While the time to “travel for studies” is long gone (my exchange happened in January 2015!), I still get green with envy whenever my friends and juniors take turns to experience theirs. This time, seeing my rock climbing junior gallivanting around Iceland compelled me to drop him a text to see if he’d like to share more with those who are planning to go to Iceland, and have as much fun as he did!
So let’s hear it from Charlie!
Hello everyone! My name is Charlie (in the super obiang yellow jacket), and I’ll be sharing my experiences in this weird and wonderful country of Iceland that is literally translated to island (in Iceland’s local language). An island indeed, as it is easily one of the most remote places in the world, with its nearest neighbours being Greenland, at 280 km away and Scotland, at 800 km away.
Contrary to popular practice, my group of 3 did not opt to drive around the entire Ring Road, a 1,332 km-long trail that circles the entire island and takes approximately 10 days to cover. Being inexperienced Singaporean drivers, we decided that it was too much of a risk to drive 10 days in a country known for its unpredictable weather, on the other side of the road! We chose the alternative, to go with reputable tour operators on day trips out of Reykjavik. This decision turned out for the best, as I will elaborate on later.
When to go to Iceland
If you go in December to February, you will have a much better chance of seeing the Northern Lights, BUT days will be short and snow will be everywhere.
If you go in May to August, you will definitely not see any Northern Lights and attractions will be more crowded, BUT the days will be longer (meaning more activities) and the weather more pleasant.
Weather in Iceland
While we were in Reykjavik in late March, the temperature varied from 0-4 degrees Celsius in the day and went to -3 in the night – very bearable compared to places like Canada and Russia, though we weren’t really able to experience Iceland to the fullest.
That being said, beware of the cold, harsh winds of Iceland!
Where to stay in Reykjavik, Iceland
But first, our accommodation! After touching down in Reykjavik airport, we ate a SGD7 bagel (yes, here comes the high prices) and hopped on the very convenient Flybus airport transfer, which we booked as part of a tour package. To our delight, the bus dropped us off at the doorstep of our guesthouse, which was incredibly convenient. We stayed at Guesthouse Summerday, a quaint little house which was an 8-minute drive from the city centre.
Check prices on Agoda and Booking.com
The interior was great, with a well-equipped kitchen, huge toilet and clean room. However, its layout was really weird. The front of the guesthouse, facing the main road and pick-up point, had no door. Guests had to come around the back to access the front door, which caused many complications down the line. My friend, who arrived first, was stuck outside in the Icelandic cold because the owner was in another building at the supposed check-in time!
Tip: Search more thoroughly for accommodation. I don’t think we got the best deal with regards to prices and locations, but our guesthouse was one of the stops for our tour vendor, which made pick-ups really convenient! You can use Booking.com vouchers to avail benefits of luxurious hotels at discounted prices. It is always good to have prior reservations done to avoid sky-scraping prices later.
What to see in Reykjavik, Iceland
After settling down, we explored the city of Reykjavik while awaiting our Northern Lights Tour at night. The city of Reykjavik is as quiet as you expect it to be.
We visited the famous Hallgrímskirkja, one of the most distinctive landmarks in Reykjavik and walked around the harbour where the Harpa Concert Hall is.
We ate the cheapest food in Iceland (about SGD5) at the famous hotdog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, and fed bread to some swans and ducks at the lake in the centre of town.
Overall, Reykjavik struck me as a sleepy town with nothing much to offer in the way of entertainment.
1. Northern Lights Tour
Upon nightfall, we boarded the bus that would take us to an area around the outskirts of Reykjavik to see the Northern lights! After a 1.5 hour drive, we reached an isolated spot with minimal light pollution, and set up camp there to see the lights.
To our dismay, it was cloudy and we could only catch a faint hint of the lights behind the cloud cover. The great thing about Northern Lights tours though, is that most providers offer free rescheduling of trips if you don’t manage to catch the lights on your first try! We ended up going for the same tour 3 nights in a row (because there’s nothing much else to do at night in Iceland is there).
That night, we went to sleep full of anticipation of the adventures to come in the following days.
2. Grand Golden Circle Tour
The first day trip we took was the ever-popular Grand Golden Circle Tour, a 300-km route that covers most of the sights in Southwest Iceland.
Once out of Reykjavik, vast swathes of white snow greeted our eyes. I felt like a little boy transported to the fantasy planet of Hoth, the snow planet in Star Wars!
The tour took us to sights like the Volcanic Crater lake Kerið (which was frozen solid), the waterfalls Gullfoss and Faxi, the Geysir geothermal area and finally through Þingvellir National Park.
The entire day trip cost ISK9,490/SGD100.
However, we felt the sum was well spent as the tour truly covered everything, from picking us up from our doorstep, telling us about the histories and meanings behind certain places and names, and then sending us right back to our doorstep.
3. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Tour
The next day, we got up early as our second day trip started at 7am! This one brought us to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Southeast Iceland, with stops at the waterfalls Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss, which meant an insane 380 km worth of driving. The long drive was worth it though, as we managed to experience Southern Iceland in its entirety – the raw, untouched beauty.
On the way back, we ran into the worst snowstorm we would experience in Iceland. The conditions were hellish, with the wind blowing our bus to the side such that the driver had to compensate with his steering, and visibility was limited to about three metres ahead of the bus.
It got so bad towards nightfall that we got stranded at a convenience store for two hours. Our big, sturdy bus had it easy though. Within a few kilometres of us, the road was blocked because rescuers were busy trying to pull small cars back onto the road after the wind and snow had forced them off!
At that moment, as we sat all toasty and safe in the bus, we thanked our lucky stars that we didn’t decide to drive around Iceland in our inexperienced state.
4. Blue Lagoon
That evening, we decided to round the trip off with a visit to the Blue Lagoon, the iconic volcanic hot springs plastered all over Iceland’s advertising spaces. The most crowded attraction yet, we were amazed with the efficiency that people were processed through its gates and into the hot springs.
Transitioning from the frigid Iceland weather into the boiling water was an experience I will never forget. We screamed for half a minute as our legs felt like they were on fire while our bare torsos were freezing. Of course, this drew funny looks and laughs from the Westerners around us, who were obviously used to such things.
We spent two hours in the water, soaking up all we could and plastering the silica mud all over our faces, which was supposed to be good for our skin. At a price of ISK6,100/SGD80 for the basic package. It was a good experience, but not one I’d do again!
What to eat in Iceland
After returning from our two adventures, we decided it was time to try some local cuisine. The notorious Hákarl, or fermented shark meat, had a reputation that preceded it, and we were eager to assault our taste buds with this mysterious dish.
Hákarl is prepared by first beheading a Greenland Shark, then placing the body in a shallow hole with stones, sand and gravel placed on top. The pressure from the stones causes poisonous liquids to seep out over 6-12 weeks. After this process, the fermented shark is taken out and hung to dry for several months.
How bad could this delicacy be? Very bad, apparently.
When the dish arrived, we thought it seemed like a small portion, good for tasting. It was off-white in colour and looked a lot like the pig fat we used to prepare our mookata with, back in Singapore.
We put the first pieces into our mouths. The texture was a lot like the same pig fat I mentioned earlier, and our teeth sunk right in. Not so bad, we thought, during the first few chews. 4 seconds later, we were experiencing the absolute worst taste in our lives. Our mouths felt like someone had stuffed post-outfield army socks into them and left them at the back of our throats, at a point where it seemed to stick.
We hurriedly rushed for the side dishes and used them to cleanse our palate, and this process went on for the next hour.
Next up was puffin meat, which was surprisingly red meat! This wasn’t that bad, with the colour and texture like tuna, but slightly firmer. We sampled these local delicacies at Þrír frakkar, a quaint traditional Icelandic restaurant in the middle of a housing estate, not too far from the city centre.
Our whole meal cost ISK8,530/SGD109 for 3 people.
We only ordered one main course and two side dishes, and this gives you another insight into how ridiculous the Icelandic prices are. Some local delicacies we skipped were horse tenderloin, sheep head jelly and whale meat sashimi.
That said, we could have brought more groceries from the country we were coming from. We underestimated just how expensive Icelandic groceries would cost. For example, a rack of 7-10 slices of bacon cost EUR 22 – simply ridiculous.
To save money, load up on foods like sliced bread and spreads, canned food and pasta. If you do have to buy groceries, seek out a chain of discount grocery stores called Bonus (its logo is a pig, you can’t miss it).
Getting around Reykjavik
Planning our route was frustrating, as Iceland’s public transport system is really confusing and disorganised as compared to the rest of Europe’s. The routes aren’t always the same and the bus services don’t show up on Google Maps. We ended up paying by coins on the bus (about SGD5 per one way ride – insane) and used the signs at the bus stops to find our way around.
Thus concluded our 5 days in the Land of Ice and Fire, an experience that opened my eyes to the sheer power of Mother Nature, and what true isolation looks like. Our total expenditure was approximately SGD1,500 – absurd for any other country but normal by Icelandic standards.
Was this money well spent?
I think so! Treat Iceland as you would a lunar expedition. You’re likely only going to do this once in your life, and almost everything you see there will not be found anywhere else on earth. It is one place which will truly make you feel small and insignificant in this world as compared to the vastness of nature. Perhaps somewhere within that space is where we find ourselves.
Important Reader Advisory:
Be warned, the ISK has recently strengthened considerably against the SGD, partly due to the summer effect and some unexplained reasons. This means that on top of the already exorbitant prices, you will be spending much more SGD to experience the same things as we did just two months ago.
Do take this into consideration during your trip planning and prepare yourself mentally!