We enjoyed 10 whirlwind (literally) days in late August for our first trip to this unique country.
Driving 1,412 miles counter-clockwise in a 2 WD Nissan Qashqai from Blue car rental, we stayed in eight hotels, with two nights in Myvatn. In hindsight, I would have added one night to give us more respite, and gone clockwise to start in the charming Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Iceland surprised, then captivated us with its variety: from bleak lava fields to lush green meadows, from vast glaciers to shapely craters to gushing waterfalls. It seemed to us Iceland had some of the best features of Hawaii, New Zealand, Ireland and Scotland! We went to many Game of Thrones sites but couldn’t really appreciate them without movie magic.
Indeed, prices were outrageous in the most expensive country to visit, with normal dinner entrees about $35. We were prepared and accepted it, protesting only when portions were scrimpy.
Temperatures ranged from the 40s-50s with fierce winds, prompting us to pass up on thermal baths (which also were smelly). We wondered if we were bold enough to return to the land of fire and ice in the winter, when the Northern Lights would be visible.
Our top 10 highlights:
No. 10: Puffins and more
There aren’t a whole lot of critters in Iceland but we got a kick out of the wandering sheep, miniature horses waiting for riders, frolicking seals and darling puffins at the Reynisfjara black sand beach near Vik, though we were past the nesting season. We never saw reindeer.
No. 9: On the road
It’s relatively easy to drive here, despite the 1-lane bridges and 1-lane tunnels and many signs with exclamation points. You’re continually amazed by the scale and diversity of views, the changing weather, and the rainbows and waterfalls. We passed more gas stations than toilets along the way, and saw only one policeman, who had pulled over a driver. Bonus highlights: We loved the portable WiFi box provided with the rental, as well as the free water hoses at gas stations to clean your car.
No. 8: Þingvellir National Park
Part of the Golden Circle, this is one of the few places in the world to see and walk in the fault line between two continents. The geology is fascinating as the rifts in the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates continue to shift. Þingvellir is where the first elected parliament met in 930 AD.
No. 7: Volcanoes
Iceland is a time bomb with 30 volcano systems. The most recent to erupt was Eyjafjallajokull, which shut down European air traffic in 2010. The most overdue is Katla. We hiked two of the most well preserved, both by Lake Myvatin: Krafla, with its pristine lake called Víti, which was incredibly muddy the day after rains; and Hverfell, which is steeper and bigger. Both rims were uncomfortably windy.
No. 6: Basalt columns
We learn to love basalt columns in Ireland, and were delighted with all the ones in Iceland. Our favorites: the ones at the Reynisfjara black sand beach near Vik (not the same as the “black sand beach” in the GPS, which takes you to the plane crash), Svartifoss at Skaftafell Park, and the coastal cliffs at Arnarstapi.
No. 5: Waterfalls
Our first waterfalls were relatively tame and later I learned Iceland had its longest drought in June. Dettifoss was our favorite. You can get RIGHT UP to this thundering beast, described as Europe’s most powerful based on the water flow times fall distance.
No. 4: Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Rick Steves did not list this as a highlight, and I think that is a serious oversight. We had way more fun in Snaefellsnes than in the popular Lake Myvatn area. In a very short drive, you can see seals, waterfalls, canyons, cliffs, volcanoes and black beaches. Going counter-clockwise, you end up at Kirkjufell, described as the most photographed mountain in Iceland (it was the “arrowhead vision” seen by the Hound in Game of Thrones).
No. 3: Whale excursion from Husavik
Husavik is among the best sites in the world for whale watching due to the rich nutrients, plankton and fish in the Skjalfandi Bay, not far from the Arctic Circle. The most common whales spotted are humpback, minke, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise and blue whale. My remarkable excursion with Husavik Adventures went out 10 nautical miles on a RIB, where a few whales checked us out, and one breached over and over again.
No. 2: Ice cave tour out of Vik
In late August, Katlatrack offered one of the few tours inside an ice cave and it was such fun! We drove to dormant Katla’s Kötlujökull Glacier, donned crampons (for our first time) and helmets with lights, and walked through a small cave that changes every day. We were enthralled by the honeycombed walls, dripping icicles and primeval blue/dirty snow all around.
And the No. 1 Iceland highlight: Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Imagine a gigantic, ancient glacier calving constantly, shedding icebergs that shimmer and float a short distance out to sea, melting into diamonds upon black sand. And imagine yourself in the midst of the action. That is Jokulsarlon. The lagoon began forming in 1934 when Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier (part of the Vatnajökull Glacier) started receding and is growing quickly. I was there for sunset, then the next day for a Zodiac boat ride, and was mesmerized by the raw beauty and how it changed just 12 hours later.
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