As I peer out of the plane window, my gaze is met with giant peaks of white, enveloping the Winter land below and peeking out through the clouds that surround it. It is my first glimpse of what I presume is Vatnajökull – Europes largest glacier ice cap that covers 8% of Iceland (although it seems like much more). Immediately I am mesmerised by this magnificent landscape and for a moment it seems as though I can see the outline of the country in its entirety! As we continue with our descent, the white landscape is interrupted by black shorelines and giant black cliffs, creeping up out of the sea: they are Icelands Giants. The most calming arctic blue, crashes against the shore and washes back out to sea where it is met with another perfectly formed set. As I take in all of this magnificent scenery, it dawns on me… I am in ICELAND!!!
I could honestly go on for hours, talking about this incredible Country. Nothing makes me happier than seeing peoples travel pictures from this part of the world. We spent a very short 10 days here, chasing the Northern Lights in March 2015, and I would recommend 10 days be the very LEAST amount of time you allocate to exploring this incredible country – and we’re EXTREMELY fast travellers. Make this 2-3 weeks, if you’re a traveller that enjoys spending a few days exploring the ins-and-outs of every little region. The Ring Road is probably the best/easiest route to follow, and it will take you past a lot of the “tourist hot spots”. More tips below.
DAY 1: Airport > Thingvellir National Park > Hveragerdi
DAY 2: Hveragerdi > Thjorsardalur > Keldur > Seljalandsfoss > Skogafoss > Vik
DAY 3: Vik >Skaftafell National Park > Jokulsarlon
DAY 4: Vatnajokull > Egilsstadir
DAY 5: Egilsstadir
DAY 6: Egilsstadir > Godafoss > Akureyri
DAY 7: Akureyri > Lake Myvatn > Akureyri
DAY 8: Akureyri > Eriksstadir > Grundarfjordur
DAY 9: Grundafjordur > Hraunfossar > Barnafoss > Reykholt >Reykjavik
DAY 10: Reykjavik
We picked our car up from Blue Car Rental, who were patiently waiting for us at the airport to drive us over to the business (though, if I am to be honest, we could have easily walked the 300metres to the office on the other side of the tiny airport), we jumped in the car and just drove. No idea where we were heading first, just in the general direction of the Ring Road and I made the stupid mistake of insisting to drive. Almost crashing 20 times in about 2kms, because I was trying to gawk at the incredible landscape before me!
We stopped off at the local Bonus Supermarket, just outside of Reykjavik to pick up some road trip snacks and water. It was my first time seeing snow, and I was excited, so we pulled out of the supermarket, and straight across the road in to an empty dirt parking lot so I could run around in the snow and make sandwiches. As I took off my gloves to make a sandwich using the back of the car as my floating kitchen bench – I witnessed first hand why good gloves are such an important thing in these climates. In the 3 minutes it took for me to make a sandwich, my fingers had already gone purple and numb to the point where I wasn’t sure if they were even attached to my hands anymore. I had to crouch down beside the car as a wind break to enjoy my sandwich as below.
On we continued to Thingvellir National Park – In 930AD, this location was chosen by the islands 36 chieftans as the site of their annual “Althing” (Assembly). Here, people gathered from all over the country to hear the laws and to settle disputes (occasionally by combat – c’mon, Vikings!). The last assembly here was 1798.
Not surprisingly, the whole placed was covered in snow and ice when we arrived. But it was still a pretty spectacular stop, knowing the history of the land you were standing on.
Next, we tapped the landmark “Geysir” in to our GPS, and as we continued along the route, we were stopped by one of those wretched “Impassable” signs – meaning, the road is closed and your Kia Sportage is ill-equipped for the icy, snowed-in conditions. So we had to go an alternate route, which added an hour on to our trip. Worth it, though! Strokkur at Geysir is one of Icelands most photographed locations, with eruptions approximately 6 minutes apart (if you can hang around in the cold long enough to wait, it is a spectacular sight)
By this time we were running out of time to visit Gulfoss, and we were running out of time to find accomodation for the night – so we jumped on booking.com and sorted out accomodation at the Frost & Fire hotel in Hveragerdi. I had seen this place online before, and I would HIGHLY recommend a stay here. While the rooms are simple, but accomodating, the location makes it worth every penny. With a thermal stream running around the property, you can head down to the water for a quick dip, or you can sit in the hot tub. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of a snow storm, and seeing as though it was my first day EVER seeing snow, I skipped the “bathing in the water” for the warm comfort of “being inside”. But I imagine this hot tub would have unrivalled viewing in clear weather, for the aurora!
The next morning we woke up to a blizzard. The car was covered in snow, and all of our water bottles inside had frozen solid! We had breakfast at the hotel, which was a buffet of cold cuts, fresh bread (which has been steamed in the geothermal pools), and we also boiled our own eggs; geothermal style!
This day, we learnt about the one thing that EVERYONE talks about on every single post you will read about re: Driving in Iceland, which is Closed Roads. Call me naive, but I always just assumed that there would be an alternative route if we ever got stuck. Which is absolutely not the case. We made our way inland to the Stong Viking Longhouse, and on the way, we noticed the road was getting a bit sketchy, but we continued on. We finally made it to the gravel turnoff to the Longhouse and of course, another “Impassable” sign. The road was underneath about 1.5metres of snow. So we went up a bit further, and when we were turning around, we stumbled across an old farmhouse that was actually reconstructed quite similar to the Stong Viking Longhouse, so I got to pretend I was a Viking for a small while.
Next stop was Keldur, the GPS took us a little bit further in land, and I must say that I am SO glad that Mitch (my partner) is such a confident driver, because I would have had an actual mental breakdown at the condition of these roads. We drove for about 5 hours and didn’t see a single soul on the road. Probably because the road was under half a metre of snow! It was very eerie to be travelling this desolate landscape, so silent and lonesome. With waves of snow blowing over the road at rapid speeds. It did make for some pretty cool pictures though!
After a few dicey roads, and a few changes of underwear – we finally made it to Keldur Turf Houses. These houses were mentioned throughout the Njal Saga, and it was such a surreal experience to stand there in the flesh. You could close your eyes and project yourself to a century and a half ago, just from the smell of the damp, mouldy insides of these historic farm houses.
After a quick stop at Keldur, we kept on going to Seljalandsfoss & Skogafoss – back on the Ring Road. We saw the most people we had seen in 2 days here at this popular tourist hot spot. And there was only about 10 people there! If you were careful, you could climb the slippery icey staircase to the left of the waterfall to a spectacular view of the fall. And if were feeling even more adventurous (like Mitch) you could even walk behind the waterfall. I would probably advise against this for any normal human being that doesn’t have a death wish. Not only is it incredibly slippery and unsafe (which to some *cough*Mitch*cough*, is all part of the adventure!) from the icey covered ground that is made even slipperier by the offspray of the waterfall, but there are also giant shards of ice crystal hanging over the cavern covering the roof of the footpath. Something Mitch didn’t think about, until one narrowly missed his head!
Not far from here is Skogafoss – another spectacularly awesome waterfall, which is about 20 minutes out of Vik where we stayed the night.
Of course, nearby, you also have the US Navy plane wreck that is extremely popular amongst photographers. And just off the Ring Road!
From Vik, we ventured through Skaftafell quite briefly searching the Black Waterfall, but again, the ground was still covered in snow and ice – and once we realised that our “blind footpath” was leading us no where, and the ground underneath us was “cracking” (presumably we were walking on top of water eek!), we decided to turn around and call it quits. Moving on to Jokulsarlon. A famous lagoon, popular among photographers for the chunks of glacier that transform this place to an arctic wonderland. There is a channel that washes the glacial chunks out to sea, where they wash back up on the beach and the beach looks like its covered in giant diamonds. A very beautiful (and popular) part of Iceland.
Here, we managed to sit around and watch the seals play around the glacial ice chunks for hours. The shores were littered with hundreds of photographers!
Darkness was looming, so we made our way to our guesthouse which was located in a tiny community about 10 mins from the lagoon (this was as close as we could get to Jokulsarlon). It was our first night staying in a guest/share house – which was lucky for the car full of female backpackers from Spain, who pulled in to the car park unaware that their front tire was completely busted. Being the kind citizen that I am, I offered up Mitch’s tire-changing skills without hesitation haha!! They were very grateful for me generosity 😛
That night, I had set my alarm for about 11pm, so we could head down to the lagoon, and wait up for the Northern Lights!! But we were awoken to the sound of guests scurrying about the guesthouse around 930pm. I didn’t need to ask what was going on, because it could only mean one thing: The Lights! We quickly got dressed and did a mad dash for the car, to head to Jokulsarlon (which was about 10min drive from where we were). As we made our way to the lake, we could see this faint green haze in the sky, barely noticeable. We still had a fair bit of a drive down to the lake, and something was screaming at me inside to pull over RIGHT NOW – so I told my boyfriend “WE NEED TO PULL OVER RIGHT NOW” to which he did, we pulled in to this tiny dirt rode just off the side of the road. We turned off the car, and made our way out of the comfortable 25 degree heated car, and out in to the -15 degree Winter. As soon as we closed the car doors, the sky literally EXPLODED above our heads. Bright green trails, snaking across the sky directly above us, as the lights made their way behind a mountain peak in the distance. It was beautiful. I dropped to my knees and started bawling like a baby – the emotions were so overwhelming! I desperately wanted to reach for my camera, but I couldn’t. I just sat on my knees and kept staring up to the sky, enjoying the moment for myself. Once I composed myself, I reached in to the back of the car for my camera gear and started snapping away. We did finally make it down to the lake – where it was crawling with photographers, most of whom were discussing how they’d “just missed the show” as they were in the car driving to the lake. It was at that moment, that I quietly thanked my intuition for screaming at me to pull over, so that my boyfriend and I could enjoy the private show by the side of the road all to ourselves.
Waking up on an incredible high from the amazing aurora show the night before, nature followed it up by putting on the most incredible purple/pink sunrise you could imagine! We had to get up early, as we were going on a local Ice Cave tour! Adventuring through these breathtaking ice caves was definitely a highlight of the trip!
After the tour, the locals were rushing around telling all of the tourists that if they needed to drive, they had better leave soon – as there was a pretty big storm on the way. The storms seem to be pretty bad down in the South, where they were advising people to stay off the roads entirely! Luckily (we thought), we were heading North to Egilsstadir, so we would steer clear of the terrible weather. How wrong we were! This was probably the WORST driving conditions either of us had ever been in. To the point where even Mitch was shitting himself – and that NEVER happens. Like I said, he is a pretty confident driver in all conditions, but these roads were hectic! You can’t stop, because you will cause an accident as no one will be able to see you, you just had to keep driving, and pray that you don’t end up over a cliff edge. Thankfully we had people in front of us, so were able to follow the tail lights. But the snow was coming down so thick, that we were aqua-planing across the road from hitting what I can only describe as giant mounds of sand. Here we are, shitting ourselves silly, and the locals are cruising past with one hand on the wheel and talking on the phone in the other while operating heavy machinery. It was so crazy!!!
Finally we made it to our WONDERFUL cabin in the middle of nowhere, and not too far from the Ring Road. Where we relaxed for a couple of days, and made some delicious fettuccine carbonara to help wind down from the hectic schedule we had been running trying to fit everything in.
After spending a day chilling in the cabin and catching up on the footy (NRL) back home in Australia, we continued on toward Akureyri. This was a full day of driving. Something I completely underestimated with Google Maps! We tried to make it to Dettifoss (Europes most powerful waterfall), but again, those wretched “Impassable” roads struck again! Not to worry, because we managed to sneak in Godafoss, which was a spectacular sight. Checked in to our awesome accommodation that we booked on AirBNB, where we spent overlooking Akureyri and the ski slopes for the next 3 days!
We set up our “Aurora Watch” headquarters in the living room. I was looking toward the North East and Mitch was on “South West” duties. A few hours later, I managed to roll over and notice Mitch had already fallen asleep on the couch as the faint glow of green danced outside his window *rolls eyes* Men!! 😛
For day 7 we drove back out toward Lake Myvatn to adventure around the place. We climbed a massive crater and almost died (this happens when you misread the instructions advising where the path is), we trekked through waist deep snow in Dimmuborgir looking for trolls, we found John Snow & Ygritte (Game of Thrones) love cave (which we would have gone in if it wasn’t going to cause third degree burns!), and we got to wade in the Myvatn pools – which I would entirely advise!!! It’s like an immensley less populated “Blue Lagoon” that is only about a quarter of the price.
The next day was yet ANOTHER super long drive (sorry Mitch!) to Grundarfjordur via Eriksstadir. I would probably advise against this drive, unless you REALLY want to see where Erik the Red lived. Which, of course you do. Because, Vikings! If you’re in anything smaller than a 4WD, and you’ve had a hectic couple of days of snow, this drive is probs not for you. Our poor Kia Sportage really kept up its paces on this one! But it was so surreal to knock on the front door of this epic little Viking house. Obviously its shut in the Winter, but you can actually go inside in the Summer, and partake in Viking role play!
Onwards to Grundarfjordur in yet another blizzard. I desperately wanted to see Kirkjufellsfoss – but as luck would have it, it was completely frozen over!!
Originally we had planned to explore Snaefellsjokull National Park, but this part of Iceland was completely snowed in. The roads were all closed, and if we had stayed another day, we would probably be stranded. So, back in the car for our last leg of the trip. Poor Mitch was so over driving by this time, and the last thing he wanted to hear was me telling him we were going to see more waterfalls! hahaha But we were so close to Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, that I really couldn’t have it any other way. So the good sport that he is, moaned and groaned his way toward yet another set of waterfalls, in yet another blizzard! We got out of the car, and naturally, his vibe was right down as I dragged him through the freezing cold snow storm to get some more pictures of some more water. As we came up over the pass, and peered over the cliff edge, I could hear his jaw drop. The view was spectacular! And he had forgotten all about the waterfall whingeing! LOL
Afterwards we made our way back to our last stop in Reykjavik. But not before a quick pit stop on Reykholt to see the famous rock pool that legendary poet “Snorri Sturluson” used to bathe in, in the late 13th century.
We ran in to some trouble on the way back to Reykjavik. The snow got worse, and roads were closed down everywhere. We sat in traffic for around 5 hours waiting for the weather and the roads to clear. Luckily, we had snacks on the car. And also, empty bottles, for when Mitch needed to go to the loo! Yes, we had to get crafty – this is why I stress for you to “be prepared” when road tripping Iceland. Especially if you go in the Winter!
We spent our last day doing classic city touristy stuff in Icelands main city. We went to check out the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church, I made Mitch dress up like a Viking at the Saga Museum, we tasted aged wines in the local bars, and also did another quick stop off to the Blue Lagoon on our way to the airport. Even though we had been to the Blue Pools in Lake Myvatn, I couldn’t NOT go to Blue Lagoon. But I must say, as beautiful as it is there, it was heavily populated and exorbitantly expensive!! If you like being a tourist and the crowds that come with it, definitely check it out. But if you care not for commercialised fodder, I think you could honestly give this place a miss. But here’s a hot tip that I didn’t get at Myvatn: don’t put your head under water, especially if you are an un-natural blonde! It causes your hair to go EXTRA brittle, as it did mine. And my dead hair surely didn’t need any more help for breakage and brittleness
All in all, this was 10 days that I will remember for the rest of my life. And I would advise EVERYONE to experience Iceland in their life time. Seriously, chuck it up on the top of your bucket list. Get over there. Everyone is so kind and polite (and the language is so incredibly sexy!), and the landscape is like no other! You will go home aching to be back here. To experience the simple life. To just “be”. It will always hold a special place in my heart, and I can’t wait to get back there in the Summer to experience it a completely different way!
Please feel free to share this with all of your friends, and leave your comments below on your favourite places in Iceland!