Iceland’s Winter Magic

Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager, Reykjavik

When a dear friend casually mentions that she is planning a trip to Iceland with a mutual friend I immediately pounce. “Iceland? I’m going with you,” I announce, never even considering that she may not want me to join them. I have wanted to go to Iceland ever since catching a glimpse of the northern lights from a plane window while travelling to northern Europe with my father as a child. I still remember the awe and wonder I felt as I declared to him that I would one day see the shimmering, multi-colored curtain of lights up above from the frozen land we were flying over at the time. No matter that it may have taken a few decades to fulfill that promise; this was my chance and I was not going to take no for an answer.

We decide to arrive in Iceland in late February – still a good time of year to view the northern lights with the added benefit of nine hours of daylight each day in order to explore the icy wonderland. Having lived in Florida for much of my life, I relish the thought of sub-zero temperatures, frozen waterfalls, glacier hikes, and ice caves.

As we continue to make our travel plans, yet another friend joins our group. Our foursome is made up of experienced travelers and journalists (two ladies have even spent time on a research station in Antarctica) and we all feel confident in venturing out on our own. However, we don’t want to be foolhardy and take the risk of falling into a glacial crevasse never to be heard from again, so we take the middle ground and book a self-driving tour with Nordic Visitor. This tour operator comes highly recommended and books our “quality” level hotels and four-wheel drive vehicle (necessary for winter driving in Iceland), provides transportation to and from the airport, and furnishes us with a tour itinerary, maps, and other useful gadgets and information. Although the company can also book side tours, we research and plan most ourselves.

Arriving at five a.m. at Keflavik Airport, we are whisked to the small, but stylish Alda Hotel located on Reykjavik’s main shopping street, Laugavegur. Following a hearty European breakfast, we set out to explore the city, but unfortunately its citizens are still asleep. We brave the bone-chilling winds and wander the streets until we discover that the Saga Museum is open. The museum is full of wax figures that describe the country’s brutal history, but after the fifth or sixth beheading scene we escape to a warm city tour bus that shelters us as we acquaint ourselves with the beautiful, historic capital. After the

Vatnajökull ice cave

first circle of the small city (during which we all promptly fall asleep, despite our best intentions to stay awake in order to acclimate to the time change), we make another go-round and are treated to the sight of the majestic Hallgrimskirkja Church and other notable landmarks. We debark at the stunning Harpa Concert Hall, a building seemingly made up of ice cubes upon ice cubes that appear to be ready to float off into the adjacent harbor. Reykjavik is finally awake and apparently most of its 120,000 residents have descended upon the Harpa ready to enjoy a leisurely Saturday.

Our real Icelandic adventure begins the next day when we pick up our Land Rover Discovery rental. Thankfully, my friends are all better equipped to drive over the icy, slippery roads than I am. It’s a balmy eighteen degrees as we head to the Golden Circle – a two-hundred-mile route that covers many popular attractions in southern Iceland. As we make our way to our first stop, Thingvellir National Park, I marvel at the rushing ice-water streams and endless fields of white snow punctuated by strands of chubby Icelandic horses all standing with their backs to the whipping winds. Arriving at Thingvellir, we learn from the park guide that a hike to view the rift valley formed by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates is out of the question, it is much too cold and windy. I guess a snorkeling trip in the Silfra fissure (full of icy glacier water) will have to wait for our next trip. The guide recommends an excellent restaurant in Laugarvatn on our way to the Geysir geothermal area where I have my first reindeer burger (given my last name, does that make me a cannibal?).

Strokkur geyser

At the geothermal area we bravely walk to Strokkur geyser, which erupts every ten minutes or so, without ice crampons attached to our hiking boots. I practically fall down laughing watching my friend take two steps forward on the completely smooth frozen ground only to be blown four steps back by the strong wind – that is until I really do fall down when I attempt to do the same. We finally make our way to the geyser and it is well worth the struggle as a bubble of aquamarine water emerges from the earth and explodes into a hundred-foot fountain of steam and scalding water – magnificent! But my favorite part of the day is Gullfoss; an astonishing two-tiered waterfall that drops over one-hundred feet into a long, narrow canyon. Mostly frozen, it is even more beautiful than I had ever imagined, having only seen pictures of it taken in warmer months.

The hotel for our second night is the luxurious Hotel Grimsborgir. Although it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, our sumptuous dinner and elaborate breakfast buffet (champagne, anyone?) in the attached restaurant could not be considered roughing it in the least. Well-fed, we are ready for our glacier hike. We leave the Golden Circle route and head east to the Ring Road – an eight-hundred-mile road that encircles the country. We only drive a small fraction of the Ring Road, since it’s not advisable, or sometimes even possible to drive the entire route in winter. On our way we make a quick stop at Skógafoss, where an enormous rainbow graces the two-hundred-foot cascade of water. Our hike on Sólheimajökull is set for noon: Arriving, we don helmets, harnesses, and crampons and are equipped with ice picks. Our spunky tour guide, Mya, is ensuring that we definitely will not be sliding into a crevasse on her watch.

Read MoreBy Eva Dasher
Photos by Alice S. Jones

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