Wide open skies expose this rugged land to the whims of the weather. Iceland is unlike any other country where you can really feel, and witness, the powerful force of nature at work. Raw volcanic landscapes, dramatic topography, and neverending waterfalls await.
Stepping off the plane, we immediately dive for the warm coats and beanies stashed in our bags. In a land of extremes like Iceland, it’s impossible to be over prepared – even in “summer”.
Straight away we get a sense about this country that just feels right. There’s an open friendliness and an authenticity in the air. A feeling immediately confirmed by the welcoming nature we’re met with by the rental car agent. There’s a small town sense of trust around Iceland – walking out of the airport to the carpark we count the cars with engines left running and doors unlocked as they wait for their arrivals.
In our first hour of driving, we lost count of the number of waterfalls we’d seen. Passing by endless thin streams of fresh water cascading down the steep mountain ranges next to the road. A rapid transformation from misty cloud to falling stream.
We have a moment in the car, looking across at each other in absolute awe, just knowing that we are going to love our 2-week road trip here in Iceland.
Iceland’s Westfjords and Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Bypassing the capital Reykjavik for the moment we headed straight for the remote Icelandic Westfjords, passing through Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the way. Seeing the famous Kirkjufell mountain rise up out of the fjord was our first impression of the dramatic landscapes we were to encounter over the next 12 days. And what a way to set the standard! We were just a bit excited to see the Mountain Beyond The Wall (for all those Game of Thrones dorks like us). Perhaps we should have left this for last…
Continuing around the peninsula to the eerie and stark Búðakirkja, or the black church as it’s known, with its backdrop of epically beautiful coastal scenery. Our first-day enthusiasm and bravado found us cutting across the mountain range that forms the peninsula to our destination in Hólmavík. Arriving quite late at night we realised just how big and far away the Westfjords are and that once you veer away from the main roads, driving conditions can become pretty bad, very quickly.
Our Airbnb host, Skuli, was an absolute legend and one of the gentlest and kindest humans we have ever met.
We’re extremely grateful for the generosity of people who open up their homes to travelling strangers. It’s one of the main reasons we prefer using Airbnb where possible – meeting actual locals and getting a real sense of life in a destination. His rustic farmhouse, outside the small town of Hólmavík, was our cosy abode for our 3 nights in the Westfjords.
Skuli gave us some great tips for the region, so on his direction, we headed off on one of the most remote roads in Iceland along the northeast coast of the Westfjords. With no real plan or destination in mind, just to wander to our heart’s content. We know now that these are some of the best days in travel when you just let the day unfold however it will. We sat watching a whale leisurely cruise around a fjord, ate lunch next to the rusty skeleton of a long retired fishing boat, weaved around the crazy pothole-ridden roads and discovered the blissful relaxation of a secluded hotpot. It was so quiet and peaceful, we felt like the only two people in the world.
After the first two hotpots, both on the same day, we decided our days wouldn’t be complete unless we found at least one hotpot each day to slow down and unwind in.
Our long drive to Dynjandi, which takes pride of place as the most classically beautiful waterfall we’ve ever seen, was balanced with a relaxing dip in Hellalaug, a natural hotpot overlooking the still waters of Vatnsfjörður. We began using the Hotpot Iceland website religiously to track them down on a daily basis, and it was soooo worth it.
Our final night in the Westfjords found us on aurora alert. The forecast for tonight was moderate so we put on almost every layer of clothing we had and ventured out into the freezing, clear night. The first time they appeared, seemingly summoned right above us, was an unforgettable experience. A gentle explosion of green tinged with pink, like fireworks in slow motion, that linger and shift and danced above our heads. Standing on the edge of the earth, totally alone, exclaiming and shrieking with delight as the sky roared to life.
For a few moments, it was as if we were lying under a giant, cosmic curtain swaying in the breeze. The next, the lights morphed into cathedral columns stretching up to touch the stars above. When we were finally freezing through all the layers, the lights had slowed to a faint green tinge glowing behind the growing clouds. They truly are a magical sight to behold. The vivid memory keeping us warm as we drove home through the freezing cold, finally collapsing into bed, exhausted but exhilarated.
In preparation for our trip, we became aurora hunting experts, if you want to increase your chance of seeing them make sure to read our guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland.
From the tiny town of Hólmavík we drove to Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland (pronounced ah-koo-rare-ee), with the improvised song ‘It’s a long way to Akureyri’ (to the tune of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’), in our minds the whole drive. Taking the scenic route wherever possible along the winding coast roads, we arrived with a loose list of places to explore. Our Airbnb host, Gashoub, yet another legend, took our list, asked a couple of quick questions, and promptly returned half an hour later with a perfect 2-day itinerary written for us – amazing!
In just two days we experienced the barren, dramatic volcanic landscapes and aqua lakes around Dimmuborgir, Hofdi and Krafla; explored the underground rabbit warren of the Laufas turf houses; discovered some relaxing secret hot pots; treated ourselves to a sunset evening in the Mývatn Nature Baths; were blown away by the beauty and the power of Godafoss and Dettifoss waterfalls; and devoured some of the freshest (and most expensive) fish and chips we’ve ever tasted.
Unfortunately, we didn’t quite have the time to do the East of Iceland the justice it deserves. There are myriad fjords and waterfalls to explore that will have to wait for another time. We had a few days of solid driving to get around the island, detouring along the coastline where possible. Stumbling across colourful little lighthouses, black beaches, insane mountain formations and burning sunsets.
The stunning area of Stokksnes has some of Iceland’s most epic landscapes, particularly the dominating Vestrahorn mountain. Combine this with black pebbled beaches and serene reflective lakes, and driving around this area is like something from an epic movie set.
It was easy to know when we had reached the southern stretch of the ring road as it became noticeably busier. We were glad to have enjoyed a week of remote locations with far fewer people. The southern coastline is popular for good reason, home to around 60% of all tourists to Iceland, it’s easily accessible from Reykjavik and has a large number of natural highlights all clustered together.
Whilst Dynjandi may claim the most beautiful waterfall, Svartifoss would have to be Anna’s favourite. The rolling hills dramatically fall away to reveal a scarring of black geometric rock with a simply perfect stream flowing down. The black basalt columns stand in stark contrast to the yellow and gold autumnal foliage and vivid green moss clinging their vertical faces.
Exploring the southern coast of Iceland left us continually amazed at how diverse the landscapes were, around every bend was something surprising and unbelievable. A long stretch of black sand beach sparkles with the slowly melting shards of ice that wash up on its shore or sit, gently rocking in the waves. Driving over the bridge at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and seeing Diamond Beach for the first time we had to pinch ourselves. Was this place real? Were we still on Earth? It definitely seemed as though we’d landed on another planet.
Being able to hike up and stand right next to the Svínafellsjökull Glacier Tongue had us in awe. It’s enormous size and slow but destructive power is almost impossible for us to properly comprehend. It can be a freaky experience seeing shards of ice break away and bob around in the freezing water. Then all of a sudden you hear a massive and deep grinding, rumbling sound, like far-off thunder, followed by eerie silence. A power like no other. Hearing the slow shifting sounds of this ancient glacier, but not seeing any movement is just plain spooky!
Our two favourite places in the south have to be Skogafoss for Tim, and Fjaðrárgljúfur for Anna.
Skogafoss is seriously impressive, simple and geometrically perfect, this is what a kid would draw if you asked them to sketch a waterfall. Like a lot of sights in Iceland, you can walk straight up to it from the carpark, as close as you dare depending on how wet you’d like to end up! The Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon has to be the most beautiful canyon in the world (the Grand Canyon, though beautiful as well takes the prize for most grand, obviously!) Black vertical walls twist and bend with the river, contrasting with the vivid green moss and pink wildflowers creeping down the sides of the canyon.
The natural wonders of the south seemed to be unceasing, forming the famous route known as the Golden Circle. We witnessed the unpredictable nature of the “deadly sneaker waves” on the black beach at Vík; marvelled at the geometric basalt columns and cave on Reynisfjara beach; watched in awe, but didn’t get too close to the boiling eruptions of the Strokkur geyser and witnessed rainbows form over the rising mist from the epic Gullfoss. The south also has some pretty spectacular man-made sights as well including Seljavallalaug, a 1920’s swimming pool built into a mountain valley (bloody cold but also beautiful) and the DC-3 Airplane wreckage on the black sand dunes at Sólheimasandur Beach (a good walk out, go early in the morning to avoid heaps of people, if you’ve limited time we wouldn’t recommend it – stick to the natural beauty!)
Arriving back into Reykjavik we were finally able to try what we’d come all this way for (aside from the landscapes!). Iceland’s famous Hot Dogs.
A weird thing to be ‘famous’ for in the North Atlantic Ocean, but we’re not complaining. We sampled the two most recommended places, don’t expect some huge German or New York monster, these hot dogs are tiny so two went down quite nicely for lunch! As a city, Reykjavik feels more like a large country town. Low-rise colourful buildings, cool street art, vibrant shops and cafes and some fantastic architecture give the capital a quirky edge. You can easily cover most of the sites in a day or less.
Leaving Iceland was really hard. Nowhere else has had such a huge impact on us in our travels so far. Every day we felt humbled and in awe of it’s epic and otherworldly landscapes. The raw and ongoing power of the elements is on full show in this young but vibrant land. We feel like we left a piece of our hearts there, a beacon to return to one day.
GAZE in awe at the dancing spectacle of the Aurora Borealis
SOAK in a remote and secluded geothermal hotpot
STAY longer at each waterfall, taking in all the tiny details
PREPARE for all types of weather, sometimes all on the same day
FEEL small, humbled and alive in the massive and breathtaking landscapes
We came across this poem on a road sign in the remote Westfjords. Pretty sure it sums up the magic of Iceland better than we ever could.
Have you ever watched the dance of the Northern Lights on a dark winter’s night?
Or stood outside in the pure spring air, listening to the melodies of the birds?
Have you let the plants be your seat, as you breathed in their scents and noted autumn colours?
Or looked at all the life in the grass, strolled on the shore, skipped stones, caught a trout or petted a soft eider duckling?
Have you ever laid your ear against an elf hill an heard their song, met the dwarf in a rock, tracked the supernatural inhabitants of seashores after the first snowfall, or hearkened to troll calls while waves were beating under a dim sky?
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