I've always wanted to go to Iceland - land of moonscapes, the freshest fish available, Viking culture, and insane natural wonders. Take a looksie through any photo guide of this glorious island nation and try to contain your shock and awe. Moss-covered cliffs, sparkling waterfalls pouring through to black sand beaches down below, and topography so beautiful it causes you to regain your humanness, ditching your cell phone in the car so you can experience the singular glory of being a part of this beautiful Earth - that's Iceland in a nutshell.
I had the pleasure of being invited by Noken Travel to operate as a beta-traveler with their guidance for my first trip to Iceland (yes, there will be more). Noken provides curated, end-to-end trips that provide the entire experience with none of the work. You book with them (Iceland is their first destination) and once you do, you download their app to receive your full itinerary, stuffed full of actually useful tips like which gas station has great snacks once you've arrived at Keflavik Airport, to exactly how much time to leave yourself when you walk from your hotel to dinner. I've done a lot of international travel, but always with myself as my guide, as I've always been fearful that touring a country or city through a travel group would yield less than desirable results. I like to get off the beaten path, eat where the locals do, and see and experience the sights that only a few visitors come to, rather than busloads of people. After plunging into the world of curated travel, I can absolutely say that Noken has the same travel spirit I do, and provides an unparalleled, full-service experience to seeing Iceland. I never felt like I was on a tour, bogged down by other sight-seekers, or was participating in a run of the mill Iceland experience.
On the contrary, Noken hooked us up with the best flights, a Mercedes SUV to cruise around in, put us up at what's both the nicest and most convenient hotel in Reykjavik, booked us into extraordinary adventures like glacier hiking and tectonic plate scuba diving, and gave us the inside scoop on where to eat absolutely everywhere we went. Long story short, we ate like queens, adventured like we knew what we were doing, and were able to totally bliss out over the incredible landscape, at times totally uninterrupted by other humans. I'm not one to dedicate multiple paragraphs on my blog to brands or products unless I genuinely dig them, so understand I'm doing so because I would literally give them a 5/5 star rating if I could. If you go to Iceland, have Noken help you. Seriously. And, because I love them so much I've asked if they would create a discount code to cut some cost from your trip and they happily obliged. Use VIPLo for $200 off your trip (that's a lot).
So now that I'm an Iceland insider, here are some of the basics you should know for your own trip, along with some personal tips that made my trip one to remember.
- If you're heading to Europe, you can do a stop-over in Iceland for free on Iceland Air (you have to do the leg-work here for info on this tip as we only went to Iceland) but it's a great way to get there for a few days in more affordable fashion.
- Try to take a daytime flight that arrives late at night, so that you can wake up at your hotel refreshed and ready for a day in Reykjavik, rather than take a red-eye and suffer through Day 1.
- Explore Reykjavik on your first day in the country - it's a sweet and beautiful little city that's quite walkable, especially if you follow Noken's walking guide that leads you through the most charming parts. I'd definitely recommend getting off the beaten path here and venture into some neighborhoods to see where the locals live. The color houses with wooden sideboards are characteristic of this seaside city and are not to be missed.
- On Day 2 and beyond get out and explore the country, but rely on your rental car to get you there. Iceland is a country that is easy to navigate and drive, with the beautiful roads unclogged and seemingly police-free. Seriously, I didn't see a law enforcement presence in Iceland at any time during my trip. No crime I guess. Don't speed though - they have radar set up along the major roads and will send you a speeding ticket in the mail if you go too fast.
- Climb the Solheimajokull Glacier in the Southcoast of Iceland. This is a full-on Nat Geo experience that's not to be missed. Hiking boots are a must, as well as weather proof pants and tops. They'll provide you with crampons for you shoes, an ice pick (seriously), and helmet. If you are not able-bodied, you should skip this. I fell twice during the climb and while I didn't injure myself, I really could have.
- See the geyser in Geysir on the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is this cool 3ish hour drive out of Reykjavik that is actually a circle, but drops you at some of the most famous sites in Iceland. The geyser is a natural wonder of the world, and the water bubbles up into the air reliably every 8 minutes or so. Be prepared to get a little wet!
- If/When you go to the Blue Lagoon prepare for your hair to feel extremely dry and coarse if you submerge your head into the mineral-rich waters. There is a huge amount of silica in the water there, and once it clings on to your locks be prepared for it to feel really weird for a while. When I got back home to the US I immediately began adding baking soda to a clarifying shampoo to break down the minerals left in my locks. After about a week of doing this my hair is starting to feel normal again.
- Pack light. I wore what I would wear everyday in NYC in Reykjavik though you'll see many tourists in outdoor gear walking through the city. Most people thought we were locals because we chose to dress in street clothes instead. If you go on adventures, bring the appropriate gear (hiking books, waterproof layers, gloves, hats, etc).
- Leave the city to see the Northern Lights. We didn't see them and I wish we had as we heard they were visible on the nights we were there.
- Don't be afraid to get in the car and GO! We had our best days when we explored the countryside during a 5-6 hour car ride.
- Save yourself plenty of time when you leave Iceland as Keflavik Airport is a shit-show when you depart. There are no seating areas surrounding the gates so everyone lines up in a confused shuffle clogging hallways, making it hard to get on your flight. Checking in was pretty nasty too. Immigration however, when arriving and departing, is a breeze.
- If you want to drink while there, buy your booze at the duty free shop in the airport downstairs before you get in your rental car and go. Everything in Iceland is REALLY EXPENSIVE (like, $15 US for a beer) so take advantage of that duty-free liquor store.
- Everyone speaks English. Everyone is friendly.
- Iceland is one of the cleanest, most pristine places I've visited. If you visit, keep it that way. Have Fun!