I learned so much from this blog that I hope to pay it back a little. Hopefully this will be useful to those planning your first trip to Iceland.
Traveling in winter
We were very fortunate with the weather. It stayed dry and the winds weren't bad, so I can only speak to our experience. As long as you know how to layer properly, there are advantages to going to Iceland in the winter.
There are fewer tourists and winter has its own beauty, particularly in Iceland. I could see where the amount of daylight might be a problem closer to the solstice, but in the middle of February it wasn't an issue.
Car rental and driving
We rented from Reykjavík Cars because it was about $40 cheaper for a two-day. We were upgraded from a manual Jimny to an automatic Hyundai Tuscon. All of their vehicles include GPS, which I would highly recommend. Almost a must.
The people were great, pickup and dropoff were convenient, but you do get what you pay for. Thanks to the perfect weather, driving was easy. However, living in Colorado I recognized some places where driving could get really slippery with just a little bit of snow and typical Iceland winds.
I read it a lot here, but pay attention to the road conditions and don't push it -- especially if you're not used to winter driving. Also, be aware that gas is really expensive, especially compared to the States - almost $9/gallon. Keep that in mind when calculating the cost of renting a car and deciding which type of vehicle to rent.
We had a package with Iceland Air and stayed all 3 nights at Center Hotel Skjalbreid. Great staff, clean, basic room, great location and solid value. Breakfast is included, which saved us a lot of money. There was some noise from late night folks enjoying multiple adult beverages, but nothing we couldn't tolerate.
I couldn't alter our accommodations because it was a package, but I wanted to spend one night in the Vik area. We could have seen Jökulsárlón and waking up one morning outside of the city would have been great, but the trip was still fantastic.
We were so happy to be out exploring that food wasn't a high priority. Our one big "meal" was a dinner at Sakebarinn, which was OK. The salmon is fantastic, but the rest was mediocre. Just my opinion and it could have been an off night.
The Noodle Station was top notch. Great asian noodle soup - chicken or beef. We went to the world-famous hot dog stand twice. Not because it was cheap, but it was that good and interesting. So much different than american hot dogs.
The rest of the time we mostly went to grocery stores -- which are great places to see how people really eat in Iceland and probably everywhere -- and grabbed what looked interesting.
Could I do this again, please? Like, once a week? Impossible beauty.
So many times I thought to myself, "This isn't real." It looked like somebody pulled down a fake backdrop screen around every turn. It's a must-do. We drove from Reykjavik to Vik and back, stopping at Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, the black beach in Vik and other places and small towns that looked interesting.
We saw the Black Beach from Vik, but missed the turn to the western side that's close to the basalt columns. The entrance isn't as obvious from the road, so make sure you find it on a map before you go. Or go on a tour. I saw busses at the stops and it didn't look like people were being rushed and herded like livestock. If that's more your style, go for it. The people all looked very happy.
Again, how could that be real. So beautiful. If you're renting a car and doing a self-tour, my best advice is to research Þingvellir pretty thoroughly beforehand. I thought there would be visitor centers (there are) with detailed maps (there aren't). Maybe it's different in the summer, but I found the map provided at Þingvellir almost worthless. So do your homework about the park before you go or hook up with a tour. We still loved the park and got to walk the path between the two tectonic plates. You could spend many hours there, especially in the summer.
Geysir is not of this earth. Be very careful in the winter. There's lots of ice and I saw somebody slip and cut her head pretty badly. Or bring crampons. There's also a really nice store. It's not a long stop, but a really cool one. Gullfoss is the single most spectacular scene I've been lucky enough to see in my life. Seriously.
It amazes me that a city of only 200,000 (including the suburbs) can have that dynamic of a downtown. It's not massive, but it's vibrant, clean and very safe while not feeling like you're in a fake Disney city. I was surprised at the amount of graffiti downtown - not street art, but tagging. It didn't bother me in the least, but it was unexpected. We took the last evening to drive all around the city and out in the suburbs.
We went to Kringlan to get the suburban feel of things, and I'm glad we did. After spending all trip focusing on how different things were, it was really interesting to see something so similar that was so far away from home. The names of almost all of the shops and restaurants are different, the language is different, but the scene was so familiar.
Friday night we went to Laugardalslaug and that was a great experience. It was open late as part of the Winter Lights Festival and they had a DJ. The taxi was about $18USD each way. On the way there I was working on my pronunciation of Laugardalslaug with the driver and he was laughing at me. We were all laughing.
I'm usually pretty good with picking up sounds from other languages, but Icelandic is brutal. There were lots of locals at the pool and it was great to see this part of their culture. The hotpots were really crowded and it was interesting to see such a different comfort level with little personal space.
I can't speak to the bar scene because it was a family trip. We did go into The Lebowski Bar because I love the film. That place had a great feel. There's no shortage of what look like excellent watering holes in Reykjavik.
It seems like much more of a cocktail/liquor scene as opposed to beer. There are a few pubs that are supposed to have a good selection of beer, but the places I saw mostly had two beers on tap. Also, I could see where partying in Reykjavik could raise the cost of your trip exponentially.
We were lucky enough to see them on 2 of the 3 nights. The first night they were so strong that we could see them from downtown Reykjavik, which is very rare. The second night we went on a boat tour as part of the package. The lights were out early but didn't last long. By the way, if you're going to do a lights tour, I would suggest land rather than boat. I love being on the water, but a bus or jeep could take you much farther out and be more flexible with the destination.
I also want to reiterate what so many others say on this forum: Don't obsess about the Aurora. Yes, it's very cool and I'm so thankful that I had a chance to witness it, but you can't control the weather. It's out of your hands. If they don't come out for you, you'll still see so many spectacular things in Iceland that it won't really matter. I can honestly say that there were two or three other things that I saw on my trip that blew me away more than the Northern Lights.
We went as part of the package and on the way to the airport. This is absolutely a matter of personal taste. If you like spas, you'll think you're in heaven. If that's not a big deal to you, feel free to leave Iceland without going to the Blue Lagoon. If it wasn't part of the package, I wouldn't have gone and would not have regretted it. Yes, the water and lava rocks are cool and soaking in the water before getting on the plane was nice, but it's a spa. Your opinion of it will depend upon how much you dig going to spas. That should cover it.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Since I got so much out of this blog, I'll try to put some back in.
Iceland24, February 2014