Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Iceland Adventures: Insider’s Guide to Northern Lights, Waterfalls, and Volcanoes

by WendyPerrin.com | February 3, 2022

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Iceland: Chris Gordon of Icepedition.

Trusted Travel Expert
Chris Gordon

After his first trip to Iceland more than 20 years ago, Chris gave up a career as a creative director for the likes of Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch and turned his artistic eye to designing one-of-a-kind trips to Iceland. He now splits his time between New York and Reykjavik and counts some of the people he met on that first trip as his best friends. Chris’ wide network of in-country contacts—from farmers to politicians to artists—show his travelers a side of Iceland that those on the standard Golden Circle itineraries miss. His trips combine jaw-dropping landscapes with the cushiest places to stay, from modern, high-design hotels to friendly guesthouses. He can arrange for you to spend your days kayaking among icebergs, listening to family sagas in small fishing villages, foraging with famous chefs, and soaking in secret hot springs. He can set you up with a 4WD rental car, although for those ready to splurge, a private driver/guide will take you places you literally couldn’t navigate to on your own. During a trip, Chris is available 24/7 and will send travelers Aurora alerts if the Northern Lights may be visible where they are.

Expect WOW trips orchestrated by Chris to start at $770 per day for two travelers for a self-drive itinerary; this includes 4-star accommodations, a rental car, breakfast every day, some experiences with a local private guide, and admission to hot-spring spas and the like. NOTE: Hotels are nearly sold out in Iceland in September 2022; Chris is not accepting any requests for trips that month.

What to See and Do

traveler standing on edge of deep blue river in the bottom of a steep basalt canyon in Iceland

Basalt Canyon, Iceland. Photo: Arnar Kristjansson Photography

Don’t Miss
Iceland has many rare natural wonders: Walk behind a waterfall, discover another one inside a secret cave, and climb to the top of a third, where a path leads you to 24 more. Soak in natural hot springs and hot rivers in remote locations; explore ice caves and marvel at the impossible turquoise glow of icebergs floating in a glacial lagoon. You maybe lucky enough to witness a volcano erupting—but it’s still an exhilarating experience to climb to the rim of an extinct one. The haunting sounds of glaciers creaking as they inch forward, and the vast spectacle of auroras overhead, are life-changing experiences that even native Icelanders never take for granted.

Don’t Bother
Certain experiences like dogsledding (not a traditional Icelandic mode of transport to begin with) and the Thrihnukagigur magma chamber tour consume most of a day when you factor in travel time, yet offer only a brief experience on-site—often just 45 minutes in an eight-hour day. There are comparable options with simpler logistics and lower costs, which allow you to pack more into each day of your trip.

Most Underrated Places
Friðheimar’s elegant tables set among allées of tomato vines inside a geothermal hothouse seem more like a chic Parisian idea than an Arctic tourist destination. Go to this tomato-themed restaurant, near the famous Geysir hot springs and Gulfoss waterfall, for all-you-can-sip tomato soup with artisan grilled-cheese croutons, endless loaves of rustic bread, delicious Bloody Marys, and clever house specialties like a surprisingly subtle tomato ice cream.

You’ll find more traditional ice cream flavors at the nearby Efstidalur dairy farm; check out the pampered cows on view, eagerly queued up for their bovine massages.

Most Overrated Place
With each room set inside a clear plastic dome, the Bubble Hotel may seem like the ideal way to see the northern lights. But keep in mind that the lights are typically only visible once or twice in a ten-day period, so the chances of your reservation overlapping with a nighttime show are slim. Furthermore, you may need to hike through a blizzard in the middle of the night to find the separate bathrooms, and you have to book the hotel’s day tours and a multi-night stay.

the saltwater pool of the GeoSea Spa resort in Iceland overlooking the ocean, with blue skies above

Photo: GeoSea Spa.

Hidden Gems
The hot saltwater infinity pools at Geosea Spa hang over a cliff, facing a dramatic fjord with a snowy mountain range across the water. Humpback and even blue whales can sometimes be seen breaching from the spa’s edge. GeoSea is located along the Arctic Circle on the opposite side of the country from Reykjavik, so it’s reasonably priced and never crowded.

For an experience of ancient solitude largely lost in modern times, take a ferry past 10,000 uninhabited islets to Flatey Island, occupied for over 1,000 years and now a time capsule of 19th-century wooden houses preserved as historic national treasures. There is also a church, Iceland’s smallest library, a captivating beached shipwreck—and no cars or roads. The Greenland Saga was penned here: the only written account of the Icelandic Vikings, led by Erik the Red, who voyaged to Greenland and North America 500 years before Columbus. The elegant Hotel Flatey has austere rooms and a top chef imported from Reykjavik; some stay here just for the memorable dinners made from fresh, local ingredients including fish and wild scallops from the bay. At night you are lulled to sleep by songs of seabirds and calm waves quietly lapping on the shore just outside your window. Around the summer solstice, the hotel’s bohemian staff are known to sleep outside in sunny fields of wild buttercups.

Cheap Thrills
A langoustine po-boy grilled right before your eyes in a food truck at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon parking lot.

Glacier ice cream,” made by the Brunnhóll dairy farm at the foot of the Vatnajökull glacier, in flavors such as Icelandic licorice (a sweet, creamy, salted anise flavor) and wild dandelion. Wonderful conventional flavors are also available for those less daring.

northern lights over snowy flat plateau and lake in iceland

Northern Lights. Photo: kamilgrygo/Pixabay

Bragging Rights
Chris can arrange private performances by noted Icelandic musicians playing ancient and modern music inside significant places, both man-made and natural. He can have an opera singer perform a medieval form of chanting unique to Iceland, called Rimur, in the iconic black church at Budir, which is not open to the public. Or he can book an Icelandic cellist to play Bach concertos alongside modern electronic music in a vast, newly discovered complex of caves constructed by Vikings more than 1,000 years ago.

Traditional Icelandic foods, including wild game, are getting harder to find; that’s why Chris is always excited to commission off-menu meals in restaurants, or even prepared by his friends in their chic Reykjavik homes. He can also ask an Icelandic celebrity-chef friend to take his travelers foraging and to meet with farmers, fishermen, and hunters—after which everyone prepares a lavish outdoor private dinner party together in an incredible Icelandic landscape.

Where to Stay and What to Eat

Best-Value Splurge Hotel
One of Iceland’s newest gems is the five-star, suites-only spa hotel, The Retreat at Blue Lagoon. Its soaring, modern architecture is set beside steamy turquoise waters and vivid black lava flows. While rooms here can cost double what the next-best property charges, your krona are well spent: The staff are preternaturally attuned to every need, the rooms are stocked with Duxiana mattresses and sublime sheets and robes, and the breakfast buffet is vast and exceptional. Overnighting at The Retreat also grants you entry into several lagoons that would otherwise cost $300 to $400 per person. Do make sure to book spa treatments in advance, as they fill up; Chris can also arrange a private wine tasting at the chef’s table in MOSS, the hotel’s restaurant.

A suite at the Retreat at The Blue Lagoon in Iceland overlooking the water and the mossy land

A suite at the Retreat at The Blue Lagoon. Photo: Retreat at Blue Lagoon

Restaurants the Locals Love
For decades, the hands-down favorite of locals and visitors alike has been Reykjavik’s unpretentious, always exceptional Fiskfélagið (Fish Company), set in a cozy, romantic 19th-century lava-stone cellar by the old harbor. Fiskfélagid’s fame lies in warm hospitality, elegant and modern decor and exquisitely prepared ingredients from around the world: Greenlandic reindeer, Japanese yuzu, French truffles, Moroccan dates, Indian saffron, Brazilian passion fruit, Cuban rum, Irish beer, and Italian coffee may make their way onto your table. While the world’s best fish usually steals the show, there are plenty of other options. The chef often sends surprises not mentioned on the menu. Do not leave without ordering an extravagant, exotic dessert.

Chris’s Icelandic friends are known to starve themselves all day just so they can gorge with abandon on succulent, fresh-caught local langoustine tails grilled in herb butter and served by the kilo with wine and ocean views at Fjöruborðið (By the Sea), just outside Reykjavik. You’ll be brought piles of napkins and served a trough of just-grilled tails as everyone rolls up their sleeves and devours them with bare, buttery hands until they can eat no more. Langoustines are also served in what Icelanders call “lobster soup,” elsewhere considered a dense, rich bisque made by simmering their shells for hours and adding heavy cream to extract flavor. There are other dishes too, including lamb, the best burgers, and even Mediterranean salads. Whatever you choose, save room for the indulgent desserts.

In Iceland’s farthest northwestern region, the seafood-specialty restaurant Tjöruhúsið (Tar House) serves up a dozen different all-you-can-eat masterpieces on a chic, self-serve buffet inside an austere, 18th-century timber warehouse. Many rank Tjöruhúsið the best dinner in Iceland; even fish-haters often give it their best reviews. It’s important to note that the restaurant has adapted effectively to Covid-era protocol, even while famously serving at communal tables.

Sea cave, Iceland. Photo: Arnar Kristjansson Photography

Dishes to Try
While the fish is fairly new to the U.S., Icelanders have been serving Arctic char for a millennium. It’s a natural cross between a salmon and a trout, with all the character of salmon but less pungent and oily. Key to its success in Iceland is its freshness and suitability for simple preparation, most often sautéed in butter with salt and pepper.

rye bread ice cream sundae from Cafe Loki Reykjavik Iceland

Rye bread cream. Photo: Café Loki

Icelanders really love dessert, and especially ice cream. In Reykjavik, try the hard-to-describe rye bread ice cream at unpretentious Café Loki, or the homemade licorice ice cream at the opulent KOL restaurant. For a morning sweet, have a still-warm cinnamon bun from Brauð & Co (Bread & Co) bakery in Reykjavik.

 

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Best Times to Go

Around the summer solstice (June 21), you’ll get 24 hours of sunshine and an explosion of wildflowers as far as the eye can see. There are day-old foals, lambs, and wild chicks, and eggs visible in ground nests. Consider arriving a few weeks after the solstice, just in case summer arrives late (as it often does in the Arctic).

From September through March, you have a shot at seeing the northern lights—particularly if you visit for at least a week. Just about everything you can experience in summer is also possible in winter: Natural hot springs and even hot rivers make a cozy place to wait for auroras, even better with a thermos of hot chocolate. It’s also not as frigid as you might think: The average high in Reykjavik in January is 37 degrees. Do keep in mind, though, that you’ll only get four or five hours of daylight in the depths of winter.

Worst Time to Go

March and April have the greatest odds of snowstorms. However, the storms are often brief, and roads are usually cleared in hours.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Not booking everything in advance (from hotels to car rental to private guides to dinners): Iceland is a tiny nation, and tourist demand often outpaces supply.

Ignoring terrain and driving distances. If you’re plotting out your own itinerary, look carefully at geography, and research drive times between destinations—taking into consideration unforeseen delays caused by everything from bad weather to unpaved roads. (Also keep in mind that Icelanders are rule followers, so if you show up three minutes late for your boat excursion, you’ll probably get left behind.)

Can't-Miss Photo Op

At Diamond Beach, across from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the south coast, icebergs the size of SUVs lodge on black sand. The experience there is so otherworldly you’ll have dreams about it for nights to come.

Tipping Tip

It’s hard for visitors to fully accept that there really is no tipping in Iceland—so much so that there is no place on a credit card slip to write one in. Icelanders really aren’t expecting them, nor are they thinking bad things about you after you walk away without tipping.

Don't Forget to Pack

Long underwear and warm socks are the true key to comfort, especially from September to May. Keep in mind that a 70-degree day makes national news in Iceland, and a 50-degree day is a summer norm.

Must-have Tech

Many car-rental companies offer onboard Wi-Fi for just a few dollars a day. You can also put the device in your pocket and use it to make free overseas calls from your smartphone, as well as to gain internet navigation even while on a glacier, volcano, or hiking trail.

Scam to Avoid

Icelanders are some of the most honest people on earth, so scams are virtually unheard of. That said, if there’s any scam in Iceland, its selling car-theft protection. There’s nowhere to hide a car on a small island, so people generally don’t bother stealing them. One car-rental upcharge that Chris does highly recommend is gravel protection, since Iceland is a land of rocks. Thoroughly photograph the entire surface of your rental car and report the smallest dings or damage before driving off, so you are not accidentally charged for the previous renter’s wear and tear.

The Souvenir

There are five sheep for every person in Iceland. With so much wool and so many quiet winter hours to fill, knitting here has evolved to an art form. Avoid the souvenir tourist sweaters, which are often knitted in Nepal (to avoid Iceland’s prohibitive labor costs) from Icelandic wool. Instead, splurge at Ullarselið (the Wool Center) in Hvanneyri, near Reykjavik, or at Alþýðulist gallerí (Folk Art Gallery) in Varmahlíð, in the north, where exceptional pieces are hand-knitted in unique designs by known local artisans, often from their own hand-spun yarn.

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