For my birthday I wanted to do a memorable trip. Unfortunately it being the middle of summer, and Covid still being a thing, my ideal exotic destinations were not options that were going to work. However there was one destination that would have cool weather, not be beset by biting insects, within easy travel reach, and long on my list to visit: Iceland. I had once, last millenium, been there for a long layover that allowed me to take bus to Reykjavik and visit Perlan. It was a surreal and very brief experience, and I had always wanted to see the country properly.
I am used to traveling alone on my own schedule and whims, but I wanted a guided tour — to take away the stress of researching and reserving hotels, parks, cars and restaurants, opening hours, where to park and all that, but also to get insider knowledge of what is worth seeing, and to get a more educational narrated experience.
I ended up booking a 9 day tour (the first and last days are “arrival” and “departure” so there were actually 7 activity days). Due to a Covid outbreak on the tour it was cut one day short, and less fortunate participants had to drop off in the middle of the tour.
In summary, the tour was expensive, but worth it. Having all the practicals planned out took a huge amount of hassle out of the trip and the hotels and eateries were all excellent, the activities and sights were a good mix and generally great as well.
Iceland Travel Tips / Lessons Learned
Summer in Iceland still means 10 Celsius and rain. Summer means very long days and almost 24-hour daylight, so especially if you’re on your own you can fit a lot of outdoor activities into a day. There are some activities such as ice caves which you cannot do in the summer.
Winter, I was told, tends to be pretty mild, so temperatures often don’t fall too much below freezing. You will have very limited daylight. Ice caves, northern lights etc. are winter activities.
No matter which season you pick, be prepared for constant strong and gusty winds and rain. For summer travel, waterproof shoes, pants, and jackets are a must, and be prepared to have a dry change of clothes available. Even if you don’t get caught in a rain, if you want to get a proper experience from some of the waterfalls the spray will soak you thoroughly.
Even in the summer, even with constant rain, inside air tended to be very dry and this is only worse in the winter. Bring plenty of moisturizer and chapstick.
Long days and glacier visits mean that you should not forget your sunscreen, even during overcast days.
Iceland is all about nature. Once you leave Reykjavik, especially once you get a bit further along the ring road, fancy spas, restaurants or shopping are no longer a thing.
There are no biting insects in Iceland, no bears, wolves or other particularly dangerous animals.
During peak tourist season you may start to run into issues with some parking lots filling up, another benefit of a guided tour. That said, this was the busiest season since the start of the pandemic, and we just about managed to find parking at all locations.
Food / Services
The signature foods are arctic char, cod and lamb. All three were fantastic in all of the restaurants we tried them in. Burgers are popular and good as well. Restaurants generously serve free tap water. Good restaurants were popular, and it’s highly advisable to make reservations ahead of time to get a seat.
Hotels typically don’t have room service, and they may also not offer laundry service.
If you get further from Reykjavik, plan your meals and fuel, as there may be very limited options to fill up or buy food or provisions.
The Keflavik airport (which used to be a US/British airbase) is a good distance from Reykjavik. You can either get a taxi, which is quite expensive, or book a bus transfer from various private companies. For hotels on the outskirts of Reykjavik the bus drops you off / picks you up right from the hotel. For hotels in central Reykjavik buses aren’t allowed to drive to the hotels directly, and instead drop-off and pick-up happens from specific points.
Wikipedia: A sneaker wave, also known as a sleeper wave, or in Australia as a king wave, is a disproportionately large coastal wave that can sometimes appear in a wave train without warning.
I’ve lived near and visited many oceans and seas; Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean and Baltic to name some. I’ve never seen wave patterns or capriciousness like that in Iceland. There are some great black sand beaches, which absolutely are worth a visit, with very different grain structures. Near Jökulsárlón you get the Diamond Beach with chunks of ice from the calving glacier beaching on the black sand; there’s one reachable from the souvenir mecca in Vik, and there’s Reynisfjara with basalt columns. All, but especially Reynisfjara can have these unexpected major waves. The depth increases rapidly right off the beach, so if a large wave knocks you off your feet and pulls you into the sea, you’re toast. The water is freezing and there are brutal rip currents, and you will have expired by the time any search and rescue can reach you. Even if you see others stand near the sea or go past outcroppings, and even if the waterline seems safe, please stay at least 20m from the water.
Less of an issue when driving a small rental, but on the coastal roads the wind gusts can be brutal, and having vans and SUVs blown off the road, especially in wet and icy conditions is a disturbingly common occurrence. Be prepared for the long drives to require quite a bit of attention, especially when passing mountains.
As part of the tour we did a glacier walk. It was a bit of a production, with us getting fitted with crampons, helmets, rescue harnesses and ice picks and a specialized guide. As a tourist, you could just drive to the parking lot and go have a hike on the glacier. Please don’t, though. The crampons were absolutely necessary, and there most certainly are dangers on even small glacier tongues.
I’m afraid of heights so I think I generally am pretty good about this anyways, but Iceland is not a safe amusement park, and many of the dramatic coastal and waterfall cliffs have nothing to prevent you from taking a close look and falling to your death.
Iceland is very pretty, absurdly full of waterfalls, pictoresque roaming horses, amazing coastlines, mountains and glaciers. It’s definitely a photographer’s paradise if the weather happens to cooperate, which isn’t at all a given.
The below are some of the highlights from my trip, not in chronological or geographical order, but hopefully can be inspiration for further research and pinning on a map.
The ice lagoon Jökulsárlón was a very touristy, but still nice stop, and the patterns and colors on the icebergs were fascinating. It’s right off the ring road and if you don’t take a boat tour or kayak, and can be a quick stop. Diamond Beach is right on the other side of the road. Depending on the wind conditions you should visit one side of the outlet or the other, wherever the wind is pushing the ice.
Not being used to a volcanic landscape, the hexagonal basalt formations, lava fields, and other volcanic features were amazing and exotic. The beaches, whether black sand or white sand with volcanic rocks, were worth a stop. Diamond Beach, Reynisfjara, Djúpalónssandur, Búða beach.
All the waterfalls were great in their own right. Seljalandsfoss is easily reachable, and allows you to walk behind the waterfall. A short walk away is a second waterfall in a gorge; if you didn’t get soaked by Seljalandsfoss, Gljúfrabúi will certainly take care of it. Waterproof boots or ability to hop over rocks (or willingness to get your feet wet) required.
Svartifoss is an easy climb/hike from the Vatnajökull national park parking lot and distinctive with very cool rock formations, and there’s another waterfall (Hundafoss) along the way for a bonus. There are several ~1 hour walks / hikes you can do from the park parking lot, so it’s a great place to stop.
Having visited Yellowstone, the Geysir park wasn’t particularly impressive. It has a big parking lot, is a leisurely stroll, has a mountain lookout you can climb to, and while Geysir itself is dormant these days, a smaller geyser named Strokkur erupts every 5-20 minutes in various scales of grandness. And if you’ve never been to a geothermal pool / geyser park, it’s definitely worth a stop. The park is right by the Gulfoss falls and a short distance from the Friðheimar tomato farm if you want tomato soup, great bread, and all the tomato dishes you’d like. There are likely a myriad more sights worth seeing around the park, but those were the only stops we made.
Skógafoss was another great waterfall, near the Skóga museum which is a strange mix of everything and the kitchen sink. It has some turf houses an an open-air museum, and the largest amateur and communications radio collection I’ve seen. Something to put on the list for rainy-day activities, or to learn more about the harshness of life before our modern conveniences.
For photographers, the black Búðakirkja is a worthwhile stop. There are actually some other houses and developments in the background and a parking lot right next to it, so some careful framing or being able to shoot it from the land side goes a long way. A few minutes from the church there’s a cute little beach that’s worth a visit if you’re already there. The history of the church is interesting as well.
Finally, the village of Arnarstapi has a lovely coastal walking route with fantastic coastal features and a great stone arch.
The 7 days of the trip were filled with half a dozen to a dozen stops each, so this is only scratching the surface, but it hopefully goes to show that Iceland, despite its small population, has more than enough things to see.