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Exploring the Paths Less Traveled in Iceland

Exploring the Paths Less Traveled in Iceland

Iceland is a popular bucket-list destination for travelers and a cinematic draw for film and TV productions. In the last 15 years, the country has experienced an enormous uptick in tourism, attracting approximately 2.5 million visitors annually, outnumbering the island nation’s population of 400,000. Most tourists head south to explore natural attractions along the Golden Circle, a 155-mile circular drive that begins at Reykjavík.

I set out in the opposite direction, heading west to experience the land of fire and ice without the crowds of tourists.  While exploring the country, my home base is Húsafell, located on the  Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the western tip of Iceland. 

Barnafoss Waterfall, Iceland

“This side of the island is a little different from the south coast; you won’t get as many of the hordes of tourists. You can get away from the buzz of the big cities, especially if you are chasing the Northern Lights; you’ll get really nice ones because there is no light pollution at all,” says Lia Spencer, my lava cave tour guide. 

I’m traveling in late November when the sun shines only four to five hours daily. The nights are long, and the days are short, which makes it challenging to explore Iceland this time of year. The trade-off is ideal conditions for viewing the Northern Lights, fluorescent glowing waves of light that dance across the sky in the darkness above the Arctic Circle.

Iceland is a country of extremes, where sunlight and darkness don’t follow the typical 24-hour schedule. This natural phenomenon is unique to places near the earth’s two poles. These atypical light and dark cycles can mess with your circadian rhythms, but venturing beyond your comfort zone is part of the travel experience.

 Getting to Iceland was an easy direct Icelandair flight from Orlando, Florida, to the Keflavik airport, located 23 miles from the city of Reykjavik. It serves international travelers, not to be confused with the Reykjavík airport, which services domestic flights.

I start my journey from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, the gateway to exploring the country. Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature, the first non-English speaking city to receive that honor.  Iceland’s culture is deeply rooted in storytelling, ancient sagas dating back to its Viking heritage, Norse mythology, and beliefs in trolls, which are ever present in modern life, especially during the holiday season. While I was visiting, Yule Lads, ugly troll children, appeared everywhere: on store shelves, in homes, restaurants, and hotels. Icelandic children believe the Yule Lads deliver presents during the 13 days leading up to Christmas. Children place their shoes on the windowsill, hoping to wake up to treats. This belief in trolls or hidden people extends to adults as well. Some Icelanders believe that trolls are real. Over the years, road and construction projects have been diverted to protect suspected troll habitat. It’s a fascinating cultural quirk that I encounter throughout my travels.  

Iceland is a camera-ready country with countless cinematic scenes and a popular draw for film and TV productions. HBO’s True Detective: Night Country, starring Jodie Foster, was shot entirely in Iceland. Game of Thrones also cast Iceland as a leading actor for its ethereal landscapes. Film and TV production, agriculture, and renewable energies are economic drivers. 

I spend a day in  Reykjavík to recover from jet lag and experience Iceland’s urban attractions. I walk a few blocks from my downtown hotel to the North Atlantic Ocean, where a volcanic rock-lined path leads to the Sun Voyager sculpture and crowds of tourists snapping selfies.  Architect Jón Gunnar Árnason designed the steel sculpture in the likeness of a Viking ship to commemorate the bicentenary of the city’s constitution.

For panoramas of the city skyline, I walk up the tower inside Hallgrimskirkja Church, Iceland’s iconic landmark offering a birdseye view of the cityscape and the Snaefellsjokull glacier in the distance. The Lutheran church echoes Iceland’s rugged landscape in its architecture and façade with design elements representing waterfalls and basalt columns. A statue of Viking Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover North America, stands in front of the cathedral, a gift from the United States in 1930.

Handknitting Association of Iceland store in Reykjavik

 The temperature hovers around 35 degrees in Reykjavik during November, but I anticipate the temperature dropping as I journey into the heart of the country to explore glaciers and ice caves. Traditional Icelandic hand-knit wool sweaters are legendary for their warmth and craftsmanship, so I’m headed to Reykjavik’s downtown shopping district to purchase a few.  Lopapeysa is the name for an authentic Icelandic sweater made from Icelandic sheep wool yarn called Lopi. The Handknitting Association of Iceland has two stores in Reykjavik selling Lopapeysas made by its members. 

“Knitting is part of our culture; every child is taught in school how to knit. Sheep have kept Icelanders alive from the days of our earliest settlers; the meat feeds us, and the wool keeps us warm,” says Hildur Anne Hilmarsdott,  a member of the Handknitting Association. A group of women founded the association in 1977 to increase their income by knitting. The Handknitting Association purchases knitted goods from its members and sells them. Each hand-knitted product contains a unique code identifying the person who created it. You can look up the code and discover the knitter’s name upon purchase.

The sweater’s signature wide yoke pattern varies in color and design, according to each knitter’s creative interpretation. Hildur says handknitting a Lopapeysa can take 50 hours or more. Upon my return, I purchased three sweaters, a hat, and a dress as my vacation wardrobe and keepsakes. Icelandic hand-knit sweaters are so well made that they endure for generations. 

Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Reykjavik

After an afternoon of exploring Reykjavik, I was getting hungry, but it was too early for dinner, so I stopped at the city’s famous hot dog stand, where Icelanders line up day and night for these beloved hot dogs. Bæjarins Beztu (Translated to the bezt in town), Iceland’s oldest hotdog stand, has been operating continuously in this exact spot since 1937, regardless of the weather. The hot dog maker explains that these Icelandic hotdogs are made from three kinds of meat: 80 percent lamb, 10 percent pork, and 10 percent beef mixed together. 

Karen eating Hotdog at Bæjarins Beztu

She explains that Bæjarins Beztu became famous in 2004 when Bill Clinton visited Reykjavik. At the time, a lady working at the hotdog stand saw Bill Clinton with his bodyguards and called out his name to come over and have a hotdog. He ordered a hotdog with mustard, which now carries his namesake.  Over the years, more famous names have become customers, including Kim Kardashian, who has a hotdog named in her honor that comes with only ketchup. The local way to order is by asking for the “One with Everything”. It comes with mustard, an Icelandic sauce, fried onions, raw onions, and that special ketchup made of apples.

My day was coming to a close, so I returned to soak in my hotel’s hot tub as compensation for missing the experience of soaking in one of Iceland’s many geothermal springs. If you want to participate in a popular Icelandic cultural pastime, I suggest bathing in the hot bath of the Sky Lagoon in Reykjavik or The Blue Lagoon in the Golden Circle.  The country’s abundant, naturally heated water filters through glaciers, drawing heat from the ground. That geothermal heat has helped earn ​​Reykjavík recognition as a Green City for its widespread use of geothermal energy and hydropower. The city aims to be carbon-neutral by 2040.

After a night in Reykjavik experiencing Iceland’s urban life, I head west to explore off-the-beaten-path Iceland. I’m traveling with a private tour company, Oak Travel, which is owned and operated by native Icelanders with deep knowledge of the country and culture.

West Iceland is home to the Snæfellsnes National Park and a glacier-capped stratovolcano, Snæfellsjökull, on the westmost tip of the peninsula. Snæfellsjökull is known as one of the world’s energy centers known as Chakras and inspired author Jules Verne’s famous science fiction novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Snæfellsjökull volcano has not erupted in the last 1800 years.

Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist, looking for the Northern Lights at Hotel Husafell after an early morning wakeup alert

Witnessing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for years; it’s what initially drew me to Iceland in the wintertime. It’s also why I chose to stay at Hotel Húsafelll, near the town of Húsafell, a settlement dating back to the Viking Age. The hotel resides in a protected area and practices sustainable tourism powered by hydro and geothermal energy. The hotel resides approximately a 90-minute drive from Reykjavik and away from the tourists of the Golden Circle.

Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist, watching the sunrise atop the Langjokull glacier

On my way to Húsafell, I stopped at the twin waterfalls Hraunfossar and Barnafoss; the latter is known as “the children’s waterfall,” named after a tragic accident when two children fell into the falls and drowned. Unlike Iceland’s towering waterfalls on the South Coast, these blue glacial waters cascade over flat rocky terrain rather than tumbling off of high cliffs that you’ll find at the Golden Circle waterfalls.  I hiked along an icy path, holding on to a rope, realizing that I should’ve worn shoe spikes known as crampons to grip the icy trail. The blue glacier water gets its color from “glacial flour.”  It results from glaciers grinding rocks into fine particles, scattering sunlight, and giving the water a stunning blue hue.

That afternoon, before sunset at 4 pm,  I headed out to explore a lava cave in the uplands of West Iceland called Vidgelmir. The Hallmundarhraun lava field surrounds Vidgelmir, created by a volcanic eruption in 900 AD from Langjökull, about 22 miles away. The terrain is an eerie expanse of undulating rock with moss. I put on a hard hat with a headlight and enter the lava cave with my guide, Lia Spencer, a college graduate in geology. As we enter the lava cave, two large openings in the rock create skylights illuminating the wooden planked stairway down into its depths. I’m beginning to feel uneasy about the idea of bats swarming around us, but my guide assures us that there are no bats in Iceland. We enter the cave through the squeeze, a narrow opening, careful not to step on stalagmites formed by hollow lumps of lava. 

Along the way, our guide explains how the lava cave was formed, pointing out distinguishing geological features. There is only one way in and one way out, and as we reach the end, we witness the big reveal as lights turn on, illuminating a large rock feature. Deep in the cave, we have the rare chance to experience total darkness. “This is a zero-light environment, and your eyes will never adjust. If you stayed down here for too long, not a few hours, like months or a year,  you would go completely blind because your brain believes you are already blind, so it cuts that nerve connection to save energy,” Lia explains. Without sight, my other senses are heightened.  I can hear water dripping where the water filters through the rocks from nearby glaciers. The experience is both unnerving and beautiful. 

I return to Hotel Húsafell in search of the Northern Lights, hoping for a wake-up call from the hotel’s trained spotters, who monitor conditions and track the Aurora Borealis. “We are in the heart of Iceland where visitors can explore the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula, and far enough away from city lights, which creates ideal conditions for witnessing the Nothern Lights,” explains Simonetta Tőzsér, Marketing Manager of Hotel Húsafell. “The hotel has a camera system to alert us of Northern Light activity so we can give guests a wake-up call during the night. It’s a free service at our hotel,” Szimonetta explains.

Spotting the Northern Lights is about luck and timing; it has to be a clear night to see the light dance of glowing green, purple,  pink, and orange.  In Iceland, the Nothern Lights are visible during winter, from late August to April. For the uninitiated, the Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon created when the solar wind particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. It happens at both of the Earth’s poles, creating luminous, undulating light streaks across the skies. 

That morning, around 2 am, I got a wake-up call and rushed outside to catch the light show. I waited and watched until 5 am with no luck and went back to bed to sleep before my 8 am departure for an ice cave tour. 

The following day, a truck with massive wheels that looks like a snowmobile on steroids picks me up from the hotel for the one-hour ride up the Langjökull glacier, the second-largest in Iceland. The glacier vehicle is a former NATO 

missile launcher fully modified to traverse the glacier in almost any weather. We arrive at the top of Langjökull glacier just in time to watch a glorious sunrise illuminate the snow-blanketed mountains in glowing orange and pink.

There are 269 named glaciers in Iceland, and Langjökull is the only one with an ice cave open to tourists and scientists studying the effects of climate change on glaciers. Scientists have determined that Langjökull is melting about seven times faster than a century ago. Our guide, Ryan Hulin, takes us into the tunnel, which loops back on itself. Along the way, he points out different geological curiosities and facts, such as the lines on the glacier walls signifying its age.  The tunnel leads to an ice chapel carved out of the glacier, a room with wooden benches, and an altar that hosts weddings and inspires marriage proposals. Before we head back, our guide sings an Icelandic lullaby to demonstrate the crystal-clear acoustics. Walking inside the glacier is a surreal and rare experience I highly recommend. 

I return to the hotel to warm up in its geothermal heated pools, a complex called Linden that includes two large pools, two hot tubs, and an ice-cold bath. 

Natural springs dot the landscape around Húsafell, including the privately owned Canyon Baths, which offers a much less crowded and intimate geothermal springs soaking experience. Hotel Húsafell owns Canyon Baths, which is only open to hotel guests. A guide picks me up from the hotel, and we ride up a mountain, put on our shoe snow spikes, and hike the trail to the Canyon Baths as a winter wonderland unfolds.  Snow is falling, blanketing the surrounding mountains, and we are the only ones in this remote place of peace and beauty. 

My guide tells me that these geothermal pools draw heat from a 2.5 million-year-old volcano, which is mindblowing to think it’s still radiating heat. I change at a hut and dip into the two hot-spring-fed pools of varying temperatures, around 86-105°F.  My guide pours me a glass of wine, an amenity on site, and I relax and listen to his brief geology lesson, the origin story of these baths. 

Hotel Husafell

Each evening, I return from my daylong adventures to dine at Hotel Husafell’s restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows, offering a vantage point to admire the snowy landscape and perhaps glimpse the Northern Lights while dining on Icelandic cuisine with Asian influences. 

Room at Hotel Husafell

“Our focus in the kitchen is to work with the Icelandic nature and use as many Icelandic products as possible. And to incorporate as much forged weeds, herbs, berries, mushrooms, and seaweed as possible into the menu,” says Ingolfur Piffl, Head Chef at Hotel Húsafell. He is one of the most educated chefs I’ve ever met on my travels. He has several degrees, including three from Harvard, all focused on food science.  Chef Ingolfur’s cooking connects me with Icelandic culture, history, and heritage through his fresh interpretations of traditional dishes. Iceland offers some of the world’s purest ingredients from its glacial water, pure bloodline livestock, fresh seafood,  and organic, chemical-free herbs and produce. Chef Ingolfur cooks sustainably, sourcing many ingredients from Icelandic greenhouse farmers to reduce the CO2 footprint. He also cultivates a greenhouse on the hotel property that grows edible flowers and mushrooms. The kitchen staff works to reduce single-use products such as baking paper, plastic wrap, and plastic boxes.

I end my trip to Iceland with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I couldn’t resist the rare opportunity to snorkel between the two tectonic plates at Thingvellir National Park. It’s a popular tourist attraction, one of the top three along the Golden Circle, but it is worth dealing with the crowds to experience. Þingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the southwest of Iceland near the peninsula of Reykjanes.  Icelanders hold great reverence for the site as the location of Iceland’s first parliament, the Althing, established in 930 AD, the oldest parliamentary site in the world.

Thingvellir sits in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and are drifting apart. Scientists say that the tectonic plates here are moving in opposite directions at the rate of two centimeters per year. One of many rifts in the park is Silfra, created by tectonic plates pulling apart and filled with crystal clear water from Langjokull. I booked a snorkel experience with an on-site dive company that provides an insulated wet suit and a guide. The water is freezing, but my wet suit covers most of my body except my face, keeping me surprisingly warm in the arctic waters. 

Snorkeling in these crystalline glacier-fed waters feels like flying as I float above underwater mountain peaks. A sense of peace washes over me as I glide with the current, following my guide, who takes us to the most dramatic underwater crevices. Once in the water, my body quickly adjusted to the water temperature as the wetsuit shrink-wrapped around my body, pushing out water and holding in heat. The idea of braving the arctic water is more uncomfortable than the reality of swimming in it with my protective gear. 

I emerge from snorkeling and walk along the trail leading to the scene of the world’s oldest Parliament, snapping mental pictures of Iceland’s otherworldly beauty. 

On the evening of 18 December 2023, just a few days after I returned home, a volcano erupted just north of the town of Grindavík, Iceland, with lava spewing from fissures in the ground. It reminds me of the resilience of Icelanders who survive and thrive in an ever-changing landscape of otherworldly beauty, tied to the land they will never tame.  Iceland ranks as one of the world’s friendliest and happiest countries, and I found that true. Their warm hospitality was an antidote to the cold, dark winter days in this land of fire and ice.

Pingvellir National Park

What you need to know before you go:

If you want to plan your visits to Iceland attractions during less crowded times, check out the Visit Iceland website https://www.visiticeland.com/visitor-numbers/, which tracks the number of visitors by the hour and day.

To stay updated with the Northern Lights forecast, check out the Icelandic Meteorological Office https://en.vedur.is/ or Spaceweather.com.

To escape the crowds and into Iceland’s natural splendor, I suggest staying at Hotel Húsafell. The resort offers many exclusive amenities with 38 rooms, meeting facilities, and a restaurant that connects you with the culture through its creative and indigenous cuisine. The hotel’s architecture and design seamlessly integrate with the landscape, immersing you in the breathtaking beauty of its privileged surroundings. https://www.husafell.com

I highly recommend traveling with a private tour company with insider knowledge of off-the-beaten-path experiences as well as Iceland’s popular attractions. Traveling with large crowds on tour buses can be challenging which is why I chose Oak Travel, a family-owned company with deep knowledge of Iceland. . They have special relationships with people and places that offer access that typical tours cannot. https://oaktravel.is

Iceland is expensive because it is an island nation that has to import many items. The country’s currency is the Kroner, which can be tricky to calculate against the  US dollar, and Icelanders don’t take cash. Consider the time and energy spent traveling to the Arctic Pole, which should put sticker shock into perspective.

karen Leblanc