A mere 3 hour flight from the UK or 5 hours from the East coast of the USA – Iceland is the perfect destination for a long weekend.
Walking out of the airport in Reykjavik, the first thing that struck me was that the views of the stunning snow covered scenery went on for what seemed like forever. It took me a while to realise that this was because there are scarcely any trees, so your vista is uninterrupted and boy is it stunning.
We arrived mid-March and there was heavy snow all around. It was with some trepidation that we collected our 4WD hire car (recommended in winter months), having never driven on snow before I wasn’t sure how we would cope. I needn’t have worried however; the roads were excellent, completely cleared of snow and hardly any traffic to speak of so we could take our time. Our destination was Hotel Ranga in Hella, approx. 2 hours drive from Reykjavik airport.
I was mesmerised by the roadside scenery, stopping continuously to take photos. Living in the UK we don’t see much snow and when we do it hardly settles before it melts and turns to brown slush. This was pristine white blankets with beautiful blue sky and sunshine, a novel sight.
Upon arrival at Hotel Ranga we were welcomed into reception by a huge stuffed polar bear named Hrammur. Slightly curious as they are not native to the island but I was stunned at his enormous size nonetheless.
Hotel Ranga is a log cabin style hotel and is the only 4 star resort in Southern Iceland. It has 51 rooms and has its own observatory for star gazing. Due to the isolated location there is a good chance of seeing displays of the Aurora Borealis also known as the Northern Lights as there is no local light pollution.
Single rooms from €232 double rooms from €266 incl breakfast.
We had been forewarned that alcohol is pretty pricey in Iceland, so we came prepared with some bottles of wine purchased at the airport before we departed. It felt like as good a time as any to pop one of those open and jump into one of the three outdoor hot tubs at Hotel Ranga – located just outside our room overlooking the East Ranga River. Sitting in the warm water whilst the air temperature was -2˚c was absolute bliss, although it did result in a very rosy red nose! This became a ritual each day when we got back from our sightseeing; warming up in the hot tub whilst drinking a bottle of wine was a great way to end each day before dinner.
Dinner at Hotel Ranga is served in the restaurant overlooking the river which has huge glass windows on three sides, for optimal Northern Lights viewings – should you be lucky enough for them to make an appearance. The menu combines Icelandic specials with gourmet cuisine, resulting in us sampling dishes such as reindeer carpaccio with parmesan and truffle oil, smoked puffin with cream cheese and pan fried arctic char. All were absolutely delicious.
After requesting that the hotel reception wake us if the Northern Lights make an appearance we went to bed full of anticipation. At around 2am we were woken with a phone call to say that the lights were just coming out. Cue a mad dash to pull on our thermals, adding as many layers as we could fit underneath our coats and running outside into the freezing temperatures. The lights were there, but only as a very faint green-y white line in the sky, nothing compared to what I have seen on the TV with coloured lights dancing about. I thought perhaps this is just the beginning and then they will come out in their full splendour? It was not to be, after 30 mins of waiting, with my face going numb from the cold, there was no change. We gave up and went back to bed. After all, we had lots planned for the next day.
Things to do
Around 40 mins from Hella is Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s southernmost glacier, where we had booked a morning of snowmobiling. After meeting at the cabin and getting kitted out in snow suits, boots, balaclavas, helmets and gloves we set off in a huge ATV to the snowmobiles which were already on the glacier. I opened the door of the truck, jumped down, took two steps and then promptly got blown over by the wind. I was actually cleanly blown over into the snow, flat on my back…that doesn’t happen in London!
The snowmobiling was lots of fun; we travelled up one side of the snow covered glacier and then down the other side back to the ATV. We were gifted continuous beautiful views of the surrounding wilderness. The snowmobile was simple to control and suitable for novices. You are required to shift your weight to lean either to the left or the right at times when travelling along a steep slope, so a reasonable level of mobility is required. Full instructions are given before you set off. I felt safe and happy that I had been provided all the right clothing and equipment. It important that you wear warm layers underneath the snowsuits that are provided.
The snowmobiles can carry up to two people, one driver and one passenger. Children aged 6 and over are allowed as passengers. You must hold a driving licence to drive the snowmobile. Our snowmobile activity was priced as 24,990 ISK per person (around £165). We spent around 1 hour on the snowmobile with approx 20 mins drive each way in the ATV.
Arcanum’s meeting cabin is approx. 2 and half hours drive from Reykjavik.
The southernmost village in Iceland is a 30 min drive from Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. This stunning black sand beach is often voted as one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world and I can see why. A thick layer of snow lay in continuous blankets from the road onto the beach and then in stark contrast the black sand stretched to the angry looking sea. The wind was whipping our faces but I didn’t care, I wanted to walk along this beach as it was like nothing I had seen before.
I was looking out for sea birds, we saw a few sheltering in the cliff sides… but alas no puffins, we were a bit early they don’t normally arrive until April.
Vik is approx. 3 hours drive from Reykjavik.
There are not a lot of options for dining in Vik as it is only a small village. We had lunch at Víkurskáli a café at a petrol station. There are plenty of choices on the menu such as burgers, fish and chips, meat stews, fish stews, sandwiches etc. Main dishes around 2,000 ISK (£13). Open 8am to 10pm daily.
On the way back from Vik to Hella we stopped at Skógafoss waterfall. In comparison to our visit to Gullfoss, there were not many visitors there and we almost had the views to ourselves. Parking is free and there is free access to the waterfall all year round.
Skógafoss is a 30 min drive from Vik, 40 mins from Hella, 2 hours from Reykjavik.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a set of three popular attractions all within 100km of the Reykjavik: Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. It is possible to visit all three in one day – either by a self-drive or joining a tour bus. We drove to all 3 of them during our second day comfortably and they were all interesting and enjoyable.
This waterfall is one of the most popular attractions in Iceland. There is a dedicated path for tourists to walk on to the viewing areas where you can take in various views of the powerful rushing water. There is no admission fee to visit the waterfall and it is open 24/7.
There is a large café & restaurant with hot and cold food available and a souvenir shop open from 09:00 – 21:00. There is a large car park and parking is free. Be prepared to share your experience with hundreds of other visitors. We found that the walkways were quite icy and slippery on the day that we visited as there had been snow earlier in the morning. It is important to wear sturdy footwear with good grips.
Gullfoss is approx. 2 hours drive from Reykjavik, 10 mins drive from Geysir.
Þingvellir National Park
Parts of Þingvellir are classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it was the meeting place of one of the oldest parliaments in the world; established in 930 AD. There is a church built in 1859 which you can visit in the summer months. There are some remains of the buildings visible. A highlight is being able to see where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart, creating a rift valley. Some of the submerged rifts display crystal clear water. Walking paths take you through the rifts where the towering walls of rock are either side of you. Entrance to the National Park is free of charge.
Parking is 500 ISK and is pay & display (so you need to pay when you arrive) machines accept credit/debit cards only. Cash can be used to pay for parking but you must go to the visitor centre to do this.
There is a visitor centre (close to Hakið viewpoint, where a footpath leads down into the great Almannagjá fault) it is open 09:00 – 17:00 which is free of charge. There is a range of multimedia and interactive information displays available in Danish, English, German, French and Icelandic. There is a 200 ISK charge to use the toilets at the visitor centre.
There is also a free information centre located at Leirar, open from 09:00 – 17:00, where you can get information regarding the nature and history of the National Park and find details about hiking trails and camping. There is a café open all year round.
Þingvellir is 35 mins drive from Reykjavik, 1 hour from Gullfoss.
This hot spring area has boiling mud pits, azure blue springs and gushing geysers one of which sprays water up to 30 meters into the air every few minutes. It is currently free of charge to visit, however there have been ongoing appeals by the land owners to be able to charge an admission fee. There is free parking and a café & gift shop.
Wait with your camera poised by Strokkur which erupts frequently, if you are anything like me it will make you jump every time!
Geysir is 1 and half hours from Reykjavik, 50 mins from Þingvellir.
The colourful capital city is full of excellent restaurants and cafes serving both traditional and international cuisine. If you are feeling brave you can try fermented shark; if you are not quite feeling that adventurous perhaps some reindeer or some smoked lamb. Reykjavik also has a bustling nightlife with live music venues, pubs and clubs aplenty. It also has lots of museums including The National Museum and several art museums. It is a fun and friendly city and a good place to base yourself if you don’t want to hire a car during your visit. It is easy to book onto various tour buses to see many different attractions.
We liked The Laundromat Café – where unbelievably you can actually do your laundry whilst you grab some food and a coffee or a beer. They also have books that you can buy or trade and board games. The chocolate fudge cake was absolute heaven!
- Hallgrímskirkja church is the main landmark of the city and its tower can be seen from almost everywhere.
- Tjörnin pond next to City Hall and some beautifully coloured old houses making for beautiful photographs, this is a natural pond and home to ducks, swans and geese.
- Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall – an architectural wonder
- Whales of Iceland featuring 23 life-size models of the species found in Icelandic waters
- The Old Harbour
The Blue Lagoon
Conveniently located close to Keflavik International Airport the best time to visit is either when you have landed or on the day of your departure. We decided to visit The Blue Lagoon before our departure, so we arrive around 3 hours before we needed to be at the airport. We did not book in advance (but you can through the website). There are lots of different packages on offer – we chose the ‘comfort’ option which included the use of a towel so we didn’t have to fly home with a wet one, plus a free drink. We paid €10 (£8.60) extra to also have a bathrobe, which is nice when it’s below zero outside! The online price for the comfort option is advertised from €55 (£48) per person (advance ticket).
Getting into the lagoon was absolute bliss, like a very warm bath. It was snowing when we were in the beautiful turquoise water, and the snowflakes were gathering on my eyelashes. A beautiful experience. There are places to hang your bathrobe and steps to walk down into the lagoon. It was fairly busy while we were there, so it’s difficult to get a whole patch of water to yourselves but we found if you swim out a bit further you could have a bit more peace and quiet. There is a bar where you can be served whilst you are in the lagoon, you charge your drinks to your entrance bracelet and pay for everything when you leave.
There is also an indoor restaurant and café and a sauna and steam room.
The showers provide shower gel, shampoo and hair conditioner in each cubicle. It’s important to use a lot of conditioner on your hair as it will feel very dry after being in the lagoon. Small plastic bags for wet bathing suits are provided. Ensure you rinse your bathing suit whilst in the shower or else it will turn stiff when dry.
The Blue Lagoon is 40 mins drive from Reykjavik, 20 mins from the airport.
Our weekend in South Iceland was fabulous, it’s an incredibly beautiful place with so much to see and do. The landscape at times almost feels like you are on the moon; it was unlike anywhere else I have ever been. I am glad we went in the winter to see the land covered in snow and despite the ever present gusting winds (I am sure it is the windiest place I have ever been) I didn’t feel ever so cold that I wished I was somewhere warmer. I would love to go back again soon to visit other parts of the island and see more. I would also find it interesting to travel there in the summer, as I am sure it has a completely different feel. Unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to be treated to a full display of the Northern Lights, but that’s just a good excuse for us to go back!
- Iceland is on GMT and does not observe daylight saving hours.
- The currency is Icelandic Krona (ISK) which is currently approx. 150 to £1 and 115 to $1US.
- Vehicles drive on the right hand side.
- The native language is Icelandic, however English is widely spoken as a second language.
- The country is connected by one main ring road known as Route 1 which runs around the entire country.
- Iceland has 130 volcanoes; most famous is Eyjafjallajökull whose eruption in 2010 shut down the entire air space of Europe, resulting in thousands of flights to be cancelled over an eight day period.
- Iceland is not part of the European Union.