Nature calling

A stormy Icelandic adventure

I’ll admit it initially took a fair bit of convincing myself to travel to the freezing cold country of Iceland in the middle of winter. But when I weighed up the chance to cross out a few things on my bucket list, like seeing the northern lights and glacier trekking, it seemed like a no-brainer. Or, so I thought!

Planning the week long solo trip proved to be quite a challenge. I was determined to retain the flexibility of travelling at my own pace and avoid the expensive, rigid tours. However, unlike all of my previous trips, public transport is basically non-existent outside of the capital city of Reykjavik. The other option to get around is to hire a car to traverse the country’s main ring road that loops around the country, but the winter weather is a major variable that can often leave the road impassable for days at a time. After much deliberation, I bit the bullet and committed to the road trip.


Iceland is located just below the arctic circle and is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with a population of only 300 000 across the whole country –  two thirds of whom reside in Reykjavik. Over millions of years the country has been shaped by the collision of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which has carved rifts into the landscapes and formed dozens of menacing volcanoes that sit beneath large ice caps.

My flight from Gatwick to Reykjavik was with Wow Air, a purple-themed Icelandic equivalent of Ryanair, was surprisingly enjoyable. The flight was on time, the aircraft clean and brand new, but best of all was my exit row seat which enabled me to chat to the very friendly cabin hostess during take-off and landing. A brisk three-hour flight later, upon stepping out of the aircraft at Keflavik airport, my first thought was that we’d landed somewhere in the Arctic. The whole airport was buried under a foot of snow and ice and resembled an icy desert.

On final approach to Keflavik airport

Reykjavik resembles more of a medium sized town than a capital city. At its centre is a large church, Hallgrímskirkja, connected with sleepy streets lined with tourist souvenir and clothing shops. I spent most of my day here at the cosy Cafe Bablalu, just on the main street, where I tucked into a hearty vegan chilli before setting off to one of the nearby public baths.

Hallgrímskirkja church


A delicious vegan chilli at Café Babalu

For Icelanders, relaxing in one of the various hot baths for an evening is as much a social activity as it is a relaxing one. The Sundhöllin public baths are one of the older establishments, but very popular being situated in the city centre. There’s a number of outdoor hot baths, each heated to different temperatures with natural groundwater, and some of them are uncomfortably hot! I had to dash between the baths on tip-toes, given I was wearing only swimming trunks in -5 degrees ambient temperature. When I finally immersed myself in the water, I had a chat to some of the locals and tourists about their experience too. It was a rejuvenating, quiet evening – not to mention excellent value for £10.

One of the sweltering hot baths at Sundhöllin

If I’m honest, I didn’t find a whole lot else to do in Reykjavik. In the summer there are opportunities for whale watching off the coast, but in general the city is best used as a base for exploring Iceland’s Golden Circle scenic route. And that’s where I was off to next.

The golden circle 

The next morning, I caught a bus to the Lagoon car rental office, where I picked up my Renault Clio. It took a while for me to inspect the car and tyres (winter and studded, of course). Eventually I headed off to my first stop in Thingvellir national park about 40km East of Reykjavik, which involved an increasingly wintry drive through the mountains. The roads were clear, the sun was out and the scenery beautiful. This wasn’t as bad as I thought, I said to myself.

My first stop on the way to Thingvellir national park

As the snowy landscape revealed itself, pretty soon I’d gotten ahead of myself and pulled over into a layby covered in a foot of snow, without a thought of how I’d get out. Inevitably I had to ask some passers-by for a tug out back onto the main road, and I was fortunate that I hadn’t got stuck somewhere even more rural.

The Thingvellir national park is as much a historical area of significance as it is geologically important. It’s here that the Icelandic parliament was originally located, and still remains the summer retreat for the Prime Minister. Geologically, it’s the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American plates, and it’s a fascinating to see and walk along the edges of both plates that slice through the earth.

A few brave teenagers taking a chilly dip between the rifts

The visitor’s area was surprisingly crowded for a cold winter’s day, so I took my time to enjoy the geological formations before setting off later in the afternoon to Geysir. But the weather took a turn for the worse and soon I was driving through a blizzard and past dozens of 4x4s that were stranded along the road, which was barely visible in the thick snow. I had to be extremely cautious and for 2 hours was relentlessly focused on the roads.  I managed to keep all wheels pointing in the right direction, save for one occasion when a hidden pocket of snow spun my car around. Thankfully I managed to escape without hitting anything.

The Geysir hot spring area is another remarkable geological phenomenon where hot, pressurised groundwater erupts out of the ground through boiling mud pits (called ‘geysers’). The timing and size of the eruptions vary – usually every 10 minutes or so – and there’s no mistaking the strong smell of sulphur through the steam after an eruption. There’s quite a few geysers in the vicinity but many of them seemed to only bubble along quietly, so I avoided the icy walk around and instead watched on beside the largest geyser.

A geyser eruption

The afternoon was ticking by and I had to abandon the other stops on the Golden Circle to avoid running out of daylight. The rain accompanied me as I continued on the long road south back towards civilisation.

Finally, I reached the unremarkable town of Selfoss in the evening, I switched off the ignition outside the hostel and for 20 minutes sat in the car reflecting on what an alarming day it had been. I had a couple of close calls in the treacherous conditions and weighed up whether to ditch the car and use public transport to continue my path through the south. As it turned out, there’s just a single bus connecting south Iceland ring road in the Winter so this wasn’t an option either.

In the end, I decided to stick with the car and hope to ride out my luck.

Sleeping giants  

The next morning, as I shuffled out of bed still half asleep, I checked the day’s road conditions online via the official website ( which reported the onwards roads as clear. Fortune was on my side.

Sensing an opportunity to make amends for the previous day, I backtracked towards the Kerio volcano crater just west of Selfoss which made for an enjoyable morning hike.

Kerio crater

The weather became increasingly unsettled as I headed east again towards the various waterfalls. Trying to take long-exposure pictures of the waterfalls without the crowd of tourists and against the wind was quite time-consuming but rewarding once I finally got the shots.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Skógafoss waterfall

Despite the rough weather, I managed to admire the beautiful scenery and cliffs beside the ring road, even if sometimes it was from behind the windscreen in the car. Often, I’d just park up on a dirt track beside the road and take a few minutes to appreciate the natural environment.

A home embedded in rock formation beside the ring road

One stop in a more urban setting was at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, in the foothills of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano (don’t ask me to say it) that wreaked havoc across European airspace in 2010. This is an excellent small museum featuring a number of interactive exhibits about Iceland’s 30 active volcanos, explaining their geological properties and formation. There’s also an earthquake simulator, 3D panoramic volcano simulation and a model of the mantle underneath Iceland. It made for an eye-opening couple of hours, and I left with a real appreciation of the mighty geological forces at play beneath my feet.

The 3D depiction of the mantle beneath Iceland

Just after sunset I reached the small town of Vik on the southern coast, where I parked up at the Carina Guesthouse. Vik is famous for its unique black beaches, which originate from the basalt lava originally deposited by volcanos. I happened to visit the beach after a light dusting of snow, which gave the beach a mixed black and white appearance. The sea was incredibly fierce and noisy as the sound of the large waves crashing into the beach echoed off the nearby hills.

The black beach at Vik

Glacier hiking 

The next day I backtracked from Vik to join a glacier hiking tour with Arctic Adventures. At the foot of the Solheimajokull glacier, our guide Chris helped kit out our team of 8 with crampons, harneses and helmets before we set of on our 90-minute hike up the glacier.

The weather was clear skies too, which was a huge relief. As we climbed through the bus-sized icebergs the ice became increasingly blue, nestled with black ash from previous eruptions from volcanos underneath the nearby ice cap.

The sheer size of the glacier was quite deceiving until reaching the top. Everyone in the group had a chance to climb a 6-metre chunk of ice and it was surprisingly difficult. Climbing involved stabbing crampons and axes into the ice which involved far more strength than I expected. My abs were aching the next day!

Reaching the top of my ice climb

Chris talked to us about the extent that the glacier had retreated in recent years. The car park was originally right beside the glacier 10 years ago, and now it’s over a kilometre trek before the ice meets the newly formed lagoon. It’s not just the Solheimajokull glacier in retreat, but every one of the glaciers in Iceland. It was pretty scary to see before and after pictures and also fascinating to know how ‘alive’ the glaciers are. Despite the serenity of the icy surroundings, the slow movement of glaciers is radically changing the landscape, forming new hills and mountains as it retreats. Their constant activity also makes trekking perilous without a guide.

I’d definitely recommend the team as it was a small group of 8 and Chris was extremely friendly and professional. At 120 Euros it was decent value for money too.

Up on the Solheimajokull

The Diamond Beach 

The dampness returned the next day as I made the long drive through to the East of Iceland, near the town of Hofn. I figured that given the bad conditions and rural route that laid before me, I’d fill up with diesel in spite of still having half a tank of fuel.

As I continued on the ring road, the relentless wind and rain caused for quite a fascinating phenomenon along the cliffs, as the spray and water from the waterfalls appeared to sweep back upwards towards the sky instead of to the ground.

When the road ventured further inland, I soon found myself driving through the Eldhraun mossy lava fields that straddled either side of the road. These lava fields were formed after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, back in the 18th century.

A quick stop at the mossy lava fields

Not long afterwards, the view opened up to an enormous expanse of just..nothingness. I found myself driving through the endless Skeiðarársandur volcanic sand desert, which is the biggest of its kind in the world.  While it was a barren, empty environment as I hastily made my way through, it was anything but that during 1996 when an eruption under the enormous Vatnajokull ice cap lead to a huge glacial burst that washed away all infrastructure in the region. Now, it’s just an eerie wasteland until the next eruption unleashes another flood.

The remains of a bridge preserved after the most recent eruption in 1996 washed it away

Eventually the mountainous surroundings returned as I made the long trip around the glacial tongues surrounding the Vatnajokull ice cap. It seemed to take forever to traverse the road to my accommodation for the night.

My stay was at Guesthouse Holmur, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s small, basic but homely farmhouse run by an Icelandic couple. Only 100 metres away from the farmhouse is a barn where dinner and breakfast is served, and I ended up having to drive from the farmhouse to the barn because of the treacherous black ice that made the short walk a guaranteed trip to the hospital. The owners, although a little stern, served a delicious vegan meal for me along with a mushroom soup which proved the perfect antidote after another day of being beaten up by the elements.

Arriving at the Holmur farmhouse

Tucking into dinner at the Holmur farmhouse. Food is eye-wateringly expensive in Iceland – as delicious as this dish was, I had to reluctantly hand over £28 at the end of it!

As if I needed another source of danger on my trip, this saw was hanging from the ceiling above my head as I ate

That night I received an email stating that my ice cave tour the following day had been cancelled due to the persistent rain that had flooded the cave. I had mixed feelings about this: on the one hand one of the key motivators for visiting in winter was to walk through the caves, but on the other this enabled me to break up my very long drive back to Reykjavik across two days and admire the sights along the way.

A trip to the Glacier Lagoon was easily one of the highlights from the trip. Although there weren’t as many icebergs floating down front he glacier to the lagoon as I expected, I especially enjoyed going to the ‘Diamond Beach’ to see the huge strangely shaped icebergs deposited on the black sand beach. Again, I had to battle the elements as I tried to capture long-exposure pictures using my cheap tripod, with mixed success. The waves were violent too, at one point one caught me off guard and I was soaked knee-down while trying to compose my shot.

Crystal clear ice on the Diamond Beach

The sun finally came out as I crossed over to the Glacier Lagoon

Scenic wonders 

Thankfully the sun came out before I set off on the long road back to Vik for the night, and I had a bit more success with the camera.

On the way back, the weather held up and I was completely mesmerised by the sheer beauty of the hills and mountains that I passed – so much so that I stopped the car every 2-3 miles to admire. Most of the scenery I had missed on the way East due to fog and cloud, so was grateful that I didn’t completely miss out on it.

On the way back to Vik


The glaciers at Skaftafell

Yet another violent storm greeted me in Vik as I reached just after sunset, and again the following morning as I continued on the road back to Reykjavík. I made another stop at the actual Black Beach which I’d missed the first time but was more awe-struck by the utterly enormous waves that were crashing into the beach. I’d never seen nature at its fiercest and didn’t stay long before jumping back into the car to outrun the worst of the winds that were due to hit that morning.

A few hours later I reached a Geothermal plant perched on top of a snow-blanketed mountain, which showcased the production process of electricity and hot water extracted from deep underground. I never realised that the hot water across the whole country is actually directly heated naturally, and the wastewater is collected and pumped beneath the streets to melt snow on pavements. I suppose that’s a perk of having abundant natural reserves of energy. Speaking of water, the tap water in Iceland tastes fantastic, although I suffered with dandruff strangely which might be due to the hard water composition.

One of the generators at Iceland’s biggest geothermal plant

Blue Lagoon

The last stop on my road trip before handing back the car was to visit the famous Blue Lagoon, a man-made geothermal lake which apparently has numerous health benefits due to the minerals in the water. My trip there was incredible through completely isolated roads throughout the south coast, past more mossy lava fields and snowy peaks.

However, my experience at the Blue Lagoon so awful it became actually quite funny and memorable. A huge storm had whipped up the water with tsunami like waves, with rain and strong gusts coming from sideways like bullets piercing my skin. It was after dark by the time I jumped in and it was like being blindfolded in a Disneyland ride with lots of screaming from other British tourists whose experience wasn’t anywhere near as tranquil as they (or I) was expecting. To be fair to the Blue Lagoon facilities are top notch and I could imagine it being far more enjoyable on a summer’s day (although I still recommend visiting the baths in Reykjavík for a no-frills, authentic and local experience).

Blue lagoon from behind glass, which was a far more tranquil experience!

I kept the last day of my trip free to do some sightseeing in Reykjavik, but mainly stayed indoors as there wasn’t a great deal of sights that interested me. I headed up to the Perlan museum which is perched on top a hill offering a great view over the city. Inside the museum is a glacier exhibition, plus a man-made ice cave which wasn’t anything special but a good way to pass the time.

A view of Reykjavik from the Perlan museum

Wet and wild 

I hate to keep harping on about it, but I cannot find any superlatives in my mind to describe the winter weather in Iceland. It’s safe to say I will never, ever complain about British weather ever again. It required a huge amount of perseverance to endure the endless storms while trying to enjoy the natural landmarks. The wind was ferocious throughout the 9 days I was there which added a bite to the relatively mild temperatures, and all too often it made driving even at slow speeds utterly frightening.

On the road

The unpredictability of the weather was even more unnerving. During the hour I was at the black beach at Vik, there was a snowstorm, clear sky, and heavy rain wind combination which forced me to retreat back to the car, which seemed to permanently rock side-to-side throughout the trip due to the strong winds. On the rare occasion that the sun did peek out from behind the clouds, it was almost a teaser before nature unleashed a furious storm to usher me back indoors.

Sadly, the endless cloudy conditions meant that I was unable to see the northern lights, which was one of my goals from this trip. Oh well.

If it wasn’t for the weather, my 1300 km drive would have been smooth sailing. Taking to the other side of the road wasn’t as terrifying as I expected, but that was partly because the vast majority of the driving was outside of urban areas on rural roads. During my brief drive through Reykjavik, the traffic was minimal and roundabouts were clearly signed to drive anti-clockwise. The car was an automatic too, making the drive more hassle-free, although I never had the courage to activate cruise control.

The long drives called for long music playlists, which mainly consisted of Justin Timberlake’s new album (Man in the Woods) and the rest of his catalogue. In the passenger seat, an assortment of energy bars and nuts served as my daily lunch and afternoon snacks. My thermos flask was never far out of reach either. It felt bliss to sip on spiced tea after taking a battering outside!

The road home

For a long time, I debated whether to take an organised tour of the south coast or drive around myself.

I’m fortunate that the driving worked out well. It was quite an achievement considering I’ve hardly driven solo before.  Having previous experience of my own travel itineraries was definitely helpful. There was enough flexibility in the schedule not to rush around and to account for unexpected hiccups. Weeks of researching and investing in heavy duty winter clothing was also proven worthwhile and certainly helped make the best of a difficult situation.

I can imagine Iceland feels like a different country season to season. On balance however, I wouldn’t recommend a full-on Iceland trip in the winter. I reckon it is possible to avoid the crowds during the summer by venturing out late at night during the long daylight hours, while enjoying more predictable weather. As for spotting the northern lights, the odds are stacked against you even in the depths of winter. Another Nordic country would likely be a far better location than Iceland to guarantee a sighting.

In spite of this, my trip to Iceland was one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever embarked upon. Getting completely drenched and frozen to the bone made travelling a feat and the memories far more rewarding.  Pictures don’t do justice to the sheer beauty of this ever-changing country, and I’m fortunate that I was able to travel at my own slow pace to admire every incredible landscape to the maximum. And when the weather did play ball, it made those moments all the more spectacular.

I can’t wait to head back, next time with a pair of sunglasses and shorts!



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