Iceland a great overseas destination for families with children

August 1, 2018

Iceland a great overseas destination for families with children

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Don’t forget to pack the kids when you visit Iceland. They’ll love the place as much as you do.

Glaciers, puffins, waterfalls, geysers: These are the things kids want to see on vacation, and Iceland is chock full of them. Children may not fully grasp Iceland’s culture and history, but even the littlest can appreciate a humpback whale and a warm geothermal pool.

Ours certainly did, anyway. On our eight-day journey around Iceland’s ring road in early June, we had rain nearly every day and only rarely saw the sun. Still, our boys, ages 5 and 9, had a blast. To them, the cold, wind and rain mattered not one bit. The rougher the weather, the muddier and rockier the terrain, the better.

They even enjoyed the food, more or less. My wife Nicole and I knew they’d love Iceland’s famous hot dogs (I did, too), and beg for chicken nuggets and burgers, but we were surprised and pleased to see them also warm to baked cod, lamb and mutton. Had I managed to procure fermented shark, as planned, I suspect they’d have sampled that, too.

Most meals we ate in the car or in one of the hotels, guesthouses and private residences (using Airbnb) where we stayed. In order to save money on food, a pricey commodity in Iceland, we packed an extensive array of granola bars, dried fruit, peanut butter and oatmeal, and grazed on that for breakfast and lunch, along with produce from Bonus stores, a popular Iceland supermarket. Dinners we ate out, and when a place happened to offer a free breakfast, we feasted.

We settled on Iceland after learning of discount fares on Wow Air, the cheaper of two airlines now flying nonstop from Cleveland to Reykjavik. I’d always wanted to visit, and the offer of airfare significantly less expensive than our annual flight to South Carolina was one we couldn’t refuse.

Iceland also struck us as the perfect first trip overseas with the kids. There, we knew we’d get all the fun of using foreign currency, eating foreign food and seeing otherworldly foreign landscapes without also having to worry about losing our children in a crowd or apologizing for their behavior in a foreign language, since almost everyone in Iceland speaks fluent English. (Even so, just for fun, we completed a Pimsleur course in Icelandic.)

The flight was fine, although it came with a few strings attached. I’d done my research and paid extra for confirmed seats. Had I not, we might have found ourselves in the same boat with a woman at our gate: ticketed but seat-less. I also saved a bit on Wow’s steep baggage prices by biting that bullet early.

The flights also departed at daunting hours: 12:30 a.m. from Cleveland, 9:30 p.m. from Reykjavik. In the end, though, neither was a problem. In Cleveland, we banked sleep beforehand, and on the return, everybody slept soundly. Neither did the kids seem to mind the four-hour time difference nor 24 hours of daylight.

I designed our itinerary to be kid- and family-friendly. I capped our daily driving time at three hours and lined up sights and activities in a way that would keep all of us looking forward and physically engaged. Having young children in tow ruled out adventurous, higher-risk activities like glacier walking and scuba diving, but we were still able to ride horses and sail, hike and swim to our hearts’ content.

I also kept traditional sightseeing to a minimum. The only museum we visited, on a whim during one particularly heavy rain, was a hunter’s private collection of taxidermy in the tiny southern town of Stokkseyri, and in Reykjavik, we restricted ourselves to a quick visit to a world-renowned CrossFit gym (on my behalf) and tours of the spectacular Hallgrimskirkja church and Harpa concert hall. 

We all appreciated the first activity: the Blue Lagoon. We went straight from the airport to the famous geothermal pool and spent about three hours smearing silica paste on our faces and soaking in warm, milky water. Both boys relished drinking smoothies in a pool and our 5-year-old happily availed himself of bright-orange arm floats.

Day two saw us on a farm, traipsing around verdant countryside atop Icelandic horses, a smaller, cuter and shaggier version of the animals we know here. Our 5-year-old was hesitant at first, but pressure from big brother soon convinced him, and he ended up having the time of his life. This, too, took place in the rain. Luckily, we’d packed waterproof pants and jackets. (Solhestar Farm, solhestar.is)

Most of Vatnajokull glacier was off-limits to us, with our young children. Our solution? Float around the ice. Five-year-olds are allowed on zodiac boats; they even make extra-small bodysuits, just for the purpose. Thus outfitted, we navigated a glacial lagoon, past bright-blue, freshly-flipped icebergs and up to the edge of the glacier. Seals and nesting artic terns provided additional entertainment. (Arctic Adventures, adventures.is)

Puffins were harder to come by, but arguably more rewarding. A fruitless search in the vicinity of the northeastern city of Egilsstadir yielded a tip, and a promise: go to Borgafjordur Eystri, where up-close views awaited from a boardwalk on a crag where thousands of puffins return every year to nest. It was good advice. After a long drive on a winding gravel road over a mountain through dense fog, we found the puffins and spent an unforgettable hour marveling at their antics.

Our last scheduled outing was whale-watching in the northern city of Husavik. I’d booked us on a trip called “Whales and Sails,” on an old-style schooner complete with sails and rigging. (North Sailing, northsailing.is)

Our younger son, who’s prone to motion sickness, unfortunately spent much of the trip in a Dramamine-induced haze, but our older boy eagerly joined dad in helping raise the sails. Fortunately, all of us were conscious for the main attractions: humpback and minke whales, an active pod of white-beaked dolphins and warm cinnamon rolls with hot chocolate.

Much as they enjoyed these structured activities, the boys may have appreciated our free time even more. They loved nothing more than donning their wet-weather gear and heading out into the drenching mist of Dettifoss waterfall or clambering up the muddy slopes above Geysir in Thingvellir National Park. Our younger son happily hiked Mount Esja, outside Reykjavik, with mom in the pouring rain while our older son and I sat in the lodge at the bottom and watched Iceland score a goal in the World Cup.

They also couldn’t wait to get out of the car in Stykkisholmur, on Iceland’s west coast, despite the cold temperatures and knowing the wind was strong enough to blow them into the sea, and when we arrived at Saxholl Crater in Snaefellsjokull National Park, they practically bounded up several hundred steps to the summit.

Elsewhere, they gladly trudged over an endless plain of mossy rocks, relishing the difficulty. Our sharp-eyed older boy even spotted a roaming arctic fox. En route to Oxara waterfall, they doubled back down a steep trail, just to run up it a second time. Their energy, simply put, was inexhaustible, but if any place could tire them out, it was Iceland. Once, just to let them blow off steam, we cut them loose in a neighborhood playground.

I will say this. Traveling with children in Iceland wasn’t exactly relaxing. For all its growth in tourism, Iceland remains a fairly wild place. We may not have had to worry about crowds or crime, but the risk of a boy tumbling over a waterfall, falling off a cliff or sticking his hand in a boiling spring was real. We spent a lot of time in a state of high alert and talking boys out of clearly dangerous notions.

But the effort and fatigue were worthwhile. We had the trip of a lifetime. Iceland is an amazing country, an island more varied, volatile and untamed than any place I’ve ever been. If I was intrigued by its history, landscape and language before, I’m obsessed with it now.  

What’s more and better, the memories we made aren’t ours alone. The boys won’t remember every detail, as we will, but they’ll certainly hold on to the big picture. Their world is significantly larger now, their perspective broader. In my book, as a parent, that’s the best you can do.

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