Day 1 (TUE, April 17)
- Arrival at Keflavik
- Blue Lagoon
- Phallological Museum
The red-eye flight from Dulles was long and particularly dreadful for me who already endured two other flights the day before and who cannot sleep on the plane. We landed 20 minutes earlier than expected. The plane door opened and all 200-plus of us went through the sleeve and into the main airport building. We then all wandered around for a while as nobody knew which way to go. There were some doors and an elevator (leading to the downstairs bathroom only) and no employees or signs to tell us which way to head. Finally, someone found a door leading into the arrivals area.
Picking up baggage and going through Immigration was easy. We then stepped outside and got our first taste of a foul weather: chilly rain, cold howling wind, and dark grey skies. Braving the elements, we went to a car rental shuttle pick-up place. A few-minute ride (everyone’s luggage skating right, left, back, and forth) took us to our rental company where we waited for quite a while even though there were very few customers and just a couple of employees. We then got into our Korean-made SUV and headed for the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon, even though it has a reputation of a tourist trap, was freaking awesome. Surprisingly, the process was very efficient: they give you a snap-on bracelet which you swipe to lock a locker, to get a beer (included in the price of admission), and with which you can charge any other amenities. You do your final scan and drop the bracelet in the turnstile compartment as you exit, with any incurred additional charges automatically going to your card already in the system. You change into your bathing suit, hang your tower on the wall, and run into the 85-degree water as fast as you can, chattering your teeth all along because the air is colder than hell on the day it froze over. Once in the water, you have a blast exploring the waterfalls, applying mud masks, socializing, taking selfies, and drinking beer.
The only dreadful thing about the Blue Lagoon was the tab for the two paninis and two cups of coffee: seventy U.S. dollars – ouch!
Several days later, as we had lunch up north in Akureyri, we overheard two Icelanders explaining to another traveler that the Blue Lagoon was shifted from its original location by about 500 meters to a more convenient place. It still is a natural phenomenon (geothermal spring) and even though it is overrun with tourists during peak season I would still recommend it to anyone visiting Iceland.
Eight-story imposing CenterHotel Arnarhvoll has just 5 guest parking spots, but we were lucky to snag one on arrival. We checked in and drove to Hallgrímskirkja guided by its tower visible from nearly everywhere in Reykjavik. It is the capital’s tallest building, very modern, made of concrete. Inside, not much to look at. A musician played the 50,000-pipe organ for a while then started packing up his score sheets, so we asked him why. He said the construction noise outside (jackhammer) was too much. He was right. We bought tickets for the elevator to the top of the tower and took a few pictures of Reykjavik from its windows. We climbed few more flights of stairs and tried to get another view from the terrace, but the wind was very strong, so we quickly went back in.
From the church, we drove to the Icelandic Phallological Museum and snapped some pictures, mostly of whale penises. There were other species’ genitals there as well including one belonging to the deceased founder of the museum who willed it in his last will and testament.
We had a very nice dinner in the eighth-floor restaurant “Sky”, chatting with a Danish/Pakistani waiter and we went to sleep right away. One great thing about Iceland is the down comforters and great heaters at all hotels.
Day 02 (WED, April 18)
- Þingvellir National Park
- Gullfoss waterfall
- Geysir hot spring
- Dinner at “Lava Centre” in Hvolsvöllur
- Overnight in Ármót Guesthouse
The second day we did 2/3 of the Golden Circle, leaving the southern part of the circle for the tail end of the trip.
We began with Þingvellir National Park. It sits in the valley created by two huge continental plates, North American and Eurasian, pulling apart at a lightning speed (geologically speaking) of an inch a year. Various cracks and fissures keep opening, including one which opened a mere 7 years ago. Still, the pictures posted all over the Internet with folk standing with each foot on the opposite sides of the crack and the comments that they are spanning two continental plates are misleading, as that is true of the entire valley of over 1 km wide so one cannot pinpoint a specific spot where the splitting occurs, at least not on land. Divers, on the other hand, can take photos of themselves in between the continents. We did, however, walk the path leading into the Almannagjá canyon and took pictures of the Öxarárfoss waterfall.
Incidentally, Þingvellir National Park was established in 1930, marking the 1000th anniversary of the establishment of Althing, the Icelandic Parliament in 930 A.D. at this very place.
Next, we drove to Iceland’s most famous waterfall: Gullfoss, located in the canyon of Hvítá river (curiously, all Icelandic river’ names end with a “á”) a runoff from the glacier Langjökull. To fully appreciate its size (2 stages, 32m), look at the tiny people in the lower left corner of the picture. The skies cleared, and we were lucky to see the beautiful rainbow over the falling water. Look at the people on the left of the picture and you’ll be able to grasp the sheer size of the waterfall.
We reached the nearby geothermal area of Geysir where the Strokkur fountain geyser ejects a 20-feet column of hot water every few minutes. We missed photographing the first few eruptions (you blink and you’ll miss it), but luckily finally caught one. We walked around the area looking at small springs and mud puddles boiling and bubbling here and there.
We drove south, left the Golden Circle and got on the Ring Road (Route 1) to continue our journey. Guesthouse Ármót was supposed to be in Hvolsvöllur but was about 12 kilometers off the main road. We found it using phone GPS. As we later realized, none of the hotels were in the towns or villages but some distance away and often unmarked. We were the only guests at Ármót that night.
The owner, Hafliði Halldórsson, greeted us personally and delighted us with his stories of the horses he trains for exhibitions and for sale (about 300 of them were in the massive stables across the courtyard), and about the salmon fishing, horseback riding, goose hunting, and glacier riding ATV tours he organizes for visitors during summer when the 6-room guesthouse and the fishing lodge are booked to capacity. His English wasn’t very good but with a little effort, we managed to communicate quite well. We understood that he donates numerous geese to Afghan refugees at Christmas time. A good man.
We drove back to Hvolsvöllur for dinner at the Lava Center. It was almost the closing time, but they graciously let us eat whatever remained, at a discount. Alas, the full bus of tourists that just left ate nearly all the delicious mushroom soup. I still managed to scrape the bottom of the pot, though. We found out that a lot of foreigners fill the hospitality jobs on the Ring Road, mostly from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Rumania) but also from Switzerland and the Netherlands.
We slept well at the guesthouse. Next morning, as the clouds dissipated a bit, he insisted that we see the nearby Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes and the expansive views from the great room. He made us a nice breakfast and we headed back towards the Ring Road.
Day 03 (THU, April 19)
- Seljalandsfoss waterfall
- Skógarfoss waterfall
- Skógar museum
- Sólheimajökull glacier
- Reynisfjara black sand beach
- Eldhraun lava field
Our first stop on the Ring Road that day was Seljalandsfoss waterfall that you can walk behind. That’s what Kevin did. I didn’t want to get mist on my jacket or slip on the muddy path. That is where I saw lots of puffins (60% of Icelandic puffins supposedly live in Iceland) but they were to high up on the cliff. Additionally, poor lighting prevented me from taking any photos. However, if you zoom in on my picture of this waterfall, you will see the white spots in the upper right – these are puffins nesting high on the cliff.
We continued to Skógarfoss waterfall, one of the highest in Iceland and then we stopped to visit Skógar museum itself, all its three parts: museum, open air, and technical. It was a national holiday (First Day of Summer) but (unlike the bank) it was open and there were quite a few off-season visitors besides us. I was surprised at how low the ceilings were in the old turf-roofed houses, with Vikings having a reputation for being tall. A replica of the outhouse brought not-so-fond memories from my childhood, as we had one of those where my Grandma lived. The one at the museum in Iceland was far less scary than the one I remembered.
We continued about 10 km eastward to see the Sólheimajökull glacier and its runoff. We hiked a loop over a hill to get closer to the glacier’s head and back by the shore, looking at small melting pieces that broke off.
Our next stop was Dyrhólaey cape, the southernmost point of Iceland. A small road takes you to the top of this 120 m high sea cliff where you often can see many puffins. Dyrhólaey is closed during nesting season from May 15 through June 23 and from mid- August the puffins will have gone to sea. Obviously, April 20 was too early, as we saw hardly any puffins and those we did see were way too far to photograph.
Black sand Reynisfjara beach is famous for the Reynisdrangar rock stacks that rise from the sea and for its basalt columns. It was cold and windy, with the waves were furiously crashing on the black sand.
We got back on the Ring Road and continued through the Mýrdalssandur plain and Eldhraun lava field (which covers over 230 square miles). We entered the name of the Hotel Geirland into the phone and were guided to it, some distance past the small town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. On the way, we traipsed through some fenced private property to get a closer look at the gorgeous waterfall not on our original itinerary. I later found out it is called Stjórnarfoss.
We had dinner at the hotel. Through the restaurant window, we saw the one and only puffin, walking around and pecking the ground. By the time I reached for my camera, it was gone.
Next morning, we stopped once more to have one more look at the waterfall before getting back on the Ring Road.
Day 04 (FRI, April 20)
- Núpsstaður church
- Svartifoss waterfall
- Jökulsarlon glacier lagoon
- Vatnajökull glaciers
We had some difficulty finding Núpsstaður because it’s just a small privately owned rural property and (as most places in this country) it is unmarked except for a tiny sign. If you blink, you’ll miss it. We were intrigued by what the Lonely Planet book called “the smallest turf church in Iceland.” It did not disappoint. Inside, you could comfortably accommodate about six parishioners and a priest (most likely a roving one, performing scheduled services in a designated area).
On the way to Skaftafell National Park, we stopped at this nameless cascading river flowing from one of the glaciers to the Atlantic.
We didn’t stop at Svartifoss waterfall (3.5 km R/T strenuous hike) but headed for Skaftafell National Park where Kevin hiked to the head of Öræfajökull glacier while I shopped for souvenirs at the park’s gift shop. Öræfajökull happens to be the second most active volcano on Earth (Mount Etna being the first). Hvannadalshnjúkur, a peak on the northwestern rim of the crater of the Öræfajökull is the highest mountain in Iceland.
Next, we arrived at the glacial lagoon Jökulsarlon at the foot of Hvannadalshnúkur. We walked along the banks and saw some icebergs which allegedly take 5 years to float some 25 kilometers from the glacier head to the Atlantic Ocean. I expected them to be larger and to see more of them. Still, I’d say it was a unique experience. I summer, they have boat tours to see the icebergs up close, but we did not have that option.
On the way to our stop for the night, Old Airline Guesthouse (it used to be an airport administration building when the sandbar served as an airstrip) in Höfn (pronounced “Hup” for no good reason), we passed few more outlet glaciers of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest ice cap. After checking in, we walked to Pakkhús restaurant overlooking the harbor for a nice seafood dinner. Sounds simple enough but the restaurant has no shield and the street in front was being dug up by heavy earth-moving machinery. Still, determined enough and hungry as we were, we found the place and ate very well.
Day 05 (SAT, April 21)
- Almannaskarð tunnel
- Petra’s stone collection (closed)
- War World II Museum in Reydarfjörður (closed)
- The East Fjords
We left the Höfn region and drove through the poorly lit Almannaskarð tunnel, continuing along the fjords towards Southeast Iceland, making a stop in the charming fishing village of Djúpivogur.
In Stöðvarfjörður we intended to see a private stone collection which supposedly includes most of the Icelandic minerals; however, as we later found out, the owner passed away and the relatives open the collection for the public only during the summer.
Near the fjord Reydarfjörður, we stopped to have a look at a small history museum about World War II. Again, it was closed.
We finally arrived at Hótel Eyvindará in Egilsstaðir. We had dinner at the hotel. The Swiss receptionist recommended that we visited the nearby village of Seydisfjorður the next day. That was a mistake, considering the weather. Still, next morning, we did drive about halfway to that village on a deserted snowed-over mountain road. We were the only car for miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers?) and it looked increasingly dangerous, so we found a place to make a U-turn and headed back to Egilstaðir before tackling the Central Highlands in our “F-roads certified” rented SUV. FYI: F-roads are rocky, muddy, steep, and very dangerous. They are open only from June through September. Needless to say: we did not stray from the Ring Road.
Day 06 (SUN, April 22)
- Seyðisfjörður (gave up on it — bad weather)
- Möðrudalur highlands
- Hverir fumaroles
- Lake Mývatn
- Hverfjall crater
After giving up seeing the village of Seyðisfjörður. the road continued across the white frozen landscape of Möðrudalur highlands. Originally, we had planned to see glacial waterfall Dettifoss, the gorge of Ásbyrgi, Tjörnes Peninsula, and the fishing village Húsavík (Iceland’s whaling center), but after several hours of driving through wretched weather (snow, ice, and merciless wind), we decided to forgo that northern detour and just head straight for Lake Mývatn. Google map said the drive through the Highlands should take a little over 3 hours. It took us nearly twice as long.
Approaching our destination for the day, we stopped at geothermal spot Hverir to take photos and videos of the bubbling mud pools and chimneys belching out gobs of sulfuric gas – truly an otherworldly landscape. Incidentally, Hverir has quite a history. During the late medieval times, half of the sulfur Europe needed to fuel its increasingly gun-powered wars were mined here.
Next, we looked for Fosshótel Mývatn, a new, modern, imposing three-story structure overlooking the lake. As most places in this country, it was unmarked, except for the small blue flags planted in front. We almost missed it. The nearby tephra cone of the Hverfjall crater may have looked interesting to climb if it wasn’t so very windy, cold, and snowing. We stopped for pizza and beer (to the tune of $75 – ouch!) at a small eatery in nearby Vogar. We then retired for the night after spending some time in our hotel’s sauna and downing a couple of shots of Icelandic caraway-flavored schnapps Brennivín (a.k.a. Black Death).
Day 07 (MON, April 23)
- Mývatn natural baths (closed)
- Godafoss waterfall
After scrumptious breakfast at the hotel, we meant to drive to dip in Mývatn natural geothermal baths, alas it did not yet open for the tourist season. Also, it snowed overnight, which was a bit worrisome as we still had some Highlands driving ahead. The Hverfjall crater, definitely black a night before, was all white that morning.
On the way to Akureyri, we had the opportunity to stop at the picturesque Godafoss waterfall. The legend has it that 1000 years ago an Icelandic ruler threw some pagan artifacts into the fall and converted the country to Christianity.
In Akureyri, we decided to forego a visit to Akureyrarkirkja (yet another concrete church with pipe organ) designed by the same architect who dreamt up the ugly Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja. After a nice lunch at “Strikið” restaurant, we hit the road. The weather improved slightly.
We were going to overnight in Sauðárkrókur but canceled our reservations and instead decided to drive to Blönduós where we found a simple but adequate Kiljan Guesthouse ran by an entrepreneurial Polish innkeeper. She treated us to “Krupnik” (Polish honey liqueur) and told us to see “thousands of seals” a few kilometers north of Hvammstangi. It seemed like a great tip.
Day 08 (TUE, April 24)
- Kolufossar falls
- Troll Falls
Before leaving Blönduós, our original plan was to hike Hrutey Island at the mouth of the river Blanda, but instead, we decided to take a little detour off Route 1 further south, at Laugarbakki, and drive up north of Hvammstangi to see the seals.
We first stopped in Vidhidalstunga to see Kolufossar falls and the Kolugljúfer gorge, cut by the river Víðiðalsá. The only place I saw this waterfall mentioned was some blog, so directions were sketchy, but we managed to find it anyway. And, apparently, so did two other couples we saw at the falls (probably stumbled on the same blog I did). The river flows peacefully only to suddenly disappear in the deep gorge.
We drove to Hammstangi and stopped at the Seal Centre to get the scoop about where to find the seals. They mentioned two places. We drove another 30 minutes or so. We stopped at the far north spot first and walked towards the beach, battling the elements. There were no seals there. None. We turned around, drove to the second spot but by then we knew better so when we saw some German tourists walking back to their car we asked them whether they saw any seals. They did not. We took their word for it.
The road to Borgarness took us through some more highlands but not as ominous or dangerous as the Central Highlands we left behind. We saw many pastures with Icelandic horses who are known for being left outdoors year around and adapted to endure even the harshest winter weather.
In Borgarnes, we checked into our hotel, picked up a bottle of wine at the store and drove to see the Troll waterfalls, which was not a simple endeavor. All our maps and directions were wrong. Still, persistent as we are, we found the falls. There is a pathway by the river adorned with several troll statues. Kevin hiked it. I stayed warm in the car.
We stayed in Hotel Hafnarfjall near Borgarnes with – as all our stays – breakfast included. Kevin enjoyed the outdoor hot tub, taking selfies, and admiring the nearby snow-capped mountain peaks.
Day 09 (WED, April 25)
- Hveragerði geothermal park
We drove south from Borgarnes through Reykjavik to Hveragerði. Between Borgarnes and the capital, we found ourselves in a 6-km tunnel under a fjord (not a good experience). The toll road saved us about 30 minutes of driving (had we taken a road around the fjord), but the fumes inside (CO2) were unpleasant, to say the least.
Once we passed Reykjavik, we were back on the Golden Circle that we did not complete on the second day of the trip. We stopped to visit Hveragerði geothermal park. We took the tour and Kevin boiled an egg in the heat provided by Mother Earth: soft, if boiled for 5 minutes (we did that) or hard, if for 10. We chatted briefly with an American attendant at the museum who married an Icelander and stayed. There were precious few tourists this time of the year and she seemed happy to have someone to talk to even if just for a few minutes.
Adjacent to the N1 gas station we found this interesting private collection of Icelandic rocks, minerals, and other artifacts manned by a charming young man, son-in-law of the collection owner. He was showing us old family photo and was very well versed in local geology. He works, does volunteer work coaching girls soccer team, mans the exhibit, and creates unique souvenirs on demand in his spare time, so Kevin ordered some stuff he’ll make and ship to the U.S.
We had light lunch at Tryggvaskáli restaurant in Selfoss, by the waterfront, returned to Reykjavik and checked into CenterHotel Arnarhvoll. This time we got a room on the next-to-last (7th) floor with a nice view of Harpa concert hall and the harbor.
My original plan was to dine at “Perlan” restaurant, built on water tanks that hold the city’s hot water supply, with spectacular views of Reykjavik and its surroundings. As it happens, it was still closed for remodeling. I then found out that Kevin already took the initiative and made reservations at “Dill”, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Iceland.
We freshened up at the hotel and walked a couple of blocks down the street to “Dill.” Our seven-course dinner, with wine pairing, was a three-hour production we will remember for years to come (thank you, Kevin, for going all-in!). This wrapped up our fabulous trip in a grandiose way.
Day 10 (THU, April 26)
Not much to say: we drove to Keflavik, returned our rental car, checked in with the Icelandic Air and were happy to find out that the middle seat between us remained unoccupied so we could stretch out a bit on that 5-hour flight back to Washington, DC.
A few observations of general nature:
- We missed out on a few things, such as seeing Aurora Borealis, because of the almost constant overcast. The trade-off was that we didn’t have to drive through winter storms on the icy roads, or vie for parking spots in summer where hordes of tourists descend upon Iceland — trendy destination these days.
- We relied heavily on the maps I printed beforehand as well as of the GPS service — these two things got us wherever we wanted to get and we never really got lost, not for longer than 15 minutes, anyway.
- People everywhere are really nice and friendly. Most hospitality workers come from other European countries. They will tell you that they return to work in Iceland time and again because of the friendly work environment.
- Wi-Fi access is very good everywhere. Satellite TV — not so much, but I am biased (not being able to catch up on the news on CNN International makes me profoundly unhappy — fortunately, not for very long).Iceland is expensive. More than I anticipated. Expect to pay four times the price for a bottle of wine that you’d be paying at home.
- Fruit and vegetables are hard to come by. Still, food is very good, especially bread and seafood.
- The Ring Road (and basically any roads outside the capital) are single lane in each direction but pretty decent except maybe for the two tunnels that we did not like much. Road signs are hilarious: you’ll get a frowny face if you exceed the speed limit and a smiley one if you obey it. Red light is not round but in the form of a heart. Cute!
- We saw just one police car, and it was road police.
- You get many hours of daylight: On April 17, the sun in Iceland rose at 5:49 a.m. and set at 9:07 p.m., but 10 days later, it rose at 5:14 a.m. and set at 9:38 p.m., for a total of sixteen and a half hours of daylight, with one hour six minutes gain in those 10 days. Freaking awesome!