Several people have asked why we decided to go to Iceland. In my case, it's because I had a couple friends that went there and raved about it. From Baltimore, it was only a five and half hour flight so it wouldn't take too long to get there. And last of all, we ended up finding a decent deal for a hotel/flight combo on Expedia. So the decision was made!
And we were by no means the only people visiting. Peak touring season is June to August and we were there in late May so things were already crowded. Here's a chart from Wikipedia that illustrates the growth in tourism in Iceland and there are already more tourists per year than the population of the country!
We stayed in the capital city of Reykjavik for 4 nights at the Centerhotel Thingholt. We planned 2 days of day trips to see a bit of the country outside the capital and 2 days of staying in the city to see stuff there. So here is the information on the day trips we took.
Golden Circle - If you only had one day in Iceland, the Golden Circle is what I would recommend that you see. It is very tourist-y and the thing most people go to see. But here's the thing. I feel like popular sites are popular for a reason. The golden circle consists of a national park where 2 tectonic plates meet, a waterfall and a geyser. It's a good overview of the things that Iceland has to offer and close enough to the city that it's an easy day trip. We took an organized tour with a small group but the roads looked good and it seemed like it would be fairly easy to drive if you rented a car.
In addition to the main Golden Circle sites, we also saw another waterfall, a spa where they bake their bread under ground using the geothermal heat, and then finished the day relaxing at the Secret Lagoon, which is a natural hot spring. It clearly wasn't a secret anymore as there were plenty of tourists there but it was still beautiful. It felt amazing to be able to relax in the warm water while feeling the cool air on your face and looking out over the beautiful view.
Photo from Secret Lagoon website as we didn't have anything with us to take photos in the water
If you're interested in specifics, we took the Hot Golden Circle tour with Gateway to Iceland.
South Coast - The next day tour we had planned was the South Coast of Iceland. Again, we did it with a small group tour but the roads looked like they would have been easy to drive if you had a car. This is another pretty popular area to see and the sites were relatively crowded. But everything was still magical to see. The only downside was that this tour made for a really long day. We were picked up at our hotel around 9:30 in the morning and we didn't get off the bus until after 9pm. The tour we took was the Sensational Iceland tour with Extreme Iceland.
The South Coast tours generally consist of Waterfalls (one was in a cave and you could walk behind the other one, so cool!). We were really happy of our water resistant shoes and clothing while at the waterfalls.
After the waterfalls, we went to see a glacier. Our tour included actual glacier hiking and required a fair level of being in good health and active. We were all sweating by the end. We strapped crampons into our shoes, had a harness, helmet, and ice pick (which was mostly just for cool photos). We spent about an hour walking on the glacier. It was amazing and the definite highlight of the day. I felt like every time I turned around, the view was even more breathtaking than the last time.
The trip ended with a stop at a black sand beach. It was a beautiful area and after some walking along the beach, Mike and I found a nice spot on a hillside to just sit and contemplate the beautiful scenery around us.
Blue Lagoon - The Blue Lagoon is another very tourist-y experience. It is something that you see on many lists as a must-do in Iceland. It was nice, but expensive. And I think both Mike and I liked the other hot springs we did in Iceland more than the Blue Lagoon. But, it is very close to the airport. And it is a convenient stop either on your way into the city or on your way back out to the airport.
We ended up stopping at the Blue Lagoon on our way out. We booked an airport transfer which picked us up at our hotel and dropped us off at the Blue Lagoon in the morning. I was glad we got there early because it was already crowded and there was already a bit of a line. They did have an easy process for luggage storage since they know most people visit on their way to or from the airport. We spent a couple hours in the hot springs and then hopped a bus to the airport. The Blue Lagoon also provided plastic bags for wet swimsuits, which was handy. There are minerals in the water that seems to be great for your skin. There were silica masks you could put on your face but it did not treat my hair well. My hair felt like straw afterward. I was told their putting conditioner in your hair first would protect it but I apparently did not use enough.
I will say we didn't take advantage of all the Blue Lagoon has to offer. They also have spa services, massages and a restaurant, which we didn't try. I would say give it a try if it's convenient for you on the way to or from the airport but otherwise, I'd recommend finding other hot spring experiences in Iceland.
So that's it for the first part of my trip review. I will say that I was very glad we did the day trips and got out of the city a bit, even if we stuck to heavily touristy areas. They were still beautiful and unique experiences, and I felt like we did manage to find moments of peace and contemplation amongst the crowds. There was a moment when we were sitting on a hill overlooking the black beach when Mike turned to me and said "We really are renting our space on this earth." And I knew exactly what he meant. There is no way to bask in all this natural beauty and see the power of the glaciers, volcanoes and geysers without contemplating the role we play in the larger scheme of the planet. And I think that is what I appreciated most about our trip to Iceland.