On the Road: Iceland
After an almost two-year break we were able to get back to “Europe” with a 12ish day swing through Iceland. Though Sergio had been previously for work, it was my first trip to the country and marked my 20th European country(!). Though technically part of Europe, Icelanders are independent, proud of their culture, friendly, and hardy people, and in this blog I’ll share some highlights from our trip.
Do you want to visit Iceland? My next blog post will detail all of my tips and tricks for visiting this unique country.
But for now, let’s look at some of our Iceland memories!
This trip took some extra planning because of COVID travel restrictions, and it was a butt-busting 7.5 hours in coach, but we landed just before 6am Iceland time to start our first day of sightseeing after no sleep on the plane. We were able to check in at our hotel right away, so we dropped our bags and did our favorite jetlag activity, the Rick Steves walking tour.
Reykjavik is Iceland’s largest city by far, with more than 230,000 in the metropolitan area, which is comparable to Birmingham, AL or Norfolk, VA. The country as a whole has about 350,000 people, shy of the sheep population of almost 500,000. In short, it’s a lot of land but most people are clustered together in one city.
Reykjavik is incredibly charming, a hodgepodge of buildings and styles, one of the safest cities in the world, and quite windy! Founded in the 1780s, it is young by Icelandic standards. It’s easily walkable and has a manageable number of small sights, very expensive shopping and dining, and lots of birds.
Though the weather was a bit cold and grey, it was still quite pleasant and the number of tourists was minimal, a big reason we prefer to travel in the shoulder season. There was also plenty of great food to be had here, both international and New Nordic, which is not necessarily the case in other parts of the country. Reykjavik is also known for its large cat population; these well-loved, well-groomed kitties get a few hours outside each day and we made it our mission to pet as many as possible (sorry Astrix).
And after that walking tour? Enter the best four-hour nap of my life.
While Reykjavik feels much like many midsized European cities, especially Nordic ones, it was the rest of the trip that was something quite different. It’s hard to compare Iceland to other places, because it’s not quite like an American National Park or the European countryside or even lava-covered landscapes like Hawai’i’s Big Island, but a thing entirely of its own. You can choose to do a smaller loop close to Reykjavik called The Golden Circle (either on your own or with a tour), or drive the Ring Road, a loop of more than 800 miles around the country. We decided to rent a car and drive the whole thing, starting with The Golden Circle.
There are three main sites to visit on the Golden Circle; Pingvellir, the meeting of the North American and European Plates (and location of the original Icelandic parliament), a geothermic field, and Gullfoss, the country’s second-largest waterfall. Even though this route is pretty touristy, the sites are large, easy to navigate, and well worth the day trip (you can add on some minor sites if you have extra time).
And the Golden Circle kicked off our Ring Road tour in our trusty Hyundai wagon. We used a service called Nordic Visitor that booked our hotels as we traveled the Ring counter-clockwise, as well as our car. And this was our introduction to rural Iceland life, complete with lots of sheep, traditional Icelandic food (meat, potatoes, bread, iceberg lettuce — maybe!), and lots and lots of time driving. Lots and lots of time driving.
The South Coast is really the star of the trip, which has some of Iceland’s best known sites. If you like waterfalls, it has many — all easy to access — as well as windswept vistas and black-sand beaches, though the latter are a bit overrated, in my opinion. Iceland makes these places easy to visit — they are well-signed, have convenient parking and restrooms, and are well-maintained.
Iceland has many fantastic, and often overlooked, museums, and we were able to visit our first in this region. Like all Scandinavian countries, open-air museums are a fun place to walk through dwellings from previous times brought to one place from around the country, and Skogar was small but delightful.
But the real star of the South Coast is the Vatnajokull Glacier, which is huuuuuuuge even though you will likely just see a small part of it.
How big is it? It’s the largest glacier in Europe, covering more than 8% of Iceland, and has enough water to fill 1.7 billion swimming pools (thank you, Internet, for these fun facts).
And as we started off to visit it it was rainy, windy, and cold. Oh yes, and foggy.
I’ll cover this in my upcoming planning blog, but yes, the weather in Iceland is that finicky! A blogger said that you’re fine as long as you have just two of rain, wind, or cold, but if you have all three, good luck! We did some small walks around two of the lagoons but gave up on our two 2-mile hikes, which would have been miserable in cold, blowing rain.
We did make it down to the Diamond Beach, which is where icebergs that calve from the glacier are washed up onto the shore. It was pouring rain and the waves were churning, but wow, was it a magnificent spectacle nonetheless! It’s a bit hard to tell from the photos, but I’d estimate the larger icebergs in the waves were probably the size of a small bus or a large car!
We ended up huddling in our hotel and reading, another Icelandic hobby, with the hope that we’d have better luck the next day before we left the area and continued on our way.
Thankfully, we did.
It was awe-inspiring — just a group of people standing on the edge of the glacial lake watching, admiring, and gawking at all of it, stunned into silence. The seals played in the water and the seabirds flocked, but we just stared.
Unfortunately that was all that happened in that day that was interesting, as by bad luck we had the longest (and most boring) stretch of road, almost seven hours of driving, including an interesting stretch over a graveled mountain pass. Driving in Iceland is not for the weak, which I’ll share more about in the next post. But this did bring us to Northern Iceland and two nights in Myvatn.
Side note: Icelandic is horribly hard to pronounce. They like to say that those who speak a Germanic language, including English, can easily pick it up. That is a lie. But don’t worry — everyone speaks English. You’ll be fine.
But back to Myvatn, a place that I think is both over- and under-sold. I can’t tell you how many times I heard it referred to as “The Yellowstone of Iceland.”
If you’ve been to Yellowstone, I promise you Myvatn will suffer because of this comparison. And that’s not because it’s not cool — it is lovely, though in a much more understated way than, say, the Grand Prismatic Spring. It also smells 100x worse than the stinkiest parts of Yellowstone, which isn’t helping, and it’s filled with gnats.
What was I saying? Ah yes, Myvatn. We did take a beautiful nature walk near the “lava bubbles.” And I took a fantastic nap one day, which, given the cost of driving, was well worth the time.
We took a detour off of the Ring to the Trollaskagi (Troll) Peninsula, taking us to one of the most northern parts of mainland Iceland, just short of the Arctic Circle. Not only did this involve one-way tunnels(!) and incredible vistas, it took us to the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjordur, probably the coolest museum of our trip. Fishing and smelting were, traditionally, the two main industries Iceland, both surpassed by tourism a few years ago. This museum showed what herring fishing and canning was like and came with a live demonstration, including song, dance, and plenty of headless herring.
We also enjoyed the Glaumbaer Museum, a “traditional” Icelandic sod farmhouse complex, sixteen sod buildings with wooden and grass and glass to round them out, built into the side of the earth. Used as a farm until 1947, it was fascinating to see the resourcefulness and creativity of the builders and how they could access most of the buildings through indoor sod tunnels instead of wandering out into the wintery weather.
About this part in the trip we encountered another common driving challenge — gravel roads. Road quality is quite varied in Iceland, even on some parts of the Ring. In general, driving the Ring seems to require both competence and confidence behind the wheel (and extra insurance!). On one particularly challenging gravel road our tire pressure light activated… and then after Sergio reset it, it activated again! We had to stop several times to check to make sure the tires weren’t flat. In actuality the rough road was just causing the tires to deflate little by little, from 32 psi all the way down to 25! All was resolved after a tense 30km drive to a service station the following morning.
Our last main stop before returning to Reykjavik was the Haafell Goat Farm just outside of Borgarnes. Jóhanna felt compelled to save this “native” (brought over by Vikings more than a century ago and evolving on its own since then) breed from extinction. It sounded like a labor of love, and now you can visit the farm, eat goat cheese and goat ice cream, buy goat’s milk soaps and, most importantly, pet and play with the goats — who are more or less big cats.
Was I tired of driving at this point? Yes. Yes, I was. Thankfully we rolled back into Reykjavik for more reading and book shopping and a quick stop by the Whales of Iceland, a great stop if you, like me, get seasick — and you get to see the “whales” at real-size, which was quite humbling.
Our last night was spent at the Blue Lagoon; Sergio was kind enough to book us a hotel there, as well as the spa experience. Because it is close to the airport, it is a good first or last stop for your Iceland trip. The Blue Lagoon is fed from natural geothermal springs and is a milky-blue color due to salts and silica. Because it was another Iceland trifecta day (windy, pouring rain, and cold), we were thankful we booked the “spa.” In short, it’s a smaller, more private part of the lagoon, private changing rooms, many indoor relaxation spaces, complementary body scrubs and masks, etc. The weather was so miserable we were only outside for a short period of time, but it was a lovely way to relax overall. As Sergio had visited the Blue Lagoon on his last trip, he said that it really did make a difference to have the other experience.
We spent our final day packing and prepping for another butt-busting 7.5 hours on our flight home, and we arrived safely with no problems, despite all of the longer lines due to COVID protocols. If you are thinking of traveling to Iceland during the pandemic, I’d recommend it. Almost all eligible Icelanders age 12+ are vaccinated, they have strict testing requirements to enter (and if you are unvaccinated, you’ll also have to complete a five-day quarantine with another negative test at the end of that period), and you’ll spend much of your time out-of-doors and socially-distant from others, all of whom had to test negative and/or quarantine to enter.
What I didn’t cover is how I felt about Iceland, which is a bit conflicted. As you can see from my photos, there are some incredible sights to see, and car trips always give Sergio and I an opportunity to become closer, learn together by listening to podcasts, and argue over his driving performance (sorry honey). Icelanders are kind and friendly, but not loud and extroverted, so they are definitely my sort of people; it should also be noted that they read the most per capita in the world, so I feel that too.
Why my questioning then? I’m not entirely sure. This was certainly not the type of vacation I gravitate towards and this many hours of driving can get tiring. I do think some logistical adjustments, either taking more time or driving half of the Ring, would have led to me having more energy. And, to be honest, I felt a lot of anxiety! This was our first international trip post-COVID and I felt like there were a lot of unknowns. It could be that Iceland is a perfect fit for you, especially if you are outdoorsy and flexible and, quite frankly, a bit cooler than me.
Are you Iceland curious now? Great! My next post will get you into all of the Iceland details — when to go, how to plan, what to expect, and, most importantly, what to pack!
Until then, I’m planning my next trip… hopefully to New Mexico!