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Nicknamed “The Land of Fire and Ice”, Iceland is a truly stunning place at anytime of year (click here to watch some really unbelievable aerial footage of Iceland by Edgar Granados). It’s lush, yet lunar-like landscape is dotted with some of Europe’s most spectacular volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers and geysers. Typically, summer is peak season for tourism in Iceland, and with good reason. Yet some of the very best Iceland has to offer can only be experienced in Winter. So without further ado… Here are 9 reasons to visit Iceland in Winter… THIS Winter!
1. THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Due to it’s location close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the world’s best destinations to view the Aurora Borealis (a/k/a The Northern Lights), and perhaps even the most accessible. That’s because – in addition to everything there is to see and do in Iceland – many times the Northern Lights can even be viewed from the capital city of Reykjavik itself!
The bright dancing lights of the Aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. They create a glow and a scene like no other, and if viewing them isn’t already on your bucket list, well then… it should be! But you won’t find the Northern Lights overhead during summer (when Iceland experiences Midnight Sun). Nope! Because this spectacular phenomenon can only be seen in the night sky between September and early April.
Of course, being able to view the Aurora during even these months is never guaranteed. High latitude and high solar activity aren’t preconditions to observing the Northern Lights, but they do help. It’s also best to head to where skies are cold, clear and dark. The Lights often shine at low-level frequencies and that’s why – even though the Aurora can often be seen from Reykjavik itself – it pays to get away from the lights of the capital and head somewhere even darker for optimal viewing. And there is no shortage of companies based out of Reykjavik that will help you do exactly that with their Northern Lights Viewing Tours. There are a multitude of group bus tours offered. There are even online resources which will help guide you and your rental car in the right direction for prime viewing. However, our recommendation would be to splurge on one of several available guided Northern Lights Superjeep Tours, with Extreme Island and Superjeep.is leading the way.
For the uninitiated, the “Superjeep” is a uniquely Icelandic adventure vehicle and it just might be about the most fun you’ll ever have. First imagine a regular jeep. Now attach enormous monster-truck wheels to it and you’ve suddenly got a durable, versatile off-road vehicle capable of plowing through rivers and storming up and down steep, rocky, volcanic terrain. Head out in a small or private group in one of these babies and prepare yourself for a night you’ll never forget!
One major advantage of riding around in a Superjeep to find the Northern Lights is that even if you DON’T find them, you’ll still experience something memorable. Imagine zooming around in the dark. Off-road. Wildly traversing surfaces that resemble the moon while your talented driver pumps in tunes the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Adventure indeed! And did you know…? That almost all Superjeep companies in Iceland will offer you a chance to come back for free another night in the event the Lights don’t shine for you the first time around?
Many top hotels in Iceland also lend themselves to peak viewing conditions…
For instance, Hotel Glymur – located in Hvalfjordur (“the whale fjord”), not too far to the north of Reykjavik – not only offers a Northern Lights Special booking rate, but also features several spacious and specially designed themed villas. All have outdoor decks and hot tubs from which you can sit in warmth, comfort, and privacy while viewing the dark, starry night skies above.
Hotel Ranga – which has hosted numerous celebrities – is another top hotel in Iceland which actually allows it’s guests the option of receiving “Northern Lights wake-up calls” when the Aurora presents itself.
As recently shown on The Real Housewives of Orange County (if you’re into that sort of thing), Hotel Ranga features several enormous and luxurious continent-themes suites.
Of course, if you’re not made of money, the hotel also offers many other standard and deluxe rooms that are more affordable. Even for non-guests traveling through South Iceland, Hotel Ranga is great place to stop in and visit for an elegant dinner or quick game of billiards in picturesque surroundings.
2. ICE CAVES, GLACIER WALKS AND BLUE ICE
Iceland is home to some of the most impressive caves in the world, some of which were even carved by volcanic lava flows. But the most spectacular ones of all are made of ice! Also known as glacier caves or crystal caves, these mesmerizing ice caves evolve naturally when water that melts in the summer carves long tunnels and caves beneath the thick sheets of ice that make up the glacier. Given that they are naturally-derived caves that thaw and break down each summer, these dazzling spectacles are always changing and forming.
The ice in a glacier is much thicker and denser than regular ice. And because the ice is so thick, dense and old it absorbs all colors of the spectrum except for blue, and so this is the color we see and this what gives many crystal caves their electric blue color. The deeper the light gets to travel into clear ice, the bluer it becomes.
However, the same melting that helps create such dizzying displays of blue also makes it dangerous to venture too deep into the caves during the summer, and also limits the extent to which one can safely hike among the glaciers in summer. For this reason, ice cave season in Iceland tends to run only from November through March.
NOTE: When touring the ice caves or participating in a glacier walk, always, always, always go with a guide!
It is also said that even among the icebergs that float along the surface in Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, their blue color pops the most during overcast, winter days when the sun is low in the sky. All of which makes winter the perfect time to experience the ice in Iceland!
NOTE: There is one ice cave which remains open year round known as the “Into the Glacier” experience in which you can actually descend and hike deep under the Langjokull Glacier ice cap and it is most certainly worth a visit. However, all of the ice caves and tunnels that are part of the “Into the Glacier” experience are man-made and not quite as enthralling as the naturally-occurring ones found elsewhere in Iceland during Winter
3. PICTURE-PERFECT LIGHT FOR PHOTOS
During the Winter months, Iceland rapidly descends into darkness due to it’s northerly location. During October alone, the number of hours of daylight in Iceland quickly decreases from 11 to 8, with that number decreases to barely more than 4 hours by the time the Winter Solstice rolls around on December 21st. However, Iceland emerges from this darkness just as quickly. And what may sound dreary actually fills the skies during the Winter months with a brilliant, warm glow that lends itself perfectly to photography. Many in the photography world will tell you that light for taking pictures is always best at sunrise and sunset. Well, during the winter months, Iceland is lucky to see the sun ascend – even at solar noon – to more than 10 to 20 degrees above the horizon, which means it looks like dawn and dusk throughout the day. The Winter months can also be a great time to snap pictures of frozen waterfalls! Take a look at these photos we captured in Iceland during Winter:
4. THE NIGHTLIFE
When the temperature and the sun go down, the nightlife heats up. And more hours of darkness mean more of Reykjavik’s world famous nightlife. Vibrant Reykjavik is not only the world’s northern-most capital city and the most populous city in Iceland, it is also home to some of the world’s wildest and most impressive nightlife. For a city of under 200,000 people in a country with barely more than 300,000 people you’d be surprised at the way this very attractive population knows how to have fun. Reykjavik is home to the world-famous Iceland Airwaves music festival in Fall and the party continues all year long. Weekends are especially nuts with epic pub crawls and an ethereal techno-rock fusion that just kicks ass… especially upon returning from a Northern Lights Superjeep tour earlier in the evening. So grab a pint of Viking Classic and come check it out!
5. IT’S NOT AS COLD AS YOU THINK
There’s a saying in Iceland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.” In fact, it’s possible to feel like you’ve experienced all 4 seasons in the same hour and the winds can go from whipping to calm just like that. But it’s probably a whole lot warmer than you’d imagine. As you may have also heard, Greenland is full of ice and Iceland is actually full of lush greenery. The Vikings deliberately named it Iceland to deter invaders.
Not that Iceland doesn’t have it’s share of ice. It certainly does, what with several large glaciers and snow-capped volcanoes. But it’s certainly possible to visit in November and find much of the country still untouched by snow. Iceland is also warmed by constant geothermal activity, which even has the effect of keeping Iceland’s biggest highway (Route 1 – “The Ring Road”) warm from underneath and easy to clear of snow. All you need to get around easily are just some regular snow tires.
Warm ocean currents also keep Iceland relatively warm for it’s latitude. It may surprise you to know that despite being just as far north as Alaska and Siberia, Iceland’s average high temperature in December is 39F, with an average low of 28F, which puts it pretty much on par with New York City.
6. AN EXTRA-GREAT TIME TO SOAK OUTSIDE
Being a volcanic island certainly has it’s advantages. There are some roughly 800 geothermal hot springs hidden around the country, including the world-famous Blue Lagoon (which happens to be extremely close to Iceland’s Keflevik International Airport) and Reykjadalur (a/k/a “Steam Valley”), which itself is only a 30 minute drive from Reykjavik. These naturally-occurring “hot pots” afford visitors a swim in 98F-102F water all year-round, right in the middle of mother nature. But all of them take on an a special other-worldly air of mysticism in the Winter. Taking an outdoor dip in relaxing warm warm water when the air is cold is a novelty and one that’s easy to find in Iceland. And while going for a swim in pools made by Earth is awesome at anytime, it takes on a whole other quality in the Winter when the hot water hits the cold air and creates a thick steam that shrouds your view and adds to the enchantment.
Soaking in geothermal pools is a big part of true Icelandic culture and therefore, if you really want to mingle with the locals in Reykjavik you should visit one of many public pools facilities. Doesn’t sound enticing? Think again. Public pools in Iceland are not what you may be accustomed to. Usually, they are very affordable yet rather elaborate complexes with water slides, multiple geothermal pools and hot pots, saunas and steam rooms. And they provide an excellent opportunity to relax at the end of a long day of touring Iceland’s stunning scenery.
7. CHEAPER PRICES
Any way you slice it, Iceland tends to be a relatively expensive travel destination these days (although it doesn’t have to be – stay tuned to Destination Dan for future posts about how to maximize your Icelandic experience on a budget). The Icelandic Krona has been doing much better the past 2 years versus the U.S. Dollar as well as the Euro and that has made for steeper prices. However, there IS a significant discount to traveling to Iceland in the Winter months. Airfare, hotels, and tours can all be had for cheap-ER prices. E.g., during the Summer months round-trip airfare between JFK and Iceland is a bargain at $700 per person. Yet, Icelandair will periodically run sales with that same flight during Winter for as low as $249. Currently it is selling for a little north of $400 per person, but even that is a significant savings over Summer flights to Iceland.
8. NATIONAL PARKS AND TOURIST ATTRACTIONS ARE ALL LESS CROWDED
Once again, summer is peak tourist season in Iceland for good reason. People tend to have more time to travel in the summer, temperatures are higher (since merely the word “Iceland” can scare off some visitors at other times of year), and there are more hours of daylight with which to see the country. However, with peak season also comes crowds. And Iceland’s national parks and tourist attractions are starting to see almost a little too much traffic in summer. Winter travelers can avoid this and feel like they have the whole country to themselves (despite the fact that more and more tourists are beginning to flock to Iceland in Winter).
9. THE CHANCE TO SEE AN ONGOING ERUPTION
OK, so I’ll admit, this one involves a little bit of speculation, but word among the scientific community is that Iceland’s largest volcanic system, Bardarbunga, which last erupted slowly for 6 months from August 2014 until February 2015, is reloading its magma chamber and may be getting ready to clear its throat again very soon! And if it does you don’t want to miss your chance to see what very view people get to see in their lifetimes… an active, glowing eruption.
Early on in the days of the last Bardarbunga eruption, many of Iceland’s tour companies offered a safe opportunity for tourists to travel close to or take sightseeing flights close to the eruption and I have no doubt the same would be true this time as well as long as it is safe for such tours to be run. So don’t miss it!
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