Iceland, the land of fire and ice! Would you take your kids to visit such a place…..hell yes!
To me Iceland is my place of solitude. I’ve visited the country several times, twice to capture is breathtaking beauty as a landscape photographer, once with a couple who wanted to celebrate their 1st wedding anniversary in a very special way and finally the 4th time with my wife and four children aged 16, 14, 12 and 6. Iceland is a place that once you visit you have to go back again and again. It sinks it claws into you. There aren’t many places on earth that can show you mother nature at its best and diverse. There is a reason why so many people are drawn to Iceland, it’s extreme, it’s epic!
So what to do on a family winter holiday…Everything is possible to do and visit in terms of popular locations and places you must see. If you want to be more adventurous then it may be more difficult if you are traveling with young children under 8. Safety has to be the number one priority – on the road and when you visit certain locations. Safetravel.is is a great site that you should sign up to it gives you regular updates and alerts. During the winter you should always check the weather and road information regularly throughout the day. There is a popular saying in Iceland about the weather “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes” It’s very true you can witness, so many conditions in one day.
Iceland can be expensive so be prepared. When eating out for a family of 6, expect to pay over £200. Outside of Reykjavik restaurants are few and far between so you may find yourself eating at a service station or your hotel, most food in Iceland is good quality. I had planned our trip before hand – you have to, don’t expect to arrive, drive and stay in hotels without pre- booking, especially with children – It’s too busy so you have to book everything in advance. Iceland is huge and traveling to locations will take a big part of your time. Hire a car that is comfortable, your going to spend a lot of time in it! I rented a Land Cruiser and we all fitted comfortably fully loaded with our luggage.
If your visiting for the first time the South & East coast have the main places of interest. Here is our experience and what our 7 day adventure entailed.
Flying out of Bristol we arrived at Keflavik airport at 12pm on Sunday. We hit the road straight away, I had booked lunch for us at 3pm at a famous langoustine restaurant in Selfoss. Our first stop was the Reykjanes peninsula. A volcanic zone which is direct continuance of the North Atlantic ridge that surfaces from the ocean at Reykjanes. Huge sea stacks get pounded by crashing waves in a geothermal landscape, the smell of sulphur lies thick in the air. From here it was a 5 mins drive to the mud pools and steam vents of Gunnuhavur. To see these thermal vents projecting steam with such ferocity is incredible. We then headed to Selfoss with a 1 hour and 20 min drive. Through lava fields, over mountains and coastal plains. We arrived at the restaurant at three and ate the most delicious langoustine soup. Our next stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall just over an hour away, I wanted to get there around sunset as its a beautiful location to visit but the weather was very changeable. Pockets of blue sky, but mostly low cloud, it was progressively getting worse with dense low mist all around us. On clear days this Southerly drive along Route 1 is stunning, huge mountains on the left and coastal plaines to the right. We arrived at Seljalandsfoss and visibility was down to about 20 meters so there was no point in stopping, we did mange to get a glimpse of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull as we drove along route 1. We continued towards our destination Hotel Katla in Vik.
The South coast has lots to see, this was going to be a packed day of adventure, we were up and out early so we could avoid the crowds when visiting our first location – Skogafoss waterfall. Being a wedding photographer and in all my times visiting Iceland seeing this majestic fall is such a wonderful backdrop to place a couple in front of. I’ve wanted to have some photos taken of Beth and I here since seeing it the first time. So who was going to take our photo. We quickly changed our clothes and prepared to get wet. No pressure but I thrust my Sony A7R2 to my daughter Freya, she was the chosen photographer. I gave her some quick tips and told her to continually wipe the lens, the wind was blowing spray right towards her. She captured us perfectly. I was so happy with the results and now the image is in print hanging on our living room wall. I think I’ve found my perfect second shooter in Freya. Wet clothes set aside and as the tourists bus loads arrived we fled and headed towards Seljalandsfoss. Here you can walk around the back of this waterfall if the ground is not icy, for us it wasn’t. So we prepared to get wet again, this time very wet!! It is an incredible sight and feeling being here, the force and constant flow of water crashing down. A short walk and you can visit whats knows as the secret waterfall. Hidden between a small gorge in the rocks, you will get even wetter here….be prepared! Jude couldn’t make it to this waterfall as you have to wade the stream and jump over some rocks to get inside the gorge. Three epic waterfalls done!
Out next stop was Sólheimasandur and the famous plane wreck. The plane crash landed in the 70’s no one was injured in the crash the pilot safely landed after running out of fuel. A few years ago you could drive straight to the site but people began to abuse the landscape and drive off road. The farmer who owns the land decided to close the area off to vehicles so now its a walk. There is a large car park space on the side of the road – It wasn’t there last year! (sign of increasing tourism) It’s a good 45-50 min walk each way. You are walking over glacier flood plains so there is nothing there to see other than the black landscape and the sky. Walking back is better as you can see the mountains, volcanos and ice caps of Katla. This walk is easy but you have to check the weather – you are totally exposed and don’t want to get caught out by a storm especially if you have small children. Jude managed the walk with ease and a constant supply of fruit pastils. It’s defiantly one of those “are we there yet” moments. You can see the plane glistening on the horizon line and it quickly gets bigger as you approach. The sky turned dark grey as we got there and a huge hail storm pelted down on us, luckily we had the shelter of the fuselage to hide in, the noise of the hail hitting the aluminum was deafening. Five minuets later it stopped, the storm had passed and blue sky could be seen. The walk back seemed twice as long, it always is!
Next stop was Reynisfjara, the famous black beach. The waves here are colossal and pound the shore line. There are rouge waves and you have to be very careful of on this beach, many tourists have been swept away by these waves. Safety is the most important thing here. There is now a restaurant on the beach so we stopped for a brew and cookies. The rock structure here is wonderful, basalt columns and sea stacks and sweeping views towards Dyrholaey. I had warned Jude about the waves and he was frightened by the ocean so didn’t go near the sea which I was more than happy with.
From here we jumped back in the car to end the day with sunset at Dyrholaey, this spot can be epic at this time of the day. Another hail storm caught us whilst we were on the cliff top, huddled together and heads down we found our way back to the car for shelter, but then again like earlier it suddenly stopped and the clouds moved on. We drove to the light house and walked to the cliff edge and out onto the sweeping view. Knackered after a long day we decided to go out for dinner to a restaurant called Halldorskaffi. Simply the bests Pizza’s and burgers. As we got back to the hotel snow was falling…
Sunrise is about 8.45am. I opened the curtains about 8 and had to have a double take, everything was white. I knew the kids would explode with excitement in seeing the snow. They did…After a few hours of playing in the snow we hit the road for the next part of our journey. The Vatnajokull region, the land of glaciers and icebergs. With so much snow on the ground luckily the roads were clear. This drive normally takes about 2 hours in Summer conditions but in winter with snow and ice it took us about 3 hours, I was in no rush and there are lots of lay-bys to pull over and appreciate the awesomeness of the lava fields, mountains and glaciers. The lighting conditions can effect ice. Cloudy is much better as it makes the ice bluer in colour. Approaching the Svinafellsjokull glacier you can see the blue glow of the glacier tongues reflecting up the side of the black mountains. You’ll find yourself pulling over into a lay-by, the landscape is breathtaking. We stopped at the Skaftafell glacier, here you can park very close and walk right next to it. Rain or shine you have to do it. It’s a beautiful sight that you will never forget, and at the rate that the glaciers are retracting due to climate change this is something that you won’t be able to see for much longer. A glacier retracts approx 100ft a year. Once they are gone they are gone for good.
From Svinafellsjokull we drove further East towards Jokulsarlon. Snow continued to fall and driving was difficult, we arrived at the glacier lagoon late afternoon and it was full of ice bergs all jostling to escape and flow down the lagoon outlet into the ocean and on to the diamond beach. Ice has incredible structure and detail you have to really look closely at it to find the shape and form.
Just a drive to the other side of the road and and we were on the beach known as the Diamond Beach. Here you can walk amongst the bergs, pick them up and even have a bite of true glacial ice. It’s the purest water you can drink. With crashing waves hitting the ice you have to be careful as the mini bergs can be tossed around and come crashing into shore. You also get the rouge waves that can knock you off your feet. I’ve seen it happen. Evening was spent back at the hotel relaxing.
Big day today, one of the main reasons for coming to Iceland in winter was to visit the Ice Caves. I had been inside the crystal cave a few years ago and was blown away by that experience and I wanted my family to experience it this time. The week before coming to Iceland the crystal cave was closed – flooded with rain and melt water and possibly unsafe for the rest of the winter season. I was devastated. The prospect of not being able to enter the cave really upset me, but we were lucky, the snow that had been falling and the drop in temperature meant the flood had stopped and access to the cave was possible. We were the first ones back inside since it was flooded, they don’t advise under 8 year olds to enter due to safety but I know Jude’s skill level and his spirit and he would manage the cave so luckily the tour guide allowed him to come along. The drive to the cave is punishing even in a super jeep. What these vehicles can drive over is remarkable but you do feel it! Its about a 20 min drive and your bouncing all of the way, don’t eat too much for breakfast. You are driving over the old bed of the glacier from only a few years ago, steep inclines, dips, boulders, and ice blocks. Eventually we arrived at the start of the glacier, it was complete white out apart from the tiny black hole which was the entrance to the cave. Ice grips and helmets on we walked the final stretch to the cave. The ripples in the walls of the cave are like frozen waves and the colour blue from the ice is so beautiful.
Our plan today was to leave Jokulsarlon and drive back to Vik, stopping off at different locations along the way. The weather had other plans. A violent storm warning had been issued. When this happens it can’t be ignored. The ring road was closed in sections due to the blizzards, ice and snow. My concern was how are we going to get back. There is only one main road around Iceland and if its closed your stranded. The boys played in the snow drifts that were waist high form the overnight fall. I was conscious of time, day light fading and the incoming storm. We had to make a decision on what to do, staying put wasn’t really an option and to drive to Reykjavik was at least an 8-10 hour drive in these conditions. I had to make a plan.
We decided to leave and head back to Vik. Drive slow, stay safe was the mantra. It didn’t take long before I felt like this was the wrong decision. The blizzard made it very challenging to drive but the only grace was that it was safety in numbers, the road had other cars traveling in the same direction all trying to get back to the city. We traveled for about an hour or so and arrived at the Svinafellsjokull glacier to find the road ahead was closed, marked red on the map. Luckily there is a decent service station near by so we stopped and waited.
Watching the time tick and wondering where are we going to sleep, what are we going to do to get out of this. Obviously there is nothing we can do until the road opened. A worse storm was heading our way and expected to hit the South coast the following day, all roads will be closed and travel is not permitted. I managed to speak to a local guide who advised not to stay in Vik as we will be stranded there possibly all weekend. Get on the road and drive to Reykjavik. So with this advise I made a plan, canceled our hotel in Vik and managed to book new accommodation in the city. We were at the service station for about three hours, the road re opened and everyone scrambled out to their cars and buses before it was closed again for good. It was safety in numbers again, a single line of traffic for what felt like an eternity. There was no road! Snow was over the snow markers in some places. Blizzards so dense you I had to slow down to 5 mph. We eventually made it to Vik at sunset. Bizarrely the sky was beautiful, clear and blue. By the time we drove past Skogafoss the sky was orange, again I had to stop I couldn’t drive past my favorite waterfall without a last glimpse. I grabbed the boys and out we ran. it was truly beautiful and very peaceful.
Back on the road and as twilight fell the weather changed, more blizzards and poor visibility. The thought of driving for another 4 hours did not sit well with me but I knew we just had to. Drive slow, stay safe. It was one of the most difficult drives I have ever done. We arrived in Reykjavik just after 10pm but we had made it. We slept and the snow was still falling hard…
Knowing that we were safe in the city made me happy, I didn’t care what the weather this day, however as predicted 90% of roads in Iceland were closed and travel was not permitted. If we had stayed South or further East there was no way we would of got back to Reykjavik for several days, it was the right thing to do. A day spent in the most Northern city in the world wasn’t too bad, coffee, culture, cakes and shopping. This pretty much sums it all up. The weather was bad and it didn’t stop snowing, raining, strong winds but we walked. Walking to the concert hall Harpa was extreme, we were exposed to the winds coming down from the mountains we could barely walk with out getting blown over. Lunch at Prinkid and discovering the bakers Braud were defiantly highlights. We checked into our apartment on Laugavegura, a three bedroom apartment with great facilities and on the main shopping strip. That evening we decided to make the most of the kitchen and cook in the apartment. Groceries are expensive but not as expensive as eating out. It was just nice to cook and chill. Snow was still falling…
I rescheduled our plans so what we should of done yesterday we did today. The kids were so excited, we were going to visit The Secret Lagoon, about hour and half drive out to the tiny village of Fludir.
Arriving at the lagoon you could see the steam blowing in the air from the water. The lagoon was built in 1891 and is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. Villagers diverted part of the flow of the river and thermal pools to make the lagoon and have a constant water temperature of about 40 Celsius. We spent about an hour in the lagoon and then headed up to Gulfoss.
Gulfoss is probably the most visited waterfall as its part of the Golden Circle tour. It’s very busy but you have to see it, forget the crowds and just take in the shear size of it. From Gulfoss we drove a short distance to Strokkur geyser. Thick mist surrounded us and visibility was poor, along with the steam from the vents it was difficulty to see the steam and water shooting up as it merged with the mist but we did get to see the wonderful blue of the air bubble before its let loose. An amazing site.
We headed back to the city through Thingvellir national park, stunning country side and where you can see and walk between the tectonic plates, we couldn’t stop to appreciate it as the mist was too thick so just kept going.
We spent our last night in Reykjavik, I had been recommended to eat at a little restaurant called 12 Hverfisgata. It was fantastic. Great food and beer and I would highly recommend it, the pizza’s are some of the best I’ve tasted. Snow was still falling hard…
Waking up on the last day and seeing empty streets, cars buried in snow is not what I expected on the day we were due to fly home. Overnight Reykjavik had the heaviest snow fall in 80 years. All I could think of was YES! we are staying for longer, but I was wrong whilst we were one of the first people to get out and see the snow, dig out our car, drive on un-ploughed roads the airport had clear runways and no flights were delayed. Icelandic people know how to deal with situations like this. As we sped down the runway and into flight the extent of the snow could be seen, white everywhere.
Iceland is a wonderful place and I hope I have inspired you to go there. It is catch 22 in terms of tourism and the country is changing and adapting to accommodate so many more visitors. I guess its just part and parcel of the world we live in. But go! Don’t hesitate just remember, drive slow, stay safe.
Weather reports – Verdir.is
Road information – Road.is
Vik – Hotel Katla
Hoglasfstrtta – awesome food can’t book get there early
Jokulsarlon – Guest house Gerdi
Ice cave tour – Glacier adventure
Blue Car rental
Reykjavik – Foss Barron Hotel
Room with a view apartments
Havisgtratta 12 – Best Pizzas in town, cant book get there early
Perks – Great american dinner style
Dill – Michelin star fine dining