Breathtaking, exhilarating, other-worldly, magnificent, Iceland is all of these and so much more. This trip exceeded all of my expectations and I am so excited to share my adventures with you! A road trip around this magical island might be too ambitious for some, but for those who accept the challenge of an ever changing terrain, breathtaking scenery, and kind people, pack your bags.
We were in Iceland for 7 days, during which we experienced so much so bear with me as I ramble on about our incredible adventure around the entire island!
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, and the northernmost capital in the world! Being Canadian, we were used to the cold but if you’re coming from the south then you better bundle up.
We rented a car from Blue Car Rental just around the corner from the Keflavik airport, this rental company was awesome, they had great customer service, fully included insurance, and had us in and out of the rental place within 5 minutes! As we drove into the city, the sun was rising over the horizon casting vibrant shades of orange, yellow and pink across the wispy clouds. It was the first of many jaw dropping moments as we sat in awe of the scenery in front of us.
We started our day in Reykjavik at the Harpa Concert Hall. The building features a distinct coloured glass facade inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland. The reflections from the glass and mirrored ceilings and walls was by far one of the most interesting architectural buildings I’ve ever been in.
A few minutes down the coast line from Harpa is a sculpture called the Sun Voyager. It is said to be an ode to the sun that conveys the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress, and freedom.
After exploring the city for a few hours we were hungry it was about time we had some lunch. I had heard from so many people that the hot dog stands in Reykjavik are famously delicious so we set off to find us some street meat. In the city centre we came across one that was literally called ‘The Hot Dog Stand’, and ordered one with everything on it. The sausage is made with lamb, beef and pork, which is why people say it tastes so good. I mean… it was good, but I wouldn’t say it changed my life.
After lunch we took in the quaintness of Iceland’s capital, the streets were small and winding, with European style homes, and there were no daunting corporate buildings or hustling angry businessmen anywhere to be seen, just a nice quiet air about it. We visited Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and can be seen from anywhere in Reykjavik. It’s said to resemble the rocks, mountains, and glaciers of Iceland’s landscape. We couldn’t take the tour up to the top of the tower because there was a funeral taking place, but I imagine the view of the city and the landscape would be incredible from that vantage point.
Next we drove over to our hostel, We opted to stay at a hostel because of the short time we would be spending in Reykjavik. We stayed at Vibrant Iceland, a hostel just on the edge of Reykjavik. On our way there we stopped at BONUS supermarket and grabbed some essentials for the next few days. Note: Groceries are affordable in Iceland, but if you choose to have meals out be prepared to spend almost three times the price for dinner at a restaurant in Iceland vs. Toronto.
Vibrant Iceland was by far the cleanest hostel I’ve ever seen. It was also the first time Leon and I stayed in a dorm style room, but we still had quite a bit of privacy and space to ourselves in the room. Each bunk is a double bed with a blackout curtain and your own light. There was enough space to keep all of our bags in the room as well. The common area was bright and clean, with a large kitchen, and lots of bathrooms and showers with high end appliances. For $25 each that night, it was definitely a good find.
Tip: If your phone is not unlocked you’ll need to get a mobile wifi unit from your car rental company. Otherwise, a SIM card from Vodafone will work just fine. 3GB of data is only $15 (compared to Canadian phone prices, that’s insanely low).
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
6am and ready to go! We woke up nice and early, made breakfast and headed out for our first real day of exploring. We made a quick stop at the car rental office to pick up our wifi device because driving around the country with no GPS didn’t sound like a good plan. Although we weren’t returning to Reykjavik, those who choose to stay in Reykjavik can do most of the sightseeing we did on this day and return to the city, instead of driving to our next destination: Vik.
Let me just start by saying that every drive we did during this trip, long or short, was just as exciting as the sights we stopped for and the majority of the popular tourist sights are directly off the main road. Our first stop on the golden circle was Geysir, about an hour and a half drive from Reykjavik and when you arrive there is a visitors centre, parking lot, walk only a few minutes down the path and boom! you’re in front a bubbling, erupting geysir! There are several pools of water, steaming and bubbling into the cool Icelandic air. The Great Geysir erupts up to 100m in the air, every 5 minutes. I literally screamed the first time it happened (as seen in this photo). It’s definitely a sight to see! We even ran into some other Canadians (it was quite obvious we were from Canada as Leon wore his Olympic Canadian jacket the entire time with CANADA splayed across his back).
Our next stop on the golden circle was Gullfoss, this waterfall is a huge tourist attraction and as soon as you arrive you’ll understand why. Photos won’t do so many of these sights justice, as the sheer size and power of the natural landscapes in Iceland simply have to be enjoyed in person! As we walked around the waterfall, going from the gorge/river area to the top of the falls, I became aware of a newfound fear of heights… While this was not a great time to suddenly have extreme anxiety about heights and falling, I still really enjoyed seeing the beautiful falls, taking photos, meeting other tourists, and simply enjoying nature.
Next we ventured off to Skogafoss, my favourite waterfall of all the waterfalls. As we approached the falls, the sun was beaming down on the water and this magnificent rainbow appeared stretching across the entire width of the falls. It was by far one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen! After taking in the beautiful rainbow from the foot of the falls, we set off on a big climb to get to the top of the falls. I sincerely enjoyed going up - it was the right amount of challenge for me, although many people around us were gasping for air on their way up. Going down on the other hand, was not my favourite thing due to my new fear of heights, but I survived. If you’re in Iceland for a short period of time, I would definitely put Skogafoss on the top of your list of things to do.
Some may choose to just do the Golden Circle and head back to Reykjavik but we were on our way to the little town by the sea, Vik. If you’re doing the larger ring road trip like we did then this is definitely a good place to stop for a night. Vik is quiet, tiny, and adorable, we stayed at The Puffin Hostel, a house converted to a hostel that’s over 170 years old. It was packed full of character, including a literal rope out the window fire escape situation right beside our room. The great thing about staying in hostels is the access to a full kitchen! We cooked so much to pack and have for the next few days of our trip. The other huge upside to hostels is the wonderful people you can meet. The people we met here were from all walks of life and so sweet to Leon and I.
Tip: If you’re going to get another tourist to take a photo of you, hand them your phone, not your DSLR. I made that mistake at Geysir, but definitely didn’t do that again.
VIK TO HOFN
Day 3 of our adventure began with us exploring, walking around the quaint town, visiting a beautiful church overlooking the town, and then headed out to our first sight of the day, Svartifoss. It’s so fun to say, I must have said Svartifoss about a million times and probably said it wrong every single time. This was one of those days where we had a few places we planned to stop at, but ended up coming across endless incredible sights and stopping a lot along the way. one of the many otherworldly landscapes we saw this day was a vast field of lava rocks covered in green moss called Eldraun Lava Field, as far as the eye could see looked like a cross between a Dr. Seuss book and another planet. There was an 8 month period in 1784 of lava eruptions spanning 14km, many moons later this field has turned into a much more peaceful and serene landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Something on my Iceland bucket list was to see Icelandic ponies. After the moss fields we came across some adorable ponies on the side of the road. Horses usually scare me, but these guys were so friendly! We fed them some grass, pet them and had a mini photoshoot.
As we continued to drive towards Svartifoss, the land before us changed yet again, mountains grew larger on the horizon and we saw our first sight of snow. We stopped at a wreckage site surrounded by mountains and glaciers to take some photos. After looking into it, the metal structure used to be the largest bridge in Iceland, but it was destroyed during a volcanic eruption, leaving only this twisted sculpture which has since been covered in graffiti. It was a great unexpected photo op! The glaciers in the background are called Skeiðarárjökull and Svinafellsjökull, easy to pronounce right?
Finally at Svartifoss, we began our hike up to the falls. The sun was shining and we quickly had to take off our coats - who said Iceland would be cold!? About 45 minutes and lots of mud puddles later, we were at the top of our hike. The view of the falls as well as the land behind us was again, breathtaking. You can also get quite close to the falls, feeling the refreshing cool mist. In the winter these falls form beautifully massive icicles which we unfortunately just missed as spring was in the air.
We continued on our drive and the landscape continued to evolve before our eyes, revealing even grander mountains and more snow. We stopped at Diamond Beach, a strip of black sand beach on the southern coast of Iceland, covered in glacial icebergs from the nearby lagoon. The icebergs glisten on the beach, ranging from black, blue, transparent to white. Some of the bergs are over 1000 years old, slowly transforming as they melt the Atlantic Ocean.
It looked like a storm was brewing so we didn’t stay at Diamond Beach for long. Instead we set off for our accommodations that night at Seljavellir Guesthouse. In the middle of nowhere, literally a field amongst mountains, was the guesthouse. It’s a single row of rooms with floor to ceiling windows giving you a 120 degree view of mountains, right from your bed. The lady at the front desk, Vel, was so incredibly sweet. You could tell her family owned the guesthouse and they treated each guest like a welcome member of the family. This was my favourite place we stayed. Everything from the view, to the service, to the beautiful room, was perfect.
HOFN TO MYVTAN
We woke up to an incredible view then headed to the dining room for our complimentary breakfast and set off for the longest drive of our trip. The first leg of our drive was all mountains to our left, and ocean to our right, with endless rays of sunshine beating down on us. After driving into a tunnel that took us through one of the mountains (so cool), we came out on the other side to a winter wonderland! The drive only kept getting more beautiful and we were simply enjoying the view.
Aside from being a day of beautiful sights seen from the car, this was also a day of credit card issues and annoyances. The first gas station we stopped at wouldn’t accept any of our cards, despite them working the entire trip previously. I was trying very hard not to panic that we might run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. The same thing happened at the grocery store. The cashier was so sweet, but our language barrier was not helping. After we tried all of our cards with no luck a nice women in line let us know that there was an ATM around the corner so we went to take out cash in case of emergencies like this one. Leon was able to take some money out. It turns out my bank blocked my cards because their “fool proof” fraud detection system was quite easily fooled.
We were staying at Fosshotel Myvtan for two nights to take a little break from long drives. This hotel was brand new with beautiful Scandinavian design features. Not surprisingly, the staff were incredibly kind. We had been used to staying in guesthouses and hostels so far where we had access to a kitchen, so we didn’t really think through what we’d do at this hotel. Dinner for two at their restaurant would have easily come to over $200. No thanks! We had food and Leon took our frozen pizza to the front desk and asked if they could put it in their oven for us LOL, the guy working had a good chuckle but was happy to help us. We devoured our delicious pizza and some chips spent the night enjoying our fancy room.
We had a very chill day ahead of us, which we were really looking forward to. We enjoyed a delicious continental breakfast overlooking Lake Myvtan. I literally ate everything in sight; smoked salmon on toast, peanut butter and Nutella on toast, fruit, coffee, juice, pastries, you name it I probably ate it. The food was that good.
Our first stop of the day was Námaskarð: geothermal mud and steam springs that were seriously otherworldly. The main thing you cannot experience through photos and videos of this sight is the smell. Oh man, did it ever smell like rotten eggs. I had a pretty bad cold by this point and despite my congestion the smell was still so strong! I did my best to be a good sport and continue exploring, as Leon was thoroughly enjoying himself. He was like a kid in a candy shop, running from mud pit to mud pit, amazed at the bubbling ground and steam spewing out into the air. Seeing how magnificently different our planet’s natural landscape can be was an incredible experience, despite the smell of sulphur in the air.
We headed back to the hotel for some much needed mid-day relaxation, which we had yet to do on this trip. We enjoyed the sauna, some tea, and a little nap. Our plan for the evening was to check out Myvtan Nature Baths, a natural hot spring near Lake Myvtan. Far more secluded and natural than the more popular Blue Lagoon hot spring, , these nature baths were the perfect end to our relaxing day. We waded around in the steaming water while icicles formed on our eyelashes as we had some fun filming with our GoPro. The water left our skin feeling extremely smooth and put us both in the most relaxed, zen state ever. Last, but certainly not least, the staff at Myvtan Nature Baths were SO SWEET. Even us Canadians could learn a thing or two about customer service from Icelanders. Back at our hotel, Leon and I were both in this float-ey, zen, headspace from the nature baths so we both just relaxed for the remainder of the night.
MYVTAN TO HVAMMSTANGI
Today was Leon’s birthday! We enjoyed another delicious breakfast overlooking the lake, mountains, and volcanoes then packed up and headed off to Godafoss. Now that we were in the northern part of Iceland, the country’s name began to ring true, so we made sure to get all bundled up for the day.
Godafoss translates to waterfall of the gods, drawing from a popular myth that when Christianity, instead of Norse paganism, was made the official religion of Iceland that idols of Norse gods were thrown into this waterfall. I feel like I’ve said this already, but this was one of my favourite places. The snow and ice surrounding the vast falls was so picturesque. What I didn’t love was how close to the edge you could walk, reigniting my fear of heights yet again. We explored the falls on both sides of a gorge, took tons of photos, chatted with other travellers, and set off on our way again.
Hvitserkur, a massive elephant shaped rock was our next destination. About 3 and a half hours later we found the elephant rock! We had to go down a dirt road for about 30 minutes off the main road to get there. Our little car was not loving it, and SUVs kept zipping by us. We passed the time by turning our GoPro around from the dashboard cam and filming our very own Carpool Karaoke, disney edition. Belting out old disney classics was probably one of my favourite moments on the trip. Once we reached the shore, the lookout to the rock was down a really steep, rocky, muddy path so we parked on the side of the dirt road and walked down to the lookout point. To get down to sea level you had to climb down this steep cliff which I honestly was not up for. We wandered around for a while, took some photos, and headed out. To be honest, the best part about going to see Hvitserkur was singing in the car.
We were now close to our final destination, Hvammstangi. It was this cute coastal town where we rented a little cottage. On a hilltop in town were about 10 small wooden cottages. With no staff in sight, all you have to do is check your email for a lockbox code for your cabin and you’re granted access to your cottage! It had everything we needed: a small kitchen, couch, table, washroom, and bed. Since it was Easter Monday most things in town were closed but we managed to find a small diner where we grabbed a few things before settling in for the night. We watched the sunset as we ate dinner and had birthday drinks. The sky was so clear, we were really hoping this would be the night when we finally saw the northern lights. Leon kept getting up throughout the night to check to see if the Northern Lights were out but no such luck.
Warning: After drinking the tap water, I started feeling really nauseous. Apparently, if the tap water smells like sulphur (aka eggs) you have to let it run until it doesn’t smell anymore. I learned that the hard way, and went to sleep with some pretty intense stomach pains.
It was bitter sweet waking up on our last day in Iceland. The view from our cottage was spectacular in the morning light, despite our disappointment of not seeing the northern lights the night before. We packed up our things and headed to the airport, and on our way back we drove through a tunnel that took us under the north Atlantic ocean, very cool. Once we were at the airport, we returned our rental car (which was absolutely covered in mud from our trip to the elephant rock), but because we had the full insurance coverage the rental company was quick to accept it back without any issues. We browsed the souvenir shops in the airport, buying a few things for family and friends, and then we were on our way back to Toronto.
Looking back, this trip was definitely one I’ll never forget. Every single day surpassed all of my wildest expectations. We ran into very few bumps along the way, and got to experience some of the incredible beauty that this earth has to offer. Each sight was so unique and magical, it made the driving feel like a breeze. The quality time that Leon and I spent together was so wonderful and I feel closer to him than ever before. As we were leaving we couldn’t help but envision our next trip to Iceland years down the road with our kiddies and the opportunity to have even more adventures!