Without doubt, the best holiday I ever had was a tour around Iceland. Not because it was the most scenically beautiful – that would be a toss-up between Norway and the northwest coast of Scotland. Not because it had the best walking – that would probably be Switzerland. And certainly not because it had the best weather.
What made Iceland so special for me was the sheer variety of weird geological phenomena and unique natural spectacles. For me the trip was full of ‘firsts’ and ‘biggest’ and in some cases ‘scariest’. Every day brought genuinely awe-inspiring sights and experiences that were so different from anything I had experienced before.
Here are some of the highlights, but there were many, many others:
- Seeing sperm whales from a tour boat, and orca from a hotel window.
- Straddling the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in the Thingvellir National Park.
- Seeing very active, and sometimes scary, fumaroles for the first time (accompanied by the overwhelming stench of hydrogen sulphide!).
- Watching the Strokkur Geysir erupt every few minutes, as we had dinner and breakfast in the adjacent hotel.
- Flying in a tiny 4-person plane to Heimaey in the Westman Islands where the ground still feels warm from recent volcanic activity.
- Walking among the vast, moss-covered lava fields and craters at Laki, the site of the Skafta Fires (one of the largest volcanic eruptions and lava flows in recorded history).
- Seeing the icebergs floating serenely in Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon.
- Crossing an impossible-looking glacial river in an off-road bus on the way to Thorsmork.
- Having a late evening stroll near the glacier at Skaftafell and hearing the creaks and plopping sounds as small chunks kept falling off.
I could mention so many more – incredible waterfalls, steaming fissures, black volcanic beaches, puffins, sea stacks…..
Young Landscapes That Look Old
There are many places in Iceland that look eerily prehistoric. Strangely, though, they actually look this way because the land is so new! Large areas are covered with relatively recent lava and ash. Fast-flowing streams and glacial rivers continually change course, and can quickly cut deep channels through ashy substrates. The rapidly changing land, together with the sometimes harsh climate, makes it difficult for plants to colonise. The result is the desolate, other-worldly appearance that we now see.
A Tour Around the Route 1 Ring Road
A few years ago Matt and I hired a car at Keflavik Airport, and spent over three weeks exploring Iceland, including a circuit of the ring road (Route 1). We stayed at several bases en route, before finishing with a couple of days in Reykavik.
Many tour companies offer self-drive itineraries. Some suggest doing this round trip in under two weeks. Whilst this would be exciting (and exhausting), we would not recommend doing the trip so quickly. There is simply far too much to see. Many of Iceland’s sights are way too special to be glimpsed briefly before you move on to the next destination. You need time to appreciate and enjoy these unique and amazing places.
If time is limited, it would be far better to concentrate on one area. Good examples would be Snaefellsnes, Lake Myvatn, or Skaftafell. You could perhaps pick two or three places around these areas to use as bases. This way you could explore in far more depth and at a relaxed pace, rather than having to rush away before you are ready because you need to keep to a tight schedule.
After collecting our hire-car at Keflavik, our first destination, a slight detour from Route 1, was the mystical Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This was a comfortable drive of approximately two hours from the airport. Soon after leaving the airport we were struck by what we thought was unattractive rubble beside long stretches of the road. It took us a while to realise that this was actually lava!
On approaching the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the Snaefellsjokull icecap gradually comes into view, hovering mystically above the surrounding land and sea. A magical sight. Our base on the Peninsula was Hellnar, staying in the simple but excellent Hotel Hellnar, which is proud of its ecological standards. The hotel provides an excellent breakfast and dinner, and the comfortable bedrooms look straight out to sea. One afternoon we clearly saw the distinctive black fins of a pod of orca (killer whales) out in the bay.
Hellnar is idyllic and unspoilt – the perfect place to unwind and adapt to the Icelandic pace. From the hotel you can stroll down to the beautiful stony beach where there is an unusual cave and lots of seabirds. There is also a tiny cafe close to the beach which is renowned for its fish soup.
From Hellnar there is a short but very scenic footpath to the adjacent village of Arnarstapi. The Hellnar to Arnarstapi path passes lava flows that have been sculpted into fantastic shapes by the constant crashing waves, and is definitely worth doing. The coastline around here is exceptionally beautiful, with caves, cliffs, stone arches and seabird colonies. The path is only around 2.5 km, but it will probably take about a couple of hours or so because there are so many photo opportunities on the way.
Olafsvik and Whale Watching
From Hellnar it is a short drive to Olafsvik, on the north of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Olafsvik, another ideal base, is a pleasant fishing town with a good hotel (Hotel Olafsvik), and a folk museum, as well as a lovely waterfall which can be reached on foot from the town.
Olafsvik also offers whale watching trips, with an excellent chance of seeing orca and sperm whales as well as other whale species and dolphins. Of course sightings can never be guaranteed, but even if you are unlucky it is worth the trip for the views of the coastline alone. You need warm, windproof clothing, and be aware that the seas here can be very rough, so if you suffer from seasickness you may not enjoy it.
On our trip we did see a pod of sperm whales at the surface. Although we didn’t get very close the size of the whales was still apparent and very impressive.
Also on the north coast of Snaefellsnes is the town of Stykkisholmur, which is the largest town on the peninsula. It is an attractively situated town, with a choice of hotels and restaurants. Stykkisholmur has a volcano museum, containing objects and art relating to eruptions. It is also the starting point for the Baldur ferry to the Western Fjords, which stops at Flatey Island, and for boat trips to the islands in Breidafjordur Bay. These are very scenic, and are home to numerous birds including white-tailed sea eagles.
Akureyri – Iceland’s Second Largest Town
From Hellnar, we drove along the north coast to Akureyri, which is Iceland’s second largest town. This is quite a long drive, much of it on rough, unpaved roads, which is an adventure in itself. You meet all nature of off-road vehicles when you drive in Iceland. Some of them hurtle past splattering your car with grit as they go. No wonder car-hire is so expensive…..
How to get to Akureyri from Reykjavik
If you don’t have the time or inclination to drive, there are regular flights to Akureyri from Keflavik or Reykjavik domestic airport. You can then hire a car at Akureyri, or rely on local buses, taxis and excursions.
Alternatively you can get a bus to Akureyri from the Mjodd bus terminal in Reykjavik. There are one or two buses a day, and the journey takes approximately 6.5 hours. (see here for timetables).
In the summer months you can also take the daily Gray Line tour bus which travels between Reykjavik and Akureyri via the Kjolur Highland route. (This operates between mid-June and mid-September). The trip is quite expensive (approx £130 one way), takes around 10.5 hours, and includes stops at Geysir and the Hveravellir Nature Reserve.
I have read reviews from people who complained about the length of the trip, and the very rough and uncomfortable roads. But the chance to see the wild and inaccessible interior is the main reason people want to do the trip. If it was on a paved road it would not be such an adventure. Uncomfortable or not, it will definitely be part of my next itinerary!
We only spent one night in Akureyri but it is a very good base. It has a good choice of hotels and restaurants and is a very pleasant town to stroll around. There are many places that you can easily visit from here, including Grimsey Island, Hrisey Island and the Glerardalur Valley. For more information see http://www.visitakureyri.is/en/home.
One sight that you have to see in this area is Godafoss. In a country that is literally teeming with waterfalls, Godafoss is one of the most beautiful.
Husavik and Lake Myvatn
This whole area is fantastic! Husavik is great for whale-watching trips. Lake Myvatn has an incredible variety of volcanic features as well as being serenely beautiful. Ásbyrgi Canyon has some fantastic walks. And Dettifoss, whilst not the prettiest, is possibly the most powerful waterfall in Europe. You could easily spend an entire holiday here.
We spent several peaceful nights in a simple wood cabin at Kaldbakur near Husavik. (http://cottages.is/) Although the cabin was very basic, this is a great place to stay. It is only a few minutes’ drive into Husavik for shops and restaurants, and other sites in the area are easily reached. The evenings here were so tranquil, with abundant bird life, and the view spectacular. If you don’t mind foregoing a comfortable hotel for a few nights I highly recommend staying here.
Whale-watching at Husavik
Husavik itself is an attractive town with a bustling harbour and several decent hotels and restaurants.
Several companies run whale-watching tours from the harbour, and there is also a whale museum.
On our trip we were not lucky enough to see whales, but we did see two lovely white-beaked dolphins. Even if you don’t see whales, the tours are always exhilarating. Take warm clothes, a camera, and binoculars.
Lake Myvatn and its Waterbirds
It is an easy drive from Husavik to Lake Myvatn. If you would prefer to stay nearer to the lake Reykjahlid is a great base, with shops and accommodation. There is so much to see here you will definitely want a few days!
You can drive right round the lake, a distance of approximately 37 km, stopping to see various sights on the way. Lake Myvatn actually means ‘midge lake’. This might not sound too appealing, but the midge and blackfly larvae support large wildfowl populations in the summer months. Much of the northwest shore of the lake beyond the road is a conservation area to protect the breeding birds.
At Skutustadir on the south shore there are clusters of interesting pseudocraters, with paths and boardwalks for a closer look.
Hverfjall Volcanic Crater
Due east of Lake Myvatn is Hverfjall. This impressive crater looks like a volcano should (unlike many of Iceland’s volcanoes which are fissures). There is a carpark at the base, and from there a trail leads to the crater rim. It is quite hard going, a bit like walking on ball bearings, but definitely worth it. The crater is about 1km in diameter, and as you walk round there are fantastic views of the whole area.
Dimmuborgir Lava Formations
Just south of Hverfjall an absolute must is a walk around the bizarre lava formations at Dimmuborgir. Here there are all manner of contorted towers, pillars, arches and caves, with marked trails around the site. A great way to spend an hour or two.
Krafla – Site of the Recent Krafla Fires
North east of Lake Myvatn you can visit the Krafla area, which is the site of the recent Krafla fires (1977 to 1984). Here you can park near the Viti explosion crater. Walking in the area is absolutely fascinating. Recent lava is still steaming in places, and there are bubbling mud pools and steaming sulphurous vents.
Approaching Krafla and Viti you pass the Krafla Geothermal Power Station. In addition to being photogenic, this has an informative visitor centre which is open daily from 10.00 am in summer.
Namaskard Geothermal Area
A little further east than Krafla along the Route 1 ring road is the Namaskard geothermal area, also known as Hverarond.
This is an amazing area of sulphurous mud pools and fumaroles which anyone interested in volcanic features will find fascinating. There is a parking area and a marked trail with boardwalks. Some of the pools are roped off, and for safety reasons you should stick to the marked route. The whole site reeks of hydrogen sulphide, so be prepared! There are gurgling mud pools, screeching high-pressure steam vents, and all manner of fumaroles. Wonderful!
EGILSSTADIR – Base for the Eastfjords
The next stop on our tour of the Route 1 Ring Road was the small, conveniently situated town of Egilsstadir. This has shops, accommodation and a heritage museum, as well as an airport.
We stayed in the beautiful Lake Hotel Egilsstadir. This hotel is beautifully situated right beside Lake Logurinn, and has a great restaurant.
Seydisfjordur and its Waterfalls
Egilsstadir is an ideal base for exploring the Eastfjords. It is a short drive to the town and port of Seydisfjordur, where there is a weekly ferry from Denmark. Seydisfjordur is very pleasant, with accommodation and a small Technical Museum. From the town there is a lovely walk past a series of beautiful waterfalls. To find this walk follow Ranargata for a couple of km until you reach the Vestdalsa river. Just before it the footpath heads up the Vestadalur valley to the Vestdalsvatn lake, passing a series of waterfalls. The walk is quite tiring, but very beautiful.
Hengifoss and its Basalt Columns
Another good trip out from Egilsstadir is to see Hengifoss, with its impressive basalt columns. To find the path you need to drive round to the southwestern shore of Logurinn. There is a road sign indicating the start of the footpath. The walk to the falls takes about an hour (longer than you would think from below). You pass the smaller Litlifoss, and there are several rock formations to see on the way.
Djupigovur For Boat Trip to Papey
The next stop on our tour around Route 1 was the attractive town of Djupigovur, which is the southernmost settlement in the Eastfjords. Here we stayed in the excellent Hotel Framtid. The hotel overlooks the small harbour region, and has a good restaurant.
The area around the hotel is great for birdwatching, and there is also a daily boat trip to the nearby island of Papey. Thousands of puffins and guillemots breed on Papey and there are also seal colonies. Unfortunately the boat trip had to be cancelled the day we spent at Djupigovur because of thick fog – perhaps another time…..
Skaftafell – Ice at Last!
After spending almost two weeks in Iceland, on the journey to Skaftafell we finally got to see some ice! Driving along the southeast section of Route 1 is breathtakingly beautiful, with the sea on one side and the massive Vatnajokull glacier on the other. We drove past the pleasant coastal town of Hofn, which would be another ideal base, before stopping at the famous Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon.
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
A stop at this famous lagoon is a must. The icebergs floating serenely in the lagoon, many of them an luminous blue colour, are a surreal sight. Seals and seabirds also populate the lagoon.
Boat trips among the glaciers are hugely popular. You can choose between an amphibian vehicle, suitable for anyone, or a smaller inflatable craft which can get closer to the icebergs. In the peak holiday season it is wise to book in advance.
Skaftafell National Park
For our base we chose the Hotel Skaftafell because of its perfect location. It has to be said that first impressions of the hotel’s interior are not brilliant. The corridors are dreary, and the rooms are old-fashioned, basic and a bit shabby, especially for the price. But do not be put off. The restaurant is great, and the setting really is as good as it gets.
Views of the glaciers are magnificent, and you can walk directly from the hotel. Svartifoss is easily accessible so you can see it when it is quiet. Like Hengifoss, this waterfall has impressive hexagonal basalt columns.
We had a beautiful stroll to the edge of the glacier one evening. Seeing the glacier in the moonlight, hearing it creaking, and watching chunks randomly fall from the edge was one of the most memorable experiences of the holiday. Do note, though, that getting close to the glacier can be dangerous, especially with the unpredictable effects of climate change. Always heed any safety notices.
The Skaftafell National Park is a fantastic area for hiking and there are many marked trails. Once again remember that this is an area that is prone to sudden change. Always be sure to check for the latest advice, respect any path closures, and heed safety notices.
Not only is Skaftafell a spectacular destination in its own right, it is also the starting point for one of the best day trips in Iceland – a bus tour to Laki.
Vik – Black Beach and Sea Stacks
Vik is a pleasant little town on the south coast, with a wonderful black beach. It also has photogenic sea stacks known as Reynisdrangar.
Vik lies below Katla volcano and its overlying glacier, and many hills around Vik were formed in previous eruptions. Who knows when the next eruption might be.
There are impressive cliffs that can be climbed from Vik, where you can get great views of the coast and sea stacks, and there are also good opportunities to see puffins and other seabirds. You can also take a trip out to sea in an amphibious vehicle to get closer to the sea stacks and other coastal features.
We stayed one night in the simple but comfortable Puffin Hotel.
Strokkur – Iceland’s Highly Active Geysir
For our next stop we deviated slightly from Route 1, because we wanted to spend a night at Geysir.
Iceland’s geysirs are, of course, immensely popular. As a result, dozens of tour buses can call here everyday. Seeing the geysir in action with a tour is no doubt a great experience. But if you prefer to see it when there are few tourists around, there is an alternative. Right next to the site is a visitor centre together with an excellent hotel complex and restaurant.
The hotel has rooms in the main building, as well as a number of wooden cottages around the site. We stayed in one of the cottages and loved it. Breakfast and dinner in the restaurant were excellent, and we could see the geysir erupting through the large picture window.
We arrived during the afternoon when there were lots of tour groups around the site, and took this opportunity to go for a stroll. There is a pleasant 3 km signposted track up Haukadalur (Hawk Valley).
Later we were able to enjoy Strokkur’s regular eruptions with just a few other tourists at the site. The eruptions occurred every 5-6 minutes, preceded by gurgling dome of blue water at the vent.
There is actually a larger geysir at the site known as Great Geysir, but this only erupts sporadically. There are also a much smaller geysir that splutters, various hot springs and bubbling mud pools, with paths laid out to explore. As always, it is important to keep to the paths, because the erupting water and steam are very hot, and in some areas the earth is a very thin crust.
Gullfoss – A Most Impressive Waterfall
About 6 km from Geysir is yet another impressive waterfall – Gullfoss.
This is a very powerful waterfall, and rainbows are often seen amongst the spray.
Hveragerdi, the next stop on our circuit, is situated on a geothermal area. (Accommodation in Hveragerdi). Many plants are cultivated here in greenhouses heated by the geothermal area. There is also a great park in the town with hot springs and fumaroles. A path leads around the park, with information boards explaining the features. It is well worth a visit.
A great footpath leads from Hveragerdi through mossy valleys to a bathing spot in the River Varma. Whether or not you wish to bathe, the path is well worthwhile. The river is very warm, and the path passes various steaming hot springs.
Thingvellir National Park
Hveragerdi is a perfect base for visiting the Thingvellir National Park. This whole area has immense historical importance.
The lake, Thingvallavatn, is the largest natural lake in Iceland, and has volcanic islands.
Rift Between Continents
Thingvellir is one of the best places in the world to see the rift between two continental plates, as the rift runs right through the park. In the Almannagja ravine you can literally walk along the divide between the North American Plate and the Eurasian plate. It is quite a strange feeling knowing that the ground beneath you is pulling apart by a couple of cm or so each year.
Numerous paths crisscross the park. The whole area abounds with fissures, gorges, and moss-covered lava, which are fascinating to explore.
After over three weeks exploring Iceland’s Route 1, our final base was the charming capital, Reykjavik.
Reykjavik has a reputation for being a party city at weekends, with many bars, clubs and live venues. But we are not party animals, and we arranged our stay to be midweek. We found the city a pleasure to walk around, with a great choice of hotels and eateries.
We chose to stay in A Room With A View apartment hotel. This provides excellent value compared to many hotels in Reykjavik, and has charmingly individual rooms. It is especially good if, like us, you have early mornings planned, and therefore do not need a hotel breakfast.
There are many places to visit in Reykjavik. Here are a few suggestions:
- Volcano House – educational display about Iceland’s volcanoes
- Botanic Garden – collection of around 5000 plant species
- Art Museum – leading art museum situated in three locations in the city
- Whales of Iceland – exhibition with life sized models of all the whale species found in Iceland’s waters
- Hallgrimskirkja – Reykjavik’s famous landmark church
Despite the obvious attractions in the city, we decided to use our two days in Reykjavik to embark upon two very exciting day tours. One was an amazing day trip to the Westman Islands in a tiny plane from the City Airport. The other was a day trip to Thorsmork by bus. Please follow the links to read my posts about these fantastic trips.
Matt and I were so lucky to spend over three weeks touring Iceland. I have never been anywhere else where there are so many completely unique places to visit in such a relatively small area. I can’t wait to go again.
Please remember that this site is based purely on our own experiences – therefore kindly note the Disclaimer.