The perfect Icelandic itinerary doesn’t exist — even the best-laid plans are likely to shift with the latest forecast. And Iceland’s landscape, like her weather, is rugged and wild, characterized by otherworldly phenomena. I was awed by black sand beaches, geothermal hot springs, dramatic waterfalls, mile after mile of lava fields, dormant (and not-so-dormant) volcanoes, glacial lagoons, and ice caves.
With luxury tourism still in its infancy, Iceland is not the best destination for those demanding immaculate, over-the-top service. I found her tourism more down to earth; her hospitality warm and organic, a kinship that more than made up for the occasional service snafu. To me, the true luxury of Iceland is in the experience of it.
There are obvious attractions in Iceland, a checklist that many of us adhere to. But here I wanted to address several lesser-known highlights, experiences both big and small that really gave me that sense of immersion that I sought.
This is my Iceland.
My Ideal Arrival
World-famous, and possibly the most popular attraction in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon lies about halfway between Keflavik airport and the city of Reykjavik, making it the perfect first stop for US-originating flights with morning arrivals. I landed at 7:00am, headed straight to the lagoon, and spent a full morning soaking in the rejuvenating waters before arriving at my hotel, refreshed and ready for check-in!
As someone who strongly dislikes crowds, I highly recommend upgrading your experience by booking The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, a hotel and spa adjacent to the main Blue Lagoon facilities. The Retreat draws from the same wellspring of geothermal seawater, but you don’t have to share the water with 1,000 of your closest “friends.” The Retreat also offers a Blue Lagoon Ritual, which combines silica, algae and minerals to leave your skin glowing. AND there’s a swim-up bar, so you can “retox while you detox.” Enough said!
What Left Me Speechless
A real-life “journey into the center of the earth” experience, Thrihnukagigur Volcano is an easy 40-minute drive from Reykjavik and a must-do for any Icelandic itinerary. When volcanoes erupt, they typically collapse back in on themselves, sealing the magma chamber underground. In the case of Thrihnukagigur, the chamber never collapsed, and it remained undiscovered until 1974.
To experience this natural wonder up close, we hiked 40 minutes across a lava field to an open cable lift. The lift lowered us 400 feet into the dormant volcano, which last erupted 4,000 years ago. To get a perspective on the chamber’s height: the Statue of Liberty could comfortably fit within its walls!
Our five-minute descent into the chamber took us past a rainbow of ancient rock formations, which were created by mineral deposits left over from the last eruption. Once at the bottom, we were able to walk across an area the size of three basketball courts, gazing up at the vibrant array of colors adorning the chamber walls. It was simply mesmerizing.
Where I Would Stay Again
Skalakot. I don’t have enough words to explain how much I loved this boutique farmhouse nestled beneath the mountains along the South coast. Built as an extension to the Skalakot family farm, this family-run and manor-house-styled hotel is known for its exceptional hospitality, its mouthwatering country cuisine, and an excellent Icelandic horse program. Each of the 14 rooms is unique, a lovely blend of classic craftsmanship and modernism, which further enhance the charm of this luxurious country home. I met with the owner Gudmundur, who, with his wife Johanna, is the seventh generation to have lived, worked and bred horses there. Over a hearty breakfast, they entertained us with the history of their family and farm, and explained why the Icelandic horse is so special.
Icelandic horses are among the purest breeds on the planet. Icelandic law prohibits the import of outside breeds, so these exceptional animals have been bred in isolation from the rest of the world for 1,000 years. Famous for their five gaits –two of which are unique — they have stocky builds and gentle natures, with smooth and comfortable rhythms that make them perfect for riders of any experience level, as well as for young children. Skalakot offer a full range of adventures, from a short, two-hour trail ride to a five-day riding expedition into the Icelandic Highlands.
If horses aren’t your thing, this part of the South Shore is an amazing area for hiking, fishing, bird watching, canoeing, glacier walks, waterfalls, black sand beaches, and snowmobile tours. And if you’re lucky, you may even catch the Northern Lights!
My Instagram-Worthy Landscape
Although stunningly beautiful, the Eldhraun Lava Field was created by what is possibly the most poisonous volcanic eruption on record. This gives the field both historic and and geographic significance. The massive eruption, lasting from 1783 to 1784, killed 10,000 Icelanders, or approximately 20% of the population at the time.
Eldhraun features sharp, black lava rock covered with soft green moss. It stretches as far as the eye can see, covering more than 200 square miles along the South Coast. By creating the illusion of soft, bouncy, pillow-like fields, the Eldhraun landscape makes it easy to imagine springing from one green mound to the next. But though it doesn’t look it, the lava rock is surprisingly fragile. For both safety and conservation reasons (the moss takes years to grow back, and visitors risk falling through into one of the enormous crevices hidden underneath), walking on it is prohibited. I suggest finding one of the lookout points built out into the lava field, where you’ll enjoy a full, 360-degree view. You may also park on the road and walk alongside the field’s edge.
Fun Fact: Due to the similarities in landscape, Eldhraun is where the Apollo 11 crew trained for their 1969 moonwalk!
My "Why Did I Sign Up for This" Moment
When planning my Iceland journey, I became obsessed with the idea of snorkeling the Silfra, a fissure created by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Filled with glacial water filtered through lava rock, the Silfra is among the clearest bodies of water on earth, with visibility of 300 feet or more! In fact, it is so clean that our guide encouraged us to drink the water straight from the fissure itself. Located in Thingvellir Park, the Silfra is an easy add-on to a Golden Circle day trip. The Golden Circle is a 140-mile loop connecting three of Iceland’s most visited attractions, along with a variety of other highlights.
To prepare for snorkeling, I was kitted up in a dry suit, which is incredibly difficult to put on. My guide eloquently compared the dry suit to Vegas: “What happens in your dry suit, stays in your dry suit.” This prompted a panicked visit to the ladies’ room! Apparently, due to the extreme cold, your metabolism speeds up to keep your body warm…so I recommend limiting the amount of coffee and liquids you drink on that morning. I found it hard to believe, but 15 minutes into my snorkeling adventure, I was very much regretting my daily commitment to hydration.
The idea is to float through the Silfra — not to swim. This allows you to fully enjoy the otherworldly landscapes laid out below you: Silfra Hall, Big Crack, Silfra Cathedral, and Silfra Lagoon. Floating also helps keep your hands still, which is important in keeping them warm. Your diving gloves are made of wet suit (not dry suit) material, so be prepared for your hands to feel VERY COLD. My trick is to avoid moving your hands while floating, so that the water trapped inside the glove can warm to your body temperature. Don’t worry about taking photos: your guide has an underwater camera. Do expect your face to go numb. Think of it as a natural Botox, freezing your skin so you emerge after 40 minutes looking 10 years younger! Upon completion of your float, warm up to hot chocolate and cookies before continuing with your day.
Why My Tastebuds Are Tingling
I can’t include just one favorite when it comes to the Icelandic food scene, which is known for its creativity and phenomenal seafood. So, I’m going to include a few!
Bread! Simply put, the bread is incredible. Most places serve it with whipped butter and black lava salt. I am not exaggerating when I say it was a staple for me at every meal.
Produce! Icelanders have harnessed the power of geothermal energy for use in greenhouses around the country, providing a constant supply of fresh vegetables. Fridheimar Farm is famous for its tomato plants, and we dined on tomato soup and delicious Icelandic bread while sitting among the vines in their glass-enclosed tropical paradise.
Hot Dogs! I made it a point to visit Bæjarins Beztu, Iceland’s most famous hot dog stand, located in the heart of Reykjavik, across from the Icelandic Flea Market. It offers a delicious spin on the classic: a hot dog made mostly with Icelandic lamb. Order it with everything (fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, regular mustard and remoulade) — you won’t be disappointed.
Sweet Treats! Add Brau & Co Bakery to your list of places to stop by. Not only do I love the open layout of this bakery, where you can watch the bakers hard at work, but they have the most delicious Kanilsnúðar (cinnamon rolls).
Fermented Shark! I will admit, it’s an acquired taste! But if you want to dive headfirst into Icelandic cuisine, this is a unique experience.
Why I Want to Go Back
Having focused on the South Shore for our trip (typical for first-time visitors to Iceland), I need to return to explore the Westfjords! This unspoiled and stunning wilderness in the northwest corner of Iceland is said to be perfect for those who want to be wowed without the crowds. There are rugged mountains, deep fjords and steep cliffs, as well as the largest number of natural geothermal pools in the country. I’ve also heard that the hiking trails are unmatched — and often unmarked!
The Westfjords are home to the Dynjandi waterfall (perhaps the most picturesque waterfall in Iceland); Látrabjarg cliffs (Iceland’s answers to Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher); Arctic Fox sightings, and a number of small settlements dotting the landscape. I’m fascinated by Iceland’s folklore, witch hunts and magical runes, so the sleepy fishing village of Hólmavík, home to the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, is high on my list.
In summary, Iceland is not a destination for those who “live and die” by their itineraries, for she will force flexibility upon you. Iceland is for those who seek an adventure, who love drama and mystery, for each visit will bring something unexpected. The weather is often volatile, and you will face the elements one way or another.
During my week in Iceland, I spent a day and a half holed up in my minimalist, Scandinavian-designed hotel while an 80+ mph windstorm swept across the coast. (The Icelandic horses seemed completely unfazed by this breezy development!) The hurricane-level winds made conditions on the road treacherous and forced the suspension of all activities. It was a physical feat just to stagger from our vehicle to the front door of the hotel…bags (and people) literally went flying! My itinerary-driven persona was beyond disappointed to miss out on our glacier snowmobiling experience. Yet in retrospect, it was an important lesson in relinquishing control, in surrendering to the elements, for Iceland cannot be bent to your will. So pack a good book or a deck of cards, and prepare for a wild and memorable ride.