Visiting Iceland in winter may seem crazy to some, but what can I say, we wanted to see the Northern Lights — so here we are! Chalk this one up as a bucket list trip. And since we’d recently seen Iceland in summer, it seemed only right to visit in winter too!
This trip is also likely one of the quickest we ever planned. There were 10 days between the time Jeff got final confirmation of his green card renewal and when we took off. [That man can plan when he wants to!]
Despite losing the first 2 days of our trip to Winter Storm Jonas (which dropped 30+ inches of snow on the mid-Atlantic and wreaked havoc on airport travel) — we had set our mind on enjoying the trip and seeing what we could. Here’s our story! (I apologize now — this is a long post — simply because we didn’t have time to break it into 2!)
Once the airport delays were over, the trip was a piece of cake. Icelandair rocks (!) and upgraded us to comfort class (less than first but much better than cattle). Sweet!
We arrived to flurries (better than where we left!) but upon landing we got the first taste of the wintry conditions. Remember – we live in the southern parts of the US. We don’t experience winter scenes like this. Ever.
What can I say, but BRRRRR!!!!! (And OK, I will admit that at this point, the thought crossed my mind — what have I gotten myself into?!?!? Happily, I was too tired to pursue that line of thought for very long.)
Driving in Iceland
After sailing through Customs (by this I mean, walking through a door labeled Nothing to Declare), we headed off to get our rental car.
If you ever plan to drive in Iceland, hear this: Know your car insurance coverage before you arrive. They scare you mightily (and rightly so) with stories of gravel chips, windblown doors, undercarriage protection (in case you plan to ford any rivers — we do not), and sand/ash damage. You can purchase extra coverage for each of these.
Happily, Jeff had already contacted our credit card company (that we purchased the car rental on) and knew we were to refuse it all. So once we had checked the car over, we were off.
Our Jeep Grand Cherokee with 4WD and studded tires was ready for our winter adventure. Armed with handy URLs for weather and road conditions as well as for general safe driving in Iceland, we were off!
It’s at this point that I’ll remind you that we’d flown all night, slept little to none, and arrived before sunrise. So it took us a minute (or 60) to get our bearings. [Another tip -- bring your trusty GPS with you (don't forget to download an Icelandic map) -- it has served us well!]
To remind you of the geography of Iceland, check out the map below. Reykjavik (the capital) is in the southwest corner (pink star). Our first rental is near the purple star in West Iceland. While this may seem “remote” once you see where we stayed, checking out the map below will tell you that we really weren’t remote after all.
The below map indicates the driving conditions. At their worst, the conditions to our rental were classed as “slippery” (light blue) whereas much of the interior of the island — where the famous F roads go — were impassable (red). So we really weren’t that remote. [Of note, some of the F roads are also impassable (or only available to 4x4's) even in summer.]
Following our trusty GPS, we navigated our way through the dark, around Reykjavik, and out the northern end before the sun began to rise. Unfortunately for us, the clouds were thick and we were socked in, so sunrise really just provided light but not bright. Being cautious given the conditions, it was interesting/slightly terrifying to watch locals fly past us on the salty but snowy roads. Hmmmph.
Along the route, we went through a 6km tunnel under a fjord (who thinks of building one of those?!?!?!) before heading up into West Iceland. The most notable/harrowing part of the trip for me was heading through the Brattabrekka mountain pass. I’ll admit that I had my second moment of wondering what we had gotten ourselves into at this stage. (Don’t worry, it passed quickly too!)
Here is the view looking back through the pass. (In looking back at it now, I would have told you it was way darker than that!)
And here was our view as we crossed through the pass and over the other side. Much better! Ok, maybe the road wasn’t much better, but the blue sky and sunshine were nice to see! [Mental note: thank you studded tires!]
After this point, our driving experiences only got better from here. Whether it was that we got used to the roads, or perhaps just that we got a full night’s sleep — driving after Day 1 was much, much easier than this initial route.
But anywho, more important than that, it’s time to get to that cottage!
Jeff found us an AWESOME Air BnB to stay at named Kolsstaðir. The sign below points to the cottage. See that black speck way in the background? That’s where we stayed for 2 days (supposed to have been 4!).
When we first arrived, it would have been ever so helpful if this sign was actually cleared and in view. Another tip for Iceland in winter — follow distances or GPS, don’t always count on signs since they are often covered in snow! So, knowing our distance, we turned up the “driveway” and found our way to the house. Given the fresh snowfall the day before, we were following our noses to the cabin more than a visible road. Oh me!
Once in sight, though, this cottage was amazing! Check out the view below. This was the view on Day 1, after the fresh fallen snow. The temp around this time was a balmy 32degF/0degC. So really not bad at all.
Below is the view on Day 2, after a night’s worth of wind gusts of 15 to 20 miles an hour (that sounded much mightier than that!). This gave us our first idea that snow may fall in Iceland, but it often gets blown away rather than accumulating. Or at least that was our experience.
Of note, the lowest temp we saw that night (we were up periodically looking for the northern lights!) was 23degF/-5degC. So really not bad, though I’m sure with the wind chill it felt much colder! You’re kidding yourself if you think we ventured out in that…
Okay, back to Kolsstaðir. Here is a closer view. We enjoy tiny houses — so this cottage gave us the chance to live that lifestyle for a couple of days! Gorgeous! And notably, this house is solid. Even in the gusty winds, the house never once creaked, much less moved. Awesome.
And while the outdoors looks frigid, the inside was warm and inviting with our newest obsession — a woodstove. Ever since our Montana trips, we have wanted a woodstove. Now we just want one even more…
The interior was super cozy and the view from the many windows were all gorgeous. The huge window on one end provided a panoramic view of the valley below.
Even the view from the kitchen sink was stunning! (note the snow-rimmed windows…)
Given that daylight hours were from 10ish to 5ish, with about 1 hour of sunrise and sunset on each end of that, we toured the surrounding area during the light of day and chilled by the fire while watching the Australian Open, designing our dream house, blogging, and/or just relaxing during the dark hours.
There was no TV at the cottage — yay! (before you say anything, sports don’t count towards my opposition of watching TV on vacation) — but as with many places in Iceland there was an excellent internet connection, which we used often.
So even something remote as this may seem, really isn’t remote at all. The world is getting smaller…
And on that note, we slowly realized that the cottage wasn’t truly remote — there were several other houses/farms scattered around — and these were most easily seen at night, when their lights would be on with smoke coming out of their chimney. The next day, we realized there was a sign at the end of the road indicating each of these houses. Yep, you read that right. This sign indicates houses/farms not towns. Different, eh?
Had we visited Kolsstaðir in the summer, this is an excellent hiking area, with beautiful walks throughout these hills/mountains and great fishing to be had in the nearby river. But in winter, not only is it too cold (for us!), but you also have to be very careful not to walk on/fall through any unseen water or geothermal activity that could ruin your trek.
If you think you’d like to visit Kolsstaðir, check it out here on AirBnB. We highly recommend it! Our host, Kristján, was lovely to work with and clearly the place is gorgeous!
Now let’s talk about the surrounding area. West Iceland is one of the areas that we really didn’t explore on our last trip, so it was fun to try to see a bit of it.
The glory of small towns
One thing Jeff and I always LOVE to do when we are visiting new places is to find a small coffee shop or restaurant and talk to the locals. This always seems easier in small towns, where people are generally more open. And in the case of winter in Iceland, cafés in small towns are so empty that they have plenty of time to talk with us foreigners.
We went through Borgarnes on our initial drive to the cottage. The view below gives you an idea of the winter storm we had driven through. Brrrrrr!
As we drove through the seemingly empty town, we came upon a café/restaurant with an open sign and ducked in. One other couple was in there initially. Jeff ingested caffeine to help for the remainder of the drive while we ate delicious muffins that we would have sworn were fresh baked this morning, only to find out they were the best of the best imported frozen from Germany. Didn’t see that one coming!
Our server told us of stories about this building and town and how it has changed hands over the years, all the while preparing the below lunch buffet for people who may or may not arrive. Winter in Iceland is slow except for the locals who frequent the restaurants.
Búðardalur is the closest town to the cottage — only a 15-minute drive down a very scenic road. Driving into the town, it looked cold and isolated, but we were able to find a little activity. The below house has provided the brightest color we have seen on this trip thus far!
We pulled into the parking lot for Leifsbud Cafe (below), which seemed warm and abustle with activity, only to find out that it was closed to visitors and they were having a seminar for locals. Bummer! We soooooo wanted to be in that warmth with the camraderie that could easily be seen through the windows.
Instead, we headed up the street to Dalakot, a restaurant/pizzeria/accommodation that was open from noon to 1:30 each day — and it was 1:15 at the time. So we hoofed it up the street to find the below setting. Of note — by the look of it outside, there was no evidence that it was open. So it always pays to peek your head in and give out a tentative “Hellllloooooo?????” That will tell the story.
Empty, save one local who was just leaving, this restaurant provided us with a place to have a drink and a delicious homemade pizza. We ended up buying 2 pizzas, some fries, and drinks. Not necessarily because we were that hungry (though it did make for great dinner) but because we really wanted to practically give our server our money. She had clearly stayed open to feed us and we were grateful.
[Note the pic of the northern lights on the wall to the left -- so.want.to.see.them!]
Bellies full, we then went down to the water, where we were reminded that this area’s main industry is fishing. How picturesque! Reminded me of Siglufjörður on our last trip.
Farming is big here as well, as told to us by our servers in both Bogarnes and Dalakot.
We were also reminded that driving through small towns can provided some of the most idyllic scenes. Check out the church below.
Besides small towns, the other (gorgeous!) thing that peppers the hillsides in this area (and throughout Iceland) are the horses. I fell in love with them on our last trip. On this trip, I just feel horrible that they have to stay out in such cold weather. But apparently, they are built for it!
Stocky and sturdier than American horses, these guys are simply beautiful!
Undoubtedly, whenever we started talking to one of them, his friends would come over and gather around. Everyone wanted a pat and some sweet nothings whispered in their ears. [Mental note: Tomorrow we'll bring apples!]
This one made me laugh — candid camera, indeed! It’s not all beauty and grace…
Scenes like this were everywhere. Sigh…
This guy looked as though he was posing just for us. Sometimes great things happen when you take a wrong turn down a less-traveled road.
One of the notable features of Icelandic winters is that the sun never rises very high in the sky. So it’s perpetually excellent light for photography (although sometimes too cold for our fingers to work the knobs on the camera!). And with sunrise and sunset about an hour each, there was ample time for good photos. That said, 2 days isn’t enough to scout out good sites and really take good photos, so we’ve done the best we can in the time we have!
Below is a frozen lake. And also a reminder to pay attention when driving on Icelandic roads. Many of them have dropoffs on each side that you can easily run off if not paying attention (or if sidetracked by looking at the gorgeous scenery). And as with walking, this could lead to running into streams, lakes, or rivers, some completely covered in snow and unidentifiable as streams, lakes, or rivers.
Below is a common scene while driving. Stunning, eh?
And perhaps a bit frigid…shiver.
On our way out of West Iceland, we stopped to see the famous lava falls – Hraunfossar. Called such because this water flows through the layers of the lava field above and comes out the side in many rivulets. Gorgeous!
[Note: This is the coldest place I think I've ever been. Jeff and I had to both stop taking pix for a bit until our fingers stopped feeling like ice bricks. Woah! The things we do for photography...That said, the lowest temp our car indicated in this area was -7degC/19degF, though I am certain it was colder in the shade!]
Here is a closer look at the main part of the falls…
And below is one of my photos (noticeably less gorgeous than Jeff’s above), but I was bound and determined to put this one in, since I fell on the ice (not once but twice!) getting to it. Aye, aye, aye. That’s gonna hurt tomorrow.
Below is Barnafossar — the falls/rapids that lead into the Hvítá river just above where the Hraunfossar come out. Though hard to tell, there is a lava arch in the middle of the picture that has been carved out by the water. Quite beautiful.
Again, apologies for the long post — but this gives you an idea of our first 2 days in wintry West Iceland. This country is truly a winter wonderland.
And to answer a question you haven’t asked yet but may be wondering, we saw the faintest glimpse of the aurora borealis on night 2 of our stay at the cottage, before the clouds rolled in. So we have our fingers crossed that we may be able to see it more clearly at some point before we leave. Time will tell!!!
Until we meet again, it’s time for us to head off to Reykjavik, where we’ll spend the rest of our stay. Over and out!