Gullfoss Waterfall

Iceland’s Winter Wonderland: Part I

Date of trip: December 23, 2015 - December 30, 2015

It’s actually a winter wonderland. A winter land of wonder. A land of winter wonder. It’s dark with long sunrises and sunsets. The green moss and black lava rocks are covered in white. The sun makes a brief appearance and then she’s gone. Graves, sitting under tall church steeples are lit with colorful Christmas lights. The sidewalks are icy and the wind is a bitch. Windows are filled with glowing candelabras and star lights. The water still smells like rotten eggs. And there are still bounds of window plants, wool sweaters, ponies, and adorable Icelandic accents. But we’re happy to announce this trip felt nothing like our first trip and we fell in love all over again with the land of fire and ice.

Trip Itinerary

Looking for tips? Check out our 10 tips for traveling to Iceland in the winter.

Day 1

Our trip began the day before Christmas eve. We left early for the light rail in order to make it past Black Lives Matter protesters who had made their way from the Mall of America–who so kindly threatened them with arrests–to the airport in an attempt to shut it down. Yes, I was nervous we wouldn’t make it and was I conflicted? Yes, but will I use my travel website to express my political voice? Nah. All ended well, after all–we were halted at Fort Snelling and were corralled to a city bus reserved for the airport. We were at our gate just thirty minutes later and with lots of time to kill. Our plane left an hour late but Icelandair never fails to impress. We were greeted with a bottle of water, blankets, and pillows. And better yet, as we waited for a passenger to take the seat next to us, no one ever came. We silently cheered with the prospect of sharing the flight alone, stretching our legs, and sparing ourselves from sleeping embarrassments. We soaked in the fortune, knowing it would be a rarity.

We spent the six-hour flight sleeping on each other’s shoulders, and watching the plane on our monitors span lower Canada and the Atlantic. Through the darkness below, I could see the southern tip of greenland. As we neared Iceland, we could see small pockets of light–homes lit up in the early morning. By this time, it was around 8:00am. The plane rumbled as it landed. Though it shook very little, enough for Chris to mention how smooth of a landing it was, I gagged from the motion. I never fail to get sick.

After fetching our bags, we stood in line at Avis to get our rental car. And after waiting far too long for a 4-wheel drive upcharge due to weather conditions, we were on our way.

Though annoyed for the long wait, we were instantly grateful for the advice of the Avis worker when we walked outside. The wind hit us in the face and the ground was covered in a deep, slushy layer of snow. “Why didn’t we chose Jamaica?” he said. We giggled as we struggled against the wind. The wheels of my luggage stalled in the snow and I started falling far behind. “Help!” whined the wimp. (I’m the wimp).

We found the car by pressing the key fob and watching for the red taillights flicker in the dark snowy lot. The cars were covered in inches of snow, but our Volkswagen SUV must have been recently pulled for it was clean and clear of snow. We quickly threw our things in the back. Driving away from the airport, we were again happy to have gotten 4-wheel drive. The roads were blown over with snow and ice and the wind whistled through my passenger window. Beyond the lit road, the lava fields were snow covered and it was hard to see where they met the dark sky. Weirdly, it was at that point that I realized where I was. “We’re back.” Chris agreed, “Indeed.”

Note to self (and others): if visiting in the winter, splurge on the 4-wheel drive, if not for your safety than for your peace of mind. It can be wild out there, kids. Also, automatic vehicles are significantly more expensive than manuals.

As we drove closer towards the capital, the scenery became brighter, brightened from window candles and bedroom lights. It was 9:30am on Christmas Eve. Grocery stores, bakeries, car dealerships, and fast food restaurants were open for business, though it still felt like two in the morning. It was definitely weird experiencing such a darkness during mid-morning in the northernmost capital of the world.  We used Chris’ phone for GPS. He was able to pay $10 a day through his cell phone carrier (Verizon) in order to receive service overseas. We suggest doing it if your carrier provides the service. Car rental providers will sell you a GPS for a daily fee but he saved about $50 using his phone instead, and there wasn’t a time where he lost service, even in rural Iceland.

We finally had made it, ragged yet wide eyed, to our Airbnb on a narrow city street. After finding the key, letting ourselves in, and walking up four flights of stairs to the top floor, we opened the heavy white door and instantly smelled the rotten eggs. Perhaps I should put it more kindly, more educationally. Because hot water literally comes from the ground (Iceland uses geothermal heat for hot water and electricity production!), it also comes with the smell of sulfur, which smells like rotten eggs. If you run the cold water for 10 to 30 seconds, the smell goes away and you’re left with the purest glacial ice water you’ve ever tasted. Anyways.

The apartment was minimal. Obviously a man’s home. It opened to a white living room with two couches across from each other, a glass coffee table in the middle, and a three-panel window straight ahead. We looked down on a large cemetery, on the other side of the road. The apartment had two bedrooms, the smaller one with a slanted ceiling and skylight. We brought in our things after looking around, and laid down for a midmorning nap.

We slept until noon, reluctantly bringing ourselves to stand again. The wind outside was howling through the skylight and making the whole apartment creek with noises. Must we? Then I heard the children. I stood on the foot of the bed to look through the angled skylight window and down on the street, seeing families packing cars with Christmas presents. We dressed for the weather, headed outside, and patted ourselves on the back for buying neck warmers.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

We ate at The Laundromat Café downtown–a place we had mistakenly missed during our previous stay. As we ate at a family sized dining table, we listened to Christmas music and a chatty British couple. Both were pleasing.

The Laundromat in Reykjavik

We then found a busy grocery store, bought a frozen meal for dinner and a picnic lunch for the next day, and ventured around the downtown area, gleefully spotting familiar roads and places.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

In the city square, Ingólfstorg, sat a small ice rink. Families and couples skated around the ice to the christmas music, falling on their bums and laughing at each other. Christmas lights were strung around the rink, and high above the streets. We love you family, but this was pretty spectacular for Christmas Eve.

The sidewalks were covered with ice and the wind was sweeping us off our feet. One man slipped on the ice and the wind took him a distance before he was able to stop and get back on his feet.

Reykjavik

After nearly two hours of walking around, passing foggy kitchen windows lit by candles, we numbly made our way back to the apartment.

Harpa in Reykjavik

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

As my body warmed, I began to tingle. And then burn. It felt like 15 again when I thought it was brilliant to jump around in snow before returning to the hot tub. To speed the thaw, I bathed. Folks, don’t try this at home.

For the next day’s road trip, we packed our lunch, swimming suits, socks, cameras, and cookies. We sat at the kitchen table drinking tea, listening to music, and writing about our first day.

Inside Our AirBNB

Before lying down for the night, I stood on the corner of the bed looking through the skylight window one last time. Flickering candles dimly lit the cemetery below, and beyond the darkness were the glowing tops of the city.

Our collective and thematic thoughts of the day: “This is so much better than Jamaica.” Still not sure if we were serious or kidding.

Day 2

That night we slept like babies. Real babies who don’t sleep. With much tossing and turning, we did the followings things in place of sleeping: ate a sandwich, read from a book, drove to the northwest tip of Reykjavik (Grótta) to find northern lights (which failed to appear), opened holiday presents, watched an episode of Scooby doo, and ate Cheez-It crackers. Around 3:00am we finally fell asleep. We woke up at 9:00 and didn’t remember hitting the snooze button at 7:30. We quickly got it together and headed out on the road. Our plan for the day was to drive through South Iceland to our favorite waterfalls. Merry Christmas!

It was still dark, with the sun slowly taking its time illuminating the landscape around us. The drive was icy and treacherous at times and we wondered how such tiny rental cars–and speeding tour buses–were surviving the route. In the morning darkness, we saw a church and its steeple, sitting high on a hill surrounded by a graveyard lit with christmas lights. Rows of crosses were lit with colorful lights. Oh, Iceland. You melt my heart.

South Iceland

On our route, most gas stations were open for gas, but not for food or drink.  Eventually we reached the small town of Hvolsvöllur, where Chris could grab a small coffee. For this, we were very grateful. This place and another convenient store nearby were open. However, on the way home, both places looked as though they had closed shop for the day.

South Iceland

South Iceland

For those traveling in southern Iceland on Christmas Day, consider bringing your food and drink with you at the outset! You might not be able to find anything open!

After an hour and a half of driving, we finally saw it in the distance. I recognized it because I remembered thinking the last time, “this can’t be it”. The waterfall seemed so small in the distance, but as you near the base of the cliffs, it’s hard to miss. This time, Seljalandsfoss looked like a black and white photo with the white of the snow contrasted by black lava rock. Unfortunately, there were tourists abound, the parking area chalked full of buses and rental cars. Luckily, we had a plan to avoid this, so we parked about 700 meters north of the falls.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Near Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Near Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Now, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t know what we were looking for. But we had done our research and knew what we would find. We treked through the snow and followed a sign labeled Gljúfrafoss. The falls roared from a small and somewhat hidden opening in the cliffs. We stumbled down the hill to the opening, peered inside, and saw what we came to find. Chris and I made our way through the two meter opening in between two cliff faces, hobbling rock to rock over a shallow stream as we hugged the sides of the cliff. The mist hit us right away and I was momentarily sad I wouldn’t be able to take my camera out. But the sight! We gleefully made it over the water and to solid ground, standing there in awe.

Gljúfrabúi Waterfall

We looked up to see the sky and Gljúfrafoss’ water streaming from high above and falling in front of us to a base of black rocks. Chris climbed the huge boulder near the base of the waterfall as I stood as far back as possible, taking in the the whole sight. We were soaked already. How do people take photos in here?! I could barely see, the mist was crushing my face making it hard to get a clear sight. We continued giggling and staring at each other in awe over this “hidden” waterfall. Surely the visitors gawking at the beautiful Seljalandsfoss had no idea they were in walking distance of this place, just as we didn’t the first time we came. Chris wiped his GoPro lens with his hat every few seconds to quickly snap a clear photo. In the end, we did not get a strong image–not one that captures Gljúfrafoss’ true beauty. Until next time, we and you viewers will live on with the bloopers.

We looked at each other’s soaked jackets and agreed to retreat before we could feel the cold. A couple stood at the opening when we exited. They didn’t ask and we didn’t tell, but I knew they’d figure it out on their own. We were walking through the snow to Seljalandsfoss when we heard the girl behind us yelping. I turned around to see the guy on one knee and the girl bouncing from foot to foot, flailing her arms as she squealed with joy. “I knew he was up to something,” said Chris. How romantic, I thought. “Is this like when Andy proposes to Angela and takes Jim and Pam’s moment?” “No.” We kept walking.

Seljalandsfoss, in it’s wintery form, was tricky to trek around. Chris bravely (perhaps stupidly) went behind the falls as we had done before and came out white faced. “That’s not safe,” he said, “it’s pure ice and nothing is stopping anyone from slipping towards the water”. He said I would have died from fear had I tried joining him. The crowds continued to grow and after taking many photos, we hit the road to Skógafoss.

Chris wanted badly to return to the top of Skógafoss–to climb the many stairs, jump the fence, and walk along the glacial river. But with limited daylight, we couldn’t. We stayed at the base, took photos, and returned to the road.

Skogafoss Waterfall

To our left we could see the ocean’s icy shallows and dark clouds in the distance. From the main road, Chris turned onto Road 242 towards the mountain. Or rather, the volcano. Eyjafjallajökull. That one.

We drove past a few rural homes. Most old, some new. A dog sitting on a chair on his front porch. A car, long ago abandoned with busted windows. We found what we believed was the spot to park as two other cars sat empty with foot prints that led off into the foot of the volcano. We could see a couple off in the distance, following the trail. We grabbed our things and took to the path. The sky at this point was still light, but starting to color with pink as the clouds rolled in.

Near Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

We reached a creek, but questioned how others had crossed. The footprints crossed only in one area and it seemed the stepping stones were much too far apart to safely cross. We tried crossing at a different spot but with no success. We returned the path and eventually made it across the water, after strategic maneuvering and Chris pulling me to safety.

Near Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Not long after, we rounded the side of a hill where the snow had melted from the ground’s heat. We rounded the next corner and saw what we were looking for. The hot spring was literally nestled in a small valley, water slightly steaming from its warmth.

Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

We reached the water’s edge as a couple was dressing and leaving the small, cement changing shelter. And there we were, left alone with this magical spot. At a warm pool of clear glacial water. At the base of a volcano. In the middle of Iceland. The changing room wasn’t unremarkable. But the small, cold cement room had a bench and a door for privacy and it served its purpose. For we were at Seljavallalaug, swimming in its pool of glacial water heated by a volcanic mountain on Christmas.

Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

Then we saw a big rat on the side of the pool. Chris yelled “VERMIN!” and quickly swam away. I swam to the edge of the pool but lost sight of it. Then we had a long discussion about how to say vermin correctly, and how to spell it for that matter. For the record, both vermin and varmint are words so don’t waste time arguing with your significant other about who is correct. After that debacle, an Icelandic man came on his own in a snow suit carrying a black plastic bag. He was quiet and didn’t say anything so we left him alone and reluctantly decided to get out. I was so scared for my toes to walk across the snow and frozen cement floor! I suggest standing on your warm swimsuit while changing back into your clothes. We also understood then why the man had brought a plastic bag. Our things were cold and somewhat damp from sitting on the bench. Lessons learned. Readers and travelers take note.

We trekked back to the car, crossing paths with another american couple. We assured them they were on the right track and that it was worth it. That night after returning to the city we got ready for dinner. We had been instructed by our AirBnb host that many places would be closed on Christmas day and those that were open would have special Christmas menus. As such, he suggested we make reservations, so we followed suit. After spending a small fortune on dinner, we drove around the city and were disappointed to find many places (though not all) were open and bustling with customers. We regretted our assumptions and wished we had simply eaten an Icelandic hotdog for $5. We suggest visitors do more research before picking an expensive place to dine on Christmas Day.

That night we crashed. And thankfully, too, because Chris had only downloaded one episode of Scooby Doo.

Day 3

We happily woke up on time and felt refreshed. We searched for breakfast but wound up empty handed. As we’ve now learned, December 26th is still a day for family and resting for many. As such, many cafe’s and bakeries were not open. We ended up parking and eating a homemade sandwich from the day before. Except this time, I stuffed Pringles in the middle for improvement. Our drive out of the city was of course dark. Again, we saw a church with a colorfully lit graveyard. We turned on Route 36 and quickly found ourselves out of the city and driving through the mountains. Chris said it perfectly. “These mountains are intimidating.” Many people say Iceland during the winter is a winter wonderland, and it is. Until it isn’t. As we drove away from the city and into rural Iceland in the pitch dark, I felt tiny and vulnerable next to the dark, looming mountains.

As we continued, the mountains gave way to a dark barren landscape with only a few tail lights in the distance. The road was blowing over with snow from the ditches and it was hard to see where the land met with the sky. It felt like another planet. “Winter in Iceland is not for the faint of heart,” Chris said as he looked me. I wish I had quoted a book I had started reading from the side table at our AirBnb. It spoke of Iceland’s undeniable beauty but admitted to it’s wild, unpredictable nature. I totally got it now. In the distance, an orange slit of light came into view. It made me feel even more nervous. “That’s the sunrise, Ali” “No, that is fire from a volcano and everyone forgot to tell us it erupted.”

“Should I start singing Wide Open Spaces?”
“No”
“Maybe I’ll turn on the radio”

Chris turned on the radio and a second later Taylor Swift was singing about her wildest dreams ahh-ah-huhh. It helped. I still held my breath as we drove into the barren landscape, the sun slowly rising and lighting the mountains. At this point, we had reached Thingvellir park and stopped to take some photos with the rare light.

Iceland

The sun had finally made it’s appearance as we arrived at the geysers but decided to continue the final 10 minutes to Gullfoss to ensure we had daylight when reuniting with the beast. However, I feared that our return to Gullfoss would feel forced, like eating leftovers because you just should. Would an icy waterfall really feel all that captivating? The answer is yes–always. We were blown away, literally because of the wind but also by the mighty Gullfoss and it’s seriousness.

Gullfoss Waterfall

We walked along the highest cliffs taking photos from above and getting blown off our feet. We could finally see the sun, and the sky was pink and teal like cotton candy. (I use that analogy not because people do but because it looked exactly like cotton candy). It was one of the best sights of the trip and I won’t ever forget the cold wind, the mountains lit in the distance, and the blue swirling falls.

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss Waterfall

A path takes viewers all the way down into the rapids of the falls, where the mist clings to your face and the view of the rapids freezing over the edge of the falls looks unreal. From down below, the wind was weak. After far too many photos, we snapped ones of ourselves and said farewell to the beast. She’s worth seeing every single time. We then made our way back to the geyser, pulling over once to talk to the ponies and to scratch their noses.

Iceland

Icelandic Horse

Icelandic Horses

At the geysers, we contemplated which to do first: warm our hands around a cup of soup or catch the crowds cheering at spewing geyers? The sun was still shining and we had quickly learned better than to go inside. We chose the later and got some pictures of the crowd’s silhouettes among the setting sun and smelly, sulfurous steam.

Geysir

Geysir

Geysir

If you visit the geysers, come for the spewing sights but also the restaurant and gift store. The building itself is beautiful and I regret not having more photos of it. It’s like a modern cabin or lodge with huge picture windows and rustic, wooden table tops. We enjoyed some food in the bright dining room and I wanted badly to sit and relax after happily finishing my hot soup. But I wanted more badly to not drive through Iceland in the dark. So we left. We decided to take the route home through Selfoss and enjoyed having light to see the land.

Iceland

Iceland

Iceland

Once back in the city, It felt odd to be seeing our apartment in the light of day for the first time since arriving.

Christmas in Iceland is made of family time, baked ham, presents, hot chocolate–but not Santa–at least not the fat, jolly, red-suited Santa we know. As we learned from The Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper, Iceland has it’s Yule Lads instead. “The Yule Lads are the thirteen Icelandic Santa Clauses who descend one by one on the thirteen days before Christmas to play tricks on Icelandic children. Their mother, Grýla, a mountain Ogress, eats badly-behaved children; her partner-in-crime is Leppaluoi, another ogre and Gryla’s third husband.” Further, we learned the Yule Lads are descended from trolls, and were originally bogeymen with the purpose of scaring children. In the 18th century, their names were published by Jon Arnason in his folklore collection in 1862. Now, during the holiday season, the thirteen Yule Lads are projected throughout Reykjavik’s cityscape for families to spot. My only question is: Do children with pink rosy cheeks and wool sweaters sing about the haunting, child-eating Gryla and her accomplice sons during school holiday concerts? And does Grandma watch, smiling proudly as she eats a homemade cookie?

Anyways. We dined at a small Pakistani/Indian restaurant for dinner and then finally returned to our favorite place in Reykjavik, Stofan Cafe. It hadn’t been open the first couple days of our trip. We were ready for our reunion. We ordered a tea and sat in the same place as before, relishing in the nostalgia. We sat there, writing about our day’s journey and soaking in the vibes. To end the night, we stopped again by the Laundromat Café for a beer. We sat at the bar, drinking an Icelandic IPA and Stout as we gawked at the pretty blondes and spoke of the next day. That night was the beginning of my homesickness. No offense, Iceland. I like home, too.

Our last 4 days of the trip can be read in “Part 2”, here.

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