Roadtripping the Ring Road in Iceland
A little background.
My first time traveling internationally was to Iceland -- minus spending less than 24 hours in Toronto, which I don't count because all I saw was angry border patrol agents, a couple pubs and ended up sleeping in a dog park (don't ask). Therefore I like to think my first real experience with international travel was to this amazing country. And amazing doesn't even begin to describe it.
We spent 8 days in Iceland (6 on the road, 2 in Reykjavík) and aimed to see as much as possible by renting a car and driving the Ring Road (the 828-mile highway that encircles the country and connects many of the towns). Most people would say 6 days is a bit of a tight schedule, but seeing as my last "big trip" was driving over 9000 miles in one month across America, I figured we could swing it. We had seen beautiful photographs of West, South, East and North Iceland and were determined to see them for ourselves.
7 places to see
A lot of people take part in Icelandair's "My Stopover" program, where you can stop over in Iceland for up to 7 days for no extra charge to your air tickets when traveling between North America and Europe. It's a really incredible idea and has helped their tourism boom in the last few years, but in my experience, most of these people go to Reykjavík, the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon and then leave. While those locations are nearest to the airport and Iceland's largest city (and beautiful in their own right), it's really only equivalent to sticking your toe in the water. Your baby toe. They're a great way to get a glimpse of the beauty of Iceland when you're limited on time, but there's so much more Iceland has to offer. Here are a few of my favorite locations we visited:
1. Vík's black sand beaches
Vík is a small, coastal town in South Iceland right off the Ring Road. There's a black sand beach with caves and rock formations out in the water - known as trolls. Apparently puffins frequent this beach, but we were there a bit too late in the year to see any for ourselves. We made friends with the other travelers at the hostel and waited for hours in the cold to try to see the northern lights (apparently the previous night was an amazing show, but I slept through it. Thanks, jetlag), but no luck. Still, the sight of the stars was worth it alone.
2. Sólheimassandur plane Crash
This airplane has been widely-photographed so it may not count as a lesser-seen location, but it's still worth a visit. Honestly, my favorite part was off-roading on the sand in my tiny rental car (don't worry, it's completely legal), hoping we were driving in the right direction. Luckily we were able to follow some tire tracks right up to the airplane.
3. Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon
It was so mesmerizing to stand on the side of the river and watch the icebergs slowly shift and crack as they float down the river and into the ocean. I stood in awe for probably 30 minutes before realizing that my toes were frozen solid. Down by the beach (top photo) the scene looks out of this world. Huge icebergs crash ashore and get pummeled by waves, making for some sweet sweet slow-mo footage. I swear I was picking my jaw up off the ground...and also my camera that toppled over because I was too distracted to bother to level it. Iceland-1, Shannon's camera-0.
This place is basically a six-for-one deal. There are so many unique things to do around Lake Myvatn that we ended up coming back a second day. The first snow of the season happened the day before we arrived, making everything look extra magical. There are lava fields, a waterfall (Iceland has a lot of those) and boiling mud pots. We hiked to the top of Hverfjall crater, which is an old volcanic site with an incredible view but we couldn't see much because of the snow storm. We also went to Grjótagjá cave where there's a natural hot spring inside that is too hot to swim in, so we opted to hide from the snow for a bit and stick our frozen hands in the water to warm up. For all you GoT fans, this is the cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte *ahem* hung out. To end our time here we swam in the Myvatn Nature Baths, which is basically the Blue Lagoon but cheaper, quieter, and way cooler.
5. Hrútafjördur - Sæberg Hostel
The hostel itself is average, but the selling point is the two separate hot springs you can swim in. One is a 3 minute walk that is part of a geothermal hot spring, and the other (above) is more like a hot tub with diverted hot spring water. We sprinted from one hot spring to the other (it was freezing outside!) while basking in the beauty of the northern lights.
For reference, this monolith is 50 feet tall. That's huge! The tide was high when we were there, but apparently you can walk right up to it when it's low tide. There's a parking lot nearby, but it means you have to hike down the steep cliff (and climb back up it). We chose this shorter route, where most people prefer to walk down the beach to get here. But be warned, rumor has it that there are aggressive, swooping birds along the beach.
This is a hidden pool (apparently the oldest still-standing pool in Iceland) that is built into the side of a mountain and uses diverted hot spring water -- so it's nice and warm. It's an easy 15 minute hike right off of the Ring Road, so you have no excuse to pass it up.
Miscellaneous Advice for traveling in iceland // random things we learned
- Everyone speaks English. Even in the smallest towns and at the most secluded gas stations.
- Eat the hot dogs. They're cheap (which is a rarity in Iceland) and delicious. Make sure you get friend onions, the aioli/white sauce and honey mustard/yellow sauce on them.
- Rent a car. It's expensive but worth it. Almost as expensive as gas.
- Always stop for gas when you see a gas station. Always.
- You might need to buy gas cards. Neither of our credit cards worked at the pump, so we stocked up on them because some gas stations are only a pump. Aka we would have been screwed without them. While you're there, treat yourself to a hot dog.
- Don't bother trying to pronounce anything. You'll sound ridiculous.
- Do, however, learn a few key words:
- Góðan daginn - means hello or good day. Most say daginn for short, which sounds like "die-in" or "dying" without the g.
- takk - sounds like "tock". Means thanks.
- bless bless. It's an informal way of saying "have a good day"
- hæ - sounds like hi. the meaning is probably obvious.
- já - sounds like ya. means yes.
- nei - sounds like nay. means no.
- I noticed that people really appreciated when I made an effort to say these few words in Icelandic. Sometimes we would play a game of pretending we spoke Icelandic if we knew what people were going to ask us (like airport security). We usually lost but it was fun to see their expression change into a smile when they realized we were weird travelers just trying to fit in.
- There are sheep and Icelandic horses everywhere, so drive carefully. The horses are very kind and love having their picture taken. If the sheep don't run away, sometimes they'll respond with a baa when you baa at them .
- If you stay at hostels, bring a sleep sack (basically two sheets sewn together like a sleeping bag). All hostels charge extra for linens.
- Icelandic people don't go out to the bar until 1am because it's so expensive, which resulted in us regularly being the only people at the bar at 11pm.
- Make sure you treat yourself to a few good meals of seafood and lamb.
- Vinbúdin is the Icelandic liquor store. They are few and far between and have the craziest hours. Seriously, in one town they were only open for one hour! So stock up on Icelandic beer and cheap wine when you find one.
Iceland is an amazing country with amazing people, beautiful landscapes and delicious foods. Don't put off visiting because it's expensive - there are ways to budget so you won't go broke.
Have you ever traveled to Iceland? What was your favorite part?