I like planning special things for my birthday and this year was no different. When my boyfriend asked if there was something I wanted, the answer was a short get-away to a destination that’s been on my wish-list ever since seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Iceland. Our ‘mini-break’ was so successful that I wanted to share all the details with you in case you’re thinking of a short stay there yourself.
I had been thinking about a healthy Nordic trip for a while, but we were dissuaded by the cold weather, dark skies and potentially outrageous expenses. We get enough of all those things in London. However, after reading an article in Elle UK by Susan Ward called Into the Wild (which I can’t seem to locate online) that waxed lyrical about scenic drives, breathtaking sites, and delicious food, we booked plane tickets from London for a 3-night stay (all we had time for) in the land of fire and ice.
I got straight down to some research to ensure not a minute was wasted or an icelandic delicacy untasted during our short stay. Not surprisingly, there weren’t many suggestions online for trips to Iceland of less than 10 days duration, and with good reason. There’s A LOT to see in Iceland, ideally at a relaxed pace. It’s a photographer’s (and geologist’s) dream. Nevertheless, I was determined to get a good taste of what the country has to offer on a condensed schedule with a view of making my carbon footprint more validated on a longer trip in the future.
The Elle UK article (mentioned before) was helpful and served as a great guide to layout the overall itinerary. It described two ways to venture away from the capital of Reykjavik for some nature – SouthEast towards Vik or NorthWest towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Beyond that we talked to two couples we knew who had been there, one of which had stayed in the Elle-recommended Hótel Búðir, which doubly convinced us to head in the direction of the aforementioned peninsula (a 2.5 hour drive from the capital). Our other friends put us in touch with local mates who confirmed that my hotel and restaurant choices were sound and provided some useful links to locate thermal pools and check weather. I had a quick browse of a few blogs and then got booking based on the final criteria: must bathe in thermal waters, must eat well, must see some stunning scenery and must stay in a hotel with a nice view. We purposely didn’t get our hopes up about seeing the Northern Lights. As luck would have it, there was a spectacular display the evening before we arrived (April 14th), which was unusual given the peak times of the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.
One thing that was certain was that we were going to have a great time. I heard not one negative comment about Iceland from all those approached, except to be careful when opening car doors because the wind can be so fierce it will blow your car door off (yup – it’s the first bullet in the guide to driving in Iceland that we received from the car rental company and makes you think twice about spending that extra bit on car insurance…) We met lovely people, ate well, relaxed, felt adventuresome and drank pure Icelandic water everyday. What more could you ask for?
I always travel with a view of getting a good taste of the local culture and learning more about the healthy habits of those who live there. I learned a lot about healthy eating during my time living in France and Italy and I’m always reminded that travel is a great way to broaden your perspective about diet. I recall watching a Channel 4 documentary on the World’s Best Diet and Iceland topping the list for its fresh and high quality fish, meat and dairy products. I mention liquorice in the title of this post simply because the candy version of it is found everywhere as in most Nordic countries (perhaps the bittersweet taste is appreciated in the cold weather?), but in more abundance was nutrient-dense, healthy food that made me feel great. A lot of the food, such as their famous steamed rye bread (rugbrauð), is also cooked underground using geo-thermal energy, which is an incredible concept. I have provided a list below of healthy Icelandic foods with links to learn more about them. There is also a plethora of local delicacies for the more adventuresome that I didn’t feel the need to sample such as fermented shark, puffin and stinky skate, rumours of which have no doubt put many people off the idea of Icelandic cuisine, but don’t be discouraged, I tasted some of the best food of my life here. Sadly, Rick Stein’s special episode on his weekend break to Iceland on BBC2 debuted after our return, but has certainly helped me create a wish-list for next time and has got me even more interested to read up on the history of Icelandic cooking.
Here’s our itinerary:
Day One (Friday) – Blue Lagoon and Hveragerði
Departed London Heathrow on the 8:15Am BA flight to arrive in Keflavik airport by 10:15AM (3-hour flight). Picked up rental car (a 5-minute walk outside of the airport if you book with Go Iceland – we had to ask where to find them at the information desk). Drove 20 minutes to the Blue Lagoon (FYI – the sign is not blue) where we pre-booked (this is a MUST) for 12 PM entry. We booked the cheapest entry tickets (40 Euros) to the lagoon (this option does NOT include towels so we brought our own and you still have to queue up when you get there next to a lot of Americans). We spent three hours at the lagoon and I opted for a 30-minute (65 Euros) in water massage, which was very soothing but not the world’s deepest massage (still I was thankful to shut my eyes for 30 minutes – the sun was BRIGHT – bring sunglasses and sunscreen). This was a total highlight of our trip and a great way to relax after our flight and before journeying on. We loved the mud mask bar (you get this as part of the basic entry, but you don’t get the algae mask unless you pay 15 Euros more. Worth it? Probably not). If you go with a member of the opposite sex, arrange to meet on the other side of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon together. Once you lock up your stuff, shower naked, and slather your hair with loads of conditioner, they don’t like you to exit through the entrance. Exit lagoon side – there’s a cafe area there where you can hang your towels (or your robe if you get the slightly more expensive package or book a treatment) and buy some overpriced food (I had the sushi) if you’re peckish. If you’re not getting a treatment, 2 hours is probably enough time to relax in the mineral-rich water, but there’s also space to lounge indoors and read for a bit. We left by 3:30PM feeling full of minerals, squeaky clean and thirsty (you must hydrate while here). As far as I was concerned, my birthday mission to swim in thermal water was accomplished, but there was more to come.
We got in our KIA c’eed rental car (we chose the cheapest model, knowing we wouldn’t be driving anywhere too extreme and the weather forecast was good but I’m sure a 4×4 would be more fun) and drove 40 minutes to Hveragerði where I had booked us in to the Frost and Fire hotel (rate was 137 GBP per night on hotels.com). I read a lovely review of the hotel in this great summary by Guide to Iceland – they had me at ‘boil your breakfast egg in a hot spring.’ The smell of sulphur pervaded as we got out of the car, but I didn’t mind. We loved our room with a view of the river and managed to get a 6:30PM dinner reservation at their onsite slow-food Restaurant Varma, which was our best meal of the whole trip. I had the starter of liquorice lamb with rye croutons and anise sauce, followed by arctic char with butternut squash as a main (fish of the day). The crowd-pleaser was the decadent dessert of hot spring cooked chocolate cake with whiskey salted caramel mousse and salted caramel ice cream. Thanks to our 5AM start and our long soak in geothermal waters, we fell asleep (in daylight) by 9PM. The bed was comfy.
Day Two (Saturday) – Hveragerði, The Golden Circle, and Reykjavik
We woke up around 6AM, put on our bathrobes and immediately made our way to the heated geothermal swimming pool. It was raining outside, but the pool was oh-so-warm. Then we had a soak in each of the two hot tubs surrounded by hot springs and misty mountains. After showering we made our way to brunch by 8AM and spent an hour feasting on home-made sourdough fruit bread, steamed rye bread, skyr (the local yogurt) with home-made preserves, home-made muesli and many other treats. And yes – I boiled my morning egg in a hot spring outside. This was the best free breakfast I have ever had. A real birthday treat. Before checking out, we asked the hotel staff for some advice and they told us about a brisk 30-minute walk around the hotel grounds and gave us very easy to follow driving directions to make our way around the key sites of the Golden Circle and on to our final destination for the evening in Reykjavik. This is the day we were thankful to have rainproof gear and warm layers.
We visited the Kerið Volcanic Crater, the Skálholt Church, then to Geysir to see Strokkur, and finally to Gullfoss waterfall (very impressive) – it was like a treasure hunt interspersed with scenic driving. Before leaving we got into the wrong rental car (luckily we realized before buckling up), found our actual rental car, and prepared for the final 30-minute drive to the capital where our Air B’n’B awaited us. We had some great tunes for the car ride and listened to a fair bit of Icelandic radio (favourite moment = when Solid as a Rock came on – it became our trip anthem). The best part was stopping for tomato soup at Friðheimar in Reykholt (after the church and before Geysir) – a total gem of a place that we would not have discovered if it wasn’t for the recommendation from the receptionist at Frost and Fire hotel. It’s a big greenhouse (farm, really) that specializes in all things tomato and was the most tasty lunch experience I’ve had in a long time. It’s not to be missed (make sure you try the olive bread).
Driving into Reykjavik and finding our Air B’n’B was so simple. There were several parking lots nearby and I recognized the house from the photos on the website immediately. It took no time to feel at home. The other people staying at the property were warm and friendly and we were so impressed with how charming and clean the place was for such a reasonable rate (85 GBP per night). We had a little nap and then made our way to the nearby Harpa Concert Hall for my pre-booked birthday dinner at Kolbrautin, which has affiliations with the River Cafe in London and does Icelandic food with a Mediterranean flare. We went for the 5-course tasting menu, which was delicious, but we found that the restaurant itself felt a bit to stiff and cold (it was literally cold – we were needing our layers). It’s a shame, because the view was spectacular but in retrospect I should have gone with the Elle-recommended Kopar, which was my gut instinct, or the highly recommended Grillmarket. We passed out by 11PM, bellies full of scallops, burrata, lamb and more delicious sourdough bread.
Day Three – Rekyjavik, Stykkishólmur, and Hotel Búðir
After a quick internet search in bed, I mapped out a nearby venue to get some breakfast at Bergsson Mathús. We splurged on their complete breakfast, which included a boiled egg, sourdough bread, hummus, skyr with muesli and preserves, prosciutto and fruit. After all, we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us. All was sublime. I also noted how every breakfast we had and cafe we visited offered cod liver oil with little shot glasses – the two most common brands were Lysi and Dropi (a bottle of which will set you back 35 GBP because it’s that pure). If you’re not familiar with the health benefits of taking cod liver oil daily, then look into this, especially if you suffer from joint pain, depression or lack of sunshine – cod liver oil offers Vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids. We strolled around the capital for an hour and visited two key sites: Hallgrímskirkja church and Reykjavík Roasters for the best cup of coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…) We found Reykjavik to be charming and cheerful but our minds were on getting into the countryside. After a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to get a new map and make sure we had planned the best driving route, we were on our way to hopefully drive up to Stykkishólmur (town where scenes from Walter Mitty were shot), go for a swim in one of many outdoor thermal swimming pools along our route, do a bit of seal-watching and then end up at the long-awaited Hotel Búðir. The drive out of the capital was simple enough but we weren’t expecting the long stretch of road that was an underwater tunnel or the drastic change in weather as we went from sunny and blue skies on one side to wind and hail on the other. However, as everyone told us, the weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can literally change from one minute to the next. Luckily this happened several times for the better. There was about one minute of driving through wind that created a snowstorm where we got very nervous, but before we knew it, it was calm again. When we finally arrived at Stykkishólmur, the winds were so strong that we could barely get out of the car. Luckily I had done some research into hotels on the peninsula and recognized Hotel Egilsen (known for its storytelling hour and cocomat beds) as we pulled in. Despite the stormy weather outside, folks indoors were calm and cool and the hotel receptionist pointed to the only place open for lunch that late right across the street at Narfeyrarstofa where we served by the charming Gudrun who advised us on a shorter route to our final destination and looked up the wind forecast for us to assure us we would be safe. Needless to say, more thermal pool swims and our plan to drive around the entire peninsula sadly went out the window – we had just enough time to get to where we needed to be before a snowstorm started. Our lunch was delicious – I chose the creamy seafood soup (more like a bisque) while my boyfriend had one of five creative burger choices (apparently the ‘mafia’ burger – containing sun dried tomatoes – is the best one, but he went for their classic). A local family next to us ordered the dessert of chocolate pots and hot chocolates, which smelled heavenly, but we were too full and ready to get on the road. We skipped out on the library of water there but had a quick look through the window of the embroidery shop which was transformed into a pub for the scene from the Walter Mitty movie.
After a somewhat tense 1-hour journey – the landscape is both mesmerizing and intimidating to city drivers – we arrived at Hotel Búðir and it was everything we had anticipated. Completely isolated and wonderfully cozy on the interior, with impressive views all around, this hotel is special. Sadly the snow created a view that was more blurry than breathtaking but we didn’t let that keep us from a short wander around the grounds. We were told the kitchen would close at 8PM so, still full up from lunch, we ordered just two small plates off the menu – the salmon tartare starter and the chocolate fondant dessert – both were a treat for the eyes and the tongue. And there was more sourdough bread with garlic butter – impossible to resist. We stayed up late reading and watching films, hoping we might see the Northern Lights, but it didn’t happen.
Day Four – Hotel Búðir, Reykjavik and back to the airport
We woke up early on our last day for breakfast at 8AM (another nice selection of bread, smoked salmon, skyr and of course cod liver oil) to full on sunshine and breathtaking views. We had one more quick walk around the property and we were wishing we had more time to spend on walking and staying in this isolated corner of the world. The friendly receptionist told us that she enjoys being at this hotel so much because she can feel a special energy coming from the nearby glacier that’s on the border of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (on a really clear day, you can see it from reception). It’s no wonder that the hotel hosts many weddings and special events – it’s a beautiful and powerful place. The weather was perfect for our 3-hour drive back to the capital where we were determined to have one more quick walk around and a much lauded hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – a tiny little stand by the harbor that would be easy to miss. Our journey was smooth and easy and left us with an hour to find a dog. I normally avoid pork, but I had a nibble. They were so good my boyfriend went for seconds (with all the toppings). We then got back in the car for our final 40-minute drive to the airport to catch our 3:25PM flight to Gatwick airport (we flew Wow! on the way back because BA only has two flights per week). Things got a little hairy when we realized we had driven by the last petrol station and needed to back-track to fill up the rental car, but things went smoothly (minus getting charged for an extra carry-on by Wow! – n.b. you can literally have ONE bag only – no extra laptop case or purse!) from there.
All in all, it was a great trip and will help to make the next one more special. Next time I will be guided by less touristy natural lagoons and hot springs since bathing was my favourite thing and perhaps work in a bit more out-door adventure. There are tons of tours and outings to choose from if you don’t mind group excursions, such as glacier hiking, scuba diving and helicopter rides over volcanoes, but we kept it simple. I will also be guided by any opportunity to learn more about Icelandic cooking and food since, in my (and Rick Stein’s) opinion, Icelandic chefs have got it right!
Summary of key suggestions:
- Rent a car. At least get gravel insurance (the handsome man at the car rental place said that 4/10 people return cars damaged. And yes – sometimes doors get blown off cars because of the wind…) You don’t need a GPS – a map will do
- Check the weather – it changes constantly and you need to be mindful of how strong the wind is before you get on the road – cars do get blown off the road in some conditions/areas. This website was recommend to us: http://en.vedur.is
- Book ahead for the Blue Lagoon and watch the little video on their website about the experience so there are no surprises. Some people are surprised to find out it’s man-made. I didn’t care – it was still a wonderful experience but next time a visit to a natural volcanic lagoon is a must
- Bring sunglasses and a towel to the Blue Lagoon if you get the cheapest entry option
- Don’t get your heart set on the Northern Lights – they are elusive – let it be a pleasant surprise if it happens
- Bring a water bottle to refill continuously – the water from the tap is pure and wonderful!
- Eat Out- the food is wonderful in Iceland, but be prepared to splurge (pretty much London prices)
- Create a good music playlist for the car journey (maybe a little Sigur Ros?)
- Pack for all weather conditions (especially rain) and buy one of their wonderful jumpers (regret that I didn’t!)
- Go for 5 days minimum if you can and fly BA both ways if you can – our flight over was much nicer than the one back!
- Frost and Fire Hotel – our favourite (best brunch and hot tubs!) just 30 minutes outside the capital
- Air B’n’B – a nice selection in the capital and a good alternative to corporate looking hotels…
- Hotel Egilsen – we didn’t stay here but it’s on my list for the next time we go to Stykkisholmur – they have coco-mats, storytelling and brownies in the afternoon
- Hotel Búðir – truly unique and wonderful hotel if you want to feel what it’s like to be at the edge of the world (2.5 hours from capital)
- ION Luxury Hotel – we didn’t stay here but it was recommended in Elle – views and spa look amazing, but reviews suggest it’s a little stuffy
- Reykjavik Marina Hotel – Rick Stein stayed here – lovely views of the harbor
- Restaurant Varma – our best culinary experience at the Frost and Fire hotel
- Kolbrautin – fancy and delicious but a little stuffy at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
- Grillmarket – everyone recommends the tasting menu here (prepare to spend a lot) in Reykjavik
- Kopar – Elle-recommended and looks great (wish we went here!) in Reykjavik
- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – the best hot-dogs in Reykjavik
- Narfeyrarstofa – delicious wholesome food served by lovely Gudrun in Stykkisholmur
- Reykjavík Roasters – best coffee in Reykjavik
- Friðheimar – tomato soup heaven in Rekyholt
- Bergsson Mathus – best brunch in in Reykjavik
- The Laundromat Cafe – another great brunch place in Reykjavik that we didn’t have time to try
- Dill Restaurant – one of Rick Stein’s visits – looks amazing!
- Maturg Og Drykkur – Rick Stein learned about cooking with butter and whey here (wish we had known about it!)
- The Sea Baron – If you want to try some of the local (smelly) specialities or fish kebabs – on our list for next time!
- Fjorubordid Restaurant – Rick Stein had a delicious langoustine soup here (although I bet the one I had in Styykisholmur was just as good!)
Sites We Saw
- Blue Lagoon
- Snæfellsjökull National Park
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula
- Harpa Concert Hall
- Kerið Volcanic Crater
- Gullfoss waterfall
- Library of Water