Imagine sitting in a hot tub under the stars, the hot water keeping you warm against the cold night, a glass of your drink of choice in hand. Looking to the horizon there’s a pale streak across the sky that starts to become a brighter green, moving slowly across the dark sky.
When N and I chose Iceland for our honeymoon in October 2015 we never imagined we’d see the Northern Lights sat in a hot pot (the Icelandic equivalent to a hot tub) sipping whiskey on our first night out of Reykjavik. We had spent a lot of time planning our honeymoon as we had decided use this as the basis for our wedding gift list but the Northern Lights, as a natural phenomenon are notoriously unpredictable. In fact on several nights there were lights but the thick cloud cover made them all but invisible.
Because I don’t drive we decided that the best way to make sure we got to explore Iceland without N having to drive for hours on unfamiliar (and potentially icy) roads, would be to book an organised trip. We decided to book through Icelandair on the Hidden Powers and Northern Lights Tour but to also add a few days to explore Reykjavik.
On landing at Keflavik Airport we boarded one of the many transfer buses and headed to our hotel for the first night – Icelandair Natura. The hotel is a little way out of the city right next to a small domestic airport. Luckily the hotel reception provide free bus tickets for the city bus services (for a small returnable deposit) and the bus stop is not far from the front of the hotel. We were pretty tired from travelling when we arrived so decided to use our free spa pass included in our tour to enjoy the hotel’s spa facilities. The spa was practically empty so we had a really enjoyable time chilling out in the spa pool and trying out the flotation gear. After our time in the spa we tried to get a table in the hotel restaurant as we didn’t really feel like making the journey into town. Unfortunately it was super busy and we would have had to wait a very long time so we ended up putting our warm clothes on and heading to the bus stop.
We didn’t really have much energy to decide where to eat so after walking past a few restaurants on Laugavegur (the main street in Reykjavik) we decided to eat at a french style restaurant, Le Bistro, that also had traditional Icelandic dishes on the menu – including Hákarl, fermented shark, served with a shot of Brennivín. Obviously N had to order some. Hákarl has a very strong scent of ammonia, similar to nail varnish remover, but the taste isn’t entirely awful and a little like a very strong cheese. If anything the shot of Brennivín, a caraway based spirit, is worse.
The next morning we woke bright and early ready to join our tour group. As we ate breakfast I was struck by how dark it was outside. In fact the sun didn’t rise until around 9am. Iceland in winter is a dark place. Once the group had assembled and loaded all our luggage we had a quick stop at the Northern Lights Centre before setting off towards the south coast of the island and our first stop of the day: þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. We took a short walk through the park, stopping at the site of the world’s oldest Parliament. Like all the sites on the Golden Circle route the there was a lot of people, including several coach trips at the park. Unfortunately one of our group got lost (getting on the wrong coach) and we had to wait a very long time for our tour guide to try to find him – definitely a hazard of coach tour travel.
Eventually we set off for our next stop: Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal bakery. It was raining heavily when we arrived so we quickly got off the coach and followed a member of staff to the edge of the lake, where we watched her dig up a batch of rye bread from the hot sands. Going inside the cafe area quickly to get out of the rain we enjoyed the hot bread with butter. It was amazing, although not like bread – it had a texture much more like cake. We had lunch at the cafe, which overlooks the spa. I admit I was jealous that we weren’t able to enjoy the hot springs and if we come back to Iceland this is definitely something I would like to do.
That afternoon we continued on the Golden Circle route, visiting the Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall. While both are incredible, as two of Iceland’s most popular attractions both were busy (you can do the Golden Circle as a day trip from Reykjavik). We also stopped at a smaller waterfall on the way to our hotel for the night. We stayed at Icelandair Hotel Fludir, which was by far my favourite hotel of those we stayed at. The hotel is located in a tiny town, which means that aside from the small mini market and a takeaway pizza shop, the only dinner option is the hotel. But the staff are friendly and the food wasn’t bad. But the real draw of Fludir is the rooms. Grouped in two blocks around a central terraced area, the bathroom of each room opens out onto the terrace where there are two hot pots. I knew as soon as I saw them I’d be sitting enjoying the bottle of wine I’d purchased at the airport (alcohol in Iceland is incredibly expensive so its best to buy at the airport tax-free). The hotel is also very close to the Secret Lagoon, although sadly we didn’t have time to visit them.
Much to my surprise when I went out to the hot pots after dinner they were completely empty. N and I enjoyed our wine and whiskey sat by ourselves in the hot water beneath the dark sky. It wasn’t long before we saw a faint streak of green in the sky above the hotel. We enjoyed our drinks, wondering where everyone else was, before running back to our room and changing into our warm weather gear and heading to the front of the hotel. Out here we discovered the rest of our group busy taking photos of the aurora. After grabbing a few shots ourselves the clouds came across and blocked out the aurora so we headed back to our rooms, before heading back out to the terrace and the hot pots, where we had a chance to chat with other members of our group over a few drinks.
After another early start we headed further across the south of the island stopping at Sejalandfoss waterfall. We followed the path behind the waterfall, getting slightly wet in the process. The distance from Reykjavik means that this part of the island is slightly quieter. We then drove on to a farm beneath Eyjafjallajoekull, the volcano that famously shut down European airspace in 2010. The family that own the farm made a documentary about how the eruption unfolded and affected them, which we watched in the small visitors centre built across the road from the farm. We also had a tour of the farm from the farmer and an explanation of the process for processing their main crop of rapeseed. Although the eruption was undoubtedly a terrible experience, this particular family has been able to set up a successful business as a result.
Carrying on along the ring-road we stopped at the impressive Skogafoss waterfall. The waterfall was the highest that we visited, and probably the most impressive with its rainbow arc of water refracting the light. We then headed on to the impressive Reynisfjara beach, with its sparkling black sands and geometric cliffs followed by a trip to a wool factory in Vik (where I bought lots of Icelandic wool). That night we stayed at Icelandair Hotel Klauster – our home for two nights.
After checking in N and I headed straight to the local swimming pool, where we enjoyed a swim under the stars in the heated outdoor pool and chilled out in the hot pots. We had the place virtually to ourselves and although I’d been slightly worried about navigating the Icelandic changing room etiquette beforehand there was actually nothing to worry about. I recommend visiting a local swimming pool in Iceland if you have a chance. They offer a totally different experience to places like to Blue Lagoon and are a huge part of Icelandic life. Swimming in the hot water of the pool we were alone in the silence under a dark sky – no light pollution, no noise or traffic, just a clear sky full of stars and the sound of a local waterfall carrying across the valley.
After returning to our hotel we headed down the hill to find the only restaurant in the small town. Unsurprisingly it was pretty busy but we had a nice meal before walking back up the hill. Just as we reached the hotel the sky lit up once again. We hurried inside to alert the rest of our group and put on some more layers. Our tour guide then took us on a walk through the fields to find a spot to watch the sky away from the lights of the town. Unfortunately the hills around the town and the increasing cloud meant we didn’t get much of an opportunity to take photos. Eventually when it became clear that the clouds weren’t going to shift we headed back to the hotel to warm up with some hot chocolate.
In the morning we continued our journey east, all the way to Jokulsarlon glacial lake. The cold weather meant we weren’t able to go out on the lake but we enjoyed a walk along the shore, following the river down to the beach, covered in huge lumps of ice that wash down the river from the lake. The lake and river are filled with huge pale blue icebergs that creak and crack as they move with the water down to the sea. This was the further point on our tour and after a trip to a second, more recently formed glacial lake, we returned to the hotel where we had a talk from the hotel manager about the history of the area – and its many volcano eruptions.
On the final day of the tour we made the long drive back to Reykjavik, stopping at Hveragerdi to look at the geothermal greenhouses, and the Blue Lagoon. No trip to Iceland is complete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Although it’s expensive and busy and perhaps a little manufactured, it is difficult not to enjoy the hot thermal waters. We enjoyed a few drinks (though there’s a strict limit on the number of alcoholic drinks you can buy) and explored the spa facilities. We didn’t pay for any treatments but there is clay for face masks available in the lagoon and saunas and steam rooms. Feeling thoroughly chilled out we headed back on the coach before being dropped back at Hotel Natura where we stayed the night. As we used our free spa pass on the first night we decided to avoid the queues at the hotel restaurant and headed to Chuck Norris Grill for dinner.
After dinner we had agreed with some of the other members of our group that we would head up the hill to the Perlan for one last attempt to see the aurora. Although there were no lights in the sky, the views across the city were worth the walk. Most of the path is through woodland but the paths are wide tarmac and easy to navigate, even at night. As we headed back to the hotel we said goodbye to our new friends that we had made, many of whom were getting early morning flights.
Although I was a little worried about taking a coach tour around Iceland it was actually a brilliant experience. The group was a diverse range of ages and nationalities and we made some great friends who we are still in contact with on Facebook. Being on an organised tour meant that we didn’t need to plan or think out our days, instead we could just sit back and enjoy the scenery as we headed from place to place. Our tour guide was amazing and kept us entertained with facts and stories about Iceland, as well as put on some CDs of local bands on the coach radio. We had lots of other little stops throughout the tour that I haven’t gone into detail of in this post, which allowed us to explore the strange geological features of Iceland.
The negatives of a coach tour of course are that you have much less flexibility. There were some thermal pools such as the Secret Lagoon, which I would have loved to have visited but we couldn’t fit in. One of the best experiences we had was our trip to the swimming pool in Klauster, which wasn’t part of the tour. But Iceland is a big country so if you want to see a lot, without the hassle of driving, then a tour is definitely worth considering.