The Off-the-Grid Guide to Iceland
RealClearLife's Kinga Philipps travels the Ring Road to circumnavigate the entire country.
Most stories start at the beginning. This one starts at the end with a brief overview of Iceland as a stupendous destination and experience. On our last day of travel, we coined the term “over-awed”… meaning that after a while, the adorable towns and scenic vistas all blur together and no longer elicit the response of proper awe that they should. The fact is that if unicorns and elves danced in your front yard every morning, after a bit of time, you wouldn’t pay much attention. Similarly, on our last days, the magnificence of the Icelandic countryside, any bit of it that would have set us off on a photo taking frenzy a mere 6 days ago, no longer registered as extraordinary…but as the common situation of everyday beauty in a country that feels like a fairytale come to life.
I should tell you up front that we didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon … which has been hashtagged one million times. It’s the place most frequently mentioned on the Icelandic itinerary and there is certainly no shortage of Instagram posts from its opaque blue waters. But we intended to experience the country as off the beaten path as possible. Our tally for seven days boots on the ground was over 1700 miles driven, over 40 miles walked, seven remote hot springs soaked in … alone every time. We drove the entire Ring Road … the coastal route that circumnavigates the entire country … and has been hash-tagged less than 100,000 times.
So now back to the beginning. My sister and I wanted a girl’s trip that challenged the stereotype of the pampered L.A. Instagram blogger sipping cocktails from a rooftop bar … nothing wrong with that perspective but it’s just not how we roll. Instead, we wanted remote locations and no crowds. Time of year to visit plays a big part of this trip. We went in late April, right before the May to September tourist season booms. It was cold. Some roads were closed. On the flip side, we saw spectacular waterfalls, icebergs crashing together and had the country basically to ourselves. In hindsight, I would love to see it all in summer and fall…but thrilled that we did it when we did.
To accomplish our goals of crowd avoidance, locating remote hot springs with only GPS coordinates from blogs, being as nimble as possible and pre-planning as little as we were humanly able… always leaving time to make spur of the moment decisions of our next locale based on tips from locals and other travelers … we decided that our perfect option was a camper van.
Our home on wheels from Kuku Campers became such a big part of our journey that we teared up returning it. The van offered benefits that make traveling Iceland in this fashion absolutely fantastic. First off…it’s comfortable and provides everything you need for two people who are OK being very well acquainted with each other, a diesel engine that was quite gas efficient; a comfortable mattress in back; a heater that you can run all night long … which is life-saving magnificence in the cold climate; dishes; sleeping bags (you rent those extra); a little stove for cooking; a table and any number of extra add-ons you want to purchase from camping chairs to a bbq grill. Our van was a two-wheel drive model suitable for two. Bigger and more rugged options are also available. The Kuku team is cooler than a glacier, friendly and helpful. Plus you get unlimited miles and you can either take on their insurance or, if you have a good travel credit card that offers it, they’re fine if you use that too. Basically, they’re just laid back, hip, efficient and offer a good product. Boom.
Side notes on renting cars in Iceland: Diesel pumps in Iceland are black, not green. Important to remember. Also, you’ll need your credit card pin to pump gas. Our van cost approximately $100 to fill up. Gas is definitely more expensive than in the states, but won’t break the bank.
If camping isn’t your cup of tea, Iceland is packed with great guest houses, Airbnb options and a variety of hotels … most of them brand new as the country is still coming to terms with its popularity.
The most expensive thing in Iceland is eating and drinking at restaurants. The food is delicious but astoundingly pricy. A meal of fish and chips with a glass of wine and appetizer for two people will run you about $120…and that’s in a little pub. Prepare to hand over your first born at nicer restaurants. Makes L.A. and New York City look like a deal.
We were tipped off to buy alcohol … and even snacks … at duty-free when we landed. Even the locals make the stop on their way out of the airport. From there, having a mobile kitchen and buying groceries along the way (Bonus and Kronan are the two big grocery stores and available at most bigger towns) was not only good for the pocketbook but also saved us an infinite amount of time avoiding sit down dining. Of course, a few good meals that define a region should not be missed. Yes, the local lamb hot dogs with fried onions readily available at gas stations are as good as everyone says and we managed to power through an embarrassing quantity that I’m not willing to publicly admit. Lamb stews, fish and chips and a variety of seafood are all good bets and worth investing in.
The Ring Road tour: Behind the wheel of our trusty camper van, we set out into the great wild open. We decided to do the entire Ring Road that circles the Island with several offshoots to points of interest that peaked our curiosity. We went south to north. I would recommend the reverse. Simply because the south is so mind-blowingly spectacular that the north … fantastic in its own right … pales in comparison. Obviously, check the weather to determine the best course of action, but the north is less spectacular and empty, with long stretches of monotonous yet beautiful countryside. It eases you into the touristy areas and the magnificence rather than seeing all the best up front.
The southern route takes you through the Golden Circle, which is the most visited part of Iceland. The highlights there are the Kerid volcanic crater, Gullfoss waterfall, the geyser…second largest after Old Faithful in Yellowstone. The gem of the area is Thingvellir National Park with the famous Silfra fissure that allows divers and snorkelers to experience the glacially cold underwater conditions of the divide between the North American and European tectonic plates. Visibility is an unheard of 300 feet in the clearest water in the world. The water takes cold to another level … it’s regularly 30 degrees … meaning that either a drysuit or a thick freediving suit is suitable to not just keep you comfortable but to keep you alive. Steve at Dive.is is funny, professional and could be the Icelandic version of Steve Zissou. He will take great care of you down to making sure you have a belt around your neck to keep the water out … not as bad … or as sexy … as it sounds … and you’ll be grateful for lack of seepage.
The fissure is breathtaking … both literally in its cold, and more so in its dramatic walls and glacially blue color.
The park is also home to … per our experience … at least one arctic fox who is bold, curious and will have a good old-fashioned staring contest with you if you are lucky enough to see it.
After completing the Golden Circle, we headed south along the 1 toward Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall famous not only for its sensational cascading misty veil but because you can walk behind it for an other-worldly perspective. Equally fantastic was the neighboring moss covered crevice, a short walk away, that leads to another smaller waterfall. You squeeze through the narrow canyon like you’re entering some hidden world where gnomes might bring you tea and homemade cheese.
From there we made it to another waterfall … Skogafoss. Also spectacular. In the beginning, you will pull over for every scenic waterfall … every one … until you realize that the road trip would take the rest of your life … because Iceland has over 10,000 waterfalls. The thing about the amazing wonders of Iceland is that anywhere else in the world every one of these attractions…from the ubiquitous waterfalls and moss-covered rocks to astounding canyons and lava fields … would certainly be the star attraction and welcome thousands of visitors with shoulder to shoulder standing room only….and here they quickly become a dime a dozen.
Next, we made it to Solheimajokull Glacier. Glaciers are some of the coolest natural spectacles on the planet and visiting one when you’re nearby is always a good idea. Here you can take a tour of the outside and inside of the glacier or just walk around and marvel at the natural wonders on your own….carefully. In Iceland, you’re expected to have common sense. There are rules and there are suggestions for safety but overall it’s your responsibility. Your best judgment is imperative to prevent you from falling into glacial crevices, boiling to death in geothermal mud pots, expiring from hypothermia, falling from scenic yet deadly ledges, taking an unwanted trip over a waterfall, being crushed by moving ice or any other number of ways of becoming a statistic. In the United States, we call it a lawsuit waiting to happen … in Iceland they call it natural selection. On the other hand, violent crime and even theft are almost nonexistent so you can take that off your list of concerns and just focus on not perishing by natural wonder.
The next noteworthy stop on the southern route is the Sólheimasandur plane crash, a fuselage of a DC-3 that crash-landed on a vast black sand beach on a foggy night in 1973. Everyone survived and the eerie, twisted wreckage is now a popular photo opportunity. The round trip hike is a non-strenuous five miles.
Here we learned a crucial lesson on Icelandic weather and appropriate gear. Weather changes quickly and hiking five miles when you’re wet and cold will not be a highlight of your trip. This is where gear actually matters in the most functional and necessary way. Having fast dry clothing, wool, thermal layers, waterproof and windproof outer layers makes a real difference in how happy and safe you will be. Soaked to the bone and shaking uncontrollably, our camper van with its industrial strength heating system, came to the rescue. Some people call it a dashboard with vents, we called it a luxury dryer, and it did the job of making our wet socks warm and toasty in minutes.
Our first camping spot was in the town of Vik, a scenic, tiny town with rugged coastline, black sand beaches and dramatic coastal mountains with, you guessed it, spectacular waterfalls.
Camping in Iceland is interesting. With the recent influx of visitors, it is now illegal to camp anywhere but in designated camping areas. Those are found all over the country and are generally open during tourist season. In the off-season, many are closed but you can still camp there and use the facilities…often for free or for a discounted rate. Facilities consist of bathrooms, paid showers (pretty much the only thing in Iceland that doesn’t take credit cards), sometimes a general area where you can hang out, cook and do dishes and the best ones might even offer laundry. A night’s stay will run you about $15 per person. What was most surprising is that the campsites resemble nothing of what I’m used to in the states. No picnic tables, no fire pits….usually just a grass or gravel parking area to pull up and sleep.
We cooked dinner on our gas stove … which held its own against the howling wind … poured some of that duty-free wine, crawled into our sleeping bags and cranked the heater up as high as it would go. An hour later we woke up to turn it down as we were now in a sauna despite the rainy, 30-degree weather outside.
Being new to the game, Iceland is still developing infrastructure for tourism, as evidenced by limited standard services like readily available public restrooms or trash cans at picnic areas, attractions…or really anywhere. The best bets are campsites, some gas stations and restaurants … although “for customers only” requests are already popping up. All over Iceland, you will see signs discouraging people from doing their business in nature or even in neighborhoods. Clearly, the locals are rightfully frustrated with tourists for this reason but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword of blame when there is a lack of adequate facilities. It is still pristinely clean despite these problems, although symptoms of tourism influx are starting to creep in. We made it a point to pick up cigarette butts and any trash we found and then kept it in our car for days, not always having a trash can to throw it in. What the future holds will be interesting to see, but I have plenty of faith that the country that tops the World Economic Forum’s survey for gender equality will figure out the next steps quickly and efficiently.
Leaving Vik, we ate breakfast at a spectacular waterfall that we had all to ourselves, explored some more windswept black sand beaches and hit the road toward Hjorleifshofoi, a hilly hike worth the climb for the history, view and stretching your legs. Unable to properly pronounce any Icelandic names we dubbed it Morla, the ancient turtle from The Neverending Story.
As you continue on the 1 the scenery changes so dramatically that you start to wonder how this terrain all fits into one country. It seems unfair to all other nations. You drive through miles upon endless miles of spongy moss covered lava stones and regularly find yourself uttering phrases like “what the…” and “holy moly.” One cannot imagine how surreal this land of fire and ice truly is until you’ve experienced it for yourself.
An absolute must stop is Fjadrargljufur Canyon. A deep, green canyon with waterfalls and rivers cascading through it from various angles that left us awestruck that this isn’t considered a proper world wonder. It should be. At this point on your journey, you start to wonder if Iceland isn’t just a manufactured Hollywood soundstage built for mind-blowing film locations that have been left up in between blockbusters. Hollywood may not have created it but it sure takes advantage. Iceland has been featured in everything from Game of Thrones, Tomb Raider, Star Wars, Batman and James Bond … to a Justin Bieber video.
Still reeling from the canyon, you can swing by Skaftafell National Park to visit more glaciers, waterfalls and scenic volcanic wonders.
Fjallsarlón Iceberg Lagoon blows your mind all over again as you witness ice-bergs sailing silently in a still body of water. You can take a boat tour around the bergs and up to the Vatnajökull glacier for a more intimate view of the ice.
Minutes down the road you are awestruck yet again as you pull up to the famous Jokulsarlon Lagoon. In April, at an inflowing tide, we watched icebergs float back into the lagoon and collide, giving you a first-hand understanding of why the Titanic never stood a chance. If you don’t utter the phrase “Iceberg dead ahead,”then you’re really missing out on a rare opportunity. This was a standout highlight of our trip. Even though we experienced it through thick fog, the grandiose nature of the spectacle wasn’t one bit diminished. Blue, black and snow white icebergs emerged out of the mist like ghost ships and collided with the jarring cacophony of buildings collapsing, flipping and submerging, creating waves that washed up on shore and lapped at our feet.
Across the street is the famous diamond beach were huge chunks of ice wash up on shore tossed up like gemstones by the pounding surf. Again, a Hollywood special effects artist would be hard pressed to create something of this caliber, and if they did the backlash would be that it’s just too over the top to be believable.
Be aware that after Iceland your bar for the mind-boggling spectacular will be set so high that very little will ever come close again
Most tourists make it as far as Jokulsarlon Lagoon. After that you’re no longer a tourist, you’re an explorer.
On the next stretch of road, keep your eyes peeled for reindeer. We scanned the countryside tirelessly and then urgently slammed on the breaks when one appeared directly in front of our van. It gave us a bit of a dirty look and wandered off to join its herd. Undoubtedly Santa would have brought us lumps of coal in our stalkings had we hit one and I’m not sure that even our trusty van could have recovered from such a collision. Reindeer are surprisingly big in person.
More sweeping vistas and cliffs reminiscent of California’s Big Sur bring you to the town of Djúpivogur, a cute fishing town with a pretty port.
Our favorite nearby attraction was a semi-secret hot pot. Hot pot is the term for off-the-beaten-path geothermal pools for soaking. They quickly became the highlight of our trip and the quest to find them through word of mouth and GPS coordinates became a wonderful scavenger hunt. This one is off a small road just outside of town and consists of a good sized tub with a gorgeous view of the water. It was one of our favorites. We were the only ones there and soaked in the warmth and surrounding beauty for a literal hot minute before continuing our journey.
And then we head north. Following along a fjord, we decided to cut through on the 938, a road that is most likely closed in winter. It took us over the mountains, past waterfalls and through snowbanks that towered over our car. In Iceland, many of the main roads are gravel but incredibly well maintained…if sometimes harrowing cliffhangers… and we never had a problem with our camper van. With that said, the website Safetravel.is is a real-time life and time saver. It gives you up to date info on everything from weather conditions and advisories to road closures … saving us hours of time in backtracking by letting us know in advance what roads were accessible. As a side note, following the speed limit is highly advised as there are speed cameras across the country. This rule seemingly doesn’t apply to the locals who blaze past you at lightning speeds in the fog on mountain roads. I’m not quite sure what driving course they’ve all taken but I’d like to sign up.
Egilsstaoir is another cute town with Hallormsstadur Forestry Reserve, the largest forest in Iceland, nearby. This area must be spectacular in summer and fall when the trees are green and changing colors.
The northern treks are long and can be arduous. Long stretches of road through lava fields blanketed in snow and nothingness that looks like scenes from north of the wall in Game of Thrones were our companions for hours.
The geothermal activity of the Myatvan region is something to write home about and bathhouses rivaling the Blue Lagoon abound. If you need a bit of relaxation, this is a good stop.
Dietfoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, although I can’t say from personal experience because the roads to it were all closed, and try as we might, we had to resign to the fact that when Icelanders say roads are impossible .. .they actually are. Roads wash away, turn into gaping fissures and the chances of your car being swallowed are actually real. We circled on various routes trying to access the waterfall in such thick fog that we dubbed that area the Swamps of Sadness from the Neverending Story, decided to call it a loss and moved on. In summer I’m sure the area is stunning and infinitely less tragically depressing.
Veering off the 1 we shot north to the whale watching capital of Iceland. Húsavík had our favorite campground on the trip and of course the opportunity to see whales. The three-hour tour with Gentle Giants…not to be confused with Gilligan’s tropical version…which this most certainly didn’t resemble in any way judging by the full body exposure jumpsuits…landed us several Minke whales and a colony of puffins. Obviously different seasons offer different species but we were quite pleased.
A word about whales and Iceland…the whaling company Hvalur has just resumed hunting Fin Whales, which seems unfortunate as the meat is not really a local delicacy but mostly served to tourists. The best way to counter that is to not ever order it but invest tourism dollars in whale watching instead. As the scale tips, it will make more economic sense to keep them alive rather than butcher them for the curiosity of tourist’s palates.
Húsavík also has a community geothermal hot tub situated right outside of town. It’s made from an old cheese making vessel and popular with psoriasis patients for its healing qualities.
Godafoss is yet another waterfall that’s totally worth the stop even though you’ve seen roughly 700 by this point.
Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city beautifully set on a fjord and full of art galleries, museums and good eats.
Our next adventure was finding a secret hot pot next to a waterfall that turned out to be beautifully situated on a river, Fosslaug hot spring. The access point was through a field full of Icelandic ponies… all of which have thick bangs that make you wonder how they can see anything at all. Be cautious of electrical fences in Iceland. They’re the real deal. This one blasted me back like the kid on the T-Rex fence in Jurassic Park.
The seal colony town of Hvammstangi was an interesting episode for us. We pulled in at night to stay at the local campground and found it next to a church and cemetery. When our headlights illuminated the graves, we both got such a chest-tightening uncomfortable feeling that we stepped on the gas and booked it out of there. That night, from the cozy supernatural barrier of our van, I looked up the history of the town to see if our sixth sense was pinging correctly. It turns out the location was the place of the last execution in Iceland. A couple who murdered two men and were sentenced to death. The condemned woman then spoke from beyond the grave beseeching a local resident to reunite her head with her body and give her a proper burial. Yep, our gut was spot on. Not only that but it turns out Jennifer Lawrence is slated to play the lead role in a retelling of the story.
Wanting a change of scenery from open fields and idyllic mountains we veered north toward the western fjords. The topography changed again and renewed our road trip spirit with a beautiful coastal drive and driftwood littered beaches.
Finding it strange that a country with limited timber would have so much drift-wood we hopped on Google to figure out the mystery. Driftwood comes from Siberia, gets trapped in polar ice caps and then makes its way down to Iceland via ocean currents. The oldest piece found was over 500 years old. Historically it was of immense value to the local people in a relatively treeless country. Farmers would mark the wood that washed up on their land to claim it as theirs. These days it’s mainly utilized for fence posts.
The ocean has delivered much good fortune to the Icelandic people.
“Hvalreki” is the Icelandic word for “beached whale” and also means “something good that is unexpectedly yours or at your disposal.”
This country isn’t forced. There are no forced attractions. You won’t find the biggest ball of twine in Iceland. What you will find instead is the oldest steel ship in the country, set postcard perfect on a beach where it was brought aground in 1981. You’ll also discover unexpected highlights like the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Holmavik, complete with pants made of human skin. The museum does a fantastic job of explaining local lore and legends and has some pieces that are fascinating. Absolutely worth the stop if mythology and folklore interest you.
The gentleman running the museum could not have been more lovely and, since this area is full of Icelandic folklore, we deemed him a sorcerer and believed that indeed he might have been for all his good suggestions.
He guided us to our favorite community hot pool of them all. A big hot spring fed swimming pool next to the Hotel Laugarholl set on a beautiful hillside overlooking the valley. The facility, like most, is community run and operates on donations given on the honor system. This one has a heated changing area with showers and a bonus archeological site on premises you can visit. Even more interesting, it also offers a second rock pool that is renowned in the area for its healing properties. We certainly felt better post dip.
A mere 30 minutes away we rejoined the coast and stopped by the Drangsnes hot pools, modified hot tubs on the water’s edge, for another dip.
Turning west we followed the road around the lower half of the western fjords. I’ve never gripped a steering wheel tighter weaving in and out of cliffhanger gravel roads with some of the most dramatic scenery we had seen. I’d be OK never driving those roads again but it was worth every harrowing turn.
Our third hot pot of the day was at sunset in the small stop of Flokalundur. Once again it was idyllically set, a perfect temperature, natural rock setting and right next to the water with the sound of seabirds drifting over.
Our camp nearby was on a hill scenically overlooking the area and offered us the first clear night skies of the trip. As if on cue the magnificent aurora borealis showed up and danced across the sky as we, in turn, danced in the grass with joy. The Northern Lights are everything you’ve ever heard about and more! Dancing swirls of magic space dust across a night sky that change directions and hues as if some masterful hand was painting the witching hours with neon glow in the dark paints.
Other than the appearance of the aurora the highlight of the lower western fjords is the spectacularly dramatic Latrabjarg cliffs. They are the westernmost point in Iceland and therefore in all of Europe and will make any Princess Bride fan think of the cliffs of insanity.
Since winding back through the fjords to access the lower Snæfellsnes Peninsula seemed daunting, we hopped the Brjanslaekur to Stykkisholmur ferry for the 2.5-hour trip. For $150 for two people and a car, it was worth every penny. The ferry was the nicest I’ve ever been on complete with a snack bar, play area for kids, multiple decks and even a living room style area with a big screen TV. Like our entire trip, we had the ferry mostly to ourselves and the captain even came down for a chat giving us plentiful insights into local culture and attractions.
The points of interest on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula are worth a visit and, with the proximity to Reykjavík, it’s pretty easy to add to your itinerary.
Cute towns like Hellnar and Arnarstapi dot the coast and you can visit the Snæfellsjökull Glacier … noteworthy as the place of entry in Journey to the Center or the Earth, several Hollywood productions and its own natural beauty.
The Rauðfeldsgjá gorge is striking, if not a bit inaccessible even in the spring. Unusual basalt formations abound along the coast. Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain in Iceland, a handful of hot springs and several volcanos are all worth a stop.
From there you can wind down back toward Reykjavík and reenter civilization by exploring this bustling, artistic town where you could spend several days galavanting, relaxing and dining.
Like all my off the beaten path locations Iceland’s Ring Road won’t stay remote for long. Many times on our trip we worried for the pristine and isolated locations and what will become of them as more and more tourists make their way to this magical island. The good news is that the Icelandic people are one step ahead of the game in most areas and I have full confidence in their ability to handle the influx of sightseers to their beautiful land.
Travel tips for Iceland:
1. Buy alcohol and snacks at duty free when you arrive.
2. Credit cards accepted everywhere but make sure you accept credit card charges in Icelandic or you’ll pay a conversion fee.
3. Flybus will take you from the airport to Reykjavik and vice versa for about $29. Grab tickets in the baggage claim area or online.
4. You will need your credit card pin for the gas station. Diesel is the BLACK pump not the green.
5. Wow airlines offers incredible deals.
6. Most cell phones offer open world plans. I upgraded my Sprint PCS plan to high-speed internet… which cost me an additional $25 for a week… and offers free texting to the states and unlimited data. My coverage was better in the remote fjords than it is in my bedroom back in Malibu. A useful upgrade for safety and the ability to run maps … as well as looking up any questions you may have along the way.
7. Time of year makes a real difference with hours of daylight so plan accordingly.
8. Don’t speed. Speed cameras are located all over the country.
9. Fill up on gas at half a tank as gas stations can be few and far between.
10. Bring your own towel for the hot springs or you will have to rent one for an exorbitant fee.
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