Ever since I lived in Iceland three years ago I have dreamed of driving Route 1 (the Ring Road, or “Hringvegurinn”), the highway that runs all the way around the island. This month, as I was in Reykjavik for research, I had the perfect excuse to tack on a vacation before I came home, and my friend and I finally took the trip we’ve both been plotting and planning for several years.
Day One: Reykjavik to Akureyri
This was my first experience renting a car. We arranged to pick up an old Volvo from a local company (if you can call two friends, one of whom is named “Honest Helgi” a company) in town at 9 a.m. I walked over from the guesthouse where I’d been staying during my research—in the quiet of an Icelandic Sunday morning—and nobody was there. I petted a local cat until my friend arrived, but nobody else showed up. We were beginning to worry when finally a fellow pops out from behind the house (yes, it was a house, not a business) and tells us to come around to sign the papers. Behind the house is a little one-bedroom structure, where we were seated around a kitchen table to observe the formalities. There were unwashed dishes in the sink and an unmade bed behind a bookcase crammed with jazz and reggae CDs. Once we’d signed the papers, the fellow (who was not Honest Helgi but his partner) had to find the car, which was parked at random on a corner somewhere in the vicinity. When he found it…it was not just an old Volvo: it was a station wagon from the early 90s with a huge dent in the body and Cheerios in the door pockets! We were instructed not to turn off the engine before it warmed up because it wouldn’t turn on again. With this piece of wisdom in mind and my friend bravely behind the wheel, we set out on the Ring Road.
It was a long drive that day, but we had the pleasure of going from a cloudy, cool Reykjavik to a sunny, much warmer North, stopping at practically every N1 gas station on the way to fill up the tank and to stock up on Icelandic road food like skýr, coffee, and smoked salmon. Our first real stop was Grettislaug, the natural hot spring (turned outdoor bathing spot by the current owner) where Grettir the Strong is said to have bathed after he swam from his refuge on Drangey, the dramatic island just off the coast.
To reach Grettislaug you have to drive some 10 miles along a dirt road populated by sheep who only lazily deign to move out of the way when you approach them.
We didn’t swim in the baths when we got there, but we did have Hjónabandssæla (wedding bliss cake—go figure) in the café next door and made pipedreams about taking the expensive but fantastic-sounding boat tour to Drangey some other time.
Having driven back down that 10-mile dirt road to meet Route 1 again, we continued on our way to Akureyri, where we checked in at the hostel (which is actually more a one-stop-shop restaurant/tourist agency than a hostel and right in the middle of the downtown area). We had dinner the café next door (great panini, even though they didn’t give me utensils with my salad when I ordered it to go so we could sit outside); then we walked all around the town and harbor in the extended sunset hoping to see the “midnight sun.” At that point, the sun was setting after 12 and coming up again at 3 a.m., but there was a blanket of cloud close to the horizon that night and the sun disappeared a little before midnight.
Day Two: Mývatn
It turns out that June 17 is one of Iceland’s several national holidays (Þjóðhátíðardagurinn), so we slept little due to the parties going on below us in the street and in the other rooms. However, we spent the day itself far from town, in the Mývatn district. We began with Goðafoss, the powerful horseshoe-shaped waterfall I’d seen once before. (See my my old post for more representative photos; I just like the rainbow in this one.)
We then progressed to Mývatn itself with its bizarre pseudo-craters (skútustaðagígar)…and its midges. “Mývatn” means “midge lake,” and when I’d been there before, it was pre-season and perfectly peaceful. Now, in June, the midges swarmed everywhere, making it difficult to see or to breathe without having one or more enter an orifice. Most people who came with tour buses had been given green mesh hoods like beekeeper hats; we pulled our jacket hoods up and tried to keep our eyelashes between us and the bugs. They don’t bite, but they’re maddeningly annoying, and in summer, apparently, they plague the entire inland area of the north.
Curtailing our tour of Mývatn, we went on to the Dimmuborgir, the “dark castles” where the Jólasveinarnir (the Yule Lads) live when they’re not stealing skýr and sausages from careless children in town. We had the most splendid lunch in the Borgir café—fresh, locally caught trout with “geysirbrauð” (rye bread steamed in a geyser).
After walking through the Dimmuborgir and being surprised to find a group of tourists actually praying in a lava formation that is called (we thought jokingly) the “Kirkja,” we stopped by Grjótagjá, a hot spring inside a cave. It’s too hot for swimming and the rocks are unstable and unsuitable for exploring, but it’s a nifty sight nonetheless, and oddly enough there are no midges inside the cave. From there, we stopped at Hverir, a geothermal area so colorful it looks like some mad painter spilled his oil paints all over the plain.
Then we visited the Leirhnjúkur, a geothermal mountain skirted by a lava field created by an eruption in the 1980s. The sign said it was closed, but there were lots of people walking back and forth across the older lava field that leads to it, so we stepped around the back of the public restrooms and went on, figuring they just hadn’t bothered to take the sign down since the winter. Once we got further out, though, we realized that in fact there was a reason for the sign after all: the snow that still lay on the fields was melted and hollowed out underneath by the geothermal activity of the ground, leaving unexpected holes, gaps, and thin places where one might easily fall through to hazardously hot ground.
We didn’t go far—only as far as we could see and walk confidently on the trail. Others went much farther and probably got a better view, but once we were scolded by a park ranger, we figured discretion is the better part of valor and turned back.
At the end of the road that runs past those lava fields is Stóra-Viti, a volcanic caldera filled with bright blue water.
We took pictures there, tried to guess which of the peaks behind it might be the volcano Krafla, and headed back down the mountain toward Akureyri again. We stopped on the way, though, and on a whim decided to climb Hverfell, a giant pseudo-crater often compared to a dog bowl (or, as my friend more appropriately labeled it, Fenris Ulf’s bowl). The climb is only 20 minutes each way, and the view at the top is unbelievable simply because it is so incredibly barren. Not a single thing lives or moves on the gray lava inside the crater. It looks like the moon, or like a black version of Sarlacc’s sand pit in Star Wars. It’s eerie at the same time as it can only hold one’s interest for so long. There’s just nothing to look at.
We found the festivities still going on in Akureyri when we returned for dinner. Lots of people in traditional Icelandic garb, and lots more people eating cotton candy, but once again there were purple clouds covering the famous midnight sun.
Day Three: Akureyri to Borgarfjörður Eystri
This was the strangest drive I could imagine, not because it was eventful (everything went smoothly and we had good enough weather, thank goodness) but because it was so bleak. I think the area between Mývatn and the Eastfjords is where the geography of the Interior comes closest to the coast and the road. We drove to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall (though I don’t really know what that means) and braved the midges to hike all the way along the trail to see it from all angles (one of which included a splendid rainbow at the end of a short rain shower).
Then we walked back upriver to Selfoss (the waterfall, not the town in the south of the country), which is elegant without being powerful or stunning.
From there all the way to the fjords, it was nothing but a Martian landscape of red, gray, and brown rocks, sand, and pebbles. There wasn’t even really anything to take photos of; to be honest, all I wanted to do was get through it as quickly as possible. The idea of getting stuck there or running out of gas was horrifying. We wondered how anyone even found Dettifoss, since it’s right in the middle of that wasteland.
But once through the north, the fjords suddenly open up into lovely green farmland interspersed with fields of purple flowers.
We were very happy to find a little farmstead with a guesthouse and restaurant late in the afternoon. It was all decorated with reindeer (some victims of taxidermy, some just posing in photographs), but it had excellent bread and soup (cauliflower, they told me, though I’m pretty sure it was just salted cream with pepper). We watched sheep in a playground outside the window as we ate.
We drove for several hours on a dirt road, even over a mountain pass which must be terrifying if not impassable in bad weather, to reach an isolated little town of 120 people called Borgarfjörður Eystri (to distinguish it from the Borgarfjörður in the West of Iceland). This immediately became our favorite spot in the whole country. A charming, colorful little village, with the lovely Blábjörg Guesthouse (in a renovated fish factory!) situated right on the water, and scores upon scores of seabirds crying in the pink light.
We immediately drove out to the harbor on the other side of the fjord, where the landlady told us we would find puffins. And we did! Hundreds of them, all rather calmly observing us from a few yards away.
We stayed there, watching them from the top of an observatory above the harbor, until we finally saw the midnight sun sink into the ocean at 12:10 a.m.
Then we headed back to the guesthouse and had the privilege of seeing that same sun start to rise up again (in practically the same spot) less than two hours later!
Day Four: The Eastfjords
We could barely tear ourselves away from Borgarfjörður Eystri today; we didn’t manage it before walking again through the town, taking pictures of the cod heads drying on an open-air frame behind the new fish factory, and having breakfast at a café called Álfasteinn—Elf Stone—whose décor was entirely rock-related, and whose food was even served on slabs of granite.
After that, we had two objectives: drive the scenic route around the Eastfjords (the only time we really departed from Route 1), and stop at the Steinasafn Petru, the rock collection of an old lady name Petra, in Stöðvarfjörður on the way. I drastically underestimated how long it would take to wend in and out of the fjords and as a result was in a tizzy all afternoon in fear that we wouldn’t reach our hostel in time to check in, but fortunately those fears were groundless—we made it with 5 minutes to spare.
The fjords can be quite barren at times, being too steep, too exposed, or too marshy (depending) for farming, but the landscape is breathtaking nevertheless.
And we saw an actual herd of reindeer on the slopes among the sheep pastures!
The Steinasafn was my friend’s suggestion, as she is a rock collector herself. I don’t know jasper from zeolite, but the museum itself is quite a sight. It’s housed in Petra’s own house (she passed away a few years ago), and the collection represents an entire lifetime of collecting rocks from all around the area. I was astounded at how many kinds of beautiful stones are produced by volcanic eruptions, and every last inch of the place—garden, hall, and living room—was crammed with sparkling and glinting geodes, some of them as large as watermelons. And I think my friend and Petra would have been great friends.
We finally arrived in Höfn at nearly 9 p.m. This was the most hostel-like of the hostels we stayed in: camp-style beds with no linens unless you wanted to pay an extra $12 for them. We slept under our jackets. But it had a view of the great Vatnajökull glacier, so I suppose we didn’t exactly lose out in the bargain.
Day Five: The South
My friend and I were awakened from under our jackets at 6:15 a.m. by the fire alarm. An early riser had burned her toast and set off the smoke detector, which continued to jangle ear-piercingly for probably 10 minutes. That is a long time when everybody in the hostel is stumbling about sleepily trying to figure out what’s going on and why they aren’t still in bed. Fortunately, we did all go back to sleep when someone finally shut the alarm off.
Back on the road, we drove another stretch I was a little nervous about—the southeast in the vicinity of the Ring Road is very flat and exposed, meaning that any wind will pick up a large amount of debris and become a gale rather quickly. A friend of mine said he had a rental car essentially sand-blasted on one side when he drove this stretch during a windstorm once. Fortunately (again), that stretch of road was very calm today, and although we did get a good bit of rain here and there, I would rather have had that than the wind.
Our first stop was one I’d been anticipating ever since I lived in Reykajvik: Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake where runoff from Vatnajökull meets the sea. It was brilliantly sunny while we were there, and from our first glimpse of it from the road to our last look as we drove away, the place felt like a winter wonderland constructed for some kind of fantasy theme park. The lake is full of icebergs, some as small as a car, some as large as a building (and that’s just what’s on the surface, only 10% of the whole structure)—ranging from opaque and streaked with black ash to translucent blue to crystal clear. From the shore, you can hear them creaking and groaning, and quite often a piece will calve off and fall into the water with a splash.
We indulged in a boat tour of this amazing lake (our tour guide was clearly Icelandic, as she did the whole thing in a tank top despite the icy wind coming off the glacier), and we were shocked to be told that the lake itself is only about 60 to 70 years old, having formed only when the glacial melt began to increase in the 1950s. Our guide hefted a cat-sized piece of ice for us to see—perfectly, beautifully clear—and then broke off pieces for us to eat. A thousand-year-old piece of ice, as pure as anything Dasani could dream of bottling. When we left, we were amazed to see that even in that short hour we were on the boat, the icebergs had changed, and it was like a whole new dreamscape.
We drove from there (still over that alarmingly exposed plain of sand, gravel, and grassland) to Vík, which I had tried twice before to visit, only to be prevented by the eruption of a certain Eyjafjallajökull. This time nothing stood in our way, and we saw the black sand and pebble beach and the Reynisdrangur (“sea stacks” of volcanic rock that look like, as my guidebook put it, the back of a giant stegosaurus half-submerged offshore).
Then we drove around the back of Reynisfjall—time was too short for the 3-hour hike up it—to Reynisfjara beach on the other side. We had hoped to see Hálsanefshellir, a cave at the base of the mountain, but the tide was in by then and it was inaccessible. However, we could see Dýrhólaey in the distance.
And we climbed the terrific basalt columns at the base of Reynisfjall. They look so architectural, it’s astounding that they’re not man-made.
After our excursion, we doubled back to Vík itself, which is a charming town, with a little red-roofed church poised over it and a little main street with cafés and houses intermingled.
We had dinner in Vík and finally headed the short distance to our hotel at Skógar.
Skógar is a funny place, clearly having evolved simply to serve the needs of tourists who stop when they see Skógafoss waterfall from Route 1. It was a bit rainy when we arrived, but we still took the long walk to see the waterfall, and I climbed the metal staircase to the top, just as I did when the family was here with me.
We were tired by then, so on the way back we climbed a stile and walked through a beautifully green field populated by scattered sheep. They didn’t seem to mind us much, even though they regarded us warily as we stopped to take pictures. It was a greater pleasure walking through that field than it was seeing the waterfall!
Day Six: Skógar to Reykjavik
I had to take the 2 o’clock bus from Reykjavik to Keflavik for my afternoon flight, so we didn’t have a lot of time to spare today. We did, however, stop by the Skógar Folk Museum before leaving the area. I had been there before, so I wandered around the grounds and the gift shop while my friend toured the exhibits (including the turf houses, which are always a favorite). But even my browsing was rewarded by a short conversation with the proprietor of the museum, an elderly gentleman who tips his hat to visitors and asks them where they’re from. We exchanged a few words in Icelandic, but by the end of the second sentence I had exhausted my vocabulary and he was kind enough to switch into English for me. He’s sort of a local fixture, and I was glad to have a personal encounter with him.
Our travels coming to their close, we drove back to Reykjavik, my friend dropped me off at the bus station, and before I knew it, Iceland was dropping away behind us as the plane took off. One more adventure checked off my bucket list. I’d do the trip again, though, in a heartbeat. There’s so much we had to pass by without stopping, and even the places we did see will look different in another light or another season. Iceland gets in your blood, and once it’s there, it will always be calling you back to the land of fire and ice.