Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter: The Blue Lagoon

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I am so excited to share this post.  While I absolutely loved everything we did in Iceland, The Blue Lagoon was, by far, our favorite.  Think of it as a gigantic geothermal spa, the size of a small lake, without the fear or worry of getting bitten by anything 🙂

We chose to book this on the way to the airport.  Since Keflavik is 20 minutes from the Blue Lagoon and 45 minutes from Reykjavik, this made the most sense.

Since it was my other half’s birthday present, no expense was spared.  At $205pp, we reserved the “Luxury Package”, which included the following:

  • Private luxury changing/showering accommodations, including robe, slippers, towels, and mini facial packs
  • Use of the private lounge facilities with fireplace, beverage service, lounge chairs, and indoor lagoon access to let you swim outside (and not freeze)
  • A reservation at LAVA
  • A complimentary drink in the lagoon
  • A complimentary glass of champagne with lunch
  • A private hostess to help you with all of it
  • Transportation from the hotel and to the airport
  • Free (and secure) luggage storage

The Process

Once we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, we checked our luggage in and then walked the long, lava-lined walkway up to the main facility.  We chose the 9am start time, which meant it was still incredibly dark out.

The lines are kind of chaotic, despite the signage.  Premium and Luxury members are lumped together, which means you are waiting a bit to get in (although it does move fairly quickly).

Our hostess, gave us our magnetic bracelets that are used to unlock our room, the facilities, as well as give us access in and out of the private lagoon entrance. She showed us to our room, which was incredibly comfortable and quite posh.

Heading Into Paradise on a Volcano

Once we were robed and slippered, we headed down to the private lounge to get ready for our dip in the lagoon.  I’m not going to lie, it was a godsend to be able to wade out, via a private door.

 

Once outside, it was a maze of bridges to float under, private lagoon areas, swim-up bars, face mask bars, and other places of exploration.  But the best part of this was the sunrise.  It was so incredible to take it all in, in such a beautiful and serene location.

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Lunch

While we were sad we had to rush this experience (we got about two out of the three hours in the lagoon), we were glad we had a final moment before we flew home, at LAVA.  For about $55pp, we each got to dine on a main dish and a dessert (along with our complimentary glass of champagne), while overlooking the lagoon.  If you’re vegan, I highly recommend the Roasted Celery Root dish and for meat eaters, the Beef Tenderloin.  For dessert, we had the “Ástarpungar” & caramel, as well as vanilla and orange Crème brûlée.

 

Tips for the Blue Lagoon

  • I hear it books quickly.  We booked it in May of 2016 with no problem.
  • If you’re going in the winter, definitely get the morning time (we did 9am).  Or, if you want to see the sunset, book it for 3pm.
  • If you choose to get your hair wet, slather it in the provided conditioner first.  I put mine up in a bun because destroying my hair did not seem like a good idea.
  • Do not take the silica from the bottom of the lagoon (think of how much dead skin is down there)!  The silica mask at the bar is complimentary, the algae mask is not.  However, both are worth it.
  • Do take a waterproof camera with you or, purchase a waterproof phone holder/necklace, to ensure it’s safe.
  • Do NOT wear any jewelry, as if it falls off, it’s gone.
  • If you do not book a luxury package, you will be sharing a communal space to change and shower.  Many people who visit Iceland are European and have no qualms about nudity.

Note that they are building a hotel there that should be open by 2018.  Guess who will be going back and staying a weekend there?

If you need tips on traveling to Iceland, click here.

 

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter – The Golden Circle

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Pingvellir National Park

There was no way we could leave Iceland without doing the Golden Circle Tour.  Granted, most people go in the summer when they can enjoy a lot more of it but there is something so magical about being in the Arctic Circle in the winter and seeing these sites in some of their fiercest conditions.  We opted for the 8-hour classic tour at $90pp.

Icelandic Horses

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Our first stop was to see the Icelandic horses at Fákasel.  It’s a small farm about an hour away.  The horses are very beautiful and very sweet, except when faced with a mischievous dog (see below).

Gullfoss

Our second stop on the tour was to the infamous Gullfoss, which is often likened to Niagra Falls.  It’s name comes from “Golden Waterfall” as when the sun hits it just right, it shines like gold.  Unfortunately, our weather conditions were so wintery, it looked more like torrents of dangerous icy water, which made it all that more amazing to see.  Being that we were at a high altitude, it was incredibly windy, wet, and freezing (see my first post on layering).  We are definitely doing this tour again in the summer, to compare the scenery 🙂

Geysir

The third stop took us to their infamous Geysir.  Rivaling “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone, the Geysir Hot Springs is a whole park filled with boiling hot pots (at 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit).  It’s truly amazing!

Pingvellir – Thingvellir

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Pingvellir National Park

Our final stop to the UNESCO Heritage Site Pingvellir National Park had me “geeking out” a bit as it is not only home to the first Icelandic settlement village in the 10th century, but also the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that you can see AND touch, as well as a glacier, and the sighting of the coldest lake in the world.

Check out the slideshow below:

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The next time we do this, we are going to rent a car to be able to truly take our time and explore, as there is so much more along the way, to see and do.

Should you need any tips on traveling to Iceland, click here.

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter – Touring Reykjavik

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On the first day of the New Year, we took the time to explore Reykjavik.  While not much was open, there was still plenty to do and see!  I highly recommend taking this same path to get to all of the major sights!

We started by heading over to Tjörnin to take pictures by The Sun Voyager.  Walking along the water was freezing but quite beautiful! 

 

Our next stop was to walk across the street and up the hill to Hallgrímskirkja, to get the iconic outdoor and indoor pictures.  We were able to get the outdoor one however, the tower was closed on New Year’s Day.  I highly suggest you get up the tower to see all of downtown Reykjavik.

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We walked down the main street, to head to lunch and do some shopping (we made it to Hard Rock Cafe and The Viking) however, much was closed.  Thus, we carried onto Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center. This is definitely a MUST SEE!  Both the interior and exterior are exquisite and it’s worth checking out every level.

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“Date Night” at Kaffibarinn and Apotek

After a long “winter’s nap”, we headed out for a “date night” of drinks and dinner!  We started at Kaffibarinn – The most well-known bar in Iceland.  It’s partly owned by a famous British singer and was also the setting for a well-known Icelandic movie.  It’s a cozy and quaint hole-in-the-wall.  From there, we walked back towards our hotel, to head to Grillmarkadurinn – an incredible restaurant we stumbled upon in a charming alleyway, and fell in love with.  A new restaurant for Reykjavik, it features an amazing, mouth-watering menu.  It’s another must-eat-at.  I ordered the peanut steak (vegan dish) and corn on the cob with lava salt (both were unbelievable).  My other half ordered the salmon and loved it.  We shared the Icelandic ice cream assortment for dessert – a must-have! NOTE: Buy their lava salt – they do sell it!

My suggestion is to take one day of your choosing to relax and enjoy the wandering around the city.  With it being highly walkable, there’s really no way to get lost and even if you do, you won’t mind it.

Should you need tips on traveling to Iceland, click here.

 

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter – New Year’s Eve Festivities

The reason for our journey was to experience the Nordic traditions that Icelanders follow each year.  It starts with a family meal, and then they are off to a bonfire.  These are communal bonfires that Icelanders use to “cleanse” themselves of the year they have had, often burning all that was bad for them, to make way for new beginnings.  They also sing traditional Nordic songs while they do it.  Then it’s back home to watch an annual TV program called, “Ridicule”, where the actors make fun of all of the Icelandic happenings for that year.  At 11:30pm, the show ends and everyone goes outside to light aerial fireworks until a bit after midnight.  For the young people, this also marks the time to go out until 4am, since the bars are open that late.

Our Dinner

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A special view from Saeta Svinid with the moon in the background.

We had dinner at a local Icelandic Pub called, “Saeta Svinid“.  It is this charming little place, right in the middle of the city center. (Initial reservations were at Kopar but we overslept.) I wasn’t very fond of the beef brisket there (ask for medium-well if you’re normally a medium person) but my other half loved the salmon dish.

Note that it’s best to make reservations on New Year’s Eve at least 3-4 months in advance.  Since we waited, only undesirable times were available to us AND, you have to email them to snag a reservation – no one uses an online system.  We were lucky they could fit us in at 5:30pm.

The Northern Lights

Yes, you read that right.  We saw the Northern Lights while getting off our tour bus, towards the bonfire.  While camera phones don’t do well with dark lighting, we were able to snag a few pictures of the dancing green, blue, and purple streaks in the air!  It was absolutely mesmerizing to see!  If you ever need a forecast of when they will appear, click here and bookmark it.  This will help you determine if you even need to book a tour (or even can book one).

The Bonfire

 

To get to the festivities, we booked a tour with Grayline, giving us transportation to everything we wanted to see (it was about $50 a person).

Our first stop was a bonfire, which was much-welcomed with how cold it was outside.  A few thousand of our “friends”, gathered around the two-story flame to drink, sing songs, and cheers each other until 11:30pm.  These bonfires are held all over Iceland.

Mini NYE Party Before the Fireworks

Our second stop was to the Grayline bus terminal for an hour-long welcome party with donuts and coffee, including musical performances.  It was a much-needed place of warmth before proceeding onto our final destination -the fireworks!

The Fireworks 

For our final stop, we were taken to the highest point in Reykjavik by the water towers, in order to see how truly amazing the fireworks displays are.  In Iceland, it’s the one night of the year that Icelanders get to set off aerial fireworks, which they happily do for over an hour.

While it was 23 degrees outside, you couldn’t pull your eyes away from the displays that could be seen for miles.

After the activities were over, we had every intention of going back, changing, and going back out to Loftid, the club we had tickets to.  However, we were so exhausted from our flight delay that we stayed in and went to bed!

Note that if you do go over NYE, tickets to some places are not available until about the week of NYE.  And, not every place will offer tickets to get you in the door faster.  My suggestion is to do your research if you can and try to find something to have as an option. Otherwise, you’re dressed up and waiting in line, in the freezing cold.

For more information on traveling to Iceland, click here.

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling To Iceland In the Winter – The Basics of What You Need to Know

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Tjörnin – the small lake in Reykjavik

My other half and I made a pact that we would go to a different spot in the world for New Year’s, every year. This year, we chose Iceland and we are so glad we did!

We have had many friends go to this beautiful country in the spring/summer but usually not in the winter (one did and she said it was “f*#@ing cold out”).  In doing more research, we realized we had to do it as a winter trip (knowing we’d have to come back in the summer months too), as their NYE traditions are something we wanted to be a part of.

In this post, I’m going to give you the basics of what you need to know, to travel to and from there.  The other posts in this series will give you more about our itinerary for the trip.

The Basics

Iceland is a very clean and VERY SAFE place to be.  Icelanders are respectful of each other, everyone has employment, and generally, everyone is very healthy and happy.  It’s also not as inhabited as many other countries are, which makes it peaceful and enjoyable.

Below are some things to note about Iceland:

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  • They are on the Krohn (ISK).  Right now, it’s $0.88 to 1 ISK.  Everyone expects credit cards to be taken – cash is rarely exchanged there (but can be).
  • They drive on the right side of the road, so driving a rental car shouldn’t be difficult
    • Most of the roadways are made with heating elements, which minimizes the need to plow in the winter.  It’s still icy in the winter though so if you’re not a proficient winter driver, don’t do it.
  • They can have all four seasons in one day (packing can be a pain) – in the winter, we experienced temps from 23-40 degrees Fahrenheit – so we got winter.. and winter 🙂
  • In the winter, they have five hours of daylight – in January, the sun rises at 11:30am and sets at 4:30pm.  In the summer, they have 21 hours of daylight.
  • They have very little wildlife – Reindeer, Icelandic horses, and arctic foxes are about it
  • Food and drink are very expensive (more on that in a bit), as almost everything has to be shipped in (pre-gaming at home is popular there)
  • Bars and restaurants shut down at 1am and 11pm, respectively
  • Restaurants will never ask you how you want your meat cooked – it will be medium unless otherwise specified.  I am a “medium” person but it was too rare for me.  I started asking for medium-well and it turned out much better.
  • There is so much beauty – you could truly spend a month attempting to explore every single part of it and you still wouldn’t get to everything
  • The water might smell funny but it is completely drinkable.  In fact, it’s the first tap water I’ve had that I’ve actually drank a lot of!
  • They are one of the “greenest” countries in the world, given that their water is naturally heated by the volcano.  This means their power is clean.
  • They also get a lot of earthquakes, given they are between two tectonic plates.  Almost all of the buildings can withstand up to a 9 on the Richter scale

Below are some things to know about Reykjavik:

  • Ingólfur Arnarson named Reykjavik in AD 874.  It means “steamy bay” in Icelandic because of the hot springs and lakes in the city.  However, there was no urban development until the 19th century, which makes it a relatively young town.
  • Everyone is young in age there.  The university, telecom jobs, and the Acting Academy are all nearby, which makes up most of the 130,000 inhabitants.
  • You can literally walk everywhere downtown.  We walked about 3-4 miles a day and it felt like nothing.  There is so much to see and do that you don’t even notice.
  • Restaurants and cafes hold odd hours.  Most cafes do not open until 9am or 10am and they shut down by dinner time.  Many of the restaurants do not open until lunch time and stay open until about 11pm.
  • Restaurants do not take online reservations – you must call or email them.
  • Taxis are available but they are expensive.  There’s really no need to get one at all, unless you really are that far away.

Getting To/From Iceland

Flying to/from Iceland isn’t all that bad if you know what to expect.  Below was our journey in getting there and back.

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Stunning views as we flew over Greenland to get home – the white dot is the moon.

Airfare: We chose WOW Air out of cost (it was $400pp roundtrip but I know there are even better last minute deals out there).  It’s a great airline, so long as you understand the additional fees you can incur:

  • $50 per checked bag, per way
  • Beverages and food are at-cost
  • If you choose your seat, as opposed to being randomly assigned one, that will also cost money, depending on what you select

Other than that, the seats were very comfortable and the attendants very helpful and friendly.  I would fly them again, for sure!

Delays: Note that flight delays are high in the winter, due to weather out of Iceland.  We were 5 1/2 hours delayed getting there and we were one-hour delayed getting home. WOW was great and gave us food vouchers to use at any of the restaurants at BWI, or even in-flight

Time: Flight time is also something to think about.  It was 5 hours to get to Iceland (from BWI) but given weather patterns and the jet stream, it took us almost 7 hours to get home.

Keflavik Airport: They do not require a customs form to enter and if you’re a U.S. Citizen, do not need a Visa.  You will need to make sure APIS has your information before you go.

Duty Free: When you get to Iceland, GET DUTY FREE LIQUOR ON THE WAY OUT!  I cannot stress this enough.  Drinks are anywhere from $13 – $25 per drink there.  For $78, we got two splits of Moet, a half liter of Black Label, and a half liter of Icelandic vodka.

Getting to Reykjavik: Like I stated above, taxis are expensive and it’s a one-hour drive to get to Reykjavik.  (You can also rent a car but not entirely recommended in the winter.) We opted to use Grayline, which used large, comfortable tour buses to get us to the bus terminal, transferring onto smaller buses to drop people off at their hotels. It was about $30pp, one-way.

Where We Stayed

There are a decent amount of hotels to stay in, in Reykjavik.  And, it’s one of few places I would absolutely recommend renting from Air BnB, as well.  Again, because everything is so walkable, safe, and clean, there really isn’t a bad spot to stay.  However, since it was our first time there, we opted for the City Center Hotel, which was a great boutique hotel, smack in the middle of the city.  The total paid for four nights was $1000 ($250/night), which included all taxes and other fees.  Note that because it’s in the center of town, it backs up to a lot of the nightlife, which can mean some noise, coming from outside.

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What To Pack

I cannot stress this enough: WARM CLOTHES AND LAYERS ARE YOUR FRIEND!!!  When we did the Golden Circle Trip, I was in yoga pants, long underwear pants, and two pairs of sweatpants (I don’t own snow pants but definitely will if I do this again).  On the top, I was in a long underwear shirt, another long-sleeved shirt, my Lululemon jacket, and my hooded puffer coat.  In addition to this, I wore a pair of boot socks and a pair of knee-high socks, with my Sorel arctic snow boots.  On my head, I had a lined, wool hat and my hood.  On my hands, a thinner pair of gloves under my ski gloves.  Around my neck, a scarf that could wrap around my face if need be. While this sounds ridiculous, that tour takes you to the tundra of no where 🙂

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35 degrees out
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Me in three layers
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Me in four layers

Walking around the city could be just as cold, with me wearing 2-3 layers everywhere. My suggestion, for packing for a 4-day winter trip (guy or girl), is the following:

  • At least two pairs of socks for each day
  • Snow boots and hiking boots
  • If you decide to go to nicer restaurants, bring a pair of nicer boots or shoes that have a tread on them
  • Snow pants (if you have them)
  • A pair of long underwear (top and bottom) for each day
  • A pair of leggings or yoga pants to put over the long underwear each day
  • A pair of sweatpants that can last you 2-3 days
  • A hooded sweatshirt/ regular sweatshirt that can last you 2-3 days
  • A long-sleeved, warm shirt for each day
  • Jeans and a nice, warm sweater for going out in, should you choose to go out to nicer places
  • Lined beanies or other winter hats for each day
  • Two pairs of gloves for each day
  • Three scarves – the backup ones will get wet, trust me
  • A poncho
  • A swimsuit if you go to the Blue Lagoon (which I HIGHLY recommend)

Other Things to Pack

  • A selfie stick.  I would NEVER have thought that to be a good idea, until I realized how much beautiful scenery was going to surround me.  I don’t regret the decision at all (although I’m still against them being used for everything).
  • A real, waterproof, temperature-proof camera.  My little Nikon came in handy a few times, while at the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon!

Places to Dine:

Given the time of year we went, we didn’t get to experience a lot of the dining we had wanted to.  Below is a complete list of all the places you should try:

Restaurants

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Icelandic Ice Cream with chocolate “knife” at Grillmarkadurinn
  • Apotek – The food and atmosphere are incredible.  I ordered the small plate of short ribs and a side of garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes.  I also ordered a Vanilla Espresso martini.  Others at our table had the salmon and plaice.  I hear both were very good as well.
  • Grillmarkadurinn – We stumbled upon this down an alleyway and fell in love with it!  A new restaurant for Reykjavik, it features an amazing, mouth-watering menu.  It’s another must-eat-at.  I ordered the peanut steak (vegan dish) and corn on the cob (both were unbelievable).  My other half ordered the salmon and loved it.  We shared the Icelandic ice cream assortment for dessert – a must-have!
  • Osta Budin – The number one place on our list we couldn’t get into
  • Snaps – An award-winning place that I hear serves a great weekend brunch
  • Messinn – Go there for drinks and dessert
  • Kopar – It’s right on the water, in the harbor

Cafes

Bars/Clubs

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  • Kaffibarinn – The most well-known bar in Iceland.  It’s partly owned by a famous British singer and was also the setting for a well-known Icelandic movie.  It’s a cozy and quaint hole-in-the-wall.
  • Tivoli – The upscale, trendier crowd goes here
  • Gallery – Inside Hotel Holt
  • Boston – A place where entertainment professionals go to drink
  • B5 – Lounge/upscale club
  • Loftid – The upscale, trendier crowd goes here

Other Things to Note:

  • The grocery stores are 24/7 there.  10-11 is the most popular one and sells almost every single thing you need.  I highly recommend going there for snacks, lunches, and beverages, such as soda and water.
  • They use the standard Euro plug for their electronics.  Make sure you have a Voltage converter with the two-prong plugs.
  • Most everything is shut down New Year’s Day with the exception of a few restaurants, including the Laundromat Cafe and Hard Rock Cafe.  We learned from a waitress at Hard Rock that everyone orders an additional entree to bring home with them for New Year’s Day, since food is in short supply.  I wish this was something we had known ahead of time.  In addition, only a few shops, such as The Viking, were open as well.
  • Fish (including shark and mink whale), reindeer, lamb, and horse are all staples of Icelandic menus.  They also eat a lot of wheat product and Skyr – high-protein yogurt, made of whey.  Since I’m Celiac, it was somewhat difficult to find gluten-free food.

Check out my other posts on our Icelandic adventure for more information on the tours we took!