybe we should embrace it and go somewhere to see the Northern Lights. But where to go? Alaska and Iceland came to mind. (Turns out Norway is also a Northern Lights destination, but we didn’t know that then.) We’d been to Alaska already, although in the summer, so Iceland it was! Upon further research, we discovered that average winter temperatures in Iceland are actually not that much different from the Eastern U.S., which made the crazy idea seem less crazy.

Now that we’ve been and come back, I can only say that Iceland in winter is fabulous! The scenery is gorgeous and the Northern Lights are as beautiful as all of the pictures that you’ve ever seen.

We chose to take a package tour. The guidebooks seemed pretty adamant that driving in Iceland in winter was dicey, so we decided that having someone else drive made sense. And a package tour meant that we didn’t have to worry about finding hotels, etc. We took the Northern Lights Exploration tour from Guðmundur Jónasson Travel.

Reykjavik is a smallish town, even though two-thirds of Iceland’s population lives in and around the area, with a few museums, a huge cathedral, and shops, it's all very walkable. My overwhelming first impression – Iceland is icy! No one shovels sidewalks or clears the streets, so walking took a lot of concentration. And Iceland is cold and windy – and this first impression was born out in spades as our week went on. Reykjavik is known for its hot dogs, and the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand is supposed to be the best. The hot dogs are pretty darn good – topped with two sauces, one is like the sauce baked beans are in and one is a yellowish sauce but isn’t mustard, and very crunchy fried onions.

What the guidebooks don’t tell you – much of Iceland is heated with geothermal energy. They pipe hot spring water in for use in radiators and as hot tap water. The water has a distinct sulfur smell, so the average shower feels like a spa experience. And the minerals in the water tarnish silver, so don’t wear any sterling jewelry into the shower!

The scenery in Iceland is uniformly beautiful. The land is very flat, abruptly rising into mountain ridges. Waterfalls everywhere, hot springs, geysers (the word “geyser” is actually derived from “Geysir,” the name of a famous Icelandic geyser), lava fields that stretch from horizon to horizon, glacial lagoons filled with icebergs, black sand beaches, and glaciers.



The Icelandic horse is a distinct breed. Every horse on the island is a descendent of the horses originally brought to the island in the 900s by Viking settlers. There are strict rules governing the breeding of the horses, and no outside horses are permitted to be imported. They live outdoors year-round and grow heavy winter coats. The horses have five gaits, two more than most other horses, and a unique round and stumpy appearance that seems closer to a pony than the horses I’m used to seeing. Icelanders love their horses, and it is very common to own one or more horses – there is one horse for every three Icelanders!


There aren’t many large trees in Iceland. It was expensive to import timber, so for centuries, Icelanders lived in houses made of stone and turf. Many of these houses were still occupied well into the 20th century.


Yes, we were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights. There is a long scientific explanation for why we have Northern Lights, but who cares – we were just there to enjoy the phenomenon. Taking photos is a bit dicey – you need a good camera and tripod and lots of luck. Our photos are nothing like those taken by professionals, but they give you an idea of what we saw. We had two nights of faint lights but on our last night in Iceland the lights were spectacular – they truly danced across the sky.

I highly recommend a trip to Iceland in the winter! There is plenty to see, and you may be lucky enough to catch the Northern Lights.

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