Iceland: the land of fire and ice
The stark contrast in landscape, the extremity and variance in climate and the fascinating history of it's formation make Iceland one of my favourite places yet. The land of fire and ice lives up to it's name in every sense, with drastic backdrops like lava fields flowing into glacial lagoons, and snow falling where moments ago there was sun. The geology and formation of the island is a story in itself, with each new stretch of landscape revealing a part of it's creation; such as flat top volcanoes which formed thousands of years ago when they erupted deep beneath glacial ice, and lava ravaged fields leaving no vegetation and a moon-like surface. Along the south coast there are huge clusters of volcanic eruptions which sit tightly together like a mountain range sharing the same peak, and beside them - in contrast- are other formations which are no taller than 3ft. The cracked black earth becomes coated in a blanket of vibrant green moss in the summer months, amplifying the unusual texture. A heavy rain brings life to dozens of new waterfalls which line the cliffs along the coast, each radiating rainbows in the flashes of sunlight. Wild Icelandic horses run gallantly through the meadows in their herds, basking in the sunshine or turning together in perfect unison to brace against the wind. Mighty canyons tear through the earth in some areas, along with gaping fault lines from separating tectonic plates which can be observed at sea level.
With a ring road hugging the coastline of the entire island, it's a really easy country to travel around by car (note: there are no railways or motorways). The views from the road are exceptional, and you'll very rarely need to stray too far from the main '1 road' which wraps around the country. You'll need a 4x4 to cope with the weather changes that may come your way if your travelling outside of summer, but that's all part of the adventure! I was driving through a lava field, the rain clouds were clearing, the sun had broken through and a double rainbow had just formed, and yet within minutes from there I turned a corner and was driving through a thick snowy winter wonderland. For each of your journeys you'll need to give yourself twice as long as you think you'll need, just to allow time to pull over and take in the views. The scenery is unexpected and forever changing - something you can't quite understand until you go there and see it for yourself.
Edging onto the Artic Circle, Iceland is in a prime location for viewing the northern lights. This is a spectacular dance of green and purple light created from charged particles from the sun entering the earth's atmosphere. There are no guarantees as to whether or not you'll see them, but your chances are best between October-Feburary when there are more hours of darkness. You can monitor the likelihood via the Icelandic Met Office which depicts a map showing cloud coverage (represented in green) and a scale to suggest how much activity there will be. On a scale of 1-9, where 4 is considered to be active, I was lucky to see the lights on a 7 under clear skies, which is considered rare and exceptionally lucky. Standing alone in the northern part of the island, isolated from all civilisation, I stood under a great stretch of open sky and watched as the lights danced above me for hours. They were inconceivably bright, and being the only person within miles in the pitch black made the whole occasion feel even more spectacular. I felt the sheer inconsequence of my being, and gained a whole new level of bewilderment and awe for the power of nature. I found myself imagining how our primitive ancestors would have revered the auroras in the same way I did in that moment, and wondered what they must have thought they were. Simply put, it was the single most humbling experience I have ever had.
Iceland has a population of just 323,000 people, but it's produced some of the music industry's top artists and creatives, with a plethora of eclectic musicians and notable authors. The people are friendly and live in tightknit communities, with a truly unique culture. Founded by Norwegians, the language is Scandinavian in it's route but most words and names are near impossible to pronounce. An unusual belief in elves transcends through the whole country, to the extent that derelict houses can be spotted literally everywhere; they are considered to be bad luck to demolish because, supposedly, elves reside there, and to destroy their home would bring bad luck. Signs reading 'town of elves' and 'town of lava' are a very real thing in Iceland.
I think it would be impossible to see Iceland in all of it's possible tremendous forms, as each day and each moment brings a new spark of life that wasn't there before. To see it as part of a trip, I would recommend staying for at least a week, hiring a car and being prepared to adopt your most adventurous spirit to travel round!
Using the map below, you can see that there's an easy route all the way around the island, and can be comfortably done in a week. The towns that I stayed in were Reykjavik, Akureyri, Hofn and Vik. These are probably 4 of the best towns to base yourself in across your trip.
The things I would recommend seeing are split out below:
Keflavik (airport) to Reykjavik - do a stopover at the Blue Lagoon with Reykjavik Excursions, they can transfer you from the airport to the city for relatively cheap, so it's easiest to do this either at the start or end of your trip. The water is literally a perfect temperature, heated by geothermal activity, and you can use as much of the naturally produced 'white mud' facial masks as you please! They have lotion that you can put on afterwards too. There are packages which give you little samples to take away with you (which is what I got) but to be honest, they're tiny anyway, so I'd probably save my money next time.
In Reykjavik - reyjkavik is both the largest city and the capital of Iceland. Located in the South West about 1 hour from the airport, it's a world renowned creative hub, full of art and bohemian vibes. I only spent 2 nights here but would have loved to explore more of what it has on offer. Here are some things I did which you may also enjoy:
- My Air BnB host recommended a restaurant called Snaps which I would definitely say is worth a visit. It's a local vibe, not touristy at all, very intimate with candles, jars of wild flowers on the table (I love that) and plants in the window. It's a private setting. The food is absolutely divine, and take note that the starters are as good quality as the mains (and enormous)... so make sure you go hungry! They have a great wine selection and the staff were really nice.
- If you're travelling solo or with friends, I think Kex hostel would be a great place for you. It's safe, fun, friendly and boasts a central location. Lots of free (and very cool) events are hosted here, such as some of the performers from Airwaves Festival. If a hostel isn't your thing, stay in an Air BnB and get a really local experience (this is what I did).
- I did a horse riding day trip from here with Eldhestar who were absolutely AMAZING! The Icelandic horses were great fun to ride and it was worth every penny to see Iceland in such a unique way. I did the 'in the mountains' and 'meadows' tours. They have all the waterproofs and wellies you will need (even extra gloves and socks), so don't worry about bringing all those things with you.
Reykjavik to Akureyri - this was one of my favourite parts of the drive. There's endless mountains/volcanos on this route. About 30 minutes after you cross the tunnel, you'll come across a colourful scenery where the lava fields/meadows are coated in vibrant red vegetation. I would have loved to stop off at the Snaefelles Peninsula (which would be a 2 hour detour from the main road) but didn't have time. If time is on your side, make sure you check out the beautiful waterfall there. I think it would be well worth the detour.
Akureyri - I may not be able to pronounce it, but it was one of my favourite towns in Iceland. It's technically the second biggest in the country, after Reykjavik, but it has a tiny population of just 18,000. Situated deep within the mountains at the foot of a lake, there's something very special about this place. If you drive across the road that cuts through the lake and follow the road around, you have a view point which is spectacular!! And if you keep on this road for another 40 minutes or so, you come to Godafoss, a beautiful waterfall that is definitely a must see. The town is tiny by most standards but it's quaint, with lots of little restaurants and I stayed at the BEST hostel. It's called Akureyri Backpackers and it was so fun that I wish I had more time to spend there. I had a 6 person room sharing with some nice Scandi girls. It's a very sociable vibe, a nice bar downstairs, and really clean/comfortable.
Akuryeri to Hofn - I drove back around the country so didn't get to do this drive properly, however I did drive up the east coast for an hour or so from Hofn and it was pretty specactular. You will see lots of little islands and see the ocean breaking on the rocks.
In Hofn - Hofn is a tiny little fishing village in the South East of Iceland, I stayed here for 2 nights. There are lots of fun activities that you can do around this area, namely in the glaciers. I stayed at Glacier World guesthouse in hoffen which was a great base. They have so many activities that you can do from here as well, so would definitely recommend. Though it's about 20 minute drive from town, worth keeping that in mind. In Höfn there are lots of nice restaurants down by the harbour, I really liked Pakkhus and got the lobster which is a bit of a speciality there. Everything was freshly caught and locally sourced which is great. Aside from that, I personally didn't really see much else to do in Höfn itself, so don't go there expecting lots of entertainment and partying.
Hofn to Vik - About 40 minutes from Höfn heading west, you'll come to the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon which was one of my favourite sights!! I did a photographic ice cave tour from here as well which I'd really recommend, as you not only get taken off road and led right within reach of the glacier, but it's also really informative. I learnt so much about the ice, from what causes different textures, why some parts are blue, etc (actually maybe it doesn't sound very interesting, but I promise it is while you're there!! haha). This was also where they filmed the epic ice scene in Interstellar, so expect views on par to that. Across from the glacial lagoon there's a small road leading to the beach - MAKE SURE YOU GO DOWN HERE!!! Black sand, crashing waves and enormous blue chunks of ice... so beautiful and surreal.
There's a road you can divert down which lets you walk really close to a glacier... follow signs!
Another stop off that you have to (and take note, there's no sign to indicate it's there) is Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. It's about 15 minute drive along rough terrain, and about a 10 minute hike to the top. It has breath taking views and is a truly beautiful sight. Don't miss this one!!!
In Vik - Vik is tiny but is famous for its black sand beaches and a very iconic church which you may have seen featured in many photographs of the northern lights. I stayed in a guest house about 10 minutes from the town. There's a restaurant next to the beach which serves hot stodgy food, and is probably as good as you'll get. It's by no means fancy, but the options were actually really nice and hearty. It's certainly a 'no frills' area, but who goes to Iceland in search of that anyway!
There's an abandoned plane wreckage on the beach about 30 minutes drive (heading east). You have to drive down a very rough/bumpy/unmaintained path to get there, but it's a must see. I've seen some incredible snaps of the northern lights from here, so maybe you'll be lucky enough to catch it at night!
Vik to Reykjavik -
The Skogafoss waterfall is worth checking out too, you can see this easily from the road but make sure you park up though as you can walk/climb behind it and stand in a cave watching the water tumble down before you... very spectacular!
The Golden Circle is a really beautiful drive, and one I wish we'd had more time to enjoy (alas we were racing against the clock to get to the airport). The geysir's can be found in this area and are a great sight to enjoy, as well as a national park in the highlights which was insanely beautiful. Again, I only got to drive through here, I'd have liked to stop off and enjoy the views but time did not permit.