Taking advantage of national holidays is one of my favorite things to do to extend a short vacation without eating up my personal time at work. Over Labor Day of 2015 I decided to venture off to Iceland, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. You could easily spend several weeks here, but if you’re looking for a long weekend trip full of adventure this island nation should be top on your list.
I booked an overnight flight out of New York, allowing me to put in a full work day before my departure. My early morning arrival in Keflavik Airport was seamless thanks to my pre-booked Flybus. You have a choice of a base ticket that drops you off at the Reykjavik BSI bus terminal, or you can purchase an upgraded ticket that will drop you off directly at your hotel. The difference is only about $5, so I went with the upgraded version to make my life a bit easier.
Since I knew I would likely be exhausted from my overnight flight (and the anti-motion sickness meds coursing through my body) I decided to take it easy and book a sightseeing tour. This particular one is a must-do in Iceland – the Golden Circle Tour. On this tour you travel by bus to three of the most well known sites in Iceland (Gullfoss Falls, Thingvellir National Park, and the Geysir geothermal area), with plenty of time for exploring and photos at each location.
I booked my tour directly through Gray Line, which is one of the major tour operators in Iceland. The classic Golden Circle tour is 8 hours, but during the summer months they offer a slightly shorter 6 hour version with a 1pm departure (note that afternoon departures are not offered in the winter due to earlier sunsets). I chose the afternoon departure to give myself enough buffer time after arriving at the airport.
My excursions for the rest of the trip were all booked through Viator. Viator is a booking site featuring activities from various operators in cities worldwide. When purchasing through Viator you receive a voucher that you then present to the tour operator at the time of your activity.
I did compare the price of booking through Viator vs. directly through the operator, and they are the same. One thing I liked about booking through Viator was that the charges hit my account in U.S. dollars instead of the foreign currency (as they would have when booking direct). Do make sure to read your Viator booking instructions! They usually advise calling the operator 1 – 2 days in advance to re-confirm your booking, which I did just to be on the safe side.
I woke up bright and early, ready to go Inside the Volcano! Have you ever wanted to hike across windswept lava fields reminiscent of Middle Earth only to descend 120 meters (about 400 feet, about 36 STORIES) into the magma chamber of a dormant volcano?
If you’re a little bit crazy like I am, then you said yes!
I can’t recommend this experience enough. It’s expensive. It’s mildly terrifying.
There is literally nowhere else on Earth where you can go into a volcano. Where you will delve into the earth into silence. Everyone speaks in low tones or remains silent as they climb along the rock falls. The hush reminds you of a cathedral, but this one is made of stone with brilliant colors splashed across the walls like a painter’s palette.
Just go. You’ll be glad you did!
In the afternoon I took the bus into downtown Reykjavik for some sightseeing. The bus system in the city is very easy to navigate, and some hotels will actually offer free bus passes to their guests, so make sure to check with reception.
A must see in Reykjavik is the Hallgrimskirkja, a modern church with a 73m high tower affording an amazing 360 degree view of the city.
The city is quite compact and walk-able, so take the time to unwind from your active adventures of the day. Stroll down the lanes, taking in the amazing street art in alleys and courtyards. Find a cafe or pub with a seat by the window and watch the city move by.
A fun way to see different parts of the city is the Reykjavik Haunted Walk. You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy this entertaining walking tour. Take in some of the main historic sites, including the oldest cemetery in Reykjavik, and listen to a local historian detail Icelandic history, folklore, and tales of a few local ghosts. This was an incredibly unique way to learn a bit more about Icelandic culture and traditions, and it was a great way to cap off my evening!
Today’s activity was cave exploring in Gjábakkahellir and snorkeling in Silfra fissure. After having my very first cave experience in Belize, I am always up for hopping down into a hole in the earth. Gjábakkahellir is not as interesting as ATM in Belize, but if you enjoy caving you’ll like this activity. This cave is very easy, so you do not have to be in top shape or a master caver to experience it. There is honestly not much to see in the way of interesting formations, but I simply enjoy the experience of wandering around underground so it kept me interested.
The highlight of this excursion was definitely Silfra. This is another one of those unique experiences that you can only have in Iceland – snorkeling between two tectonic plates. To top it off you’ll have to gear up in a full dry suit, because this is glacial runoff you’ll be snorkeling in.
I’ve been snorkeling many times before, and this was like nothing else. There is very little life in the fissure. Instead, expect to glide through crystal clear water experiencing the richest shades of blue imaginable.
As I did the day before, I took the evening to head into town for some dinner and exploring. While you’re in the downtown area, I would recommend checking out the plaza at the corner where Adalstraeti and Hafnarstraeti meet. While I was there in early September the plaza hosted a free techno concert, a live viewing party of a football match, and a drum line.
More often than not some of your best experiences will not be scheduled, so make sure to give yourself ample time to get lost and explore!
For a unique view of the Icelandic countryside, you can travel by horse along meadows and farmland with the mountains rising in the distance. This seemed like a swell idea, so on my final day in Iceland I set out on a full day excursion of horseback riding and a well deserved visit to the Blue Lagoon.
Now, I had literally never been on a horse before this tour. I was told riding an Icelandic horse was like riding a cloud. I’m pretty sure that whoever told me that was a vicious liar, or I’m just innately terrible at horseback riding. Because of their shorter stature they have a bouncier gait, so keep this in mind if you’re considering this activity.
Deep down I know my horse was a doll. She just had a penchant for disregarding the rider on her back and veering off to go trotting under trees, gifting me with branches to the face. I honestly couldn’t even be mad because it was so absurdly funny, and just the kind of thing to happen to me. These horses are definitely characters!
The Blue Lagoon, on the other hand, is a dream come true. After a few days of hiking, caving, snorkeling, and horseback riding I was more than ready to lounge around in the geothermal waters with sparkling wine as I watched the steam whip over the volcanic rock fields. I selected the upgraded tour package, which included towel rental, alcoholic beverages, and a goodie bag at the Blue Lagoon. All of these things can be purchased a la carte when you arrive.
There are two departures for this activity – a 9:30am and 1pm. If you’re not too tired from all of the excitement of your trip, I would certainly recommend the early morning departure. This will get you to the Blue Lagoon between 1 and 2pm, and with the last bus leaving for Reykjavik at 7pm you will have an abundance of time to relax. There are spa services available, inside soaking pools, and a cafe. Don’t worry about your belongings – with full locker rooms and showers you can come in smelling like wet horse, shuck off your hiking boots, and head straight into the electric blue mineral waters. There is no better way to say goodbye to Iceland.
So, are you ready to go into a volcano and snorkel between the North American and Eurasian continents? Are you ready to take off on horseback across windswept fields and enjoy a glass of wine in a geothermal spa? If you’re inspired to visit Iceland, start by taking a look at Icelandair – they sometimes offer special deals and have stopover options if you would like to add some time in Iceland to your European trip.
Where will you wander?