This trip obviously was not in our RV but we wanted to document the beauty of the scenery in Iceland on our 16 day adventure with our friends Linda and Phil. This blog will cover the first half of our trip and a subsequent blog will cover the rest. It is very inexpensive to fly to Iceland but once you get there everything else is very expensive so plan ahead for your trip! We rented a 4×4 to travel around (very glad based on some of the roads we travelled) and stayed at a combination of Airbnb’s, Hotel’s, and VRBO’s which allowed us to prepare some of our own meals reducing the cost of food. When we did go to restaurants we were blown away by the amazing quality of the food but of course that always came with a hefty price tag. However the prices were inclusive of taxes and tips so you didn’t have to factor those in after. In total we covered just short of 4,000 KMS in the 16 days so depending on how much of the country you want to see plan for a lot of driving. The roads are quite narrow with zero shoulders in many places and we also had a lot of gravel roads to get to our destinations.
If you want to consume alcohol on your vacation be sure to optimize your duty free purchases as you enter the country. You can buy 6 units which is equivalent to 6 bottles of wine. Also you can purchase a SIMM card for your phone in advance which can be helpful for calling in the country but also very useful for the data access so you can look things up as you travel. Booking accommodations is quite challenging now in the high season because so many tourists are going to Iceland so again plan well in advance. It was only a 4 hour time change for us which was very easy to adapt to based on our flight times. During the time period we were there we never had any darkness. Technically the sun was setting and rising but it was just like a dusk time period (it can make sleeping difficult). You can use your credit card for all transactions (including parking lots) so we didn’t use any cash during our stay.
Since our accommodation was all pre booked Sharon had done daily Google Map Itineraries that listed the possible sightseeing stops (as well as using several tour books) and the accommodation information for that evening. This document was incredibly useful as we used our Smartphone GPS to route us to each stop. It also allowed us to pick and choose which stops to make if it was getting late in the day and we had a lot of distance still to cover. That’s a bit of background on travelling in Iceland but feel free to reach out to me if you have questions, now on to the trip.
It was a 5.5 hour flight from Toronto to Keflavik International Airport on Icelandair. There were some interesting sculptures around the airport. We took the bus to our hotel and grabbed a few hours of sleep before Linda and Phil arrived. We picked up our rental vehicle at Blue Car Rental and it was a Toyota Hilux Invincible Diesel 4×4. We were very glad to have the 33” tires for the extra ground clearance but the cap on the back of the pickup did allow a lot of dust to enter when we drove on dusty gravel roads. When we went out for Pizza dinner that night Phil and I got photo bombed by a young boy in the booth next to ours;-)
The start of our first day touring was extremely windy and rainy so we hoped the entire time period would not be that way (and it wasn’t). The car rental place even warned you that if the wind caught your door when you opened it and broke it that the insurance wouldn’t cover this! We started touring the Southwest corner (Reykjanes Peninsula – Unesco Global Geopark) and our first stop was Bru Milli Heimsalfa which is the Bridge between two continents. The fault line between the North American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates runs right through Iceland so there are actually many locations in the country where you can see the fissure line. The plates are drifting apart by 2 cm per year and there is a lot of Geothermal activity along the fault. We crossed the bridge and also attempted the photo from below where you try to balance the bridge on your hands;-)
Our next stop was the Gunnuhver area to see the geothermal plant (produces electricity from the steam off the hot saline water underground), took a 4×4 road to the coast to see where the fault line came out of the ocean for the Mid-Atlantic ridge and see the bubbling mud pools that reach up to 100 C. Of course lots of sulphur smells in this area.
Our next stop was Brimketill (Surf Cauldron) to see the tidal pool and the waves crashing against the Lava coastline. There was a saga of the night troll Oddny who lived just west of Brimketill and was having a bath in the pool when the sun came up and turned her to stone. Iceland is famous for the saga stories. We carried along the southern coast seeing lots of sheep and went through the town of Grindavik, past Festarfjall mountain to our next stop which was Krysuvikurberg Cliffs. There was a tourist site sign for the gravel road but we really started to wonder as we crossed large rocks, a broken down cattle grate, and in turn a small creek. A few other vehicles had ventured down the road so we continued to see the cliffs. Once we reached the end of the road we figured it had been worth it to venture there with an amazing cliff edge and tons of seagulls nesting all along the cliffs.
As we reached the town of Selfoss the weather was starting to clear and we stopped for our first amazing meal in Iceland which was Fish and Chips and Thule beer. We bought some breakfast/lunch groceries at the Bonus store and carried on to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall (60 M high). Most of the tourist sites in Iceland don’t have entrance costs but some (like Seljalandsfoss) have paid parking (others charge for bathroom usage). We knew we could take the trail behind this waterfall so we put on our rain pants and rain jackets and circled behind the waterfall (where we got very wet). Our conditions were spectacular for photos!
The driving distances are large if you circle all of Iceland but the views along the way are spectacular so you don’t mind it, especially if you have a couple of people sharing the driving like we did (Phil and I). The next major waterfall was Skogafoss which also drops about 60 M but has more volume than Seljalandsfoss. I had downloaded the Alltrails map for the hiking trail so we climbed the stairs beside Skogafoss so we could see the top and in turn we followed the trail part way up the gorge to several smaller but equally beautiful waterfalls.
We passed a couple of glaciers in the next section but due to time we couldn’t stop. We did stop at Reynisfjara Beach which is also called the black beach to see the Basalt formations, the pinnacles, and also Halsanefshellir Cave even though it was pouring rain and felt very cold. You had to be careful to see the cave based on the tide levels and the wave action (several tourists have died here).
Our next stop along the road was the green lava fields called Skaftareldahraun from the Laki Eruption between 1783 and 1784. The lava fields are green now due to a thick (50 cm) coating of woolly fringe moss which prevents anything else from growing. The Laki eruption was famous due to the impacts of the toxic prine and sulphur gases which mixed with moisture in the air to create sulphuric acid which poisoned the fields and the ground water and caused the climate to cool. The impact was called the Mist Hardships and caused the population of Iceland to drop by 1/5 and half of the livestock perished. The gases also spread to areas in Europe similar to the most recent ash impacts from the 2010 eruption.
After a 12 hour day of travelling and seeing the sights we arrived at the Fosshotel Nupar around 8:30 PM. Luckily we could still get a 9:30 PM seating for dinner and we closed down the restaurant after a spectacular meal (Arctic Char and Lamb). It was an expensive evening but we had so much fun and so many laughs it was crazy. At midnight after dinner we went for a walk and of course it was still light out! Fosshotel is a chain in Iceland but each hotel has unique architecture that blends in with the surrounding landscape. I’ll close day two of our travels with a Google Map showing where we had driven and what we had seen and the distances travelled.
The next morning our first stop was Vatnajokulspjodgardur National Park (yes that’s 21 letters long;-) ) after we drove through the flood plain. There was a flood from the glacier in 1996 that took out the road and twisted the metal beams of the main bridge into pretzels. The National Park includes an ice cap that is 13,952 square KMS which is actually 14% of Iceland. Vatnajokull glacier is the world’s most voluminous outside of the Arctic Circle. All along the road you can see glacier tongues flowing towards the lowlands. We decided to do the Svartifoss Waterfall hike and then return via Sel. The hike was about 5 KMS and had a 179 M elevation gain. We had a cloudy hike but we were glad it wasn’t raining like it was when we left the hotel. The waterfall had very pretty basalt columns. We walked over to Sel and it was cool seeing the farm houses built into the hill with grass roofs, especially as we could also see inside. On the way back we saw what we believe was a Common Snipe bird in the creek.
Our next stop after the NP was Fjallsarlon which was a glacier lagoon just off the main road. Chunks of the Fjallsjokull glacier (a tongue from Vatnajokull) break off into the lagoon and the shapes and colours were very cool (pun intended) to see.
The next glacier lagoon was Jokulsarlon which flows under a suspension bridge to the ocean and what they call Diamond Beach as the glacial chunks break into smaller pieces. We stopped on the west side which was far less touristed. We even saw a couple of seals swimming amongst the icebergs. The lagoon is fed from the Breioamerkurjokull tongue of the Vatnajokull glacier and is 200 M deep. About 100 M of the glacier breaks off every year. You could spend hours looking at the shapes and colours and seeing the sections move down the river.
After Diamond Beach we went to Hofn where we stopped for groceries, beer, and diesel. We had a large distance to cover to get to our cottage rental in Seydisfjordur so we followed Highway 1 along the beautiful East coast of Iceland until we reached a shortcut gravel road called Oxi road (939). For some reason I seemed to be the lucky one to have the crazy driving conditions whenever I took the wheel! Here’s the description of this road on the Dangerous Roads website: “It’s a steep and narrow gravel mountain road with sections up to a 17% grade. Along the road you will literally be driving up and over the Axarvegur Mountain. You zigzag your way up various steep inclines along a ravine with no guard rails. The drive has many blind corners and you never know when a car will be coming towards you. The shortcut road saves you 60 KMS”. This was definitely a white knuckle ride but the views were spectacular and our 4×4 did its job well. Along the road we saw the Folaldafoss Waterfall.
Eventually we finished the gravel road and followed a paved section along Lagarfljot until we reached Egilsstadir where we started the next scary section to get to Seydisfjordur. It was paved but it was a switchback road that climbed out of the valley and over the snowy pass where I had fog to contend with. The switchbacks were slow speed 180 degree turns. Driving down into Seydisfjordur though was spectacular. The Fjord was surrounded by very tall snow-capped peaks with waterfalls everywhere and the village was beautiful with multi-coloured buildings. Our cottage was equally spectacular on the North side of the Fjord with a great view of the town and we saw the ferry to Denmark depart out the fjord. We made our dinner and enjoyed sitting in the hot tub with the gorgeous views until late in the night.
We only booked one night in Seydisfjordur but after walking around the town the next morning we could see staying here for several days if we were to come back. The town was very picturesque and there was a lot of hiking you could do in the surrounding mountains. Since the port has such good access and protection for shipping a lot of technologies first arrived into Seydisfjordur before other parts of Iceland (such as the telephone). We saw the church, restaurant/pubs, shops, sculptures including one shaped like the Fjord, the school, and creative knitting around the lamp post by the bus stop;-)
On the way out of the Seydisfjordur we stopped at Gufufoss Waterfall and also saw a downhill ski area.
We were heading to Akureyi this day (since we couldn’t get accommodation in the Myvatn area) and along the route we stopped at Rjukandafoss Waterfall. It was 139 M high and there was a hiking trail part way up for a better view.
Our next stop was Dettifoss Waterfall but we had to cross up and over the mountain plateau to get there and the landscape was like the lunar surface. There were two roads into Dettifoss, the paved one that all the buses took and a gravel one that goes to the opposite side of the falls. We decided to take the gravel one and others coming back out seemed to say it was ok, however we had to use our 4×4 as they were doing major grading and road repairs! After our visit to Dettifoss and Selfoss though we were really glad we had taken the gravel road as we only saw a handful of people and we got to get incredibly close to the waterfalls. Dettifoss has the greatest volume of water for any waterfall in Europe and is 44 M high.
Dettifoss Waterfall Video Link (Dettifoss Waterfall Video)
After Dettifoss we walked the 1.4 KM trail (2.8 return) to see Selfoss and we seemed to be the only people doing this. We were so glad we did since in many ways Selfoss was more spectacular than Dettifoss. The volume of water was spread out over many falls and it was only 11 M high but it was like a wall of cascades. Also on the paved road side you could not really get the angle to fully enjoy Selfoss. We’d highly recommend going via the gravel road and doing the hike as Selfoss was one of our favourites in the whole country (and there are a lot of waterfalls in Iceland)!
We carried on along the gravel road north until we reached a paved road that lead along the Arctic Ocean coastline. We were lucky enough to see a few whale fins and tails along the surface as it was so calm (didn’t get photos). We believe they were Fin whales but shortly after we left Iceland there was a big uproar as the whalers caught what they said was a hybrid Blue/Fin whale but others said it was Blue Whale which is the largest animal on earth and a protected species. We stopped in the beautiful town of Husavik to see the church which was constructed like an upside down ship inside. We also saw the whale watching boats in the harbour but decided not to do a tour. We continued the drive into Akureyri where we had a little trouble finding our Air BnB in the downtown area due to one way streets. However the apartment was quite large and well equipped directly by the downtown area so we walked to a Fish and Chip place for dinner and saw the troll;-) The last photo shows the route we took for day four.
Since we couldn’t get accommodation in the Myvatn area we had decided to stay in Akureyri for 3 nights and do day trips back to the Myvatn area (since there is so much to see in that area). Our first stop was Godafoss Waterfall where they were doing some construction to make better viewing areas.
Godafoss Waterfall Video Link (Godafoss Waterfall Video)
Our next stop was Skutustadagigar and luckily Linda and Phil had read that the bugs (Midges) can be bad (millions of them) so I had brought my full bug jacket and they had hats with nets built in, Sharon didn’t have anything so she had to keep her mouth closed;-) The pseudo-craters were formed by steam explosions when the lava flow encountered the lakes and wetlands. We’ve had Midges at our home along Georgian Bay but nothing like what we encountered on the hike around the craters. The Midges didn’t seem to bother the sheep at all.
Skutustadagigar Midge Swarm Video Link (Skutustadagigar Midge Swarm)
We stopped at Hofdi to do a small hike to see the Klasar (Lava Pillars) along the shore of Lake Myvatn and the bugs weren’t as bad as at Skutustadagigar but they were still around.
Dimmuborgir was next and there were lots of tourists here. This area is also called the Wild Black Castles due to the lava formations. The lava formed caves, pillars and arches are believed to have been formed when steam vents rose up through the bottom of the lava lake and then later a dam burst draining out the lava leaving the formations. This area has several paved walkways so you can walk around the formations. We did a fairly long circuit in order to get away from the crowds and it allowed us to see Kirkjan (the Church) formation and cool lava tube formations in the Yule Trolls party cave (Phil and I really liked this cave, surprise, surprise).
Very near Dimmuborgir is Hverfjall Crater so we decided to do some hiking. There was a trail to the top and then you could walk the 3 KM rim, yes it is absolutely massive! The diameter is 1,000 M across and the highest point is 452 M. You get spectacular views of Lake Myvatn, Dimmuborgir, and the surrounding geothermal areas. The trail is made up of scree type lava chunks so having good boots is important. What a phenomenal area to hike!
Our last stop on this day was the Grjotagja cave and hot pool. This site is on private farm land but they let tourists see it. The cave is right along the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates fissure. The water is now too hot to enter but it had amazing colour and great reflections. It was a little tricky climbing over the rocks to enter but well worth the effort.
Next we returned to our Air BnB in Akureyri and enjoyed some Icelandic beers and we sampled Sharon’s 3 L box wine from South Africa (purchased in duty free) and cooked dinner in. Later we went for a walk around town visiting the gift shops, the trolls, the church, and the harbour area. You have to feel good in a town that has heart shaped stop lights, installed during the financial crisis of 2008 to help people thing more positively. Another very full day but you can do that when it’s light out all the time.
When we drove out of town in the morning we realized it was going to be busy in Akureyri as there were two big cruise boats in the harbour that had just arrived. We stopped at the visitor centre at Lake Myvatn and then went to the Gamli Bistro for coffee and shared hverabraud, geothermal baked bread with smoked trout. A must try when you’re in the area. We had a quick stop at a hot pond which had the Bjarnarflag Geothermal plant before going to explore the geothermal area of Hverarondor Hverir at the foot of a volcanic mountain Namafjall. Here we saw steam springs called fumaroles , sulphurous mud springs called solfataras boiling away and really smelling up the environment J. The destructive beauty of the colourful surroundings is amazing. Nothing grows in the area and you don’t want to linger too long as the fumes can be harmful.
Hverarondor Hverir Mud Pool Video Link (Hverarondor Hverir Mud Pool Video)
Krafla was the next area to discover, this area had a lot of fissure eruptions and molten activity between 1975-1984. We climbed up to view Viti a 320m wide crater with a spectacular turquoise coloured lake in it and above it was Mount Krafla.
Down the road was the Leirhnjukur geothermal area and lava fields so we went for a longer hike here. There were a lot of different lava formations to see but it would have been good if they had a hiking trail map with distances and better markings along the trails. You also needed your hiking boots for several sections due to sharp lava. At one point we had to cross the fissure so Phil gave me a helping hand, or was he trying to lose me in the fissure;-)
The Krafla Geothermal Power Plant was started in 1974 with the drilling and by 1978 they were producing 7 MW. They installed a second assembly unit in 1999 so now the total capacity is 60 MW. In 2002 they started pumping water back into the geothermal reservoir to make the system more sustainable. The power plant uses the steam from the geothermal area to turn two 30 MW turbines to generate electricity. There are 44 boreholes that go down into the reservoirs. They use directional drilling instead of vertical in order to get multiple wells from the same drill site and to minimize the impact to the environment. They had a visitor centre with display boards and a video about the plant.
After our touring around it was time for some R&R at the Myvatn Nature Baths. Nature baths date back to the 13th century when they would build rock walls over a steam vent and relax in the moist steam. The Myvatn Nature Baths include two large pools you can go in and one that is not used. We quickly discovered the hotter spots in the pools (near the input pipes), tried out the hot tubs and the steam rooms. In the lobby they had a road map sign and it was showing that the gravel road 864 which we drove to Dettifoss was closed! We were all very relaxed during our drive back to Akureyri where we ate dinner in and hung out for the night (in anticipation of our major drive the next day). Phil and I also toasted to Ardbeg day since we had a bottle of An Oa. Last shot shows the Day Six driving route.
We got an early start the next day as we had to drive 554 KMS to reach our next destination which was Isafjordur in the Westfjords area. It was sunny in Akureyri as we packed up but it didn’t stay that way on the long drive. This day was about enjoying the scenery as we drove through this rugged region with mountains, long unpopulated fjords, driftwood bays, the odd seal relaxing on the shore and of course waterfalls. Our first stop was the Stephan Stephansson monument (he was an Icelandic poet who eventually lived in Canada and the US in the Rocky Mountains) to view the scenery. There was an interesting protest sign here that was complaining about the aluminum smelter industry that wanted above ground power lines installed.
The roads in the Westfjord had large sections that were gravel and you went up and over the mountains and along the fjord edges. There was even a paved road that just had one lane so you had to watch if someone was coming from the other direction and figure out which one of you was going to pull into a holding area, it was like playing chicken! In the Westfjord, whenever you see a gas station you fill up. In the first small town they had a pump which was credit card only, no staff at the station. When we arrived the people before us were having trouble and they pressed the call button. You know it’s a small place when the police show up to help people at the gas station!! As we headed into the mountain pass the fog set in and then out of nowhere we see two guys waving us down. Funny thing, we saw no vehicle. We soon found out that was because they were trying to take a “shortcut” on a closed mountain road and got stuck in the snow. They asked for our help, so the 2 Austrians got in the back with Sharon and Linda and we drove down the closed road to their vehicle (after they assured us there was no snow in the first section). They were well prepared with a tow rope but their camper wasn’t moving. We tried pulling it out with our vehicle and tried pushing but it wouldn’t budge at all. Not wanting to risk our vehicle or our backs we had to give up. They began to dig themselves out since they didn’t want to call for help because there are big fines if you get stuck on a closed road. I guess that shortcut didn’t pay off for them but gave us a good story to tell.
Once over the mountain pass we enjoyed the views as we weaved our way around the various fjords. The only place to stop along the journey was Litlibaer. This farmhouse was built in 1895 and was lived in until 1969. In 1999 the National Museum of Iceland took over the property and they opened it to the public in 2007. The habitants lived off both the land and the sea products and they would sell salted fish to the foreign trade ships. They have a little kitchen now that serves tea, coffee, and cakes. The ceilings were incredibly short in the rooms.
After settling into the Air B&B in Isafjordur we made reservations for Tjoruhusid. It’s a fun dining experience in an old warehouse along the harbour. It’s basically a fish buffet, whatever’s fresh out of the ocean that day is what they cook up for dinner prepared the way the chef feels like preparing it! You start with a fish soup and then they bring out the various fish in small amounts and keep replenishing it so it’s always hot! They do have some sides but the fish was so awesome we hardly ate any! They say their one fish dish is sweet so the only dessert they offer are chocolates. A very memorable meal and would highly recommend it if you can get reservations. After the meal we wandered around the harbour area and saw the fishing boats and pleasure craft.
On our way back to the Air BnB we experienced a very interesting crosswalk!
3D Crosswalk Video Link (3D Crosswalk Video)
This concludes the first half of our Iceland journey with the Day Seven route but stay tuned for more in Part 2.