After our first week in Reykjavik during our Iceland trip in January, we spent four days outside of Reykholt, a small town on the eastern edge of the Golden Circle. When we were researching where to stay, we decided that we wanted to pick a couple of places along that loop so we could get a sense of different areas of the country.
After looking at a number of YouTube videos and reading some articles on winter conditions on the Ring Road circling the whole country, we decided not to venture further than the Golden Circle and southern parts of the country. After the snowstorm that hit us halfway through the trip and then an even bigger storm right before we left, it appears we made the right decision.
There is a bus line that circles the country even in the middle of winter, which we might have taken if we were staying for an even longer time, but two weeks meant we kept it to a smaller area. Staying in one place meant we had time to explore the area more leisurely, and we’ve found that we much prefer vacations where we don’t hop from one place to the next in short periods of time.
That same reason is why we didn’t try and visit another country on that trip even though it was only a short plane ride away to mainland Europe. There are plenty of other places nearby we would love to see, but we would rather see one place in a more real way than a whirlwind of many.
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Winter Driving In Iceland
We didn’t rent a car until we left Reykjavik, so we bused in to town at the start of the trip and then back to the airport when it was time to pick it up. Since we knew that we would be driving on snowy and possibly icy roads – and the cabin we rented in Reykholt had a “4WD only” clause for winter – we reserved a Jeep for the duration.
Unlike in the United States, we couldn’t rent a vehicle through Costco, so we asked around to friends who had been to Iceland in the past. We ended up renting a car from Green Motion, and we were very happy with the service with them. They were also much more affordable than other companies that we had checked out.
Within minutes of driving away from Reykjavik after we’d loaded everyone up in the car, we were very glad to have chosen a 4WD Jeep, because the weather got bad quickly. It was rough enough from that morning that though we had reservations to the Blue Lagoon, we headed straight for the cabin in Reyholt instead.
It was unfortunate to have to lose out on our reservations – the Blue Lagoon isn’t cheap – but we knew not to mess with the weather. The attraction is so popular even in the off-season that we had to have tickets ahead of time in order to have a chance to go during the daylight, but 20/20 hindsight makes me wish we hadn’t booked them.
The two hour drive took us over a mountain pass and then through Selfoss, the most populous town in that part of Iceland. The conditions were almost a full white out, and I was glad to have the skilled driving of my husband to get us to our destination safely. They tell you not to pull over on those roads – there are no real shoulders and you’re likely to get stuck – so we had to drive straight through.
The weather broke right around when we got to Selfoss, and we had gotten there a few hours before our check in at the cabin, so we decided to stock up on groceries and liquor while we were in town. Selfoss is the only town of any real population size on that side of the Golden Circle, so we took advantage of being able to shop at regular sized stores while we were there. The next few days were also expected to have blizzard conditions, so we knew we’d likely be at the cabin for most of the time we were in that location.
The grocery store – Bónus – was the same budget chain we’d shopped at in Reykjavik, and the state owns and operates the liquor stores, so cost and selection wise things were more or less the same as in the capital city. For the three nights we’d be at the cabin, we bought a bunch of skyr, sandwich fixings, snacks, popcorn, and ingredients to make salt lamb soup. While we bought some food similar to what we would eat at home, we mostly shopped with what was normally available in Iceland. Part of the experience in a new place for us is shopping at local grocery stores and cooking those meals ourselves.
After doing our shopping, we had a bit of time left to kill before check in, so we went to a bakery that occupied the same parking lot as the grocery and liquor stores. We were off the main highway strip, but most of the stores were clustered in the same few areas, which made it quite convenient.
We bought baked goods and coffee (or hot chocolate for me, as almost no coffee shops in Iceland seem to carry decaf), and chatted and hung out for a bit. It made for a nice relaxed afternoon after a stressful drive over, and by the time we were done there, it was time to head on to Reyholt and get to the cabin we’d be staying at.
Reykholt / Blue View Cabins
We were still a forty minute drive from Selfoss to the Reyholt area, so we made sure to do that drive while there was still daylight left. While Iceland has short winter days, dusk lasts quite a long time, with the sun setting just after 3:30PM but full dark not coming on until 5:00PM.
Once we got to the Blue View Cabins outside Reyholt, we parked the car and planned to drive nowhere for the next couple of days until the weather fully cleared (which is also why we didn’t get to Secret Lagoon). The vacation host even texted us to let us know about the winter storm and to tell us to stay put if possible, so we did just that.
Sunrise the next day (at 10:45AM or so) broke clear though, and we actually got to go for a hike around the area in the snow. The cabin sits on top of a hill with the other vacation rentals own by the same company along with a few other homes, down a long gated road. As almost no one else was coming and going, it felt like we almost had the place to ourselves.
Saltkjöt og baunir (Split pea soup with salt lamb)
Since we knew we’d likely be staying in at the cabin for a while, we decided to pick up some Icelandic lamb to cook with. I found some saltkjöt at the Bónus grocery store, and looking up the translation on my phone led me to this recipe to make (as far as I can tell) a more traditional Icelandic soup.
The soup was very good, if a bit salty, and a perfect meal after hiking around in the cold, snowy, windy weather. A big part of why we book most of our lodging through Airbnb is so we have access to a full kitchen, and this was a perfect example of that.
This rental, however, was not actually paid for through Airbnb. Instead, as part of the plan to control costs on this trip, I had signed up for the Chase Business Ink Preferred, with its 80,000 point sign up bonus. We used those points to book the cabin through the Chase travel portal, and many of the same lodging options show up there as they do on Airbnb. We usually save our points for flights, but for this trip, we went all out reducing the costs of the full vacation.
If you haven’t stayed in an Airbnb before, I would highly recommend it. We love the flexibility it gives us while traveling as a family – full kitchen, laundry, and extra bathrooms, and it’s usually considerably cheaper than a hotel, especially when you travel as a group (this is true for cabins booked through Chase travel as well, of course). If you’re new to Airbnb, here’s a link for $40+ off your first stay.
The Aurora Boreales
Part of why we decided on Iceland for our tenth anniversary trip was in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. On the plane ride over, we caught a glimpse of them, but just a glimpse. The entire first week we were in Reykjavik, it was cloudy, and we saw the sun just one time. As we headed further away from city lights, we were hopeful that we’d see something more.
On our second night in Reyholt, the aurora chasing app we’d downloaded let us know we would have at least a *decent* chance of seeing some activity, and around 11PM, we finally did. It wasn’t the sky-covering northern lights you see in pictures, but it was there. Neat, but not quite what we’d hoped for.
Clearly, you have to go into a trip like this knowing you may not get lucky, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment (though a small one). Even without the overwhelming light show, the trip was absolutely magical, and we *did* get to see them moderately at least.
Gullfoss and Geysir
Our last day at the Reykholt cabin, we ventured out, as it was it was a clear, albeit cold, day. We drove out to Gulfoss, or Golden Falls, and bundled up to walk down the short path to the viewing platform. The landscape was stunning, but it was so cold that the kiddo didn’t want to stay out long (and neither did we). After more than a week in Iceland, it finally felt bitterly cold: 8 degrees with a pretty intense windchill.
I’d looked up a specific restaurant before we had left on our trip, and as it was less than a half hour from Gulfoss, we decided to have dinner on the longer loop back to the cabin. Geysir was on the way, so we got to make a stop there as well, and we got to see Strokkur (the more active geyser) erupte while we were there. The environmental science nerd in me very much enjoyed the side trip.
Efstidalur II is a unique restaurant in Laugarvatn, offering a lot of delicious local fare, but also a view into the farm’s operations: we sat at one of the tables next to the windows that looked out on the dairy farm. The food was also very good, and it was nice to go out to a good meal while the cold wind was howling outside.
There are quite a few very large greenhouses in that part of Iceland, with massive grow lights and heated by geotermal energy. I had a burger with a tomato on it which was the freshest I’d tasted since the end of summer at home.
After dinner, we headed downstairs to the ice cream shop, which also had a view of the dairy cows that were supplying the milk for the ice cream. Unsurprisingly, the ice cream was great, and I got to have a chocolate licorice flavored scoop, which felt like the national sweet combination and one I fell in love with. Perhaps it’s good we don’t have those candy combinations here at home though, so I’m not tempted to eat it regularly.
The next day, we packed up early and headed out to Landeyjahöfn and the ferry to Heimay, the only only inhabited one of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). And that’s where I’ll leave you this week, with another post to follow about our time in Vestmannaeyjar.
So, do you think we’re a bit bonkers for traveling to Iceland in January?
13 thoughts on “A Winter Trip to Iceland: Part 2 (The Golden Circle – Reykholt/Gulfoss/Geysir)”
You guys aren’t crazy going to Iceland in January. We considered a stop over for our Danish trip this Christmas but decided against it. One day!
Worth it for more than just a short stopover too!
Wow I’d forgotten about this trip of yours – fun to read about it now. I went to Sweden in January a few years ago, so I get it! I also saw only mild Northern Lights, but my favorite was when my traveling companion and I were eating dinner at a restaurant and they came around to the tables to tell us there was a slight display outside, if we wanted to go look! We totally walked right outside mid-meal.
I need to finish writing up the end of the trip! And yeah, it feels like it was forever ago already.
That geyser photo! So cool!
Nah, I don’t think you guys are crazy for picking Iceland in January. It seems like one of those places where you have a chance of seeing something/experiencing something really cool no matter what time of year you go. It’s on our list of places to go some day, so I always like reading recaps like this. Thanks for sharing, Angela!
Yeah, though now we want to go back in summer to experience the opposite!
I’m so glad you posted the follow-up from Iceland! 10:45am for sunrise?!?! Yikes! I thought it being pitch black until 9am in Amsterdam was bad, but that’s worse. Such a different world from ours, but that’s why we travel, right? Even though I probably wouldn’t have thought to rent a cabin in an isolated area with possible winter storms, I love that you did! I also love that you made a local meal. Shopping in foreign grocery stores is one of my favorite things to do too, and I always find something fun to try. It’s a great way to explore the culture and is also cheaper than always eating meals out.
Iceland’s been on my radar, but I don’t see it happening in the next few years, but I plan to go at some point. Thanks for sharing your adventure!
The late sunrise was totally weird, but then the daylight actually lasted longer in the evenings than at home, so it was a trade off.
Total adventurers for traveling to Iceland in January! Epic.
I have a northern lights story – did heli-skiing in Alaska in 2015 and had the most epic day in mountains I’d ever had in my life. It blew my mind and I’m pretty sure that stoke got me through until my mid 2017 retirement. It was also an incredibly exhausting day. Partner and I passed out early that night after that experience.
We got up the next morning and the chatter at breakfast was about the northern lights! Apparently ppl were yelling around the place we were staying trying to wake everybody up and we slept right through it! I’m normally a light sleeper too. I had the opportunity to see them, and I was asleep. Everybody was kind enough to share their pictures (some folks had nice cameras) and so we got to experience it vicariously.
Iceland is on my travel list, right below Bali, but on equal ground with Peru, specifically Machu Picchu. 🙂
Oh no!! That northern lights story!!! I’m sorry you missed them but definitely makes for a full epic tale of the trip.