“If you don’t like the weather in Iceland… wait five minutes.” These words of wisdom came from probably the best guide I have ever had while traveling.
In January, my sister called me at work to say that she had gotten accepted to a program in Paris, something that has become a bit of a rite of passage in the Bolger family. So what did I do the second we hung up? I booked my ticket for Thanksgiving. I had been dying for an excuse to show Andrew the country that means the world to me. On top of that, I knew I finally had an excuse to book that million-dollar-bucket-list-stopover…. ICELAND. Little did I know, this trip would be something I will remember for the rest of my life. Dramatic? Probably. But stick with me and you’ll see…
Ever since I listened to my first Sigur Rós song, I knew I had to go to Iceland. Call me hipster… but I just kept dreaming of standing underneath a vast sky, the northern lights dancing above, and Sigur Rós as my soundtrack. Thankfully, Icelandair offers their amazing stopover deals. I was able to book a round trip ticket from NY to Paris, with a stop over in Reykjavik, for under $900. BOOM.
Now, how do you optimize 36 hours in Iceland, a destination heavy in guided tour travel, when you HATE guided group tours and can’t afford to hire a personal guide?! A LOT of research.
After countless hours on Trip Advisor, travel blogs, and scouring travel guides, I thought my search was hopeless until I stumbled upon Floating Tours. I don’t think I have ever been so proud of a travel find. In the words of my father Bruce, “Kids… this is the real deal.”
Floating Tours has been operating for a little under a year, a detail which initially made me skeptical. Their Trip Advisor: flawless; though with so few tours operated, I would hope they would have perfect ratings! What initially caught my eye, was that their all-day winter tour was the only tour I found that managed to combine every major thing we wanted to see for a very reasonable price.
**Traveler Note: Iceland, along with the rest of Scandinavia, is not a budget friendly destination. Budget travelers should be wary and do their research. Be prepared to spend a bit more as the sites are spread out and the terrains can be tough to navigate.
We booked the Golden Circle Ultimate tour and it did not disappoint. We were picked up at our hotel at 11:30am by our tour guide, Atilla. He led us out to a jeep where one other couple was already seated in the back. I turned to Andrew, gave him a confused look, and then turned to Atilla and asked, “How many cars are on the tour today?” He laughed. “This IS the tour today. We keep things small.” 10 points Floating Tours…. 10 points.
Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, home to the first ever parliament in the world, and where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site… so this place isn’t kidding around. Atilla is a wealth of Icelandic knowledge and made sure to give us an overview and point out some cool spots before letting us explore a bit on our own. It was like being shown around a country by a distant relative or family friend. Another 10 points.
The terrain is simply breathtaking. It also began to lightly snow as we began to walk which only led to an abundance of Game of Thrones quotes… I mean, of course.
We then made our way toward the Geysirs. We stopped at a few places along the way. Atilla would be talking about some part of Icelandic tradition or culture when he suddenly would spot a turn off and say “oh! actually, I can show you this.” The next thing we knew, we were standing beside little mounds of mud, along a lake, where they were making the traditional Icelandic bread we had just been talking about in the car.
As we approached the geysers, Atilla informed us that we were taking another little detour. Little did I know, Andrew had been in touch with Atilla long before we arrived in Iceland and knew exactly where we were headed. He led us into the only man-made forest in Iceland to a place many locals do not even know exist. Out of nowhere, a sea of pines popped up and nestled within these pines was a tiny church resembling an old school house. We entered through the picket fence and walked towards the back of the property. A rushing stream lay behind it and ice capped mountains loomed above the pines. I broke away from the group to go take some pictures at the corner of the property when I felt Andrew next to me… the next thing I know, he’s down on one knee. PROPOSING. Yup. I was proposed to in ICELAND. (Infinity points, Andrew.)
Full disclaimer: I am NOT good at public displays of romance, let alone ones involving me. Thankfully, Andrew knows this and had instructed Atilla to keep the other couple out of sight. I apparently did some very ridiculous type sorority squat, making it look like I had to pee, and blurted out “yesofcourseohmygodgetup!!” When Atilla poked his head around the other side of the church to make sure all was well, I channeled my inner awkward and curtsied exclaiming, “Welp… we’re engaged.” Oof. Painful.
So yes… at this point in the trip. I am now…. engaged. Yikes.
At the geysirs, I made some really surreal phone calls to family at home and awkwardly cried in front of strangers #lifegoals. The geysers were spectacular and once again, we had space from our tiny group and more than enough time to explore. Perfection. (I did not get many photos here as I was a ball of weird emotions.)
From here, we drove off to the famous Gullfoss Waterfall… perhaps the most instagrammed site in Iceland outside of the Blue Lagoon. At this point in the afternoon, it was getting dark. The waterfall was as one would expect, gorgeous but definitely touristy. Apparently, it gets packed in the warmer seasons, but for us, there was only a small handful people so it was perfect.
We stopped at a local farm for dinner, which was just alright. Apparently, the restaurant they usually go to had to close early for an emergency so I can’t hold the tour to their restaurant choice. Atilla made a perfectly decent game time decision. It is important to note that dinner is NOT included in the tour fee.
We were finally on our way to the site I was most excited for… the Secret Lagoon in Fludir. I had a long internal struggle about whether or not we should do the Blue Lagoon. This is always on those lists of “Top Sites to See in the World.” I kept reading that the water in the lagoon was run off from the hydraulic plant next door, therefore giving it that color blue it’s famous for. On top of that, it’s always crowded, which is enough to turn me off. I decided that this secret lagoon was the ideal choice and if I feel like I need to check the Blue Lagoon off some travel list, there is always next time.
We were the ONLY people at the Secret Lagoon for most of the night. Half way through our visit, the Floating Tours half day tour arrived with a whopping TWO more travelers. We were given the history of the grounds, we boiled eggs in one of the hotter pools, tried fermented shark (yup), and then changed into our swimsuits for our soak. They give you a floatation helmut (super attractive) and floating pads to wrap around your legs so that floating is mindless and easy. Here’s the kicker… they submerge a speaker that plays SIGUR ROS underwater. 100 million points to Floating Tours.
We were dropped off at our hotel close to 1am. We sadly weren’t able to see the northern lights during our stay, but I barely even noticed. The day had been everything I had wanted it to be (and of course a bit more than I had planned for.) We had only three hours to sleep before our flight to Paris but boy…. was it worth it…
Total Points for Iceland: 100,000,020 Points + 500 Bonus points for Atilla’s help in planning our engagement.
Floating Tours – As referenced above. If you don’t have enough time (or money) to do a self guided tour in a rental car, this is the way to go.
Hótel Frón – A pretty budget friendly hotel in a prime location. I wanted a place that was clean yet didn’t break the bank since we were only going to be sleeping for a few hours. BONUS POINTS for having rooms available for the early airport arrivals. We were able to nap before going out for the day! Extra bonus – the beds were SUPER comfortable!
Final Travel Tip:
DO NOT take a cab to and from the airport unless you’re ready to drop close to $150 USD. For real. Take the airport shuttle bus for a much more wallet friendly ride to your hotel. They will even pick you up from your hotel to take you back to the airport!