It feels like Iceland will forever stay on my must-see list. I've spent so long in the wrong hemisphere and I'm always planning trips to far-fetched places, but that often means sacrificing the real gems that lie right under my nose. I'm always that girl who can't resist a tropical island or exploring the jungle in some exciting new land, so it's hard to schedule in time for a snowy break but I won't be happy until I have. These last few years, it seems like everyone I know have been off gallivanting around the Blue Lagoon, posting lust-worthy pics of them playing in the snow or eyeing up the Northern Lights - it's the stuff dreams are made of.
Being back in the UK and experiencing my first European winter in more than three years, I'm embracing it with wide-open arms and I'm loving every second. While the cold was a shock to the system, I'm loving the Christmas decorations, the frosty mornings, the festive spirit, the winter coats and snuggly jumpers. It's really making me realise what I have been missing these last few years of chasing the sun and perhaps I'm ready for something new now. I'm excited to explore a whole new hemisphere and to find the magic in places that I haven't yet had the pleasure of experiencing.
Whenever Iceland is mentioned, the mind instantly conjures up images of dramatic volcanic landscapes draped in snow and crisp with frost, it's a magical image. A land both within reach and yet completely separate to everything I have previously experienced, but while we always hear about the same few attractions of Iceland, I feel that there is so much more waiting to be discovered. There is still a wholly unique Icelandic experience waiting for each visitor to capture the charm and the beauty of the country when their visit. Planning a visit to Iceland? I've done a bit of research to find the most unique ways to explore the country.
All of Iceland's electricity comes from hydroelectric or geothermal power, and if that doesn't inspire you enough, the famous Blue Lagoon is a wonderful side effect of this power. Lava fields alongside a geothermal plant were accidentally turned into a spa rich in minerals, sulphur, salt and silica back in the 70's and now it is one of the country's most popular attractions. Need some time to relax on your trip and escape the cold, why not take a dip in the blue waters and lose yourself in the swirling mist?
Imagine yourself racing through the snowy landscape on board your own sleigh pulled by those gorgeous, energetic huskies. It's the ultimate arctic experience and one you won't want to miss, if you're a dog lover then this is the trip for you!
Something you can only do during winter when the caves are truly frozen, you can now explore ice tunnels over 200m long under Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökull. Bathed in the ethereal blue light, you can even get married in a special ice chapel under the ice.
The land of fire and ice is punctuated with incredibly unique volcanic experiences where you can explore these amazing geological formations.
During the summer, it never gets completely dark in Iceland, while the evenings are cooler they remain bathed in a stunning mix of sunrise and sunset. Make the most of it and get outside - go take part in activities or go for a hike. Or if you fancy a really unique experience, why not go to the Secret Solstice Festival? Taking place on June 21-24 in Reykjavik, it is the festival of the midnight sun and gives you a perfect opportunity to party all day and all night long.
Just outside Reykjavik, it's possible to learn even more about the mystical folktales that surround Iceland by attending a real-life Elf School.
Fancy a bit more action? Race across the ice on a snowmobile for an experience that will take your breath away.
Why not take a helicopter ride over Iceland and gain a new perspective on the landscape - from volcanoes and geysers to endless fields of snow and ice?
For the explorers among us, there are endless caves waiting to be explored including Grjótagjá, a volcanic cave lake that looks magical. Or experience the incredible Gljúfrafoss, a waterfall hidden in a cave that can be found in cracked cliff.
There's nothing quite like getting out and experiencing nature in all it's glory, so why not take the chance to explore by going on glacier walks? With climate change gradually melting the polar ice, the glaciers are also being slowly diminished so one day soon it could be a really unique experience to look back on.
My absolute dream is to watch the Northern Lights - I was so disappointed to not see the Southern Lights while down in Tasmania, Australia. But what would really take this experience to another level would be to watch the lights from one of these adorable bubble rooms at what is known as the 5 million star hotel - what a magical experience! Fancy being out in the open air? Why not watch from your own private hot tub?
You can view an encyclopaedic collection of mammal penises at the Icelandic Phallological Museum, while The Icelandic Sea Monster Museum explores the area's history of aquatic cryptid sightings.
At Þingvellir National Park you can find Iceland’s largest lake, Þingvallavatn which is the only place on the entire planet where you can see two tectonic plates, the American and the Euro-Asian plate, gradually breaking apart year by year. It is the only place where the split is so dramatic, and if you're feeling brave, you can even dive or snorkel between the two plates in Silfra - a gorge filled with crystal clear water.
An Icelandic specialty, Hákarl originates from the days when food needed to be purified during the long winters. With a taste likened to blue cheese but 1000x stronger in taste and smell, it was originally processed from Greenlandic Shark, then buried under rocks for six months before being hung to dry for another three months. Another local delicacy is sheep's head.
When I finally get to Iceland, I don't know how I'll squeeze everything in - there's just so many incredible experiences waiting to be had. If you're planning a trip this winter, I hope this list helps you to make your trip as unique and unforgettable as possible.
I've been travelling since I was barely a few months old and throughout a lifetime of travelling I've collected endless precious memories of exotic sights, sounds, smells. From a young age one of my favourite memories was always of getting to know the locals, whether that meant being taught to fish then barbecuing up the catch of the day with them, watching morning prayers and being blessed by priests or drinking rum on the beach. Getting to know the true culture of a country is only possible by spending time talking to and living with the locals - seeing the world through their eyes. When I was backpacking across Asia and Australia solo, it was just as important to try and have a truly authentic experience alongside all the fun and games that comes with backpacker culture. I don't choose one over the other, I think we have so much to gain by experiencing both when we travel. The more I experience of one, the more I crave of the other.Thinking back over the last 18 months, some of my most incredible memories come from the experiences I had when I truly immersed myself in the culture of the amazing countries I was exploring. When I got lost in the old town of Phuket and stumbled into a famous artist's gallery where I spent the evening talking art and painting with his daughters. The time when I spent a week living with a group of Thai Rastafarians who taught me about their favourite jazz musicians and how to crack coconuts. When I was almost adopted by an incredible woman who treated me like a daughter, introduced me to all her friends and taught me all about the ruins of temples dotted around her city. In Vietnam, the elderly gentleman who told me all about what it was like to live through the Vietnam War and how his family survived. Crossing oceans and desert to outback Australia, the amazing friends who helped me cope with three months of farm work with lazy days at the river and long nights laying in a ute under the stars. I feel so lucky to have experienced such things.Then I heard about Homestay – an alternative accommodation choice to hotels and hostels where guests rent a room in the home of a local – sounds amazing right? It offers you a totally different experience and a chance to really experience the culture, and daily life in the area you visit. Homestay.com is running in over 150 countries globally, with 25,000 live hosts ready to welcome guests and some incredible accommodation opportunities just waiting to be explored. While many of my friends have recommended trying out Couchsurfing or Airbnb for a more authentic experience when travelling, I haven't yet had the opportunity to try any of these schemes. But already Homestay has proven popular with solo travellers and backpackers who want to take the opportunity to try something a bit different and experience some magnificent properties around the world. I love the idea of getting away from hotels, which can feel so impersonal, and hostels, which can sometimes be overwhelmed by backpackers who are more interested in getting drunk. This is a great way of getting to enjoy a night in your own room, while getting to experience the life of the natives.There are so many amazing affordable options worth exploring, including a traditional Balinese house just steps away from Pulagan Rice Field UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its very own family temple for just $14 a night. In Costa Rica, travellers can stay in a treehouse surrounded by flowers and fruit orchards in the hills of San Antonio de Escazu from just $71 a night. Or stay on an organic farm in a jungle village in Northern Thailand where they grow everything from bok choi and lemongrass to longan and lychee, and guests can learn the art of Karen weaving, bamboo rafting and bathe in waterfalls for $29 a night.For those who fancy testing their sea legs, there is even an option to sail from one Greek Island to another on a 50ft yacht with Steph and Andy, and their two ship cats Puss and Fluff, for $213 a night. Or if you really need to get away from it all, you can experience that real millionaire lifestyle for the tiny price tag of $169 a night when you stay on your own 75,000 sq ft private island of Zopango, Nicaragua. Head to a lakeside retreat in Halifax, Canada, to experience a one-of-a-kind home with stunning scenic lake views from $64 a night, or New Zealand offers a converted barn overlooking Mount Taranaki, an active volcano, from $73 a night. Mountain lovers will be in their element with the wooden chalet awaiting guests in Poland from $23 a night, at the base of the Tatras Mountains it draws skiers, mountain climbers and hikers all year round.
What an amazing experience to stay in any of these unique locations – I'd love to try out Homestay on one of my next trips across Europe. If you fancy doing the same, click here to book online.
Have you tried staying with the locals – what your best native experience? What was the most unique accommodation you have ever stayed in?