Ever had a week to spare and wondered where to take a kick-ass road trip? Think no further. The answer is Iceland.
Ok, I’ll admit that Iceland was my second choice for a 40th birthday trip, after Santorini fell through. But once we started planning, I got more and more excited. Could it be possible that this country is as gorgeous as people say it is?
I can now confirm that the answer is a resounding yes. Iceland is Amazing. Stunning. Idyllic. Unique.
But now we’re back, and ready to share our trip with the world. Not just with family and friends who are curious about our trip, but just as much for people who plan to take an Icelandic road trip themselves and want information. We used blogs to help plan our trip, so now we’re paying that back with tips of our own.
As background, we had 8 days to spend in Iceland with several factors important to our planning. Our priority was photography, which meant we wanted to see as much as we could. I also have two bum feet (plantar fasciitis, aaack!), which meant hiking was out of the question. The result was basically a driving tour of Iceland with various side trips thrown in for good measure.
For a reason I can’t now recall, we decided to take the counterclockwise route around the “Ring Road” – the road that circles Iceland. We had booked all of our accommodation before we left, with the exception of night 7, which we wanted to leave open for spontaneity.
Our first day and night were spent in Reykjavik to get our bearings and overcome jet lag. Given that cities aren’t really our thing, we quickly got onto the Ring Road, ready to get out into the countryside. Our itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1 (Capital area): The Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik
- Day 2 (South): The Golden Circle (Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss) followed by the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, spending the night in Vellir, just before Vik
- Day 3 (Southeast): From Vellir to Höfn – with the highlight (hands down!) being the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
- Day 4 (East): From Höfn to Egilsstaðir, via the East Fjords
- Day 5 (Northeast): From Egilsstaðir to Stöng – via a character-laden fishing village (Seyðisfjörður), a traditional turf house (Burstarfell), and the most powerful waterfall in Europe (Dettifoss)
- Day 6 (North): From Stöng to Akureyri – with the highlights being the variety of geothermal activity around Lake Mývatn, a side trip to the stunning Húsavík area (whale watching capital), and chilling out by the waterfall of the gods (Goðafoss)
- Day 7 (North): From Akureyri to Bakkaflöt – with this entire day being one big highlight – including small fishing villages Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður, an idyllic lighthouse at the northernmost point we visited, and an afternoon trip (and incredible hike) to see puffins at Drangey Island
- Day 8: Rainy and spent, we drove the Vatnsnes peninsula (seal country) before heading back to Reykjavik
Based on the remoteness of the West Fjords we decided to leave that area, along with the Snælfesnes peninsula, for the next trip. Exploring the interior was not an option since most of the F roads (roads into the interior) were still closed due to the heavy winter. Also, we didn’t have a 4×4, and our rental company (Hertz) didn’t insure driving on the F roads. Minor details.
We (ahem, Jeff) drove approximately 2500 km (1500 miles) over the course of the trip.
The glory of Iceland
For those of you who couldn’t care less about our itinerary and just want to see pictures and hear stories, this section (as well as upcoming posts) are for you!
As the saying goes, Iceland is green and Greenland is ice, but oh what an oversimplification! Iceland’s landscape virtually changed in front of our eyes with every corner we rounded. I’m fairly certain I spent most of the week picking my jaw up off the ground.
But one thing that was consistent across the entire country was the presence of waterfalls (ie, foss). They were so prevalent that we changed the punch buggy game to the “Foss” game. You know–first person to see a waterfall punches the other. Foss. Punch. Foss. Punch. This pic is from a town called Foss. This is Foss #3. They have so many they stopped naming them. ‘Nuf said.
Equal in numbers to the waterfalls had to be the gorgeous Icelandic horses. Shorter in stature and stockier in build, with a handsome jawline and a full head of hair that I’m slightly jealous of, these horses were tough and built for the harsh Icelandic winters.
Matter of fact, everyone here is tough and built for these winters. I would wilt in a second.
While Icelandic horses are now used more for sport and recreation than work, such change hasn’t happened in the fishing industry. Fishing is still one of the main pillars of the Icelandic economy. Small fishing villages are scattered throughout the Icelandic coastline.
This is Siglufjörður, the northernmost village we visited. The population is ~1200, and less than 50km (30 miles) separate it from the Arctic circle. Woah!
Despite Iceland being the “green” island, we expected to see snow-covered mountains. That said, I was awed by the sheer number of glaciers that could be spotted across the horizon. At one point we saw 4 mammoth glaciers coming down between the mountains in East Iceland.
Below right is the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier that feeds the magnificent Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon – a sight unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and a must see when visiting Iceland. (Hint: jökull is to glacier as foss is to waterfall.)
It’s hard for me to understand how glaciers and volcanoes exist in the same place. But the fact is, they do. More than 85% of houses in Iceland are heated by geothermal sources. Geothermal activity is most apparent in the bubbling mud, steaming vents, and scorched earth of the Mývatn area (below).
Remember the Icelandic eruption that stopped air traffic in Europe for 6 days back in 2010? That was the result of a volcano erupting underneath the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Southeast Iceland.
Fire and ice. They continue to shape Iceland’s landscape to this day.
And amidst the fire and ice you can find the most pastoral of scenes. The turf house in Burstarfell (below) is a traditional Icelandic turf house. The turf was used as extra insulation for the harsh winters, and because sod was more readily available than wood. This house has 24 rooms. Impressive, eh?
There aren’t many trees in Iceland. They are focused mainly in the ski towns of Akureyri and Egilsstaðir, with rather random outcroppings in other places, typically around houses from what we could see. Coming from the well-forested East Coast of the US, I couldn’t quite seem to get past the lack of trees in Iceland. I’ll have to look into that.
Amidst the many blues, greens, whites, and browns of the country, the most consistent pop of color came from the brilliant purple Nootka lupines that are scattered around.
Introduced into Iceland in the mid-1940’s to help combat erosion, this plant has taken over areas of the country. What looked to us to be a bright spot on Iceland’s canvas is actually considered a menace to some Icelanders who fear this plant will take over the native grasses and mosses.
(Oh, and shockingly, more foss! Punch, punch, punch, punch, punch. Bruised yet?)
And what might have been the biggest surprise of all for me was the number of sheep in Iceland. I am married to a New Zealander, a country known for having more sheep than people. I am used to sheep.
That said, I was still astonished by how many there were! With ~325,000 people and ~450,000 sheep, Iceland has more than enough sheep to go around. I saw more sheep on the road in 8 days in Iceland than in 2 years in New Zealand. Be careful when driving, especially during lambing season. Those rascals dart quickly!
While the fire, ice, and pastoral scenes were gorgeous, the view that still floored me most was the black sand beaches. Volcanic activity was evident in various places around the island, including a lava field wasteland that abuts the glaciers in East Iceland. (Say what?) Regardless, it was the black beaches that left the biggest impression.
Under the gloomy skies, they were almost haunting. The sulfurous outline on the shore contributed to the otherwordly feel, as did listening to the haunting music of Iceland’s most famous and quirky musician, Björk.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this taste of stunning Iceland. And don’t worry, we haven’t spilled all of the beans yet. More pictures and stories will come as we relay tales of the different regions of Iceland over the next couple of weeks.
But, as I’m sure you can see, Iceland is a photographer’s wonderland. And as a writer, I kept finding words like stunning, majestic, sweeping, dramatic, and epic spilling out of my mouth as I tried to grasp what I was seeing.
Add this place to your bucket list.