Warm up and chill out in Iceland

Warm up and chill out in Iceland

by Genevieve Northup
Stripes Europe

Seen the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben? No longer excited by castles? Escape the trappings of mainland Europe for the excitement of Iceland, where Mother Nature created fantastic landmarks over millions of years. Don’t let the “ice” in Iceland keep you from visiting during the off season — there’s plenty to do that doesn’t require freezing your bum off.

1. Soak in Hot Baths

You’ve probably been to a few mineral thermal spas since moving to Europe, but wait till you’ve experienced the spa scene in Iceland. Twenty-five percent of the country’s power supply is geothermal energy, which also happens to heat many lagoons to comfortable Jacuzzi temperatures. Not far from Keflavík International Airport is the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous resort. Though it sounds counterintuitive, the drizzly days common this time of year are ideal because the lagoon will be less crowded (and you’re going to get wet anyway). Cross your fingers and hope for poor weather.

Fumbling your way through the changing room process of stripping off winter clothes to put on your swimsuit, locking your locker with your waterproof wristband, and showering are standard procedure here, the same as at any spa. Once outside, you’ll be transported to the otherworldly set of a sci-fi film as you soak in the cloudy, vibrantly aquamarine turquoise water that contrasts sharply with the jet-black volcanic boulders surrounding the lagoon. Hot steam sits in a thick blanket just above the surface, making it impossible to see more than a few feet, so it feels like you have the spa to yourself. That is, until you stand in line at the swim-up bar.

Since the Blue Lagoon is an hour from the capital of Reykjavik and close to the airport, it’s best to visit at the beginning of your itinerary. Secure storage for luggage is available at the Blue Lagoon, and you can grab the shuttle to downtown afterward. Skip the lines and avoid any surprises by purchasing resort passes and tickets for shuttles at www.bluelagoon.com.

2. Snuggle up to Watch the Northern Lights

If atmospheric conditions are favorable, you may spot the Aurora Borealis illuminating the night sky without leaving Reykjavik. The suburb of Seltjarnarnes Peninsula has an open jogging path with less light pollution and unobstructed horizon views. Up your chances of catching an aurora display by going on a Northern Lights tour away from the city lights.  

3. Take a Hike

Iceland has pretty much every land formation imaginable, from craters, volcanoes and glaciers to geysers, mountains, waterfalls and beaches. Take a Golden Circle tour to see the highlights of these natural wonders. Leave the comfort of your warm bus to walk on the aboveground section of the continental divide in Thingvellir National Park. Witness Iceland’s most active geyser, Strokkur, shoot water 100 feet high and the majestic Gullfoss, a roaring 70-foot-wide waterfall with multiple drops.

On Iceland’s southern coast, walk through pathways carved in the Jokulsarlon glacier and glimpse seals swimming at the nearby lagoon. A day at the beach doesn’t sound appealing when it’s 2 degrees Celsius, yet you have to check out Reynisdrangar’s shoreline of basalt cliffs towering several stories above black sand.

4. Go Spelunking

Over many millennia, 30 volcanoes left behind lava fields and inactive lava tubes. Several tour companies lead expeditions into the depths of the tubes in the Leiðarend Cave; the best is an expedition led by Kommi of Basecamp Iceland. This Icelander’s deadpan humor will have you questioning whether to laugh, but he is serious when he asks you to turn off your headlamp while deep within the cave. Sit in total darkness as he tells terrifying Icelandic fairy tales (think the Brothers Grimm, only scarier). The goosebumps you feel aren’t from the cold.

5. Dive Between Continents

From above, the Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park looks like a narrow pond between moss-covered rocks. Below the surface is clear water 30 feet deep with up to 300 feet of visibility. The sandy bottom mirrors the rippling surface when the sun is shining, creating the illusion of a rocky maze stretching infinitely in every direction. What makes this a bucket list dive isn’t just the clear water — you’re in the rift between two continents, formed by the shifting North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

The water temperature of the fissure hovers around freezing, requiring you to layer up in clothing before donning a thick dry suit. Certified open-water divers and novice snorkelers are able to explore at the same time. Though prior dry suit experience is not required for divers, it is highly recommended. Visit www.dive.is to read more and book your guided trip. 

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, and now Iceland is more accessible than ever. When you fly between Europe and North America on Icelandair flight, you can add up to a weeklong stopover in Iceland for free. Plan your Iceland vacation the next time you’re heading stateside. 

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