Have you ever experienced something so majestic and utterly enchanting, that for the rest of your life you’re sad that you’ll never have that fresh-eyed first time again? That you could return over and over, but it will never be as good as that first time? That’s what Iceland was to me.
(and with that, I’ll try to stop with the hipster mushy travel clichés, but I make no promises).
The first day we followed his guide to Lake Kleifarvatn, which is “where the magic happened”
Interestingly enough, my first night in the capital city of Reykjavik was underwhelming. I was recovering from a cold, the landscape between the airport and the city wasn’t the most fascinating, it was raining, and the first random restaurant we walked into for dinner was mediocre. (Spoiler alert, the food gets better). But I was still excited to meet up with my friends Kevin and Reno and get the trip underway.
I am, for better or worse, a spreadsheet traveler. I like my itineraries full and optimized, but on the other hand I’m always ready to throw it out and improvise. For this trip our bible was the Rick Steves guide to Iceland and let me tell you, if you follow it you will NOT be disappointed. The first day we followed his guide to Lake Kleifarvatn, which is “where the magic happened” so to speak. We drove down a windy two lane road through desolate volcanic landscape with no other cars in sight, and when we arrive at the lake there was no one else around. And I mean no one. With the silence, the sun low in the sky and bitter cold, it was a moment (of several) that I’ll never forget.
We continued on our road trip through more volcanic landscape, stopping to check out the Seltun geothermal field with bubbling ponds and steaming vents. Lunch was at a tiny little café in a random industrial looking fishing town that we never would have given a second thought to, had it not been in the guidebook. Reno and Kevin said this was the best lobster soup they had on the trip, but I’ll tell you what mine was later on.
Anytime Iceland is mentioned anywhere on the internet, the Blue Lagoon follows. For every Instagrammer angling for a selfie in the milky sky blue water, a Reddit poster will complain about it as a crowded tourist trap. We thoroughly enjoyed it, including the contrast between the spa temperature water and the cold rain that fell for a few moments. It’s touristy, sure, but worth the price of admission.
Our second day saw us embarking on a road trip down the South Coast. After leaving the city we drove up and over a mountain pass called Hellisheiði and descended into the farmlands of Selfoss. There we passed a few farms and couldn’t resist stopping to take pictures of the horses.
A little later we arrived at the first of many waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss. It was bitterly cold and very wet! I was immediately thankful for wearing waterproof hiking boots, a rain jacket, and waterproof pants, especially as we hiked behind the waterfall itself. We warmed up with a delicious lunch of beef stew and bread at a small restaurant off the main road, another one we would have never known about were it not for the guidebook. Next was another waterfall called Skogafoss, where Kevin decided to go the extra mile hike up to the top. He then spent the rest of the drive moaning in the backseat and regretting his decision. Meanwhile Reno and I oooh-ed and aaah-ed over more cows and horses. Little did we know that the windiest weather was awaiting us at Sólheimajokull glacier. My understanding is that lots of people will hike through and over the actual glacier, but since it was an impromptu stop we just walked up to the edge. Even that was enough to feel like we’d be blown into the water below!
The weather continued to get more and more stormy as the day went on and we moved further south. The last point on the list for the day was Reynisfjara black sand beach. To be honest the weather got so bad we should have skipped it, but I was stubborn. Well we managed to survive all of 3 minutes of sideways rain and enough wind to knock us over twice, until we retreated into the car.
Reno: “Kevin, be careful opening the car door, it’s super windy”
Kevin: “yeah yeah it’s fine…”
And that’s when Kevin instantly lost grip on the car door and it swung open so hard and fast I was convinced it would snap off its hinges.
At this point we realized we needed gas, and Kevin was such a trooper getting out of the car back into the firehose-like rain to not only figure out the transaction (liters instead of gallons, Krona instead of US Dollars) but pump the actual gas.
Protip: In the US where you can just stick your card in the pump, start it, and let it go until it stops. But in Iceland the foreign cards don’t work that way, you need to specify an amount beforehand.
I’m convinced the mythical Iceland elves were listening and decided to play tricks.
We drove back towards Reykjavik and started to make our way back up Hellisheiði. At this point it was still pouring and the headlights on our little rental Nissan Sentra left much to be desired. I was already white knuckled at this point, and I wasn’t even the driver. No sooner had I opened my mouth to say “hmm, I don’t remember there being snow here when we drove through this morning” than a snowstorm started. I’m convinced the mythical Iceland elves were listening and decided to play tricks. Up and over the mountain we drove, silent and wide eyed, praying that we wouldn’t encounter anything that would leave us stranded on the side of the road, on a remote mountain, in the snow, in a rental. Keep in mind I’m a California native and I don’t know the first thing about snowy weather! Hellisheiði will forever be known to us as “Hellish Heidi”, and we treated ourselves to several rounds of (expensive) beer at dinner that night.
Later that night we took a “Northern Lights Tour” which was…interesting. When the bus driver of your tour starts singing to the tour group, you know it’s going to be a long trip. Such an individual either failed in their musical career or is distracting you to lower your guard as they are a killer in disguise (after all, the first thing he said to us was “well, the lights aren’t really forecasted for tonight, but at least I promise to get you back alive!” which didn’t exactly inspire confidence). He must have also fancied himself an off roader in a previous life, immediately taking the Mercedes 12 passenger van off the paved road and into ditches and over rocks. Three quarters of the way up a hilly part of the drive we were treated to a loud BANG noise, and a sheepish “hmm…uh oh” from our driver. After he pulled over and got off the phone with who I assume was his boss, someone asked if they would be coming to pick us up. After all, the van didn’t seem to have any power left to chug up the rest of the hill. “Nope! It’s fine…all fine…we’ll get back…” and he proceeded to force the poor van up the rest of the way in the wrong gear at no faster than 15 miles an hour. At this point it was after midnight and I think I speak for everyone when I say, we just wanted to get back to our hotels alive. And we did! I had never been more relieved to exit a vehicle, and to this day I’m convinced he was another Icelandic elf wreaking havoc.
And no, we didn’t see any lights.
Day 3 was spent wandering around the city on foot. We were lucky enough to have sunny skies the whole day, but the temperatures were still only in the high twenties. Having never been to any Nordic countries, Reykjavik was unlike any city I’d ever seen. Beautiful graffiti murals, stark Scandinavian architecture, and an amusing sense of humor. Case in point: a bar called “Lebowski Bar”, a restaurant named “Chuck Norris Grill”, and a gift shop called “idontspeakicelandic”. We took in a beautiful view of the city from the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church, the largest church in Iceland at 244 feet high. Dinner that night was at a tiny oceanside restaurant called Sægreifinn, or “Sea Baron”. Let me tell you, this was the best lobster soup I have ever had, hands down. Order a lot, you will not be disappointed. When I think about how far away I’ll have to travel to have that soup again, it hurts my heart. But that just means I’ll have to go back to Iceland. There are worse things.
Back in the rental car for day 3, this time for the “Golden Circle”. This is the quintessential day road trip you’ll find on every Iceland blog, for good reason. We left in the morning and blessed with another sunny day, I started to realize how different the terrain and geology can be depending on which direction you drive. You’ll see everything from desolate volcanic rock and black sand, to rolling hills of golden grass. Some of it even reminded me of parts of California, believe it or not. There are even solitary picnic benches in many places, so you wouldn’t be out of place packing a picnic lunch. As a matter of fact I’d suggest doing so, since food prices in Iceland are quite high. We started at Þingvellir National Park, which lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Þingvellir is associated with the Althing, the national parliament of Iceland, which was established at the site in 930 AD. Sessions were held at the location until 1798 (Thank you Wikipedia).
In stark contrast with the freezing temperatures, Iceland is a nation powered by geothermal energy. Natural hot springs dot the landscape, from touristy and spa-like Blue Lagoon to small pools involving hour-long hikes that only locals tend to know about. We stopped at Fontana Geothermal Baths for lunch – more delicious soup and bread! – then headed to the Geysir hot spring area. Fun fact, this is actually where the English word “Geyser” comes from. That one only erupts every few years or so, but the Strokkur geyser regularly erupts about every 10 minutes.
Last on the days journey was a visit to Gullfoss, which is – you guessed it – another waterfall. This one is massive! Be wary of the stairs that take you down to the falls, they get slippery and yes, you will get wet.
We flew home early the next morning, and to say that I was sad to leave is an understatement. As if to say goodbye, the sunrise that morning was gorgeous and a fitting end. Keflavik Airport is small and efficient and we were on our way back to the states in no time, leaving the trickster elves behind. Iceland was the most breathtaking, magical, frightening, frigid and overall amazing place I’d ever seen.