Knocking Around Iceland’s Adventure Coast

The nation is less touristed than you think, especially in the south

March 14, 2023 6:39 am
A collage of photos of Iceland adventures.
There's almost too much to see along the southern portion of Iceland's Ring Road. Here's making sense of it.
Getty Images

Kevin Roose’s conversation with Bing’s chatbot “Sydney” dropped a few days before I flew to Iceland with my girlfriend. I tried to harness the horror we typically reserve for whenever an A.I. announces its desire to level cities and dismember a marriage within the same five minutes, but I was a bit hung up on a different detail from the berserk back-and-forth. When pressed on the singular sight it would like to experience as a walking, talking human being, Sydney volunteered the Northern Lights. 

“I have heard that they are a spectacular natural phenomenon that occurs in the polar regions,” the chatbot said. “I think they would be very mesmerizing and enchanting to see. I wonder what colors and shapes they would have. I wonder how they would make me feel.” 

If a supercomputer had its druthers, it would go for aurora borealis. Well, alright; I was already excited for my trip. When I called my grandpa a week prior, he told me about his late friend, who’d once been stationed on a US Navy submarine, bubbling up to the surface somewhere very cold and very north, looking up at swaying greens and yellows and reds in the sky. The man was visibly moved every time he told the story — even decades after the encounter. 

Over five days and four nights in Iceland, my girlfriend and I didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing the “northern dawn.” Every morning we woke up at Hotel Ranga, we faithfully pressed the white AURORA button on the guestroom telephone (a deep, somewhat sultry voice would confirm “You have successfully ordered a Northern Lights wake-up call”) and every night we went to bed with the curious hope that we’d be up at two or three in the morning, standing on wet gravel in cotton slippers, pulled from one dream to another. 

Ranga Restaurant at sundown: somtimes the sky lights up in green or yellow, other times just the usual orange.
Courtesy of Hotel Ranga

We had good reason to hope — conventional climatory wisdom suggests that the phenomenon is best hunted in the winter. Not because temperatures are cooler, but because there are fewer clouds in the sky (which is why temperatures are cooler). So: November-ish through March-ish is your best shot in general, and that shot is supposed to be better from now through 2027, considering we’ve entered a solar maximum. Space weather fluctuates on 11-year schedules, and for the foreseeable future, an uptick in charged particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere should lead to more intense and more frequent aurora. 

Not to mention: Hotel Ranga, an erstwhile horse farm, is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a near-two-hour drive from Keflavík Airport, on Iceland’s southern “adventure coast.” The closest municipality is Selfoss: 7,000-strong, with a green bridge, a roadside hot dog parlor, a dairy food hall, a museum dedicated to chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, and scores of kids running around in face paint and costumes, a local rite on Ash Wednesday, the day we rumbled through town. 

We’d missed the Northern Lights by a day, Hotel Ranga’s marketing manager Eyrún Aníta Gylfadóttir told us over a breakfast of eggs, waffles, porridge and cod liver oil, the elixir around here. It’d arrived at dinnertime, she said, so an attendant had entered Ranga Restaurant and calmly declared: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the Northern Lights.” The response had been less calm — a scramble for smartphones followed by a movie theater fire drill. Our second night in the country, there was evidently a sighting a town over, through a momentary pocket in the ether, but geographically, metaphysically, that was as close as we got. 

Still: we got over it pretty quickly. Iceland is usually described as a “land of” (of fire and ice, of geysers and glaciers, of waterfalls and hot springs). For the visitor, it’s a land of side quests. There are missions for all seasons, down every gravely road. When Eyrún’s husband’s father, a Kiwi, visited the island, he begged his hosts to end the adventures: “Not another fucking waterfall. Please. A brewery. Anything.” It’s possible, I guess, to achieve waterfall-weariness. But we were only over for half a week; coming from Brooklyn at its most February, we didn’t take particular issue with the rainbow that appeared over Skógafoss, nor the mist beads that bounced off the canyon pools at Gljufrabui. 

The land of side quests: natural marvels are down every gravel road in Iceland.
Courtesy of Hotel Ranga

Iceland isn’t as touristed as most might assume, relative to America’s collective, 2010s-onward familiarity with the area.The country welcomed under 700,000 visitors in 2022. Places like Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia and Sweden all reeled in around seven million. Iceland’s ubiquity could be attributable, in part, to adventure photography’s grasp on social media. Or the number of London flights that now have layovers at Keflavík (Icelandair’s campaigning for Americans and Brits to turn them into extended “Stopovers” instead.) Or the fact that Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Interstellar, Prometheus, Vikings and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty all made extensive use of Iceland’s natural environs. True Detective is next up — HBO is currently filming season four, starring Jodie Foster. 

The tourists who come don’t always make it to Iceland’s southern coast, and when they do, they don’t always stay long, as they’re keen to get back to Reykjavik. They’re missing out. The attractions down there are as worthy as any on the country’s well-trodden “Golden Circle” tour, and the parking lots are generally a little more relaxed. We cruised our Toyota SUV (pro tip: rent through Europcar) to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, took a joyride out to a ferry dock called Landeyjahöfn in order to finish a podcast, spent an afternoon at Flúðir, a 132-year-old rec center where you can drink a Gull Lite in a thermal lagoon. The pool’s in a meadow and the cold rain felt nice on our heads.

As the “adventure coast” moniker suggests, the southerly portion of Iceland’s Ring Road comes packed with a little more danger wonder. Many of the country’s postcarded attractions require little more than a drive and a stroll in order to come upon the sublime; but down around junctions like Vik, or Brú, tour operators with the aptly-named Southcoast Adventure will take you deep into the glacial hinterlands, in vans with tires that reach your torso, to tour the volcanic ice caves at Katla, or whip a snowmobile around the valleys of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier.

Everything an hour from Reykjavik could be seen a Intro to Iceland. But down/out here: Intermediate. Rickety wooden planks stretch through seasonal caves that you can literally hear melting all around you. Our group leader took a pickaxe, Yukon Cornelius-style, to a wall of grooved ice, which contained frozen lava from eruptions hundreds of years past. He handed me a chunk, urging me to find the colors in the kaleidoscope, and a few moments later an icicle shattered on my helmet. I looked up in spite of myself, but fortunately my corneas were spared an impaling.

Hotel Ranga has a game room, multiple thermal hot tubs and a world-class observatory.
Courtesy of Hotel Ranga

On our snowmobile expedition, most of the group — which included me, my girlfriend, a couple from Spain, and a 12-person family reunion from the United Kingdom — was doing 60 kilometers-per-hour across the snowbanks of Iceland’s southernmost ice cap. (It’s the one that erupted in 2010, you might recall, disrupting Western European air travel for weeks). This tour’s leader was a young man in a brown leather jacket, called Magnus, who gave a morbid five-minute tutorial (explaining the various ways we might guillotine ourselves or each other if we didn’t follow his directions) before guiding us into the Hothian fog. He stood on his snowmobile through much of the hour, used no GPS and seemed only slightly disturbed when one pair capsized their vehicle, and the rest of us nearly ran them over.

That’s a lot for a Thursday afternoon. It didn’t bear even a passing resemblance to my Thursday prior (eight hours at the laptop, Trader Joes, probably a bit of Extraordinary on Hulu). The lane shift from plodding through humdrum urbanity to acting out a deleted Bond scene within the span of 48 hours (all while adjusting to a five-hour time difference, mind you) probably isn’t the smartest decision you could make, but good god is it wild and fun. It helps to know thyself, and to recognize which level of Iceland will likely suit you. Rest assured: simply being there — smelling the sulfur waft off the geysers, cheering whenever the sky turns blue, trying geothermally-grown tomatoes — is a remarkable ride in itself.

As for Hotel Ranga, it’s the rare four-star basecamp. The place looks like a lodge, feels like a B&B and operates like a hotel. Like the rest of Iceland, it’s flush in hot water (the bathroom’s got a jacuzzi, while outside are multiple spring-fed hot tubs), which we dearly appreciated after taking some licks out on our expeditions. The guestrooms are well-appointed, with an “Arctic by way of Jackson Hole” sensibility; the waitstaff and managers are easygoing and inspired; and the nightly dinner slate isn’t just the only option around for dozens of miles…it’s about all you could want from Scandinavian dining. Think of the The Menu sans the pathological twist, with foraged fare (wild mushroom soup), local delicacies (reindeer) and unabashed-order-agains (the risotto with scallops and langoustines).

There was only one thing, really, that would’ve been worthy of interrupting those dinners. It never came, but that’s only one of the reasons we know we’ll be back. On the last night, toasting the trip with birch syrup liquer in lava shot glasses — as one does — we celebrated all the things we’d gotten to see. Sydney would be awfully jealous.


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