In the past few years it seems that people have done nothing but rant and rave about the wonders of Iceland. Being a total beach bum, I tend to spend my days traveling in hot climates such as the Tropics or Mediterranean, so it never occurred to me to travel to chilly, rainy Iceland. But, when I was looking for the best flight deals to Europe from California, it seemed that my cheapest option was to fly to Reykjavik via Seattle. And so after so research to double and triple check that this was truly my best option, I did it; I was officially going to Iceland!
In case you didn’t know, the name given to this country was actually a trick by Erik the Red. When he discovered Greenland, he wanted to make people think that it was a beautiful, green land that was worthy of settling in. But the truth was (and still is) that Greenland is full of ice and snow, and Iceland is the green, rocky country. But it is not to be said that it is sunny in Iceland….
I arrived in Iceland on a rainy Monday morning. The clouds hung low, and the cold air hit my face like a New York wind (which if you’ve ever been to New York in the winter, you know it is brutal). Despite, I had high hopes that there would be at least one or two days of sunshine. The people of Tripadvisor had suggest that it can be hit or miss, but is still a beautiful time to visit before it gets too icy and snowy. I soon learned that in Iceland, a “nice day” is a partly cloudy day at 50 degrees fahrenheit, with a lack of rain. But you’re lucky if you get a full day of that. As they say: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”.
And so my six day rainy adventure in Iceland began… with rain. And lots of it.
I have never been much of a planner-- in fact, I thrive on the thrill of last minute plans and never knowing where I will end up the next day. That is basically how I ended up in a car for four days on a road trip, with somebody I had only known for 12 hours. Now before you think, "but that person could have been a murderer!!", just trust my judgement. The night before I was due to check out of Reykjavik (which I STILL cannot spell without the help of spell check), I found myself scouring the internet for rental cars and/or ways to get around the island without a car.
"Don't you guys think I should just rent a manual car and just learn to drive stick shift on my own? Nobody at home is ever going to teach me, since most people drive automatic in the US!" I asked two other Americans at the hostel.
Coming from a country where we are spoon fed nearly everything, a decade into my years of having a license, I still haven't got a clue how to work a manual vehicle. And of course the Europeans almost never drive automatic, so renting one is normally three times the price of a manual.
"NO! You'll burn out the clutch and never get anywhere," they told me. We debated this for the next hour, as I struggled to figure out how on earth I'd manage to get around the island.
As the other Americans got up to leave, I considered going to bed as well. But sometimes you make a split second decision that can change the course of your life (or in this case, the course of your trip to Iceland). Instead of leaving, I decided to give myself at least a little time to talk with the French guy who was also sitting nearby, listening in on our conversation. And in the end, it was a good thing I did, because ten minutes later he was giving me my first lesson in driving stick shift. By the end of my drive around the parking lot, and lots of stalling and stopping short I realized that it would be nearly impossible for me to rent a manual car.... because clearly I had NO idea what I was doing.
After my lesson and laughing about the weirdest safety video ever, I decided to be bold and ask if he wouldn't mind if I came along on his road trip the next day. Lucky me he said yes, and that is how I ended up on a road trip around Iceland with a guy I had just met.
Sometimes traveling with people you don't know can be a risk; and I'm not talking about safety, but rather locking yourself into being stuck with somebody you don't necessarily know you'll get along with. I know myself, and I know I am picky about everything in life from the food I eat, to the people I befriend. But from the start, I could tell that Remy from Toulouse and I were going to get along well.
I sang about sheep (Iceland is known for having one dangerous animal: SHEEP, because they often cause accidents in the road), we complained about the constant rain, and stopped at a small family owned restaurant on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
At the end of Day 1 after getting hailed on at a waterfall and driving through hours of rain, we came across the little picturesque village of Vik. It only took us a few minutes to drive through the entire town, and find a nice little guesthouse to stay in for the night. After dinner, around 7pm we asked the waiters where we could buy some alcohol. Turns out the liquor stores in Iceland close at 6pm. The restaurant could technically sell us a bottle of wine that we could take with us... but they had to take the top off. Note to self: if you want to buy alcohol in Iceland, do it early!
Feeling defeated and tired from lots of rain on our last night in Iceland, we stopped in a town about an hour out of Reykjavik. Just as we were getting ready to go to sleep, Remy asked if he thought we should give the Northern Lights one last shot... and so in our pajamas, we went off to a field on the outskirts of town.
"There's something up there, but it's just a white light. Must be light pollution..."
"No, I don't think so. I was told that you need time to adjust your eyes, and sometimes it does actually start without colors".
We pondered whether it was worth it or not to be standing outside in the freezing cold looking for some mythical dancing lights. As beautiful as I imagined they could be, it was a miracle that I made it 5 days in a country so far north-- when the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I start shivering.
"I see it moving!"
Low and behold, crawling slowly through the sky, between the clouds that had ruined the majority of our trip there she was: the mighty Northern Lights.
Following our joyous evening with the Lights, we headed back to the capital in the morning. We were fortunate enough to have at least one day that was NOT filled with cold rain, and we spent it strolling around the city taking photos of street art and cafe hopping.
While I did enjoy my time in Iceland and was very grateful to have the opportunity to go, my overall experience did not quite live up to my expectations. So many people told me that it is their favorite place in the world, but I think the bad weather just put a damper on it. I was suggested to visit the South-- and that it was the best option for those with limited time-- but I felt that this area didn't change much from the start to the end of our drive. Since my trip, I've had other friends who visited and had totally different experiences than me; if I were to do it again I think I would travel to the West Fjords in the Northwest, get a larger 4x4 car to go to the interior of the country and go in the summer time when there's less chance of rain (but still not guaranteed). If you do decide you're interested in the south, here's the route we took:
The towns outside of the capital are all very small. And by very small I mean one or two restaurants, a convenience store (if you're lucky), and a few guesthouses. Our first night we stayed at a local guesthouse in a woman's home in Vik. I was quite surprised that a lot of the people out here don't speak English very well. It was enough to get by, but nobody seemed particularly interested in conversing much.
The second night we drove to Jökulsárlón otherwise known as the Glacier Lagoon, then to Hofn for dinner. We did eat magnificent langoustine (a type of lobster) at a restaurant called Pakkhús Restaurant. It's right near the harbor and the restaurant has a view of the water. 10/10 would eat there again. There's not many places in town to stay, so we drove back south about an hour and stayed at another guesthouse off the main road called Guesthouse Skálafell.
In Reykjavik I stayed at Kex Hostel, which is in an old cookie factory (Kex means 'cookie' in Icelandic). It was an excellent, social spot and even hosts live music in the evenings. I've heard they're one of the venues for shows during the famous music festival, Iceland Airwaves in November.
Despite my feelings on Iceland, most people are absolutely enthralled just by the thought of this country. In the end, I learned that maybe I'm just not cut out for winter-y adventures... after all, I am one of the biggest beach bums you'll ever meet.