A stopover in Iceland went from “Why not?” to “Oh, Wow!”
When booking our flights to Belgium for a 3 week home exchange we learned that Icelandair was the best option for us (convenient times, price AND 2 free checked bags). They have daily flights out of Denver with connections in Keflavik (near Reykjavik) to many destinations in Europe, including Brussels, which was ideal for us.
But wait! The Icelandair website boasted that we could stop in Iceland for a few days without any extra fare charge. We had always been curious about Iceland. Would it fit into our schedule? Yes!! What did we really know about Iceland? Other than how to spell it and where it’s located, pretty much nothing, but we’re fast learners. We booked our trip for four nights with no idea of where we would stay or what we would do.
We thought 4 days should be plenty of time to explore the highlights of a country much smaller than our beautiful state of Colorado. Wrong!
We soon learned that there is so much to see and do in Iceland that we wished we had booked a longer stopover, but we were already going to be traveling for 3 ½ weeks. So, of the many national parks, hiking trails, fjords, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, volcanoes, golfing, whale watching, and more – what to choose? Since we thoroughly enjoy road trips, we decided to plan our own customized itinerary.
So what did we do? We definitely packed a lot in. The afternoon of our arrival was so rainy that our enthusiasm was dampened and we questioned whether poor visibility would keep us from seeing the beauty. We drove to Reykjavik, found our lodging and had just enough time to wander downtown and find a nice place for dinner, some tasty seafood ravioli for her and the worst pizza known to man for him.
Golden Circle is amazing, even on a grey day!
For our first full day, we followed the popular Golden Circle route, with lots of diverse sights packed into a small geographical area very close to Reykjavik. For Iceland, this is probably the most traveled area for tourists and well worth it. There are definitely tour buses present, but it’s really not crowded at all. The highlights are Þingvellir National Park (note the use of Icelandic letters. In this case “Þ” is pronounced like “th”) with its geologic anomalies, Geysir Hot Springs with geysers and other thermal features, and the thunderous Gullfoss Waterfall. The weather was still dreary so our pictures are a bit grey, but the experiences were amazing and we were so glad we went!
We finished the day with a quick trip to the world famous Blue Lagoon, a truly otherworldly, warm soaking oasis that was just what we needed after getting fairly drenched on our journey. We only wish we had arrived earlier for a longer soak!
After another night in Reykjavik, we embarked on a 2 night road trip along the southern coast, with hotel reservations near the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (we had fun trying to pronounce Icelandic words!). The weather was clearing nicely, and there was plenty to see. We were basically going counter-clockwise on the main highway that encircles the country, a very well maintained two lane road with many one lane bridges. Traffic was so light that we often stopped the car in the middle of the road to take pictures (shh, don’t tell!) and usually didn’t see any other cars for several minutes.
There is a waterfall, a volcanic lava flow, a glacial view, or an ocean panorama around every turn.
The biggest waterfalls (Seljalansfoss and Skógafoss) have signage and small parking areas, but there were many other unnamed ones that were equally scenic – sometimes right behind somebody’s farm. Just east of the town of Vik, we took a short detour off the highway to Dyrhólaey, a grassy, sculptured headland that gives access to views of dramatic sea arches and endless black sand beaches. Without our library research, we would never have known about this place. We have since jokingly scoffed at any mention of black sand beaches elsewhere in the world because they just can’t compare! After a brief stopover in scenic Vik, we chased more waterfalls and some rainbows all the way to our hotel. And then the hotel provided a scrumptious buffet featuring Icelandic favorites.
Our last full day in Iceland was so impressive that we classify it as a lifetime “Top 5” type of day.
After a quick tasty buffet breakfast, we were on the road to Skaftafell National Park under cloudless skies. We could have spent days here, but settled for a quick hike to the Svartifoss waterfall (famous for its setting framed by hexagonal granite columns).
Then on a whim, we took a gravel road to the base of a nearby glacier. There we saw some hikers with a glacier guide – something we will have to try on a future trip.
Next it was back to the road – the glacier views kept getting better and better and when we crossed the final bridge to Jökulsárlón, we couldn’t believe our eyes – a beautiful lagoon at the base of a huge glacier, filled with powder blue icebergs of all shapes and sizes, a short river that transports the icebergs to the ocean, and a black sand beach where chunks of icebergs wash ashore. Seals and sea birds frolicked between icebergs. The whole scene was a photographer’s delight. Sheila was absolutely spellbound!
She was certain it couldn’t get any better … until we signed up for the zodiac boat ride to get closer to the glacier. We enjoyed it so much that we created a youtube video to share with our friends on Facebook:
Lobster in Hðfn
We heard of a restaurant in Hðfn famous for its lobster, so we pulled ourselves away from the mesmerizing ice, drove an hour to the quaint fishing town and enjoyed a delicious meal at Humarhöfnin.
After dinner we sped back to Jökulsárlón Lagoon in time for a reindeer sighting and some sunset photos. The tide was going out, so the icebergs were really alive now! Sheila can’t remember any other time when she was so sad to see the daylight dwindle.
Each moving chunk of ice had so much life and personality as it rushed toward the freedom of the ocean; they made us giggle and at that moment giving them each a name didn’t seem silly at all.
We drove back to our hotel in the dark and the stars were brilliant. Just when we thought our day was done, we were outside contemplating whether we could actually touch the Milky Way when we saw shimmering splashes of green light over the mountains. It was the first time either of us had seen the Aurora Borealis! We had been told NOT to expect to see it since we were there early in the season, so witnessing even a few bursts was just one more extra special treat. Like I said, it was a really good day!!
On our last day, we reluctantly packed our bags and headed for the airport. We had a “small world” experience at our gate while waiting to board – friends from our honeymoon home exchange in Scotland happened to be changing planes while en route from Glasgow to Boston – that was a nice surprise. On the plane, a young man seated next to us was wide-eyed and very happy about his just-completed Icelandic wilderness camping experience. We’re pretty sure no baths were included.
For those of us who love National Parks, Iceland is like pieces of all our favorites, but without the crowds.
Beware!! If you do plan an Iceland stopover, be prepared for a variety of activities, sights, and weather, and pack accordingly. But most important, be prepared to fall in love with the fantastically beautiful places and the friendly people – you will almost certainly want to come back for a longer stay. When we’re able to visit Iceland again, we’ll be torn between going during the peak of the Aurora Borealis or during the summer. Either way, there’s so much more to explore!
Trip Date: September 2013