I landed in Reykjavik, Iceland at six in the morning local time, two in the morning my time, with a severe underestimation of the windchill.
Several hours later I could be found in the shed behind my hostel, crying gently from a combination of sleep deprivation, frustration, and sheer gratefulness to be out of the wind. In a brief semi-hysterical moment I wondered what the other guests would think if they found me there: where all guests were allowed to store their luggage. I could see it now, someone would open the door, pause in confusion and then yell over his shoulder to his friends: “hey, there’s an American crying in the shed. Should we do something about it?”
Although I doggedly wandered the town that first morning, even braving the open square in front of the church where the wind was so strong it was best not to lift one’s feet too high as the wind would trip me, once I was allowed to check in to my room I slept for the remainder of the day. Although Iceland is bitterly cold, all homes are heated with geothermal heating (from volcanoes) keeping them so toasty it’s best to crack the window for fresh air. And for the sleep-deprived, unprepared for the weather, unexpectedly emotional tourist? That’s heaven on earth.
The second day proved to be a struggle as well. I joined a tour group and drove the South Coast of the island of the nation of Iceland. Black beaches, powerful, icy waves, incredible waterfalls and a cheerful blunt-faced Icelandic tour guide should have created a fun experience. Plus I’d gotten a half day and full night’s sleep and a good meal since my rough start the day before. You’d think that would be enough. But the driving sleet, my insufficient wool coat (which was soaked by mid-afternoon) and a lack of waterproof boots again became my undoing. My attempts at a positive attitude evaporated not long after the group deposited me back in town.
Feeling particularly unsocial, that night I explored the curious Icelandic cuisine – which outside of cabbage and meat soups, food that is a familiar cousin to the Polish and German food of my grandparents’ homes – is particularly proud of their hotdogs. Seriously. Hotdogs. The most famous hotdog was from a small stand in the middle of the city. So I ate two for dinner with “the works.” (Sweet/spicy mayo, sauerkraut, mustard.) They were actually quite delicious. And I barely had to do more than say “hello” and order 2 hotdogs with everything before slinking away into the dark.
My third day finally had promise. I needed to regain some independence and vague sense of control after the cold, dim days and exhaustion so after sleeping late in the morning and refusing to engage with the world until what passed for sunrise in the late morning, I then rented a car to drive myself about Iceland. What followed was a harrowing and exhilarating combination of snow driving, white-outs, breathtaking and alien vistas of volcanic fields, geysers, blizzards, a spectacular sunset and eventually, spinning off the road and being rescued by Icelandic Road Rescue.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I go in winter again?
A couple of quick tips about Iceland:
- Most flights from the US land very early. Check out this clever post on how to structure your first day in town so that you don’t end up freezing and teary in a shed somewhere desperate to get out of the wind and sleep. Not that most sane people would plan so poorly… but, you know, it could happen.
- I loved renting a car and having such total freedom in Iceland but this is ABSOLUTELY NOT the place to learn snow-driving skills. I’m generally a “go for it, be bold and free” kind of travel advice person. But I can’t be on this topic. I grew up driving in snow and ice and used to get so sick and tired of shoveling out my car in college that I would foolishly just ram snow banks. I’ve also driven through my fair share of blizzards before in upstate NY/Canada. And I still spun off the road in Iceland. Without years of experience let’s just say you’ll likely enjoy having a driver more.
- It’s hard not to underestimate the wind. I have some wonderfully warm wool winter clothing. But it’s not designed to cut out wind. Bite the bullet and buy a coat/poncho that blocks wind. And boots that are waterproof while you’re at it. Especially if you go in winter. You might as well as break out the long johns for under your clothing too. I did (those actually did help.)
p.s. – I frequently run out of space to upload all the photos I want to within the blog. So I create a quick slide show at the end. If you’re reading these posts entirely from email you won’t be able to see them. Click on the link for the full post at the bottom of the email to view the webpage.