An outdoor enthusiasts dream. A photographers paradise. Volcanos, hot springs, geo-thermal activity and a changing landscape around every corner. Glaciers, icebergs, and thousands of waterfalls. This is Iceland – land of hot and cold, lava and ice. My experience is shared in detail below, but if you have ADHD or are looking for quick advice click here for the tl:dr version of this article.
I arrived in Iceland from Montreal at 10:00am local time after chasing the sun across the atlantic. I was actually supposed to arrive at 4:30am and I will spare you the long story but provide you my first piece of Iceland travel advice: Do not travel with WowAir – they make Malaysian Airlines look reliable.
After picking up my rental car in Keflavik I headed to Reykjavik for provisions. My goal was to camp as I travelled around the whole of Iceland on the number 1 highway, known as the ring road. The Iceland Camping Card (Available here or at local fuel stations or post offices) is a great value, allowing you to camp in all of the areas you might want to visit along the way for one set upfront fee. I picked mine up at a post office in Reykjavik and then headed to the “Bonus” supermarket – you can’t miss it, they are everywhere and have a cartoon pig as the logo. After picking up some groceries and a disposable cooler, I stopped at a shopping centre to procure a sim card for my unlocked iPhone. For around 4000IKR I purchased a sim with 10GB of data that worked nearly everywhere in the country with good speed. Having Google Maps was extremely helpful, but Google Translate was not required – almost everyone spoke English. My second piece of advice is to skip getting cash at the airport – there are plenty of ATM’s around the country with better exchange rates, and you can pay with your credit card for almost anything which will most certainly yield you the best rate.
With provisions set, my camping gear loaded, and cell phone ready, I checked the weather forecast. It was rainy and cold when I arrived but the weather appeared to be clearing on the East coast so I set my sights on the village of Vik where I camped the first night. Vik has beautiful black sand beaches and while the weather was not appropriate to spend much time on them, I’d suggest you do if you arrive on a nice day. Travel down the beach and look for the famous Sólheimasandur plane wreckage – instructions available courtesy of the Expert Vagabond here. I was hoping to enjoy a beer or two on arrival and headed over to the local “Vinbudin” government run liquor store. Third piece of advice (one I wish I’d researched before arriving) – if you like to drink, and what proper Canadian doesn’t, purchase your alcohol at the airport duty free on arrival. It’s approximately half the price there of anywhere else in the country. You’ll pay between 300-500ISK per beer at the Vinbudin and upwards of 1000ISK per pint at any pub. Forget about hard alcohol, unless you buy it at duty free. The prices are insane.
The following day I headed North up the coast, stopping to hike the canyon at Fjaðrárgljúfur, which was incredibly beautiful and worth stopping at. After this, I had planned to head to Höfn for the night but was side tracked by two other attractions: Seljalandsfoss, an amazing waterfall along the south coast – and of course, the mammoth Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest. Seljalandsfoss is quite touristy (anything within 3 hours of Reykjavik is a tourist trap), but still very beautiful and perhaps one my favourite waterfalls in Iceland. Nearby there is a small hostel and a campground where you can spend the night for a reasonable fee. The glacier is huge, covering some 8000 square kilometers and reaching depths of around 1000 meters. I stopped at a picnic site along the way, and hiked to the glacier climbing up onto it just around the edges – do not do this without proper gear and experience, it’s extremely dangerous. Heading onward to Höfn the time had gotten away from me, which can happen easily as it never gets dark during the summer. I made one final stop at the Glacier Lagoon along the ring road, you can’t miss it and you shouldn’t. Arriving at 1:00am was a real treat, the light was subdued and made for a surreal atmosphere. There was an added bonus in not having to contend with any of the tour buses at the site during this time. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours here, watch the ice break off the glacier and float out to sea – the views are breath taking. No longer able to keep awake, this was the only night that I camped in unsanctioned territory – hidden behind some rocks on a bed of grass next to a lake. I ensured that my camp site left nature undisturbed and left no trace of my presence there, something I would have liked to see other tourists do but sadly did not. I wouldn’t recommend camping wherever you’d like, I’m sure the locals do not like it and you may harm the delicate ecosystem. I would not have done this, but it was an issue of safety as I could no longer stay awake behind the wheel.
The following morning I travelled further north to Seyðisfjörður, stopping at a number of waterfalls and hiking trails along the way. Look for the “⌘” symbol on road signs, this indicates a place of interest. If the name ends in “foss” then it’s a waterfall. It may be a hiking trail, view point, church or otherwise. The campsite at Seyðisfjörður was my least favourite of all the places that I stayed. Honestly, I’d suggest skipping over this town and staying elsewhere on the island – perhaps Mývatn which was a great little town next to a lake with heaps of geothermal activity and a volcano in the background. The campsite there was right next to the lake with phenomenal views.
My next stop was at Dettifoss, Iceland’s largest (by volume) waterfall and also a filming location for the movie “Prometheus”. There are two roads leading here, don’t make the mistake that I did – if you’re traveling North and Google Maps tells you to take the first road, don’t. The second road goes to the opposite side of the falls and is paved. The road I took was like driving on a dusty beach with large rocks to dodge everywhere. In Iceland, you must return your rental car fully cleaned and the choice to take this road cost me 3 hours of my time in cleaning the dust out of the car. Dettifoss was incredible, similar to Niagara falls but into a canyon of epic proportions. It’s no wonder they chose to film movies here, it really is a sight to behold.
Just before reaching Mývatn I stopped at an abandoned sulphur mine called Hverarönd – at first it appears to be some geothermal vents at road level, but if you follow the path up the mountain it’s a relatively quick hike and yields incredible views of the Mývatn valley as well as a number of vents at the top of the mountain. Definitely worth the hike up.
From this point forward one of the things I noticed most about Iceland is the dramatic shift in landscape at each half hour interval. One moment you’re driving on the moon, barren tundra with volcanic rocks everywhere – the next, you’re in a lush green valley surrounded by wild flowers. Around a corner, up a hill and you’re driving through mountain passes and down 15% grade gravel roads, which brings me to my next piece of advice: If you aren’t a skilled driver, don’t get behind the wheel in Iceland. I’ve driven my four wheel drive truck up the side of mountains, through rocky creek beds, and in the deep snow covering black ice – even with years of experience doing this, I was not prepared to drive a tiny little two wheel drive suzuki on some of these roads. Iceland doesn’t believe in guard rails, and there are many places where one wrong move, one check of your cell phone, one look away from the road could mark the end of your life. If you stick to the Golden Circle near Reykjavik you’ll be fine, but if you choose to venture North then do so with care. Tourists die on these roads all the time, it’s no joke.
I pushed forward to Akureyri, the next actual city that you’ll see. I’d suggest spending the night here, resupplying as necessary and perhaps grabbing a meal. Speaking of grabbing a meal, and I don’t mean to offend the locals, but I would suggest saving your money. Go to subway or something similar. Dining out in Iceland is very expensive by Canadian standards (nearly twice the price) and the quality of the food was disappointing in all but one place which I will highlight below.
I arrived in Akureyri just prior to midnight and picked up some supplies before heading to a park by the ocean to watch the famous midnight sun. Of all the views and all the moments I had in Iceland, this was one of the best. The sun never sets during the summer, but it does go into a sort of long “twilight” phase. In Akureyri you have the best view of it dropping to it’s lowest point and then beginning to rise again. I watched from midnight to 2:00am and was there with only a few others taking photos. You shouldn’t miss this if you travel to Iceland in the summer. Akureyri is a beautiful city and I highly recommend stopping here.
Moving forward the push was to reach Ísafjörður and the West Fjords of Iceland. The drive was incredible but grueling. 154KM as the crow flies, but nearly 500KM as the roads twist back and forth around the Fjords. This made for a long day of driving but I stopped well over 20 times to take photos of the incredible scenery. I reached Ísafjörður late that night and stayed at a great campsite with clean, hot showers which where a welcome sight at this point. The hiking in this area is fantastic, so two nights here were in order. The town itself is alright, but it’s a cruise ship stop and a major tourist trap – think 10 bucks for a bottle of water kind of trap. By the way, Icelandic’s don’t really drink bottled water. Buy a big bottle when you arrive and then just refill it along the way. The tap water is great and will be marked as unfit for drinking anywhere it needs to be.
With the West Fjords complete it was time to head back toward Reykjavik for the famous “Golden Circle”. I’m the type of traveller that doesn’t consider myself a tourist, I hate being around big crowds of over dressed people pouring out of tour busses and wondering why they can’t find a Starbucks. The Golden Circle wasn’t for me, that is until I found a little place called Skjol. Skjol is a hostel, camp ground, and restaurant run by John – a local to the area that loves to travel and loves to host travellers. I had planned to spend one night here but ended up spending three. Skjol made wonderful pizza (and I have high standards when it comes to this!), and as John’s sign said “this isn’t a fucking cocktail bar, order a beer” so we did. I met some wonderful people there, Solveig from Germany by way of Australia who had just cycled the same route that I’d driven – over 2000km! Cecilia, Liz and Carli from Seattle, professional ballet dancers with a keen eye for photography and helped assure John that Canadians and Americans do actually get along. Emile, second officer on a Yacht who couldn’t possibly chat with Canadian guys and not buy the beer – he may have convinced me to pursue a new career! If you travel the Golden Circle, go see Þingvellir (Thingvellir – the weird half P half D is a TH) where much of Game of Thrones has been filmed. It’s cool, but there will be a million people there. The Geysirs are awesome, but here’s a tip – stay at Skjol, have a late dinner, and then go there late at night. It’s light anyways and you won’t have to fight the crowds to get some good photos.
My time in Iceland coming to an end, I spent my last night at Skjol and headed to Reykjavik to clean the car and head out. Iceland was a wonderful place to see, the scenery was extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve seen before. I would highly recommend a visit just to see the incredible changing landscape and the endless waterfalls. My tips for your trip are below.
Salut from Paris,