Iceland. Conjures up images of well – ice. And with ice you pretty much think freezing cold weather, blizzards, whipping winds…you get the idea. But what if I told you that is really not what Iceland is all about? And that in winter you can actually experience warmer temperatures in Iceland than in New York City?
It’s true! And there’s probably a lot of other interesting facts about Iceland that you didn’t know – but you will after reading this overview! I recently hosted Ryan Connolly of Hidden Iceland on my weekly video chat session – who shared some fabulous insight into Iceland’s misconceptions, treasures and more. Ryan is one of my favorite people – we actually met at a Family Travel Association event – and share the same passion for doing things off the beaten path.
Read on to discover just what you’re missing if you don’t include Iceland on your list of must-see destinations!
Company Background: So, Ryan is actually one of the founders and owners of Hidden Iceland – which is a small company that keeps their adventures and personalized and focused on customer experience. They create your itinerary based on what you want and then add in hidden spots – giving you more of the off the beaten path of Iceland experience – as that is what they specialize in after all! Think glacier hikes and volcanic rocks and traversing all around the island in summer and the northern lights and ices caves come wintertime. Their tours are typically either small – a maximum of twelve people in a spacious vehicles and Ryan feels – as I do – that we are going to see a lot more family and private trips as people venture back out.
And it is also very important to note that the guides that Ryan and his team work with are local experts – the best guides to have – as they are either glaciologists, volcanologists or geologists!
Destination (Climate and Landscape): So, I touched on the misconceptions surrounding Iceland in the intro – like that it’s always freezing cold and a destination that is only for the adventurous types. The reality is that Iceland is a tiny island in middle of Atlantic Ocean that enjoys unseasonably warm weather year-round! Yup – and this is all thanks to the gulf stream coming up from Gulf of Mexico that spins around the island all year long. The result – it is possible that in the middle of winter they may be averaging temperatures at 35 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit while the Northeastern US states are at a bone chilling ten degrees! But yes – snow and cold winter weather happens – but its not necessarily as cold as everyone seems to think it is.
Another reason it’s not so cold? Well Iceland is known as The Land of Fire and Ice thanks to an abundance of moving glaciers and 132 named volcanoes – some active. Due to this it can be quite mountainous and rocky and that actually stops bad weather from coming in sometimes. The reality of Iceland – as Ryan put it – is that’s it’s warm and cold at the same time!
Sightseeing and Activities: There is just so very much to see and do in Iceland – I actually suggest six or seven nights to get to experience it all and get a glimpse of those famous northern lights. And really – any time spent out of Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital and largest city) is pretty much off the beaten path!
Being so close to the Artic Circle your chances of seeing northern lights is exceptionally good. Ryan said that some of the most incredible he has seen were in the last few days of August and that you may even see them in mid-September. Typically, December through March are popular times to view them, but Ryan has also had sightings the first week of April. So – just when is the best time to see this stunning phenomenon? Per Ryan – it is NOT dependent on the time of the year. What you are looking for is darkness and good weather – as seeing them is also weather dependent. And they say that they hunt for the northern lights because that is pretty much what they are doing – as you have to get as far away from any unnatural light as they can to find clear skies and then you spend quite a bit of time searching those skies for them. Which by the way – is a great way to social distance!
Now these volcanoes on the island – that heat of theirs is deep underground is warm enough to heat water. And when it does it either creates hot springs all over the country – think the popular Blue Lagoon – or sometimes it get so hot that it boils the water and makes it explode – thus creating erupting geysers – like Strokkur (the biggest geyser in Iceland). Now these
hot springs are a fabulous wellness experience as immersing yourself in one is great to rejuvenate you and your circulatory system! In the age of social distancing this is another great option to do so – as Ryan and his team will take you to less popular and thus less crowded hot springs than the Blue Lagoon.
Want to know what’s really, really off the beaten path? Hiking a glacier! And yes – you will have the opportunity to do just that. And you don’t even have to pack any special equipment as Ryan and his team will provide you with the correct spikes needed for the bottom of your shoes. They will also provide harnesses if you are using ropes which generally aren’t used unless requested – as they try to make this adventure as easy as possible for first timers. As Ryan said – they don’t make it difficult or challenging as they assume you’ve never been on the ice before and just want you to experience these giant beasts before they disappear. Yes – these glaciers are moving and melting and that is what makes this experience so unique – because every time you step onto the ice it is a place no one has ever stepped on before! (Ryan’s take – he loves guiding these tours because its new to him each time too!) As for the movement – they move one to two feet every couple of days and are simultaneously melting down by a few inches every day. Of course, I asked if you can actually feel this movement for nervous nelly’s such as myself – but Ryan assured me that since glaciers cover 10 to 11% of the entire island there is a very small chance of feeling a shift (but it happens and when it does its cool!).
Another unique experience? Ice caves! So, you can walk on top of glaciers all year round but from November onwards the temperature gets cold enough that the shapes created by the glaciers freeze in time and stop moving until March – making it safe enough for you to go into the glacier. Yes – you can actually go underneath the ice and venture into these awe-inspiring ice caves! And, since the melting in summer will cause all of these ice caves to disappear – you will have new ones each winter – meaning once again you are stepping into something no one else ever has. So cool! Literally! And speaking of cool – I asked Ryan just how cold these ice caves get and guess what? The average temperature in an ice cave is 32 degrees. So, you won’t be colder inside the cave and if the weather is windy or otherwise bad outside it is actually warmer to be inside of it! And this is where they usually stop the tour to eat lunch or a snack due to just that fact.
Animals and Wildlife: Animals and wildlife can be difficult one to plan a tour around. In the winter, the only animals you are 100% guaranteed to see is the Icelandic horse. The rest of the animals that are reared in farms – sheep and cows – are indoors due to the snow.
To see the actual wildlife, you are going to have to do some hiking! To see reindeer for instance, you have to travel to the southeast for a day and a half to get to their breeding ground and it must be done in winter as once summer arrives it is too hot for them and they run into the mountains. To see Artic foxes, you would have to take a boat ride over to an island where they reside to catch a glimpse of them running around. And everyone’s favorites – the Atlantic Puffins – to see them in the wild you would most likely have to climb to the top of a cliff and look down to see them wondering about.
Now another way to see those adorable little Atlantic Puffins (Listen up Jamie from The Wandering Puffin – this is for you!) is to head to the Westman islands -a volcanic island that erupted in 1973 – but you can only go there in the summer. Here you will find the Sea Life Trust – which has two parts – the Puffin Rescue Center and the Beluga Whale Sanctuary. Now you may catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat if you walk along the cliff edges. But you will definitely see them in the rescue center! And you will actually see baby puffins (awwwww) or puffling’s as they are called – that got stuck on the island before they flew off into Atlantic to spend the rest of year and thus are brought here to be rehabilitated then released back into the wild.
And if you head to the Beluga Whale Sanctuary, they currently have two beluga whales that were brought there sick and will be released into the wild once they are better.
Puffins, whales and a walk around a volcanic island! Now this is what you call travel as a living classroom! What an amazing way for children to learn about wildlife preservation efforts in other countries!
Gastronomy: In Iceland they use the heat produced underground by the volcanoes to heat green houses. This allows them to grow things they wouldn’t be able to normally – such as tomatoes, bananas and peppers. And as of 2017 – they were able to grow coffee and cocoa beans – so we may see Icelandic coffee and chocolate in the future! Sign me up!
Being an island, naturally they have their fair share of seafood. The types of seafood you see most often in restaurants are lobster and mussels, as well as a hybrid fish called Artic char that is a mix between salmon and trout (which Ryan says is the best fish he’s ever had in his entire life!). As a rule, Iceland doesn’t believe in importing fish – or other foods – from outside – so you are always getting served local, fresh food whether it is sea to table or farm to table.
Accommodations: Most of my clients like boutique hotels and Ryan said that they do tend to pick hotels that are boutique. With a caveat or two. It may be a 4-star hotel that is also a horse farm or a 3-star guest house in the middle of nowhere and there are lambs running all around and you can see northern lights! They tend to pick the places they like to go to – which are unique properties with unique styles – involving wildlife, farm and rural settings.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing Iceland is open to passengers inside the Schengen Area but all arriving passengers must choose between a 14-day quarantine or a double testing procedure with a quarantine for 4-5 days. The double border-screening procedure requires all passengers arriving in Iceland to undergo two PCR-tests: one upon arrival and another 4-5 days later to minimize the risk of a false negative causing infection to spread in the community. During this period, all arriving passengers must stay in quarantine in case of a possible infection. Passengers are charged ISK 9.000 for a single test at pre-registration but ISK 11.000 if paid on arrival. The second test is free of charge. This process was designed to prioritize safety, but also to work for visitors and Icelanders, based on Chief Epidemiologist’s medical and scientific guidance.
Ready to pack your bags for the Land of Fire and Ice? If so – be rest assured that Ryan and his team are my eyes and ears on the ground and are able to vet a lot of the things that I haven’t seen or experienced – yet. As my local contacts I am in full coordination with them while we curate your trip and while you are there!
For more details on things to see and do in Iceland, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!