Lured by WOW Airlines’ off-season prices and the idea of spying the Northern Lights, my travel partner, Nikki, and I arrived at Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport at 5 a.m. in February, which means about four more hours of darkness before sunrise.

On a budget and with plenty of winter driving experience, we didn’t reserve a four-wheel drive vehicle as strongly recommended. We did manage to upgrade our reservation … to a Volkswagen Golf.

Navigating through the pitch dark and braving the first blizzard — of that day — we arrived at our first stop, only to discover the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa was sold out until April. Nikki finagled us entry a few days later, but even better she located Laugar Spa, a favorite of Reykjavik locals. In subterranean low-light and perfectly warmed rooms, we immersed ourselves in whirlpools, inhaled lavender and eucalyptus steam, and soothed our redeye-flight stiffness. Refreshed, we were ready to hit the road the next day.

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Outside of Reykjavik, driving is necessary to experience Iceland’s true gems. Our first venture was the Golden Circle, a day trip that carried us through snow-dusted, volcanic foothills forming a treeless, lunar landscape as far as the eye could see. Pingvellir National Park was the first stop, home to the open-air parliament established in 930 A.D. and a UNESCO World Heritage site. For geology geeks, the park is also home to the Almannagja, where one can walk the great rift formed by earth’s North American and European tectonic plates as they gradually pulled away from each other. We raced back to the car covered in wet snow, but it was worth it.

Continuing on the circle, we drove to Geysir, a geothermal hot spot where the earth boils and bubbles while steam clouds escape from large muddy swaths of mineral-colored fields. This is where Strokkur, Iceland’s answer to Old Faithful, spouts about every 10 minutes for shutter-snapping visitors.

The fickle weather rotation — sleet, snow, sun, repeat — arrived out of nowhere and usually passed quickly, but roads became slick fast. That didn’t deter us from stopping to photograph Iceland’s famous furry, friendly equines, standing sentinel at nearly each bend of highway.

Gullfoss, a huge gap-in-the-earth waterfall, is the Golden Circle’s finale. We trekked to its overlooks, navigating whipping winds mixed with wet, sticky snow, but we knew the VW’s heated seats awaited us.

The last two days of our trip, we planned to tour west to east along the southern stretch of the Ring Road, which showcases Iceland’s moody, lonesome coastline, gushing glacial waterfalls and long low mountains, toward the Ice Lagoon and neighboring glaciers.

But upon arrival at the halfway point, our guesthouse host showed us the official weather report: “VERY violent storm in ALL Iceland,” warning “NO TRAVEL CONDITIONS” due to gale force winds. Sheltering in place, we learned there’s good reason Iceland is known for its vodka production.

After the all-clear, we visited Eyjafjallajokul, the volcano that spewed tons of ash into the atmosphere in 2010, disrupting European air travel for several weeks. Iceland’s glacial melt creates waterfalls everywhere, so we stopped at nearby Skogafoss, hiking up in sunshine and rainbows that shimmered off of the waterfall spray, only to find ourselves laughing and crying out with dozens of other tourists as we braced against sleet and wind minutes later on the long descent. By the time we hit the road, we were donning sunglasses.

The final night, we stayed at an Airbnb in Selfoss, from which we watched the country’s largest snowfall in 70 years quietly accumulate around us. The next morning, our host graciously shoveled the driveway so we could leave for the airport. Generally, streets were plowed, but then at a roundabout the phone navigation pointed the VW toward two ruts in an otherwise impassable road. Against our better judgment and like GPS lemmings, we drove about three feet forward when the car surrendered to a halt. At that very moment. a jeep pulled up alongside us. The driver rolled down his window. “Did you really think you’d get through that?” the man said, kindly laughing.

“We’re tourists!” I answered, throwing my hands up in the air.

The man, his wife and their two young daughters came bounding out of their jeep to our aid. Using her phone, the wife calmly checked our flight departure for updates and located a clear route to the airport. Her husband braced against the car’s front end, ready to push when we heard a loud rumble in the distance. We all turned to watch an official-looking vehicle with tires at least three feet in diameter plow an off-road path through feet of snow and stop behind us.

By a stroke of luck, we were stranded directly in the path of Bjorgunarsveitin Mannbjorg, an Iceland search-and-rescue team, en route to pluck tourists out of snowbanks all over the country. The hearty squad, a woman and two men, arrived out of nowhere wearing big smiles and bright snowsuits. In about five minutes they hooked a rope to the back of our pitiful VW, gave a quick yank and we were free. Like “Winter Wonderland Super Heroes,” they quickly disappeared off into the blazing sun and snow.

We arrived to the airport in time, but after boarding they announced the flight would be held for others “due to the weather throughout Iceland,” which created an audible guffaw throughout the plane.  Nikki characterized the trip as “travel,” not “vacation,” and she’s right. We had a blast and are thrilled to have experienced Iceland’s bewitching winter beauty — just maybe with a bit less weather.

Top photo: A waterfall in Pingvellir National Park, part of the Golden Circle Tour. (Photo by Melissa Gerr)

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