Last Christmas we decided to do something a little different over the December break and spend a week driving through Iceland. We purchased a map of the south and west coasts, rented a four wheel drive and away we went on our adventure. Admittedly we were cautious about battling extreme weather conditions and struggling to maximise the four hours of sunlight a day but in the end it turned out to be the most amazing holiday we have ever had. The beauty of Iceland is breathtaking from its mountainous terrain and peaks covered in fluffy white snow to its violent waterfalls and boiling geysers. Beware, Iceland is horrendously expensive but it is a once in a lifetime holiday and winter proved to be an especially magical time to visit.
We flew from London to Keflavík International Airport arriving late at night and stayed at in Reykjavik at the Hotel Ísland, which is a little further out from the city centre but more reasonably priced and comfortable. Our luggage had been lost at the airport so we needed hang around Reykjavik the next morning until the shops opened to buy essentials like clean underwear and wool stockings to survive the road trip. Around 11.30am we then hit the road and drove as fast as we could heading north west before we lost too much daylight. In winter, Iceland only has around four hours of sunlight so it is important to plan your time wisely.
Our first stop was the Eldborg crater, memorable for its remarkable thin-ridged oval shape that distinctly stands at over 100 metres above sea level with 200 metres width and 50 metres depth. Geologists believe it was formed five to eight thousand years ago and it is possible to walk to the top for a great view if the weather is good, which takes approximately 2-3 hours. In close proximity stand the Gerduberg Basalt Columns, an impressive wall of natural beautiful basalt columns that form geometric patterns in the cliffs. In winter they were mostly covered by snow but standing in front of them was nonetheless impressive. From here we then stopped at Olkelda farm to try some mineral water from the natural spring in the ground, which is believed to have special healing properties.
We continued the drive up north until we reached the picturesque fishing village of Stykkisholmur. By this time it was afternoon and the place was so peaceful without another person in sight. We had the privilege of witnessing the changing afternoon colours reflect on the crystal clear waters as the sun started to set. There is also a free public toilet here for tourists that is heated and has toilet paper.
After the village we stopped at the must see Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum. In reality the museum is more like a holiday house that has amassed various sea-inspired knick knacks over the years. However this place is an institution and everyone who goes to Iceland is lured here at some point. We paid a few token dollars admission to be led to a TV where we watched a 5-10 minutes history of shark farming in Iceland. Farming sharks was once big business here as the shark oil produced was sold as a source of energy throughout Europe. However now sharks are an endangered species they cannot be hunted although sharks accidentally caught continue to be fermented on the premises here. Fermentation was discovered by the vikings as way to make the poisonous shark flesh safe to eat. We were offered two small cubes of fermented shark meat at the end of the video before being escorted to the shed outside to see the hanging shark meat fermenting.
By this time it was getting dark. We made one last stop at Ondverdarnes, the westernmost point of the peninsula and former fishing station, where there are huge black cliffs and a lighthouse however night was approaching so we quickly headed from there to our hotel at the Kast Guesthouse to stay the night.
Early the next morning before the sun rose we took a drive out to a small village named Búðir, which was a former port of commerce but today is more commonly known for the beautiful wooden church that stands surrounded by a lava field. It is a tradition in Iceland to decorate the church graveyards with lights at Christmas time. In the darkness of the morning, the silhouette of the black church surrounded by illuminated crosses looked very eerie. The weather was also dangerous with high speed winds and snow gales blowing around us so we needed to drive inland and away from the coast to be safe. We headed towards the Landbrotalaug hot pot for a dip, which is the best free natural spring you can visit in winter.
Driving inland, we encountered the Deildartunguhver hot spring, which is the biggest hot spring in Iceland in terms of water production per second.
Then there were the frighteningly beautiful Hraunfossar waterfalls, where the water gushed at an incredible rate in colours ranging from deep blue to aquamarine amid rocks that looked encrusted with white diamonds. We finished our day in the Christmassy town of Selfoss with its magnificent bridge, pretty churches, quaint shops and giant Christmas tree and decorations galore.
The next morning we were up early to explore the south coast of Iceland. First stop was the most famous waterfall of Iceland, the Seljalandsfoss. Although it was touristy it looked incredible under a thick blanket of white snow. For those who are brave enough you can walk over the rocks under the falls although it can be slippery. If you keep walking further up there is also another hidden waterfall called Gljúfrabúi, which is 40 meters high and partially hidden behind a large cliff.
Continuing up the south coast we stopped at Vík Village, remarkable for its black sand beaches and giant waves. We needed to be very careful not to go too close to the coastline here as the winds were strong and the waves monstrous, and many people have been blown out to their doom here. It might not be everyones idea of a beach holiday, but there was something special about the snow crusted black beach. For an even more spectacular view we drove up the Dyrhólavegur peak to view the beach from a terrifying height and see the naturally forming double arch cliff.
We couldn’t leave the south coast without taking a 90 minute hike in the snow to witness the Sólheimasandur plane crash. The hike was a little terrible in the freezing cold weather across a flat terrain that had no interesting characteristics or even a rock in site. Lines of tourists followed each other to the twisted wreckage of a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane, which crashed on the black sands here more than 40 years ago. Whilst it makes a cool spectacle and backdrop for photographs, the hoards of Chinese tourists jumping all over the plane taking selfies and making peace signs kind of ruined the experience and made the long walk back embittered. I was lucky to get a quick shot of the nose of the plane without anyone gatecrashing my shot.
The next day was all about the Þingvellir National Park, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the geological wonders of the world. It was here that the Icelandic Parliament was founded in the 10th century and today you can observe the effects of the tectonic plate movements that have opened various cracks and fissures in the earth’s crust. We enjoyed a lengthy walk in the fresh air across the entire park, taking in the gorgeous snow covered rocks and aquamarine waterfalls. We made sure to end the day with a dip at one of the many hot pools in the south west of Iceland to ease our tired muscles after all the walking. For recommendations on the best hot springs, please read my previous blog about Icelandic winter hot pots.
Those of you who know me well will wonder why any mention of food is missing from my blog post thus far. Well foodie that I am, my great food experiences were pretty scant in Iceland. Some people rave about the quality of ingredients in here (although for the most part everything is imported) however I did not find this to be a foodie paradise. Restaurants are very expensive (imagine double London prices) and supermarket food is only fractionally cheaper, so naturally you steer clear of the high end dining options. Most of the food we ate was below average for the price we paid with one exception, Fjöruborðið Restaurant in the south of Iceland near Selfoss. Here the concept was simple: you get a lobster dinner with a generous serve of vegetables. Whilst technically they served langoustines and not lobsters, the environment is warm and cosy, there are the most gorgeous wintry cocktails on the menu, portions are big and everything tastes fresh and good. It will set you back a bit but if there is one restaurant you go out of your way to visit in Iceland, it should be this one.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the highlights of my Icelandic road trip as well as the stunning photographs. Of course, this just a glimpse into our adventure and I have left out the parts about the car getting towed, digging our way out of mud sludge with bare hands, losing our luggage and wearing the same clothes day in and out, skinny dipping in hot pools and scrambling around Reykjavik look for cheap lobster bisque. That will have to be for my next blog.