Iceland. The name conjures up images of fire and ice, with volcanoes and glaciers clashing; an epic battle of the elements. Natural forces are constantly changing the landscape and country with gushing geysers, glaciers cutting through rock and ice-covered volcanoes rumbling and occasionally erupting with huge ferocity. Add on the truly spectacular, diverse scenery, vast and varied wildlife and the warmth of its people and it quickly adds up to a wonderful place. It certainly ranks as my favourite place in Europe.
A few years ago in late September, after a couple of days exploring the classic ‘Golden Circle’ around Reykjavik, we headed north with our 4WD rental car to explore the north shore town of Husavik.
When you look at a map of Iceland you’ll notice a ring road encircling the island; it’s a spectacular journey in itself, but on closer inspection, we saw a smaller track heading through the interior. This road is only open in good weather but at the end of summer when we travelled, it was passable.
We soon realised we’d be on our own here and after two days of driving along this road, we saw only a handful of cars. The landscape is barren, vast and cinematographically beautiful. The undulating mountainous road is passable but you can see why it is closed for much of the year as we kept crossing the snowline. Every small uphill brings you into a new winter wonderland with snow several inches deep, even in late summer. A few minutes later the road drops down under the snowline and back to the greens and browns of the surrounding countryside.
Even though it was early September, it was already cold and the wind whipped across the vast emptiness with nothing to thwart its progress. We found a rare, small forested area and tried our first ever night of wild camping; a beautiful spot by a river, camping under the stars with no one around, capped off by a couple of beers cooled in the river – perfect!
The next day we continued north passing by Dettifoss waterfall, which has the greatest volume of any waterfall in Europe - a beautifully powerful display of nature at its most awesome. Next up was Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland; a pretty fishing town and views towards snow-capped peaks across the bay.
We spent a day here kayaking through beautiful scenery with very few rapids (grade 2 maximum, great for beginners and kids), but there are also ore demanding rivers if you’re up to the adventure!
The next day we went on a whale watching trip on a traditional oak boat; a must-do activity. The best time for whale watching is from June to August where up to 11 species come here to feed and you are almost guaranteed to see them. We were unlucky with the whales, but we did witness about 200 dolphins jumping and playing all around us; a fantastic spectacle!
Our plan was to drive back towards Reykjavik but a detour to a tiny fishing village on the northernmost shore changed our minds. After discussing our trip, some locals recommended picking up the ring road to head around the eastern side of the island, so off we set on the mammoth road trip.
Our first stop was Myvatn, an otherworldly terrain of weird lava formations, spluttering mud pots and volcanic craters around a bird-filled lake. Sitting squarely on the mid-Atlantic ridge and with the associated violent geological character, it is a unique landscape and a classic image of Iceland. There are some natural hot baths nearby so I recommend you find them and soak your muscles after a day of exploring.
Camped by a lake under a clear night sky, we experienced one of the wonders of the world. As we shared a bottle of wine, the sky erupted into a dazzling display of greens and yellow – the spectacular Aurora Borealis.
The Northern Lights are solar flares drawn by the earth’s magnetic field towards the North Pole. We watched as the constantly changing colours would float and wave across the sky - sometimes disappearing for a few minutes. It was like watching coloured ink dissipate through water or a natural lava lamp and by far, one of the most memorable sights I have ever seen. In the end, we spent an awe-inspiring two hours gazing up and watching the light reflections dance across the lake.
We were extremely lucky to have such a good sighting considering it was still only September- but the Northern Lights are visible from mid-September to mid-April. December to February are the most likely times to catch them and you can get pinks and reds thrown into the artistic mix but you need a good slice of luck wherever you visit – sightings are very variable.
We continued onto the sparsely populated east coast, which although perhaps lacking in some of the stand-out attractions that other regions have, it does have great hiking, fjords, fascinating geology and friendly villages which are worth exploring. We spent the night in Egilsstadir, the region’s main transport and commercial hub, and although the town itself is nothing to write home, it’s very close to Lagarfljot, Iceland’s third largest lake.
Continuing south-east, we came upon a mind-blowing 200km stretch of road and our most enjoyable section of the circumference so far.
We traversed vast deltas of grey glacial sand, farms, towering snow-capped mountains, glacier tongues and ice-filled lagoons - and no towns. The Vatnajokull National Park dominates this region with huge glaciers flowing down steep-sided valleys. The largest ice cap outside of the poles is here, sitting on top active volcanoes and mountain peaks, leading to those images of fire and ice.
The promise of the ‘iceberg lake’, Jokulsarlon, was what really drew us to this corner of Iceland. It’s a photographer’s paradise where wind and water sculpt icebergs into fantastical shapes within a glacial lagoon before they float out to sea. The colours of the icebergs are mesmerising; this is surely nature at its most artistic and beautiful.
You can take boat trips around the icebergs but we simply wandered along the shore of the lake taking in the majesty. This spectacular setting has been filmed many times and used in films including Batman Begins, Die Another Day and for television shows including Top Gear.
As we got closer to Reykjavik, we had one more stunning waterfall to view - Skogafoss. Whilst being aptly known as ‘the land of fire and ice’ Iceland is also a land of the waterfalls. We experienced a fair few but still hundreds more to explore.
Iceland immediately stole the top spot as my favourite country in Europe. My only regret is that we only allowed a week to explore. Most people experience Reykjavik and the Golden Circle and whilst this is spectacular, our fondest memories came from the furthest reaches of the island, so If you’d like to get around the whole island then 10-14 days is ideal.
We found hiring a car gave us so much flexibility and was a great way to explore the island, but remember you’ll need a 4WD vehicle. The 1330km tarmac ring road is a classic way to experience the dramatically changing landscapes of Iceland with waterfalls, ice caps, glaciers, mountains, lava fields and desert-like plains. However, I recommend taking detours off the main road and also experiencing the fun, mountainous, gravel tracks in the interior if you are there during summer months to get away from the tourists. For the more adventurous, we met a few people on off-road motorbikes and even the odd touring cyclist!
To glimpse an insight into Iceland’s beautiful natural landscape and its people, I recommend watching ‘Heima’, a documentary about the Icelandic band Sigur Ros playing a variety of free gigs around the country, which inspired us to visit. There is still so much to see and we barely scratched the surface. We hope to return one day with our children when they are slightly older to enjoy all the activities and one thing for sure is we will definitely go for longer than a week.
If you’d like to plan a trip, I can help you work out an itinerary and arrange all your flights, transfers, car hire and accommodation. I can also show you how Iceland can easily be combined into a broader Iceland itinerary with road trips in Canada, the USA or other destinations – just contact me to start planning.