Trip Date – August 2016
| 🇮🇸| Iceland’s natural beauty impacts visitors more meaningfully than almost anywhere I’ve experienced. A stunning, underpopulated island whose northern coastline neighbors the Arctic Circle, Iceland rightfully tops the bucket list of travelers around the globe. From waterfalls to volcanoes, hot springs to glaciers, a trip across this Nordic gem is one that I believe anyone would enjoy.
With an essentially infinite ‘to-do’ list in hand, my friend Abby and I took a shot at cramming as much into a four-day road trip as possible. Given our timeframe, we stuck primarily to Route 1, the island’s main ring road that connects most of the inhabited parts of the country. After arriving Reykjavík on a late-night flight from Boston, we picked up our rental car and caught a few hours of sleep at an Airbnb near the airport. In the morning, we set out for a quick stop in the city. We enjoyed exploring Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church and one of the city’s best-known landmarks. Reykjavík is a nice town, but, given the countless number of natural attractions on the island, limiting your time is probably a good play.
From there, we drove east along the southern coast. As the landscape changes, it quickly becomes clear why everyone and their brother is visiting Iceland these days. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a 60-meter (197 foot) waterfall that visitors can intimately explore on foot. Like many of the attractions, it is two minutes off the main road and couldn’t have been easier to find. The walking trail leads behind the falls and into a small cave. We lucked out with the weather.
The source of Seljalandsfoss waterfall is the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano glacier. As many remember, this is the volcano that famously erupted in early 2010 causing a massive suspension to European and trans-Atlantic air travel. My father was actually caught in the mess and stuck in Copenhagen for almost ten days. Given that vested interest, I enjoyed a short stop at the road side visitors center.
We continued east for a couple hours before reaching Fjallsárlón, just beyond the tiny village of Hof. Fjallsárlón is a gorgeous setting and nicely tees up Jökulsárlón, a nearby glacial lagoon and an attraction that proved to be a highlight of our trip. With a depth of 248 meters (813 feet), it is said to be Iceland’s deepest lake. Some of the ice is believed to be over 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, the heavy wind forced the cancellation of all boat cruises that day, so we observed from shore as the massive icebergs slowly floated out to sea.
We went from the Jökulsárlón parking lot across Route 1 to Diamond Beach. It is a black sand beach and the site of thousands of icebergs being smashed into shore by the ruthless Ocean current. There were a number of signs indicating that the swells are unpredictable and to use caution when wandering.
From Jökulsárlón, we backtracked two hours to Vik, a small fishing village and the southernmost town in Iceland. We drove up to the church on top of the hill for a sunset panoramic view of the town and surrounding Ocean. After a delicious dinner at Halldorskaffi, we overnighted at Hotel Edda Vik, which was comfortable and very conveniently located.
Day two kicked off at Reynisfjara Beach, another black sand beach located on the opposite side of the mountain overlooking Vik. It is home to enormous basalt stacks, a site that reminded me of Giants Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland. Dozens of puffins hovered the area as we explored the dramatic rock formations. National Geographic ranks Reynisfjara a top 10 non-tropical beach in the world.
Continuing west, we visited Skogafoss, a waterfall we had bypassed the previous day for itinerary timing reasons. Skogafoss boasts an overwhelmingly gorgeous environment and is one of the most visited places in Iceland. The open grassy area at the base of the falls is a camp ground and a popular overnight destination. To the right, a 183-step staircase leads to the top of the cliff. Several hiking trails begin from that point and lead up the Skoga River into the highlands. For the second day in a row, the weather Gods worked their magic.
From there, we ventured inland, off of Route 1, to Geysir Hot Springs and Gullfoss Waterfall, the two of which are within a few minutes’ drive of each other. Geysir is a highly active geothermic field containing dozens of boiling mud pits. The area’s crown jewel, the Great Geysir, has unfortunately been dormant since an earthquake in 2000, but the surrounding smaller geysirs erupt frequently and provide plenty of entertainment.
Gullfoss is the Godfather of Icelandic waterfalls. It is fed by the Hvita River and forms a dramatic, two-level canyon. With a flow of 80 cubic meters of water per second, it is the largest volume falls in Europe. There is a long and developed walking path that runs on top of the cliff making it convenient for visitors to experience the scene from all angles. On sunny days, the mist often results in rainbows that stretch the width of the canyon.
Next up was Thingvellir National Park, Iceland’s oldest National Park and site of the country’s Parliament from 930 until almost 1800. In addition to gorgeous rivers and waterfalls, the park is best known as the meeting point of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Most tectonic plate extremities lie under water, but the collision of these two is visible on land. It reminded me of a larger scale and more dramatic version of the Pai land split. Visitors can walk on foot paths that run between the rocks and enjoy the sensation of physically straddling two continents.
To top off a fantastic day, we drove two hours north to our Airbnb near Kolsstaðir, a listing described as a ‘Piece of Heaven.’ The online reviews of the place were possibly the best I’ve ever seen. So good, in fact, it was slightly suspicious. The cottage lies by itself on a vast hillside a few minutes south of Búðardalur. In the final few steps of navigating to the house, I couldn’t help but think that we were going the wrong way. Sure enough, we made it, and it didn’t take long to realize that the reviews were entirely legitimate. The remote cottage is kitted out with every amenity you could need – warm shower, kitchen appliances, fireplace, top notch bedding, panoramic view. The list goes on. It was one of the most comfortable, unique and overall memorable accommodations I have ever experienced. If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, I give it the highest recommendation.
Despite the sun not setting until 2am, we both slept well and woke up the following morning ready to take on day three. We set out to explore the Snæfellsnes peninsula, the heartbeat of western Iceland. On the way, we stopped to pet some (wild?) horses that were walking near the road.
We detoured from the main road up to Stykkishólmur for lunch, followed by a walk to the hilltop lighthouse. Stykkishólmur is the largest town and center of commerce for the peninsula. To date, this remains the most northerly point in the world that I have visited. In more traditional and expected Scandinavia fashion, day three didn’t provide quite the blue skies that the first two did.
The highlight of the day was Kirkufell Mountain and nearby Kirkjufellsfoss. The two are across the road from each other and combine as the most popular attraction on Snæfellsnes. Kirkufell is dubbed the most photographed mountain in Iceland. As with a number the country’s sites, Kirkufell and Kirkjufellsfoss have appeared in a handful of Game of Thrones episodes. Kirkjufellsfoss isn’t a huge waterfall but the mountain in the background makes for a great photo opportunity.
We took a rural, inland route back toward Kolsstaðir and enjoyed stopping in the middle of nowhere to take one of those perfectly Instagrammable photos standing on the car. Despite the cliché, it was fantastic to be able to stop anywhere we wanted and have the entire area to ourselves. No other cars or people in sight. It’s a top road trip experience.
With only one day remaining, we were determined to make it count. Our Airbnb host had compiled a (very useful) small booklet of lesser-known attractions in the immediate area. The Gudrunarlaug Natural Hot Pool caught our attention and in the morning we took a short drive north to see it before heading back south toward Reykjavík. As with almost everything in Iceland, its story is linked to 1,000-year-old Viking history. In the case of Gudrunarlaug, it was named after Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, a Viking heroine who lived nearby and was famed for her beauty.
We stopped again in Reykjavík for the afternoon to grab lunch and a couple souvenirs. From there, we continued toward the airport and dropped our stuff at Raven’s Bed & Breakfast. Our last agenda item was the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in a lava field. It is touristy and somewhat expensive – roughly €50, I believe. When in Iceland, it’s absolutely worth seeing, especially as a time killer when going to or from the airport. However, it’s difficult for any kind of developed or man-made attraction to compete with Iceland’s natural beauty. Also, we had bad, rainy weather the night we visited. So bad, in fact, that I couldn’t even get a picture. I’ll let Google Images fill in the gaps for me on this one. While you’re at it, it’s worth noting that Malta also has a Blue Lagoon – a far less manufactured version.
I flew out to Berlin early the next morning grateful to have added a number of items to my top travel memories list. We had driven almost 1,500 kilometers (over 300 miles) across arguably the most incredible island in the world. Amazingly though, this only covered a small piece of the country. I would like to go back and veer to destinations much further from the main ring road, and possibly in the wintertime to see the northern lights. In any case, round two is a priority.
Iceland is now more heavily visited than ever before. Budget airlines are offering deals from cities all over Europe and North America. In addition, Icelandair’s free stopovers are a convenient and affordable way to spend a few days on the ground when traveling across the Atlantic. Regardless of how you can make it work, Iceland has an unmatched ability to dazzle visitors of all interests.
Have you been to Iceland? What are your top three memories (if you can narrow it down to three)?