Travel

The Best Time to Visit Iceland Is Right Now

Get erupting volcanoes and the Blue Lagoon all to yourself.

AGF/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
AGF/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
AGF/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

We’ve said it plenty of times before, but it bears repeating: Iceland is amazing. And now that the world is reopening, it may finally be time to cross a visit off your bucket list. (Or time to visit again, because this is the kind of place that demands multiple trips.)

Vaccinated travellers are allowed to visit the country without quarantining, there are waaaay fewer tourists around than usual, and a week in the midnight sun is one hell of a way to kick off your #hotvaxsummer. Oh yeah, and you can hike up to a lava-spewing volcano. Here’s what to do right now in the Land of Fire and Ice.

How to visit Iceland

So long as you have proof of full vaccination, you don’t need a negative Covid test to enter Iceland. (You’ll still need to pre-register to visit, though.) Remember that you will need a negative test to re-enter the US. You can get tested at one of many sites open daily in downtown Reykjavík and Keflavik Airport. It’ll cost about $75 per person and is easy to book online at travel.covid.is. Tests are only offered at specific times, so it is super important to plan ahead! More info here.

The low-cost carriers that once made Iceland so accessible are no more (RIP, WOW Air-gone but never forgotten), but East Coasters can still score stupidly cheap nonstop deals to Reykjavík for under $400. For folks on the West Coast, flights with at least one layover will generally run you $800-1,000.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg

What’s open in Iceland right now

Tourism is still very much in the early stages of rebound. In some ways, that’s a good thing-for example, hotels are ridiculously cheap. For around $130 per night, I stayed downtown at Reykjavík Residence in a room that typically commands $350+ per night.

Other things are still less than ideal. Bars and restaurants in Reykjavík are open, but they’ve drastically reduced their hours of operation. Don’t expect to find much open on Mondays and Tuesdays, or for seats to be readily available after 8 pm; plan ahead by making reservations whenever possible. If all else fails, I highly recommend Kol Restaurant‘s creative cocktails and five-course “best of” tasting menu (you MUST get the Duck and Waffle plate and the Bounty Bomb for dessert). There’s also Lebowski Bar, one of few spots consistently open and serving food, including late at night. The chow is just alright, but we love reliability!

Otherwise, we know you’re here to see that sweet, sweet nature. And considering the country is home to twice as many sheep as people, we can almost guarantee you won’t need reservations to do that.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg

Hike right up to a lava-spewing volcano

I’m sure you’ve seen the Fagradalsfjall Volcano erupting all over Instagram, but photos really don’t do it justice. During my visit, the volcano was spewing streams of lava 1,500 feet into the air. (That’s higher than the Empire State Building. By a lot.) Each eruption sounded like booming, rolling thunder, and the river of lava filled the surrounding valleys, burying several hiking trails that existed just weeks prior.

Fagradalsfjall is still at it, and you can still check it out. New infrastructure to support tourism is being put in place, as are common sense safety measures (in other words, there will be warnings, but if your eyebrows get singed off because you got too close, that’s on you!). The volcano trailhead is just 45 minutes from Reykjavík, 10 minutes from the Blue Lagoon, and 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport-meaning you can literally hop off the plane and head straight for the eruption.

The hike is about five miles roundtrip, with roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain-it all depends on how close you want to get. Sturdy footwear is a must, since the trail, though mostly graded, can still be quite steep with a lot of loose rock, and warm layers are essential. It gets extremely windy and cold up there; at one point I stood about three feet from pooling lava just to keep warm. Iceland also tends to be unpredictably rainy, so prepare for generally shitty weather while knowing that it’ll all be worth it.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg

Visit the lesser-known Westman Islands

We’ve reached the point where conversations about Iceland go far beyond the Golden Circle’s greatest hits. (Although don’t get us wrong-we love Geysir, too.) Now, Iceland’s tourism board is ready to spread the love beyond the Golden Circle and Ring Road-especially since you don’t have to travel far to escape the crowds.

Just a two-hour drive east of Reykjavík along the southern coast, you’ll find Vestmannaeyjar, aka the Westman Islands. The archipelago’s only inhabited island, Heimaey, is accessible by a 45-minute ferry ride. You can take a day trip from Reykjavík (and catch an amazing sunset on the ferry ride back!) or stay overnight for more leisurely exploration.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg

Make friends with puffins

The Westman Islands are home to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the world, so puffin-peeping is one of the big draws here. If you take your car over on the ferry, drive out to the Great Cape (Stórhöfði), where you can hang out in a popular puffin hut lookout on the cliffside or hit the beach at night to watch the birds come home to roost.

There’s also the family-owned Kayak & Puffins tour. Owner and guide Egill Arngrimsson will take you out to explore the cliffs and caves of Klettsvík Bay, where you’ll see scores of puffins and other seabirds, and make a stop at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s natural sea inlet, home to beluga whale rescues Little White and Little Grey.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg

Take a short hike that’s damn-near vertical

For a little more oomph, the extremely short hike up to the top of Home Rock (Heimaklettur) is just 1.2 miles roundtrip-but you gain 846 feet of elevation. You’ll climb sheer cliffs on near-vertical ladders, with some additional ropes and chains to get you through the “you fall, you die” spots. (Iceland’s outdoor recreation safety infrastructure is truly juuuust effective enough that you don’t die!) The views from the top are gorgeous, and you might even get lucky and have a standoff with a sheep on the narrow trail.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg
Photo courtesy of Nicole Rupersburg

Eat far northern food that’ll blow your mind

While Heimaey may be a small, remote island, its dining scene is world-class. For lunch, check out Tanginn, whose beautiful dining room looks out over the harbour. Here, you’ll find both traditional Scandinavian and Indian dishes, as well as several soups made from scratch.

For dinner, you must go to Slippurinn. Chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson creates wonders in this beautifully renovated space built from a former shipyard machine shop. The menu is hyper-seasonal and hyper-local-nearly everything is sourced directly from fishermen, farmers, and producers in the Westman Islands, and the restaurant forages the islands for wild herbs and seaweed used in both meals and cocktails-and the flavour and texture combinations are at once both rustic and nostalgic, yet incredibly delicate and refined. This was, without exaggeration, one of the best meals of my life.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who’s anybody. Her favourite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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