Iceland has become a popular destination for many in the last ten years, so when choosing a destination for our brood we figured locking our now 18 and 16 year old in an RV (recreational vehicle or campervan) would be a great idea. Besides, who knows how much longer they will want to travel with us?
Ninety-six percent of people arriving in Iceland, arrive at Keflavik International Airport. A hub for Canada and the USA to Europe, the airport hasn't quite got up to speed with the influx of tourists, so it's very easy to find yourself mixed up with people waiting to depart as opposed to getting through to immigration and baggage collection. Keep your eye out for the the arrivals sign and you can't go wrong, although be prepared for an extended delay at immigration (especially if your not EU) as when we arrived there was only one customs officer on duty!
Baggage collection at Keflavik is bumper to bumper with trolleys and those buying alcohol supplies at the duty-free shop located next to the baggage carousels. Having read up about duty-free limits and where to buy alcohol in Iceland, it isn't necessary to rush in and buy supplies at the airport. Vínbúðin stores are located around the country, however are only open at certain times ie: 2pm - 6pm (depending on where you are in Iceland). The selection is good and prices similar to those at the airport. Light beer can be bought at fuel stations and supermarkets and not at the Vínbúðin.
If you are planning to hire a car from the airport, then I suggest you book ahead. The queue for car hire was extensive due to the amount of paperwork each person had to complete. There are regular transfer buses which take passengers into Reykjavik, an approximate 45mins drive.
Don't expect anything to be cheap in Iceland. Prices are on average 30-50% more that what we would expect to pay here in Australia.
Most of Iceland's population live in the countries capital Reykjavik. Run on geothermal power and believed to be the first permanent settlement in Iceland by Norsemen around AD 870, today there is a lot of construction and upgrading of the city.
We stayed at the Black Pearl Apartments. Conveniently located close to the waterfront and main attractions, this area known as Miðborg is the area that you are most likely to spend time. The Hallgrímskirkja church standing at a massive 74.5 metres is visible throughout the city. The church's clean lines and lack of decor make it very attractive and the pipe organ worthwhile seeing. For a small fee, tourists can take a lift up to the observation tower.
Having arrived from London late in the afternoon, we were meeting up with cousins who had flown in from Zurich. We had a fabulous tapas dinner at Burro. With a casual bar on the top floor and restaurant overlooking the main square, the food and wine was fresh and well presented. Keep in mind that portions are designed for 2-3 people, so we ordered double of everything for our party of six.
We had two nights in Reykjavik and had hired a car so that we could venture out to one of the local supermarkets and buy supplies for our eight day drive around the country. The main supermarkets in Iceland are Hagkaup, Kronan and Bonus. All of these can be found dotted around the country as well as other mini-markets such as Netto.
The Whale Museum houses 23 man-made life size models of whales commonly found in the waters around Iceland. It was informative and interesting and worth the visit.
Iceland is famous for hot dogs! So why not try one (in fact one probably isn't enough) for lunch. Commonly known as a pylsur, the hero of the hot dog are the crunchy onions. Yep, I could definitely form an addiction to this country favourite. In fact, it was very refreshing to see few fast food outlets. I think we only came across one KFC, one Subway and no McDonalds.
If you get tired of walking the same streets, take a hike up to the
Hólavallagarður cemetery on suðurgata. It's amazing how once you enter and are under the trees, the noise of the city is swept away. It is such a tranquil place to visit.
From the cemetery, you can walk back into town via the Pond (Tjörnin) and perhaps go for a beer at one of the many watering holes. We stopped in at the Irish Pub, The Drunken Rabbit just as one of the FIFA World Cup game started.
As an afternoon excursion and because we had hired a car, we drove to Krýsuvík-Seltún. A high temperature geothermal area, about 40 minutes from Reykjavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The 500 metre walk to the top exposes you to stunning views towards the ice-capped mountains and Atlantic Ocean.
Dinner was at Kopar on the waterfront. A homely seafood restaurant it was a welcome relief from the wind and light rain which had persisted throughout the day.
We had booked an RV through McRent which is located 5 minutes from Keflavik Airport. Our home for the next eight days was a very well appointed Comfort Plus van which slept the four of us. Complete with a shower, toilet, 3 burner gas stove, fridge/freezer and sink, we opted for some extras including towels, sheets, duvets, camp chairs/table and a 12V to 230V adapter amongst other things.
In Iceland driving is done on the right side of the road (ie: steering wheel on the left side of the car) and the RV was a manual. Outside the main city, the roads are very narrow and there are many one-lane bridges. The highway 1 ring-road around Iceland is mainly paved, however poor weather conditions often create potholes and fractures. Many roads are gravel and not well graded and roads referred to as "F roads" are for 4WD or mountain vehicles. It is best to check road conditions each day.
You'll also notice digital signs around the island which indicate wind speed and direction, the current temperature and the speed of the "wind bullets". McRent do no allow driving in wind speeds above 15 (ie: 30km/h).
Our cousins hired a 4WD from Ku-Ku Campers in order to traverse the "F roads". A converted Mitsubishi Pajero, it comfortably slept two and had a small fridge and sink.
After a briefing and detail check we were on our way. A quick stop to collect the teenagers and groceries and we headed out to Þingvellir. The majority of tourists visiting Iceland will only visit what is known as the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle covers around 300 kilometres and comprises Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall.
First stop is Þingvellir or Thingvellir. A UNESCO World Heritage centre, here is where an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland was created in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. This historic place is also the site where the North-American tectonic plate is moving away from the Eurasian plate at a rate of approximately 2.5cm per year. You can walk alongside both these plates and end at the charming Öxaráfoss waterfall.
Geysir is a famous geothermal hot spring area with mud pits and the famous Strokkur which spouts water to an approximate height of 30 metres every 5-10 minutes or so. The anticipation of waiting for the geyser to erupt is just as exciting as seeing it and if you haven't got your camera ready, then don't worry, just wait for the next explosion!
Gullfoss or Golden waterfall is the largest volume of water in Europe. Gullfoss was once the centre of quite a controversy when in 1907 an English businessman wanted to utilise the waterfalls energy and create a hydroelectric plant. The landowner at the time was quite against the idea and the trial lasted for many years. It was the landowners daughter who eventually saved enough money to hire a lawyer in Reykjavik. Eventually the case was disposed of due to the lack of rent payments. In 1940 the adopted grandson of the landowner acquired the waterfall and later sold it to the Iceland government. In 1979 it was designated as a nature reserve to permanently protect the waterfall and allow the public to enjoy this unique area.
The drive from Gullfoss to our first campsite at Hellishólar was around 100km or 1.5 hours drive. Hellishólar is located at Fljótshlíð about a ten minute drive from Hvolsvöllur. The campsite is well appointed and scenic and you can choose from either a powered or non-powered site.
We always opted for an non-powered site as it meant we could park/camp further away from the crowds. As we had hired a 12V to 230V adapter, we did most of our charging of computers and phones during the day whilst driving. If you are like the English family we encountered when we collected our RV, then you would probably opt for a powered site. This poor fellow had a wife and three grown daughters who were very concerned about using their hair dryers.
Powered sites naturally cost more than non-powered and as we were required to return the RV with a full gas bottle, we didn't see reasons not to use it. We were instructed by McRent to only use the fridge on gas when in camp as power surges may cause the fridge to blow up.
Day 2 saw us up early. As it was summer in Iceland (average temperature 16°C) it's light most of the time so when you wake up, you pretty much get up and as it was our first night in the RV and we weren't quite used to the light, we were on the road early.
Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss. Arriving at 7.30am we were too early for the cafe located in the carpark, however we weren't the only tourists up early and keen to beat the tour buses. With a drop of 60 metres, the waterfall is magical and you can walk behind it, getting not only drenched but views from both sides.
Our cousins found themselves on an F road which circled back to Seljalandsfoss in the afternoon. They said it was pretty spectacular with the afternoon light shining through compared to it being in shadow when we visited.
It was the most glorious day, almost as though once out of the Golden Circle the climate and weather changed for the better.
The oldest swimming pool in Iceland is Seljavallalaug. Turn off the main road onto Road 242 (marked Raufarfell). It is located just after Þorvaldseyri. Follow the road to until you reach a carpark. From there it is about a 20 minute walk to the pool.
The 25 metre pool is fed by a nearby hot spring and is a warm 20°C - 30°C. If you don't like a slimy bottom, then either don't touch it or don't go in. We didn't find it much different to swimming in a murky Australian dam, just try not to put your head in.
Feeling very relaxed, we set up our camp chairs in the carpark and sat in the sunshine and had breakfast. It was just perfect.
Following the ring road, the next destination was Skógafoss. Still too early to get a decent cup of coffee (it must have been before 10am) we arrived to a relatively busy carpark, full of RV's, campers and tourist buses. (Skógar is also a campsite, so you would be very lucky to visit without a crowd.)
The 400 stairs to the top are not for the faint hearted, however definitely worth the sweat and tears just to see the breathtaking views over the farms, mountains and all the way to the ocean.
|Is that a Puffin?|
Dyrhólaey headland is where you just may see a Puffin. I was so excited to see one and imagined that there would be heaps nesting in the tufts of grass. Not so...... I managed to see three and wasn't really close enough to get a good photo. However, they are quite cute and when they fly their little orange legs don't extend past their bodies, which is quite a funny sight.
The road up to the carpark on the headland is quite hair raising, especially if you have to pass a large car or truck on the way down. You can park further around at the bottom and walk up to the lighthouse. Be warned, however that the wind can be so strong that even walking is difficult.
The lighthouse dominates the headland and from there you get fantastic views of The Arch with the Hole and further over to Reynisfjara Beach with its black sand and basalt stacks.
Feeling weary from our early start (and still slightly jet-lagged) we stopped in Vik for lunch and pulled up for an afternoon nap in the carpark near the beach. There are definite benefits in travelling with your house attached. Although you are not permitted to camp overnight in an RV outside a campground, a couple of hours quiet time is okay.
Our second night was spent at Kirkjubæjarklaustur campground. Although the young girl on reception could have at least tried to smile, this was probably one of the better campgrounds we stayed in and probably the busiest. The showers and toilet facilities were clean and there was a washing machine. Mind you it was the only time I did do a load of washing as most campsites only had one washer and dryer and there was usually an enormous queue. We just had to hand wash!
Iceland isn't short on fresh running water. At every service station there are long hoses with a broom attached so you can wash down your vehicle and at the campsites the sinks are in constant use. I watched one lady wash, dry and put away every individual knife, fork and plate that she owned as the water ran and ran and ran.
Getting closer to the glacier, it gets colder much quicker as the sun goes behind the clouds and mountains.
By day 3 the days seemed to get longer and we were losing track of time, especially as we got closer to the east coast.
Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon is located around 10 minutes drive before Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Follow the signs and you shouldn't miss it. The 100 metre deep canyon dates back about two million years and is just gob-smacking. The walk from the road isn't difficult, however the road is very narrow so park as to let others pass.
Breakfast on the hill top and we were on our way to Skaftafell located in the Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and from here you can enjoy many hikes and activities.
A photograph is taken of your licence plate on entering a national park. You can pay for parking at the self-serve checkouts in the office and if you don't, then your photo will be sent to the hire car company and you will be charged at the conclusion of your trip. Unfortunately, you can't escape paying!
The 1.6km hike up to Svartifoss is mostly uphill, so no need to put on that extra layer in the carpark as you will soon be taking it off and carrying it. Svartifoss is known as the "black falls". It is surrounded by black columnar basalt formations (the same as on the beach at Reynisfjara) and was the inspiration behind the Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik. It would be amazing to see it in the winter time when icicles hang off the basalt structures.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is on the southeastern side of the Vatnajökull National Park. We had booked an Ice Lagoon tour for 3.30pm, so took advantage of a spare couple of hours and watched the icebergs crash into each other on their way out to sea from the luxury of our bed. If you were lucky, you'd occasionally get a glimpse of a seal or two.
Diamond Beach located at the lagoon mouth is aptly named as the ice chunks lying on the black sand resemble diamonds glistening in the sun.
There are a number of lagoon tours available. We pre-booked and toured with Ice Lagoon Adventure Boat Tours, located in the carpark at Jökulsárlón. Flotation suits and lifejackets are provided. The suits are really warm so no need to heavily layer up the clothes underneath, however you may want to take gloves and a beanie as the wind can be really cold.
The tour takes you right up to the glacier which from a distant doesn't look as overwhelmingly huge as it is. Making up approximately 8% of the land mass in Iceland, this area during the viking era was farmland. Today the glacier is melting and global warming is quickening the process. The glacier extends around 200m above the water level and another 200m below the surface, hence the reason why the boats don't go too close for fear you find yourself sitting on an iceberg which has just bobbed up to the surface.
Many of the icebergs were tainted with black lines. As the glacier sits above many subglacial volcanoes, scientists use the black lines like tree rings to find out the age of the iceberg.
Night three was at Höfn. A really pretty fishing town on the peninsula which has been the location for some famous Hollywood movies.
Our day started with a Snowmobile Tour on the glacier. Meeting at a 250 cow, automated dairy farm in Flately, our Austrian guide, Stefan (who now lives in Iceland, breeding horses with his German horse-trainer wife) drove us up Jöklasel where we headed out onto the glacier. Unfortunately, we were in the clouds so we didn't really see more than the snowmobile in front. I'm sure the vista would have been incredible on a clear day, however we had a awesome time on the snowmobiles.
The three hour tour took us until lunch time and since we had a reasonably long drive ahead of us, we headed along highway 1 towards Egilsstaðir, while our cousins returned to Höfn for lunch at Pakkhús which they said was fabulous. Thanks Stefan for the recommendation!
Highway 1 tends to follow the coast around Berufjörður (where locals were farming salmon) until Breiðdalsvík where it then turns north. We, however turned off on route 939 - the Öxi Pass. This was my favourite part of "the drive" for the whole trip. It was so picturesque and the views of the waterfalls ahead and the Berufjörður behind us were just stunning. It was so beautiful, once we reached the top we just had to stop for a cup of tea and enjoy the panorama.
Note: The Öxi Pass often has warnings and road closures due to it having a steep incline and gravel road. If the pass isn't open, the detour continues you along highway 1.
The east coast of Iceland is so different to the south. The countryside in the east seems have a better quality soil and farms are more picturesque compared to the volcanic lava remains covered with thick green moss.
We didn't stop in Egilsstaðir, instead headed over the mountain and to Seyðisfjörður. The road to Seyðisfjörður was made famous as the location for "The Secret of Walter Mitty" longboard scene. Just as narrow and dramatic as it looks in the movie, going down the mountain as a passenger in an RV and only seeing the drop is pretty hair raising.
Seyðisfjörður is not to be missed. The small town (population 660) is old-world. The brightly painted houses, church and shops add to the mystique and the restaurants, cafes and bakeries are all very welcoming and the blue church stands prominently in the centre of town.
The campground is located opposite the church and in walking distance of the best sushi in town at restaurant Norð Austur.
Seyðisfjörður to Dettifoss is about 185km (approx. 3hrs drive), so after the best sleep yet, we headed back over the mountain to Egilsstaðir and then on to Dettifoss waterfall. Dettifoss was not our favourite. Reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe, it is quite a distance of highway 1 and the water is grey and dirty. Having said that, the force of the water is phenomenal.
There is a lot of question as to which side you should visit. We viewed Dettifoss from the east side where, unlike the west side, there is no viewing platform and you can walk right down to the edge. I would say the east is better for photos, as the spray from the fall tends to blow to the west side. However, our cousins saw it from the west side and thought it was remarkable.
Unless you are driving further north or prepared to drive around jökulsárgljúfur canyon, the only way back to highway 1 is to bump along the gravel road the way you came.
Húsavík in the north east of the country is a major centre for whale watching and was an export harbour for silica which is extracted from lake Mývatn. The Húsavík Museum is well worth a visit, with the maritime museum attached, it is a great place to learn about the pioneers of Iceland.
The Húsavík campground is located near the swimming pool and in walking distance of town. Fortunately, there is a new campground being built, which should have better facilities.
The light in the north seems so much brighter (likely because you are so close to the arctic circle) and lucky for us the bakery was open early. Back on highway 1 towards Akureyri, Goðafoss "the Waterfall of the Gods" is famous as legend states that when Iceland became a christian country, all the statues of the Norse Gods were thrown into the waterfall.
Our final destination for day 6 was Akureyri, however we headed up the west side of the Eyjafjörður to Siglufjörður. In order to get to Siglufjörður you have to travel through three, seven kilometre, ONE WAY tunnels. If there is a lot of traffic, it can be quite a long trip, but the town that grew up around the herring industry in the 1940s and 1950s is now mostly reliant on tourists. The Herring Era Museum is a great place to wander after trying some delightful fish and chips.
We had booked a 4pm Whale Watching Tour in Akureyri, so we didn't have a lot of time in Siglufjörður, but really enjoyed the time we did have.
Eyjafjörður is the longest fjord in Iceland and houses a rich marine life. A number of different whale species are seen in the fjord and off the north coast, especially in summer when they feed mainly on krill, sand eels and smaller fish. Blue whales are the most commonly seen during spring and early summer (May-June) and humpback whales are seen throughout the year along with minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, killer whales, and some less common, off-shore species, such as fin whales, sei whales, sperm whales and bottlenose whales.
There are a number of different whale watching tours which depart from Akureyri. We went with Ambassador Whale Watching and chose their extreme adventure. Again we were lucky with the weather (no rain), although the wind was quite strong and the water choppy. Our young female driver raced us out the fjord as we were lightly sprayed, but failed to slow when we hit a wave which drenched all aboard (killing my camera) and filling the boat up to our mid-calf with water. I don't think that was suppose to happen!
With no turning back, we continued to head out to watch two humpback whales breaching and diving. I'm not sure which was more spectacular, watching the whales or soaking in the view of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls which drop into the ocean.
I would like to have spent more time in Akureyri. In fact if I lived in Iceland, I would probably live in here.
Dinner was at Rub 23. Funky, fresh and full of flavour.... that it was. This was the best meal we had all trip. Oh, but the hot dogs?
The Hamrar campsite is a destination. It's the sort of place where people choose to go for holidays. Located on the outskirts of town, it's a large, very well appointed campground with playgrounds for the young and enough space that you don't hear your neighbour snoring.
Glaumbær is an immaculately preserved historical farm. Complete with turf houses, it was lived in until 1947. You can tour the old house and see for yourself what the living conditions are like underground.
Almost across the top of Iceland, we drove through Sauðárkrókur and weren't in the least bit interested in stopping. Sauðárkrókur is the town where Australian writer Hannah Kent spent 12 months on exchange. Hannah's first book, Burial Rites, won many awards and is now being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.
We stopped briefly at Blönduós before heading to Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Blönduós to Stykkishólmur is an approximate 3 hour drive, so have your podcasts or audiobooks ready as it really is a bit of a boring trip.Travelling along gravel routes 59 and 54 for majority of the trip, left us with one less hubcap and a very dirty vehicle.
Stykkishólmur is not unlike Siglufjörður in that it is predominantly a fishing town with nicely painted buildings. A nice place to stretch our legs and have some hot chips, before heading on to Ólafsvík via Kirkjufell.
Claimed to be the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell is hard to miss. There is a walking (or goat) trail that keen hikers can traverse, however a lady fell 50 metres to her death in 2017 so you have to be extremely careful and unafraid of heights. We thought about climbing it, however it was so windy on the day we passed, we watched it on youtube instead!
Ólafsvík was the first village in Iceland to receive a commercial licence from the King of Denmark in 1687. At one point, commercial vessels sailed between Ólafsvík and Denmark and the village was one of the larger trading ports in Iceland.
Apart from the bakery, there wasn't a lot to see in this old fishing port. The campground was located near the Rjukandi power plant. We parked on higher ground to be a little away from the powered sites and toilets and it proved to be worthwhile, as we had the most horrendous storm with wild winds blowing the RV about during the night. When we awoke the next morning all those that had pitched their tents on the flat land were flooded.
Our final day on the road and I have to say, I was looking forward to returning the RV to McRent (even with a few bumps and scratches from our adventures).
We had on our itinerary to hike Glymur falls, a 3-3.5 hour round trip, however due to the foul, windy weather we decided to drive straight onto Grindavik and the famous Blue Lagoon via Viking World.
Viking World in Keflavík is home to the replica ship Íslendingur (the Icelander). Built in 1996, it is an exact replica of the famous Gokstad ship, a remarkable archaeological find of an almost completely intact Viking ship, excavated in Norway in 1882.
The Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið) would have to be the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland. The geothermal spa stays at a constant 37-39°C and operates as a research and development facility to help find cures for skin ailments using the mineral-rich water.
The largest super-heated spa in the world has its waters renewed every two days and before you enter there is a strict code of hygiene and guests are required to shower prior to entering the spa. There are different bathing options to choose from so book before you go.
We chose the "comfort" package which included entrance, a silica mud mask, use of a towel and first drink of choice (to be enjoyed at the bar in the spa or at the inside bar). One hour in the hot waters was enough. For me, it was the wonderful shower after the spa that I really loved. It was the best shower I'd had all week..... and there was hairdryer!
Grindavik is a fishing village and you can smell the day's catch when you get out the car. Located on the south-west peninsula, it was bleak and rainy when we pulled into the well appointed and not so busy campground.
Dinner was at the Fish House Bar & Grill. The fish burgers were excellent, no wonder the Fish House is the "best in town". As we were so relaxed from our spa, it didn't take long before we all collapsed into bed for our last night in the RV.
Up early to clean, pack and return the RV, we packed our left over food, beer and Bailey's into a box and dropped it into the camp kitchen. I don't think it lasted long as there were a few weary cyclists who welcomed the stash. I would never recommend cycling around Iceland. The roads are far too narrow, the wind so strong that we saw cyclists being blown back to where they came from and it just didn't look fun at all.
What a fabulous trip we had. Iceland is nature on steroids and definitely one for the bucket list.