With a heat advisory in full effect in NYC, late July/early August seemed like the ideal time for our long-awaited trip to Iceland. Long awaited in that Emily had been wanting to make this trip for quite some time, and while Garret was open to the idea it took cleverly showing him “The Life of Walter Mitty” and “Interstellar”, with their beautiful sets filmed in Iceland, to push him over the finish line! The result was one of the best trips either of us have gone on, and this island is now one of our first recommendations to others looking to travel, especially if you love the outdoors. Iceland is unlike anywhere else on earth when it comes to topography, and while pricey is worth going to at least once. The summertime was ideal for a first trip, with reasonable temperatures and lots of daylight allowing for greater exploration.
Thursday July 29th
A quick, direct five hour red-eye flight from JFK Wednesday evening on Icelandair had us landing at Keflavik International Airport Thursday 6am local time, ready to hit the ground running. This airport, located on a peninsula 45 minutes from Reykjavík, is very modern, not too large, and easy to navigate. We picked up our reserved car rental at the airport (also easy) and immediately headed east on the Ring Road to discover for ourselves the numerous waterfalls and glaciers we researched, skipping the city of Reykjavík for the time being.
Our first stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, about three hours east of Reykjavík. The waterfall was impressive as we approached from Ring Road, but even more so once we parked and walked up close. There is actually a path leading around / behind the falling water (overall Iceland does not have the typical public safety restraints one encounters in the US, there is a great New Yorker article on how dangerous the country can be), giving a unique perspective and the ability to literally soak in all 360° of the waterfall.
Just 20 minutes from Seljalandsfoss and we were already upon the second major waterfall, Skogafoss. This massive waterfall’s impressive spray kept us at least 50 meters away from the waterfall pool. Garret had a bit of a standoff with someone trying to film at the waterfall (they claimed to be filming a movie), as it was an open area and no one had rights to the area. It turned out to be an American Express commercial. Off to the right of it we trekked up a trail leading to a platform above the waterfall, presenting another impressive view. Not only can you see down onto the water as it reaches the end of the mountains and pours over, but you can also trace it’s remaining path on the flat land and into the Atlantic, just a few miles away.
We heard about and researched about plane wreckage from the 1970s on the beach in southern Iceland, finding really good info here. Apparently the plane, a DC-3, had been left on the beach and one can drive to the remote area and walk through the remains. The reviews had mixed advice about truly needing a 4 wheel drive vehicle, but since we did not need off-road capabilities for any other part of the trip we decided to risk it with our Suzuki Swift. It was slow and steady, but we made it to the plane with no issues (except we ran into the film crew trying to block us again) and overall was definitely a unique experience being able to climb all over a wrecked plane.
The trip continued east and we decided to stop at the beach in Vik to see the “Troll Rocks” located slightly offshore. The rocks were large and unique, with a beach setting good for a picnic on a nice day, however we had some chilly rain clouds pass through which cut short our time there, and we kept driving east.
South Iceland Geography
As Ring Road continued on, the different terrain we saw was incredible and hard to describe. From lush green fields to large stones covered in a grey moss to black lava rocks and then back again, the six-plus hours of driving were never boring. There are also sheep everywhere. We noticed the sheep tend to have herds of three and don’t mind crossing the road in front of you or eating grass just inches from the passing cars. Sort of like those NYC pedestrians. Looming above this ever-changing terrain were some of Iceland’s enormous glaciers, Mýrdalsjökull, Vatnajökull, and of course the infamous-to-Europeans Eyjafjallajökull.
Skraftafell National Park / Svartifoss
Our last stop of the day was Skraftafell National Park. We stopped by the visitor center to confirm we had the right directions and then started on the 1.9 km hike to Svartifoss waterfall. The black lava rocks surrounding the waterfall made yet another unique waterfall we encountered. The fairly easy hike took us roughly 30 minutes each way and was definitely worth it.
We opted for an inn in Hof (booked here), 30 minutes short of the glacier lagoon we planned to explore the next morning. This inn was very basic, with a private bedroom/shared bathroom, great for a one-night stay. One lesson learned is if staying outside of Reykjavík make sure to eat dinner if you see a good place – we had to backtrack 15 minutes to eat at the “restaurant” (read: glorified gas station) in Svinafell as Hof is pretty much a couple of farm families who rent out some of their buildings.
Friday July 30th
If we had to pick one place you have to explore if in South Iceland, Jökulsárlón is the place. This glacial lagoon was completely breath-taking as we pulled up in silent disbelief. We opted for the earliest Zodiac boat tour, which was great because we avoided the crowd. This entailed donning a heavy coverall water suit to stay warm (bring a beanie and gloves along!), plus a life vest in case we failed to hold onto the side rope and fell into the 2°C water as the driver, with two months of experience, zipped around the lagoon, darting from iceberg to iceberg as we progressed towards the glacier. Luckily our life vests were not put to the test. The views are simply magical, and afterwards we sat on a hill overlooking the lagoon, trying to digest what we had seen and appreciate this unique experience.
After warming up with coffee and soup we went out to the nearby beach. It was mesmerizing to watch the icebergs we nearly touched half an hour ago stream from the lagoon out into the ocean. Pieces would eventually wash ashore, where the melting ice made for a unique setting in the black sand. After three hours we tore ourselves away from this setting and retraced our route back to Reykjavík, Garret spending part of that drive getting to know Iceland’s police force after being pulled over for speeding.
An hour prior to arriving back in Reykjavík we veered south off of Ring Road to stop for a late lunch at Fjorubordid in the town of Stokkesey. A friend recommended this restaurant for the lobster bisqu and it did not disappoint these Midwestern folks, definitely worth the 45-minute detour to Reykjavík + speeding ticket Garret got on the way.
For our stay in Reykjavík Emily found an affordable and pleasant Airbnb, with private bed and bath plus a kitchenette, located just a block from the main downtown area containing different shops and restaurants. For parking we were able to find spots on the street after a five-minute look, and there are parking garages around if needed.
Saturday August 1st
We started our day at the local flea market without really knowing what to expect. It was small but offered plenty of options for local Icelandic sweaters, which was our primary objective. The vendors were friendly and willing to negotiate a little bit, which was a pleasant surprise. Garret eventually found a sweater to his liking, and we walked away with more wool and less króna than before.
Geysir/Strokkur and Gulfoss
Our main objective for the day was the Golden Circle, a drive containing some of Iceland’s more famous landmarks along with most of the tourists and accompanying tourist buses. Arguably the most famous attraction is the area containing numerous hot springs, including Geysir. While the original Geysir is currently dormant, nearby Strokkur erupted every five minutes or so with 30+ meters of boiling water being gushed into the air. We felt like kids at a waterpark, waiting for and then laughing hysterically at each eruption.
Located just a few miles down the highway is yet another magnificent waterfall, Gulfoss. This waterfall gave the impression of both complicated and extremely powerful, two-tiered and formed at jagged angles versus a normal, perpendicular to the river evolution. There are two paths that provide multiple lookout points, which are needed to fully appreciate size and see in detail the different parts. This being Iceland on one of the paths we were able to nearly walk onto the top of the waterfall, although they did fence off this slippery rocky lookout spot. Our rain jackets came in handy on this path, and the constant spray just a few feet away made it all the more real.
For dinner we ate at Fish Market, which came highly recommended by numerous people. We opted for the nine course sampler menu (this was our splurge dinner), which turned out to be a three hours of excellent Icelandic seafood, including char, cod, mussels, salmon and yes even whale (very tasty!).
Sunday August 2nd
One of the more well-known buildings in Reykjavík is Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church that took almost 40 years to build with a design inspired by the numerous lava flows in Iceland. The interior and exterior of the church are simple yet beautiful, and for a few dollars you can take an elevator to the top of the tower. Windows on each side of the tower provide excellent views of the city and harbor. With no other major structures around there is an unimpeded view of the numerous homes and small businesses, structures that seem to bring the city to life with their various colors.
The last stop on our trip was the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Blue Lagoon is conveniently located on the way from Reykjavík to the airport, just five minutes off the highway. Our pre-purchased premium tickets (be sure to pre-purchase at any level) allowed us access to a short entry line. The premium ticket also included a towel, sandals, and robe, saving us from having to pack those, plus a drink from the hot spring bar and a drink at Lava, the restaurant on site. We spent three and a half hours at Blue Lagoon, including lunch (in our robes!) at Lava. What a treat, especially on our way out, getting to relax in the hot spring. We would not recommend a trip to Iceland that did not include some time spent in a hot spring!
(De)parting Words of Advice!
- We never ended up using cash, almost everyone takes major credit cards, even AMEX.
- Try skyr, the Icelandic version of yogurt.
- Rent a car versus using the tour bus, it was an easy country to navigate.
- Gas was $7-8 a gallon and a gas card has to be purchased without a PIN credit card.
- Pack layers, think sweaters and rainjacket, for the summer.
- You will most likely catch Icelandic fever – we did and cannot wait to return!