Iceland has been a trendy, go-to destination for a while, and it’s not hard to see why. There are geothermal spas, glaciers and fjords to explore, not to mention an intense nightlife in the capital city of Reykjavik. It’s an exotic cocktail that’s just 5 hours and change from New York, making it a favorite long weekend getaway for millennials in particular. But with popularity comes overcrowding, a problem that Iceland is currently grappling with. So when I came across Hidden Iceland, whose mission statement, more or less, is “We do everything we can to avoid the crowds without missing the must see places along the way,” I was intrigued. I sought out Ryan Connolly, the company’s co-owner, for a little enlightening.
What is the company background and why should a US tourist consider heading off on one of your tours?
Hidden Iceland was created with the belief that each guide leading you to the more hidden places in the country should elevate the trip from great to unforgettable. We hand pick every guide for their passion, expertise and personality. So whether you’re discovering an ice cave near the glacier lagoon, sneaking behind a hidden waterfall in the South Coast, or standing on top of a still warm volcano on the Westman Islands you can feel in safe hands. Our guests seem to agree, as we’ve never had anything less than 5 stars to date on TripAdvisor with many saying that it felt more like sharing a moment with a friend than their guide.
We also love to go off the beaten path whenever we can and immerse you in nature, but you don’t need to be a crazy adventurer to join us. Even our glacier hikes onto the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull, are designed for first timers with intermediate fitness levels. Going with a veteran glacier guide onto a glacier further afield allows us to explore crevasses and find untouched places on the ice.
In the US, we keep hearing about how crowded with tourists Iceland has become. How do you deal with that on your tours?
We realized early on that finding hidden gems and going a little further was great but many of our guests still wanted to see the most famous places too like the Golden Circle and the Black Sand Beach. So our tours often include a mix of both. The trick is to go at the right times of the day and in small groups to avoid the crowds.
Our Golden Circle: Platinum tour is one of our most well reviewed because we’ve strategically planned and timed it so that whenever the big bus companies are in one place, we’re in the other avoiding the crowds. Getting to the Secret Lagoon before it’s open to the public and reserving a table at Friðheimar tomato greenhouse as they open the doors guarantees it won’t be too busy. The Geysir and the Gullfoss waterfall are unavoidably busy but by the time we get to the Thingvellir National Park at the end of the day it’s practically empty, especially when we opt for a less obvious view point of the tectonic plate boundaries. Coincidentally this is exactly where they previously filmed Game of Thrones.
As a tourist, should I skip a visit to the Blue Lagoon altogether? Or is there a better time to visit and escape the crowds?
The Blue Lagoon is a beautiful spa. No debate about that. And it being so close to the airport makes it an idea place to start or end your time in Iceland. But be prepared for it to be busy. And make sure if you are going to go book very far in advance. On our scheduled tours we always choose the Secret Lagoon over the Blue Lagoon every time. The Secret Lagoon is an authentic and peaceful hot pool near the Golden Circle. It’s the oldest hot pool in the country, being used by locals for over 100 years. However, on our private trips we’ll often take people to the newly opened ‘Retreat at the Blue Lagoon’ which is a more secluded section with private changing rooms.
What makes the ice cave tour compelling?
The fleeting nature of the ice caves. They are not ancient structures as some may believe. The glaciers they are situated on are constantly moving and melting. You can experience these glaciers all year round safely. But the ice caves that are formed because of these changes are very temporary, and winter only.
In fact, it’s not until September that the real treasure hunt for ‘this year’s ice cave’ truly gets underway. Most ice caves will only last one winter before cracking, melting, and ultimately collapsing under the spring sun.
So that first moment walking down into a beautiful blue ice cave is just as special for us as it is for you. Last year’s ice cave with Hidden Iceland has completely disappeared. We now go even further off the beaten path to explore this year’s cave.
Couple that with a 2 day trip stopping at breathtaking places like the gorge, Fjaðrárglúfur, and sleeping overnight in the middle of nowhere, at Lilja Guest House, to spot the Northern Lights and you’ve got yourself a pretty spectacular short break.
What’s the most underrated site in Iceland?
The Westman Islands, hands down. You can do a long day trip with us straight from Reykjavík, and yet it’s often overlooked as too inaccessible for first timers on short breaks. These islands are a collection of 13 volcanoes, the most recent eruption being in 1973 that threatened to destroy the town from the lava flow until the locals intervened and redirected the lava with water into the sea. Walking up onto the volcano is humbling as you kneel down to feel the ground that is still warm in places. Couple that with the biggest Puffin colony in the world, and the chance to spot whales as you speedboat around the cliffs and you get a pretty special day.
What about the motorcycle tour you offer, is there anything else like it out there?
The motorcycle tours are actually run by one of our trusted partners. We often include trips like these, snowmobile tours, and walks down into lava tunnels to complement our private trip itineraries.
I want to get well off the beaten path but on a small guided tour. Is there anything you’d recommend?
Our two day tour to the Glacier Lagoon, Jokulsarlon, that includes a glacier hike takes you to the far South East of the island. This reduces the number of people around, especially when we get to the Glacier Lagoon at sunset, or overnight to watch the northern lights dance above the icebergs.
But if you want to truly get off the beaten path and experience real solidarity then you must join us on our 4 day tour of the West Fjords in summer. This is a glacier scarred region in the far North West of the country that has a tiny population of locals across a vast empty area. The last time I ran a trip there we drove for hours without seeing a single person, and that was in the middle of busy summer. The trip includes hikes along the vertical sea cliffs of Latrabjarg, some of the tallest in Europe at 440m, and boat trips onto seal and bird colony islands. We stop off at an Arctic Fox sanctuary and find hidden hot pools nestled in deep fjord valleys. The puffins are hard to miss up there too with vantage points so close to the nests you can almost reach out and touch them. The West Fjords are the epitome of ‘hidden Iceland’. My co-founder Dagný grew up in the region, with some of her family still living there, so we have a close connection to the area.
You can experience all these areas with Hidden Iceland in small, personalized groups or as bespoke private trips. Check out: www.hiddeniceland.is
More Info: forbes.com