PS Travel Diaries: Iceland

Caution: Long post ahead! 

PureSpaces traveled to Iceland and you wouldn't guess when! Many would think it’s crazy to travel to a cold country in the dead of winter, but what's life without a punch of experiment. So we went on with the plan and don't regret it one bit. It was really cold, but with no snow, it wasn’t anything that you couldn't handle with the right winter gear.

We flew into Reykjavik from Frankfurt one afternoon, all snug and safe, and checked into Hotel Borg. Fixed up in dignified Art Deco interiors, it overlooked the beautiful square of Austurvollur, in the heart of Reykjavik, across from Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament and the cathedral. We couldn’t wait to step out and explore this beautiful country!

Iceland is known for some of the best views of the Aurora Borealis and its spectacular waterfalls. Lesser known is its peculiar folklore - many Icelanders hold these stories of elves, trolls and other hidden beings in high regard. Luckily, we had an enthusiastic and engaging storyteller in our guide Tryygvi. He was our attendant for the entire trip and filled our long rides with such interesting stories about trolls and Vikings, each one more compelling than the other. Icelanders believe that rocks are homes to trolls who live in a parallel universe. There was no way to explain how their attempts to build a road over a rock, failed over and over again. When nothing else worked, they had to build the road around this rock. Such anecdotes are exceedingly fascinating from an outsider's perspective. As amusing as we found them, they had to be put on hold, for our priority was to see the Northern Lights.

Following dinner at Jamie’s Italian in our hotel, Tryygvi drove us 2 hours out of the city to see them. We had assumed it’d be as easy as it would be amazing. But it turned out that the Aurora Borealis can’t be spotted by just looking up at the night sky! We had to drive to a pitch dark spot far from the city lights. This was followed by a long wait in the freezing cold weather, until we saw the lights dancing very faintly. We build high expectations from stunning photographs we have seen or movies we have watched. So seeing something yourself could turn out to be a bit underwhelming. Nonetheless, it was truly beautiful.

The next morning Tryygvi got a jeep with massive tires to take us to Husafell and Langjokull glacier. It was a two-hour drive and we made pit stops at the Krauma geothermal baths, and, The Beauty and the Beast waterfalls on the way. The Godafoss waterfall, or ‘the waterfall of Gods’, is considered one of the most impressive in the country. It is aptly nicknamed beauty by the locals, in comparison to Dettifoss, which is considered the beast. The waterfalls still continued to run, but with some icicles and frost. We had lunch at Husafell, which has incredibly breathtaking, snow-kissed lava fields. The Ice Cave tour was next on our itinerary. People usually hire a monster truck (SIC) that’s better suited to driving on ice and this is what we had done too. But the unduly adventurous Tryggvi managed to get some special permit speaking in Icelandic to the officials and drove us up to Langjokull himself, in a much smaller truck. The word Langjokull translates to the Long glacier, and is the second largest glacier in Iceland. It also houses the largest man-made cave in the world. Walking through the ice tunnels was an incomparable experience, but little did we know then how risky our ride had been. With a visibility of less than a foot, we could hardly see anything around us. We barely managed to follow these sticks along the road to find our way up. It almost felt like we were going backwards. The guides at Into the Glacier we met up there were shocked when they found that we had driven up in a private vehicle during a snowstorm. We wouldn’t have done so, had we known we could have gotten lost or killed! The journey back was slightly better, but we were terrified however, now that we knew what could happen if we strayed off the track. But the experience was still worth all the struggle. It was very windy due to the snow storm and we were surrounded by beautiful, snowy vistas. There was most certainly a very Game-of-Thrones vibe to it. We ended the day with dinner at a fabulous restaurant called FISH MRKT. We highly recommend you eat here if you ever visit Reykjavík.

On day 3, we went on the Golden Circle tour and dog sledding. The famous Golden circle covers the Thingvellir National Park, Geysir hot spring area and Gullfoss waterfall. They drive you from Reykjavik and back, which forms a 300-kilometre circular route. In the morning, we visited the dog kennel. This is extremely fun for a dog-lover, for Iceland is home to a vibrant dog-sledding community. The sleds are pulled on winter snow by Snow Dogs or the adorable Siberian huskies. We were worried about hurting them, but apparently, this was their exercise and they really enjoy it! The duration of the sledding depends on the dogs, people, weather and trail conditions. On an average, they cover 7-8 kilometres in about 45-60 minutes, during which you get to enjoy the power of sled dogs. Afterwards, we were driven to Gullfoss waterfalls and the Geyser geothermal area. Gullfoss was all frozen and looked magnificent. It was no wonder it’s called The Queen of Icelandic Waterfalls. It looked majestic as the icicles dramatically slipped into a deep gorge. On the other hand, the geysirs were erupting at regular intervals, sending boiling water upto 20 metres in the air. They have been dormant for a while now, but the area is still highly active.

Later, we went to Thingvellir National Park, which is one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites, known for its uniqueness as well as its historic significance. Apart from being the site of the ancient parliament of the Viking commonwealth and the birthplace of the nation, it is strewn with breathtaking views of ravines ripped open by earthquakes. An interesting tidbit for you - the stage for many a open-air assemblies, Almannagja gorge, was also the shooting location for the famous HBO series of Game of Thrones.

Our heads full of stunning landscapes, we headed off to explore some charming Christmas decor at night and then to check out Harpa, a modernist, honeycomb concert hall and conference centre. It is one of Reykjavik’s most distinguished landmarks and home to the national opera and symphony. The building features a distinctive coloured glass facade inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland, and the colours change constantly. Facing the sea, the building almost had a sculptural quality to it. It is an understatement to say that we were exhausted at the end of this long day. We called it a day with a quiet dinner at this really cute place called Ristorante Caruso. It is located in a restored historic building that was initially built in 1801 and their food was out of this world.

The first thing on our itinerary for the last day was a visit to Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavik. You are awestruck by this towering structure rising out of the ground into a pointy tip, at almost 75 metres height that can be seen from almost the entire city. Designed by the late architect Gudjon Samuelsson, it took around 41 years to complete the construction. The composition is inspired by the local basalt rock formations as well as Iceland’s glaciers and sweeping landscapes. The country did not have its own style of architecture apparently, for the longest time. It had always been a medley of different historical styles in confluence with foreign influences. Recent times have brought about change in terms of newer architects and weather-appropriate materials being put to use, that gives character to the present Icelandic cityscape.

We had saved the best for last - and headed to the Blue Lagoon after Hallgrimskirkja. The drive here was scattered with BEAUTIFUL sights all along that we had to stop often and enjoy them at leisure. The best of our pit-stops was at this active crater and we climbed up on to billowing steam. We soon arrived and checked into The Retreat Hotel. Nestled amongst volcanic horizons and panoramic vistas of mossy mountains, it was like we had walked into a paradise of relaxation and luxury. With the designer’s radar always turned on, one of the first things we noticed that ALL the furniture in here was Minotti (which is one of PureSpaces’ favourite brands).  

It was a surreal experience waking up to the beautiful views of moss-covered lava fields and volcanic mountainscapes. One would think nothing could beat this, then came their excellent food. And as a cherry on top, we tried their in-water massage and it turned out to be an exceptional experience. It was an indulgent massage elevated by the revitalizing geothermal seawater against a jaw-droppingly stunning backdrop. It seemed to unlock sublime levels of well-being in you. We also got the complementary Blue Lagoon ritual that came highly recommended. It was a combo of lava scrub, silica mud mask and algae mask. It would suffice to say that we were in heaven. And who could possibly not want to go back after being spoilt rotten like this?! On a different note, PureSpaces also gives the Blue Lagoon skin care their seal of approval!  

Iceland, all things considered, had charmed us in many ways. It was a unique experience in winter, where you need to pack a whole lot into really short days of around 5 hours of daylight. But this winter wonderland was calm, quiet and less crowded, which was something we really savoured. We had had some amazing food, always fresh and very expensive. Here goes another Tryggvi trivia - the food in Iceland is rather expensive owing to the fact that they need to be grown in greenhouses. How different and exotic life is, just a few hours away from our homes! Travelling gives us so much food for thought. Like all travellers, we had done so much in so little time, and had our share of ups and downs. But there isn’t a thing we would change about it, (except for, maybe, going up to the glacier in a safer vehicle). Kudos to Iceland as a great vacay spot, even at the peak of winter!