Iceland is having a bit of a moment. The ‘land of fire and ice’ has been firmly on peoples’ radars since its massively disruptive volcanic eruption in 2010 (who knew that it was so close?), and interest was peaked after this nation of just 320,000 people dumped England out of the Euro 2016 football tournament.
Iceland had been on my bucket list ever since I got a cheap flight back from the United States, via Reykjavik, in 2012. I had been to New Zealand – my favourite country in the world – about six months earlier, and the scenery on offer flying into Iceland evoked memories of lush valleys, vast glaciers and imposing mountain ranges.
Fortunately for me, a break in between jobs offered me the perfect opportunity to visit Iceland for 10 days in August. I was travelling with a friend and we soon set our hearts upon driving a full loop of the island. Whilst we knew we didn’t have enough time to see everything that this small but incredibly diverse country had to offer, we knew that a road trip of the island would certainly give us a flavour of what Iceland was all about. Local food and beer, hiking, whale watching, Icelandic horse riding, waterfalls and glaciers were all on our ‘to-do’ list, and after a bit of planning, our final plan involved a clockwise circuit taking in:
- The Golden Circle
- Thorsmork National Park
Below is further detail of what we did, where we stayed and some tips for your own adventure.
1) Reykjavik (2 nights)
After a three hour flight from London, we landed in Keflavik. Keflavik is about an hour from Reykjavik – Iceland’s capital city – and this is where most international flights arrive. There are endless shuttle buses to ferry you straight from the airport to Reykjavik and our driver dropped us off essentially outside our accommodation – great service!
We arrived in Reykjavik in mid-afternoon and spent the afternoon wandering around the city. It is very clean and quiet, and situated on the coast, with the harbour area offering wonderful views across the bay. There are a few museums and the you can get some great views from the top of the cathedral, but most enjoyment is to be had having a stroll through the town and enjoying some local beers. Happy hour varies from bar to bar, but generally consists of 2-4-1 on alcohol which is well worth it as a pint costs about £7/8.
We stayed in a simple but clean Air BnB for two nights which was about a 10 minute walk from the Old Harbour area. There are a few cheap hostels, as well as more expensive hotels, so you shouldn’t be stuck for options.
We ate at Sægreifinn which is down by the harbour and comes highly recommended in several guidebooks. The restaurant is small and basic but serves the most incredible lobster soup and an array of wonderfully fresh fish skewers. Minke whale steaks are available for the more curious travellers!
2) The Golden Circle
No trip to Iceland would be complete without doing the famous ‘Golden Circle’ tour which takes in the highlights of Thingvellir National Park (tectonic plates), Gullfoss waterfall and a massive geysir. We did this as an organised tour, but you could easily do it as a DIY road trip from Reykjavik. Gullfoss was the highlight and one of the best waterfalls in all of Iceland. The tour stops for lunch at a very expensive restaurant near the geysir, so it’s worth taking a packed lunch.
3) Akureyri (1 night)
The next day, we woke up early and set off on an epic 400km drive to Iceland’s second city: Akureyri. We had left ourselves a day to get up to the north of Iceland, and since we stopped perhaps every 10 minutes to take photos, this was a good decision. The landscapes are bleak, but stunning in their remoteness. Driving on the Route 1 highway which circles the island is never dull. We stopped off at the horse farm at Lýtingsstaðir where we went on a 60 minute ride through the barren countryside on short and stout Icelandic horses.
Akureyri is a small town, with a population of just 18,000 people. You can walk around the centre of town in about 20 minutes and there’s lots of cosy places to eat and drink. Its possible to do whale watching tours from the harbour year, though we decided to travel onto Husavik to do this.
4) Husavik (1 night)
An hour’s drive away from Akureyri, Husavik is a tiny fishing town overlooking Skjalfandi Bay – the prime location for embarking on whale watching cruises. On the way, we stopped off at Godafoss waterfall. As you drive through the bleak Icelandic countryside, hues of dark greens, greys and browns are suddenly pricked by a burst of ice blue, as Godafoss comes into sight. Whilst not as tall as others in Iceland, the is perhaps the most beautiful, and it’s possible to scramble down to the water’s edge to get a close-up view.
After checking into Husavik Guesthouse, we made our way down to the harbour to sign up for a cruise. Unfortunately, it was very windy/choppy so there were no cruises running that day, so after a warming hot chocolate in a nearby cafe, we decided to drive 45 mins or so out of Husavik to Ásbyrgi. There is a good visitor’s centre here which lists several day walks, and we opted for one which gave as the best view of is one of the horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon, with sheer cliff faces up to 100m high. The drive back to Husavik was mind-bogglingly beautiful, with a sunset perfectly silhouetting the sea on for the whole journey.
Back in Husavik, we went for dinner at the town’s best restaurant – Naustid. Despite being expensive, we had an excellent dinner (try the skewers!).
The next morning we got up and were greeted with a beautiful morning; perfect conditions for whale watching. We boarded the boat and got into our warm gear (part of the ticket price) and set out into the Greenland Sea.
The boat ride itself was very pleasant and we soon had eyes on Puffin Island – an unoccupied, mountainous crop of land in the middle of the sea. Now we just needed some whales! After some time, a whale surfaced and out boat raced closer to get a better look. This happened several times, as the whale teased us before diving back down out of site. In the end, we got a few decent glimpses, but not quite the picture postcard tail-shot. Wildlife watching is always going to be hit and miss – we were a bit unlucky, but it’s definitely worth giving at a go.
5) Myvatn (1 night)
Leaving Husavik, we made our way to the lake town of Myvatn. After dropping our bags off at Dimmuborgir Guesthouse, we headed towards the epic Detifoss waterfall – Iceland’s biggest. The landscape en-route turned from earthy greens and browns, to lunar blacks and greys. On arrival, there is a large carpark and a couple of trails to Detifoss, as well as to the smaller but still impressive, Selfoss. Detifoss is enormous – 100 metres wide and 44 metres high – and the power and noise emitted by this force of nature was astounding. It’s an essential visit on the waterfall trail of Iceland.
On the way back towards Myvatn, we stopped off at the sulphur lakes, with hot gases shooting out from the earth. The stench given off was horrific and I wouldn’t advise on spending long here! This thermal site is what gives the Myvatn nature baths their heat…and pong.
Near the centre of Myvatn is the Grjotagja cave which contains a 42 degree hot spring and was used for the Game of Thrones scene between John Snow and Ygritte (“you know nothing”…). Close-by is the Hverfjall crater – a gigantic cone of black volcanic rock and as – which you can climb to the top of. The views over Myvatn are breathtaking, especially at sunset. Just down the road is the Dimmuborgir National Park, where a range of trails weave in and out the other-worldy formations of black rock. Definitely worth a wander for a hour or so.
We visited the Myvatn nature baths at night time. The air was freezing but the water is very warm (you’ll never want to get out) and there is a sauna too. The baths give off a strong sulphuric smell, but it was a worthwhile experience and a cheap alternative to the Blue Lagoon.
6) Seydisfjodur (1 night)
Most people who visit Iceland tend to only go as far as Myvatn; we wanted to loop the entire island, so continued across to the town of Seydisfjodur which sits within a fjord at the start of the spectacular eastern coastline. If you visit at the right time, visit Borgarfjörður Eystri en route to see a circuit of puffins.
We stopped off for coffee in the town of Egilsstaðir, before traversing the Lagarfljót river to Hengifoss waterfall. It’s one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland, measuring 128m, falling from the plateau into a magnificent gorge. There is a colorful rock face surrounding the waterfall showing different layers from volcanic eruptions in the period when Iceland was formed. It’s about a 30 minute up-hill walk to the waterfall, but it’s well worth it and the top affords more spectacular views.
After Hengifoss, we drive up and over the mountain which leads to Seydisfjodur. The descent into the town, along a windy track into the fjord, was very scenic and we stopped several times to take pictures. We stayed at the Hafaldan Old Hospital – great accommodation. We didn’t have a huge amount of time here, but bought a couple of Icelandic ales and climbed a hill to watch the sunset over the fjord. There’s little other to see and do here than admire nature’s beauty, though I suspect there were some good walks in the surrounding area.
7) Hofn (1 night)
The drive from Seydisfjodur to Hofn, down the south-eastern coast of Iceland, was perhaps the best day of driving I have ever done. The coast is a sequence of fjords, each inlet different in scale and composition. You will find yourself stopping the car at every turn as you marvel at the scenery, so don’t rush. We stopped for a coffee at Djupivogur – a tiny hamlet with a harbour – though you will want to take a packed lunch with you from Seydisfjodur as there’s little on the way.
We actually drove past Hofn to go to the Jokulsarlon lagoon – known as the ‘lagoon of the glacial river’ – which is exactly as it sounds: a large, freezing lagoon filled with icebergs. The boat trip on the lagoon was good, though not amazing.
Retracing our path, we headed to Hofn, which is one of the larger towns on the southern side of Iceland, though very small by most standards. We stayed at the House on the Hill which was very pleasant, and after a walk through town, ate at the splendid Pakkhús restaurant. There are a couple of very good (and expensive) restaurant in Hofn, and we treated ourself to an excellent meal here. Well worth it.
8) Vik (1 night)
Carrying on clockwise round the island, we stopped of at Skaftafell glacier to do a glacier hike. This was good fun for a few hours and wasn’t too busy. There are several companies who all offer the same thing for a similar price. You will need to wear hiking boots as you need crampons, and they also provide helmets, harnesses and ice-axes. En-route, we completed the ‘Viking challenge’ – drinking water from a spring whilst completing 10 press-ups on your ice-axe…not that easy!
We continued on past yet more amazing scenery, finally arriving at the small town of Vik. Vik is famous for its black sand beaches, and despite the fact that it was rainy and windy, we wrapped up warm and ventured out onto the empty beach. We stayed outside for a few hours, writing in the sand and staring out over the wild sea. There wasn’t much else to do in Vik and the choice of restaurants wasn’t great – the cheapest option was a £12 bowl of soup from a canteen. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a visit .
9) Thorsmork National Park (1 night)
Leaving Vik, Route 1 takes you to Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. Skogafoss is very beautiful, and you can climb up a sleep slope to the top of the waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is bigger, plunging into a large pool, and you can walk behind it. Seljalandsfoss is also the place to leave your car parked to journey into Thorsmork National Park, where some of the best hiking in Iceland lies.
We locked the car and jumped onto the big, off-road bus that would take us on the slow and bumpy ride into the park. On the way, we stopped off to see the Eyjafjallajökull volcano which erupted in 2010, causing havoc across the European airspace. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at the Volcano Huts where we would be staying for the night. There’s a mixture of accommodation, and we opted to stay in the cheaper bunk houses, which were basic but comfortable. This is a popular place for hikers to stay, and reception had a range of suggested hiking routes. After some deliberation, we opted for the Tindfjöll Circle hike, which took around 6 hours. It was an epic hike, which started at the Volcano Huts, climbing into the hills, traversing along the valley, and then returning down the dry riverbed. The scenery was dramatic and stunning (see below), and we only passed a few others on the route, which added to the sense of isolation.
Our hike took in part of the multi-day Landmannalaugar hike, which is meant to be one of the best hikes in Iceland – one for a return visit!
The next morning, we had to get a bus back to Seljalandsfoss at about 11am, so we scrambled up to the rocks overlooking the Volcano Huts, which offer a stunning view over the desolate valley. When we got back to our car, we made the journey back to Reykjavik, having completed an epic 1,300km trip around the Iceland. That evening, we treated ourself to fish and chips by the harbour, and a couple more beers. The perfect end to the trip of a lifetime!
I’d been very excited about visiting Iceland, and the reality surpassed my expectations. It is a country of jaw-dropping beauty, with a vast array of landscapes. The best thing about Iceland is that is has something for everyone – hikers will be in heaven, whilst those who are less mobile can witness some of this planet’s most dramatic scenery from the comfort of their car. This is a five-star destination – what are you waiting for?