If you’re a human living in the world today, you’ve probably heard about how awesome Iceland is. Well I’m here to tell you that everything you’ve heard is true. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve probably watched Game of Thrones (or James Bond, or Tomb Raider, or Beowulf…), but I’ll also tell you that none of these really prepares you for what you’re going to see. In brilliant 3D color, with the wind whipping past you through the sweeping mountain slopes and over the vast volcanic floodplains, the variety and scale of what you’re looking at is overwhelming. In four days and five nights, we managed to make it around the whole of the country and, while there were certainly places and experiences that didn’t fit into our timeframe, armed with just a 4WD and an adventurous spirit, we managed to have some remarkably unique experiences. And these are all IN ADDITION to all the top tourist attractions we also visited – the Blue Lagoon, geysers, waterfalls, etc.
Get up close and personal with a glacier
Glaciers, like waterfalls, are everywhere in Iceland, and the best ones (and the most easily accessible by car) are tongues of the vast Vatnajokull ice cap found in Skaftafell National Park. Now there are a plethora of guided tours, glacier walks, and cave excursions – definitely DON’T go onto a glacier without a guide. But we, being fans of the more impromptu “let’s see where that twisty-looking road goes” method of adventuring, found ourselves practically (but safely) on top of several awesome glaciers. The first was Skeidararjokull, which we found by accident by turning onto a dirt track and following it until the road stopped. After a bumpy ride which took us into the bounds of Skaftafell national park, the road terminated before a vast floodplain of dark grey gravel with the glacier tongue massive and wide in the distance. A quick scramble up the flood barrier (in place because massive glaciers tend to also cause massive flash-floods) gave us a panoramic 360-degree view of the countryside.
The second, even awesomer one we found next, was Svinafellsjokul, which we came upon by following potholey but paved road branching off from the Skaftafell turnoff. A small trail leading from a parking lot leads past an iceberg-choked lagoon and along the northern side of the glacier, where you can look down (from relative safety) into the crevasses and, as you keep walking, get a sense of the superhuman scale of the thing. Among the deep blue ice, you might get a glimpse of an ice-climber no bigger than a gnat, and you’ll understand how enormous even a relatively small glacier is.
To get to Skeidararjokull: Heading east along the Ring Road (1), exactly twenty miles east of Hof (not to be confused with Hofn, which is elsewhere), there is a turnoff to the left. It’s marked on Google maps as Haoldukvisl (so you can plug it for directions) but in reality the only marker is a picnic bench by the side of the road. The road is gravel and mostly good, though if you’re not in a 4WD I’d go quite carefully. It terminates after about a mile and a half.
To get to Svinasfellsjokul: Continuing east along the Ring Road, with the titanic mound of Vatnajokull looming ever closer, there will be a well-marked left turn for the 998 toward Skaftafell. Don’t turn here, but continue another half mile until you see a dirt road turn off to the left. Take this and bear to the right until you come to a small parking lot, with a trail leading off through a gate and along the glacier.
2. Chase the Northern Lights
No winter visit to Iceland would be complete without a view of this spectacular phenomenon. There are tour companies that offer “Northern Lights tours,” which promise to take you out nightly until you’ve sighted the lights. I’m skeptical of these, as they keep you tied to Reykjavik, obligate you to someone else’s schedule, and cost money with no guarantee of success! I’d use apps such as Aurora Watch or Aurora Notifier which will alert you when activity reaches a certain threshold – meaning the lights are more likely to be visible. If it’s a clear night just get in your car, park yourself in some wide open place with a view of the sky, and spend some quality time staring upwards. Worst-case scenario, you’ll spend a night bonding with the breathtaking northern sky, resplendent without the light-interference you’d likely get back home. Best case scenario, what begins as a faint glow, like moonlight without the moon, might blossom into undulating cathedrals of flickering green light. It’s not as vivid in real life, the colors you see in photos come from long exposures which have time to gather the light and make it look brighter. If you have any kind of camera that will hold the shutter open for a few seconds, have some fun playing around capturing the effect. You’ll want a tripod to hold the phone/camera absolutely still (or just balance it on the hood of the car like I did).
3. Drink champagne in a geothermal hottub
Hottubbing is the national pastime of Icelanders. Any hotel worth its salt will have at least one little pool sunk into the hillside, probably fed by natural hot springs, where strangers or lovers can hang out and keep their bodies warm while their ears freeze off. Because it was a special occasion, we requested a bottle of champagne from our hotel, but you can pick one up more cheaply at the airport dutyfree. The magic of Iceland is grounded in its nature, so there’s no better way to spend an evening than out of doors. And the freezing temperatures will keep your drinkypoo chilled, although you might want to hang onto your glass in case the wind takes it away. Oh, and don’t let the cold daunt you. You really haven’t lived until you’ve run out of your hotel room into sub-zero temperatures in your bikini, and getting back out is even worse – you might just need to linger all night before you get up the courage to dash back to your room…
How can a place be so cold, yet so hot at the same time?
(Hot tip: The Icelanders use their volcanic resources in all sorts of cool ways. Besides heating their houses, and their saunas and spas for romantic sexytimes, our hotel let us cook our eggs in a volcanic steam vent. No lies – it took eight minutes, and it was totally legit!)
4. Spend the night in your car
I can’t recommend this way of traveling enough. The experience itself is a cozier version of camping. We used cheap duvets in addition to our sleeping bags to make a snug nest in the back of our Suzuki (but you don’t need an SUV to be comfy – any car will do as long as you can put down the back seats!). It’s not that you can lie in the warm comfort of your car and watch the landscape as the sounds of nature lull you to sleep. For one thing, the condensation of your breathing will quickly block the windows, and without the heater running the inside temperature of the car will soon match the outside temp (but don’t worry, with a duvet or a sleeping bag you certainly won’t freeze, particularly if you have somebody to snuggle with!). No, the magic of car-camping is picking your perfect spot to spend the night, whether it’s looking over a beautiful valley, by the seashore, or, as we didit, by the shore of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It’s getting your bedding and luggage
Our view the next morning – and we had it all to ourselves!
all sorted out, and passing back and forth a bottle of wine as the sun sets. It’s wondering what strange sounds are in the night, or waking your partner up at 3 am because your phone just sent a Northern Lights alert and stumbling out into the crackling blackness to try and spot them. Then it’s waking up with the dawn and washing your hair with a bottle of water, then brushing your teeth while you contemplate the misty landscape, none of which you would have done if you’d slept in a boring old hotel room.
5. Find the Solheimsandur Plane Wreck
The wreckage of a US plane that made an emergency crash-landing on the southern coast of Iceland in 1973 (nobody died – yay!), makes a weird and unique tourist site. The burned-out shell of the plane, a decaying sort of ruin, rests in the strange landscape of a black-sand beach surrounded on one side by a bowl of impressive mountains, and on the other by the powerful motion of North Atlantic waves. There are companies (or individuals!) based in Vik that will drive you out to the wreckage, but the most popular – and definitely the best – way to access the site is by walking. (Note: you used to be able to drive up to the site but now the owner has closed the road to private vehicles). Here is a great description of how to get there – you’re really just walking south in a straight line, but the sand dunes and contours of the land make it slightly disorienting. The walk is about 2 miles each way, and as it’s flat and not too difficult, it makes a great and low-risk way to get yourself out of the car, off the road, and into the Icelandic countryside. The plane and its setting are a Disneyland for photographers (some of whom have damaged the wreck by lighting fireworks inside to get cool exposure shots – naughty!), but after you’ve posed for a Biggles photo, I’d urge that you take the extra few minutes and continue down to the beach itself. We spent as much time hypnotized by the crashing waves – that amazing contrast of the white sea foam on the black sand – as we did poking around the plane wreck.
6. Drive through a mountain pass in a blizzard
I suppose this isn’t something you can exactly plan to do, and I wouldn’t *quite* recommend doing it if you can help it, but it’s definitely an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s not exactly surprising that if you travel to Iceland at the end of March, some of the roads will still be closed from the winter snow, and even those that aren’t can get pretty bloody cold. We’d had a bit of a scare two days previously as we were driving into Vik, which you reach by going up over a short, but not inconsiderable pass between two mountains. It was snowing slightly, which made us nervous about ice, but the real bogeyman was the wind. During the day I’d felt it trying to blow me across the road while I drove, and when we parked it rocked the car back and forth. In this pass, with the snow and the day getting dark into night, it was extra scary. The worst moment was when we passed an RV that had actually been blown off the road, and was blocking one lane, while another car seemed likely to get blown into the blown-away RV. Morty was driving, so naturally I was filming.
We spent our last day on a driving marathon: we woke up (in our car) at Jokulsarlon, and our goal was to make it around the whole of the island and back to Rejkjavik in time to catch our flight at 7 the following morning. It would appear that we, too, like to live dangerously. We probably should have been tipped off by the two road closures we encountered before noon. But we took the detours and kept going. We probably should have been tipped off by the mountain pass out of Reydarfjordur which, even though it wasn’t closed, was so snow-covered that the only thing visible was the road itself.
And this was before the storm even began – complete whiteout!
The entire world, hills and sky, was a perfect, impenetrable white – a very disconcerting experience. But we made it to Egilsstadir without incident, got petrol and hotdogs at the gas station, and set out on the next leg with a full tank and plenty of coffee. Half an hour later found us two inches deep in new-fallen snow (read: unplowed) and visibility almost zero in spots.
7. Go bond with some horses
One of the strange things about Iceland is that there are horses everywhere. You would think with such a harsh and mountainous climate the main livestock would be sheep, but apparently not. And they’re not just regular old horses, but these wonderful shaggy ponies that seem perfectly adapted to the frigid cold. Some of them are skittish when you approach them, almost wild-seeming, whereas others come right up to the fence and are quite friendly. Perhaps too friendly for my taste… I had the weird impression that this girl was trying to steal my man!
8. Watch the waves crash at the Dyrholaey cliffs and lighthouse
One of the most beautiful sights we saw on our trip was the view around Dyrholaey point, about half an hour west of Vik. You get there by following a tiny single-track road branching off to the right/south of the main road. At the end of it is a parking lot just at the edge of the cliff, with the most spectacular 360-degree views: the ocean to the south, the cliffs and black sand beaches to the east and west, and the mountains disappearing off to the distance to the north. You can walk up to the top of the cliff and get a panoramic view across Reynisfjara, Iceland’s most famous stretch of black sand, with the black basalt sea-stacks of Vik in the distance. You can watch the waves crash spectacularly against the rocks and through naturally-formed blowholes, forming rainbows against the sun:
Honestly, the waves and the scenery were so mesmerizing, we actually spent almost two hours just at this one spot:
Then, when you can finally tear yourself away from watching the waves smash against the rocks, you can take another short road (definitely recommend 4WD for this road, otherwise it’s only about a 15-minute walk) up to the lighthouse that towers over the point, and this was the point at which I wasn’t even sure what world I was in anymore – Middle Earth? Narnia? Asgard? – because the view was so spectacular I still have trouble believing I really saw it, even when I look at the pictures.
These are just a few of the non-typical adventures we had in Iceland. We had a lot of the more traditional tourist experiences as well: the Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park, geysers like Strokkur, and waterfalls like Skogafoss. But I figured there are probably a million blog posts out there on those things – I thought I’d write one on some of the more special things we did that didn’t come from a guidebook, but that made our trip even much more magical. Hopefully they can make your trip wonderful too 🙂