A life-changing guide to touring Iceland

Iceland post glacial lagoon

To describe the surprise of Iceland is to recall the meek high-school girl you once knew who grows up to be a supermodel, the chess geek you remember from 9th grade who becomes the co-founder of Google, the rainbow that shatters your workaday stress unexpectedly beneath thunderclouds on a Friday night. Iceland is a shock to your system, a thing miraculous. It is the negativity of Trump and Hillary inverted. It is love at first sight. Iceland is the most beautiful country on Earth.

Our family of four recently spent eight days on the ground driving more than 1,000 miles around the perimeter of Iceland, to hike, gasp at beauty, and take photos. I owe a lot to blogger Alex Cornell, whose excellent post helped us plan our recent trip. But let this suffice: Iceland is epic.

You need to go, and you need to drive the Ring Road all the way around.

Before I explain, let’s dabble in some quick history.

Iceland defender volcano

The obvious thing is Iceland is new. It’s a tiny island driven upward by volcanos on the tectonic ridge between Europe and the United States. If you are unfamiliar with tectonic plate movements, find yourself a globe, look at the left side of Africa and right of South America, and see how they fit together like puzzle pieces. Voilà! You understand that the earth under our feet is moving. The places where the plates rub together (California) and break apart (Iceland) are filled with earthquakes and volcanic activity. Iceland is our new planet-crust spewed forth from the center of the Earth.

Culturally, Iceland is also part-English. In World War II, the island was a strategic asset for controlling shipping traffic in the North Atlantic. Both the Germans and U.S. wanted in, and England got there first, invading Iceland and turning the language dual Icelandic and English. It was a sad time; the mines placed in the oceans killed many Icelandic fishermen, and the people who relied on the oceans often went hungry. But Iceland now loves the Brits and U.S. Today, most of the population speaks fluent English. Communications here is a breeze.

OK, so how to plan your trip? First, you need to go in July.

Iceland post ring road close down

Winter brings the beautiful, green Northern Lights, but because Iceland is so near the North Pole, winters have near total darkness. Many of the inland roads shut down. Summers, conversely, have 21 hours of daylight and when the sun finally sets around 11:30 p.m., the sky simply turns a dusky blue. You could drive a car without headlights at 2 a.m. in July. Go in the summer. There will be some crowds within the main city of Reykjavik, but our plan gets you away from there.

Above is an image of the Ring Road, or Route 1. This is the main “highway” — really a two-lane narrow strip of blacktop with no shoulder or guardrail — that circles about 870 miles around the entire island. If you leave on vacation on Friday, and plan to return the following Sunday, you can circumnavigate the entire island with your eight days on the ground.

This is important. As someone else wrote, you don’t go to Iceland to see little Reykjavik. You go to see epic country. You must rent an SUV and drive the entire Ring Road. (Note: I’m not joking about SUVs. The roads are Rocky Balboa rugged, and any sites off the main one entail gravel that will blow flats in a Corolla. Get the biggest SUV you can afford, and check that it has good treads and a spare tire. We had a good rental experience at Blue Car Rental, a short walk across the parking lot from the main airport. )

OK, so here was our itinerary.

Iceland post white church

Friday, July 1: Board direct flight at JFK. Land at Keflavík International Airport. Drive to Reykjavik. Become struck that everyone on this island appears to be beautiful models. Stay at Centerhotel Thingholt.

Keflavík airport is nestled at the very southwestern tip of Iceland, perhaps to keep it away from the volcanos. It’s beautiful and clean, a little building that gives you the vibe you’re walking through a giant red-and-steel European espresso machine. We grabbed bags, got directions to the car rental, and walked across a wide lot to pick up the Land Rover Defender. Then, we drove the first 45-minutes on a minor highway up to the center of Reykjavik. There is no parking at Centerhotel Thingholt, but Reykjavik is such a small little city, you can easily find parking up the street.

We got to the hotel at 1 a.m., and in mid-summer, the streets are still crowded with young hipsters, blondes in short dresses and guys in floppy haircuts, who would not seem out of place in a Zoolander movie. These people like to party at night, and by that we mean drinking while making out in the streets.

There are two hotel chains that are very posh and clean and wonderful in Iceland: Centerhotels and Fosshotels. I recommend seeking both out. Note, if you have a family, Iceland hotels are European in scale: Small, with small beds, so you’ll need two rooms unfortunately for a family of four.

So we parked the SUV and went in. Another word about the Land Rover Defender…

Iceland post Defender

I’m not f***ing around here.  You need an SUV. Iceland roads are dangerous, steep, rugged, stony, and may require you passing along narrow ridges with mountain cliffs with no guardrails or traversing rushing streams. Rent an SUV. You do not want to get stuck 3 hours from help.

And if you are into photography at all, rent a Land Rover Defender. It makes a friggin awesome photo prop. I justified the rental expense as part of our plane tickets (the good news is, tickets to Iceland cost half that of flying to Europe). If you drive the Ring Road, the SUV rental is part of your weeklong adventure.

Day 2…

Iceland Skogafoss

Saturday we woke up late, after taking city pictures until 2:30 a.m., and headed southeast on the Ring Road. There is some debate over the best “direction” to drive the road, but we drove counterclockwise, on the sage advice that you hit big waterfalls soon to get everyone excited, then see epic, calmer country, and circle back to geographic fireworks at the end. Heading southeast first was a good call.

An hour on the road takes you to two huge waterfalls that can’t be missed. Seljalandsfoss is a pretty bit that tourists can walk behind, and Skogafoss, above, is even larger. Sharp readers will have picked up that “foss” means waterfall in Icelandic. After a few photos, we began our real search for the first day’s true adventure: The downed Sólheimasandur beach aircraft just west of Vik.

Back in November 1973 a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane was forced to land on a black sand beach on the south coast of Iceland. No one died, but the plane was destroyed, and its apocalyptic remains were a bit of a photographer’s secret. Photo hobbyists sought it out for years in solitude, until Justin Bieber made it famous in his recent Iceland video. After that, so many tourists drove in, the local landowners fenced off the gate. We had to hike 2 miles in to find the plane.

Iceland post plane walk away

OK, that’s actually my family hiking out after finding the plane. But find the plane we did…

Iceland post plane LEAD

And it is rather epic. To get there, you’ll need to do a Google search for the exact turnoff. This blog post has good directions. You’ll park off the road. Look for a cluster of cars and some hikers carrying serious photo gear.

Oh man, this plane is beautiful.

Iceland post plane woman on top

Which brings us to our first guesthouse.

After walking the long dirt road back from the plane, Saturday night we stayed at Hvammból Guesthouse, a small, nondescript two-story home just west of Vik … where the bottom half had been converted into luxury hotel-type accommodations. The bathroom had tiled, heated floors. “Guesthouses” in Iceland are the equivalent of Vermont bed and breakfasts. Highly recommended. We stayed in several, and each was amazing; the only downside is you need to check in at a reasonable hour before 9 p.m. since the owners who live there do want to sleep like normal humans.

Note, there is not much in this area for food. We rushed into Vik, found the only main restaurant at the end of the first town street on the right, and were able to just get in at 9:55 p.m. Don’t be late for dinners.

Iceland post 2 horses come to visit

Sunday, July 3, was a big day. We tried to drive inland from Vik to shoot lakes in volcanic craters. An hour inland, we were distracted by beautiful wild (tame? owned?) Icelandic horses that came over to say hi. We stopped for photos and petting.

Seriously, this was surreal. These four horses in a field far away walked over like they knew us, almost like they were trying to tell us something …

Iceland post 2 horses Justin

And then, as fortune would have it, a huge SUV coming the other way stopped and warned us the “F-road” was closed 2 hours ahead. We had saved nearly a day of travel. Given that almost half of Icelandic natives believe in fairies, trolls and spirits, we immediately wondered if the four horses that intercepted the four of us were magical guides warning us to stay away from volcanoes. Hey. It could be true.

Iceland post green danger

Later that day, barred from the inland mountains, we toured the southern Iceland region more deeply. The Fjadrargljufur Canyon is a bit hard to find — little road signs point to the dirt track, and then you need to park and walk across a field to find the gaping ridge — but this 2-kilometer long, 100-meter deep canyon is an amazing experience. Be careful. The trails lead you to narrow precipices with nothing between you and death.

That photo above is my oldest son, trying to kill himself. Being a good father, I followed him in.

We stayed Sunday night at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, a beautiful, modern hotel in the middle of no where. Great restaurant. The steep hill behind the new hotel had a severe crack in it. I hope it wasn’t on the center ridge dividing both continents.

Monday was a hiking day, followed by searches for icebergs. We hiked around more waterfalls mid-day, and then around 9 p.m., headed to a famous iceberg lagoon…

Iceland glacial horizon

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is well-known as a destination for photographers. Imagine one of the world’s largest glaciers slopping off from inland Iceland, dumping building-size clumps of blue ice into a mile-wide pond leading to a river that slowly moves to the ocean, and you get the idea. Coupled with the incredible gold-blue evening that lasts until 1 a.m., and there’s magic. Bring a tripod.

One legend has it the iceberg that downed The Titanic came from around here, but I couldn’t verify it. Most of the icebergs in early July were small, but still beautiful.

I turned 50 the night we visited Jökulsárlón. Honestly, we drove back to the Fosshotel, I went to the bar, ordered a Viking beer, and wept a tear on the deck. OK. 50 was hard, but this was the way to celebrate. To compensate for that lack of manhood, I did nearly 100 pushups the next morning. Growing old is hard, but hey kids, some day it will happen to you, too.

Iceland post defender boys on top

The next two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, brought long drives. Here are our kids, above, goofing for a photoshoot. I told you the Defender was a good prop.

We stopped to photograph more horses and met a friendly French cyclist somehow riding with full gear around the island near Hoffell, had an amazing lobster lunch at the white seaport Hofn, then made a long afternoon drive northeast to Egilsstaðir.

Iceland post green beauty horse

The east side of Iceland moves away from the green-sheep-Ireland vibe. You drive through volcanic fields, including the 1783 explosion whose noxious gas led to crop yields shrinking in Europe and Asia, and in turn that starvation led to the French revolution, helping democracy spread across the planet. The eastern side of Iceland is fiercely volcanic, with mountains that look like, well, Batman Mountain.

Iceland post Batman mountain

This was the weirdest landscape we discovered. To drive in to Batman Mountain, you follow a gravel road (turn right before the mountain tunnel on Route 1) with a looming 45-degree slope of huge boulders hanging a quarter-mile above you. The Earth is saying, be nice, or you will die. Everyone we met in this region (unlike the rest of Iceland) seemed friggin’ grouchy. A woman riding a horse bitched at my wife for her trying to take a photo. The little cafe by the parking lot had a cheesy sign demanding you pay for parking, and access. You could almost feel the volcanic forces pushing dark energy up through the earth. I shot this photo with a filter to slow the tide as an angry old woman behind me drove a huge yellow bulldozer back-and-forth to build a parking lot extension. We were glad to get away from Batman Mountain.

Route 1 curves far to the East as you drive north up the right side of Iceland. I took the “shortcut” 939 to save an hour, which turned quickly into a dirt mountain switchback road. There are no guardrails here, only 300-foot cliffs. My wife Betsy crouched in the back seat, edited photos on her MacBook, not looking out the window. Just when I wasn’t sure our SUV would make it, I came across another cyclist, resting at the top of a cliff with his gear, and thought, damn, if he can do this…

Tuesday night we stayed at Birta Guesthouse in Egilsstaðir. The town is a stopover, necessary, but escape as soon as possible. Wednesday brought a big waterfall day as we drove past Dettifoss and Godafoss toward Akureyri, the second biggest city in Iceland.

A word about Dettifoss. Go there. It is epic. There’s a reason Ridley Scott puts this waterfall in movies.

Iceland Dettifoss two boys spray
Yeah, that’s real. Those are my two boys at left by the cliff. I shot this with an ND filter to block the sunlight at a 20-second exposure, and while the water looks like a dream, in reality it is raging nightmare. It’s so tempting to get too close to the cliffs to take this in. Again, note: No guardrails.

We pushed on.

Now, the voyage West to Akureyri. On Route 1 you’ll pass through volcanoes, including driving across the center of several craters. The landscape turns into Mars, fast. We stopped at the famous Hveraröndor Hverir volcanic mud spots region where toxic sulfurous fumes spew from the Earth. The scene reminded me of those nightmares where you’ve gone to college and forgotten you signed up for Calculus class.

Iceland post Mars horizon

Just west of this ridge you’ll find a beautiful community spa, with one of those blue mineral pools that relax you if you can get past the nude showering required to get in. The locals chatter there like they’re picnicking in a park. And yes, you can drink beer in the pool.

The city of Akureyri came at the right time, on Wednesday night, after we’d had a long few days of roughing the country. The town has charm and lots of little shops and cafes. I reacquainted myself with Icelandic money, and was relieved to find that waffles are exactly equal to a beer.

Iceland post money soup beer

Thursday morning, after spending too much money on wool sweaters, we decided to ditch the Ring Road and head north on the curving Route 82 to 76 that leads through mountain tunnels to the coastal Siglufjörður.

Now, a word about Iceland’s roads. The nation has only 320,000 people, and most live in the capital Reykjavik, so roads are narrow and most bridges are one lane. The rule is, the first car there drives across the one-lane bridge, and you wait, courteously. The stunning fact is Iceland extends one-lane roads to some tunnels as well, and the route north into Siglufjörður includes a 3-kilometer-long one-lane tunnel with only handfuls of carved “pull-offs” etched into the side of the stone. You drive fast, look for oncoming headlights, and pull over if you can bet you find the carve-out before the oncoming car hits you. We made it, but it was scary. People in Iceland are polite. I’m pretty sure one-lane tunnels would not work in America.

Just past Siglufjörður you’ll reach the northernmost tip of your route. You’re above 66 degrees north, almost at the Arctic circle. Park and take it all in. There’s nothing but ocean between you and the North Pole.

Iceland post mountain mars

Thursday night brought us to one of our favorite spots, and you must try this if you can: The Hvammstangi Cottages. These tiny huts can fit three people (if two are willing to cuddle), and include Wi-Fi and showers and toilets and linen and super-comfortable beds … in cabins in the middle of friggin’ nowhere. You can find this spot, and most of the other guesthouses, by searching on Booking.com.

Iceland cabins

Friday, we drove west to Hellnar, a village of about 25 buildings on the westernmost peninsula of Iceland. We stayed at Hotel Hellnar, which looks like a motel from the outside but is really a posh luxury spot … with views of giant whales breaching off the coast. As if that weren’t enough, after dinner, about 10 p.m., Mother Iceland decided to throw a rainbow over the horizon up the hill.

Iceland rainbow

Which brings us to Saturday: We woke up, drove back to Reykjavik, and explored and shopped before heading out Sunday early back to the States.

If this drive sounds exhausting, it was a bit. But most days the road trip involved only 2-3 hours of driving, and we hiked and photographed the rest. Driving through the scenery is part of the adventure.

A few pragmatic tips on visiting Iceland, if you go:

  • Cash is not needed. Really. We swapped $300 in currency for Icelandic króna at the airport, but didn’t use most of it, because even the tiniest of merchants in Iceland has a portable credit card machine. Do make sure you have a modern card with a chip in it, since Europe is ahead of the U.S. in such technology.
  • Gas and diesel. If you rent an SUV, the gas fill-ups are slightly tricky because they use automated chip machines. European credit cards have PINS, and most U.S. cards don’t. It took me a few stops to realize I could just use my bank debit card and its PIN. I recommend a diesel SUV. While not great for the environment, those things run 400 miles a fill.
  • Food. Oh, it is really good.* The big surprise is gas stations — often the only general store within 30 miles — have great sandwiches, and often deli-style restaurants with lamb, fish, and potatoes. Icelandic sandwiches are small and filled with vegetables, which feels weird at first for an American until you realize they taste better, have fewer calories, and may include vitamins. Restaurants specialize in cod and lamb, all good. *Except gas station hot dogs. Do not get the hot dog.
  • Clothing and temperature. Dress in layers. It was summer and we faced 55 to 60 degrees with high winds, and sudden brief rain, many days. I wore wool long underwear under hiking gear, with a rain shell close at hand, and was comfortable all week. Think of Maine on a brisk April day and that’s the vibe.
  • Lighting. The reason photographers love Iceland is the light. The sun hangs low in the horizon, swooping horizontally and creating the illusion that evening is almost standing still. Couple that with high winds and changing cloud structures and the landscape is a photographer’s dream.
  • The roads. They are dangerous.  You won’t kill yourself if you stay alert, but you must pay close attention. The main Ring Road is very narrow with no shoulder, meaning if you let a wheel swing over the lip, you may topple your car. And that’s the good road. Some oncoming cars can be aggressive, so keep your headlights on at all times so no one tries a passing maneuver as you approach the lip of hill. Sheep tend to wander into the roads all the time, so heads up for them, too.
  • GPS sucks. Your mobile Google Maps app is sh*t in Iceland. While most hotels are completely wired and Wi-Fi’d, as soon as you hit the road, GPS signals get lost. Google also has done a sketchy job of mapping the island; most side roads aren’t on Google maps. Don’t count on your GPS phone. Buy a real paper map, the more detail the better. (A GPS from the rental company is useful in getting into Reykjavik, however; I recommend it if you spend a day or two in the capital city.)
  • Guardrails on trails do not exist. The landscape is tempting. I think in our family of four, each of us was tempted at some point to walk too close to a drop to get a shot. Be careful if you have kids, and invest beforehand in grippy hiking shoes. We heard a med helicopter racing to retrieve a fallen tourist at one waterfall canyon. People do die in Iceland. Watch that selfie stick.
  • What to buy. Iceland is known for its wool sweaters, and no kidding, they are warm and beautiful. If you get into the country, you’ll find detailed, hand-made sweaters in every gas station or coffee shop. Women tend to knit them as hobbies, so the more rustic you go, the more authentic you’ll find. Men wear them too, and the zippered-front versions are highly practical in the changing weather.
  • Book in advance. Iceland is a small country of 320,000 people, and today it has more than 1 million tourists visiting, most in the summer. You should plan your trip at least 6 months out, and book rooms ahead of time. Booking.com has a great website and mobile app, and we found it to be flawless in locking in good rooms at fair rates.
  • What about the crowds? This is why you need to drive the Ring Road. Once you get 2 hours away from Reykjavik, the buses dwindle, the sky beckons, and the few people you meet will be photographers and hikers like you, opening their arms to beauty.

That was our trip. I’m recording this mostly so I’ll remember. If you have any spirit of adventure, I encourage you this Christmas season to plan ahead for next July, and start scouting rooms around the coast of Iceland. Order a map online, and pinpoint the waterfalls and hikes along the way.

If you know how to drive, you’ll never forget it.

Iceland Land Rover Ring Road Wednesday

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