A Five-Day (which became seven) Tour of Iceland
A Note Before Beginning: This is an account of our experiences on a tour of Iceland in February, 2023 even though this website is dedicated to bird photography. As I posted pictures of birds I photographed in Iceland some of the GreatBirdPics members asked for more information about the trip itself. For anyone who happens upon this narrative be aware that I am an avid birder so some of the narrative below will be about birds. If you’re interested in learning more about the birds we saw there you can check out the following blog pages:
If you would like to learn more about GreatBirdPics.com CLICK HERE. It’s free with no ads and it’s about birds and bird photography.
We wanted to see the Northern Lights and thought Iceland was the place to do it so we signed up for Collette Travel’s “Iceland’s Magical Northern Lights Tour.” The tour itself was scheduled to begin on February 6, 2023 but since the flight arrived at 6 AM there we decided to arrive a day early so we wouldn’t have to go from the plane to the tour bus to shake off some of the jet lag (+6 hours). Let’s get it over with right now – no, we did not see the Northern Lights. What were we expecting, going to Iceland in the middle of February? Maybe other years (or the week before or the week after our trip) had perfect weather for viewing them but not 2023. We did bump into other tourists that show us great pictures they took of the Northern Lights – on the plane ride to Reykjavik.
Speaking of weather, we experienced many types of weather while in Iceland. Back in Chicago we have a saying that if you don’t like the weather just wait an hour. In Iceland they have a saying that if you don’t like the weather wait 5 minutes. The first time an Icelander told us that I scoffed, but then it turned out to be too true! It could be overcast, then bits of blue sky above, then snow pellets pummeling us, then dense fog, and top it off with howling winds – all within a few minutes. Some days the winds were 40 MPH gusting up to 60 MPH; my wife Karen and I had to lock arms as we walked to keep from being blown down! Out on the road (we were in a large bus with 38 other U.S. tourists) at times the wind kicked up the snow lying on the ground and blew it horizontally across the road, reducing visibility to the point where our driver Oleg stopped the bus for fear of rear-ending a vehicle that might have slowed or stopped ahead. Zero visibility. Although the weather prevented us from seeing the Northern Lights it was a memorable element of our trip. One last mention about the weather before moving on to the sights we saw; the temperature was mild! In fact it was warmer (28º-35º) in Iceland than it was back home in Chicago. This is because the Gulf Stream flows warm water from the Caribbean around the island. I brought plenty of cold-weather clothes but I probably didn’t need as many layers as I brought.
We found Reykjavik a charming town that was easy to walk around. Our hotel was 3 blocks from the harbor and often walked it looking for birds. Here are two views of the harbor from our hotel window taken minutes apart:
Lots of restaurants to choose from and our favorite was the Posthus Food Hall and Bar. Imagine 7 small high-end restaurants in one building. You can just graze your way through some wonderful food there.
The other eatery not to be missed is the Hot Dog stand Bill Clinton made famous. When he was president Clinton was in town for a summit and as they were driving by the Hot Dog Stand he jumped out of his limo (to the horror of his Secret Service agents) and grabbed an Icelandic Hot Dog. They’re made out of lamb and have some different condiments (ie. crunchy onion bits) on them and we found them delicious. We had to wait 20 minutes in line to get ours.
We left Reykjavik the next day to begin our tour of the countryside, although the itinerary changed regularly because of the weather (there was concern about whether we would be able to travel down some of the roads due to high winds and drifting snow). Our first stop was Thingvellier National Park which was both an historic location and geologic wonder. It was at this location in the year 930 the first “parliament” met, which was a collection of noblemen who came together there every year for 950 years to discuss issues of the day. Icelanders are proud to point out they were on the forefront of democracy.
As you know Iceland is known for its geothermal activity, including volcanoes and hot springs. According to the Thingvellier NP website, “The Þingvellir area is part of a fissure zone running through Iceland, being situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The faults and fissures of the area make evident the rifting of the earth’s crust.” This amazing geology was visible as you walked down a fissure into the rift valley below.
Our next stop was Gullfoss (Golden Falls) which was a double waterfall. The water rushed down the river toward us and fell 35 feet down only to then encounter another 65 foot drop! The history of the falls was interesting, too. At one time the falls were owned by a farmer who was going to sell it to a company intending to create a hydroelectric energy dam in the river. The farmer’s 14 year old daughter threatened to throw herself into the falls if he did so. The farmer backed out of the deal and the falls were eventually made into an Icelandic preserve.
A short bus ride later we were at the Geysir Thermal Area where there are numerous hot springs, fumaroles, and pools. Notice I didn’t say numerous geysers as there are very few active geysers in Iceland. The largest is named Geysir and has been inactive for quite some time. On the other hand the Strokkur geyser erupts every 5-10 minutes. Below is a pic of the people waiting to see its next eruption followed by one of the geyser erupting.
Here’s a picture of Karen all bundled up at Geysir as the snow was falling. In the background you can see the flow from a hot spring and steam rising from fumaroles and small hot springs.
That evening we arrived at our lodging, the Hotel Katla in the town of Vik. It is a series of one and two story buildings; it’s necessary to walk from your room’s building to the dining room. Here’s a look at our bathroom – I got a kick out the toilet facing the shower, separated by glass. No, Karen and I did not use both at the same time.
This was prime Northern Lights country and our bus was scheduled to go out in search of them each of the three nights we were in Vik. The first night’s excursion was cancelled due to bad weather. The second night was cancelled due to bad weather although in hindsight it might have been possible to have seen them. After dinner the weather was poor so our tour leader said would wouldn’t be going out (possibly forgetting the weather changes every 5 minutes) so we retired to our room and were reading in bed when a knock came at our door. When I answered a woman from another tour group was telling people that the Northern Lights were out (she inadvertently knocked on our door thinking we were part of her group). We gathered outside at 9pm and one of the first people we met said he saw green lights over the nearby hills! The tour leader for that group soon arrived and took us out behind the hotel to a dark area facing the north were we could see some stars. We stood there for the next hour searching the sky for any hint of the Northern Lights. Nothing. Our last night in Vik we did take the bus out of town even though it was overcast with little likelihood of seeing anything. I set up my camera on a tripod and took a six-second exposure of the sky. Does it look greenish? Did we see the Northern Lights?
The breakfast and dinner buffets at Hotel Katla were excellent; salmon was always available. I got a kick out seeing this every morning – a bottle of cod liver oil with shot glasses. Karen said that as a child she had cod liver oil every morning with her breakfast instead of vitamin pills. She tried it for old times sake the first morning, then passed the next two mornings. No, I didn’t try it.
The next day was “Waterfall Day!” Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a beautiful waterfall dropping almost 200 feet. If you look carefully you see a hollow behind the waterfall; the brave-at-heart can actually walk behind the waterfall (the walk is closed in the winter due to icy conditions). What made the area even more interesting is that there’s not just one waterfall, but a series of waterfalls along the ridge-line. If you look carefully at the panoramic picture below you’ll be able to see 5 waterfalls to the left of Seljalandsfoss. I can only image what this looks like in the late spring when huge torrents of snow melt are falling over the top all along the face of the cliffs.
We next visited Skógafoss which vies with Gullfoss for Iceland’s most popular waterfall. With a width of 80 feet and a vertical drop of about 200 feet it is an impressive waterfall. I was surprised to see so much water in the middle of February so I asked our guide Gulla if the water came from glacial melt or snow melt and she said that the snow on the mountains above the falls contributed most of the water. It was an impressive display but a snow squall came in reducing visibility (there are five minutes separating the first and last pictures here).
The previous picture notwithstanding, it’s hard to describe the beauty of the land. As we drove west there were 200 foot uplifts to the right of the road and flat lava flows that extended as far as you could see on the other side. Here are a few pictures taken during our travels.
Along the way we made “comfort stops” in little villages. We left the hotel early on this particular day and made a “comfort stop” at 9 AM, just as the sun was rising above the horizon with the wind blowing snow across the parking lot.
Every village we went by had a cute little church, although it seemed likely they were more for show than for accommodating the residents every Sunday morning. Here’s a picture of the church in our “comfort stop” in Kirkjubæjarklaustur and some of the village itself. This area was part of a national park and a ranger inside the rest stop said that there were White Ptarmigans around the village; I stood outside in the parking lot scanning with my binoculars but the only birds I saw were pigeons.
As you can see in the previous pictures we had a sunny day, which was perfectly timed for the most scenic stops on our tour – the Vatnajökull glacier and Jökulsárlón lagoon. We first stoped where the waters of the Jökulsárlón lagoon emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Seals swam up and down the channel in search of food. The second picture is of the channel looking toward the direction of the lagoon. (Can you see the bridge in the second picture? It is a one-lane bridge and I saw a car meet a truck in the middle, then the car backed up all the way back to the road.)
We then went closer to the glacier along the shore of the Jökulsárlón lagoon and were amazed at the beauty of Vatnajökull. It is the largest glacier in Iceland and among the largest in all of Europe. Some of its ice is over 1,000 years old – in fact some of its ice was brought back to our hotel and I used it to chill my water at dinner time (the ice was clear as glass). Icebergs that calved off of the glacier floated nearby and were deep blue or green. Here are some of our pictures of the area, including seals basking in the sun across the lagoon and a black Raven flying by.
We did not have nearly enough time to fully explore the area so we reluctantly headed back to the bus. There was a small flock of birds around the collection of buildings in the parking lot and at first glance they acted like House Sparrows foraging for food. Imagine my surprise and excitement when I raised my binoculars up only to find that they were a flock of Snow Buntings! Snow Buntings are seen in Chicagoland occasionally and I can verify that they are the cutest little winter birds. They just hopped around the parking lot and were so used to people I could get pretty close to them.
By 3:30pm that afternoon we started to lose the sun to cloud cover, which made our stop along one of the extensive lava flows even more desolate looking. It just went on for miles and miles.
We went on to Reynisfjara Beach, a black beach with columns along it and out in the ocean made of hexagonal-shaped basalt. To be precise, the black beach was made of volcanic sand, ground up from the lava produced by an eruption of the Katla volcano many centuries ago. Our brochure about this stop on our tour said to look out for the “rich bird life.” One Black-backed Gull was seen far away. Our guide assured us that during the summer thousands of birds, including Puffins, could be found in this area. But not in February. The Puffins alone would be worth a return trip here – in the summer.
Our last day of the tour was a travel day back to Reykjvakic with one important stop – the Blue Lagoon. You may have heard of the Blue Lagoon before and it is worth the trip just to see it. The area itself became a local tourist attraction when Icelanders discovered that the warm water runoff from a nearby geothermal power plant collected in the lava flows nearby and they could enjoy a soak in the mineral-rich waters. Soon the area was developed by scooping out some of the lava and putting a rubberized floor over the lava that remained. The resulting chest-high pool fills with the blue waters (yes it’s really blue) over a large expanse; a modern visitor center/locker rooms/viewing area/gift shop serves as the gateway. Once you take the plunge inside the lagoon there is a swim-up bar (your wrist band tallies your purchases) and a kiosk to get a specially formulated facial cream (which you wash off in the lagoon 10 minutes after application – see the guy behind us in the second pic with some the cream still on). The weather was poor as the wind whipped up the water but just keeping low and occasionally dipping our heads in the warm water made it bearable. Here are a couple of pics:
As we were nearing the end our stay in the Blue Lagoon the wind picked up considerably and by the time we made it to Reykjavik most of us had received a message from our airline announcing that all flights had been cancelled. Looking up information about the Reykjavik Airport showed that it “rarely” closes due to high winds so we were in “rare” company. Of course there was a lot consternation about where we were going to stay that night and when we would be able to make it home. Our tour leader Gulla worked closely with Collette to take care of us all. As for the hotel, since the airport was closed there were no flights arriving so the rooms for incoming guests were made available to us (Collette’s travel insurance took care of any charges.) We were able to get on the same flight the very next day and arrived home safely.
In the end we were disappointed that the poor weather detracted from our Iceland journey. Our primary goal was to see the Northern Lights and that just wasn’t possible. We saw all the sights listed on the itinerary and all of them were impressive and would have been spectacular had there been nicer weather. Hat’s off to Collette and Gulla for making the best of the situations that arose due to the weather. I am serious about the possibility of going back to Iceland during the summer because the pictures we saw of the green countryside and mountains looked amazing. I’m sure birding then would be equally exciting. I would recommend a visit to Iceland (just not during stormy weather).