As the plane flew over the alien landscape, I could see that Iceland was going to be a very different world compared to other destinations. Lava fields extended below me as the plane came in for landing at Iceland’s only international airport at Keflavik. It was the middle of winter and snow covered the lava fields. Jagged black lava formations stuck out of the snow everywhere forming a contrasting landscape of black and white. There is no room for error during landing, miss the runway and the plane would be shredded to bits on the sharp and knife-like volcanic rocks. Building an airport out in the middle of an ancient lava field, what were they thinking?

My first glimpse of Iceland from the plane. I should have booked the window seat, bu had to settle for asking the passenger seated by the window to take this photo for me.
My first glimpse of Iceland from the plane. I should have booked the window seat, but had to settle for asking the passenger seated by the window to take this photo for me.

So what were we doing in Iceland in the middle of winter? Truth is, we wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights as it’s commonly known. The best time is from October to March, but this also coincides with winter, and for good reason. Winter is the time when daylight hours are the shortest, and skies are generally clear due to the colder, drier weather. But more about the Northern Lights in a later blog post. I thought I would like to start off my blog series on Iceland with an introduction to the landscape. Trying to catch the Northern Lights can be a exercise in futility as viewing them depends on solar activity and good clear weather. If both of these circumstances don’t come together then what else can you do in winter? Enjoying the rest of Iceland, and understanding why it’s called the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’. Another thing about visiting Iceland in winter, it’s the low key season and prices are cheaper for car rentals and hotels, with less crowds. Although in our case, I felt that there was still too many tourists when we were there in February 2016.

Many of us in Asia have probably heard of Iceland. That faraway, mysterious island of the Vikings and elves. In recent history, Iceland was more well known for the collapse of their banks in 2008’s sub-prime crisis, the filming location of Game of Thrones, and more recently, their Prime Minister had to resign because he had a off-shore company hiding his wealth in the ‘Panama Papers’ leak. Most of us also think that Iceland is extremely cold, that’s why they call it Iceland, duh!

Iceland lies just below the Arctic Circle at the meeting point of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans. Due to the North Atlantic Gulf stream which brings warm air and sea current from the south, Iceland does not get very cold even in winter compared to other places at the same latitude. When we were there in February, average temperatures were +5°C to -5°C. However, because of the constant tension of cold and warm air from the Arctic and Gulf streams, the weather in Iceland can change very rapidly. We encountered all manner of seasons in Iceland while we were there, ranging from sunny days to wintry conditions like rain, snow, sleet and hail, not to mention the occasional blizzard.

Geologically, Iceland sits between 2 continental plates, the North American and the European plates which are drifting apart slowly. That means Iceland is slowly getting bigger as the 2 continental plates pull apart. Because of plate tectonics, volcanic activity is high here. Thus, we have the Land of Fire and Ice where rumbling volcanos lurk under glaciers waiting to explode into life every few years. And where else to see this than the more popular tours like the Golden Circle, South Coast and Snæfellsnes Peninsular. Another thing, Iceland is also the land of unpronounceable Viking names as we will soon see.

For this blog post, I will talk about the South Coast and Snæfellsnes Peninsular, both of which can covered by a day tour, or an extended tour over a few days for a more thorough experience. The Golden Circle will be covered in a later blog post. As it was winter, we were advised by the Icelanders not to self-drive as far as possible, especially if we come from tropical Asia and have no experience driving in snowed out roads and coping with blizzards (Despite the snow and ice, I never saw any Icelanders using chains on their tyres when I was there). Thus, we took guided day tours which although lacks some freedom, but with helpful tour guides who are more than willing to share their country with the rest of the world, made the tours great.

A quick glance on where the South Coast and Snæfellsnes Peninsular are on Iceland. Both areas are easily accessible from Reykjavik.
A quick glance on where the South Coast and Snæfellsnes Peninsular are on Iceland. Both areas are easily accessible from Reykjavik.

South Coast

If you want to see waterfalls, black sand beaches and glaciers, then the South Coast is the place. Extremely popular due to it’s easy road access from Reykjavik, the attractions along the South Coast can get pretty crowded with tourists. But this was winter, and when I say crowded, it just means less than a hundred tourists at any of the attractions at any one time.

Taken from the bus, Hekla volcano. It is still active and when it erupts, the Icelanders say "What the Hek!" or that's what they told me.
Photo taken from the bus. This is Hekla volcano. It is still active and when it erupts, the Icelanders say “What the Hek!”. That’s what they told me on how the phrase came about. It’s a joke right?
Seen during our rest stop. This is an all terrain tour bus. It looks more like it should belong on a Mars mission.
Seen during the first rest stop of the day. This is an all terrain tour bus. It looks like it should belong on a Planet Mars mission.

Along the way, we came across the Icelandic horses which are plentiful and often seen in the pastures by the road side. They are quite friendly and would come up to people just to get some attention. They were sporting their winter coats consisting of long manes and hair over their bodies. Although the size of a pony, they are extremely strong and hardy.

Those cute little Icelandic horses are all over the countryside. We stopped to have a photo opportunity with some of them.
Those cute little Icelandic horses are all over the countryside. We stopped to have a photo opportunity with some of them.
They are extremely friendly and like to cuddle up to humans.
Love the hair. They are extremely friendly and like to cuddle up to humans.
Have you ever seen a horse with blonde hair?
I’m too sexy. Have you ever seen a horse with blonde hair?

Culturally, many Icelanders also believe in elves and will try their best not to disturb rocks that are believed to be their homes. So after one of our tour mates asked a question on elves, our tour guide brought us to see an elf castle.

Supposedly elf castle or troll house. It's houses which are built into the volcanic rocks.
Supposedly an elf castle. It’s actually small houses which are built into the volcanic rocks and the elves are believed to inhabit them.

There are a couple of prominent waterfalls along the South Coast like Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, all of which make good photo stops.

Besides the usual popular waterfalls, we could see many smaller waterfalls as glacier melt water falls from the side of the cliffs.
Besides the usual popular waterfalls, we could see many smaller waterfalls as glacier melt water falls from the side of the cliffs.
Skógafoss. One of the more well known waterfalls in Iceland.
Skógafoss. One of the more well known waterfalls in Iceland and one of the biggest in the country with a height of 60m.
Visitors can walk right up to the waterfall.
Visitors can walk right up to the waterfall although during winter the frozen ground was making it very difficult to walk due to the ice.
Another popular waterfall is Seljalandsfoss.
Another popular waterfall is Seljalandsfoss. As you probably guessed by now, foss is the Icelandic word for waterfall.
This is the waterfall where you can walk behind the falls and view it from the inside. Although during winter the path to the back is icy and slippery and we were advised not to try it.
Seljalandsfoss is the waterfall where you can walk behind the falls and view it from the inside. Although during winter the path to the back is icy and slippery and we were advised not to try it.
The weather started to change as we left Seljalandfoss. Clouds were bringing hail and snow.
The weather started to change as we left Seljalandsfoss. Clouds were bringing hail and snow toward us, and very soon small hailstones the size of little Styrofoam packing balls were smacking into our faces.

Along the way, we also stopped at one of the more famous volcanos in recent history, Eyjafjallajökull, the mountain who’s name cannot be mentioned. As stated earlier, Iceland is a land of unpronounceable Viking names and Eyjafjallajökull is one of them. When it erupted in Aril 2010 and caused the shutdown of air travel in Northern Europe for months, news reporters were having problems trying to pronounce the name of the volcano.

Eyjafjallajökull literally translates into Island's Mountain's Glacier, and actually refers to the glacier on top of the volcano.
Eyjafjallajökull literally translates into Islands’ Mountains’ Ice Cap, and actually refers to the glacier on top of the volcano. When the volcano erupted in 2010, the glacier fell into the crater, causing an ash cloud which disrupted air travel in Northern Europe for months.

We passed by the small village of Vik and stopped for lunch. Despite it’s small size (less than 300 residents), Vik is quite popular with visitors and has a rather large hotel for it’s size. Most people stop here to see the black sand beach or break their journey as they continue to the eastern part of Iceland.

The village of Vik. Really a one street town, but it's a good resting point for short stays and enjoying the black sand beaches around it.
The village of Vik. It’s really a one street town, but it’s a good resting point for short stays and enjoying the black sand beaches around it.
The black sand beach at Vik.
The black sand beach at Vik.
Volcanic rocks called basalt form rock formations in the sea.
Volcanic rocks called basalt form rock formations in the sea. It is also home to hundreds of sea birds.
And to see the huge waves of the North Atlantic smashing into the beach is awe inspiring.
Watching the huge waves of the North Atlantic smashing into the beach is awe inspiring.
The church of Vik. Located on top of a small hill near the village.
The church of Vik. Located on top of a small hill near the village.

After lunch, we drove around the cliffs to another black sand beach were could get a closer look at the basalt cliffs and rock formations. The black sand beach can be quite dangerous as our guide told us that a Chinese tourist was killed just a few days ago when he stood too near the waves and got washed out into the ocean and drowned. When we were there, we could see a heavy police presence as they tried to keep over enthusiastic tourists from venturing too close to the waves.

Volcanic rock called basalt forms into angular columns. They look man made but are actually natural.
Volcanic rock called basalt forms into angular columns. They look man-made but are actually natural.
Those waves are huge.
Those waves are huge and with those basalt columns, it really looks like I’m on another planet.
A lot of photographers trying to get the best view.
A lot of photographers trying to get the best view. The police were trying hard to tell tourists to keep away from the waves.

Vik itself lies under the shadow of another volcano covered by a glacier. This one is called Katla and the glacier covering it is called Mýrdalsjökull. Another mouthful to pronounce and I have already given up on speaking Icelandic. So after leaving Vik, we found ourselves taking a walk onto the lower reaches of Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Katla, the volcano under Mýrdalsjökull is bigger and more active than Eyjafjallajökull, and it has not erupted for the last 100 years. Scientists predict that it is overdue for a major eruption.

The road near Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
The road near Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
Despite the sign, tourists were walking down onto the glacier. Some groups were led by experienced staff and wearing proper ice boots and sticks. But a lot were also just casual tourists like us.
Despite the sign, tourists were walking down onto the glacier. Some groups were led by experienced staff and wearing proper glacier climbing equipment. But a lot were also just casual tourists like us. I decided not to go further as the path was slippery with ice and I didn’t have crampons on my boots.
The immensity of nature is overwhelming.
The immensity of nature is overwhelming.
The blueness of the glacier ice stands out from the fresher snowfall.
The blueness of the glacier ice stands out from the fresher snowfall.

Our tour of the South Coast took a whole day. We left in the early morning around 9am and were back in Reykjavik by 7pm. Our tour group was quite small with around 15 of us. I think this is a good group size compared to a large tour bus with 40-50 people. There was more flexibility in the itinerary like stopping to see the Icelandic horses and elf castle and we had a more intimate interaction with the guide. Although we seemed to have seen quite a few sights, there are many more sights like the famous wreckage of a US Navy DC-3 aircraft on the rocky beach that we didn’t get to see.

Snæfellsnes Peninsular

On the western side of Iceland is the Snæfellsnes Peninsular. It’s not a typo and your eyes are not playing tricks on you, the ‘a’ and ‘e’ are joined together. This is one of the few Icelandic names that I can pronounce. Also called Iceland in Miniature, Snæfellsnes has a much different look compared to the South Coast. We also took a day tour for this, but it was a super long 13 hours day tour. We left at 7am and only got back by 9pm. The total distance travelled from Reykjavik isn’t that far, probably a 150km round trip, but the mountainous terrain meant that the tour bus couldn’t go fast. After a brief stop at Bogarnes, a small town for some refreshments and toilet break, we drove for another hour or so before reaching our first stop, Ytri Tunga beach.

One of the first stops is
One of the first stops is the beach at Ytri Tunga.
There are seal colonies here but being winter they elsewhere. Instead I saw these 2 swans and I wondered how they could withstand the strong waves that were coming in.
There are seal colonies here but being winter they nest elsewhere where the sea is less rough. Instead I saw these 2 swans and I wondered how they could withstand the strong waves that were coming in.
The snowed out roads which are not easy to drive on. Drivers have to look out to drive between the yellow poles which mark the edges of the road.
The snowed out roads which are not easy to drive on. Drivers have to look out to drive between the yellow poles which mark the edges of the road.

After more driving, we came to the small village of Hellnar. This is one of many small fishing villages which dot the Snæfellsnes Peninsular. Hellnar is probably more popular as it boasts some spectacular cliffs and blowholes along it’s coast.

The one and only restaurant at Hellnar. It looks like every tour bus stops here for lunch.
The one and only restaurant at Hellnar. It looks like every tour bus stops here for lunch.
The church at Hellnar. I took this gorgeous rainbow as a passing cloud brought falling snow.
The church at Hellnar. I took this gorgeous rainbow as a passing cloud brought falling snow around us.
The local cemetery beside the church. It was very peaceful here with the graves facing the sea.
The local cemetery beside the church. It was very peaceful here with the graves facing the sea where generations of fishermen are buried here. How very apt to be buried by the sea where they have toiled their whole lives.
The coast at Hellnar with rock arches and sea cliffs.
The coast at Hellnar with volcanic rock arches and sea cliffs.

From Hellnar, we drove on to the main fishing village of Anarstapi where we got down to walk along the coast and look at the eroded rocks which have formed into blowholes and arches. Legend has it that a half-man, half-ogre named Barður Snæfellsás still inhabits the area and protects the village from evil.

Mt Stapafell which overlooks Anarstapi.
Mt Stapafell (526m) which overlooks Anarstapi. It is said that elves live on the mountain.
We took a short hike from Anarstapi along the coast to view the incredible cliffs and rock formations.
We took a short hike from Anarstapi along the coast to view the incredible cliffs and rock formations.
One of the blowholes and we could hear the waves pounding on the rocks below.
One of the blowholes and we could hear the waves pounding on the rocks below.
Rock arches overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean.
Rock arches overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean.
Storm clouds were already moving into the coast and the sea was getting rougher.
Storm clouds were already moving into the coast and the sea was getting rougher. The weather was changing from sunny to snowing in just a few minutes.
Beautiful rock formations and a rainbow was the icing on top.
Beautiful rock formations and a rainbow was the icing on top.
The late afternoon Sun shining on the rocky coastline.
The late afternoon Sun shining on the black volcanic coastline.
A sculpture of the half-man, half-ogre Barður Snæfellsás made out of volcanic rocks.
A sculpture of the half-man, half-ogre Barður Snæfellsás made out of volcanic rocks. I thought it was some sort of shrine or house at first.

After Anarstapi it was another long drive along the Snæfellsnes coastal road to the northern side of the peninsular. All this while we could sometimes get a glimpse of Snæfellsjökull, the huge strato-volcano and glacier from which the peninsular gets it’s name. Snæfellsjökull is famous because in the novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ by Jules Verne, the heroes enter the crater of Snæfellsjökull to get to the Earth’s core. So is there really a way to get to the centre of the Earth from Snæfellsjökull? I wonder…

Our next stop was Saxholl, a small volcano which last erupted more than 3,000 years ago. All that’s left of it is a small crater and the lava field around it. It’s not very high, just about 109m and has a metal staircase which winds it’s way to the top. So it is an easy climb although with frozen ice along some of the sections, we had to be careful with our footing.

On the way to climb a small volcano called Saxhall.
On the way to climb a small volcano called Saxholl.
View from the metal stairs of Saxholl.
View from the metal stairs of Saxholl.
Once at the summit we could look into the crater, which was already filled with snow and loose rock.
Once at the summit we could look into the crater, which was already filled with snow and loose rock.

Days are short in winter and our tour guide was already rushing to reach our last stop before it got dark. Finally, the highlight of our Snæfellsnes tour was the mountain of Kirkjufell (463m). This is one of the more famous and picturesque mountains in Iceland, appearing in films like ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’.

Kirkjufell with storm clouds coming up around it.
Kirkjufell with storm clouds coming up around it.
Riding Icelandic horses around Kirkjufell.
Riding Icelandic horses around Kirkjufell.

It was already getting dark and we still had a long 3 hours drive back to Reykjavik. It was time for a long nap after a tiring day of touring. We soon found ourselves back at Bogarnes where we had stopped in the morning and that felt like it was a long time ago. Again, I do think that a day tour was too short to fully appreciate Snæfellsnes and all it has to offer. One of the places that we could did not have time to go to was Grundarfjörður which is just next to Kirkjufell. This small fishing village is well known for Orca (killer whale) watching in February and they organize cruises from there.

Getting to Iceland

There are no direct flights from South-East Asia to Iceland and for most purposes, travelers will need to transit somewhere in Europe to catch a connecting flight to Iceland. Popular choices for transiting are London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Helsinki as these are nice cities for stopovers. There many choices of flights from mainland Europe to Iceland ranging from Icelandair, Ryanair, WOW Air, EasyJet, etc. Again booking early and during non-peak periods will save you a ton of money in airfares.

Land Tours

There are many land tour operators in Iceland and we booked our tours through the Tourist Information Centre in Reykjavik. Most of the prices are about the same and it just depends on availability and small differences in itinerary. The 2 largest land tour operators are Grayline and Reykjavik Excursions, although there are a few other smaller operators. I would say that the smaller groups sizes are my preferred choice as it is less cramped on the mini-bus compared to large groups in tour coaches, and they have some flexibility in itinerary because they don’t have to wait so long for large groups during stops. However, the smaller tour operators may not run the tour if they do not have enough people to fill their bus compared to the 2 major operators which are usually more popular. You can check on the group size at the Tourist Information Centre when making your booking.

 

3 thoughts on “Land of Fire and Ice

  1. What a dream destination this must be… The photographs are amazing, but what astounds me is the diversity and a sense of silent beauty in your photos. Just awesome.

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