Spoiler alert: Iceland isn’t for everyone.
Yes, it seems like everyone is either going to Iceland or knows someone who is planning a trip to Iceland. And yes, 2.4 million tourists in 2017 are expected to check “Travel to Iceland” off their bucket lists. Yes, that is yet another Iceland picture that just popped up on your Instagram feed. [Double tap that post though. It might be my post and I need the “likes”.]
But again, Iceland isn’t for everyone.
So how did two friends and I end up on an overnight WOW Airlines flight headed for Keflavik Airport one early May evening? Because Ben Stiller, er I mean, Walter Mitty, convinced me that I, too, should stop daydreaming and go skateboard down that winding, Icelandic road. That I, too, was ready for an epic adventure.
Day One: The Arrival
We touched down in Iceland at Keflavik Airport at 4:00 am. After a quick foray through customs, baggage claim, and the duty free store, we found ourselves jetlagged on a FlyBus shuttle headed for Reykjavik.
Iceland Travel Tip #1: Buy alcohol at the duty free store in the Keflavik Airport. Drinks are very expensive in Reykjavik bars and restaurant, averaging about $15 a drink. Buy your alcohol supplies at the airport and get your pre-game on. The duty free store for arriving travellers is located downstairs on the way to baggage claim. The cashiers will ask for a departing boarding pass if you go to the duty free store designated for departing travellers.
The shuttle from the airport dropped us off at Fosshotel, a block away from our AirBnB apartment. It was now 6:00 am and all thoughts of powering through the day without sleep had gone out the window. I was also grossly unprepared for the cold and relentless wind of Iceland. Warming power naps were imminent.
The plan for the next few days was to road trip from Reykjavik to a different region of Iceland each day. Armed with a loose itinerary of “must see” landmarks in each region, we would push to utilize as much of Iceland’s 18 hours of daylight as our bodies and Iceland weather would permit. Renting a car and venturing out on our own gave us the flexibility to spend as much or as little time in each area as we wanted.
Knowing that we had an early start the next morning, we opted for a quick dinner at Noodle Station, a nearby Thai noodle shop, and then we turned in for the night.
Day Two: The Golden Circle
The next morning we all awoke with a sense of unbridled excitement. Not only were we getting ready to embark on our first day of adventure in Iceland, we had booked an excursion to tour the Langjokull glacier on snowmobiles! [Snowmobiles on a friggin’ glacier!]
We were out of the city and on the open road by 9:00 am.
Admittedly, our first impression of the Iceland landscape was not overly impressive. The sky was overcast, a light rain was falling and the landscape immediately outside of the city was pretty barren.
Since our excursion would be leaving the Gulfoss Café at noon, we decided to drive directly to Gulfoss and circle back to explore the rest of the Golden Circle later. Basically, Golden Circle landmarks be damned, we wanted to get to the snowmobiles as soon as possible!
We did make one stop on the way to Gulfoss though. The Oxarafoss waterfall was too close to the main road not to make our first pit stop. I mean, we had been in Iceland for nearly 24 hours and hadn’t seen a waterfall yet! Unacceptable.
We were making good time, so a detour to our first Icelandic waterfall wasn’t going to be an issue.
We pulled in to a small parking lot off the side of the road and hiked down to a trail that ran between two above ground tectonic plates. Walking through a literal crack in the Earth gave us our very first taste of that “otherworldly vibe” that has become synonymous with Iceland. It really did feel like we had been magically transported to a different world. Before we knew it, we found ourselves gazing upon the beauty of Oxarafoss.
Iceland Travel Tip #2: Photography bonus! To get that silky smooth effect on moving water in your images, slow your shutter speed by a considerable amount making for a longer exposure. How do you do so in broad daylight without completely over-exposing your image you ask? Enter the ND Filter.
An ND filter is like sunglasses for your lens. The heavily tinted piece of glass tricks your camera in to thinking the scene is darker than it actually is allowing you to properly expose for long exposures during copious amounts of daylight.
Not surprisingly, we lost track of time taking pictures (as photographers are prone to do). We packed up our gear and hustled back to the car.
The Gulfoss Café is a restaurant and gift shop located on the cliffs above the massive Gulfoss waterfall. When we pulled in to the parking lot, it was hard not to be mesmerized by the seemingly endless group of people being shuttled in and out of the small building. It was also hard not to notice the blistering wind that was swirling around the cliffs, chilling us to the bone. [Maybe it was just the Texas boy in me, but damn, was it cold!]
*SIGH* This is the part of our story where I tell you the snowmobile excursion we were so excited about at the beginning of the day had been cancelled due to weather concerns on the glacier. This is the part of the story where I express many, many expletives.
Determined to not let the rest of our day be ruined, we explored Gulfoss, grabbed a small lunch at the café and headed back out on the road. We drove south to Haukadakur, where we watched the Strokkur geyser blow hot, geothermic water several feet in to the air. Eight minutes later, it blew again. [You have to admit, the reboot time is impressive.]
From Haukadakur, we continued south to Kerio Crater Lake, a former cone volcano that collapsed upon itself following its last eruption. It costs $4 to hike around the crater and down to the lake. The view from the upper rim of the crater was amazing but personally, I think the real magic of this place is down by the water surrounded by the crater’s red walls. The calm serenity of sitting on the shore of the lake provided the perfect place to quietly reflect on our first full day in Iceland. [Seriously, we were sitting on the shore of a lake at the bottom of a collapsed volcano. What could be more “Iceland” than that?]
It was time to head back to Reykjavik where the town’s best burgers (according to the car rental lady), Tommie’s Burgers, were waiting for us.
Day Three: The South Coast
9:30am and we were back on the road bound for Iceland’s South Coast.
Our second road trip would be our most ambitious, trying to squeeze in what many suggest is two days’ worth of activity in to one. We were in search of hidden waterfalls, black sand beaches, basalt column caves, and a lagoon of floating icebergs.
We were all in serious need of a caffeine boost, so before getting too far out on the road, we made a stop at a charming café, Kaffi Krus, in the small town of Selfoss for coffee and pastries.
Caffeinated and energized, we set out for Seljalandsfoss. Seljalandsfoss is probably the most picturesque waterfall of all the waterfalls we visited in Iceland. The vast, green meadow that leads up to the waterfall and the multiple, smaller waterfalls cascading down the cliffs adjacent to it, is a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. Seljalandsfoss is what you envision when imagining a stunning Icelandic landscape.
The unique thing about Seljalandsfoss is you can walk completely around the waterfall. [Prepare to get completely soaked! Rain gear is a must!] Every slippery step was more exhilarating than the next as we explored the areas beneath and behind Seljalandfoss.
Unfortunately, the spray from the falls was too heavy to risk shooting from behind Seljalandfoss with my DSLR, so I decided to make my own path up the rocks beside the waterfall. This was apparently frowned upon but hey, I wasn’t the only traveler up there choosing to not see the “No climbing” signs. [It was SO worth it.]
Iceland Travel Tip #3: Photography tip bonus! Let’s face it. There is no way to avoid other travelers when visiting attractions in Iceland. They’re everywhere.
Take this couple to the left for example… Titanic pose? Really?
There are a few ways to reduce the amount of people that show up in your pictures though. (1) Go early or go late. Smaller crowds. (2) Shoot long exposures, people moving during the exposure will disappear. Mostly. (3) Take multiple shots from the exact same location and remove in post processing.
As much fun as it was climbing the rocks around Seljalandsfoss, I was there to find its hidden neighbor, Gljufrabui.
We made the short hike north of Seljalandsfoss to find a narrow opening in the cliffs that hide the majestic waterfall. A shallow stream leads you through the opening in the rocks and directly up to the bottom of the falls. Now, I know blindly following the sound of rushing water through narrow crevasses may give some of you pause, but trust me when I say, “IT IS SO WORTH IT”.
Standing on a rock in the center of that cavern with Gljufrabui’s waters crashing around me is still my favorite experience from my time in Iceland.
Invigorated, we grabbed sandwiches from a food stand in the parking lot and pressed on towards the next waterfall on our agenda, Skogafoss. To get there however, we would have to drive pass Eyjafjallajokull.
The same Eyjafjallajokull that erupted in 2010, grounding air travel across Europe for 6 days and single-handedly jump starting the tourism industry in Iceland.
Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that is famously and hilariously mispronounced by Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. [If you’re counting, that is Walter Mitty reference number 2.]
But let’s be honest, no one outside of Iceland can properly say Eyjafjallajokull.
Here, you try it: [ei-ya-fyat-LA-yer-kitle]
I know, it’s impossible.
Skogafoss is hard to miss from the road. It is massive.
Walking up to Skogafoss, we could see the large crowd of travelers gathered beneath it so we opted to make the climb up to the top of the falls instead. [Ugh. So. Many. Stairs.]
I’m not sure if those steps were moving under the weight of my steps or if it was just my legs starting to feel like Jello halfway up the mountain. Either way, I took several breaks on the way up to “enjoy the view”.
Sure, I was really just waiting for my legs to stop burning. And sure, an elderly lady did take the opportunity to point out that she was twice my age but moving down the stairs with ease. I have no regrets. I eventually made it to the top. And that lady, that lady was going down the stairs, not up. She had gravity on her side.
The views from the top were breathtaking. The weather was on our side that afternoon so we were able to see all the way out to the coast from atop Skogafoss. After hiking briefly along the raging river that feeds Skogafoss, we headed back down to grab some shots of the waterfall from the bottom before hitting the road again.
Our next adventure began at a small gate a few feet away from the main road. There was nothing remotely interesting near the gate but it marked the beginning of our 4km hike to find the DC-3 plane wreck on Solheimasandur Beach. In fact, there isn’t anything remotely interesting about the entire hike to the black sand beach. It is literally acres and acres of sand, dirt and rocks. Nothing else.
[Huge thanks to the idiots that decided to drive recklessly on the private land where the plane wreck is located and causing the landowners to ban vehicles on their land. Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us! Idiots.]
I was definitely experiencing some Twilight Zone vibes while hiking out to the DC-3 plane wreck. It was like we were walking on the moon and the road was never ending. The coast never got closer but the cars by the gate where we started, kept getting smaller. Thankfully, I wasn’t walking alone.
After about 40 minutes of walking we finally found ourselves in front of the DC-3 wreckage. Considering how long the wreckage had been sitting there being battered by the wind and the thousands of travelers who have climbed all over it, the plane was in relatively good shape. With most of the crowd gone, we were able to make quick work of shooting and exploring the eerie plane wreck.
By the time we made it back to our car, the skies had darkened and we could see some bad weather rolling in on the horizon. A steady rain had started coming down as we drove up the mountain roads towards the town of Vik. Hoping that the bad weather would pass, we stopped for dinner at the restaurant, Halldorskaffi, in Vik.
Iceland Travel Tip #4: Weather in Iceland really is unpredictable. Always have a wind and rain resistant jacket with you at all times. The saying “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait 5 minutes.” isn’t as far fetched as it may sound. And if you don’t have the patience to wait for the weather to change, just drive a few miles down the road. The weather is likely already different there!
Unfortunately, the rainy weather never did pass and looked to only worsen down the coast. We had only made it halfway through our planned route down the southern coast of Iceland but our trip would end in Vik. Back to Reykjavik we went.
Day Four: The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
On day four, we didn’t make it out of the city until 10:00am. Our start times were getting later and later as the week went on and as our bodies craved more rest. I also needed a rest from driving, so I handed off the keys and off we went to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
The plan was simple. Drive to the small fishing town of Arnarstapi and hike along the coast. Stop to explore anything interesting we saw from the road on the way.
Our first stop ended up being Ytri Tunga Beach. [Admittedly, I’m not sure why we decided to stop there but I’m glad that we did!]
Ytri Tunga is one of the few beaches in Iceland that actually has yellow sand rather than black. While there, we had the opportunity to see several common seals sun-bathing just off the shore. If you’ve never had the chance to observe seals in the wild, you’re missing out. They’re wildly entertaining.
The second stop on our way to Arnarstapi was a waterfall that we saw from the road. Granted, the mountains on the way to Arnarstapi are littered with waterfalls but this one was particularly spectacular. Starting high up amongst the clouds, this waterfall roared down the mountain face trickling all the way down to the main road. It is amazing to think that these Icelandic farmers have these majestic falls in their backyards. [This waterfall turned out to be Bjanarfoss.]
After grabbing a few shots of Bjanarfoss, I filled up my water bottle from the stream below and was ready to get back on the road. [Coldest and freshest water money can buy!] My traveling companions weren’t as willing to partake, convinced that I was surely going to suffer from some sort of massive stomach ailment. My stomach and I are fine.
Iceland Travel Tip #5: Take a water bottle, camelback or similar type of container to fill with water while hiking. You can drink water right from the tap or from waterfalls and streams.
Another 20 minutes on the road and we finally made it to Arnarstapi. In serious need of food and caffeine, we pulled up to a small café by the coast. Walking up, I couldn’t help but notice the delicious aromas emanating from the fish and chips stand next door. Not impressed by the menu in the café, I decided to head over to the stand.
It was the best food find of the trip! Fresh fish and chips, fried-to-order, 20 feet away from the coast? Delicious!
Iceland Travel Trip #6: The Icelandic diet centers around dairy, fish and lamb. Not surprisingly, the best food we had in Iceland were those made from local ingredients. This makes sense because the ingredients are fresh and not imported in from other countries (which is also why food is so expensive). [My two favorite dishes in Iceland were the fish and chips and Icelandic meat soup.]
With our bellies full, we set off to hike along the southern coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The coast is made up of jagged cliffs and unique rock formations. We were in search of one specific formation however, Gatklettur.
We came cross the famed rock arch near the end of our hike but I found it underwhelming to be honest. I actually felt the formations along the rest of the coast were more interesting and picturesque. Funny how that happens sometimes. You set out to see one specific natural wonder and find yourself more amazed by the ones your encounter along the way.
Feeling accomplished, we were ready to head back to Reykjavik for pizza at Hferfisgata 12. [I recommend the cream cheese, boiled potatoes, and truffle mayo pizza. It’s no Papa Johns but it’s solid! By the way, that was Walter Mitty reference number 3.]
There was still one goal we had yet to achieve during our journey through Iceland though, pet an Icelandic horse.
They’re literally everywhere you go in Iceland, but are usually behind trenches and fences, so you can’t easily get to them. On the road back from Arnarstapi, we happen to come across a group of horses that were feeding near the road. This was our best chance of getting one of the horses to come over to us so we pulled over.
With sugar cubes in hand (apparently, the secret weapon), we slowly approached the fence. After a few minutes of us making ridiculous horse noises, one curious horse decided to come over. Success! Before we knew it, two more horses galloped over to say hello.
Pet an Icelandic horse. Check!
Day Five and Six: Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon
Day Five. We slept in. Everyone needed the rest.
This day was always going to be a free day for us to either backtrack or go somewhere new. Deciding to sleep in though, just about eliminated all options of driving out to any new areas of Iceland, so we opted to stay in the city and explore Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is the most populated city in Iceland. The northernmost capitol in the world, Reykjavik is home to 66% of the country’s population. Very walkable and safe, the city is an outdoor exhibit of amazing street art and colorful, pastel buildings. Two of the most iconic buildings in Reykjavik are the Harpa Concert Hall and Hallgrimskirkja church, these are can’t miss sights.
We strolled down the cobblestone streets of the Laugavegur shopping district, popping in to stores for souvenirs and Reykjavik Roasters for some expertly poured lattes. Lunch came in the form of the highly recommended hotdogs from Baejarins Bestu near the harbor. [The sausage itself had a nice snap and the fried onions was a nice touch.]
Iceland Travel Tip #7: Not surprisingly, souvenirs in Iceland are very expensive. Traditional knitted wool items will run anywhere from $50 USD to $150. Shirts and shot glasses will run $30 and $10 a piece respectively. If you are intent on buying souvenirs, look for shops that offer to refund your tax if you spend more than $60 in their establishment. You get turn in the paperwork for the refund at the airport before you check-in to your flight. Be sure to buy enough at each shop to actually get the refund as well. Most of the stores sell the same items so lump your purchases together.
We wrapped up our tour of the city with dinner at Tapas Barinn, a tapas restaurant, where we sampled several Icelandic delicacies including puffin, whale, and horse. I don’t recommend any of said delicacies. [I still feel a little guilty about eating that cute little bird and our horse friends we had made just the day before.]
Our final day in Iceland began with an early wake up at 7:00am to catch our shuttle to the Blue Lagoon. The ride to the geothermic spa takes about 30 minutes from Reykjavik, you know you’re close when you see the steam rising over the moss-covered lava fields.
After 3 days of hiking through the Iceland country side, we couldn’t wait to jump in to the healing waters of the Blue Lagoon. We checked in our luggage, grabbed a towel, showered (its required before entering the pool), and dove right in to warm, milky blue waters. [It was more of a slow, cautious walk in to the water but you get the point.] Our package came with a free drink from the swim-up bar so we grabbed a few brews and toasted to a perfect end to an unforgettable week in Iceland.
Iceland Travel Tip #8: If possible, plan your trip to the Blue Lagoon on your last day before your flight out of Iceland. Nothing helps you relax on a 5 hour flight back to the states more than a good soak in the warm, geothermic waters of the Blue Lagoon. Your body will thank you. Trust me.
No, Iceland isn’t for everyone.
There are no umbrella topped, strawberry daiquiris, bikini-clad bodies on sun-soaked beaches, or endless seafood buffets. Iceland can be unforgivingly cold, endlessly gray and eerily empty. But for those willing to brave it’s icy façade, it can also be amazingly vibrant, deeply inspirational and distinctly unforgettable.
If you’re worthy, Iceland will reveal to you an indescribable beauty that you simply have to see to believe. For the creative mind, Iceland will awaken in you a level of inspiration that few will ever experience. It is truly incredible.
Iceland isn’t your typical vacation. Maybe that’s the point.
And maybe, that’s why everyone is going.