Several months ago I was reading a sponsored article on the Travel + Leisure website introducing new direct flights to Iceland from various US airports on Iceland Air. The airline was offering deeply discounted November and December 2016 flights on these new routes, including a direct route from Chicago O’Hare to Reykjavik.
To be honest, I was surprised at how easy it was to convince my sister, Beanie, to join me on this adventure. I think we exchanged 2-3 text messages before she responded with a flood of excited emojis and an affirmative BOOK IT!
The good thing about booking a trip so many months in advance is that you have something to look forward to. The tricky thing, though, is that it can sneak up on you. This trip, as much as we were looking forward to it, totally snuck up on us and Beanie and I spent the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend researching and booking accommodation and tours for our Iceland trip, only 10 days away.
Since we only had 4 days on the ground and limited daylight to work with, we opted to pay a little more and join a tour of the southern coast. Dates and availability on an Extreme Iceland 3-day tour matched ours and ended up being a fantastic pairing. We were able to see a lot in a limited time, enjoyed wonderful commentary and knowledge from our fantastic guide, Thor, and made some new friends. The weather was unseasonably warm for December which created a bit of a last minute itinerary change (the ice caves were too flooded to visit) so it was nice to have a guide who was able to think quickly on his feet and maximize our time on the ground.
Though we knew the chances were slim, Beanie and I were really hoping to see the Northern Lights while on this trip. While, unfortunately, the sky was too cloudy to see any aurora borealis activity, we did see plenty of other Icelandic wonders: glacial lagoons, moss covered lava fields, glaciers, black sand beaches, dramatic canyons and, of course, waterfalls for days. Because we were on a pretty tight budget after popping for the tour, we survived on included breakfasts, nuts and other snacks from home, and bowls of soup dinners, the cheapest item on the menu. $20 bowls of mushroom soup. FYI – Iceland is really expensive.
It was interesting to experience the limited daylight at that time of year in Iceland. The sky would start to show light around 10am and would be quite dark by 4pm. The afternoons didn’t seem that odd – after all 4pm in Chicago at that time of year is pretty dark, it was the mornings that totally threw us. We woke up around 7:30 to get breakfast, pack and be on the road by 8:30 where we would drive in total darkness for over an hour to get to our first stop for sunrise. In the above photo, we enjoyed sunrise at the famous Reynisfjara black sand beach – that photo was taken at around 10:15am and was a 30 second exposure.
Though when the sun was out, it was low in the sky creating a nice, long golden hour. But the weather in Iceland changes very quickly – one minute we would be in a misty rain, then suddenly we would be surrounded by sunshine, then half an hour later we would be enveloped by dense fog.
Beanie and I came prepared (maybe over prepared?) for the cold and the rain and it was nice to have a bus with a few extra seats in order to dry wet clothes in between stops. A few items I wore nearly the entire time and highly recommend: waterproof Arctic Down Parka, waterproof Keen ankle boots, thick wool hiking socks and fleece-lined leggings. Rain paints also came in handy.
I think Beanie and I would both agree that the highlights of the trip were the visit (actually visits, we all loved it so much we talked Thor into an early morning re-visit the last day of the tour) to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and walking on the Skaftafell Glacier. After all, any day where you get to strap on crampons and carry an ice axe is a good one.
Beanie and I could have happily stayed in Iceland another week chasing the Northern Lights and other natural wonders but our wallets were pretty much empty at the end of 4 days. It was a wonderful trip, full of lots of laughs, stories and beautiful landscapes. I was surprised at how crowded Iceland was in the off season, certainly proof that the tourism industry is booming there, and can only imagine how crazy it must get in the summer. I’ve always been a fan of traveling in the shoulder or off season, and Iceland is certainly a country that can be visited and enjoyed anytime of year.