How to Visit Iceland in a Weekend (And Why You Really Should Spend Longer!)
I recently flew to Iceland for a fleeting 48 hours. Why such a short trip to such a large country? Well, it was all part of project called #KAYAKhacksIceland for KAYAK, a website for booking flights, hotels and car hire. They sent 7 travel bloggers, one each from 7 different European countries, to Iceland with a list of 10 tasks to be completed, to see how we’d fare and what ‘hacks’ we’d discover along the way, turning it into a competition of sorts.
At first, if I’m honest, I was little sceptical of the concept, as it’s not my usual style and I did wonder if all 7 of us would end up doing exactly the same things to complete each of the 10 tasks (which wouldn’t have been terribly interesting!). However, once I landed in Reykjavik airport and properly set my mind to the 10 tasks at hand, my inner competitiveness emerged and I absolutely revelled in it! I found that having specific tasks really forced me to analyse my surroundings more closely and to be imaginative about how to fit each one into the mere 48 hours that I had in Iceland. It was the perfect activity for a solo traveller and I’m now wishing I had a similar type of challenge set for me in each place I visit! So, how did I get on? Here are the 10 tasks and the photo I took for each – let me know what you think! One of us 7 bloggers will be chosen as the winner, and I have some stiff competition out there, but here goes!
1. Show us what to pack when travelling to Iceland
#KAYAKhacksIceland Less than 12 hours after returning from Paris, I'm off to Iceland as part of @KAYAK's blogger contest! Here are my packing essentials: the @Sprayway Willow parka from @blacks_online, black gloves, boots & rabbit fur headband to keep me warm; Lumix camera, UE Boom speaker, portable phone charger; @aspinaloflondon passport holder & @CathKidston_ltd travel wallet; mini @MoltonBrown toiletries, white @antlerofficial suitcase and of course... a postcard of the Northern Lights for inspiration. Fingers crossed I'll see them!
The clue’s in the name – it’s going to be cold in Iceland. So of course I packed my big, warm, winter Sprayway coat with a fur hood, as well as gloves, boots and a fur headband to keep those extremities warm. Add to that the essentials that are always with me on any trip: my Aspinal passport cover, Cath Kidston travel wallet, Lumix camera, portable iPhone charger, UE Boom portable speaker and my white Antler suitcase. Other than those essentials, I stayed light on toiletries, only taking miniatures with me, so that I’d have more room for lots and lots of layers! I never stepped outside without thick leggings under jeans, and some people were even wearing full ski gear, so never underestimate the cold… Hunting the Northern Lights at midnight in particular was verrry chilly.
2. Show us where to stay in Reykjavik as a local to have an authentic staying experience.
#KAYAKhacksIceland Where to stay while in Reykjavik? I booked a boutique-style flat at Apartment K through @KAYAK's website, literally booked a few hours before my arrival, and it's perfectly located near the city's main street, Laugavegur, ideal for tourist info, booking tours & all of Reykjavik's bars, restaurants & shops. Highly recommended & only £44/night.
I booked my accommodation dramatically last minute (literally 5 minutes before headed out the door to the airport!) which I do not usually do and which I do not recommend, but booking it through KAYAK’s website meant my booking was instant and I could see all the available options in one place, with a map, customer ratings and reviews, as well as photos & room rates. I quickly narrowed it down to Apartment K on Reykjavik’s main street, Laugavegur Street, close to all the restaurants, bars, shops, tour companies and tourist information I would need. When looking at where to stay, my tip would be that location is the most important factor. The reality is you’ll spend most of the day outside of Reykjavik, as all the activities are out in the countryside, so when you are at home in the evening you want to be close to the action. Apartment K was perfect for me as a solo traveller and the reception were really helpful with my last minute bookings & plans. It was self-catered, which gave me the excuse to try out somewhere different each day for breakfast (Sandholt Bakery is a must!), and only £44/night, which for Iceland is an absolute bargain (trust me – Iceland is not cheap!)
3. Show us where to eat the best Harofiskur.
#KAYAKhacksIceland Possibly the most disgusting photo I've ever posted... Apologies! Harofiskur, dried haddock or cod, is an Icelandic delicacy (I can't personally see why, and you wouldn't believe the stench!) and here are the endless remains of fish heads and tails on drying racks by the side of the road in Þingvellir National Park. Taste at your peril!
The word that jumps to mind when I hear the word Harofiskur is ‘yuck’. Harofiskur is supposedly an Icelandic delicacy, and is basically dried cod or haddock, and is horrendously smelly. As a non-fish eater, I recoiled when I saw this task on the list! You can find Harofiskur in supermarkets and petrol stations in Iceland, but when I passed these endless racks of drying fish tails and heads by the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, I thought it far more interesting a photo! Apparently the remains of the fish that aren’t eaten by Icelanders, the heads and tails, are sent to Africa as sources of protein. Those poor Africans who have to stomach that to survive… If you’d like to see it for yourself, then it’s en route to Þingvellir National Park.
4. Find the authentic beverage from Iceland.
Unfortunately this beverage was equally as gross as the Harofiskur just above it, although aesthetically much more pleasing. After enquiring at K-Bar on Laugavegur Street (part of the same company as Apartment K) as to what this beverage may be, I was told unequivocally that it was Brennivin, a type of schnapps that the locals refer to as the ‘Black Death’. Ominous… But I’d been instructed to try it so down the shot went, and yeesh did it leave me with a god-awful expression on my face! I’m convinced that these Icelanders have developed a very different set of taste buds after living in such isolation for so many decades, if they can find these things palatable! But nonetheless, K-Bar is a great place for dinner & drinks and very central too.
5. Find a place with the longest / most unpronounceable name.
#KAYAKhacksIceland Further adventures with the Icelandic language: place names! The longest name I found was here at Bláfjöll ski resort (look at "N" below the map, with a casual 19 letters: Sólskinbrekkulyfta Ármanns, or how about "G" for pronunciation: sjúkraþjónusta?) PS. Who else is slightly concerned by the bullet holes through the sign??
Icelandic is a hilariously difficult language to speak, partly because of their alphabet and partly because all their words are combined to form lots of very long words. So I thought this challenge would be pretty easy. But as there are so many long words, I found I couldn’t choose between them all and I found myself counting the numbers of letters in each long word I could find! One of the odder things I have done on holiday I can tell you. I finally settled on this 19-letter word on this ski resort map: Sólskinbrekkulyfta Ármanns. Partly because I thought it was a great image (more interesting than simply a sign) and because of the curious bullet holes all over the sign?!?!
6. Identify and write down the following phrases in Icelandic: Good morning / Hello / My name is… / Have a nice day / See you later! / I love Iceland
#KAYAKhacksIceland You learn something new everyday. Today: the Icelandic language! It's spoken by only 330,000 people, and sorry my writing is so small! Góðan daginn - Good morning Halló - Hello Ég heiti Virginia - My name is Virginia Eigðu góðan dag - Have a nice day Sjáumst síðar! - See you later! Ég elska Ísland - I love Iceland
I’m a linguist so this was one of my favourite tasks, and I kept trying to impress everyone I met with this token phrases in Icelandic! I think the Icelanders liked the effort…
Góðan daginn – Good morning
Halló – Hello
Ég heiti Virginia – My name is Virginia
Eigðu góðan dag – Have a nice day
Sjáumst síðar! – See you later!
Ég elska Ísland – I love Iceland
7. Find the best spot to see the Northern Lights.
#KAYAKhacksIceland I was trying not to get my hopes up as the Northern Lights are so rare, but last night we did see a glimpse of them! To find them I went with @arcticadventures to Reykanestá, the dramatic cliff-lined, most southwesterly tip of Iceland, part of the Reykanes peninsula, to escape the light pollution & cloud cover.
I only had 2 nights in Iceland, which isn’t really enough to guarantee a sighting of the Northern Lights as it entirely depends on cloud cover, and it can be very cloudy in Iceland. I went on a Northern Lights Explorer tour with Arctic Adventures and my wonderful guide Klemenz took a group of us to the most south-westerly point of the entire country, Reykanestá, where we saw this glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. This is actually much fainter to the naked eye than it appears in the photo, and the following night (when I had already flown home) apparently there was an incredible display of Northern Lights! Bad luck for me, but I did at least capture this green glimmer, so I was happy.
8. Find out how Iceland produces energy from renewable resources and go there.
#KAYAKhacksIceland One final discovery en route to the airport to fly home: the famous @BlueLagoonIS is actually first and foremost a geothermal power plant called Svartsengi (spot the towers in the background), one of five that heat 87% of Iceland's buildings using the hot springs as a renewable energy source... The Blue Lagoon also happens to be extremely relaxing and a good way to finish off the trip!
Icelanders are by their own admission a very proud nation. Every Icelander you meet will proudly tell you about their country’s endless achievements (all ‘per capita’ mind you, which is helped by there being only 323,000 inhabitants) and one of the earliest I heard was about their triumphs in the field of renewable energy. 87% of Iceland’s buildings are heated by the natural hot springs emerging from the very ground they live on, and from just five geothermal power plants. One of these plants is right next to the Blue Lagoon which you can see from the cooling towers in the background of my photo above. The Blue Lagoon is a natural thermal spa, with a slight smell of sulphur, but the waters are supposedly very healing, and it’s certainly very relaxing swimming around in the steam. It’s near Reykjavik’s airport so it’s a good idea to either go first thing after your arrival or immediately before you leave, to save on travel time. I went in the daytime but I imagine at night it must be very atmospheric as well.
9. Show us the best way to explore the icelandic nature.
Many moons ago, fellow blogger Kirst over the World wrote about snorkelling the Silfra Rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, in 2°C water. At the time I thought this sounded absolutely insane. But when thinking of how best to explore Iceland, bearing in mind what the other bloggers might do, I thought perhaps I should take a different angle and look underground. I decided to take Artic Adventure’s 1-day combined snorkelling and lava caving tour and do both, hence why I posted two photos for this particular task. Snorkelling in a dry suit in Iceland felt crazy at the time but was one of the best things I’ve done since diving with sharks in South Africa (which is saying something!) and caving in the pitch dark was an incredibly odd sensation, 100% made by the fantastic storytelling of our Spanish guide Juan. So in my opinion, to see something unusual in Iceland that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, head underground.
10. Find the most impressive fjord within a radius of 100km from Reykjavik.
#KAYAKhacksIceland The final challenge of this @KAYAK blogger trip really got me stuck, how on earth could I fit in visiting a fjord along with the other 9 challenges I'd been set, all in 48 hours?! So I've settled for this photo of the water and mountains looking north from Reykjavik. If you look on the map and use a bit of artistic license, then it "sort of" could be a fjord? Try squinting, that might also help. And with that, my 10 challenges are complete and I'm heading home to London. Goodbye Iceland and Þakka þér fyrir!
And last but not least, the 10th task… If you look at a map of Iceland you’ll see that the fjords are hours upon hours upon hours away from the capital city Reykjavik, and I only had 48 hours there. I honestly couldn’t find a way to fit them into my itinerary. So instead I took a photo of the see and the mountains near Reykjavik, which in some way, with a bit of artistic license, could sort of be considered a bit like a fjord? A tenuous link I know, but I wanted to complete the 10th task, and it was the hardest one to do, so I had to get creative.
On reflection I packed in a huge number of things into just 48 hours, which I probably would never have managed if I didn’t have my competitive spirit and a list of tasks by my side! So overall I think it worked really well, motivating me to make the most of every single minute in Iceland. But there is so much else to do in Iceland as well that I didn’t have time for on this trip: glacier walking, snow mobiling, horse riding, dog sledding, waterfalls, geysers, black sand beaches, and more. My two main tips would be these: take plenty of time, as you will definitely be able to fill it. And take plenty of money. You can save on accommodation by using a comparison site like KAYAK, but the prices of tours and excursions are fixed and they are pricey. They’re worth it, as it’s a landscape and a country unlike any I’ve ever visited before, so make sure you have enough time and money to see and do everything that Iceland has to offer. And enjoy!