Someone asked me the other day why I keep going back to Iceland. Well, it’s wonderful. Unrelentingly, overwhelmingly, profoundly full of wonders. The kind of place where you start feeling guilty on the second day because there’s no way you can take in all this beauty, to make sense of it. Where, at the end of a 14 hour day of driving you and your whole car start screaming because you’re so damn tired and here’s the MOST BEAUTIFUL THING WE’VE EVER SEEN. AGAIN. After a long day of seeing THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS WE’VE EVER SEEN.
It’s a roadtrip of a lifetime. And it’s near and cheap.
Having done the trip both solo and with 8 people, I have some ideas on how to do this trip in a pretty affordable way. You know, if you’re interested.
THE RING ROAD
The Ring Road is a the main highway that ties Iceland together. It goes around the island nation (the center of the country is inaccessible unless you have some serious trucks and time.) It goes through an ever changing landscape. Seriously, every fifteen minutes you’re in a whole new place. Stark or lush, parched or drowned in waterfalls. In one day we woke in “Mordor” from Lord of the Rings, had lunch in an Irish countryside, froze on a misty mountain top and had dinner in a ridiculously quaint fjord.
It travels from the busy little city of Reykjavik into the far flung north, where you’ll pass another car maybe every four hours. It gets EMPTY. The main highway of this country just turns into a dirt road for half a day.
And since the summer days are like 21 hours, sunset lasts for hours. Oh my god I want to go back.
TRAVEL AND ACCOMMODATIONS
While there are hotels and airBnB’s around the island, the hotels are all weird to me, and the costs can add up. I found the easiest way to take this trip is to rent a CAMPER VAN. It’s both your vehicle and your accommodations, and it’s always nice to have a cozy place to pull over and make some hot tea.
Also, since it’s never really dark, you can find yourself driving around at midnight, with no rooms available. No problem, just pull over at one of the plentiful campgrounds.
I’ve rented twice from HAPPY CAMPERS. They’re a family owned place and really nice. They could have zinged me on some dents and a window chip, but didn’t. I’ve rented their “older” models because they’re a little cheaper but next time I’m going with the new ones.
I paid around $1900 for 7 days, the van that sleeps 4, although I also rented a tent and sleeping bag for me from Iceland Camping Equipment, cause it’s a little too cozy for 4 and I snore. Divided by 4, that’s not bad at all. Also, the van company provided sheets, pillows and blankets.
If there are 1 or 2 of you on the trip you might want to just rent a car and a tent, but I would highly suggest the van. There are smaller models, too. Keep in mind that all vans in Iceland are manual, so you’ll have to be able to drive stick.
The campgrounds are very simple, just fields. Just grab a spot. They all have bathrooms, and most have showers. Once in a while you’ll find a laundry room. The camps cost less than $10, though sometimes they charge you per person. Unfortunately, sitting around a campfire in Iceland is not a thing. No fires.
Note- I tried not to let my gas tank go below half full. I didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere.
I didn’t have an international plan for my phone, but you can find wifi at most of the gas stations for checking email and facebook. One of our travelers rented a phone with a small data plan, and it saved the day a few times calling for information or reservations.
Since it’s overseas you might need to get a power adapter for your plugs, but I just used a USB charger in the cigarette lighter for all my stuff. I suggest renting a GPS.
If you’re travelling with a group, spring for the extra chairs and tables, and I’d suggest renting walkie talkies for the different vehicles.
Just like a roadtrip through the US, you can go out to nice places, do burgers, or do your own cooking. Eating at nicer places takes some planning, but you can find good info in guide books. I used the Lonely Planet book and it was very helpful.
The Happy Campers vans come with a small sink, an electric cooler and a small gas stove, along with dishes and pots and pans. Between our two vans, we pulled off some good breakfasts. We also rented an extra BBQ which came in handy. You’ll usually pass one or two small grocery stores a day.
Here’s a note about cooking: Don’t forget you’re on a roadtrip. After a couple leisurely mornings cooking big breakfasts, we realized we weren’t pulling on the road till 1pm. You’re going to have to balance cooking time with driving time.
I’m convinced the guidebooks lie about how long this road is. They say you can drive it at the speed limit in 24 hours total. But we pulled some loonnnnggg days driving. Then again, we went our own path a few times, and there’s more to see than on the strict “Ring Road” route.
Though many people say it takes 10 days to do this road, I’ve done it twice in 5. Adding in a whole extra day in Reykjavik and extra days for flying. If you have extra days, add em. But if you have one week for this trip, you can do it.
What’s nice is that you can add or subtract parts of the trip to fit your time needs. I still haven’t done the Golden Circle, there hasn’t been time. But I’ve done the Westfjords and I’m glad I did.
I’ve only gone at the height of summer. It’s the busiest and most expensive time, but I think the perfect time. When I’ve been there, I’ve found it’s possible to go through all four seasons in a day. It can be warm at noon, so bring shorts, but for most of the time it’s chilly. Bring warm clothes for bed.
There’s plenty of naturally heated pools so bring your bathing suit!
They speak English. I found if you just say “Hello” to their Icelandic greeting, they’ll switch right over.
Everything costs more over there. But hey, you’re on vacation. 1000kr = about $8.
Hot water smells like farts. Enjoy.
Sheep are everywhere! They’re not fenced in, so be careful driving.
OK, here’s the fun part. Places I’d suggest you hit up. I’ve done this trip both clockwise and counterclockwise, and my conclusion is: It’s better clockwise.
1- KEF Airport - If you drink, buy your booze here at the Duty Free shop. It’s cheapest here. You can catch all sorts of busses and shuttles here, too. Happy Campers sent us a shuttle to their office about ten minutes away.
2- Reykjavik - I’d suggest spending your first jet lagged day here in the city before hitting the road. I stayed at REYKJAVIK CAMPSITE. It has showers and wifi and a big cooking area. It’ll be FULL of campers from all over the world, which is fun but also it might be hard to snag a spot for your van. The downside is that it’s pretty pricey, like $65. A reason to stay here is that it’s so close to both downtown and the amazing pools next door.
The pools are great, with an Olympic sized heated pool, a fun waterslide, and lots of hot tubs. Great way to start your morning. Downtown is full of great restaurants. We had some fish and chips by the old harbor, a white russian at the Big Lebowski bar, walked up to the giant church. Lots of cool shops, like Freddi Arcade.
Stock up at the grocery store, get all your rental equipment and hit the road!
3. The Golden Circle - Like I said, I still haven’t done it. I’d save this for the end. If you have time left, hit it up. If not, from what I’ve been told, it’s basically stuff that you’ve seen already, and it’s the most “touristy” of the island. I’d love to see the Geyser sometime.
4. Highway 50 - This is another thing you can cut if you are pressed for time. That being said, it is a beautiful drive and a waterfall like I’ve never seen.
5. Húsafell - THE WATER COMES OUT OF THE ROCKS?! I don’t get it. Seriously,google it.
6. Into the Glacier Tour - We booked a tour for Into the Glacier, where they’ve carved a tunnel under a glacier. It was *okay*. The coolest part was the desolate drive to the glacier and riding the giant snow tank on top of the glacier.
7. Snæfellsjökull Peninsula and the Westfjords - OK as far as “skippable” places, this is a BIG decision. If you have like four days, you can’t do this. If you have five, maybe. It takes a good chunk of time, but damn, if it isn’t pretty. Check out the lava fields and old church at Búðir, then, if you’re adventurous, take highway 570 up over the glacier. Take it slow cause it’s steep and rough.
8. Ferry Baldur - I’ve never made it here in time to catch the ferry and have had to drive the long way, but if you can catch it, take to the seas and make up some time north!
9. Dynjandi - Head over the mountain (be careful on those unpaved roads! I blew a tire. They can get rough) and drive down to the bottom of this crazy waterfall. There’s a campground at the bottom, where you can listen to the roar all night.
10. Litlibær - This is totally dainty but I loved it. A little lonely cafe on a fjord that serves coffee and heart shaped waffles. A little down the road they have a table with binoculars to find seals below. QUAINT AS HELL, SON. This whole road is beautiful.
11. North Iceland - Now we’re getting into some barren country. Farmland, pastures, and then suddenly you’re on the surface of Mars.
12. Highways 75 and 76 - I took this road on accident and I’m so glad I did. It’s a stunning valley. It reminded me of Steinbeck’s description of Salinas Valley. Every farm just the perfect amount of charming and rundown, ranchers driving Icelandic horses down the road, capped at the top by a windswept black rock beach. Worth going out of your way.
13. Akureyri - The second biggest city in Iceland, it’s good chance to grab a good meal and a glimpse of civilization. Make sure to hit Goðafos nearby.
14. Myvatn- Take your time driving around this lake. There’s tons of volcanic activity nearby, as evidenced by the giant dormant volcano hovering over the town. Bubbling mud pots, lava fields and the cave where John Snow and Ygritte did it. For some reason I remembering all of us drinking whiskey down there.
15. Dettifoss and Selfoss - Oh my god, these waterfalls. We were soaked and freezing after hiking and the ramen noodles and grilled cheese in the van afterwards is still one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
16. THIS GODDAMN ROAD - One of my favorite parts of Iceland. There’s no one out here. Vast, stark, changing around every corner. I’m still mystified by the piles of stone that go on for what seems like hundreds of miles. Who made them? For what?
17. Seydisfjordur - If you skipped the Westfjords, do yourself a big favor and drive over this mountain. You’ll come to a stone monument built on a waterfall and below you is a perfect village. Go down and eat at the pizza place then walk around the rusting little harbour.
18. A SHORTCUT - Trust me on this. Highway 393 down to the water. Hidden waterfalls, little sheep families crossing the road, unbelievable views. Here’s us, exhausted at 10pm, still screaming our heads off at the view:
19. The road winds around cliffs high above the ocean here.
20. Jökulsárlón - A small bay where a glacier breaks off into icebergs. Skip some stones, eat some of the floating ice, take the best pictures of your life.
21. Vatnajökull National Park - Hike up to a glacier, or keep driving down Highway 1 through the devastation that happens when a volcano suddenly melts a glacier and floods EVERYTHING away. Miles and miles devoid of life.
22. Vík - We stayed the night here and some of our party stayed up drinking with the locals until dawn. Black rock beaches. You HAVE TO go down a couple miles and visit Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Climb the black basalt rocks and watch the waves crash on the monoliths just off shore. Extra points if you make it to Dyrhólaey and find the giant lava bridge thing.
23. OK, here’s where things start getting really touristy again. Way more busses on the road and people gawking at the waterfalls. Also, you’re going to be sick of waterfalls by this point. You’ve seen so many. But stick with it. There’s a giant one where you can walk all the way to the bottom. There’s one you can walk behind. Worth it.
At this point is where I’d suggest doing the Golden Circle if you still have the energy.
24. Blue Lagoon - This is the one place you’ve probably heard of. I’m a little down on it. It’s neat, this milky blue water in the middle of crazy black lava rocks. But it’s also been Disney-fied. It costs a ton of money and its fancy corporateness lies in sharp contrast to the raw, untouched beauty you’ve just wandered through. But whatever, it’s nice to get out of the car and float in warm water with some chilled wine and a full mud mask.