Although Iceland is the IT destination these days, visiting the country had been at the top of my bucket list since I was ten, long before I even knew what a bucket list was. It took me another forty-one years to set foot on the land that had captured my imagination while looking at National Geographic pictures as a child. Last summer, my daughter, Georgia, and I arrived in Iceland and embarked on a fourteen-day road trip following the famed Route 1 that rings the country. After the twelfth person asked me to help plan their 2016 summer trip, I decided to organize my travel notes and pictures to create a blog post. I hope you find it helpful and let me know if you have any questions.
Days 1 – 2 (July 22-23):
We landed at the Reykjavík International Airport after what seemed like days of travel with little sleep and only two hours of darkness. The time warp enhanced the other-worldliness of Iceland. The airport was desolate and grey. I had imagined more green.
We arranged to have an agent from Route 1 Car Rental meet us at the airport. We set off immediately on the 90 minutes drive, southeast, to the ferry that brought us, and our car, to Vestmannaeyer Island. Across from the ferry stop is the famed Seljalandsfoss Falls which was our introduction to the waterfalls in Iceland.
We easily found the Aska Hostel. It took my daughter a bit of time to digest the communal situation which for me was enchanting in the most Icelandic-mother-earth-kind of way. We had the best meal I had in Iceland at the Gott Restaurant which is in the same building. The Aska is in walking distance to the pool, Eldfell Volcano, restaurants, and grocery stores.
We began our second day with hiking to the world’s largest puffin colony and then climbed Eldfell Volcano. It erupted in 1973 and created a 200-meter-high mountain where a meadow had been, and caused the island’s 5,000 inhabitants to be temporarily evacuated to the mainland. Remarkably no one was killed. There is a place at the top of Eldfell that is still too hot to touch.
Vestmannaeyer is host to the largest multi-day music festival in Iceland. It was established in 1874 to celebrate the 1.000 year anniversary of Icelandic settlement and today boasts 16,000 attendees. It is always held during the last week of July or the first week of August, so make sure you plan accordingly if you want to join or skip the party. We missed the festival by a couple of days.
We then took the ferry back to the mainland and continued southeast, first to walk the black beaches at Vik and then northeast to Jokulsarlon and the Glacier Lagoon. Stops along the way included Skógafoss waterfall, hikes through bizarre desolate lumpy flatlands, and playing with cows.
Tips for driving: Iceland is an extremely safe country for women to travel alone. Everyone speaks English, Danish, and Icelandic and are very willing to help tourists with questions and suggestions. Before you leave the city, purchase gas cards. In some of the more isolated regions, gas stations do not have attendants and you are unable to use credit cards. Mind your gas gauge, as stations can be hard to find along Route 1. Food is expensive so stock up at grocery stores and bring picnic items along with you. Most guest houses provide a free breakfast and it should be a consideration when you make reservations. Take advantage of the 24 hours of daylight. I drove at all hours and always felt safe. Be careful of sheep, they are everywhere and have the right of way. Be mindful that many of the rural bridges are one lane and drivers take turns crossing.
The Ferry from Landeyjahofn to Vestmannaeyjar http://eimskip.is/en/Pages/default.aspx;http://askahostel.is/aska/
Day 3 (July 24):
We stayed at the Hali Country Hotel so we could be out with the first boat at Glacier Lagoon, in Jokulsarlon, about 250 miles (400 km) from Reykjavík. The Hali had a good restaurant with accomodating hours for meals and the best black-out curtains in the rooms. It was freeezing and after suiting up in protective gear our group lauched at 8am, before the crowds, in two small boats of eight people. When I say small boat, I mean an inflatable row boat with an engine and no seats. We sat on the sides and held on to a rope. A person can only survive in the water for 30 seconds, so hold on tightly. We toured the bay for about an hour, going all the way up to the glacier. The entire time Georgia baited me with pretending to fall back overboard. The light in Iceland is very flat and that morning it was also thickly gray which made the blue ice more pronounced. Complete silence except for the sounds of the glacier moving and the river flowing below. Spectacular!
We then drove to Hoffell. A local told us about a remote hot spring, a little off road, but in our general direction northeast. The hot springs were such a highlight and they are everywhere in Iceland. Invest the time to research and ask the locals where to go – add stops if possible.
After the hot springs, we began our longest driving day through the remote terrain that runs along the coast and across the gorge to Egilsstaðir. There is a short cut over the gorge that an Icelander convinced me to take and the decision finished off my adrenals. It was like driving on a balance beam on the edge of a plummeting-to-certain-death gorge. I’m terrified of heights and for much of the hour that it took to cross we were driving in the clouds, with a bus barreling down on me, and I could not see further than a few feet.
On the other side we were greeted by the first trees I have seen in Iceland as we drove into Egilsstaðir, a town in east Iceland on the banks of the Lagarfljót River. After the Viking settlers cut the trees down throughout Iceland, the wind and harsh winter conditions have made regrowth impossible. Much like Loch Ness, Egilsstaðir is famous for its lake monster sightings. We spent the night in Egilsstaðir at the Lyngas Hostel. Staying in hostels and guesthouses is an enjoyable way to meet other travelers and locals. If you have the time, visit the Egilsstadir swimming pool.
Day 4 (July 25):
We left Lyngas Guesthouse in Egilsstaðir and headed west, toward Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Dettifoss and Selfoss, bringing us across the lunar-like expanses of the eastern highlands. In 1965 and 1967 a group of Astronauts from NASA came to the area to prepared for the first moon landing. Iceland has so many waterfalls that I stopped photographing them. It’s like the entire country has sprung a leak.
I was not sure that I wanted to go off road to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss. In the end we turned off Route 1 and once again Iceland upped the wow factor. We took the 5 mile hike to the floor of the canyon below the falls. I highly recommend this stop but add the hike to get your legs moving after quite a bit of driving.
From the falls we continued northwest to see the bubbling hot mud pools of Hverir and hiked to the top of Mt. Namafjall. The view of Lake Myvatn is fantastic. From there we visited the Myvatn Natural Baths which are located just 65 miles from the arctic circle. They are manmade pools made from runoff water from the nearby Bjarnarflag geothermal borehole – which also runs a power station. Because of an algae that lives in the water, the pools are the color of a blue raspberry popsicle.
After a couple hours soaking in the pools, we headed further west to our final destination of the day, Akureyri, referred to as the second capitol of Iceland. More like a large town than a city, it has a bohemian feel with many hipsters, lots of man buns, and adventure travelers.
We stayed in a sweet guest house, The Hrafnin, in the center of town near pools and restaurants. Make time to see the bonanical gardens and the Akureyrarkirkja Church which is the symbol of Akureyri. It is a Lutheran church and was designed by architect Gudjon Samuelsson and consecrated in 1940.
Days 5-7 (July 26 -28):
On our first full day in Akureyri, I let Georgia sleep in and we spent the early afternoon eating donuts (lots of donuts) and drinking terrible coffee in the town square. Iceland has the best donuts I have ever tasted – now the coffee is another story. Icelanders probably do not need coffee because I have found that they’re naturally cheery and industrious – a spike in caffeine may throw off their even-keeled temperaments. The red stop lights in Akureyri are shaped like hearts – these are not people who need coffee.
From Akureyri, we headed to Husavik for a day trip, a tiny town of 3,000 established in 870 AD, which is touted as the whale watching capital of the world. The drive from Akureyri was about 40 minutes and was our most northern stop of this trip. We went out at 6pm with an unusually small group. They gave us astronaut-like thermal suits to keep warm but it was still so cold. The reality of the cold sea made me wonder about what possessed the Vikings to get into a their wooden boats. It takes an hour to sail to the where most sightings occur.
I have never been on a whale watch so when I was looking out at the vast grey sea, it felt like seeing a whale was going to be a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then out of no where a Hump Back whale followed our boat closely for almost an hour. At times he was 50 yards from our boat and you could see his eye. It was remarkable. I didn’t take many pictures because I didn’t want to miss the experience. A whale is much quieter than I had imagined and very graceful. I thought about one of my favorite books, She’s Come Undone, and how the novel ends with Delores seeing the whale and finding peace. One last thing – the sea does not smell fishy or salty but rather like sweet rain. Can’t speak more highly of North Sailing for whale watching! I also recommend eating at Naustid next to the pier. We drove back to our guesthouse at midnight.
The following day we were back to our usual pace. Top on Georgia’s list of things to do in Iceland was to ride the Icelandic horses. There are 320,000 people living in Iceland along with more than 80,000 horses. Brought to Iceland by the Vikings between 860 and 935 AD, the horses are short, stocky, hardy creatures and are the ONLY breed allowed in country. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported and exported animals are not allowed to return. While other horse breeds walk, trot, canter and gallop, the Icelandic horse can tölt, which is an ambling gait known as the 5th gear. We rode for about 4 hours along the coast outside of Akureyri with a German family with two teenagers. I highly recommend Eldhestar Stables.
I’m drawn to the volcanic terrain around Lake Myvatn. The remote landscape is like nowhere else in Iceland so we decided take the hour-long drive to backtrack and return to the area after our morning ride for our last day in Akureyri.
We hiked the trails at Dimmuborgir, a large area of unusually shaped lava fields and hobbitesque rock formations. In Icelandic lore the place is home to the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous trolls who have morphed over the centuries from children eaters to modern day prankster Santas. We then hiked up the Leirhnjukur crater and walked around the Kraft Lava Fields. Georgia has a hard time with the intense sulfur smell that is ever present. Leirhnjukur was one of the smelliest hikes that we had taken so it was more of a sprint than a hike.
We ate dinner at the CowShed, or Vogafjos, Restaurant where the cows raised on the farm produced all the milk for the dairy products. We had the most unbelievable ice creams – one was made with a local flower that tasted like clover and the other was made with pieces of the local dark, sticky, brown bread and it tasted like grape nut ice cream.We finished dinner at 10pm but the Myvatn Natural Blue Baths were calling to us and are open until midnight in the summer. The near full moon, midnight sunset, and the steam rising from the ever-lowering air temperature made the pools look like another planet. It was about 11:30pm when we headed back to Akureyri.
We passed Lake Myvatn which had become transformed by the unique light at midnight. The skies become pink and blue like the color of the bags of cotton candy that are sold at amusement parks. It makes the water and all reflective surfaces pink and blue which then over-saturates the Irish-hillside green of the mini volcanic peaks erupting from the lake. That’s when the intense fog appeared and the scene became like a mythical city in the clouds. It was magical and lovely until the sun went down further and the fog closed us in so we could not see further than 20 feet to any side. Icelandic roads are two lanes with just barely enough room for two cars, no guard rails, sheep everywhere, and 90% of all bridges allow for only one car to pass at a time. We did make it back, very slowly, but it’s not the end of the story… so when we finally get to our guesthouse, exhausted, we see a car pull up to meet another car at the end of the parking lot. We don’t think anything of it. I have never been worried about traveling as woman, alone with Georgia, in Iceland – even in the most remote areas. It honestly feels like the safest place on earth … until one of the men in the back of the second car jumped out wearing a Scream mask. Georgia and I ran to our guesthouse, and of course fumbled for our keys like all characters in a scary movie. We made it inside and they drove off. It was probably nothing, it’s Iceland – just another twist in a dream-like day.
Day 8 (July 29):
There are two kinds of people, drivers and co-pilots. I am a driver. I have five simple rules for co-pilot certification. 1) All co-pilots need to know how to read a map very quickly. Even with it’s mighty directional brain, GPS can often NOT find the remote, off the grid, place that only a true hold-in-your-hands-map can find. 2) The co-pilot needs to know your go-to beverage and snack choices and have them stocked and readily available. 3) They need to have trained their bladder prior to the road trip because no one wants a bathroom needy co-pilot. 4) The job includes music maintenance, first-aid, and gas station reconnaissance. 5) Co-pilots need to be cheery when on duty and can only sleep with permission from the driver. It sounds like a easy list to master but it takes a bit of practice for driver and co-pilot to fully synch. Georgia earned her co-pilot certification as we left Akureyri. When I got in the car I immediately noticed that she had placed 2 pieces of my new favorite Icelandic Eucalyptus gum in the compartment above the stick shift, the map was on the dashboard AND folded correctly, the GPS was programmed and the radio was playing a hipster Icelandic song. The synching of driver and co-pilot – now that is the meaning of a road trip.
The day was taken up by the long drive from Akureyri to Reykjavík with a side trip to the public pool in the tiny northern village of Hofsos – it’s on THE list of must visit thermal pools. Iceland has a vibrant public pool culture. Almost every town, no matter how small, has a thermal public pool: it usually consists of two hot tubs (hot and hotter), a swimming pool, a steam room and public showers. You have to be comfortable with same-gender nudity in the locker rooms –as you are given instructions to take an Icelandic shower (translation: naked) that includes a color coded anatomical chart of essential body parts to be washed. The pool lived up to the hype. It was designed by the same architect responsible for the Blue Lagoon and built into the hillside above the sea. The pool looks out on Drang Isles that tower majestically in the midst of Skagafjörður fjord. The island is the remnant of a 700,000 year old volcano. The tiny town also is home to the Icelandic Emigration Centre, founded in 1996, and dedicated to commemorate Icelandic emigrants to Canada and the United States.
We finally made it made to Reykjavík in the evening after passing through the impressive 3.5 mile Hvalfjörður Tunnel under the Hvalfjörður fjord. Of course, Iceland even has spectacular tunnels. It was getting late and it took us a while to find our little apartment at Room With A View hidden in the center of town. The place was recommended to us by a friend who recently visited Iceland and it was perfect. I left Georgia to rest and walked to the grocery store to buy food for the next couple of days. After we ate, I walked around the city a bit to get a sense of the place. By then it was close to midnight and everything was quiet. I was first struck by the San Francisco-color-palette monopoly shaped houses, quirkily arranged. The city pulsated with a creative energy that felt a bit rascally in a very understated Danish way. I know that sounds like a messy scramble of images but it was my first impression.
Days 9 – 14 (July 30 – August 5):
We began our 5 days in Reykjavik. If I were traveling alone, I would have continued into the Western Fjords, the most northwest peninsula of Iceland that looks like an out-stretched paw in the Sea of Denmark. The region, with the worst, most precarious roads in Iceland, is visited by only 3%of tourists and is usually skipped in most people’s Route 1 itineraries. This remote, inaccessible region deserves at least 4-5 days to appreciate its stark abandoned landscape. Instead I made the decision to rent an efficiency apartment in the center of Reykjavik. As I grow older I crave time in wild places in order to strip off the layers accumulated from 51 years of living. But this trip was for two and I wanted to respect the instinctive teenage curiosity that pushes them to seek out new stimulation so they can build and shape their budding identities. It has been my experience, over the last nine years of raising teenagers, that they need to join rather than escape.
Reykjavik is a gentle city to discover and join. It’s the perfect reflection of its people:
Egalitarian, industrious, outdoorsy, reflective, quiet yet celebratory, balanced but quirky, traditional and yet so forward thinking, and simultaneously Viking-esque, bohemian, and sophisticated. The Icelandic creativity is everywhere – in most window sills, back yards and front stoops, in the graffiti (both sanctioned and not), in each flower pot, in the communal caring of the city’s cats, in the abundant public art, in the plentiful kind helpfulness.
The Icelandic people live surrounded by the most majestic examples that nature can serve up and yet their biggest city is created on a modest, comforting human scale – no detail or invention is too small to add to the cityscape. Like the tiny purple and yellow flowers that thrive in the cracks of the black volcanic rocks of the country’s dramatic terrain, the people of Iceland have found a way to masterfully adapt to their environment. I made a hybrid plan of day trips out into the country from our home base in Reykjavik but the focus was to live among the Icelanders. We grocery shopped, cooked meals, found favorite cafes for coffee and soup, talked about politics and favorite hot springs with locals and tourists from all over the world, did laundry and washed dishes, laughed a lot, swam in the public pools, listened to music, played and relaxed in the parks, visited art museums, and rode horses at Laxnes Stables. We walked everywhere. We were Icelandic.
We took a day to take in the Golden Circle which included the underwhelming Strokkur Geyser which shoots a column of water up to 30 meters (98 ft.) into the air every 4-8 minutes; Gullfoss waterfall, created by the Hvítá River, which tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32 m (105 ft.) deep; and the historical and geological wonder that is Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year. This is where most tourists visit when in Iceland. Having just completed our journey around the country, Georgia and I felt the Golden Circle was a bit like the Cliff Notes’ version of Iceland. We enjoyed Thingvellir National Park the most. In addition to the natural beauty, it is the historical site of Althing – the oldest legislature in the world still existing. It was founded in 930 at Thingvellir and continued until 1798 as an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland. We topped off the day with an evening at the famous Blue Lagoon. It did not disappoint, even though it was very touristy.
Over the past 500 years, Iceland’s volcanoes have erupted a third of the total global lava output. Iceland has 130 volcanic mountains, 30 of which are considered active.
On our final day in Iceland, we took an early morning bus, about 45 minutes outside the city, and hiked to Thrihnukagigur. Inside the Volcano is the only place in the world that you are able to be lowered down into a volcano’s magma chamber – usually volcanic chambers are plugged or sealed shut during the eruption. In 1974 the chamber was discovered by young skier who was lowered, with a rope around his waist, 440 feet to the bottom. In 2011 National Geographic did a documentary on the chamber and devised an elaborate method to lower people into the volcano using an open elevator, similar to that used by window washers. The elevator holds only 5-6 people at a time and it takes seven minutes to ride to the bottom. Thick cable wires move the elevator up and down. The volcano was opened up to visitors in 2012. I’m very scared of heights and a bit claustrophobic so I looked at a lot of footage and pictures of the chamber prior to our decision to go for it. I was expecting the colors but not the enormous, cathedral-like size of the chamber. The guide explained the colors as being like glaze on pottery. I read an account that described the colors as looking like spilled oil on water. Each group has about 40 minutes at the bottom. Again, it’s a place to experience and not to take a lot of pictures. I have found that Iceland just shakes it’s head at my puny attempts to capture the true power of it’s landscapes.
We were back in the city at about 1pm and decided to go to several museums that had been closed the prior two days because of the Icelandic Labor Day weekend. That sounds daunting, but museums in Reykjavik are organized much more sanely than in the states. There are many small museums throughout the city linked under an umbrella organization. I love it because it serves up art in easily consumable portions with no underlying panic that you will run out of time or attention span – even a teenager’s attention span. Each exhibit is also muti-sensory. As you can image, the landscape is central to the country’s art. We were pleasantly surprised to find how well women artists are represented at every museum.
At the National Gallery of Iceland, 63% of the artists are men and 37% are women. Compare that to 5% women artists at the MoMA and 3% women artists New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Our favorites: Júlíana Sveinsdóttir (1889-1966 ), Ruth Smith (1913-1958), Kathy Clark (1967-), Hulda Hakon (1956 -). Of course we loved the the most famous Icelandic painter, Kjarval (1885 – 1972). He is beloved for his fanciful style and his love affair with Iceland and its people. We first saw a sculpture of Einar Jonsson (1874-1954) on the Westman Island and were grateful to find that he donated his home and all of his work to create Iceland’s first museum, located next to the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik.
We finished our day with a swim at Sundhollin, the oldest public pool (1937) in Reykjavik, about a 15 minute walk from our apartment. We swam, soaked, steamed, and Georgia did flips off the old-school diving board. We stayed until 10pm and headed back to pack. We look the bus to the airport which was easy and much cheaper than a cab.
When we left we felt like we had just skimmed the surface of this spectacular country. We will be back! Thank you Iceland!
I took all of the photos that appear in this blog.
http://www.iheartreykjavik.net The best website about Reykjavik and Iceland. They have an hour long walking tour of Reykjavik which is terrific and sets you in motion for your stay.
http://www.visitreykjavik.is/hallgrimskirkja-church There are several inexpensive concerts at the church each week so you can hear the famed organ play
http://matarkistan.is Our favorite restaurant in Reykjavik
http://www.laxnes.is Loved Laxnes Stables! They provided pickup/drop-off from Reykjavik.