Having just returned from a trip to Iceland in early March, I wondered to myself, should I be recommending the island during the winter months?
What are the considerations to mull over before you decide whether to visit Iceland in winter?
Lack of People
The number of tourists to Iceland is on the increase, rising on average 11% per year since the year 2000. There were 700,000 visitors to the island in 2012, and this is expected to rise to 1 million or more in 2013.
But the thing is, most of them arrive on the island between mid-June and August hoping for good weather.
This means that there are areas that are largely devoid of people – our trip around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula bore that out – we barely saw a person. No – that’s a mistake – we did see two people in a car scoffing sandwiches at the car park near this spot, Hellnar:
You can’t see it in this photo but there are thousands of seabirds gathered around these cliffs.
And at the frozen Hraunfossar waterfall …
… where we were largely on our own, until five mysterious people in matching orange jackets turned up in a gigantic landrover …
What any visitor to Iceland in winter must take into account is that they mightn’t get where they want to go.
Although roads are cleared remarkably quickly (we arrived the day after a major snow storm and the roads were largely snow-free, although there was plenty of the white stuff lying by the roadside), if you’re travelling to more isolated parts you mightn’t be as lucky. There is a possibility of being marooned in Reyjkjavik (which isn’t at all a bad thing), or in your hotel.
I do have an anecdote to lay your mind at rest.
After the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, a part of the main ringroad was washed away by flowing lava, leaving a bunch of tourists stuck on one side of the gap with their hire cars, and another bunch of tourists at the other.
The enterprising Icelanders simply ferried each lot of stranded holidaymakers to the opposite side of the road and had them swap over hire cars. Job done!
So if bad weather does hit, you’ll be assured that the authorities will be doing their darnedest to open up the roads.
The Northern Lights
Any sensible person knows not to go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.
The Iceland skies are notoriously full of cloud and if you travel with the certainty that they’ll clear long enough for you to glimpse this wonderful phenomena, you may be sorely disappointed. But, winter is of course the time of year to see them – they could appear at any time between September and April.
Excitingly, we did see them. We were wakened from a peaceful slumber just after midnight at the Hraunsnef Country Hotel (much recommended, especially for their farm-fresh meat dinners) to be told the lights were shining.
We were greeted by a clear sky and some not-very-colourful-it-has-to-be-said lights moving and dancing. (Interestingly, although we couldn’t see the fabulous colours we’ve all seen in photographs, they were there in a photo taken by one of our fellow hotel guests – a beautiful green.) I’m not saying that Northern Lights are normally this pale, it’s just something to be aware of.
And of course, you’ll not get a showing of them at all in Iceland.
Iceland isn’t as covered in ice as you would think from the name. Sure, there’s a glacier the size of Holland to the South, and a few more scattered around, but it’s not permanently snow and ice-covered in the winter. You may well, however, see some of the white stuff.
If you’ve already been to Iceland outside of the winter months, you’ll know it has the most dramatic and other-worldly landscape possible. Black lava fields, red iron oxide, bright green patches of lichen and the white of the glaciers all contribute to a spectacular view.
In winter, just to add to the beauty, there may well be lots and lots of pure white snow, and that offers a completely different view of the place. Snaefellsnes produces a wonderful vista when blanketed in white (as shown in the photo above.
Well, yay or nay?
I say go. If you can put up with possible disruption to your plans and you can brave anything when you’re wrapped up against the elements, then go. If you’re not so happy in with cold, wind, rain, grey skies or enforced confinement to your hotel room for short periods, try Lanzarote :o)