Iceland, a winter paradise


My biggest learning of the past few years is that spontaneous experiences are always the best!  When you just go with the flow and let things happen as they should, everything just flows nicely.  If you can give yourself the gift of not planning once in a while and just accepting whatever comes your way, do it!  It can be extremely rewarding and lead you to new experiences that perhaps you thought were not possible. Iceland happened to me in this way…
I used to take private yoga lessons from Eva a while back, she is the owner of Heal and Soul in Encino, CA.  One day I received an email invitation to a yoga retreat in Topanga.  This retreat led to an offer to partner up with her to plan some events and yoga retreats in different countries.  She knew that I was trying to break into the travel industry and needed some experience in sales and planning trips.  She wanted to begin with Iceland.  I had thought about visiting Iceland someday but it was not in my immediate travel plans.  She asked me to join a meeting with her and Jessi (her friend) to begin the planning.  The meeting was not a meeting at all but rather a quick get together to buy flights.  When I met them I didn’t even know that I would travel with them.  I thought I would only help them plan and sell the trip and watch the yoga studio while Eva was away.  They bought their flights first and then told me to give them my credit card to get mine.  What do you mean?!  Am I going with you guys to Iceland?! and Eva responded “what is the fun of planning travel if you don’t get to do it yourself?!”  well, I couldn’t agree more, so I bought a flight.  We found very cheap tickets for $280 on WOW Air; which ended up being a mistake as they cancelled our departure flights about two weeks before our departure date, and subsequently our return flights.  I ended up getting a flight to London with my American Airlines miles and then a cheap ticket on Easy Jet from London to Reykjavik.  Eva bought another flight on Icelandic Airlines and Jessi cancelled her trip altogether since the airfare had increased by about 200%.
Planning and selling this trip turned out to be a great experience for me.  Eva was very hands off so I got to figure out the entire itinerary, the activities for each day, finding the farm house where we would stay, and renting the 4WD car we would drive, etc.  We wanted to have complete freedom to do whatever we pleased and visit the places we wanted to see at our own leisure vs. being trapped to a public tour and their set schedule.  And because the trip was in February, we decided to rent a farm house in the countryside away from city lights to have higher chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
Despite planning this trip so quickly and only marketing it on our social media accounts for less than one month, Eva and I managed to sell the 8-day retreat package to five people.   We also hired my friend Jan to be our driver, one of the best decisions made!  He turned out to be a pro at driving in the snowy, windy and icy conditions.  The trip in general was a success as we divided the jobs according to our skills and expertise- Jan was our driver, Aurora Borealis Consultant, and group Photographer.  Eva was our Chef and Yoga/Meditation Instructor.   And I was the General Tour Leader and in charge of all trip related matters.
I used to say that travel was my favorite hobby and that I never wanted to do it as a “job” but after this experience, I can see myself guiding and leading a few more trips out there in the coming years.  Who knows, maybe I can turn this into a business… ?! :O
In general Iceland was a fantastic country to visit.  It was not as cold as one would think, the temperature was usually in the low twenties or thirties (Fahrenheit).  Our coldest day was in the low teens.  The snow covered the ground everywhere which turned all landscapes into a beautiful winter wonderland.  We were fortunate to also witness spectacular shows of the Aurora Borealis four nights in a row at the farm.
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The first night at the farm we got a spectacular show of the Northern Lights. They were dancing all around us for about a good hour.

The Icelandic people were very nice, and helpful wherever we went.  They always provided really great services in restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, etc.  Always with a “poker” face, not showing a lot of emotion, but very courteous and hospitable.  Everyone speaks English; which makes it very easy for visitors to feel comfortable.
The food was not as expensive as everyone seems to say, as least not for us California residents.   The prices for groceries in supermarkets like Netto and Bonus are very comparable to prices in Los Angeles.  When dining out, your best bet is to go to local restaurants and order the lamb stew, a favorite dish of the Icelanders.  The price was anywhere from US$15-$18 per bowl and with free refills plus free bread.  Water is free everywhere and taste great!  They also sell lamb stew and other small meals and snacks like lamb hot dogs at gas stations, along with souvenirs and anything else you may need on the road.  The best way to visit Iceland is by car.  You can rent a car online or near the Reykjavik airport.  A lot of companies have free shuttles at the exit from baggage claim to take you to the different rental offices.  I reserved online through Reykjavikcars.com who set me up with a car from Green Motion; which provided really great service and some last minute upgrades.
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delicious lamb stew with bread, free refills wherever you order it!

If you go during the winter, my recommendation is to rent a 4WD car with studded winter tires.  Our first day we ventured out to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and we saw four cars stuck in ditches on the side of the road or overturned.  One guy had blown his transmission trying to get out of the snow ditch.  Weather conditions can change and get rough at any given moment.  There is also a lot of gravel and sand shooting up at your car as big trucks pass you on the opposite lane.  Premium insurance will give you peace of mind as you don’t have to worry about any damages.  The only thing not covered by insurance is the damage to the doors usually caused by strong winds.  One day the major highway that goes around the country (highway 1) was closed in some areas due to winds with speeds of 95 miles per hour.  Some parts of the road were extremely icy and were not safe to drive.
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the roads get icy so get your 4WD with winter tires in the winter!

Iceland is definitely a coffee country, being the world’s fourth largest consumer per capita.  They import beans from Colombia, Brazil and Indonesia.  The way they make it though is sooo good!  it doesn’t matter if you get it at a coffee shop, a convenience store, a hotel, it is always smooth, and great tasting!  I loved having my daily cup every morning.
For some reason they Icelandic people love American music from the 80’s and 90’s.  It was constantly playing in shops, restaurants, and on the radio stations.
My phone and internet provider in the US is T-Mobile which worked really well in Iceland.  I was able to access the internet and GPS all throughout the Southwest region without a problem.
As far as the Tour…

My first time guiding a tour in Iceland (or anywhere) and it was a success! We were a group of eight people who traveled in two cars from Keflavik in the West all the way to Vatnajokull National Park in the East, visiting the Reykjaness Peninsula, the Golden Circle, and the Southern Peninsula in between. We rented a large and beautiful farm house at Sydra-Langholt inside the Golden Circle which we used as our home-base from where we took different day trips. We ended the trip with a nice tour of Reykjavik, its capital city.

My wishes for visiting this country in the winter were mainly to see the Northern Lights and walk inside an Ice Cave… both were accomplished! In fact, we witnessed the spectacular Aurora lights on four different nights.

Iceland offered more beauty than I expected. It was a winter wonderland!  Full of beautiful and dramatic landscapes, hot springs, volcanic mountains, mossy lava fields, massive glaciers, underground caves, basalt columns, geysers, horses, sheep, etc. If you like nature, this is paradise!  Iceland is located right where the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and continue to drift apart giving the island its iconic volcanoes and great geothermal heat which is harnessed in seven plants around the country to provide 30% of its electricity needs.

 

Here are some of my favorite photos:

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Hallgrímskirkja, the Evangelic-Lutheran church in Reykjavík city center which houses an impressive organ of 5,270 pipes.

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A beautiful sunrise scene (10:00am) of the countryside during a drive in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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Inside the 8000 year old lava tube – Cave Vatnshellir, 200 meters long and 35 meters deep

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The beautiful Icelandic horses that come out to greet roadside visitors

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The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa pool pumped with hot water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. Surreal experience!

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The fissure where the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and continue to drift apart.

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Geyser in the Golden Circle; which shoots up water every 8 minutes or so

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Skogafoss

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Black Sand Beach in the Southern Coast

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Inside one of the many ice caves that form during the winter in the Vatnajokull Glacier, the biggest in Iceland.

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Diamond Beach near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

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The giant pieces of ice from the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon that are washed up on the beach by the waves.

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the stunning cliffs in the Reykjaness Peninsula

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