Escape to Iceland for a Wintry Retreat

It had been a rough a few autumn months with a string of challenges that left my family and me exhausted and wishing for a change of scenery. The holidays were approaching, but we weren’t feeling festive. We weren’t feeling much of anything except a level of fatigue that required copious amounts of downtime. We needed next-level self-care. 

That’s why, when my husband suggested we take a trip to Iceland, I did a double-take. Did I hear him correctly?

“What are your thoughts on Iceland?” he wondered.

“I have no thoughts on Iceland,” I replied, a true statement, as I’d never considered the destination for a family vacation.

But life is short, and we scored a great deal on flights, so why not Iceland?

We booked an Airbnb house in Hafnarfjordur, a little town outside Reykjavik, mapped out a loose itinerary and left for the Nordic island right after Thanksgiving. Our boys, at 11 and 14, had a slew of questions and curiosities, but we answered most of them with, “Who knows? It’s an adventure!”

And an adventure, it was. Iceland is every bit as beautiful and magical as it appears in photos. Made of volcanoes, glaciers and hot springs, Iceland offers a wonderland of activities for those who want more than rest and relaxation, for those who want to experience a new culture fully and engage with the environment on a tangible level. 

Reynisfjara Beach

Upon landing in Iceland at 5 a.m., getting the rental car and taking a quick nap to readjust our body clocks, we set off for Reynisfjara Beach near Vik, a black volcanic sand beach paired with iconic rock formations on the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean. We wouldn’t have daylight until 10 a.m., so our drive southward was spotlighted by a long, slow sunrise. The drive on Route 1 also afforded us a few stops at prominent waterfalls, such as Urriðafoss and Seljalandsfoss. Winter was still new in late November, so rivers and waterfalls were a mixture of fluid and frozen.

National Geographic rated Reynisfjara one of the 21 best beaches in the world. There is plenty of space for exploration, and visitors are welcome to climb the pillars at their own caution.

Thingvellir National Park
801 Selfoss

On our second day in Iceland, we headed northeast to Thingvellir National Park, a significant geological and ecological spot where the North American tectonic plate meets the Eurasian plate. Iceland is divided by this Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and Thingvellir is where visitors can view the rift above sea-level.

Though it’s one of the most visited spots in Iceland, and we tend to avoid tourist traps, Thingvellir is a must-see. It’s not just an overlook; it’s a series of trails, caverns and waterfalls well-suited for exploring.

Krauma Geothermal Baths
Deildartunguhver, 320 Reykholt

Our Icelandic experience wouldn’t be complete without a dip in a geothermal pool, and, like many visitors, we thought we’d make a reservation at the Blue Lagoon. However, our Airbnb hosts convinced us to explore a spot that isn’t trolling with tourists if we wanted a true fire-and-ice experience. That’s how we wound up at Krauma a couple hours northwest of Reykjavik.

At a fraction of the price and double the relaxation, Krauma offers five large, clear baths at varying warm-to-hot temperatures. The water originates from Deildartunguhver, the country’s most powerful hot spring, which also provides geothermal heating to private homes and businesses in the area. There’s even a cold bath filled with pure glacier water from Ok, Iceland’s smallest glacier, for the wild heart who wants a shock to the system.

It was in those baths that our worries and stresses from the previous months washed away. Could the same have been accomplished on a tropical beach somewhere, or even locked away in a Great Smoky Mountain cabin with no Wi-Fi? Probably.

But for our family, at that particular time, an exploratory, adventurous trip to Iceland made the most sense. It remains one of our favorite adventures together, and we continue to daydream about returning to Iceland in the summertime when the land has thawed and everything is lush and green.