There’s no mistaking it: Iceland is officially on everyone’s travel radar. The land of fire and ice has become one of the world’s hottest travel destinations for 2016, particularly with the help of Wow Air. But while Iceland may not be the largest of countries, there is a lot ground to cover – both physically and culturally. Any first-time visitor would be facing quite a challenge fitting everything into 72 hours, but it can be done. Here's how:
Take a $99 Wow Air flight and touch down in Reykjavik around 5:00 am. Walk out into the brisk morning air and get ready to tackle Iceland’s whimsical roads: rent a diesel car from SAD Cars, the cheapest transportation option available, say yes to the GPS option, and fill 'er up. Iceland is notorious for its lack of road signs, so don't underestimate the power of a navigational system.
Day 1: The Golden Circle
Iceland’s most famous route, the Golden Circle, leads to a fissure that divides the country in two where geysers explode into the air. Taken at a leisurely pace, the route can take anywhere from 4 to 10 hours to fully explore. As you travel around the circle, you’ll notice all the barren fields dotted with what look like ponies, but what are actually miniature horses. They are incredibly friendly yet curious creatures, so watch out for some nibbling on your bag if you stop for a pat.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park
The entry point to the Golden Circle, this national park boasts mountainous, lush fields dotted with black lava rocks resulting from centuries of eruptions. The most famous of these rock formations actually made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Lögberg, translated to “Law Rock,” is also where the oldest existing parliament in the world first assembled in 930 AD. The spot was chosen because of the way voices echoed off the long expanse of rock for all of the Alþing National Assembly to hear.
Also located within the park is the Silfra Fissure, a continental divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The subtle shifting of these plates actually accounts for many of the slow-moving geological changes and much of the volcanic activity Iceland experiences. If you have your diving certification, you can actually scuba dive between the two tectonic plates and technically be in two continents at once.
The Great Geysir and Gullfoss
These two must-see phenomena are only minutes within each other. The Great Geysir appears first; one of the two major geysers in the region, it has sat dormant since 1916. Iceland is actually where the English word geyser derives from, meaning “gusher” in Icelandic. Sulfuric smoke rises up from the ground in patches across this geothermal region where smaller geysers are scattered. Strokkur is the second largest in the area, and it is still very active, blasting heated water up into the sky every 5-10 minutes.
Just minutes away, the landscape drastically changes. Gullfoss is the first of many amazing waterfalls you should plan to see in Iceland, disappearing into a plume of fog as its waters crash into the Hvita river below. During the summer there are walking paths down to the falls where you can get up close and personal with the cascading spray. There are also two observation decks, one upper and one lower from which to snap incredible photos. Tip: The little Gullfoss Cafe is a great and inexpensive spot to grab lunch. Icelandic meals are not cheap, so definitely try and plan ahead.
End of the Road
If you’re still hungry and feeling adventurous, check out Fridheimar Farm. This little gem on the edge of the Golden Circle is famous for its fresh tomatoes. You can walk around the greenhouse and stop by their restaurant for their world famous tomato soup.
Follow up with a stop at Kerid Crater Lake. Situated right along the final loop of the circle, it’s exactly what it sounds like -- the crater of an inactive volcano which has sat dormant for millenniums, and has since filled with water to create a lake. You can actually walk all around and down into the crater lake, a surreal concept when you realize that you are actually standing inside a dormant volcano.
Day 2: The South Coast of Iceland
The south coast is best seen from the popular Ring Road Route 1, which encompasses the entire coastline and would take one week to completely traverse. On this route is the most iconic waterfall of Iceland, Seljalandsfoss. Visitors can walk into the cave behind the cascading spray while the waterfall crashes down in front—as long as you don’t mind getting a little bit wet, of course. Just a quick distance up the dirt path to the left of Seljalandsfoss is another waterfall only seen by the adventurous. Hidden within a massive cave, visitors navigate their way over rocks and through a running stream; once insde, you will be at a loss for words. Gljúfrabúi cascades down the caves’ rock face, spraying those daring souls who chose to enter with its chilly water in a refreshing moment of “wow”. Tip: Wear a raincoat and waterproof boots as there are lots of mud puddles. Leggings for the ladies are also a good idea as they dry much faster than pants, .
The little town of Vik is the perfect spot for a quick lunch and for topping up your gas tank. The town’s highest-ranked restaurant is Halldorskaffi, hidden beside a quaint hotel down the road toward the coast. Try a classic Icelandic fish soup and some delicious homemade pizza.
Vik is also home to some of Iceland’s most beautiful beaches, which are nothing like the ones we’re familiar with on this side of the Atlantic. Rather, the sand is jet black from the lava of previous volcanic eruptions. Reynisfjara is probably the coolest beach in Iceland with its massive cave, Hálsanefshellir. Beyond Hálsanefshellir, in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean is another beautifully eroded rock structure called Reynisdrangar which rises up from the waves. The views are mesmerizing, and on a good day you can see whales playing out in the sea and puffins gliding across the tops of the waves.
It's an easy drive back along the coast toward Reykjavik, Iceland’s beautiful capital. The main road through the vibrant city is called Laugavegur and has tons of little shops and restaurants along its cobblestone streets. If you’re in search of true Icelandic food, splurge a bit at Ostabúðin located on the road which slopes toward the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church. Their menu features the Icelandic specialty, whale, served as a raw appetizer with hollandaise sauce and bacon-wrapped fennel. Similar in texture and look to tuna sashimi or a thick slice of roast beef, it is surprisingly delicious. Arctic char is also famous here for its buttery texture and five-star flavor. Once full and happy, take a short hike up to Reykjavik’s iconic Perlan, an exhibition space on the top of a hill overlooking the best views of the colorful city; if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Day 3: The Blue Lagoon
Iceland’s most popular hot spot is its amazing geothermal spa center, the Blue Lagoon, where surreal icy-blue water is naturally heated from underground. Being so close to the airport, the best day to go to the Blue Lagoon is either on your arrival or departure; the Blue Lagoon will set you up with a shuttle service from either the airport or Reykjavik when you go to purchase your tickets. You must pre-book a reservation in order to guarantee yourself a spot on the day you choose to go. The reservations start as early as 8:00 am, but you can stay at the lagoon as long as you wish no matter what time you arrive. Every Blue Lagoon package includes unlimited access to the Silica Mud Masks, made from natural white mud that is a result of the silica rubbing against the lava rocks. You are given a wristband which act as your payment for other in-water treatments (massage anyone?) and bar purchases while in the lagoon.
It is cold as can be walking about in a swimsuit, but at least the water temperature varies between a balmy 98°F and 104°F. It is amazing to see just how blue the water actually is; almost icy in color because of the silica, it contrasts sharply against the looming black lava rocks. But, if you were to pour the water into a cup, you’d be surprised to find that it is actually white! The other active ingredients in the water are algae (also used in a healing mud mask to reduce aging in skin) and various other minerals. The 1.5 million gallons of lagoon water is also self-cleansing and renews itself every 40 hours.
There it is: 72 hours in the world’s hottest country of ice. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
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