17 March 2014 by David Ward
Iceland is a wonderful country to visit at any time of year, but in the winter months, when the weather is at its most unpredictable and the Northern Lights can often be seen illuminating the night skies, this most dramatic of destinations is arguably at its most beguiling. Wexas Travel European specialist Becky Davis recently joined an escorted tour through Iceland's dramatic southwest corner, taking in the sights and sounds of Reykjavik and the geological wonders of the Golden Circle. Here's how she got on.
WT: Where are you just back from?
BD: Reykjavik and the Golden Circle in Iceland
WT: What did you do when you were there?
BD: I spent two nights in the capital Reykjavik before heading through the southwest of Iceland to the small town of Vik, where we stayed at the very charming Hotel Hekla. Along the way we visited the geological sites of the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon, and some of Iceland's largest and most spectacular waterfalls.
WT: Sounds great, what was your highlight?
I absolutely loved the Blue Lagoon, which we visited on our last day. Bubbling away at almost 40 degrees the milky waters of the Blue Lagoon, a unique geothermal spa on the outskirts of Reykjavik, are Iceland's number one tourist attraction. Apart from the beauty of the place, I was hugely impressed with how well everything was run. From the locker rentals to the choice of food and drink on offer, everything went like clockwork and helped create an unforgettable experience.
The first day of our tour through the Golden Circle, when we visited Geysir (the geyser after which all others are named), Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park, where the old Icelandic parliament was founded way back in 930 AD, was also excellent.
I also have to give a mention to the superb Fishmarket Restaurant in Reykjavik (Fiskmarkaðurinn), which was exceptional in terms of its food, service and ambience - a first rate dining experience.
WT: What would your tip be for anyone going on a winter holiday to Iceland?
BD: Definitely bring a good, sturdy pair of walking boots and a good camera! Much of our trip through the Golden Circle was spent walking through snow and ice, and hiking fairly long distances up to waterfalls, which was well worth it to get the best views. Also, the weather in winter can be quite extreme, especially out in the countryside where we experienced sleet, hail and strong winds on occasion. I'd recommend, if you find yourself travelling at this time of year, to take a super jeep tour rather than one of the more typical big coach tours, which are more susceptible to the vagueries of the Icelandic winter.
WT: What is unique about the region you visited?
BD: Everything about the landscape! Black sand beaches, huge waterfalls, geysirs, glaciers, lagoons, volcanoes, the list is endless. One thing I did notice is the lack of trees. The only few we saw had been imported from Alaska and Canada, so the landscape is very barren.
WT: Why should someone travel there?
BD: Stunning landscapes and a completely unique topography. Iceland is unlike anywhere else on earth.
WT: Did you have any disappointments?
BD: The only disappointment of the trip came on day three when we were due to visit Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, a little way along the spectacular south coast. In the morning our guided advised us that, due to a particularly harsh storm, there was a weather advisory and, if things got too bad, we'd have to change plans and return to the hotel. We drove out in strong winds, ice and snow and, after feeling the force of a couple of particularly strong gusts, which apparently reached as much as 120 mph and felt like they might blow us off the road altogether, we had to turn back. It's certainly worth remembering, that while winter in Iceland is an amazing time to visit, it can bring extreme weather, which may effect your plans.
WT: Great advise. It sounds a little scary though?
BD: We were really well looked after, but as I mentioned earlier, I'd definitely consider a super jeep tour at this time of year. They're much better equipped to deal with the extreme climate.
WT: Could you tell us a little about where you stayed?
BD: In Vik, a small town on Iceland's beautiful south coast, we stayed at Hotel Katla, which looks out to sea and has some wonderful views of Vik's black sand beach; it would be a lovely place to stay in the summer.
WT: What makes this hotel stand out from the crowd?
BD: The staff were lovely and really helped make the stay a special one. The breakfast was excellent, featuring lots of local specialities and the dinner, which was included, was also very good. There's also an outdoor hot tub, which was a great little extra touch.
WT: What's the neighbourhood like?
BD: Very quiet! Vik is a very small town around 2.5 hours from Reykjavik. There are a few shops, but I didn't see any restaurants - although we didn't walk through the town because of the weather, so there might have been one or two. I imagine in summer it would be especially lovely.
WT: Are there many attractions nearby?
BD: The beach is the main attraction. There's also a wool factory with large souvenir shop nearby, and Vik is en route to Jokulsarlon and around an hour from the Golden Circle.
WT: What about your hotel in Reykjavik?
BD: We stayed at the Centerhotel Plaza, which has an excellent location just off the city's main shopping area. It's a large hotel, designed with tour groups in mind and some of the older rooms could do with an update. The new rooms are nice though so make sure you ask for one when you book. This hotel doesn't really have any much in the way of outstanding facilities, but the staff were very friendly, the breakfast was great and the location is perfect.
WT = Wexas Travel
BD = Becky Davis