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Iceland’s Ring Road – Keep the Glaciers on your Left

Image Title: Inside Iceland's Langjökull Glacier [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Inside Iceland's Langjökull Glacier [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and glacier beach [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and glacier beach [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: A sunny day at the Blue Lagoon. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
A sunny day at the Blue Lagoon. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Pondering Icelandic lava fields near Dimmifjallgarður [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Pondering Icelandic lava fields near Dimmifjallgarður [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Overlooking Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Overlooking Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Icelandic Horse rocking the '80's Big Hair like it never went out of style. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Icelandic Horse rocking the '80's Big Hair like it never went out of style. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: The stunning view of the North Atlantic from Rauðfeldsgjá fissure. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
The stunning view of the North Atlantic from Rauðfeldsgjá fissure. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Bad Ass Super Jeep Tour of  Langjökull glacier. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Bad Ass Super Jeep Tour of Langjökull glacier. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Iceland: Stunning, Spectacular, Amazing, Breathtaking, Beautiful, and Expensive. A trip to Iceland should be on everyone’s bucket list. Aside from the astounding beauty, it’s relatively easy to get to there with daily flights or connections from most US, European, and Asian cities with very reasonable and even extreme discount airfares. That’s the good news. What that means, however, is that Iceland has been discovered; by the Americans . . . and the Canadians . . . and the Brits . . . and the French.. . . and the Germans . . . and the Japanese . . . . and the Chinese . . . and everyone else.

 

Our trip in April 2017 arrived in Reykjavik from the Faroe Islands and spent two days exploring around the city before heading off on a ten-day anti-clockwise drive around the island.  Iceland is roughly the size of the US State of Virginia and Route 1, Ring Road makes a giant loop around it. We booked our entire trip through Nordic Visitors. Our Nordic Visitors Travel Consultant, Helga, prepared a customized itinerary for us that started with hiring a 4x4 SUV with studded tires. It also included all of our hotel and excursion bookings along the way.  When we arrived, the rental car company had a tote bag waiting for us with an Iceland mobile phone, road maps, an atlas, and a spiral bound book with our ten-day daily itineraries. Each day’s itinerary included suggestions for stops along our drive with vouchers for our pre-booked hotels. The 100 page book was also a complete travel guide of Iceland that included its own maps with tour suggestions and Icelandic travel tips. Our total price for this service which included the car hire, twelve nights lodging with breakfasts, and the itinerary was 677,000ISK ($6,400USD). Well worth it!

 

Driving in Iceland is straightforward. All of the road signs are in English even if the locations are Icelandic with too many consonants and special characters like æ, ø, đ, ý, ö, Æ, and ó randomly sprinkled about. If, just as a hypothetical example, you don’t have an Icelandic keyboard on your mobile phone GPS, you will never find the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur where you are supposed to stay the night. You might even, still a purely hypothetical example, drive right through Kirkjubæjarklaustur and drive another 40km (24mi) in a late winter Icelandic snow storm before you realize it. Traffic conventions are similar to the rest of the world. Green means Go, Red means Stop, don’t be an asshole. You do, however, need to really pay attention to road conditions if you are going to drive the Ring Road off season, and April is still off season. Every day you should check the Island Road Conditions at www.road.is because when they say conditions can change quickly they mean it. When you hire your car, you have the opportunity to purchase, “Sand and Ash Insurance” for a mere 4,000ISK ($38US) per day.  Yes, your math is correct: $456US for “Sand and Ash Insurance” on a twelve-day car hire to protect you from loss if your hire car gets sand-blasted to bare metal from the wind and blowing, “Sand and Ash” . . . or a from volcano eruption. Just do it. This will be your first of many startling experiences on the cost of traveling in Iceland. Also, per the hypothetical example above, pay the extortion for a GPS with an Icelandic keyboard.

 

Our itinerary looked something like this:

 

Day 1, March 31: receive the car on arrival at Keflavík – spend the night in Reykjavík

Day 2, April 1: Diving with Dive Iceland at Silfra – spend the night in Reykjavík

Day 3, April 2: spend the night in Golden Circle area

Day 4, April 3: spend the night in Kirkjubæjarklaustur area

Day 5, April 4: spend the night in Höfn area

Day 6, April 5: spend the night in Egilsstaðir area

Day 7, April 6: spend the night in Lake Mývatn area

Day 8, April 7: a second night in Lake Mývatn area

Day 9, April 8: spend the night in Skagafjörður area

Day 10, April 9: spend the night in Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Day 11, April 10: spend the night in Borgarnes area

Day 12, April 11: spend the night in reykjavik

Day 13, April 12: departure

 

We did not spend an additional couple of days touring the Western Fjords because so many roads and activities were still operating on a Winter schedule and were closed. The summer season in Iceland pretty well runs from May through August. April and September are sort of shoulder season.  October through March you will find many roads and activities closed. Even in April, there were some minor modifications to our itinerary to accommodate a storm in the Eastern Fjords. This itinerary resulted in 2,865km (1,780mi) or somewhere around 250km (150mi) or 4 hours driving per day. Our drive included a drive down the Route 93 grade to the village of Seyðisfjörður, the same route that Ben Stiller’s character skateboarded down in the movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Middy.”   

 

Highlight tours and sights of our twelve-day tour:

 

  • Reykjavik: This is a delightful European city of around 120,000 people with a tourist friendly walking downtown area with hotels, shops, and restaurants. There are several museums including - we’re not kidding - the Icelandic Phallological Museum, and a beautiful Opera House. If you are fortunate enough to be in town during a concert at the Harpa Opera House it would be worth attending.

 

  • The Golden Circle: The Golden Circle is a 300km (180mi) day trip from Reykjavik that is kind of a rite-of-passage tour for first time visitors to Iceland. The basic highlights include þingvellir (prounounced: Thingvellir) National Park, Geysir Geothermal Spouts, and Gullfoss Waterfall. It is a picturesque drive and a good sampling of the Icelandic landscape.  þingvellir National Park is where you can SCUBA dive the Silfra rift between the European and North American continental plates, but recent tourism laws require you to have a recognized Dry Suit Certification (e.g., PADI) or you will be limited to snorkeling.

 

  • Natural Hot Springs: Because of the tremendous amount of GeoThermal activity that formed Iceland, there are many hot baths. You could pretty easily plan an entire trip touring Natural Hot Springs. Some of our favorites included: Blue Lagoon, Mývatn, Secret Lagoon, and Grettislaug. These four hot baths ranged from the very commercial and touristic Blue Lagoon to the nature camp site Grettislaug. During the summer season there are many smaller natural hot baths to be found on trails, but be cautious because they are not fed by a pipe and there can be large temperature fluctuations.

 

  • Glaciers and Super Jeeps: Much of central Iceland is covered by four substantial glaciers: Langjökull, Hofsjökull, Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull.  8,100km2 (3,100 mi2) Vatnajökull is a 400m (1.300ft) thick ice cube a little bit larger than the US State of Delaware. We did a day hike at Skaftafell on Vatnajökull.  On Langjökull, we took a private Super Jeep tour with Amazing Tours Iceland that included Into The Glacier. Our driver, Gunnar, is an Iceland native and gave us a great history of Iceland while we drove to the City of Trolls rock formation in the middle of the glacier. It was a unique experience to put the GPS into “Boat” mode and simply drive 50km (30mi) on the glacier.

 

  • Whale Watching: On our itinerary, we had two days at Lake Mývatn just 60km (36mi) from Húskavik, which everyone knows is the whale watching capital of Europe. We arrived in time for a nice lunch at Restaurant Salka before a three-hour cruise around Skjálfandi bay with North Sailing Whale Tours. We were rewarded, even in the early season, with closeup views of a juvenile Blue Whale who was either a little early or had stayed over the season. During the summer season, there are whale watching tours out of nearly every port town including Reykjavik for Blue Whales, Minke Whales, and Humpback Whales.

 

  • Glacier Lagoon and Glacier Beach: Definitely one of the coolest places we have ever been was Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and glacier beach where iceburgs calve off Breiðamerkurjökull. Once they calve, they begin a slow drift out into the North Atlantic Sea via the glacier lagoon and a small river only to be washed back onto the black sand beach. Remarkable.

 

  • Hiking: To be fair, we walked 10 to 12km (6 to 7mi) every day just touring around but during our visit, we did three longer day hikes. The first was up the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, the second was above the waterfall in Kirkjubaejarklaustur and the third was a day hike at Skaftafell on Vatnajökull. The longest day hike was 8km (5mi) round trip at Skaftafell. There are hundreds of hikes that can be done as day trips from different points along the Ring Road and in the Icelandic National Parks. On the more remote trails, care should be taken to properly understand the trail systems and distances.

 

  • Iceland Horses: Ah, the ponies or to be more precise, the Icelandic Horses. They are majestic, there are a lot of them, and they still rock big 80’s hair like it never went out of style. They’re not quite wild but not quite domesticated either. They roam in herds across large tracts of range land.  We did not do any of the horse riding excursions, but you can find one-hour to half-day horseback tours through the hills or along the black sand beaches all around the Ring Road.

 

  • Waterfalls: You can’t go to Iceland without seeing waterfalls. We don’t mean this metaphorically, we mean it physically. You could not go to Iceland without seeing or hearing a waterfall around every bend. Our favorites were: Gullfoss, Godafoss, Fjaðrárgljúfur, Hranfossar & Barnafoss, and the Upside Down Waterfall we stopped to video just outside of Vik.

 

  • Northern Lights: Just kidding. Over our twelve nights, we were completely shut out of Northern Light displays. Either they were active but it was overcast or it was clear but they weren’t active or they were obliterated by a brilliant full moon. All of the hotels, even in Reykjavik, will ask when you check in if you want to be awoken if their night desk clerks see the Northern Lights. We diligently registered every night and were still shutout. We’ve seen enough pictures to be reasonably sure they exist, however, we are not able to independently verify them as legit.

 

Dining in Iceland is a pleasant experience that you won’t forget. We found ourselves saying “Wow!” at every single meal. Sometimes we Wow’ed at the wonderful flavors and textures of the delicious Arctic Char which is a salmonid fish that thrives in the many fresh water lakes and rivers. Other times, we Wow’ed at the expensive prices. We averaged, as in the median price we paid for dinners, 35,000ISK ($320USD) for meals with modest bottles of wine. The best single meal we had was actually our last night in Reykjavik at the restaurant, Apotek. The worst thing that we ate was Kæstur Háharl (fermented shark) at the Shark Museum on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, but his may actually just be a cruel joke to play on tourists.  

We have listed the hotels where we stayed along with their web links and our summary impressions in the Where to Stay section in the Iceland destination on our web page, www.opendoortravelers.com. Nordic Visitors did a good job of screening and booking hotels for us along our route and mapping out a doable Ring Road route. During our trip around the island, we were rarely out of 3G or 4G cellular connectivity and all of our hotels had reliable WiFi internet. In addition, we did not run across a single shopkeeper or hotel desk clerk who did not speak excellent English.

 

Iceland is hyped as a remote wilderness experience and there are certainly remote and wild adventures to be had but truth-be-told; many of these adventures are within a few hours of civilization. Most of the excursions available out of Reykjavik are Adventure-by-the-Hour spoon-fed tourism. It’s not unfair to say that Iceland is becoming a worldwide tourist destination similar to the US Hawaiian Islands. Various sources report Iceland’s annual tourism as 1.1 million visitors annually which is nearly four times the resident population of a little over 300,000 people. We were pleased to make the tourism number 1,100,002 in 2017 and to cross Iceland’s Ring Road off of our Bucket List. We hope to go back some day for a mini-trip in the summer season to explore the Western Fjords, actually “Do” the Silfra Dive, and maybe even take in some Icelandic Golf amongst the sheep and horses.

 

Phil & Diane

 

[Disclosure: we were compensated with a complementary lava cave tour by Nordic Visitor for booking a large comprehensive package but received no other compensation from the businesses mentioned in this blog.]