February, the month of St. Valentine. Many of us choose to buy gifts or go for a meal; some opt for a romantic break. During winter, unless you travel to the Southern Hemisphere, you’re probably not going to find yourself on a beach, so why not embrace the cold wholeheartedly? Iceland is a fantastic, albeit alternative, place for a romantic getaway (no, not the supermarket, although it’s pretty cold in there too). The real Iceland: A land of extremes, a land of beauty, a land of fire and ice.
The rumour goes that 9th century Vikings in Iceland named this enchanting country just so to discourage others from wanting to settle in an area dominated by icy peaks and governed by unforgiving weather. While this may or may not be exactly the truth, it seems to have had that effect. With a population of around just 300,000 (a third of which reside in the country’s capital, Reykjavik) there’s a fair amount of uninterrupted land to explore.
Travelling to Iceland in February has many perks. Although it is one of the coldest months to travel with an average temperature of around 0°C, it is considered one of the best months to view the Northern Lights. On top of this, the sun has its hat on for a longer portion of the day, meaning you should get around 7.5 hours of sunlight each day compared to the measly 4.5 hours you can expect in December. Flying into Iceland isn’t like flying over to the UK, where air travel shuts down at the first sign of snow. Be prepared to land onto a white, slippery runway. If you find yourself in need of a drink to calm your nerves after the flight, head to the duty free shop before exiting the airport (alcohol is heavily taxed in Iceland; a standard bottle of vodka in a local shop will set you back a cool 50 euros) . It’s not uncommon to come across a local who will ask you whether you have bought any duty free alcohol, before promptly attempting to purchase your cargo. Maybe skip the drink. Keflavik international airport is 50km from Reykjavik, which can be reached through the airport shuttle (pre-booking recommended). After checking into your hotel, you’ll want to familiarise yourself with the city.
The first thing locals tend to recommend to you as a tourist spot is the Hallgrimskirkja (hatl-krims-kir-ka) Church. Although Iceland isn’t predominantly famed for its architecture, the tower is actually fairly unique. Its design is supposed to mirror a basalt lava flow, prevalent in Iceland’s landscape. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll be told to visit the government building: The Alþingishúsið (al-thin-y-kis-hu-sith). The site saw government protests after the financial crisis, which ultimately led the imprisonment of corrupt bankers. Well done, Iceland. As you walk back through Reykjavik’s attractive main shopping street ‘Laugavegur’ and the surrounding area, you’ll notice an absence of McDonalds. Well done again, Iceland. Admittedly, McDonalds made the decision to pull out of the country due to operating costs, but it’s still refreshing to know the brand doesn’t rule the entire world.
As this is a romantic getaway, you’ll want to arrange something to set the mood. If you’re lucky, Lake Tjornin (tyur-nin), a beautiful lake usually home to various ducks and other wildlife, will freeze over. This will leave you free to find some ice skates and show off your agility on the ice. But where do all the ducks go when the lake freezes over? To carry on the romance you can head for dinner to a variety of restaurants serving Iceland’s speciality, Icelandic Stew. Steer clear of the other speciality in the area, whale kebab. Incidentally, also give the fermented shark a wide berth. Instead of eating the whales, view them from a boat. £75 will take you on a three hour whale watching tour from Reykjavik harbour out to sea. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a majestic humpback as it’s breaching. Whale watching tours around the world don’t guarantee a sighting, but these tours have an impressive 99% success rate. That’s whaley good. Sorry.
As evening turns into night you may be tempted to show off and head to a trendy bar for a bottle of wine. Beware. Icelanders tend not to go out for after dinner drinks, instead waiting until around 1 in the morning to start the party. You’ll not only be the only people in the bar, but (as previously mentioned) you’ll be paying a massive premium for the wine. Never fear, you’re in Iceland, the romance can continue with a sighting of the elusive Aurora Borealis, more commonly referred to as the Northern Lights.
Undoubtedly, something to tick off one’s bucket list, the Northern Lights can in fact be quite a difficult spectacle to witness. The event can elude you for days at a time, the sky varying from a dim green glow to the enchanting light show you can’t help but be in awe of. You’ll have to leave the light pollution of Reykjavik to increase your chances of a viewing, and there are a number of ways to do so:
Bus tour – as the cheapest option, the bus tour will set you back about £40, departing at around 9pm and lasting 3-5 hours (depending on your tour). Pick up and drop off from your hotel complete with tour guide makes this a nice, cheap, and convenient way to view the natural phenomenon.
Jeep tour – at roughly three times the price, you can expect roughly three times the privacy, although the group sizes can include a number of jeeps if the company has had to cancel a few previous tours in a row due to bad weather.
Boat tour – costing around £80, you’ll sail off with your group from the harbour into the night. Certainly the most romantic option so far, but bring a coat. And a hat. And a scarf. Gloves, thermal trousers and under garments, ear muffs, extra socks, balaclava, and a portable wood burning fireplace.
Rent a car – at prices starting from £30 per day, this is not only a great option for driving off to create your own private Northern Lights experience, but also to see other parts of the country without having to pay for individual tours for everything you want to see, such as the famed Blue Lagoon.
Located about 40km from Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon should take under an hour to drive to depending on weather conditions. Dipping into the geothermal thermal spa will provide you with average water temperature of around 38°C in the main area, which will make you a pleasant 38°C warmer than you were previously. The geothermally heated water is rich in minerals, which are said to have healing properties, particularly with skin ailments. The scene of steam rising off the water with snow-capped mountains visible through the haze in the background is the first of many scenes you’ll struggle to do justice through the use of your camera.
Also within day trip distance from the capital are a few more places of note.
Iceland’s Þingvellir (think-vet-lir) National Park lies over the region where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates collide. This continental drift is actually visible from various cracks in the landscape to sizeable canyons making this area a geologist’s dream. For those of us who don’t understand or care about the intricacies of different rocks, we are left to marvel at the backdrop complete with fault lines, waterfalls, and the county’s largest lake, with another tongue-tingling name (Þingvallavatn – pronounce as you see fit). Everywhere you turn beckons you to snap a photo of towering cliffs and stream covered plains worthy of a postcard. For hard-core enthusiasts, there are also hiking trails and camping grounds.
Snow, tectonic plates, thermal swimming pools… What else springs to mind when you think of Iceland? Geysers. Haukadalur provides a contrast from the frozen tranquillity of Þingvellir and is home to various steaming hot springs and bubbling mud pools as well as various geysers, including Geysir, the biggest one of its kind in Iceland from which we get the word ‘geyser’. Given that this is where the name originates, I like to think of this as the main geyser in the world, which gives you bragging rights on your return home. Unfortunately, Geysir is unpredictable and can endure long periods of inactivity, but fortunately, Strokkur, the second largest geyser, erupts every 5-10 minutes. Watch the sizzling pool for long enough and you‘ll be rewarded with an explosive stream of water and steam. Cameras at the ready. Those with sensitive noses may not enjoy the area as much as others since the multiple smoking fumaroles give off a smell similar to standing in a field of cows after feasting on a vindaloo.
10km north of Haukadalur, you‘ll find a car park which leads to the river Hvítá and as you approach, the river falls from view as if vanishing into the earth. If it weren’t for the tremendous crashing of water, you might be tricked into thinking the river disappears. As it happens, on walking slightly further, the mighty Gullfoss falls comes into view. This is by no stretch the largest waterfall in Iceland, but its two stage drop and wide crest will leave you marvelling at its beauty. The proximity of the waterfall to Reykjavik makes this a popular visitors’ destination.
These three attractions (national park, geysers, and waterfall) make up a tourist favourite named the Golden Circle and all three are available as a day tour in a 300km loop from Reykjavik. Those wishing to take their time and drive to the hotspots themselves should keep an eye on how heavy the snow is. The roads in Iceland can be treacherous during the winter and in a cheap rental car, you‘ll soon find yourself with furiously spinning wheels, moving very slowly in the wrong direction down a slight incline. The day tour goes for around £80.
Everything mentioned so far can be squeezed into a two or three day mini break as part of your romantic getaway. Here are some optional extras if you and your significant other are slightly more adventurous.
Fire and ice. How have we come this far without mentioning glaciers or volcanos? Over a tenth of the country is covered with glaciers. The landscape that wasn’t built by erupting volcanos and terrain splitting earthquakes was carved through these slow moving giants.
Langjökull (lank-yur-koetl) glacier is situated close to the aforementioned Gullfoss waterfall from the area of the Golden Circle. It’s a popular part of the country for snowmobiling tours, the price of which varies depending on how long you‘d like to ride for, but it’s certain to be a longer and more expensive experience than renting a snowmobile in Siberia (as mentioned last month). If you are going to give one of these machines a ride anywhere, you might as well do it on formidable Icelandic glacier with a view of a couple of active volcanos. Once you‘ve finished your contribution to the slow destruction of the very glacier you‘ve been riding on, you can pop inside one of the manmade caves. These extensive tunnels can be explored with relative ease and if you‘re looking to add some extra passion and spontaneity to the weekend, you can get married there.
You may remember that huge volcanic eruption back in 2010 which spewed volcanic ash high into the atmosphere and disrupted flights all over Europe. Want to go there? A trail connects the Eyjafjallajökull (ay-ya-fya-ta-la-yur-koetl) glacier, which covers the volcano, with a bigger glacier covering an even bigger volcano. The 22km Fimmvörðuháls (fim-vur-thoe-hauls), although a popular route, should be approached with caution as weather condition can be harsh. It takes you past many waterfalls and two newly formed craters which steam emit steam as the lava is still warm and melts the snow. You’ll also find yourself on top of a newly formed mountain, also still warm. How many other opportunities are you going to have to stand on a brand new bit of the planet?
Lastly, finish with the largest glacier in Iceland (and Europe). Vatnajökull (var-na-yur-koetl) is so large that is has many glacial tongues, some of which are suitable for on foot exploration. Hiking holidays can get quite a bit pricey in these parts, but with every element of ridiculously picturesque landscape you could ask for, this is the perfect place to resume your attempts to create that panoramic postcard. The most active volcano system is located in Vatnajökull (with the latest eruption lasting six months and finishing in March 2015) so if you want to head to all of the superlatives, this is your area.
There are many other volcanos and glaciers off the beaten track to visit as these are the building blocks that form Iceland. However, a final mention goes to Maelifell volcano, simply because it looks exactly like what you imagined a volcano to look like when you were a child. This classical volcano isn‘t easy to get to as it‘s only accessible by 4×4 and the road is often flooded. It‘s one for the more adventurous.
So there it is: a slightly more alternative version of a weekend break for two, with an optional fire and ice extension pack. It makes a nice change from the standard European city getaway. There‘s something inherently romantic about the snow, and you can impress your lover throughout the holiday by comparing your love with the Icelandic landscape (hopefully intense and beautiful, as opposed to rocky and explosive). And if love isn‘t in the air, hopefully you‘ll find some green lights up there.
words | Chris Hedley