Roz Purcell’s Iceland: Six amazing adventures in the Land of Fire and Ice
Little Black Book: Reykjavik
Did you know Iceland is now just a direct flight away? Model and food writer Roz Purcell picks her favourite excursions.
Want to escape for a long weekend?
When searching for somewhere close and cheap to reach, I've always tended to look east, towards the popular city breaks of Europe. Iceland seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime destination - somewhere exotic and far away.
Not so. Iceland is a completely different experience, but WOW Air now flies direct to Reykjavik from Dublin Airport. Within 2.5 hours, you can be soaking up spine-tingling views, epic landscapes and thrilling adventures in the land of fire and ice.
Excursions are the best way to see as much of the country as possible in a short time. Operators provide all the equipment you need, many offer multiple activities and sightseeing options, and most will do hotel pick-ups and drop-offs too.
Here are the unmissables!
1. Chase the Northern Lights
I say ‘chase’, because the lights are not guaranteed.
The aurora borealis are one of Iceland's best excursions, but you’ve got a better chance of seeing them in the winter months, and there are Northern Lights forecasts, so make sure to check them a few days before travelling.
Tours can be cancelled due to bad weather, but they’ll also reschedule you for another night if you don’t see the lights.
Roz recommends: For photos, bring a tripod - you can pick up small and flexible tripods for travelling that take up very little room.
Details: mountaineers.is; from IS 22,000/€150pp
2. Take in a thermal pool
Iceland is famous for its natural thermal pools - from the Blue Lagoon to the Secret Lagoon, which isn’t really much of a secret!
These are included as part of many day excursions, and you'll get plenty of time to relax and take lots of selfies! All you will need is your swimming suit - they provide towels, showers and changing facilities.
If you're really inquisitive, my advice is to find the locals' hidden lagoons! Icelanders can be very secretive about the locations, but if you befriend one you can go to these tourist-free spots and soak up the real Icelandic atmosphere - I didn’t tell you that!
Roz recommends: Go to the Blue Lagoon in the afternoon, it gets a little quieter and the light is amazing... a gorgeous sunset backdrop.
Details: bluelagoon.com; from €40pp
2. Do the Golden circle
The Golden Circle is a tourist loop taking in several attractions within about 100km of Reykjavik, including the geysers, rift valley and Gullfoss waterfall.
These are some of the most amazing holiday backdrops, so much so that it looks like you have been photoshopped in! Most guides give an overview of the area while driving (we even got ghost stories), and short videos and maps at the stops give you a sense of where everything is.
The vast and surreal countryside works in both in winter and summer; you get two completely different landscapes!
Roz recommends: In winter, bring heavily gripped shoes or hiking runners. For photos, bring touch gloves that allow you to use your index finger without freezing.
Details: mountaineers.is; day tour with snowmobiling from IS46,000/€315pp
3. Go snorkelling
Seriously - it’s not as cold as you may think!
Every Icelander I told I was going snorkelling questioned my sanity, but it is actually one of the most popular activities in the country. I dreaded the cold, but the thought of snorkeling in rift valley between the tectonic plates overruled any doubt.
You will be reluctant to de-layer out in the elements, but with a little peer pressure from the t-shirt wearing guides you feel like a bit of a wuss and just get on with it. Expect to be kitted out in a Top Gun-style jumpsuit, a thick dry suit, thermal hood, gloves and flippers... the only thing you need to bring are extra pairs of socks to keep your toes toasty.
I can assure you the coldest part is waiting to get in - the water is around zero-degrees, but there is no wind and once you look beneath you completely forget all other senses. The water is crystal clear as you float between rock crevasses filled with the most vibrant shades of blue, red and green.
For some, the “Angelina Jolie” lip effect they warn you about may be a bonus. However, I was genuinely scared that my lips would explode. It lasts about 30 minutes, and Scuba diving is offered for experienced divers.
Roz recommends: Take the half day snorkeling tour, as the pit stops afterwards double up with a lot of the other tours and return you to your hotel for a hot lunch and Jacuzzi... the perfect après swim recovery.
Details: dive.is; from IS17,990/€123pp
4. Go Snowmobiling
Are you the adventurous type?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to be Fernando Alonso to take part in this adventure, although you know you are in for some action when a modified monster truck pulls up at the hotel lobby.
Expect a scenic and smooth ride until you reach the edge of the glacier, when the skilled drivers take you off-road, up and down snow dunes and across frozen rivers, making sure you get the adrenaline pumping before snowmobiling.
You'll be fully kitted out in warm gear for the tour, and a brief run-through on how to drive the snowmobiles is followed by a F1-style starting line-up. Daredevil or not, the security of being surrounded by fluffy snow makes you braver and faster, as you explore the second largest glacier in Europe and Iceland at high speed.
If you like the outdoors, come back again and try an ice cave and glacier hiking excursion. Tourists I met said it is one of Iceland's best excursions, and I met a lot of professional photographers who had travelled specifically to Iceland for it. It's definitely on my list for the next trip (three-day trips are the norm, although a full-day cave visit is available from Reykjavik too).
Roz recommends: All year round activity, however the ride is a bit smoother on the fresh snow during the winter months!
Details: mountaineers.is; from €248pp for 7-8 hours.
5. Horse Trekking
Fancy being among the few people to experience the 'tolt’ - the fifth gait said to be unique to Icelandic horses, and one so smooth you can hold a glass of champagne with no spills?
Icelandic Horses are a national treasure, and the breed is highly protected. There are over 100,000 of the animals in Iceland, and horse trekking tours are available year-round, though I'd recommend it most during the summer period, where you can escape into the highlands and see a different Iceland.
There lots of options for the horse trekking from half day, full day, right up to week long excursions. They can be tailored to groups to include different elements like visiting spas, home dining, and whale watching.
Roz recommends: Most excursions include a light lunch, but do bring snacks, because it can be a very long day, and you don’t want to be ‘hangry’ on holiday!
Details: islenskihesturinn.is; from €100 for a half-day
6. Sample the nightlife
Ok, it's not an excursion, but bot all Icelandic adventures need to involve leaving the city behind...
Iceland's nightlife revolves around live music and Icelandic beers, and the Reykjavik scene really punches above its weight for such a small city.
Borg is the main beer recommended by the locals - but there are lots of options. Beer was banned up until 1989, and since then they have made up for lost time by creating loads of unique and quality brews. The cocktails are also very unique and mostly locally sourced with delicious flavors like birch liquor.
During the winter months, Reykjavik's streets seem empty, but people are hidden away from the cold in snug pubs and late restaurants. Most restaurants also stay open until midnight and many have bars attached.
Roz recommends: Casual wear is the look, so please don’t pack any heels - you won’t get very far on the ice anyway!
Roz travelled as a guest of WOW Air (wowair.ie), which flies direct from Dublin Airport to Reykjavik with one-way fares from €79pp as we publish.
What to pack
Lots of these activities sound a bit nippy, but dress smart and you wont notice that crisp cold air! Here's my essential packing list for excursions:
- Long Sleeve thermal base layers; top and bottoms
- Long Sleeve Top & pants, with a comfy, stretchy material
- Sock liner; or light socks as a base layer
- Thick wool socks
- Quilted insulated jacket
- Small backpack or bag for snacks and supplies!
- Sunglasses - it's cold, but the sun can get strong!
- Ski Gloves; I would recommend maybe wearing lighter gloves beneath with index touch for taking photos.
- Wool Hat
- Hiking Boots or Trail Runners
- For Ice Hiking, you'll need crampons (non-slip shoe covers)
- Waterproof case for your phone – handy for thermal pool snaps!
Where to stay
To make the most of your stay, book accommodation in central Reykjavik - within walking distance of the main streets Laugavegur and Bankastræti, so before booking check the hotel's location out a map.
Roz stayed with Center Hotels (centerhotels.com), which has a range of hotels in some of the most stately houses in Reykjavik.
NB: All prices subject to availability.