Fire & ice: winter tours in Iceland

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bárðarbunga from the air

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bárðarbunga from the air.

Emily C. Skaftun
Norwegian American Weekly

As readers of this paper may know, I recently took a week off to visit Iceland. Iceland in winter. We’d been to the country before, right around the summer solstice, and loved it. So part of the impetus for this trip was to see how we felt about the place when it wasn’t summer—when it was covered in ice, and when the sun barely made an appearance.

The eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcano, with spreading lava field in nearby Holuhraun, began after we booked our trip, but immediately made the top of our list of things to see while there.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The long view shows just a portion of the vast lava field laid down by the volcano. For scale, the mound that’s been built up is around 70 meters high. The lava field is bigger than Manhattan. I also found it interesting how utterly flat the landscape is that it’s rising out of.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The long view shows just a portion of the vast lava field laid down by the volcano. For scale, the mound that’s been built up is around 70 meters high. The lava field is bigger than Manhattan. I also found it interesting how utterly flat the landscape is that it’s rising out of.

Fortunately, this is easy to do, as long as you’re willing to pay for it. The lava field is roughly in the middle of the country, so there are small plane and helicopter tours available from both Reykjavik and Akureyri (in the north).

Costs vary quite a lot, with helicopter tours typically much more expensive than planes. Flights out of Reykjavik also tended to cost more, and since we were going to Akureyri anyway we booked ours from there. The company we went with was called Mýflug (www.myflug.is), and they were great. Before we flew, they checked and double-checked the weather to make sure we’d see something. It was touch and go for a while, but as you can see from the pictures, the day turned out gorgeous. We flew out to Holuhraun, then back and forth near the caldera several times before heading back to Akureyri, and only then did they run our credit cards. I respect that.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Iceland’s newest volcano sends clouds of smoke to blot out the sun, as seen from the tail window of a Cessna.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Iceland’s newest volcano sends clouds of smoke to blot out the sun, as seen from the tail window of a Cessna.

Other major companies are Saga Travel, Extreme Iceland, Iceland Travel, Nordic Visitors, and Iceland Unlimited, all of which cost more than ours. Though the cheapest, it was still over $300 per person. We justified the expense as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Of course, the other fire we wanted to see while wintering in Iceland was in the sky: the Northern Lights. Don’t miss your opportunity to go on a tour to hunt this phenomenon. You may think you’ll be able to simply look up and see them, but going with a guide gives you better odds. Most of these tours also come with a guarantee, whereby they’ll take you back out the next night if you don’t see anything.

Be forewarned: this will be the coldest part of your trip. Winter temperatures in Iceland are surprisingly mild, hovering around freezing most of the time. But at night, in some windswept place far from light, when you are just standing around looking up, it’s much colder. Wear thick socks.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Iceland isn’t all fire; in winter it also has a lot of ice. This is Goðafoss, the waterfall of the Gods, into which all the old Norse Gods were ritually tossed upon Iceland’s conversion to Christianity.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Iceland isn’t all fire; in winter it also has a lot of ice. This is Goðafoss, the waterfall of the Gods, into which all the old Norse Gods were ritually tossed upon Iceland’s conversion to Christianity.

We did manage to see some Aurora on our first night out, though it wasn’t anything you’d put on a postcard. We had a better view, oddly enough, during our flight to Iceland. If you fly Iceland Air, be sure to reserve your seat selection as soon as you can to get a window seat. That too is another article.

Finally, you may wish to see some of the other wonders of Iceland: the Golden Circle, stunning waterfalls, geothermal sites, or even movie sets. Movie sets? A number of things have been filmed in Iceland, most recently and notably, the “beyond the Wall” segments in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. We chose a tour purporting to take us to places featured on the show, and while the GOT-related content was disappointing, the tour itself was marvelous.

I recommend taking a tour whether in the north or the south, because having a guide along helps enhance the experience in a number of ways. One, they know what they’re looking at, and usually quite a lot of history and interesting tidbits about the location. Two, the tours are planned to take you places at times of day that make sense. We self-guided along the Golden Circle, and ran out of light (which is easy to do in the winter). This won’t happen on a tour. Three, the tour guides have support and backup. We did manage to get our tour van stuck at one point, but she was easily able to summon help (perhaps the Hidden People). Meanwhile, when we tried to drive to a farm we wanted to visit, we were turned back by an impassable road.

However you do it, end your tour in one of the many geothermal baths that make Iceland in the winter much, much cozier than we would have guessed!

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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