Iceland has exploded in the last decade as a major tourist destination as people “discovered” the breathtaking scenery of this small island in the North Atlantic. The locals have done a good job making it affordable to travel to Iceland with comically cheap flights ($200 round trip from LAX) but once your boots are on the ground you’ll come to discover that this is one of the most expensive countries in the world BUT it’s totally worth it!
Iceland has a population of 340,000 people, I repeat 340,000 people, and with a land area of 103,000 square kilometers it is about a quarter the size of California. The island was formed as two tectonic plates slowly pulled apart and magma bubbled up. The island is still very volcanically active with nearly 200 volcanoes and a greater number of hot springs sprinkled around the island, more on those in a moment. The original settlers were believed to be Gaelic monks from Scotland around 800 AD but those pesky (and prolific) Vikings arrived shortly thereafter and very quickly all of the usable land was settled, as there is not a lot. Around the 16th century, Iceland was under the rule of Denmark and it was not until 1944 that they became an independent nation.
Despite being so small, Iceland has a lot to offer, too much for Kelley and I to see everything in a week, not to mention it was early March and the country was still very much in winter, especially in the north. As a result, our primary focus was to see the Northern Lights and if it worked out drive the entire Ring Road, which circumnavigates the country. Our means of transportation, cooking, and living was a swanky van, whose most significant features were a bed and an auxiliary heater that kept us reasonable toasty at night.
After picking up the van our first stop was Reykjavik to grab some lunch and supplies before traveling to our first stop – Snaefellsnes. Over, two-thirds of the population lives in and around the capital city but since there are only 340,000 people it is easy to manage and there is not much to see (unless you like an active nightlife), especially for me as I was chomping-at-the-bit to get into nature.
After eating our way through Reykjavik, we headed to Snaefellsnes, a rugged peninsula northwest of Reykjavik with expansive lava fields and some dramatic landscapes. We drove until it was dark and quickly remembered how nice it is to find somewhere to sleep BEFORE it is dark…..so we drove around in the dark trying to determine the legitness of a variety of parking spots to call home for the night. We also realized we hadn’t filled up the water before leaving Reykjavik so needed to drive around looking for a water spicket also – otherwise it would be rationed water and crackers for dinner. Thankfully we found water and eventually settled on a dirt road for our campsite. Kelley quickly got to work making us a cozy nest of bedding and organizing our van while I cooked our super fancy pasta pouch dinner. Before we tucked ourselves in for the night, we decided to take a peak outside and what do you know! There was a sweet streak of green hovering above us! With my camera, I was able to capture a bit more than you could see with your naked eye and we were both anxiously watching the screen after each shot to see what appeared!
We couldn’t believe our luck and we were HOOKED! We (Kelley) started obsessively monitoring the weather and aurora activity online to determine where to head next. Unfortunately some weather blew in overnight and we woke up to clouds and wind. We decided to continue driving and head north to another spot where hopefully the weather was a bit better. (Kelley: Matt was such a good driver! It was crazzzyyy windy and he handled the van like a pro! And it was wayyyy too cold and windy to even consider doing anything else outside, so driving was our adventure activity.)
The next day we were in search of hot water to soak in. Our attempts the previous days had been thwarted, so it was with much excitement that we found this gem…
Nestled right along the ocean in Drangsnes in the West Fjords, this hot spring or hot pot was amazing and just want we needed to soothe our aching muscles. Oh wait… what aching muscles, we have been literally sitting in a car the past two days trying to just stay warm…
But seriously, this community hot pot was unbelievable. Their honour system/donation box sat right outside the warm and clean changing/shower room and the only hard part was getting the gusto to scamper across the road in your bathing suit!
After our blissful hot spring we headed east to Hvitserkur, which has a unique rock formation. According to local lore, it is a petrified troll who was terrorizing the local Christians or according to geologists it is a volcanic plug of a long ago volcano.
As we traveled further east, we stumbled upon a nice snow and ice covered black sand beach in Skagfirðingabraut. As we walked along the beach in our down parkas and down pants with waves crashing onto the several foot thick ice sheet along the shore, we were curious if it was ever warm enough to go for a proper swim… probably not…
In the next town Kelley had spotted this beautiful looking hot pot in Hofsós…
… but unfortunately it was closed until the evening and we still had some driving to do. As a result we headed northeast through the snow-covered mountains of the Trollaskagi. As we ventured further and further into the mountains the road conditions continued to deteriorate and we were quite happy that all of the rental cars come with metal studded tires in the winter. Amazingly we never lost traction! When we passed a heli-skiing operation we began to get nervous and shortly thereafter the road was covered with 3-feet of snow – too much for even the studded tires…
So it was with much apprehension that we had to make the sacrifice and head back to Hofsós and had to soak in the hot spring for the evening. It was definitely the most beautiful hot pot we soaked in with an infinity-like feel clinging to the sea cliffs. The views were magnificent and the sunset was equally spectacular. The pools were also designed by the same architect as the famous (and over priced) Blue Lagoon.
The sea cliffs below the hot pot had these basalt columns slowly rising out of the sea, similar to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and Devil’s Postpile in California, which were quite photogenic.
The next day involved some white-knuckle winter driving as there was a snowstorm rolling through northern Iceland. Along the way we stopped by Goðafoss Waterfall, which was thundering down as wind and snow swept across the tundra.
We endured some rather exciting blizzard-like driving conditions for about two days and were beyond excited to eventually wake up to blue skies. We set off and rambled through the East Fjords of Iceland, which were enchanting. So many mountains!
We weaved our way through a handful of villages looking for more hot pots to enjoy! We eventually found one and had the whole place to ourselves!
From the East Fjords we ventured into the south coast, where it became exponentially more crowded. The sheer concentration of fancy cameras and tripods was staggering, especially with everyone jockeying for the “classic” Iceland shots. The objective for the end of the day was Jökulsárlón, the famous iceberg lagoon. We made it just in time for sunset and the aurora forecast was elevated for evening – our excitement was palpable!
We scurried along the lake-side taking pictures of the iceburgs that float lazily atop the water and eventually tucked ourselves back into the van. After a scrumptious dinner of pasta carbonara (Kelley: “pasta carbonara” a la freeze dried pouch. To save money, we brought most of our food with us in the form of freeze-dried, just add water meals. Don’t get me wrong, it was easy, warm, and delicious but the menu may sound a bit fancier than it really was!) and a couple of games of yahatzee we casually looked at the aurora forecast on Kelley’s phone and apparently the aurora was right outside! OMG! We looked outside and it was absolute bedlam in the sky! An explosion of color the likes of which we have never seen! We were in a parking lot across the street from the glacier lagoon and in our haste (Kelley: “our” haste…..) to get back to the lagoon we abandoned all reason and darted to the front of the car… as we (K: MATT) peeled out of the dirt parking lot, the windshield was frosted over so I just opened the window and drove golden retriever style with my head out the window and my tongue lapping in the wind, well not quite (Kelley: close enough to the actual event). It was at this point that we heard some crashing in the back of the van and in our haste to leave we put absolutely nothing away! When we finally arrived at our destination a couple of minutes later the back of the van was a wasteland of our half-eaten dinner, open water jug, stove, and various personal effects. Luckily the camera gear was okay – my primary concern! As we screeched to a halt, I grabbed my camera gear and was off… I was just so giddy with excitement as I bounced around like a pogo-stick from one hill to another, to the lagoon shore, and back… It was just so magical as the green and purple luminescence slowly painted itself across the sky and create these intricate shapes, combined with the mountains, glacier lagoon, and reflection – it was one of the coolest things we have seen! (Kelley: it was seriously SO cool! and we didn’t even need Matt’s camera to actually see it like we had the first night- it was clear and bright to the naked eye! There was no chance I’d survive the midnight hill scampering so I stayed where I last saw Matt and did jumping-jacks while I took in the view!)
It was about at this point in the evening that in my excitement I did not properly stabilise my camera and it took a nose dive into some rocks. In absolute terror I quickly grabbed my camera and inspected it for any exterior damage. Amazingly there was none! I then checked the other parts and incredibly it was all systems go. I think I was saved by an exterior lens protector I had on the camera that was bent to pieces and took the brunt of the damage. Thank god! Kelley would have killed me! (Kelley: I’d probably just use the opportunity to request another kitten….these are great opportunities to negotiate the acquisition of kittens!)
On our last day in Iceland before we flew out of Reykjavik, we woke up euphoric from our aurora experience the previous evening. We were in no rush to get to Reykjavik so we took a stroll along the lovely glacier lagoon beach, which is littered with icebergs large and small lapping in the waves.
After our romantic stroll along the beach, we headed to Svartifoss Waterfall, which was pumping and you could even see a faint double-rainbow.
Our last stop was Seljavallalaug, a free hot pot that is a 30 minute walk from the road. Based on what we read it seemed quite lovely… after quickly changing into our swim suits and jumping in we realised the water was more like a warm(ish) pool. Not wanting to become hypothermic we jumped back into our clothes while they were still warm and scampered back to the van.
We absolutely loved our van from Rent.is It was well stocked, comfortable, and nice to ride in for 6-8 hours a day! If you decide to go in the winter, we recommend bringing your own down sleeping bags for added warmth as we used the bags they supplied to insulate the walls next to where we slept. Bringing food and snacks from home is also highly recommended as food is expensive you won’t pass a store on every corner.
That was our adventure! Cheers!