Fill a homemade backpack with your clothes, sleeping bag, food, water and fuel for a few months and keep it under 20 pounds. Now hike 1,500 miles through the state of California. That is my husband’s idea of adventure. So how do you plan the trip of a lifetime for someone like that? And how do you do it with a limited budget? Well, you enlist the help of your family and friends through Traveler's Joy!
My husband and I got married last June and we had a fantastic home wedding in the San Francisco Bay area. And finally, the moment we had been waiting for was here --our honeymoon! Having traveled to many places around the world with friends, it made planning our honeymoon something I was most looking forward to. But where exactly do we go? There were so many places to consider and New Zealand was at the top of our list. However, due to the timing of our wedding, that idea fell through because it would be during their winter. Neither of us are much into skiing which is the thing to do there.
Making a long story short, after months of searching for a unique honeymoon and getting shot down for one reason or another, we started to understand why so many people recommend traditional honeymoon destinations. So, half heartedly, we made plans for a “nice” trip to the Hawaiian Islands. Both of us felt a nagging feeling that we would be missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity if we went this route. Deep down we both knew we were settling, until one day, out of the blue, my husband called me and said, "How bout we go to Iceland?" I immediately replied, "Now that’s what I’m talking about. Heck yes!”
Both of us have an adventurous spirit so Iceland appealed to us in many ways. First, neither of us had ever been there. In fact, we didn’t even know anyone who’d been there. Second, everyone speaks English. Meanwhile, the natural wonders there are unreal, and since the country has really only recently opened up to tourism, there wouldn’t be the hordes of people like other “popular” honeymoon destinations. Needless to say, we were super stoked on the idea.
But wait a second, put on the brakes! Isn’t Iceland icy and freezing cold? After doing a little research, Iceland does have a small icecap and glaciers but only in the southern parts making 90% of the country ice and cold free. In fact, the Gulf Stream keeps its surrounding oceans warm, and in return, Iceland has a mild climate similar to San Francisco in the summer. Sounds perfect to us!
As I said, it is just starting to become popular as a vacation destination. If you want to travel much out of Reykjavik, it gets difficult to figure out where to stay and getting in touch with different venues is tricky. We ended up booking a self-drive tour through Iceland Self Drive. This way we could enjoy the flexibility of having our own car, stopping where we wanted, and having a tailored trip without the stress of making every single booking ourselves. We only had six months to plan our wedding, so using Iceland Self Drive was a great stress reliever. It was also very affordable. I don’t believe we could have done the trip for any less, booking it ourselves, as Iceland is one of the pricier places to visit.
One of the best decisions we made was putting a trip registry together through Traveler's Joy. We picked TJ because Iceland was an obscure destination not on the top honeymoon websites. Most of the other registries made you choose their options for places to stay and activities. TJ gave us the flexibility to add exactly what we wanted to our registry. It was awesome being able to hear our friends and family get excited and contribute to what we were planning for our honeymoon.
The morning after our wedding, we boarded our flight out of San Francisco and headed for Reykjavik with only one stop in New York. We arrived in Reykjavik in the morning after a short plane delay and went directly to our hotel in the city center. As jet lagged and tired as we were, we enjoyed a little bit of the city and grabbed one of the country’s favorite lunches (a hot dog, with “everything”) until we were able to check in. We met with “Gummi”, our contact from the drive tour and he gave us all our necessary information for our two-week adventure in Iceland around the Unesco World Heritage designated Ring Road. They even supplied us with an iPad to keep in touch during our trip.
The next morning we started off driving through the first of the National Parks, Thingvellir (good luck pronouncing any of the names, we made it through the trip by pointing to things on a map). Driving the Golden Circle route is one of the popular things to do. We started in the National Park and ended at Gullfoss, a very impressive waterfall. And along the way we passed by “Geyser”, yup, you guessed it, one of the more impressive geysers in the entire world. In fact, it was the first one discovered and the name took to all of them. It was a great way to start our trip and get a glimpse of what Iceland had to offer. Our first night outside of Reykjavik, we stayed in a small one-bedroom cabin just off the Golden Circle with a beautiful ocean vista with a breathtaking mountain backdrop.
The next few days we made our way along the southern coast, driving past huge volcanic cliffs and massive waterfalls everywhere that were just part of someone’s backyard (no big deal). We drove along lava fields stretching into the ocean, and black sand beaches. One of the highlights of the south coast was an overnight camping trip to Thorsmork, one of Icelanders' favorite vacations spots. I can’t even adequately describe the drive. Our front wheel drive Honda would not do for crossing the powerful glacial rivers so we got a bus ticket and by no means was this an ordinary bus ride. This bus had large monster truck tires which seemed a bit excessive until we crossed our first river. We were hoping we didn’t float away and were quite glad we had them. Driving up the vast watershed with towering mountains and several glaciers flowing out of the icecap which lay above the peaks was absolutely stunning.
When we finally reached Thorsmork, it was raining pretty hard, but we got our tent set up and cozied in for a night in the rain. I think we were still pretty jet lagged because all we did was relax in our tent the rest of the evening and listen to the rain. The next morning the skies were blue and the weather was perfect. With beautiful canyons, endless hiking trails, and fantastic views, we were disappointed we hadn’t planned to stay longer. Thorsmork is a definite “must-do” if you enjoy the outdoors. The most memorable hike we went on took us back into a lush vivid green, 2,000-foot deep river canyon which made us think of a postcard of Hawaii, but we were in Iceland! We thought to ourselves, who needs Hawaii! We headed back when we saw the rain clouds of the afternoon moving in, but I wished we could have gone farther.
That night we stayed just outside of Skaftafell/Vatnajokull National Park. What a fantastic park! We were able to hike to Svartifoss, one of the smaller but more beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. That was the beginning of a loop trail up to the Kristinartindar peaks. There were awesome views of the glaciers on either side. We had to laugh because the girl in the tourist office made it seem like no big deal “If you want a longer hike you can always go to the top of the peak”, she said. Of course, we wanted to go to the top considering you can hike past midnight. So, here we were, in jeans and our hiking sandals and we ended up at the top with people in heavy mountaineering gear. I think she called the hike moderate and at home, this definitely would have been labeled extremely strenuous considering the trail disappeared and it became a steep exposed scramble to the windy summit.
The next day we continued along the south coast where we stopped and enjoyed a cruise on a glacial bay and played in the ocean with ice bergs washing up on the beach. I think people thought we were crazy, but the water really wasn’t that cold. Plus, it was worth the picture. We had a fantastic lobster dinner in Hofn (best I have ever had), and relaxed in a hot spring fed “nature bath” in town.
The next part of our adventure took us on a spectacular drive along the eastern fjords. It was amazing how long it took to drive back into one of the fjords and then all the way back out. On the map they didn’t look that big! That night we went for a midnight kayaking trip in Seydisfjordur (did I mention it is light for almost 24 hours a day just below the Arctic Circle). It was such an experience being out on the water, just us with our guide, taking in the beautiful sunset, knowing it was midnight and we could still see! We had dinner at a small pizza place that was run by an artists’ association for students in Iceland. It was really different with a cool laid back feel, and they had lobster pizza, yum!
From there, we drove to Husavik, the whale watching capitol of Iceland. Of course, we had to go on a whale watching tour and were able to see four different whales as well as visit “Puffin Island." Back in port and on the bay front, we had one of the best fish dinners ever. I had heard Iceland was known for its seafood and everything we had was incredible. From Husavik, it is a short drive to Jokulsargljufur National Park, which features numerous natural wonders. The park is about 35 km long and the drive follows the western side of the glacial river Jokulsa.
Asbyrgi was the first stop and was a beautiful canyon with horseshoe shaped 100-meter high walls, a phenomenon caused by glacial river flooding which resembled a miniature Yosemite Valley. The whispering cliffs were next along the drive and feature a walk through columns of volcanic basalt that have formed really out of this world shapes. The highlight was at the end of the canyon drive when we reached Dettifoss, Europe’s mightiest waterfall which was featured in the popular Hollywood film Prometheus. It was such a rush to be that close to so much water flowing over a sheer edge that you could walk right up to. We ended our day trip to the national park with a visit to the Myvatn Nature Baths. It was a smaller version of the famous Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik, but smaller and less crowded. It felt so good to relax in the warm turquoise blue mineral water, especially since it was about 45-degrees F outside.
After our stay in Husavik we made our drive along the northern coast and came to one of our final stops at the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and National Park. On the way, we stopped for some freshly made ice cream at a cow farm. It was probably the best we have ever had and would give Haagen-Dazs a run for their money. On the peninsula it felt like we were the only ones there. We had a great time exploring the park, seeing maybe only 2 or 3 other people. We saw ocean cliffs covered in birds and were able to walk right out onto the ocean on top of lava that had flowed out to sea (See! Just like Hawaii!). Before arriving on the peninsula, we had received multiple warnings about the rogue “ice bear” (polar bear) who had made the long swim over from Greenland. Icelanders clearly were not fans of ice bears because we were told everywhere we went to beware. That night we went for a late night hike along the coast. The whole time we had been joking and laughing about the ice bear and wondering if we would run in to him. It was funny, until we realized we were all alone, and it was late, and we weren’t near any houses or anything. We turned a corner to go up a small hill and at the top saw a white furry butt. Stopping in our tracks, our hearts skipped a beat until we realized it was only a wooly Icelandic sheep staring at us wondering if we were going to bother him. So fortunately we didn’t encounter an ice bear, just some very scary sheep.
The next morning we woke up early and set out for another one of the highlights of our trip, a dog sledding adventure on one of the glaciers. Another backcountry drive across the desolate valley floors at the base of a glacier was a highlight all on its own. Once we reached the glacier, we were fitted with thick, warm snow suits. We were escorted out to the glacier and introduced to the dogs by our guides. Our guides were both very nice and friendly and eager to tell us all about the dogs. We sat and played with the dogs until they were all hooked up and ready to run. Boy, do they love to run! During the trip, our guide explained to us about the dynamics of putting a sledding team together. He told us how to match the dog’s personalities, and which combinations to use. It was really interesting and we had no idea so much effort went in to putting together a sled team. On the way back I got to stand on the back of the sled. It was so fun! When we returned, we were able to help put the dogs back on their leash and spend more time playing with them and taking pictures. The whole excursion was so much fun, even though a few of the dogs decided I made a great fire hydrant. Fortunately, I was wearing supplied gear!
From there we made our return back to Reykjavik to relax for our last couple of days in Iceland. As embarrassing as it sounds, we found a great American-style diner where we had hamburgers and milkshakes. The milkshakes were really good and it was nice to have something familiar after our two-weeks away from home. The accommodations during our trip ranged from a small cabin at a private residence to hostels, all of which were very comfortable. Altogether, our trip cost us about $6,000, with $2,000 of that being airfare. It was such an unforgettable trip. I would highly recommend this as a honeymoon destination to couples that desire a lot of privacy and as much adventure as you want.
I already have a friend who took me up on my recommendation and has signed up for a Traveler's Joy registry to get there. Traveler's Joy gave us the opportunity to include our family and friends by allowing them to give us adventures we could not have afforded on our own.