In January 2022, Cassam Looch joined other travellers on TRIPS by Culture Trip’s Icelandic adventure for an unforgettable experience – and a thrilling insight into the joys of small-group travel.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively as part of my work at Culture Trip. From large group trips to solo filming assignments, there aren’t many invitations I’ve turned down in the name of adventure – and time out of the office. Despite this, I have to say the prospect of joining a group of strangers on an intense five-day trip to Iceland wasn’t high on my list of ways to kick off 2022. Why would I want to spend my free time with people I didn’t know? Would we all get along? What if I was the “one” on the trip that everyone always refers to when they say “There’s always ‘one’”? In truth, I was confident of a great time as the itinerary looked incredible – but I still had a few concerns.
Although I was there to work, I felt very much part of the group. I had the same schedule, would be staying in the same hotels, and would ultimately experience everything everyone else would experience. I also had the opportunity to be guided by a local insider, and rest-assured I was going to be taking full advantage of that given how many questions I had ahead of departure.
I’ve been to the Icelandic capital several times, and on this occasion I wanted to spend some downtime exploring quieter parts of the city before joining the group. So I decided to travel a few days in advance of the group trip, and began by quizzing our unflappable Travel Expert, Jay, with a series of questions. Even though I was flying into Reykjavik on my own booking and spending a few nights at a separate hotel, Jay was able to reassure me that my transport from the airport would still be part of my Culture Trip booking. This was a relief, as I know travelling to and from the airport in Reykjavik can be costly – in terms of time and money – and thankfully it was all taken care of.
There was one other obstacle to overcome when my flight out of London was delayed by several hours due to – believe it or not – excessive wind conditions that were preventing the aircraft doors from opening. Feeling the onset of a mild panic, I once again contacted the Travel Team at Culture Trip to see if I had to rebook my pre-arranged transfer to Reykjavik. And once again I was given the reassuring news that this would be no problem and that my ticket was specific to my arrival time. The bus would be there, no matter how late I landed.
In fact, all of this information is available in the documentation sent out post booking. I simply hadn’t read it properly – but there’s no greater reassurance than what comes directly from someone at the other end of the line. As I later discovered, several people on the trip had similar issues – not least because of rapidly changing Covid-19 entry requirements – but people who know far more than I do about these things were able to help get us all to Reykjavik as promised.
This trip to Iceland would be my first during winter: an entirely different proposition to the daylight-drenched days I’d previously experienced. Yes, we’d have to contend with wind, snow, rain and ice, but with the added darkness comes the exciting prospect of a chance to observe the Northern Lights. This was a bucket-list item for me and I secretly worried that not seeing them would ruin my trip.
For my first two nights I wandered the streets of Reykjavik looking skywards for the merest hint of ethereal colour. No luck, but Northern Lights or not, I was satisfied with my main event prelude and ready to join my new travelling companions.
Hotel Alda, where we are staying in Reykjavik, is perfectly situated at one end of Laugavegur, the main shopping artery of the city, with boutique shops, restaurants, cafes and bars that feel very “Icelandic”. Locals and tourists often end up here on a night out, so it’s a good place to be if you want to get a flavour of both the city and its people. It’s also very handy if you haven’t brought enough winter clothes (thankfully I’d remembered to pack my thermals).
The hotel has an outdoor hot tub, but since we are only just settling into our first night I don’t hold out much hope of us taking advantage. One fun-filled dinner – and a few pints of local IPA – later the majority of the group are donning our swimsuits in sub-zero temperatures, getting to know one another the only way you truly can here.
To say our first night is a success would be an understatement. Ragnar, our Local Insider, is used to breaking the ice in the literal sense, but his hosting skills are also of the highest order. Welcoming all of us with a quick stroll through the downtown area, Ragnar bags us a spot at one of the best restaurants in and even goes as far as choosing what we’ll eat. He already knows our dietary requirements and makes sure we’re treated to a selection of local delicacies and some of his own favourites. From the first mouthfuls of the sumptuous lamb, duck and Arctic char sliders, we know that food is going to be a highlight of the trip. Our bookings include all evening meals, so we don’t have to worry about that side of things, either.
Over the course of several dishes, a few drinks and a slow walk back to the hotel, I find out a little more about my new companions. The majority are from the US and arrived not long after me. It’s fascinating to hear how travel restrictions impacted everyone’s journey to Iceland in different ways – but also encouraging to hear that people were still determined to travel, no matter how many hoops they had to jump through.
Morgan Forrest, who travelled from Maine with her friend Hannah, was initially nervous about joining a group for her first trip abroad since 2019. “My idea of a wasted trip would be a traditional group tour, riding around in a large tour bus and barely getting a full, authentic experience of the country I am visiting. I was also worried that the group I would be travelling with would be a buncha’ sticks in the mud, and not want to go out and try new things or challenge themselves,” Morgan tells me, away from the potential “muddy sticks”.
Monet Izabeth is a global travel enthusiast and documentary filmmaker who invited some of her followers to join her on this trip. Ragnar and Monet actually did a virtual interview together prior to departure and having joined the stream myself, I could see how this lively combination would have inspired me to get back on the road.
I finally get to speak to Monet when she tries to convince me she has already found the best cinnamon rolls in town. I’d found what I considered to be the best breakfast treat in Reykjavik – and our two favourite bakeries did not align! More bickering ensues when Monet reveals she will be getting as much Taylor Swift onto the bus playlist as possible… I’m glad I packed my earplugs.
“I’m Icelandic all the way through, and have been doing tours for eight years,” Ragnar tells us as we are about to embark on our first full day. Somehow managing to pack all our luggage into the back of his minibus with some impressive Tetris skills, our Local Insider is more than happy to explain what we are going to do over the next few days.
“This trip is a thorough introduction to Iceland. I’ll take you to some of the most popular sights and also to some offbeat locations that most people don’t go to. Also, you’ll get to taste Icelandic food that most people miss out on. Trust me, this ticks so many boxes for the amount of time we have – it’s just gonna be amazing.” Ragnar had a big say in curating the itinerary, and it’s clear he is keen to show us many facets of his country. The excitement inside the bus is palpable as we drive out of the capital in darkness – which feels eerily unnatural at 10am!
For most visitors, trips to Iceland begin and end in Reykjavik. Our adventure would be the same, but we were also going to explore some of the incredible wilderness attractions that have made this country such a popular tourist destination in the last decade or so. As Ragnar tells me en route: it was actually the volcano eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 that put Iceland on the map. The ash cloud that followed the initial eruption was the reason a number of flights around Europe and across the Atlantic were temporarily grounded – and people were keen to find out why. Then came the surge in TV and film appearances: Game of Thrones being a notable example.
We are all getting on famously now – there is a real sense of adventure and willingness to tackle anything Ragnar has in mind to throw at us. Our first stop is the charming village of Reykholt, where Snorri Sturluson – arguably the best-known Icelandic saga writer of all time – once lived. His sprawling works are said to have been the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings book trilogy, and as we enter the snow-covered terrain away from the city, we can sense the influence the landscape has had on literature through the ages. In summer, the country looks like a real-life version of The Shire, but on a foggy winter’s day it feels like you are trekking across Middle Earth in search of the next great adventure.
Despite our full itinerary, our Local Insider still has a few surprises up his sleeve. En route to the awe-inspiring waterfalls of Barnafoss and Hraunfossar, there is a bonus visit to a goat farm. With much of Iceland covered in snow and ice, these farms are essential to provide food throughout the year. We tuck into some of the cheese made on site when Ragnar suddenly reveals his first surprise: a real-life celebrity from HBO’s Game of Thrones – and here we were, face to face.
Clearly the envy of his entourage, the goat – who was famously plucked from a field by one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons before meeting his untimely demise behind a waterfall – steps forward. Sheepish though he is, this moment goes down as one of my career highlights – and I’ve interviewed Brad Pitt!
With enough adventure for one day and the weather starting to take a turn for the “predictably unpredictable” – as Ragnar puts it – we retreat to our cosy accommodation for the rest of the day. Hotel Húsafell is a modern property with sweeping views over swathes of unspoilt landscape – and on this snowy evening it’s the perfect place to enjoy a meal with a roaring fire to warm us. There’s a great atmosphere in the room, but as dessert is served we begin to wonder if the howling winds and sheets of sleet coming down outside might scupper tomorrow’s – or even tonight’s – activities.
Húsafell Canyon Baths, fed by the Giljaböð Hot Springs, are a relatively new attraction in Iceland where you’re invited to bathe as the Vikings once did. These baths are open to the elements, however, and herein lies our dilemma: are we willing to trek through the rain, wind and ice, down into an unlit canyon, and recline in a geothermal pool, just for the sake of some late-night drinks? The unanimous decision is that we most certainly are – so off we go, slipping and sliding down a remote valley in the middle of nowhere. This is a “crampons on” situation and, thanks to Ragnar and the lovely lady from the retreat, we make it down in one piece. Then, faster than you can say “frostbite”, we strip down to our swimming costumes, sprint across the bridge and fling ourselves into the steaming hot springs. We collectively breathe – or possibly moan – a sigh of relief as the water soothes our aches from the day’s excursions and the shivering subsides. We could stay all night, but there is another packed day to look forward to tomorrow.
Over breakfast, we recount in bemusement the events of the night before. For some of us it was a little extreme; for others it was all part of the adventure we’d signed up for, but ultimately we all thoroughly enjoyed our late-night escapade into the wild. Before we can upload that picture to our social media, however, Ragnar is practically clearing the table for us as he instructs us to get ready for another day full of Icelandic awesomeness.
Today, snowmobiles are on the menu – and the near whiteout blizzard we drive through on our way to the famed Golden Circle raises a few questions. Snow blizzard or not, though, this popular loop is a must for any trip to Iceland, and most tours take in the highlights. We, however, are set to see it all in one day…
Thingvellir National Park has a special place in the hearts of locals as it’s considered to be the birthplace of modern Iceland. Some welcome respite from the wind and rain gives us an opportunity to take it all in and swap our robust minibus for a Super Jeep transporter. We wave goodbye to Ragnar as he heads off to the next hotel (or possibly just to escape the never-ending Taylor Swift playlist), and wave hello to our off-road expert who is charged with getting us to the top of the glacier.
Refreshments are needed before getting behind the handlebars of our snowmobiles, so we grab lunch at Gullfoss waterfall after catching a spectacular show at the Geysir Geothermal Area. The thought of hurtling along a glacier at high speed creates palpable excitement as we tuck into a bowl of delicious lamb stew. After a long drive full of anticipation we arrive at what is apparently our starting point. Outside the vehicle we see and feel nothing but cascading snow and fierce wind driving ice into our faces. Just as we think we are in for a disappointing cancellation, the door to a hut most of us hadn’t spotted opens up to reveal a warm, inviting glow – and a booming voice from inside proclaiming, “Perfect weather for snowmobiles!”
Orange overalls on, a quick tutorial earnestly listened to, and off we go. There is no holding back as we follow the leader in convoy through the snow. Surrounded by so much white that the sky and ground blend into each other, we rely on common sense and expert guidance to get us around the course. I assume it’s a course, although I can’t actually see anything. Nevertheless, we throw caution to the pounding wind, thank the gods of Valhalla for our gloves and face cover – and I secretly pray my beard won’t freeze over and snap off when we go over the next bump.
Bitterly cold though it may be, there’s no argument that this is the highlight of the trip so far . We pair up and each take turns to navigate the snow at our own pace, through one of the most intensely serene places on earth. Frankly, it’s an unforgettable experience.
Later, after checking into our next hotel to spend our final two nights, we pretty much collapse into the outdoor hot tub before enjoying another fantastic dinner. Once again, the food has been carefully selected to give us a flavour of real Icelandic cuisine, from tender lamb and fresh fish to locally sourced vegetables. The food here is wholesome, and always piled high on plates to make sure you never go hungry. That night, we sleep very well – full from our feast and soothed by a few moments in the sauna before bed!
Hotel Lækur is a totally distinct property and our new base. Far removed from the bright lights of the cities, it gives us acres of space and plenty of opportunities to relax. There’s a homely feel to the place, with a wonderful loft space where you can unwind and enjoy Icelandic hospitality to its full extent. I love the fact that we can experience all facets of a trip here from the central hotel in the capital to these dreamy remote lodges far from the crowds.
As we hit the road for our final full day, the mildly depressing realisation that our time together will soon be over begins to creep in. But there’s still so much ahead of us – and it’s not long before the next spectacle sparkles into view.
The Sólheimajökull glacier is a mesmerising blend of opaque blue ice and white snow. Pretty soon, we are bearing pickaxes, heavy footwear and safety harnesses on our hike to the top. The views en route are incredible, especially when the sun breaks through the clouds to illuminate the landscape in vivid colours as if emitted from the ground up.
The ascent continues, with Ragnar and two other climbing experts ensuring our safety every step of the way. As we pose for the obligatory selfies, we spot our guides drilling into a patch of ice with a tool that eventually carves out a perfectly clear block with a small hole in it. Cue Ragnar’s next surprise: a bottle of local vodka slipped from his pocket, and the chance to try what we are told is “the purest shot in the world”. The ice block is, in fact, a perfectly shaped shot glass from which we all take turns knocking back a proper local winter warmer.
We spend a few more hours hiking across the glacier and slowly make our way back to our de facto base camp. Unbelievably, it’s still only mid-morning – and next up is a dream location for cinephiles. As a massive movie nerd, I’ve been beside myself with excitement all morning, but I manage to play it cool as we drive along the coast to Reynisfjara – better known outside of Iceland as Black Sands Beach.
I recognise the rocky outcrops from films like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and several Game of Thrones episodes, and it’s even more spectacular in real life. Before we run off like excitable children, Ragnar warns us of “sneaker waves”– fast-moving tides that creep up the wide beach and catch you unawares, pulling you into the sea before you can do anything about it. The sheer cliffs and stark black ground beneath our feet are quite the distraction, but with Ragnar’s advice fresh in our minds we are able to safely enjoy another bucket-list destination.
Moving on, we take a short drive up to Dyrhólaey lighthouse for views of Kirkjufjara Beach. The clear conditions allow us to see the moonrise over the ocean – another wonderful moment for the memory bank – before we pile back into the bus to be whisked away to not one but two more waterfalls.
“I love waterfalls,” Ragnar tells us, not for the first time, and it’s easy to see why. It’s now almost nightfall, and we are treated to the sight of two fully illuminated falls – something we hadn’t even imagined possible. The floodlights are tastefully positioned so you can walk safely behind the natural attractions and take in their majestic power.
Back at the hotel – and after a last supper and mini birthday celebration for Morgan – we gather in the loft space for a final surprise. Ragnar, having gone to his vehicle for a mysterious package, returns with a refrigerated box of food and drink. We sample all manner of delicacies but the one to remember is the fermented shark. The “interesting” smell is matched by the “challenging” flavour, and those brave enough to try it offer mixed reactions. We share a few more drinks and laughs before reluctantly withdrawing to our cabins, with the unenviable task of packing up ahead of us.
Wrapped up in my cabin bed and half asleep, I am jolted awake by the sound of our WhatsApp chat exploding. At first I think it’s just more pictures from the day being shared, but then I look closer and see Monet’s alarming message: “This is not a drill!”
My mind races. Has a volcano erupted? Has someone gone for a midnight stroll and fallen down a crevasse? Then comes the follow-up text: “Northern Lights behind the hot tub.” What?! Now my whole body is racing. How could I forget? It’s the last night and in all the excitement of the past few days I had put the potential sighting of the aurora borealis to the back of my mind.
Wait. Could this be a cruel joke? Ah well, what is there to lose apart from a few minutes of sleep? Thankfully, it’s fully legit: as if scripted by the best writer in Hollywood, we get our Northern Lights on our last night in Iceland. It’s a magical moment that’s impossible to describe. We just stand back in complete silence save for the occasional flash and click of a smartphone, and take it all in.
The day nobody wants to wake up to finally arrives. We pack up our trusty minibus for the last time, and leave the wilderness behind us. There was one last stop, however, and it was set to be the perfect spot to end a trip to Iceland. The Blue Lagoon has in recent years earned a reputation as an overcrowded tourist magnet, but it’s a different story if you avoid peak times. Of course, Ragnar has ensured we visit at just the right time so we get the venue to ourselves. I didn’t particularly enjoy my previous visit here, but this is a totally different experience. We get a few extras thrown in as part of the pre-booked package, and as we step into the warm, mineral waters it feels like we are once again back in the wilderness.
Ragnar tells us about how the lagoon was something of a happy accident in terms of its creation, after some workmen found it while on a job nearby and used it to soak and relax. Today it’s a huge site, with spas and a hotel, and a thoroughly rewarding experience for day-trippers from the city.
As we chit-chat and unwind, Monet hits the nail on the head: “This trip felt like going on an adventure with a bunch of friends,” she says. No words could ring truer.
Shortly afterwards, some of the group depart for the airport while the rest of us think about how to fill our evening ahead of our early flight the next day. We had complete flexibility with the timing of our flights and I decided to extend my stay by one more night, if only to experience the other must-visit food experience in Iceland. So later I meet up with Ragnar, Monet and a few others to make a late pitstop at a hotdog stand downtown. The spot was made famous by Bill Clinton, who now has a dish named after him, and just like the rest of our trip – if it’s good enough for the former president, it’s good enough for me.