My first story is nothing short of twists and turns, rather has many of them! This story is right from the land of fire and ice – brutal yet charming, real yet unreal!
After braving an almost 25 hour long journey from Singapore, we landed at the Keflavik airport in June beginning (it is officially the start of summers and the weather is much more amenable to drive around). We thought we prepared ourselves enough to beat the cold, but then Iceland surprises you with a highly unpredictable weather! While the temperature hovered around 2-4 degrees, the strong wind chill made sure we got sub-zero experience all throughout! And a few blizzards and one heavy snowstorm added more fun to this Iceland reception! Despite this, taking a trip to Iceland has been an experience of a lifetime!
What’s so (un)real and (other)worldly about Iceland?
Catching ferocious and magnificent waterfalls with beautiful rainbows, walking around bubbling sulphur mud pits and feeling like you are walking on Mars, sitting by the vibrant turquoise craters, watching hot geysirs erupt with all its fury, admiring the beautiful moss covered lava fields, hiking on an ash covered glacier, sailing through the floating icebergs, taking a stroll 400ft down inside a volcano, staying in sheep, cow, house farms, snorkeling in near zero waters between two continents, riding a skidoo at 50kmph on top of a glacier, taking a relaxing dip in geothermal pools, crawling through a secret lava ice cave, catching the best of arctic fauna – whales, reindeer, puffins, seals, driving through landscapes that will take your breath away, hearing the elves and troll stories from the locals (if only we could find them! Iceland has more sheep and horses than people), watching cute little elf cottages in Icelandic houses, visiting a haunted crash site on a black sand beach, discovering hidden off roads and I think I can go on forever. Well, it’s not just surreal – it is indeed a different world altogether! Iceland has it all – Indeed a mini-earth in itself! And despite all its extremities, we actually fell in love with Iceland on day 1 itself!
The best way to appreciate its beauty is getting on the road and DIY! Yes on your own, there are no tourist guides (human, video, audio or in any form) in Iceland. Loosely plan your trip, but keep enough flexibility to experiment on the way.
What’s so difficult about Iceland?
Besides learning the right pronunciation of Icelandic names, the next most difficult thing is to resist stopping every 5 minutes to capture the endless and dramatic beauty it has to offer!
What does it take to “do” Iceland?
Just a car and a good companion to boot!
Cost: While travelling around Iceland is not very expensive, its the activities which burn a crater (no pun intended) in your pocket, especially if you are road tripping in summers. The overall cost for 2 persons for 8 days (incld. air fare, accommodation, activities, other expenses) could range anywhere from US$7-9K.
So are you ready to get going?
Pack your bags: You need at least 2 warm layers every day in Iceland (one thermal layer followed by a fleece/ sweater) even in summers, top it up with a water proof outer (windsheeter and pants) and water proof hiking shoes (you never know when it can start raining or snowing). Iceland winds are notorious!
Day 1: Land into Reykjavik!
Reykjavik is very well connected. We flew in from Oslo and were totally taken by surprise by the extreme welcome – certainly one jacket felt too little to combat the strong winds! We went straight to the Blue Rental office to collect our car.
Car rental tip: A 4X4 is a must in Iceland for all the extremities it offers. In case, you plan to take some off-ring road routes, its quintessential to have a sturdy car. Take all the insurance covers to safeguard yourself!
After picking up the car we headed straight to the Blue Lagoon! Perfectly located near the airport, we chose to make it our first stop right after grabbing a quick bite. Blue Lagoon is the largest geothermal pool in Iceland though I would like to point out that it’s not natural. Nevertheless, taking a relaxing warm dip with a backdrop of beautiful scenery was more than what we could have asked for after a 25 hour journey from Singapore.
Next we stocked up some grocery for the road trip at a nearby Bonus store. Iceland doesn’t have many restaurants on the Hringevegur (Ring Road or Route 1) though you can always pick up a hot dog from the gas stations. Bonus offers a great variety of vegetarian selection too.
We checked into our hotel which luckily was right next to the famous Hallgrimskirkja church (don’t try pronouncing that!). One could go to the top of this cathedral to get an amazing view of the capital city. We got lost in the serenity of the church and the beauty of the colourful Icelandic houses!
Day 2: Kick off the famous Golden Circle drive
Most other tourists we bumped into, generally came for the Golden circle visit to Iceland. This is easily manageable in 2-3 days from Reykjavik through day tours, depending on the activities you have planned. We had planned to circle around the island in our 8-day trip.
We checked out early morning to head towards the Thingvellir National Park, and also the site for the first ancient Icelandic Parliament. We started off for our first adventure of the trip – Snorkeling at Silfra fissure in 2-degrees water between the tectonic plates of America and Eurasia, which by the way are drifting apart from each other around 4 cm a year! Snorkeling in Iceland?! Sounds a weird combination right? But the dry suits that Arctic Adventures provided us were quite a saviour. The snorkeling was almost for 45-50 minutes and is of course challenging but doable. The crystal clear water in this fissure gives you visibility of upto 200 m! And it’s very rare that you cross from one continent to other under water!
We drove to our next stop, Geysir. This is the original one after which all the other geysers in the world are named. While this one is mostly dormant, its active neighbour Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes! Check out through our (gopro) lens:
From Geysir we headed to the beautiful Gullfoss waterfalls, the grandiosity of which leaves you in awe. The wind here was so strong that it could literally blow you away. If you are lucky you can catch sight of a beautiful rainbow in front of the waterfall on a sunny day.
Next up we headed to Selfoss to explore the beautiful Kerid crater lake – the vibrant turquoise lake surrounded by red lava rocks was indeed a sight to behold! Apparently, this is also the only place that had an entrance fee – everything else in Iceland is free for tourists!
Iceland is also called the land of waterfalls. For a good reason. Our last stop of the day was Seljalandsfoss, yet another stunning waterfall. You can get a 360-degrees view of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall by walking through a cave behind it.
We ended our day by staying at a sheep farm right next to the Skogafoss waterfall in an incredibly beautiful setting. We had some delicious soup and bread prepared by our farm and crashed after a long tiring day!
Day 3: Continue the golden circle circuit, Head into the south-east
We started our day with an amazing breakfast and then ventured into an adventurous and lesser known off-ring road drive to the wreckage of a 1973 US Navy plane that crashed on this black sand beach at Solheimasandur (luckily, no lives were lost!). It’s tricky one to get there (there are no GPS coordinates for this place!). This navigator on a travel blog could also help you. After taking the right turn (if you are coming from Skogar towards Vik i.e. heading east), keep following the yellow markers and do not give up! It’s about a 4-5 km long drive on the gravel road before you can spot the wreckage hiding behind a sand dune. I was actually haunted to the core and refused to get inside the plane, Haha! It is indeed phenomenal to see how this plane has been surviving the country’s extreme weather for the past 40 years. Legend has it that the owner of the farm on which the plane crashed refused to return the wreckage and apparently ran his tractors on ATF for one full year. This site has become one of the most iconic places in Iceland for photographers, especially in winters to capture the Northern Lights.
We drove back a little to the Solheimajokull glacier to get going for our next big adventure – glacier walk followed by ice climbing. We quickly got into our glacial gear – crampons, ice axes, harness, hiking shoes! The hike was on the Solheimajokull glacier which is near Katla volcano, one of the biggest and active volcanoes in Iceland. It last erupted in 1915s and is seen erupting with a 90 year cycle. Its neighbour Eyjafjallajokull erupted in 2010 and brought the entire European air space to a standstill. Last year, there were increased levels of sulphur and other seismic activities around Katla which prompted authorities to evacuate the area due to a fear of an impending eruption. Due to its vicinity to the volcano, the glacier has alternate layers of snow and volcanic ash which gives it the blackness we see.
On our way to Vik we stopped at the Dyrholaey National Reserve and were totally amazed to see various birds (if you are more lucky, you could even spot a few puffins, the beautiful orange-beaked arctic birds!). Alternatively you can also visit the other end of this beach called the Reynisfjera beach which is famous for its black sand.
It was almost 7 pm in the evening and we were still good 250 km away from our hotel. The good thing about driving in summers is that you get almost 24 hours of sunlight, so driving even during the late hours is never a big concern.
A quick accommodation tip: Stay at a couple of farms to add some zing to your vacation and appreciate how the locals live!
Hidden gems: Solheimasandur crash site, Dyrhoaley National Reserve, Reynisfjera beach
Day 4: Gear up for more twists – skidoo, floating icebergs, blizzard-struck mountain drive
Next morning, we arrived at the Glacier Jeeps meet up point – they are the most famous skidoo riding / snowmobiling company in Iceland. Again laden into our onesies, we started for the most surreal experience of our trip – snowmobiling on the top of Vatnajokull glacier (the biggest glacier of the country that covers 8% of it!). Riding a scooter in this desert of snow with chilly winds blowing right into your face was an unforgettable experience. These skidoos can go as fast as 50kmph and it feels like you would almost topple. Absolutely thrilling!
We headed towards Jokulsarlon, a short 20 km drive back to the south to witness another otherworldly thing Iceland has to offer – the floating white and blue icebergs coming off the Vatnajokull glacier. We booked ourselves on a zodiac tour instead of the big boats so that we could sail very closely to the icebergs and even in between them! Rightly called as bluebergs – the blueness is caused by an interesting scientific phenomenon – basically an interplay of light and air bubbles!
Next up – it was already 5 pm by the time we left Jokulsarlon and had a long way to go before we reach Egilsstadir. The journey here onward was extremely exciting as the landscapes started changing even more dramatically. To those planning a road trip to Iceland – there is a lot more beauty to explore in Iceland beyond the Golden circle, do try to not cover only that during your trip and make sure you spend more time outside the Golden circle! Our friendly hotel manager told us about a cow farm at Brunnholl and the great ice creams they make – a highly recommended stop on the way to Hofn. The coconut icecream they served was so fresh and nothing less than yummylicious!
After passing through steep colourful mountains, we spotted reindeers on the sides of the roads, these free animals unlike horses and sheep are found roaming around free away from the mountains in summers hunting for food. Unfortunately Reindeer hamburger is a delicacy in Iceland.
We passed through the beautiful town of Hofn and saw an amazing pyramid-shaped mountain there. For the foodies, Hofn is the lobster capital of Iceland and we heard that Linguistine is highly recommended there. Soon after we crossed Djupivogur, we came to a fork road which offers – a longer 200+ km route via ring road Route 1 to Egilsstadir or a shorter one through the challenging and steep Mt. Oxi pass (route 939)! Well, without any second thought, we knew where we were heading and well, what an adventurous ride it was! This is a very steep mountain pass with numerous blind turns. This pass actually just opened the week before and is all snow clogged during winters. As we started our ascent, the weather got worse and we were soon driving in a blizzard with no other cars in sight! The blind turns and the bad weather had us at the edge of our (driving) seats! Definitely, not for the faint hearted! Luckily we came back to the ring road, a little shaken but not stirred yet.
Finally, we reached Egilsstadir at around 10 pm and were absolutely delighted to see our cute little home cottage where we had a kitchen to ourselves and ended the day with a nice hot soup and breads! Well what can I say – it was indeed one of our best dinners of the trip!
Hidden gems: Brunnholl ice cream stop, Mt. Oxi pass, Reindeer on the way (if you are lucky!)
Day 5: Land into an entirely different world, Myvatn (we fell in love with the diversity of this region!)
Buckle up, you are soon landing on Mars!
We had read a lot about Myvatn, but what we saw actually was much beyond even what we read or imagined!
We started from Egilsstadir post breakfast and and drove through an incredibly beautiful landscape completely filled with snow capped mountains. I really wish i could stop every other minute to capture this amazing beauty – more than my eyes could capture!
We took the fork road to Dettifoss (some 30 km before Myvatn) but five minutes onto the road, weather got really bad and with a heavy snowfall. With us running out of fuel in a snowstorm, we had no other choice but to take a u-turn back towards Myvatn, but we had planned to reach Dettifoss later for sure.
Myvatn area – a different planet altogether! Its claim to fame is that most North of the Wall scenes from the Game of Thrones series were mostly shot in and around this area. While Viti crater was totally frozen, its neighbouring borehole was filled with turquoise blue water surrounded by snow covered rocks. This was a good 700m hike up from the base point. One can also visit the Krafla thermal power station where they show you how they generate geothermal power in this region. By the way, 90% of Iceland’s power is generated using renewable sources of energy.
Next up were Hverir hot sulphur fields next to the Namafjall mountain. The hot bubbling mud pits make this land look so so unreal, as if you were on a different planet altogether.
Highly recommend the 20 minute hike to the top of the neighboring Namafjall mountain to get an aerial view of the entire Hverir and Krafla area.
After re-fuelling we detoured back to Dettifoss but mustered up courage to drive through bad weather again. From the parking area, the falls are around a 800m walk over snow patches. Its twin, Selfoss lies to its south. Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall with a flow between 200-500 cubic meter per second.
The only thing we could have asked for after such a roller-coaster day – a good meal! Daddi’s pizza, an amazing pizzeria in front of Vogafjos guest house (a very famous cow farm belonging to the richest Vogar family of the region, which by the way was also our accommodation). Daddi’s hot thin crust pizzas were to die for! We loved it so much that we went there for our next day lunch too.
Soon after lunch we went to the hot tub caves of Grjotagja, well the picture below will again remind of you GoT where Jon Snow learns from Ygritte that ‘he knows nothing’. The water temperature at 40-50 degrees is so hot that the GoT team had to simulate this cave in a studio later.
Next up were Dimmuborgir lava rock formations, so quaint one could spend hours strolling there. Another GoT trivia: Wildings chief’s Mance Raynor’s scenes have been filmed here.
The last stop for the day before heading to our guest house was the drive around Lake Myvatn and the pseudo crater Skutustadagigar, called pseudo because lava never erupted from them!
Hidden gems: Grjotagja cave, Hike to Namafjall mountain, Daddi’s pizza
Day 6: Head to the north – Husavik and Akureyri
After having breakfast at the Vogafoss cafe, we went to explore the secret lava ice caves of Lofthelir. This was apparently discovered when a farmer was searching for his lost sheep. The route to this cave is through the tectonic plates of two continents – so we again hopped from NA to Europe! Our guide entertained us with interesting local stories of elves and trolls. The secret ice caves are not for the claustrophobic! We had to crawl for most parts inside the cave before we reached the royal hall with fantastic icicle formations.
We started our journey to the north after lunch at Daddi’s pizza again. The drive to Husavik takes you through beautiful rolling roads. After multiple pit stops on the way, we reached just in time to make it for our whale watching boat ride. We got lucky to have spotted a massive humpback whale (despite bad weather that day), a very pretty puffin (yayy! I was actually upset I missed catching them in the eastern fjords) and few beautiful dancing dolphins. After our 3-hour whale watching, we finally had a great meal at the restaurant Salka – one of the best mushroom pasta that was!
Hidden gems: Vogafjoss cafe, Secret lofthellvir ice cave
Day 7: Explore Akureyri and circle back to Reykjavik
Finally a day when we were not time-bound! We took sometime to relish the beautiful horse farm we were staying at and spent time with the horses.
Taking a short drive from Akureyri, you can also explore the famous Godafoss waterfall, waterfall of the Gods – legend has it that when Christianity was made the official Icelandic religion, the statues of Norse gods were thrown into it. Given the dearth of time, we passed this Or may I say we were waterfall-ed out! We decided to take an off ring road detour through Vatnsnes, a seal spotting area. The blueness of the arctic water on the stretch around Vatnsnes spellbound us! We managed to spot some seals lazing around on the rocks. This adventure added about 70km to our drive, but a worth taking detour indeed.
Hidden gems: Drive back to Reykjavik through Vatnsnes
Day 8: Hiking over and inside a volcano, the only one in the world!
We started our last day on a rather low note – Iceland stay coming to an end! We joined a very interesting walking tour in the downtown – hearing wonderful tit-bits on the Icelandic lives and famous city center monuments really took us closer to their culture:
- The most interesting one was about the elves. A judge once stalled a highway construction over the impact on local elves, believed to be residing there. Most Icelanders also have an elf cottage in their houses, believed to be home for the elves who visit them
- There is an elf school in Reykjavik where you could also do certified courses on the supernatural beings (beware, when in Iceland do not say anything against them, you might pay a heavy price)
- It is believed that the unusual lava formations at Dimmuborgir are actually night trolls who turned to stone when the sun came (while partying the whole night), so are the stones at Vik black sand beach!
- There are local apps and websites where people check their 1200 years of genealogy before dating each other – if you are related, you cannot be close!
After a quick bite, we joined the “Inside the volcano” tour – which takes you 400ft inside a volcano! A volcano!! We started our 45-50 min hike on the alternate patches of land and snow towards Thrihunkigagur volcano. The hike is extremely beautiful with moss covered lava fields and snow surrounding it. Soon we reached our base camp to start our 400ft descent inside the volcano through a specially engineered lift. The colours inside the magma chamber were just unbelievable. The vastness of the volcano is indescribable! This volcano has been dormant and is the only one in the world where you can go inside. After spending more than half an hour inside, we trailed back to the base camp to have a delicious hot soup and soon prepared for our hike back to the meeting point.
After a sumptuous meal in the downtown area, we finally reached the airport to return our car and bid adieu to this wonderland, Iceland.
Hidden gems: Moss covered lava fields on the way to the volcano, the city center walking tour that tells you about local secrets and elves, troll stories
1900 km, 8 days, 2 of us, the epic road trip came to an end – like all good things do! We do hope to visit you again sometime soon and this time would definitely not miss the western fjords. If my story has not convinced you enough to plan a trip to Iceland NOW, may be this little video can do the rest!
If there is one country that has it all, If there is one country you must visit sooner than later – it is Iceland! Whether in summers to enjoy the long daylight (apt for a road trip) or in winters to enjoy the best possibility of catching northern lights – that will remain a tough choice like it did for us. One thing is for sure. Whatever you choose, you cannot go wrong!