In winter, Iceland is a natural wonderland, with frozen waterfalls, steaming geysers and swirly Northern Lights. Plus you get to go on day trips with an ice-pick - how cool is that?
After deciding to visit Iceland with my girlfriend, we had a decision to make: did we want to go in summer or winter? It has a lot to offer in either season. In summer you can go diving and whale-watching, see puffins, and go on green nature walks - but we decided to go in winter, so we could see the Northern Lights, climb a glacier, and have some fun in the snow.
The first thing we noticed after landing, besides the freezing cold, was the lack of light. Iceland has extremely short days during winter (about five hours or so by my reckoning), and even when the sun was up it was still a kind of dusky, hazy light. Far from being depressing, this actually made the whole experience seem a bit like a dream, and a magical one at that.
Catching the lights
On our first night, we jumped on a bus headed for nowhere, on a Northern Lights excursion. The driver basically drove far enough from the city lights to be free from light pollution and found a place to park.
For those of you not in the know, the Northern Lights - or Aurora Borealis - are caused by particles sent out from the sun, which light up the sky when they hit the upper atmosphere. They are far from a sure thing, so we were pretty lucky to be there while they were 'switched on'. Unfortunately they weren't nearly as spectacular for us as they can be, and instead of a fantastic mass of swirling colours filling the sky, all we saw was a vague greenish hue on the horizon. Nonetheless, it was certainly the Northern Lights, they were indeed swirly, and it was undoubtedly cool.
Apparently, the best time of year to go is around February. The years 2011 and 2012 are also forecast to be good for the lights, as sunspot activity is expected to be at a maximum at this time. I would highly recommend taking the warmest clothing you have with you for this tour, as Iceland tends to get pretty chilly after midnight! I'd also recommend checking what your tour company's policy is if you don't actually get to see the lights: some companies offer a 50 per cent discount if you go again, while others might offer you a partial refund.
Walking on ice
On our next tour, we took another bus ride towards the centre of Iceland, this time to climb a glacier. For this, we were each kitted out with an ice pick and crampons (spikes that fit onto the bottoms of your shoes).
Climbing the glacier was surprisingly fun. It was just like being in a calm, peaceful winter wonderland, with no signs of civilisation in sight and a constant trickle of cold, fluffy snow brushing our faces. Using a big, sharp, pointy implement like an ice pick to smash random bits of ice along the way also proved quite entertaining.
This tour was probably the highlight of the holiday for us, and with the help of our brilliant guide, we learned how to be true ice-expeditioners. His knowledge of the glacier impressed us no end - he knew exactly where all the nooks and crannies were, so we avoided falling down into a crevasse (which wouldn't have been so much fun!).
On the drive back from the glacier, we stopped at a couple of impressive waterfalls for some photo opportunities. It was so cold that as we got nearer the waterfalls it started hailing, just from the water vapour coming from the falls! The intricate ice patterns on the surrounding rocks made the whole scene breathtakingly beautiful. The members of our small group were the only people in sight, making the whole experience that much more personal.
Touring the sights
The Golden Circle Tour comes highly recommended, and is meant to showcase the best of Iceland's natural beauty. However, it's worth pointing out that most of the day was actually spent inside a van, travelling between sights.
The first stop was another waterfall, though this time it was the bigger Gulfoss waterfall. With a turbulent river and big canyons on either side, it was quite impressive. Also quite impressive was watching people do their best to navigate their way across a walkway closely resembling an ice-skating rink!
We then went on to an active geyser area, where there were a few cool effects, like the contrasting heat of the boiling water and surrounding snow, the patterns of hot water visible through the ice, and, of course, a great big exploding geyser, aptly named the Great Geysir. Around it were smaller bubbling pools, all giving off that distinctive sulphur smell. If you've been to other active geyser areas before, such as Rotorua in New Zealand, then this won't be anything new - but the ice was an interesting addition.
Our next stop involved a walk down from a clifftop through a rugged canyon towards the oldest parliament in the world. It reminded me of an old barbarian or caveman movie, where warriors dressed in animal furs trek through an icy canyon. At this time of year, the walkway was incredibly slippery, and a few people actually didn't go all the way down, for fear of slipping over. We made it, and were treated with spectacular views of Icelandic scenery. Unfortunately, not much remains of the world's oldest parliament, but we could see where it used to be.
Taking a dip
That night, we went to the famous Blue Lagoon for some relaxation at the end of our trip. While not a man-made lagoon, it's the by-product of a geothermal power plant, which dispenses a lot of (clean) heated water. The setting itself is completely natural, and it's probably the largest heated pool I've ever been in. The interesting part is getting from the changing room to the pool without getting frostbite in between!
I really loved this place, and could have stayed there for ages, sitting in the warm water and staring up at the stars, with the cold wind rushing through the rock walls around us. It was quite magical, and as it was pretty misty (and dark) you couldn't see the other side of the lagoon, so there was quite a bit of exploring to do. There are all sorts of passageways through the rocks and a man-made waterfall to stand under.
In between these excursions we found walking around the lovely, quaint town of Reykjavik more than entertaining enough to fill our time. If you go during December, as we did, you'll get a good dose of Icelandic Christmas festiveness, with lights and decorations galore (and more than enough darkness to appreciate them all properly). So there you have it - winter in Iceland. I really can't recommend it enough. Have fun!
We stayed at the three-star Hotel Cabin for three nights. The room itself was quite basic, but it was clean, and the staff were friendly and helpful.
All our excursions were booked through a company called Reykjavik Excursions (+354 580-5400; www.re.is), who were helpful and easy-going, and picked us up directly from our hotel for each trip.