We grabbed our backpacks from the carousel and headed out of the Keflavik International Airport. At this time in 2015, Iceland had not yet emerged on top tourism destination lists. It was an entrancing, winter wonderland that promised to engulf us into its mystic, Nordic aura. This would be the final travel-trip of our international exchange semester.
As we exited the airport, we were instantly greeted by the 5 PM darkness of high-latitude nations, accompanied by fluffy snowflakes whisking through the frigid air.
We were here.
The land of the ice and snow.
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs blow.
Our final international exchange hurrah.
Plowing across the snow-ridden wasteland-of-a-parking-lot, we could see our destination: Sixt Car Rental. We finished the paperwork, declined the 150 Euro upgrade to a sturdy SUV (the vehicle we booked was small, but had winter tires, so we figured it would be a-ok), and put our credit card into the machine.
Um, what? Oh no.
After multiple tries, fast-beating hearts, and various arrangements of splitting the cost between debit and credit cards, it worked.
Accepted. Good to go.
Thank goodness we didn’t opt for the upgrade.
International exchange had squeezed our bank accounts dry, but with a lifetime’s worth of memories already, it was worth it. And we had just enough cash for this one last adventure. We hopped into our 2-wheel-drive Chevrolet Spark and squishy-squished onward through fresh snow.
Eyes wide, taking in the snowy landscape through the evening’s darkness, our intrigue and excitement was palpable as we made our way out of the parking lot and onto the almost-deserted highway. It was freshly plowed, but there was snow caked onto the faces of all the road signs—rendering them un-readable and entirely useless.
Seriously, what an unexpected issue!
We decided to count the number of roundabouts our map showed between the airport and our destination, hoping we would take the correct exit.
Next thing we knew, we were in Hafnarjordur testing the limits of our two-wheel drive on a looooong, uphill driveway before abandoning it at the bottom of the street. It was then that we met Oskar and Joanna—our AirBnB hosts for the week.
Their bright red home was set up in a quaint, hostel-style configuration. The A-frame upstairs was divided into four rooms and the downstairs contained a communal kitchen. After getting settled in, we walked to the local Kronan to pick up our groceries. Lots of PB&J, Crusli, Skyr yogurt, and a healthy helping of Milka bars.
Weather would be of the utmost importance throughout this trip—we planned to drive as much as we could, inclusive of our own self-tour of the Golden Circle. The week leading up to our arrival, Iceland had experienced the stormiest weather of its winter season so far. Our fingers were crossed that it would clear up, but we realized that we may need to purchase tickets for much-too-crowded-no-choice-but-to-be-a-sardine-touristy-type tours, rather than exploring in our vehicle alone.
The Icelandic Road Commission was invaluable to us throughout our planning. It provided real-time, reliable updates on road conditions. Each morning and night we would sit in our cozy cabin, snuggled under the blankets, hopefully checking the status of the roads, and flexing our schedule and trip ideas accordingly. We found the Road Condition Maps most useful, especially given our low-clearance, two-wheel drive vehicle.
DAY TWO | REYKJAVIK
Poor road reports meant that we would spend our first day in the capital, Reykjavik. Having arrived here only a week before Christmas, the Nordic, festive spirit of Iceland filled the air.
We were entirely mesmerized.
We headed up Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street. The temperature was mild and the street was quiet. Warm, amber light poured onto the street as tourists weaved in and out of store fronts. We slowly drifted along, eventually reach Hallsgrimskirkja, a 73 M tall church, designed to mimic the look of basaltic lava flows. We took the elevator to the 8th floor, where we were treated to a view of the city lightly dusted in snow.
Back at our AirBnB, we cozied up after a warm dinner and made plans for tomorrow. The weather looked promising, so, if all panned out, the Golden Circle would be ours to drive alone.
DAY THREE | THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
We awoke bright and early to snow-free roads and clear skies.
This was it.
Our day to drive the Golden Circle.
We left Hafnarfjordur at 9:30 AM, before the sun had begun to rise. Approaching Mossfellsbaer, we turned off the main highway and onto Highway 3B, a very icy, but drive-able road. Just 20 minutes away from the city, we were in the most stunningly serene winter-wonderland. As far as we could see, there were soft, rolling mountains covered in blankets of fresh snow.
It’s vastness was magical.
We stepped out of our vehicle to take a picture (and make a snow-angel!). While doing so, our hiking boots slid on the ground underneath our feet.
In less than an instant, our slippery soles had reminded us of the current road conditions: we were driving on thick sheets of ice. We continued to drive at a slow, but steady, 50 KM per hour, grateful for this beauty, and cognizant that our careful, reserved driving would be key to ensuring a safe journey around the 240 KMs of the Golden Circle.
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park. It is the historic location of Iceland’s Parliament and is the only place on earth where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises above sea-level. Because of this, Marshall and I were able to walk in the gap between the North American and Eurasion Continental Tectonic Plates.
We walked to the top of one of the plates in the rift valley, greeted by the cotton candy sky as the lazy sun peered over the horizon at 11:30 AM. After quiet moments to take in our almost-private view of the park, we shared smiles of anticipation, ready for the rest of the sights to come.
We headed onwards through the blankets of snow, and when we reached Laugervatn took our next turn off the main road.
It was the sound of the snow scraping under our little Chevrolet Spark, confirming our unfortunate reality: the road had become much too snow-covered for us to continue. We carefully crept the vehicle into the gas station, where a kind Nordic fellow shared an alternative, less-snowy and much safer detour to get back onto the Golden Circle route.
We would next arrive at the Strokkur Geysir, which erupts up to 40 M in the air, every 4-8 minutes. It’s quite the sight, really. Like taking a trip into Mordor, you walk through a grassy field while dodging bubbling, steaming pools of liquid before reaching the geyser itself. Standing in anticipation, eyes locked on the geyser hole, we waited for the main event.
A massive bubble started to form atop the hole, rising higher and higher.
In a split second, the bubble burst, launching gaseous liquid into the air, 15-20 metres high, a rain of hot droplets being carried over our heads by the wind. We watched as it continued to erupt like clockwork.
As the sun started to set, we arrived at the Gullfoss Waterfall and sat on the trail side watching it flow as the sun sank below the mountains. We would now be met with a cloudy, but starry night guided us back to Hafnarfjordur. We were spent. A day well conquered. Exhausted, but still desperate to wring every last drop of magic from our day, we decided to drive around in the dark in search of Northern Lights. We had no plan. No location in mind.
We drove and drove, observing faint whisks of green dancing in the sky. Determined to find the optimal viewing location, we eventually ended up in an abandoned-ish farm-like area.
Let me tell you. In my mind, this was not optimal.
There were white buildings with red roofs and wooden-fenced horse pens, eerily illuminated by old-style street lights. Surrounding the farm was a deep, dark, hide-every-creature-in-its-depths forest. The perfect location for the next thriller-horror box-office hit, with yours truly as the main protagonist. We stepped outside of our vehicle into silence—sounds of the far off city dampened by the snow banks, lost in the darkness.
No WAY, man.
Back. To. The. Car. There was no way that I was going to stay out here, vulnerable to who-knows-what-but-I-don’t-want-to-find-out, in one of the safest nations in the world. I was on edge and the tension was building. To top it off, the clouds had rolled in and it had started to snow. No more chance to see the Northern Lights. We decided would head home.
Marshall swerved through the roundabouts, and the CRUNCHY-SPLOOSH-SPLOOSH of under-vehicle snow was testing my patience. There was no way I was going to need a tow truck past midnight on an old farm road in Iceland. (There are a few moments in my life that I am not so proud of, and this one is without a doubt one of them.) It was in this moment that the ferocious back seat driver in me, sitting next to a massive pile of exhaustion, took the wheel.
STOP. WHAT YOU ARE DOING?!
We slid to an almost-stop, directly in the roundabout.
Marshall looked at me with those are-you-kidding-me-I-dare-you-to-critique-my-pretty-much-absolutely-fine-driving eyes.
YOU ARE GOING TO GET US STUCK. WE WILL BE TRAPPED OUT HERE.
WE HAVE NO MONEY TO BE RESCUED.
A few more dilapidated, should-not-be-vocalized critiques left my lips, and we finished our drive in aggravated silence. This silence continued to hang in the air like irreconcilable judgment as we hiked and slipped up the icy driveway of our AirBnB.
DAY FOUR | BLUE LAGOON, TAKE #1
Happy Birthday Dad!
On December 20th we awoke (a lot less aggravated) to thick snow pounding down onto the skylight of our AirBnB room. As I peacefully watched the flakes build up and slide down the convex glass, all I could think was how thankful I was that we were able to drive the Golden Circle yesterday.
Today, I had wanted to honour my Dad by embarking on an outlandish adventure—think: snowboarding on an Icelandic mountain or whale watching along the lava rock coastline. But with a quick glance at the road report, where nearly all roads were blacked out as “un-driveable”, reality was upon us. We would need to stay closer to home on this snowed-in day. I relinquished the idea of celebrating my Dad’s birthday in his super-cool-and-adventurous style, to the understanding that with safety in mind, today would not be our day for adventure.
Instead, we would head to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa. We very rarely splurged-for-the-sake-of-splurging during our exchange, but as soon as we saw this online before our trip, we knew that it was a no-brainer.
Only minutes had passed on the highway before our plans changed drastically. The cross-winds whipped back-and-forth across the road, testing our teeny-weeny car’s limits as it courageously doddle’d over fresh powder.
And then as the snow clouds began to lift ever so slightly, the perils of this winter weather became clear. Car after car after SUV after truck after 4×4, had skid off the highway and into the ditch, like little helpless hot wheels, chaotically strewn across the floor on Christmas morning.
We looked at each other, nervously laughing for a moment at our little two-wheel drive, consumed by the hilarity of how on earth we ended up right here, right now. We turned around at the first opportunity. Windshield wipers working over-time to rid our view of flakes, we inched closer and closer to the safety of our AirBnB.
Today, instead, we would go for a walk along the water, and just chill.
DAY FIVE | GLACIER HIKING
Yesterday’s Icelandic weather had humbled our ambitions. Our just chill day allowed us to reflect on how fortunate we had been to drive the Golden Circle Tour. The risk we took by continuing to assume we would be able to get around by ourselves, was that if the weather was even slightly off, our entire day of plans would need to be cancelled. With only two days left in our trip, and still a thirst for more adventure, we decided that we would book Glacier Hiking with a tour company; inclusive of all transportation.
Bright and early, we arrived in Reykjavik. We parked our car for $0.20 per hour (think about THAT!) and headed over to the Arctic Adventures Office. As we sat in the extra warm, all-too-tiny office, our tour mates trickled in one, after another, after another, after another. 16 people were on our tour.
But the number did not matter, think of all that space we would have to frolic atop Icelandic glaciers! Our emphatic, ready-to-rock-and-roll tour guides today would be Freyr and—get this—Thor. I could not have even conceptualized a more Nordic-named duo.
Our tour vans packed tight with eager tourists, we headed out onto the highway in darkness. As the sun rose, over the mountains, rock music playing, Thor shared Icelandic oddities to pass the time, including:
- Led Zeppelin wrote The Immigrant Song on their first tour to Iceland in 1970 (you know, that one that Jack Black sings in School of Rock, “we come from the land of the ice and snow, where the midnight sun and the hot springs blow”)
- Iceland at one time, harnessed its geothermal green houses to become Europe’s largest producer of bananas. Thor’s words combined with the mysterious air of this snow-ridden land had me instantly convinced. Wow! Further research, however, would render this folklore inaccurate, despite it being grounded in the hopeful experimentation of scientists during the early 1900s.
Along the way to the glacier we would stop at Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, leaving hundreds of thousands of flight passengers stranded on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As we viewed the volcano-missing-its-top-two-thirds, Marshall and I would eat our favourite chocolate bar yet—the Milka Oreo Bar. Shortly thereafter, our tour van would slide off the road and into a ditch—with a delicate, almost unnoticeable thud.
Our driver giggled, jumped out of the van and flagged down the other vehicle. Like a perfectly coordinated routine, the pair effortlessly rolled out a tug-of-war-esque rope and attached it the back of each van. With a quick SPLLUURRP we were back on the road, ready to make our way the final few kilometers to the glacier.
Today would be the first time in my life that I would cozy up close against a glacier. From the parking lot, as we donned our snow pants, crampons, helmets, and ice picks, the magnitude of this icy beast was undeniably apparent. Inching closer and closer to its base, it engulfed the horizon with its vast, daunting, come-hang-out-with-me-but-watch-your-footing, energy.
Like tiny delicate ants we carefully followed in the footsteps of our guides, consuming hoards of glacial-feature education until we reached the crevasse that we would climb. It was about 30-40 feet tall (a height that, for me, was daunting, but as my Dad would mention later when he saw the pictures, is “not actually that high”). Our guides playfully asked who would be brave enough to take the first climb up the wall:
“You Canadians! You NEED to go first, you are pros at this!”
Well, Thor, that is simply incorrect, I thought.
You see, I am more of a carefully-calculated group-activity-participant. This is deeply routed in fear of judgment, combined with the desire to perform to the best of my abilities. I am most comfortable observing and learning from daring first-, second-, and third-movers to ensure I obtain a fulsome, high quality experience (perhaps even with the possibility of impressing onlookers).
But Marshall, oh!
This is one of my most beloved traits of his: he will simply and unabashedly jump in. He becomes so overcome by the joy of the moment, simply living in possibility, in a place of blissful non-judgment. He is not worried that a tour guide’s advice, clarification, or quippy remarks are a reflection of who he, his self-worth, or his value. He simply adjusts and continues to climb, bicycle, run, river raft, snowboard, etc. And in doing so, regardless of his skill level, he builds an environment of comfort and acceptance for all of those to follow. THAT is my guy. Seriously, how privileged am I?
Or at least, this is my outsider-looking-in impression.
“Sure, I’ll go first”, he retorted.
Up he climbed, the rest of us to follow. But what was the most intriguing lesson learned about ice climbing, you ask? Well, I have always been under the impression that when you hit your ice ax into an ice wall, that it sticks into the wall. But this is not the case! When you hit your ice ax onto the wall, it hits away the loose ice, creating a ledge for an ice ax / hand hold where the ax then hangs onto the ledge. (Think: sort of as if you were rock climbing, and the ax was simply an extension of your hand).
Exhausted, we followed the group off the glacier. The clouds had rolled in, and our tour guides transported us through flurry-filled skies, over mountains and back into the safety of Reykjavik. We arrived back at our AirBnB, ate our can of Paprika Pringles, and fell asleep easily.
DAY SIX | THE BLUE LAGOON, TAKE #2
A mid-day wake up.
Our last full day in Iceland.
We opted for a day of relax, with the intention to do so at our first-ever spa experience. The skies were clear and our AirBnB was cleaned up. We headed toward the Blue Lagoon, twisting between lava fields as geysir steam rolled across the roadway.
When we entered the lagoon, we were met with the most brilliant, turquoise blues and elegant wisps of steam lifting into the frigid air. For the next three hours, we just relaxed. No worries, no cares, just warmth.
What a way to spend our final day, in this mystic Iceland.
This was the final hurrah of our international exchange semester. As such, it would also mark the end to four months of truly living together, for the first time. When we arrived back to Copenhagen on Christmas Eve, reflecting on what our return to Vancouver, to regular life would be, Marshall said to me, “I’ve forgotten how to miss you”. Sometimes, the simplest sentences say it all.
Curious to see a snapshot of our entire International Exchange Semester? If so, you can check out my exchange video here!