If a volcano and a glacier had a baby, that baby would be Iceland. I won’t pretend to completely understand the complicated climatology responsible for creating the aptly named Land of Ice and Fire, but it started when a ton of volcanos erupted over millions of years and formed an island on the border of two tectonic plates. The coastline is covered in fine-grained volcanic rock (black sand), and several of the still-active volcanoes create a number of hot springs and geysers scattered across the country. Atop the volcanic rock, so much snow falls during the winter that it can’t melt completely during the summer. Over time that created glaciers, which cover more than 10 percent of the country. The snow that does melt during the summer months spills over mountainsides, creating tons of waterfalls.
The best way to see this gorgeous country in all of its dichotomous wonder is to rent a car, stock up on snacks, download a few Icelandic punk albums and embark on a road trip.
Iceland is expensive. Like, extremely expensive. There’s no way around it. Our car—a sick, automatic BMW crossover—cost around $600 for the week. Gas was another $200. It hurt, but it was well worth it. The black coastline turned to mossy green rock, followed by pale yellow grass and snow-capped mountains. White herds were dotted with one or two little black sheep, and stocky, small horses huddled around their feed. When my friend Ben and I weren't driving in stunned silence, we were tripping over ourselves trying to express how unbelievably beautiful it all was.
We grabbed sandwiches at the airport while I tried to shake my jet leg. Our first stop of the day was the Blue Lagoon, but we had some time to kill before our appointment (yes, you have to make an appointment beforehand—they fill up), so we headed straight for the coast.
Not even 10 minutes from the airport, we spotted an opportunity to do some off-roading. Now, you might think it unwise to risk getting your (very nice) car stuck in the mud within an hour of arriving in a foreign country—and I tend to agree—but luckily Ben did not. We slowly made our way down a winding path to a secluded beach that served as a perfect introduction to the country's black sand, bright blue water and volcanic rock formations.
After exploring, climbing and taking about 8 million pictures, we hopped back in the car and headed to the Blue Lagoon. The entrance fee is $97 and includes a free drink at the bar and a mud mask. When you arrive, they give you a towel and a fancy wristband that you can use to open a locker in the locker room and buy additional drinks at the bar. After rinsing off and putting conditioner in your hair, you head outside and wade into the water. The lagoon, which stays at about 100 degrees, is pretty massive and something about it compels you to move in slow motion. There are banks to sit or lay on, a walk-up bar and a waterfall massage thing I never actually made it to despite being there for four hours. It was a lot of fun and a great way to relax after my flights. I wish I'd brought my sunglasses outside with me because the bright blue water, white silica and steam had me squinting the whole time.
After we finally dragged ourselves out of the water, we hopped back in the car and started our nearly three hour drive to Vik—about as far south as you can go in Iceland. We stopped at a number of gorgeous waterfalls on the way, which landed us at Reynisfjara, the most famous black sand beach, around 10 pm—just as the sun began to set. We had driven along the coast for most of the evening and noticed that all the sand in Iceland seemed to be black. We wondered what would make THE black sand beach any different. Turns out it's just the blackest. That coupled with the massive waves and weirdly shaped basalt stacks make it iconic. We hung out there until exhaustion nearly knocked me over, then headed to our hotel in Vik, about 10 minutes away.
The next morning, we jumped back in the car and drove three hours east to Vatnajökull National Park where we met a guided glacier hiking tour. The three and a half hour tour, booked for $105 through Arctic Adventures, takes you on an hour long hike up to the Falljökull glacier, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, one of the largest ice caps in Europe. The tour spends an hour on the ice followed by an hour long hike back. Unfortunately for us, the wind picked up just as we got on the ice and we had to turn back. The rest of the day's tours were canceled, and we got a full refund. But we still got to experience a good bit of the hike and spend some time on the glacier. Before you get on the ice, you have to attach ice crampons to the bottoms of your boots. The metal spikes claw into the ice and prevent you from slipping. It's the coolest thing! If you go, I definitely recommend bringing a pair of gloves and renting sturdy hiking boots from the tour company for $10.
We thawed out a bit on our hour long drive to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Diamond Beach. Chunks of glacier ice make their way across the lagoon and wash up on the black sands of Diamond Beach.
I was beyond freezing at the end of the day (yeah, glaciers are cold) and starving. We knew everything would be closed by the time we made it back to Vik, so we stopped at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon for dinner. After an entire day of rain, the sun came out just in time for us to fully enjoy the view from the restaurant. We got the most insane looking charcuterie board—the cheese was all brie but who cares when you've got this much going on?
To be completely honest, I was dreading the third day of our trip because we signed up to go snorkeling between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates—in 35 degree water. I live in Texas for a reason. I used to skip class when the temperature dropped below 70. Diving into ice cold water sounded like torture, but all the other travel bloggers out there convinced me it would be worth it...And they were right. It was.
We woke up in Vik and drove two hours northwest to Þingvellir National Park, where we met up with another guided tour group. We paid $124 each to spend about 30 minutes in the water. The tour guides strapped us into these super flattering "dry suits" that are supposed to suction around your wrists and neck to prevent water from getting in. They give you a hood and gloves, but tell you that your head and hands will get wet and it will be cold. Both were true. Each guide took four of us out at a time and guided us through the plates, taking pictures of us the whole time (you aren't allowed to bring your own camera...probably because you can't hold it with your gloved hands). It was super cold. I bit down so hard on the snorkel that my jaw was sore the next day. But it was a gorgeous, once in a life time experience.
From Þingvellir, we set off to explore the other two major attractions on Iceland's Golden Circle: the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall. It rained almost all day, so we did our observing and appreciating quickly before running back to the warm car.
Finally, we made our way to Reykjavik. It was our first night in a real city, so we set out around 10 with the sun still shining (in true Icelandic fashion). We wandered around and popped into a few bars. Drinks, like everything else in Iceland, were expensive, but it was a good time.
I didn't feel my hangover until I was offered fermented shark at lunch the next day. I passed and ate what I could of my Icelandic meat soup before setting out to explore the city on foot. Just across the street from the restaurant was Hallgrímskirkja, one of Reykjavík's only notable architectural structures. It's a Lutheran church and the tallest building in the city. The interior is minimalistic and modern, minus the massive pipe organ. After that we headed to the Punk Museum located in a converted underground restroom. The stalls are plastered with a written history of punk music in Iceland and headphones hang from the ceiling blasting the hits. When we got back to our hotel, we downloaded a few of the landmark albums we learned about at the museum. I was happy when my only request, an all girl band called Grýlurnar, turned out to be my favorite. Ragnhildur Gísladóttir founded the band after she got tired of playing with boys.
It provided the perfect soundtrack to what turned out to be the highlight of the trip for me. We drove north of Reykjavík for about an hour along the coast to Glymur, the country's second tallest waterfall. The drive alone was breathtaking and took twice as long to make because we kept stopping to take pictures.
But the hike was phenomenal. Every few steps, a new view takes your breath away. I'm typically not a huge hiking fan, but I could've kept going forever. A few of the best parts of hiking in Iceland: There are hardly any bugs, the temperature prevents you from sweating and you're pretty much always at sea level. I can't possibly say enough good things about it. If you do one thing in Iceland, make it this.
After recovering from having our minds blown by Glymur, we enjoyed a late dinner of whale steaks and gourmet hotdogs in Reykjavík before our last night out. Walking home at 3:30 am, we caught the sun just beginning to rise.
While the Opera House is definitely worth a look, there is so much to do and see beyond those iconic walls. I started and ended my trip to Australia in Sydney with 4 days on each end. My first trip consisted of a lot of neighborhood walks, oyster eating, park going, window shopping and--yes--a few trips to the Opera House and Sydney Harbor. I fell in love with the city's architecture, cleanliness and overall vibe. People were always out walking, no matter the time of day. On my second trip, I decided to go exploring beyond my beloved city center.
The Bondi to Coogee walk is a must for any beach lover in Sydney. We decided to reverse the trek so we would end up at Bondi Beach, where we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon. To get there, we grabbed a bus to Coogee from Sydney's Central Station. The trip is about 20 minutes long and cost around $4. (Be sure your Opal card is loaded beforehand,. You can use it on buses, trains and ferries throughout the city.)
The 6 km walk takes about an hour and 45 minutes to complete, leading you along a cliff-side path that overlooks a number a beautiful beaches. The path itself is paved and includes plenty of nice restaurants and picturesque shores you can stop and rest at along the way. Sunscreen, water and comfortable shoes are a must, but you also won't want to forget your camera.
Cool down with a dip in the ocean at Bondi Beach, or visit the pool ($6.50) at Bondi Icebergs Club if you want to enjoy the view without the sand.
After a quick shower to wash all the sand out of my hair and the sunscreen off my face, I got dressed and headed out for dinner and drinks in an area called The Rocks, right around the corner from Circular Quay. My friend Gabby and I both got delicious and reasonably priced burgers at the aptly named Ribs & Burgers, then headed out in search of a trendy bar. I recommend getting a drink at The Glenmore Hotel (pricey cocktails but great harbor views from the rooftop bar) and skipping The Argyle (which charges a $25 cover). You could easily spend the whole night in the area.
We started the day with a trip to Glebe Markets, a massive flea market held every Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm on the lawn of Glebe Public School. You'll find a variety of locally sourced food, desserts, clothes, jewelry and art to fit nearly any taste. Personally, I loved the hand-crafted rings so much I came back a second time to buy more. Glebe itself is a really cute neighborhood with a good selection of restaurants and coffeehouses. I stopped at the bookstore when I was there and picked up a few souvenirs/Christmas gifts before heading back towards the city center.
Depending on where you're coming from, you can either walk or take a bus directly to the markets. I was staying in Paddington the first time I went, so I decided to take the bus. It took about 20 minutes (10-11 stops) and cost $3.58. On my second trip, I was coming from Chippendale so it was a quick 7 minute walk.
I'm pretty solidly in the camp of, "if you've seen one zoo, you've seen them all," but I made an exception for Taronga Zoo on the recommendation of a few friends. The zoo is a 12-14 minute ferry ride from Circular Quay near Sydney Harbor, and home to a number of Australia-specific animals like kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, penguins, seals and a massive crocodile. Tickets are $41.40 if purchased online or $46 on site. It's definitely worth a visit it you haven't seen any of these animals elsewhere on your trip to Australia.
Start the day by catching yet another ferry from Circular Quay, this time to Manly. The ride takes about 30 minutes and is absolutely stunning. If you're not up for another beach day, just take the ferry ride for the views. But who isn't up for more beach days? Manly Beach was my favorite yet. It's packed with people sunbathing, swimming, surfing and playing this adorable game called Spikeball (check it out, it's fun and every gorgeous man in the country seems to play it). We spent a few hours getting some sun and watching for sharks before grabbing some fish and chips and making our way back home. There's another ferry that runs from Taronga Zoo to Manly if you wanted to do both in one day.
If you have spare time in the afternoon, like I did, spend it exploring my favorite Sydney neighborhoods: Paddington and Surry Hills. Talk to the friendly store clerks at boutiques on Oxford St., eat at every restaurant on Crown St. and lay in the grass at Moore Park.
"You're going to travel alone...?"
That hesitant, disapproving question was the most common response I heard when I told people I was going to Australia for a month by myself. I'd never traveled alone before, but I assumed I would enjoy it. I've lived alone since college, and it's not like I have a ton of friends with the means and available vacation days to tag along. So, I started planning my first solo trip.
I knew I wanted to see Sydney and Melbourne and definitely visit the Great Barrier Reef. But there were a ton of places all along the East Coast I wanted to see as well. Australians drive on the wrong side of the road, so renting a car was out of the question. And 13-17 hour bus rides every other night weren't super appealing either. The 10 day G Adventures tour from Brisbane to Cairns seemed to offer the solution. All of your travel and sleeping arrangements are made for you, and you just get to sit back and enjoy your trip--while making a bunch of new friends from all over the world.
The tour was available to 18-39 year olds, but my group of 15 ranged from 21-32. The whole thing was pure joy. We spent all of our time in one big group, huddled around a camp fire or on the beach. It felt like we all instantly reverted back to grade school--digging up every game we learned at summer camp and teaching a group of expectant 20-somethings on a yacht. We were all traveling alone--some straight out of university or using up a year's worth of vacation days--but the tour allowed us to do it together.
Day 1: Brisbane
Arrive at any time and get to know the other girls (or guys) in your shared room at the hostel. Then head down to the bar next door for dinner and a round of musical bingo/get to know each other time.
Day 2: Noosa Everglades
If waking up at 6 am every day of your vacation sounds miserable, this may not be the trip for you. After the first of many toast and cereal breakfasts, we got on a bus headed to Noosa. We settled into small cabins at a camp site near the Noosa Everglades, then spent the afternoon canoeing through the everglades. The still water was dyed brown by the falling bark of tea trees that surrounded the perimeter. Back at the campsite, we played a game of backyard cricket (my first exposure to the sport) and watched as dozens of kangaroos grazed nearby.
Day 3: Fraser Island
The next morning, the group climbed into an army-like utility vehicle that's built to handle tough terrains. It was the roughest ride of my life--if you're at all prone to motion sickness, I recommend taking precautions. Our first stop was Lake McKenzie, a beautiful rainwater lake surrounded by sand and trees, where we ate lunch and went for a swim, followed by a hike through a rainforest that grows on sand. We kept our eyes peeled for venomous snakes, but didn't see any. I was equal parts relieved and disappointed. The highway on Fraser Island is just the sand on the side of the ocean, meaning frequent detours up through the hills during high tide. We were warned repeatedly to beware of the dingos, but only managed to see one. We sat on the beach talking, drinking and playing "never have I ever" until late that night.
Day 4: Travel day
First, we got back on the giant army vehicle, then a train and lastly a bus. We got to Emu Park just in time for dinner and--after a quick game of Twister--called it an early night.
Days 5-6: Whitsunday Islands
Another long bus ride first thing in the morning then we hopped on the yacht that we called home for the next three days. We did a ton of snorkeling and went to shore once for a beach day (where--no joke--we were chased by a shark). We never wore make up and my salty, unwashed hair nearly curled into dreadlocks. It was sweaty, sunny and gorgeous.
Day 7: Airlie Beach
After one last snorkeling trip off of the yacht, we sailed back to Airlie Beach. That night we went out and stayed out until our bus arrived at 4:30 a.m.
Day 8: Travel day
Another day of travel, which we all used to catch up on lost sleep. A bus to a train to another bus finally landed us in Cairns--the last stop on our journey.
Day 9: Great Barrier Reef
Probably the best day yet. We all signed up to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with the option to scuba dive (no certification required). There were a bunch of girls who had never done a dive before who hesitantly expressed interest in giving it a try (myself included). After a two hour boat ride out to the reef and a 5 minute intro course, they threw us in the water with a group of three other beginners and all of our gear. An instructor held onto us the whole time, first walking us through the safety steps on the surface, then guiding us deeper into the water. It was, in a word, spectacular. The first dive went by quickly and seemed over just as soon as it started. We all signed up for a second, longer dive at a different site. On this one, the instructor let us go, but kept us within eye sight. Learning to control your movements with your breath and glide effortlessly through the water--all the way down to the ocean floor--was indescribable. I wanted to do it 1,000 more times, but we had to head back. I had never considered diving before this trip, and now I can't wait to do it again.
,,Day 10: Thanksgiving
The last day of our tour happened to fall on Thanksgiving Day (U.S.), and, being the only American in the group, I insisted we all get together to celebrate. A few people signed up to go skydiving and bungee jumping, but I chose to get breakfast with some of my favorite new friends, then start shopping and prepping for dinner. We grilled kangaroo steaks and turkey kababs, and I attempted to make a pumpkin pie (it was more of a pumpkin custard thanks to a weak refrigerator and the humidity in Cairns). It was the perfect end to the trip--relaxed, fun and full of appreciation that we all met and got to experience it together.
10/10 would recommend. But be ready for a lottttt of travel days and not a lot of sleep.