National Geographic Travel communications director Meg Calnan recently traveled to Iceland with National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures. She trekked across glittering glaciers, photographed cascading waterfalls, and witnessed the awe-inspiring northern lights. We asked Meg about her favorite outdoor adventures, best day trips, and packing essentials.
Why did you choose to travel to Iceland?
Iceland has been on my radar for a long time and was a top contender when I was choosing a honeymoon destination a couple years ago. We ended up going to Morocco instead—which is also amazing—but I kept hoping I’d still make it to Iceland. Now I have a 10-month-old daughter, so when I had the opportunity to travel with National Geographic Expeditions, Iceland was an ideal choice. It’s easily accessible from the United States and also afforded me the ability to stay relatively connected to home.
Iceland has no shortage of amazing landscapes. What was your favorite outdoor adventure?
The whole trip was a great outdoor adventure! We visited several different waterfalls during our stay, including two of the most famous: Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss. Our guide gave us some great suggestions for photography spots at each location, but pictures really can’t do it justice.
Were you nervous about trying any of the activities?
Initially I was nervous about participating in the glacier walk because I don’t think I have ever made it through a winter without taking at least one tumble on the ice. Balance is not my strength! After this experience, I think I would fare better if I invested in some crampons for my wintertime dog walks, because I felt perfectly secure walking across a glacier while they were strapped to my boots. It took a few minutes to get the hang of the technique, but we were all comfortably strolling in no time. The warm, sunny weather made the experience even better!
Did you happen to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis?
Our group was hopeful that we would get to see the northern lights during our visit since our trip was at the beginning of prime viewing season, which runs from September to mid-April. Our guide gave us expert insight on timing and how best to capture them in photos. He referred us to a local website that forecasts the upcoming activity levels and visibility for the night ahead. One evening after dinner, he knocked on all of our hotel doors shouting, “The lights are starting!” We ran outside to an open field behind our hotel to enjoy the show.
It sounds like you got some great insider tips. How did having an expert guide with you enhance your trip?
Our trip was led by a chief experience officer named Gilli, who was phenomenal. He offered so much local knowledge and insider tips that really elevated our experience. He was also patient, funny, and flexible—all essential traits to leading a weeklong group trip!
A great guide definitely takes away some travel anxiety. Are there any other can’t-miss locations that you recommend?
The Blue Lagoon is not part of the official trip itinerary, but it’s very easy to add on at the beginning or end given its proximity to the airport. It’s an iconic spot—and thus a bit of a tourist trap—but a must-see nevertheless. We landed in Iceland very early in the morning and made the geothermal waters our first stop before heading into Reykjavík. It was a nice way to start the day and refresh after the flight. Plus, being there early was crucial to getting ahead of the big crowds.
It’s always nice to escape the big crowds. Speaking of escapes, did you get to go on any day trips?
We visited Friðheimar, a geothermally heated farm, and had a truly wonderful lunch of bottomless tomato soup grown in their greenhouse. The soup was accompanied by homemade breads and a variety of tomato-themed dessert options (tomato ice cream exists, and it’s delicious). Before digging into lunch, we got to visit with the beautiful Icelandic horses they have on-site and watch an equestrian demonstration.
What are your most practical packing tips for new visitors planning a trip to Iceland?
Pack layers! The weather is constantly changing so it’s important to be able to add and remove layers throughout the day. I needed everything from a scarf to sunglasses over the course of our seven-day adventure. Don’t forget the sunscreen, either. I didn’t pack any and got sunburned a couple of the days we were there. It might be cold and windy, but the sun reflects off the ice and gets you.