As countries go, Iceland is spectacular. The natural beauty and ruggedness is amazing–and there’s a lot to do packed into this relatively small island. If you enjoy being outdoors and in remote spaces, Iceland fits the bill nicely. Iceland air offers stopovers if you’re crossing the Atlantic, and it’s created somewhat of a tourism boom in the sparsely populated country. We found so many amazing places to hike and wander with NOONE around.
Visiting in the shoulder season provided somewhat iffy weather–we had packed our paraglider as we saw there were a few flying sites. But we just missed the window–winds were howling at 40mph for most of our trip, making for unflyable, and in some cases, unhikeable conditions (see Hekla, below). Reykjavik is a cozy charmer, and the small towns outside of the main metropolis are all interesting. We had 2 options for our limited time there–and we chose the south route, despite wanting to drive around the whole island, we made it as far as Hofn. Iceland made the list for “places I’d like to return to” after our short visit.
Glo Cafe: On the main street in Reykjavik, Glo is a veg friendly, affordable option. Food in Iceland is pretty expensive, considering they don’t really grow anything…but even the seafood restaurants were pricey. We hit Glo a few times for solid, delicious meals in a very Scando setting. There are quite a few cozy restaurants in Reykjavik, so you’ll find something tasty.
Humarhofnin: We made it as far as Hofn on the Ring Road (nearly to the East Coast) and man, I’m glad we did because of this restaurant. Hofn is a very tiny town that’s near Jökulsárlón, and the only place to stay, so we kept our expectations low. We were delighted with a fresh lobster dinner (caught that day) in this cozy little restaurant in town.
Bryggjan: South of the Blue Lagoon in the small port town of Grindavik, we grabbed some soup and refuge from the wind and rain at this tiny pub. It’s definitely off the beaten path.
Gulfoss and Selfoss: Part of the “golden triangle” of sightseeing, Gulfoss and Selfoss are two of Iceland’s amazing waterfalls and a must-see. Many tourists don’t get beyond the triangle of sites, and you know why once you see them–they are spectacular natural sights.
Blue Lagoon: Yes, it’s touristy and crowded, but there’s nothing better than hanging out in a giant warm hot tub! Go early–right when it opens–or book tickets ahead of time. The facilities are great–they offer a premium package with towels, robes, drinks, lockers, and everything you need to enjoy the lagoon. Note: either DON’T GET YOUR HAIR WET or use a ton of conditioner BEFORE you get in. The silica wrecks your hair and it will feel like a brick for a week. Learn from my mistake. Many people book a trip to the lagoon around the time they’ll be at the airport, since it’s near Keflavik, 40kms from Reykjavik. That’s a smart move.
Ring Road: The ring road is the highway that circles the island, and we had a lot of fun just driving around looking at all the good scenery. Driving is slow, and anything off the ring road pretty much necessitates a 4WD vehicle. If you’re going WAY offroad (we did) it’s not a bad idea to get a sturdier vehicle like a Defender, even though it’s a bit of a beast and a rough ride on city streets. Not a bad idea to get the extra insurance, either. I nearly sent our Defender plummeting off the side of a volcano (see Hekla, below).
Jökulsárlón: This place is amazing. You know all those cool photos you see of Iceland? Well, a LOT of them are from this place. Just outside of Hofn (a few hours’ drive from Reykjavik) is the iceberg lake, attached to a massive glacier (Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður, which takes up about a 1/3rd of the island and is hard to spell). The lake is the bits coming off the glacier and it is the most stunning color, even on a cloudy day. You can take tours into the lake, but even just hanging out on the shore is great.
Aurora Borealis: If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to see the lights. Since we were there during shoulder season, we weren’t sure if we’d be lucky, but we were. There’s an aurora forecast website that told us we had a slight chance, and we saw them dancing over Reykjavik. It wasn’t the mind-blowing shows that you’ll see in the middle of winter, even still, it was gorgeous (and my photos didn’t do it justice).
Mount Hekla: Is still and active volcano (see the sign below with all the awesome warnings) and we decided it was a good, moderate hike. We wanted to head to Þórsmörk, on the interior, but there were some river crossings via 4WD that we weren’t so sure of (and were told would be pretty vigorous with all the rain). So Hekla was the winner. Well off the Ring Road, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere–in fact, we passed maybe one other car on the whole trip. We parked a good 1/3rd up the crater before heading out to hike in 50mph winds and beating rain. It gave us a good appreciation for the Icelandic wilderness and we pushed on into the cloud, but had to turn back before summiting. Probably a better idea to hike it on a clear day.
Reykjavik Residence Hotel: A cozy spot in the middle of Reykjavik, within walking distance of the old town. We stayed there a few nights and enjoyed the apartment-like amenities. Our other hotels paled in comparison.
Fermented Shark: I had read about all the crazy foods in Iceland (y’know, living off the land and such) but the fermented shark was one of the worst on the list because of the stink. No thanks.
Northern Lights Inn: was just outside the Blue Lagoon, near Keflavik and the airport. It was expensive and overrated. I would have chosen somewhere else in Keflavik, but there’s not a ton of options on the west end of the island.