Iceland: a visit to the land of fire and ice

I just returned from a four-day trip to Iceland and can’t wait to plan my next trip. The country is, no doubt, one of the weirdest places on earth. It offers a varied, stunning, and oftentimes eery landscape (volcanoes! glaciers!), and a fascinating history (vikings!). Here are five quick and dirty must-dos that I hope will be useful if you are planning a trip to the land of fire and ice:

1. Drive yourself.

15 Drive to Blue Lagoon
Driving to the Blue Lagoon

Most tourists in Iceland seem to prefer the day tour option. And no wonder, since it seems so convenient. The tour company picks up you at your hotel every morning in a big bus, takes you to two or three popular tourist sites, and drops you off in the evening. Sounds good so far. Yet … I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come all the way to Iceland to be stuck on a tour bus with other Americans (no offense — go ‘murica!). More importantly, you don’t want to miss out on the wonderful sense of freedom and adventure that you can only get from driving yourself through a truly spectacular and unspoiled landscape. You can pull over and admire the beautiful mountains, volcanoes, fields, and beaches at your will. The main roads are easy to navigate and in excellent condition. They are also nearly empty. Every half and hour or so, we’d pass by a tour bus, but otherwise, it was just us and the mountains. Renting a car is easy. You can easily reserve one with any of the rental companies servicing the Keflavik Airport. Our cheapest quote happened to come from Budget. Be cautious when selecting a vehicle — most on offer are manual, and they will be labeled as such. And definitely get the GPS.

2. Drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón and back in one day — it’s doable.

113 Drive to Jökulsárlón
The stunning drive to Jökulsárlón.

Speaking of driving, there’s a ton of debate on the web about whether or not it’s feasible to drive from the capital city to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and back in one day (4.5 hours each way). Most of the recommendations skew toward spreading the trip over two days instead. I disagree. If you’re like me and didn’t want to burn a second day, the ~9-11-hour roundtrip is both feasible and enjoyable, even in late October. We woke up early, grabbed breakfast and a few snacks for the road, and left our hotel in Reykjavik before 8 a.m. We easily made it to Jökulsárlón around 2 p.m.– a trip that included stops at Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Vík along the way, not to mention numerous pit stops we made to take photos, as the southern coast is simply breathtaking. After a tour around the gorgeous region (see featured photo above), an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon, and some coffees at the cafe, we were on the road again just after 4 p.m., and we made it back to Reykjavik just after 9 p.m. Although the drive is long, it is a straight shot along freeway 1 until you get closer to Reykjavik. We even had enough energy to go out for drinks and dinner that night!

3. Seljalandsfoss. 

In the belly of the beast.
In the belly of the beast.

Seljalandsfoss is my favorite waterfall and it’s on the way to Jökulsárlón! Yes it may be Iceland’s most famous waterfall, but no it is not merely a tourist trap. Huffington Post recently described it as one of the most relaxing places on earth, which seems weird to me, since I would go with “astounding” or “powerful” instead. Walking around Seljalandsfoss is a cold, wet, loud and even harrowing experience given how slippery the “walking path” can be (wet jagged rocks and no handrail). But you as you steady yourself on the colorful rock wall, wipe the cold spray off your face and camera lens, and look out onto the world from behind sheets of rushing water, you will feel completely exhilarated. Strap on your sturdiest waterproof hiking boots and enjoy!

4. Mount Esja.

Halfway up!
Halfway up!

On our last afternoon in Iceland, we wanted to do something that the locals in Reykjavik do. A waitress recommended that we hike up Mount Esja, the beautiful snow-topped mountain range to the north of the city (“We go hiking there on the weekend to stay fit,” she said). After a 20-mile drive north, you can park your car in one of the lots and choose your preferred path. We chose to head for “Steinn.” You can actually walk up most of the mountain–it’s not Everest–without any equipment, and view of the city below is amazing and probably not something that most tourists see. Dress in layers, as it gets blustery near the top, and be careful where streams have turned to ice. This website offers more details about the hike.

5. Kopar. We had our best meal here. Friendly service, excellent food, a great wine selection, and a lively mix of Icelanders and tourists. What else do you need, really, to rejuvenate after a long day of adventuring? Order the rock crab appetizer.

Bonus tip. Do not take a northern lights tour. Just don’t. Yes, the tours, like all tours, seem convenient, and the guides purport to know the “best places” to view the lights. And yes, they offer a free redo if you don’t see the lights. But it wasn’t worth it, and I’ll tell you why. After two aurora-less nights, we got desperate and booked the Gray Line tour. It was a borderline scam. The tour bus first took us to a field not far from Reykjavik where the city lights were very visible and clearly polluting the sky. Nothing happened. Then they took us to a restaurant half an hour away where they had “arranged” hot drinks and food for everyone. Of course, nothing was free or even discounted, and I’m sure that the restaurant made a killing. Even worse, the sky was so bright from the restaurant and surrounding neighborhood that we could barely see the stars — on a perfectly clear night! After an hour or so at the restaurant, they got everyone back on the bus and during the drive back to Reykjavik announced that there was no northern lights activity in Iceland at all that evening.

I realize that the elements are well beyond a tour company’s control, but the ground circumstances certainly weren’t. Maybe there are tours that offer real off-roading in monster 4x4s to areas that are truly beyond the city lights. But my understanding is that if they get a big enough group that night (and they nearly always do), they’ll drag you around in a bus. My advice: wait for a clear night, look at the aurora forecast, and drive to wherever’s best yourself.

In sum … go to Iceland and DIY! Hope these tips are helpful. Obviously, everything above is subjective, so please don’t hesitate to chime in and leave me a comment.

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