Iceland: From Sand to Snow

Ah, Iceland. The country is known for its beauteous outdoor attractions like soaring glaciers, sparkly ice caves, and the mystical Northern Lights. The cold temperature change may seem daunting to us South Floridians (in December it’s typically about 30-39° Fahrenheit) but don’t fret! Just make sure you’re wearing proper winter gear and enjoy this icy adventure!

The capital of Iceland and its largest city, Reykjavík, is a magical place that you must explore. Take a walk through the colorful streets until you reach Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s most famous landmark. This extraordinary looking white-concrete church was commissioned in 1945 and wasn’t finished until 1986. It’s renowned for its rocket-like shape, which extends into the sky at 242.7 ft. tall! Its unique architecture was actually inspired by the similar-looking Svartifoss waterfall. Once you’re done marveling at the outside, head inside to check out the 5,275-pipe organ that was installed in 1992.

Take a ferry outside of the city for a short trip to Viðey, a peaceful little island with some truly significant landmarks. First bask in some history at Viðey House, the first building constructed of stone on Iceland. It’s one of the country’s oldest buildings, having been built in 1755. You can tour their exhibition to learn more about the history of the island, and there’s also a restaurant where you can grab a snack with a view. Make sure to munch on a traditional Icelandic waffle—they’re a must-try!

Right next to the historical house is a modern wonder. Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower is a light memorial that was built to commemorate John Lennon. It was unveiled in 2007 on Lennon’s 67th birthday. The location of the peace tower makes perfect sense too—Iceland has been named the most peaceful country in the world 10 years in a row by the Global Peace Index. The tower of light emits “wisdom, healing, and joy,” and the website encourages guests to send their wishes to the tower via Twitter, email, or postcard.

Hop on a ferry back to the city to pamper yourself at one of the 25 Wonders of the World. The country has many geothermal spas, but the best one is the Blue Lagoon. The entrancing milky blue water that stays 102°F year-round makes this the perfect pool to relax and rejuvenate. As you dip into the warm water, you’ll feel as if you’re in a whole new world. The pool is located in a lava field and is surrounded by volcanic rock, making it the ultimate travel experience. The spa even offers packages to enhance your time at the lagoon; book the premium package, which comes with a Silica mud mask, a towel, a drink of your choice, a second mask of choice, slippers, a bathrobe, a table reservation at the adjacent Lava Restaurant, and sparkling wine of your choice.

Another way to appreciate Iceland’s wonderful waters is to book a whale watching tour. This is another one of the most common things to do when visiting Iceland as the the waters are full of tons of remarkable aquatic animals. You’ll be strapped into a RIB boat as you cruise the waters, checking out famed sights such as Harpa Concert Hall, the Sun Voyager sculpture, Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), and more. As you admire these landmarks, you’ll also catch glimpses of minke and humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises, orcas, pilot whales, and fin and sei whales. If you take the tour between May and August, you’ll even spot puffins during their annual breeding season!

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of the city life of Reykjavík, you should set your sights on Iceland’s marvelous natural wonders. If there’s one aspect of “The Land of Fire and Ice” that you should prioritize it’s the abundance of national parks and natural formations throughout. Make sure you’ve got your camera ready!

Fall in love with Brúarfoss (Bridge Falls). This small waterfall has been dubbed “Iceland’s bluest waterfall” because of its intense icy blue color. The water’s lovely color is the main reason for the waterfall’s popularity as it’s both mesmerizing and unique. The pathway to the waterfall can be muddy at times so make sure to wear some sturdy hiking boots as you hike to the top!

Luckily for you, the best time to trek through Iceland’s incredible ice caves is during the winter season. Embark on the Vatnajökull Ice Cave & Glacier Hiking Tour to venture through one of the largest in the country. This tour will begin with a five-minute hike up Europe’s largest glacier: Vatnajökull.

As you walk and mush through the rugged ice, you’ll finally reach the top and then you may descend into one of the many caves. One of the most visited, Anaconda Ice Cave, is massive and picturesque thanks to the blue glacier ice that shimmers when the sun hits it.

Slip into your snow boots and heavy jackets! Did you even visit Iceland if you didn’t partake in all of the snow-filled activities? Two of the most popular, dog sledding and snowmobiling, are for the adventurous and daring. If you’re an animal lover, opt for the dog sledding tour in the Mývatn Area. You’ll ride along with a professional musher as he instructs his team of Siberian huskies across the Icelandic countryside. The tour will last two hours as you soar past mountains and snowy plains through the area of Lake Mývatn, where parts of Game of Thrones were filmed. The tour will then end back at the kennel, where you’ll pet and take pictures with the adorable huskies! If dog sledding isn’t your thing, then hop aboard a snowmobile! The tour that leads you over the Mýrdalsjökull glacier is the best one. Once you’ve been taught how to operate the machine, you’ll follow the tour guide and others as you rev your way up the towering glacier, which is the fourth largest in the country at 5,000 ft.! Once you reach the top, you’ll make a stop at Katla Caldera, a volcano that rests about 2,500 ft. under you!

Save the best for last as you visit some of the grandest sights in the country on the Golden Circle. This famous tourist route leads you straight through some of Iceland’s most cherished attractions, and there’s tons of tours available online to guide you through it. However, if you’re short on time, there are three must-sees that you should prioritize.

First up is Þingvellir National Park, which was declared a national park in 1930 and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its astonishing history. The country’s first parliament, Alþing, was founded here by Viking settlers in 930 A.D., making it the first democratic national parliament in the world. Today, it continues to operate, but from its new location in Reykjavík, making it the oldest still-operating parliament in the world.

One of the highlights of the park are the visible Eurasian and North American tectonic plate boundaries, which helped form Iceland many decades ago. The plates are still being pulled apart each year, with nearly an inch difference each time.

Do you want to be amazed, astounded, and completely blown out of the water? If so, The Great Geysir is for you. Geysir is actually the oldest documented geyser in all of Europe, and is the basis off of which other languages adopted the term for this phenomenon. Geysir was formed in the 13th century and since then, has teetered between active and inactive. In 1910, it would erupt every 30 minutes, but today it is mostly inactive. Its neighboring geyser, Strokkur, is where you will find some action. This animated hot spring erupts every 5 to 10 minutes, hurling the hot water up into the air at heights of 32-65 feet. As you walk around the surrounding geothermal field, you’ll gaze at colorful minerals, hot springs, steam rising naturally from the ground, and even smell the scent of sulfur in the air! Science fans will fall in love with these wondrous sights.

The last major attraction is the Gullfoss Waterfall, meaning Waterfall of Gold. The majestic waterfall cascades down two huge platforms which tower at 36 and 71 feet, respectively. Stand at the edge of the cliff and feel the glacial water mist as you stare out over the stunning waters.

Make sure to check this waterfall out near sundown, so you can catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights when nightfall comes. As the luminous colors of greens, pinks, and purples wash over the dark sky, it will reflect off of the icy waters and create a mindblowing light show! If there’s one thing you can’t miss seeing in this country, it’s the magical Aurora Borealis.

As you touch back down in South Florida and shed your coat and boots for some shorts and sandals, you’ll realize just how drastically different Iceland is from home. You drove a snowmobile through the snow, hiked over glaciers, explored ice caves, and dipped into a geothermal spa! These were memories of a lifetime, and you can reminisce on all of them while you lounge in a beach chair with your toes in the sand. Ah, South Florida.

By Aaliyah Pasols