Iceland is one of the few places left on earth where you truly feel free. It's raw, rugged and captivates every primal emotion, if you do it right. I just read something today that more Americans visit Iceland now than people actually live in Iceland. My thoughts on this little volcanic island went both ways on the extremes. I loved it and hated it multiple times throughout our week there and even now when people ask about it I still waiver. My fiancé feels the same. I had just come off of a week in Croatia and a weekend in Dublin. Both were filled with layers and layers of culture and the people had real roots there, which I think brings a lot of character to experiencing a destination. Iceland is soo different and it's soo weird but kind of awesome! It's sort of like Westworld. Go be free! Choose your own adventure! It only gets more wild and intense the further you get from town!
There were some things that we loved and some that I could have definitely skipped. We stayed only on the South of Iceland, making it only as far as the Glacier Lagoons.
The Hotel Situation
The bad news is: be ready to be unimpressed by your options. The good news is: it really doesn't matter at all. There were two hotels that I found stunning: Ion and Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. If you're looking for something more luxury, these are your options but keep in mind they book up very fast. There's apparently 1 hotel room for every 5 people in Iceland so plan in advance. Because there aren't a lot of trees on the island so most of the hotels resemble a shipping crate-esque style of hotel. It's a metal box cut up into simple rooms and be happy if you get a restaurant. But the thing is, every single one we stayed at was clean and enough to do the job.
- Make sure you book a room that has a private bathroom. Some have shared showers and bathrooms
- If you do Iceland right, you're barely spending any time in your hotel room, especially in summer where the light is endless
- We found hotels better than Air BnB because there's always someone there to check in and out easily and you just want to get on the road early and fast usually.
- We stayed at Hotel Dyrholaey, Stracta Hotel Hella, Hotel Skaftafell. Couldnt honestly tell you the difference between any of them. The rooms were basically the same. Simple. Skaftafell has a good restaurant. Hella has an outdoor hot tub where you can look at the Northern Lights and soak. But basically these were all simple 3 star-ish
- Most of the Icelandair hotels and Fosshotels are pretty popular but kinda expensive
If you really want to experience Iceland, I recommend renting a tricked out Land Rover Defender and camping in the car. It's fully equipped with most everything you need and this is one of the coolest ways to get as close to nature as possible. *Must be able to drive manual. Kuku Campers rents them and they sell out fast. There are lots of camper vans that aren't Defenders so if you still want to be adventurous you can find all kinds of van companies.
Driving in Iceland
Driving is super easy. There's basically one ring road that loops around the country and it's open highway. There are gas stations sprinkled throughout sparingly so when you see one, fill 'er up.
- Spring for wifi in the car. We skipped getting GPS because we used our iPhones with the wifi to get around and simple maps
- There aren't a ton of restaurants when you get out further away from Reykjavik so gas stations become your best friend. Stock up on plenty of food in case you get lost.
- If you want to really explore and go deeper, you must have a 4x4
- Add extra time to every trip because there's so much to see just off the side of the road. We pulled over almost every few miles!
South Iceland Itinerary
We flew into Keflavik Airport, rented our car and got right on the road towards Vik. We took 43 down towards Grindavik and then hopped on 427. We stopped at Stracta Hotel Hella but I wished we just went straight to Vik, because there's not too much on the route. We saw a bunch of Icelandic hipster horses but things didn't get good until we got to Seljalandsfoss and beyond.
- Black sand beach at Vik & Reynisfjara
- Red church overlooking Vik
- If you're in this area in the height of summer, you can catch puffins nesting in this area
Vik to Hofn
The best part of the whole trip was driving through the mossy lava fields and watching the landscape and the weather change almost in an instant. From the moss you can drive a bit more down the road and hit the glacier area where giant chunks of ice fall into lagoons and you can watch seals play around while car-sized ice floats down the water and gets washed up on the beach! I mean hell-ooooo! That's amazing.
- Everyone guns straight for Jokulsarlon, and that is so impressive, but we also enjoyed Fjallsarlon. Fjallsarlon is a few miles before so keep an eye out.
- I recommend seeing that first, then Jokulsarlon then cross the street and spend some time on Diamond Beach. This is where the real magic happens
As said before, we only got as far as the Glacier Lagoons. On our way back we took Route 1 all the way through Selfoss and made a pit stop at Hverageroi to soak in the hot springs river. This is a roughy 2- 3 mile hike into a geothermal hot bed, passing through giant open vents in the ground. Super cool. Wear hiking clothes but pack a bathing suit. There's a few makeshift changing walls but that's about it.
The Blue Lagoon Hype
Honestly, I didn't get it. We did the lagoon after this hot spring above and this river experience was way cooler. The Blue Lagoon shuffles you in like cattle, makes you pay for a towel, makes you shower before you get into the lagoon so you basically NEED a towel or else you are dripping wet and cold making your way through the cattle call. The lagoon is basically the byproduct of a geothermal energy plant next door. It's cool because it taps into a really unique basin of water under the island but I personally enjoyed the more natural hot springs. There are SO many hot springs in Iceland, honestly. It's great to be adventurous and find the hidden ones. Check this for resources.
Another amazing set of resources:
- This guy's blog kills it on information. It helped us a lot! *Virtual hug*
- Weather is so unpredictable. This site is everything for planning. Maybe you want to see the glacier lagoons in bright sun or maybe in heavy rain. Plan accordingly and pay attention to the weather. Places look so different depending on the light.
- We missed the Northern Lights by like a week. We were too early. Mid-September on and you should have a good shot at seeing them. There are many sites and apps helping calculate how strong the magnetic activity is, the cloud cover and where the band will hit the strongest
Next trip for me will be exploring the Icelandic herbs and medicinal plants! I didn't have much time to explore that side because I was there shooting the project for adidas. But this place has an energy that will continue to draw me back and I'm sure it won't be my last trip!