I had been wanting to go to Iceland ever since I was a teenager and had found out there was actually a place called Iceland. I started travelling in 2008, and even though I visited Europe several times, it never seemed to make it onto the list. That changed in late 2016 when I asked a friend from school if he wanted to do a road trip around Iceland with me. We started planning and soon another friend from school found out, and then we were 3. We planned to hire a 4WD and drive around the entire island. This was the only way to do it as far as we were concerned. Just visiting the capital and a few places nearby wouldn’t be enough for us, and we weren’t the types to go on group tours, if we could avoid it.
We spent a few days looking at what sights to see, what route to take and places to stop, then booked all of the accommodation on booking.com. It was pretty easy to plan but we had to take into account the winter daylight hours and how much we wanted to be driving each day. For us, visiting in winter seemed like the normal thing to do, we weren’t flying to the other side of the world to see green meadows and sunshine. We were to land on New Years Eve and spend two nights in Reykjavik, before heading south and driving in an anti-clockwise direction. We had pre-booked 3 activities, The Blue Lagoon, a visit to a glacier and a dive and snorkel at Silfra.
The main route we took is marked above (not including deviations to visit some sights), starting in Reykjavik and driving anti-clockwise. This was an 8 day journey. Was it long enough to see everything? Yes, even in the short winter daylight hours I think it was enough. You must plan what you want to see, and make sure that your route suits you. Of course, you could spend weeks doing it, but who has weeks? Not me. Even though it was the middle of winter (January 2017), the main roads were never closed due to snow or weather, and we never had to use the 4WD feature of our vehicle.
2 Days in Reykjavik
We flew from Oslo to Reykjavik on New Years Eve, and arrived in the afternoon. The sun was shining low on the horizon and the streets were filled with snow. A bus that leaves regularly from the Airport took us into town, and the ticket price included a smaller bus that took us right to our hotel. We bought cartons of duty free beers at the airport as we had heard that Iceland is expensive, but after a week in Norway, Iceland seemed cheap. After checking in, we set off and explored Reykjavik. The streets were packed, mainly with American, Chinese and some European tourists. We assumed it was because it was New Years Eve, as we had not expected it to be this crowded in winter. Unfortunately we were soon to be proven wrong.
We spent the evening drinking and enjoying the sights, a large bonfire had been lit on a beach near the centre of town and a massive crowd stood around it drinking and waiting for the new year. Almost every local had fireworks and were launching them into the sky at random. All of a sudden the northern lights appeared, a streak of green across the sky, it wasn’t as green as we had seen in photos due to all of the light from the city, but it was better than nothing. As we counted down to midnight, fireworks were set off form every street corner. We all cheered and watched on in excitement. New Years Day was spent relaxing and walking around, lots of shops were still open and we bought some supplies for the road trip.
Road Trip Day 1 – The Blue Lagoon, Geysir and Gullfoss
We grabbed our bags and caught a taxi to Budget car rentals, which was a 10 minute drive from the centre. We had booked a 4WD well in advance, and were given a Dacia Duster with no excess insurance, just in case. Neither of us had ever heard of or seen this particular vehicle, but it seemed good enough. We weren’t even sure if we would need a 4WD, but when we pictured Iceland in winter, we imagined massive blizzards and metre deep snow. Although it was almost 9am, it was still pitch black. We loaded the car with our bags and set off. Our first destination was to be The Blue Lagoon, don’t forget you have to purchase tickets online first. You select a particular time to arrive and can’t just show up whenever you want.
We arrived at The Blue Lagoon and a light rain began. This didn’t deter us as we figured we were going to get wet anyway. The facility is highly organised and you are given a key bracelet for an individual locker. As we walked out and into the blue waters, we were overwhelmed by how amazing it all was. Steam rising above a blue lagoon in amongst volcanic rock. It truly exceeded our expectations. We soon found ourselves ordering drinks at the bar. Our session was one of the first of the day and it wasn’t too crowded. The lagoon is massive so I don’t think crowding could ever be a problem as entry numbers are controlled.
After an hour or so in the lagoon, we headed north-west towards the hot springs known as Geysir, where boiling water erupts up to 70 metres into the air. The surrounding area was covered in steam, slowly rising up from vents and puddles of boiling water, a contrast to the snowy mountains in the distance. A short drive further took us to the massive waterfall known as Gullfoss. It was here we started to encounter tourists by the hundred, coaches and minibuses filled the car park. This surprised us as again, we knew Iceland was becoming popular, but still thought winter would be quiet. After a short walk a massive gushing waterfall lay before us, frozen canyons on either side. It was quite a sight to behold, and made us wish we were back in the warm of the lagoon. We spent the night nearby at The Old House Fellskot, a cosy detached house run by a family who breed horses.
Road Trip Day 2 – Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, DC-3 plane crash site and Reynisdrangar
We woke up early and drove in darkness, aiming to arrive at our first destination as the sun was just appearing on the horizon. It was cold but it wasn’t snowing. Before this trip, we had imagined Iceland would be nothing but snow and ice during winter, but here we were driving past green meadows and grassy hills. In the distance we saw the spray of a rapidly flowing waterfall. It was Seljalandsfoss, our first destination for the day. There were already dozens of people mingling around and taking photos. We looked at each other, surprised by the amount of people we were seeing, at the break of daylight, at a remote waterfall in Iceland, in the middle of winter.
I slowly realised I wasn’t going to be able to get a suite of stunning, people-free photos that I had seen in National Geographic magazines. We started to get the impression that the secret was definitely out, and a once off-the-beaten-track adventurer destination, was now a mainstream tourist attraction. I cursed under my breath that I didn’t visit sooner, a decade ago, before Iceland became cool. We then drove a short distance to Skógafoss, another massive waterfall 20 minutes south-east.
We drove past paddocks filled with beautiful Icelandic horses. Eager to meet new friends they approached the fence to say hello. The Icelandic horse is a smaller breed of horse and rarely suffer from diseases, as other breeds are not permitted to be brought into Iceland. They are quite tough and grow heavy winter coats.
Our next destination was the site of a United States Air Force plane crash from the 1970s. None of the passengers or crew were seriously injured and what remains of the plane can be seen sitting in a very isolated patch of black sand and rock. As someone interested in urban exploration and abandoned things, I thought that an abandoned plane that takes almost an hour to walk to wouldn’t be very popular. I was wrong. Although there is no sign, there is a large car park on the side of the road. It had at least 80 cars in it and a steady trail of people could be seen walking to and from the plane crash site.
As we approached, a large amount of tourists could be seen standing around the plane while others climbed on the roof. The buzzing of two drones could be heard as others seemed to be taking aerial footage. It was hard to get good photos with the amount of people, but we were able to sneak in a few. We later learnt that a Justin Bieber music video had been filmed there, which we imagine was the reason for the large amount of tourists hanging around.
A short drive further south-east found us at Reynisdrangar, the beach with black sand and massive jagged sea stacks that sit amongst the waves. Prior to the trip we had seem some rather fashionable suits on sale in a department store. We were travelling over Christmas and New Years, so thought we should bring some attire for formal occasions and the odd spontaneous photo shoot. A dark 2 hour drive took us through the town of Vik, and then to our accommodation, Hof 1 Hotel, which was close to the next morning’s ice cave trip.
Road Trip Day 3 – Vatnajökull glacier, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and Höfn
We woke up early and headed to the buffet breakfast. Cheese, hard boiled eggs, salami and toast. This seemed to be the standard breakfast in every Iceland hotel. For lunch we would get hot dogs at petrol stations, which aren’t as bad as they sound. Dinner was usually at a local restaurant, or petrol station if there were no restaurants around.
After breakfast we drove north-east to Vatnajökull, a massive glacier where we would visit an ice cave and then the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. This is where one can watch icebergs wash out into the ocean. You must pre-book an ice cave visit, but anyone can just drive and park at the lagoon. The ice cave was pretty crowded with dozens of people from various tour groups, but was still amazing and worth the visit. Afterwards we sat by the lagoon, looking at chunks of ice in various shades of light blue. Suddenly a seal popped up and swam around amongst the icebergs. We watched on in amazement and considered ourselves lucky to have seen such amazing wildlife.
A light snow began to fall and we decided that it was time to move on. We were to spend the night at Höfn, a small fishing town on a peninsula in the southeastern part of Iceland. We sat on a small bench, each lost in our own thoughts as we watched the sunset. Ocean to our front, and snowy peaks to our rear. Fishing boats were moored nearby and we walked along the deserted wharves as a freezing wind passed by. A small restaurant across the road captured our attention, so we decided to stop in for dinner. We drank ales well into the evening and dined on the most amazing lobster baguettes, locally caught of course. Make sure you visit Hafnarbudin for a lobster baguette.