Iceland truly is one of the most remarkable places that I have ever been. I first visited in 2013 and quickly fell in love with the geographically diverse environment. It is a place that will haunt you for months after you have left. There is no secret why this country has become such a trendy travel destination. From the surreal landscapes and friendly people, to the northern lights and the abundance of friendly long-haired Icelandic horses - there is so much to fall in love with on this awe-inspiring little island.
Tak - First and foremost, I owe a big thank you to Inga Kristjánsdóttir from Tiny Iceland for helping me plan our two-week itinerary and to Geysir Car Rental for providing us with a trusty rental car that got us safely everywhere we wanted to go. We ended up in a few rough driving situations and were so happy to have the Land Rover Defender to get us through stormy conditions. Also, thank you to Trawire for providing us with a portable WiFi hotspot to keep us connected throughout our journey around the island.
Reykjavík and the Golden Circle
The excitement of our trip started before we even left the plane. Halfway through our Icelandair red-eye flight, the pilot made an announcement that the northern lights were active on the right side of the plane (lucky seating for us). Talk about in-flight entertainment! Of course, the excitement of watching the northern lights meant no sleep during the rest of the flight.
First stop after landing was the Blue Lagoon, the perfect remedy for a long flight and sleepless night. There is nothing quite like soaking in the warm, turquoise water while it's snowing out. A stop at this geothermal pool and spa is a definite must when visiting Iceland.
After our soak, we headed into Reykjavík to check-in and do a little sightseeing. It felt so good to be back in this charming city. For me, no visit to Reykjavík is complete without stopping at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Icelanders love their hot dogs, and these really are the best. The magic is in the toppings (grilled onions and 3 different sauces) so if you visit, be sure to order everything on them. Following lunch was a stroll along the harbor and a visit to see the architectural beauty of Harpa Concert Hall.
For dinner we met up with my two favorite Icelandic ladies, Inga Kristjánsdóttir and Jórunn Guðlaugsdóttir. Jórunn and I met during my previous trip to Iceland. She also writes for an Icelandic travel site, Guide to Iceland, which features plenty of excellent travel tips written by locals. Dinner was at Kol Restaurant, located just down the street from Hallgrímskirkja, a beautifully designed church that resembles the basalt columns found throughout the Icelandic landscape. Aside from the wonderful atmosphere and the excellent service, the food at Kol was incredible. Their menu features plenty of fresh and locally sourced food, and a great selection of wines. They also offer a wonderfully creative cocktail menu, arranged by how “experienced” a drinker you are. This is a first-rate restaurant with a warm vibe and extremely friendly staff.
The following day we headed out on the most popular tourist drive along the Golden Circle, visiting Þingvellir National Park (where Vikings established the world's first democratic parliament), Strokkur geyser, and the waterfall Gullfoss. While definitely one of the more tourist packed areas of Iceland, the Golden Circle is still worth a visit, especially if your time is limited. The Þingvellir Visitor Center has an excellent mutli-media display highlighting the significance of the area throughout Iceland’s history.
After our first full day of sightseeing around the Golden Circle, we headed to Hotel Ranga in Hella. I had discovered this countryside hotel while watching an episode of “Booze Traveler” on the Travel Channel. The show featured Hotel Ranga and the locally made Icelandic birch-infused liquors, Björk and Birkir. Frederick, the owner of the hotel, was the consummate host, making the rounds regularly in the restaurant and lounge areas to make sure all the guests were enjoying themselves. After dinner, he sat down with us and I told him how I had discovered the hotel through the TV show. He immediately got up and returned with a bottle of Birkir, a schnapps, and Björk, a liqueur. It was a real treat to sit down with Frederick for a few drinks while he told us about the history of the establishment. In addition to the wonderful service, Hotel Ranga also offers panoramic views of the area, geothermal hot tubs in front of the rooms, and the best part, a separate building dedicated to stargazing and northern lights viewing.
South and Southeast Iceland
The next several days were spent following the Ring Road along the southern coast. There is so much to experience from Hella to Höfn, including waterfalls, ice caves, glaciers, geothermal areas, black sand beaches littered with icebergs, and plenty of surreal landscapes. We could easily have spent the entire two weeks in this area alone.
The first stretch along the Ring Road in the south is equally as busy as the Golden Circle, and even more so since we were travelling during Spring Break. We stopped at the popular waterfalls Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi (bring your rain boots to wade to this hidden waterfall), and Skógafoss, as well as the famous DC 3 plane carcass on Sólheimasandur beach.
One place I couldn’t wait to return to was Jökulsárlón, located at the base of the outlet glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. This pristine glacial lagoon is a favorite among travelers, and rightfully so. One could spend hours here watching the icebergs drift down a small channel and onto the black sand beach, eventually washing out to the Atlantic Ocean.
Another highlight along the southeast coast was the area around Höfn, in particular, the craggy peak of Vestrahorn that towers over the black sand beach of Stokksnes. The windblown sand facial I got from walking along this beach was definitely worth the beautiful sights. At the end of the road near the Viking Café is a beautifully weathered movie set. Walking into this replica Viking village, you really feel like you’re stepping back in time. From what we gathered from the locals, the set was built in 2010 for a movie that was never filmed. It sat abandoned for years, but will finally be brought back to life in a new movie from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur, set to begin filming next year.
After a fortunate few days of sunshine, we woke up to ominous clouds. The drive from Höfn to the Eastfjords was mostly whiteout skies with an occasional break in the clouds revealing the moody Atlantic Ocean, and silhouettes of the mountains rising above the fjords. This was our first real dose of the danger of driving in stormy conditions in Iceland and a reaffirmation of just how important it is to check the road conditions regularly while traveling. After a long five-hour drive through the storm, the sun finally peaked out as we descended into Seyðisfjörður, cruising the same road Ben Stiller longboarded down in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". This picturesque town turned out to be one of our favorite stops during the whole trip and left us wishing we had allotted more time here. The brightly colored wooden houses coupled with the fresh snow made us feel like we were walking around in a snow globe. Dinner and breakfast the next day were both in the wonderful Bistro Skaftkell, a café with a cozy, artistic vibe and very sociable staff that introduced us to some great Icelandic music. Next time we visit, we will definitely be spending more time in this lovely little town.
Leaving the Eastfjords, we headed north towards the otherworldly landscapes of the Lake Mývatn area, stopping along the way to see the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, and neighboring waterfall, Selfoss. As we neared Lake Mývatn, we turned off to see (and smell!) Kroflustod Power Station, Iceland’s largest geothermal station. This was an impressive facility but even more impressive were the steaming vents and gurgling mudpots of Hverir, located just across the Ring Road.
We checked in at the Vogafjós Guesthouse just in time to see them milking the cows. This delightful guesthouse includes a restaurant with panoramic views on one side, and a glass wall on the other that offer diners a view into the cowshed. During milking time, visitors can either watch through the glass wall or head inside to meet the cows and try their fresh warm milk. If you stop here, be sure to try their Geysir bread baked in a geothermal oven at the hot springs nearby.
That evening, despite incredibly strong winds, we decided to visit the Mývatn Nature Baths. I’m sure on a much calmer day this would’ve been a lovely experience, but on this particular night, we ended up huddled in a long pool-type Jacuzzi with the locals while the larger pools remained empty. Despite the bitter wind, it was a very beautiful location with incredible views.
The following morning we woke and headed out to explore the forested lava areas of Hofdi, the strange lava columns at Dimmuborgir, and my favorite, Grjótagjá, a beautiful geothermal spring hidden in a cave. I had read online that this location was used for the Game of Thrones scene where Jon Snow broke his Night’s Watch vows in favor of getting fresh with Igrit. I could not figure out what part of that scene was filmed in this cave other than maybe where they entered it beneath the fissure. Either way, this geothermal cave was incredible and definitely a must see in the north.
After making our way around the lake, we headed off again on the Ring Road towards the northwest region of Skagafjörður. After enjoying a nice Easter dinner in Sauðárkrókur, the second largest town on the northern coast, we checked in for the night in the beautiful Hestasport Cottages in Varmahlíð, complete with a stone hot pot right outside our front door. If you are a fan of horse riding, or just horses in general, this area is one of the best known destinations for riders in Iceland.
The following morning, we woke early and headed out to visit the 18th century turf farm house museum at Glaumbær. Unfortunately, the museum was closed but a peek inside the windows of each beautifully preserved structure, filled with old furniture and utensils, gave an interesting view of rural Icelandic life centuries ago.
Back on the road, we headed out towards the Westfjords. The roads, which are largely unpaved, weave in and out of beautiful fjords and over dramatic mountain passes. Faced with gale force winds, snow drifts that completely covered the road, including patches of iced over sections next to perilously steep drop-offs, this is definitely one point in the trip when we were extremely glad to have the Land Rover Defender. While rough driving at times, including one point where we actually had to dodge a large tumbling boulder, it was easily the most beautiful stretch of road we had seen during the trip.
With a strong storm blowing through and many of the surrounding roads closed, the next two days were spent in the tiny village of Bíldudalur, on the coast of Arnarfjörður. It was nice to have a couple days of downtime in this sleepy little village. We really got a sense of what life is like living in the rural Westfjords. Once a booming fishing village, the town is now home to a factory that employs most of the local residents. It produces vitamins made from mineral-rich algae found in the fjord.
West Iceland/ Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Following another harrowing drive out of the Westfjords, we arrived on the western peninsula. We stopped for lunch in Stykkishólmur, the site of another great scene from "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" where Ben Stiller daydreams of Kristin Wiig singing Space Oddity to him as he jumps into a departing helicopter. After lunch we headed further down the road to Grundarfjörður where we stayed in the most picturesquely located Airbnb situated at the base of the famous Mount Kirkjufell. After visiting Kirkjufellfoss and making friends with a sweet group of Icelandic horses, we spent the majority of the night until 3am playing a cat and mouse game with the northern lights and snow showers. Patience and tolerance for extremely cold weather is a must for northern lights viewing.
The next day we took our time exploring the western peninsula. This area of the island has so much to offer in such a short driving distance. One thing I learned in my time spent on the island, as much as possible when time allows, follow the signs that look like the Apple command key. You never know what kind of beauty you will find. Following these signs led us to Öndverðarnes and the dramatic birds cliffs of Svörtuloft. The windy dirt road weaves through charcoal lava fields, sprinkled with green moss. We stopped at Skarðsvík, a golden sand beach surrounded by basalt cliffs. At the top of the beach lies a marker where a Viking gravesite was discovered in the '60s. After exploring this area, we headed south around the peninsula making a stop along the way at Dritvík - Djúpalónssandur, a black pebble beach with scattered remnants from an old shipwreck. From the beach there's an excellent view of the Snæfellsjökull glacier, made famous by Jules Verne's story "Journey to the Center of the Earth" in which the mountain is the entrance to the center of the earth. Our final destination for the day was the beautifully remote Hotel Budir, an elegantly decorated hotel situated in the middle of a lava field. I had stayed here previously in 2013 and couldn’t wait to be back. After enjoying one of the best meals of our trip, we headed out to the lounge to find the auroras were putting on the most dazzling show we had seen yet. Words cannot describe how awe-inspiring it is standing underneath these streams of glowing plasma, as they dance around in a dome-like shape overhead. It is something I wish that everyone could experience at least once in their lifetime.
Our final day, we headed back to Reykjavik for our last bit of sightseeing and souvenir shopping. First stop was the historic Höfði House, best known for the Reykjavík Summit meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that signified the beginning of the end of the Cold War. After that, we headed to Hallgrímskirkja to visit the clock tower and get a bird's eye view of the city.
Our last night was spent at the modern Hotel Kvosin, a great spot right in the heart of the city center. Snorri, the General Manager, was a gracious host from beginning to end. We stayed in one of the spacious “Bigger” rooms with an excellent view of the next door Parliament House and Reykjavík Cathedral . After we spent most of the evening with friends in the charming downstairs bar, the hotel staff went out of their way to call around to nearby restaurants in order to arrange dinner reservations for our group. As if leaving this beautiful island wasn’t difficult enough, spending our last night in this wonderful hotel made it even that much harder to say goodbye.