The Land of Fire and Ice is one of endless exploration and pure paradise for adventurers, photographers, and road trippers alike. For two weeks my travel companions and I took a campervan rental along the island’s esteemed Ring Road for a whirlwind sensory overload – from nuzzling impossibly soft Icelandic ponies in an isolated meadow to being pelted with flurries of hail above Gullfoss, wandering the art-deco streets of upbeat, Nordic Reykjavik to filling our water bottles with crisp glacial water – not one moment was anything short of extraordinary.
Composed of an eclectic blend of Nordic Folklore, end-of-the-earth-like landscapes, and North Atlantic Islander way of life, it’s no surprise why Iceland has received a significant boom in tourism over the last five years. The modern explorer is one in constant pursuit of exciting, up-coming destinations that are remote yet accessible, and offer adventure, breathtaking views, and a quirky culture. Here are just three reasons why Iceland fits the bill:
– Ecotourism has been on the rise for some time now, especially with a new generation of travelers who wish to explore sustainably and responsibly. But for an independent island country that has been harnessing it geothermal systems, water energy, and glacial runoff for decades, this is old news. The sudden influx of visitors did take Iceland by surprise, however, and they’ve spent the last few years playing catch up. Conservancy efforts include thorough and frequent ranger patrol, extensive signage and fencing, strict laws with hefty fines, and recent consideration of a visitor cap.
– Professional and mobile photography of the country’s stunning landscapes, colorful Nordic villages, wildlife like foxes and elk, and both posed and candid portraits of travelers have been on an incline – especially since the dawning of image-focused social media platforms and increased success for independent stock photographers.
– Road trips are for adventurous spirits that crave freedom, flourish with independence, and don’t mind getting a little lost from time to time. Comprised of two main driving circuits, the 12-day Ring Road and 2-day Golden Circle, this fun-sized, navigable, well mapped island is a road-trippers paradise. With generally mild temperatures and much to offer year-round, there is no right or wrong time to visit Iceland. However, any travel professional will recommend you chose your dates depending on what you’re looking to get out of your trip. For example, the high season (late-April through September) will best suit those looking for valleys of wildflowers, bustling streets and museums, and successful whale watching excursions; while those who prioritize catching the Aurora Borealis (we saw this three out of nine nights last December), dodging the crowds (we had mostly everything to ourselves), and experiencing a winter wonderland stuck in golden-hour for six hours a day, the low season (mid-November through March) might be for you.
– Spring (April, May): 32-50°F, 15-18 hours of daylight, $$
– Summer (June, July, early-August): 45-65°F, 22-16 hours of daylight, $$$$
– Autumn (late-August, September, October): 37-55°F, 13-9 hours of daylight, $$
– Winter (November – March): 28-45°F, 4-10 hours of daylight, $
Set in a late 19th century townhouse in the seaside village of Eyrarbakki, the quaint and comfortable Rauða Húsið (or The Red House) delivers a fine dining experience one or two notches above what you may expect. Road-tripping on a budget, this stop was a treat at $36 USD per “bottomless” (three servings max, yes, we made it that far) House-Specialty Lobster Bisque. Tremendously rich in flavor, with fresh chunks of sweet Atlantic lobster floating in a thick cream, there’s no question how the restaurant established such a name for itself, or why it comes so highly recommended to those visiting the south.
I collect guidebooks and maps on every journey because they are a great resource in the moment, and you can bring them home filled with memories and notes for the future. We actually picked up a complimentary visitor’s guide at an information center early on, and oh boy did it come in handy! Oh, that and pictures pictures pictures!
I also want to touch on the controversy of whale consumption, which has become a popular tourist attraction under the misconception that it is a traditional Icelandic cuisine – which it is not. Legal to hunt and eat in Iceland but illegal in most other countries, remember not to bring back any dried whale jerky in your luggage or you’ll be sure to face some hefty fines upon arrival.
The inflated cost of everything! Since products are either imported or locally-sourced organics, your wallet can’t catch a break as every item is either an investment or a treat. For example, a medium Dominos cheese pizza cost $35 USD!
But aside from that, it was the kindness and warmth of the locals and constant epic panoramas that struck me most.
Whether you’re here for a week or just a quick layover, you absolutely must climb to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja church for a stellar vantagepoint of Reykjavik’s rainbow abodes, distance mountain-scapes, the sea, and beyond. It only costs a few dollars, doesn’t take long, and if you’re willing the brave the wind in the barred bell-tower, you’ll be rewarded with especially iconic views. Make it to the “Waterfall of the Gods” in the northeastern district of Bárðardalur. Legend has it Godafoss was named in year 1000 when the chieftain tossed religious idols (godars) over the falls (foss) following Icelandic parliament’s declaration that Christianity was to take the place of ancient Nordic paganism as the nation’s official religion. Included in the Ring Road and one of Iceland’s most beloved waterfalls, I have to say spending one prolonged sunset and the following sunrise at its edge, watching the magnificent force of glacial water fall 12 meters down then flowing through the gorge, was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever encountered. It really does make you feel so small.
Located just 75 miles northeast of Reykjavik, the capital city where most travelers begin, The Great Geysir and its little brother Strokkur are part of the Golden Triangle and Ring Road for good reason. The Great Geysir is the largest of the two, but it hasn’t erupted in nearly two decades so tourists flock to Strokkur instead, which erupts 15-20 meters into the air every 15-25 minutes. Undoubtably a highlight of Iceland’s wild beauty, and perhaps even more captivating (for me, anyway) than the coveted northern lights, this fantastical natural phenomenon is easily one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed.
I should probably also mention the geothermal baths, the most popular of course being the Blue Lagoon located just 11 minutes from central Reykjavik. But since the island literally sits on these systems, there are plenty of spas to choose from, so you don’t have to settle for mainstream if you don’t want to – we opted for cheaper, far less commercialized Laugarvatn Fontana.
Nearing Seljalandsfoss, our rest stop for the night, we finally caught a glimpse of the falls illuminated by spotlights in the distance. Pulling in we explored the grounds on foot, but the wind was so intense we retreated to the van shortly after to enjoy the view through the back window. We were about to call it a night when one of us spotted a slow-moving, peculiarly green flurry hovering in the sky opposite the falls. Having just arrived in Iceland and still a bit detached from where we really were, it took us a minute to realize what it was: The Aurora Borealis! Bundling up and braving the weather-alert-worthy December winds, we stood speechless (me wrestling with my tripod and eventually losing my right glove, of course) and marveled at the natural wonder – the icon of the Arctic that can never be pinned down.
When we found ourselves out of daylight and only ten minutes from the southern sea village of Stokkseyri, we decided to stop and explore what few places were opened. The area was mostly desolate, but eventually we stumbled upon a hostel with signs for a museum inside. It was tricky to get a hold of someone, but once we did and were handed our audio guides let me tell you, it was bizarre indeed. Led by the owner’s orange tabby cat we wandered through the dimply-lit labyrinth, beneath a man-made waterfall, and past projections of the Northern Lights, listening to Icelandic folk tales of elves, ghosts, and gnomes all the while. It was one of those unplanned, unexpected ventures that added an extra special something to the journey – it was one of the only things we did indoors, after all.
Although I treasure each moment of this trip dearly, there’s one that will always stand out – when I was certain I was dreaming. On our way from Seljalandsfoss to Skógafoss at midday, we rounded a bend and an enormous valley appeared to our left. Pulled over was an SUV and a family of three walking hand in hand into the field, toward dozens upon dozens of gorgeous Icelandic ponies. I swear it was without a word my friend pulled our van off to the side, following suit, as we all hopped out without missing a beat. We started toward the muddy green meadow (me practically galloping with excitement), and surrounded by enormous mountains in the golden light, we stood in the alcove accompanied by nothing but a distant ranch house and clusters upon clusters of soft, beautiful ponies. Even to this day it feels too good to be true.