Iceland, land of fire and ice

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Our trip to Iceland was carefully planned out. We only decided to visit Iceland two months ahead, but had no idea that this is actually quite late, if not too late. We first booked our airline tickets, and once we had our flight, started planning out an itinerary. We would be in Iceland for 7,5 days, of which one full day and the last two nights in Reykjavik. Our return flight was very early on day 8, so that could not be counted as a day in Iceland.
The first big question was if we would drive the whole ring road around the island, or if we would just visit one part of the island, for instance the North, the South or the West coast.
When making a list of the most noteworthy places, they lay spread all over the island. I had never seen a glacier up close, I was tempted to visit the largest European waterfalls, wanted to go whale watching, the glacier lakes looked very attractive and the area of Myvatn lake had a lot to offer.
I read blogs of other travellers and they all agreed that seven days was a minimum to travel the ring road. After some debate with my husband, we decided to go for as much highlights as possible, and for that the ring road was the best solution.
Next we booked a car for the whole stay, and decided on a 4×4 car, in case we wanted to cover some highland roads. After comparing several car rental companies, looking what was included in the price, and reading some reviews, I was sure Blue car rental was our best choice. They had very competitive prices, that included all possible insurances, even the sand and ash damage insurance. No other company offered better. We chose a Kia sportage 4×4 or Honda 4×4. We could pick up and drop off the car at the airport.

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Then came the choice of where we would stop along the way, dividing the road into parts that were not too long to cover in a day, and making sure we had enough time to visit the places we really wanted to see. I made a list of the top sights, and compared it with itineraries other travellers had used. I came to the conclusion we would have to book a place around Vik, a second one around Hofn, and then maybe one in Egellstadir, one in Akureyri, and maybe one more between Akureyri and Reykjavik. But that would mean we would have to change hotel every night, and Myvatn lake plus whale watching in Husavik, meant at least two nights in that area, possibly in Akureyri. I started looking for hotels  only a bit more than one month and a half before our trip when I realized most hotels were already fully booked. For Vik and Hofn almost no rooms were left, except if you paid a lot more. Via booking.com, we quickly took some of the last rooms available. In the first two hotels we had to settle for rooms with shared bathrooms. And no, it was not a marketing stunt from the booking site to make us decide quickly, I e-mailed many of the hotels directly and got nothing but answers telling me they were fully booked for the whole period. This was a first, never had I experienced such a shortage of hotel rooms for a very touristy area. For our first night we had to spend more on the room than we had planned for, but we simply did not have a choice, we had booked too late. Let this be a warning, Iceland is a destination you better plan well ahead, it will make your trip a lot cheaper. The Hilton hotel we booked in Reykjavik, became 100 euro more expensive over the course of just a few days, just because of the high demand. High season in Iceland is July and August, and then June and September. I let out a sigh of relief when we finally managed to book what seemed good hotels, not really cheap, but acceptable in price. All hotels had the breakfast included in the room rate. If you know that food is expensive in Iceland, this was definitely a bonus. We eventually decided to stay only in three places on the ring road, one night in Vik, two nights close to Hofn and three nights close to Akureyri. This way we would not have to change hotels all the time. We also decided to skip the Golden circle for a number of reasons. It is the most touristy area of Iceland, it would give us an extra day on the ring road. Our plane landed in the afternoon, and by skipping the golden circle, we could immediately head for Vik on our first half day. We would not see the largest waterfall, the Gullfoss, but hoped the Detifoss, together with several other waterfalls could make up for not seeing the golden waterfall.
Our plane only arrived 15 minutes late. We picked up our luggage and walked the 100 meters to the Blue car rental office, at the other side of the parking lot, just outside the arrivals hall. We gave our name, but the desk manager could at first not find our booking. After some asking around, they told us we had booked the car for the previous month. We looked at her and at each other in disbelief. Then checked the reservation papers, to see she was not joking. Having paid the whole amount up front, we feared the worst. Instead the desk manager said he would look for a solution. Just a few minutes later they had a car available, for which we had to pay just a little extra since this period was a bit more expensive than the one we had paid for. I just took out my credit card, feeling relieved that we at still had a car. We had to wait half an hour, and after what did not even seem 30 minutes, were handed a brand new Kia  sportage 4×4, with less than 100 km on the mileage. Blue car rental will get a raving review from me, the wrong booking was my bad, and they just solved it as if it wasn’t! From now on I will check every booking I make more than twice!

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Apart from this glitch, we got out of the airport very efficiently. Passing a Kronan supermarket, we decided to stock up on some snacks, drinks and some sandwiches, so that we could just snack out of the car for a meal. The supermarket bill was higher than expected. Beef jerkey is an expensive snack! We took a coffee to go, and smiled at the name of the cake: Snickerskaka, funny to all who speak Dutch!
Off we were on our Tour around  Iceland!
This is our itinerary:

Day one:

We drive from Keflavik airport to Farmhouse Lodge just before Vik I Myrdal. The drive takes about 2,5 hours. We stopped at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, located near the highland road F249 towards Dorsmork. It is well signed, and visible from the road. The waterfall drops 60 meters and is part of the Seljalands-river that has its origin in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. A short hiking trail takes you behind the waterfall in a kind of cave. Be prepared because there is a lot of spray from the waterfall. You drive past the cliffs of the Eyjafjallajökull, with a glacier on top. The volcano erupted in April 2010 and kept airlines in the whole of Europe grounded for days. We passed the Skogafoss  waterfall but decided to visit it the next day, since the light was getting low and we had to check in the Farmhouse lodge before 10 PM. We got an upgrade from a room with shared bathroom to a room with its own bathroom. It made up for the 240 euro the room costed us.

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Day two:

We got up early to visit Dyrhólaey, a 120-metre high promontory, not far from Vík. The place got its name from the massive arch that the sea has eroded from the headland. (The name literally means “door-hole”). You take road 218 from the ring road. The area is a nature reserve and a famous nesting place for the mascot of Iceland, the cute and colourful puffin. The arch can best be seen from the lighthouse. The lighthouse on the top of the cliff stands impressive and stoic in this often very windy area. Puffins can best be seen early mornings before 10 AM or late in the evening often after 9 PM. We were the first to arrive in the nature reserve of Dyrholaey. Fantastic to observe the cliffs with puffins coming and going, all alone, with no other tourist in sight.

We enjoyed our breakfast, checked out and drove back to see Skogafoss, which is a bit further than the Seljalandsfoss waterfall coming from the west, and easily seen from the main road. It is wider and more powerful than the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. If you get closer you will see there are often colourful rainbows formed in the spray. If there is sunshine of course.

A bit further down in the direction of Vik, you can visit the Sólheimajökull Glacier, part of the bigger Mýrdalsjökull, off road 221. You drive up to the parking lot, where there is a small coffee shop, the Glacier café.

Just a short 15 minute walk takes you up to the edge of the glacier. You can take a guided tour on the glacier using crampons. It was our first close encounter with a glacier.
We drove to Vik and had lunch in Halldorskaffi. It is a popular place and fills up quickly. many had to take a number and wait their turn, we were lucky several tables left when we arrived. But as everywhere in Iceland prices are high.

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We took to the road again because we would stay close to Hofn the following night. We passed Skaftafell national park, located on the Vatnajökull glacier, the biggest glacier of Europe, covering 30 % of Iceland. You can take short and easy trails that lead to waterfall Svartifoss and glacier Skaftafellsjökull. Later we passed Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, but it was getting late and I was not feeling very well, so we decided to maybe visit it on the next day. Both sights, Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, are very popular and packed with tourists.

We checked in to our little hotel, guesthouse Nypugardar, about 30 km before Hofn. We were hungry, and when the owner told us we could join the buffet that evening we gladly accepted. It costed 4500 ISK per person, which was acceptable for soup, salad, main course, dessert and coffee. We went to bed early, and got up quite early. The guesthouse offers breakfast from 7:30 AM onwards. After breakfast we decided to visit places in the vicinity, to compensate for two days of driving. Instead of visiting Skaftafell and Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon we opted to visit the Heinabergsjökull glacier. You take, when travelling from east to west, a right turn about 3 km after you pass the farm Flatey. There is a sign indicating Heinaberg and Heinabergsjokull. At the parking lot there is a dry toilet. You can walk up to the glacier where a beautiful glacier lagoon has formed, with beautiful ice chunks floating around. And you are almost all alone here. You can walk around the lake, or make a walk into the mountains.

If you take a right turn on the gravel road before you reach the car park, in the direction of Heinaberg, you can visit a small but beautiful waterfall. From here you can easily see the Flaajokull on one side and the Heinabergsjökull on the other. There are also some basalt rock formations, but not as spectacular as those around Vik. The road leading up to Heinabergsjokull is a gravel road. It is passable for most cars at low speed.

We went for a small lunch in Hofn, at Hafnarbudin, a simple but good place to eat fish and chips, a hamburger or a toast, or the famous langoustine sandwich. We just went for a toast.

We were planning to visit Stokksnes and Vestrahorn to see seals if possible. It seemed to be a very photogenic place with lava dunes reflecting in the ocean. We took a leaflet in the tourist office of Hofn, but were puzzled by the fact that it mentioned an entrance fee to the beach and lighthouse. Some searching on the internet learned us that the owner of the Viking café on the road to the lighthouse, asked visitors an entrance fee for using his “private road”.

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Some said this was not legal, and that he was facing a legal procedure over it. So we asked the person in the tourist office if we would have to pay to visit the beach, and he quite rudely answered, that it was none of his business and that we had to talk to the owner in the Viking café, or to the police. This was not very clarifying though. So we drove up to the place, and yes on the road leading up to Stoksness a sign already announced it was a private road, and the Viking café. When we reached the Viking café, the road was barred leading up to the lighthouse, as well as the walking route to the beach that started there, with numerous sings saying you should pay your entrance fee at the Viking café. From the window of the café, a stern woman was watching over the parking lot, to see where everyone was going. We contemplated just bypassing the barrier and continuing anyway, but decided that it was not worth the fight with the owner of the café. The weather was quite grim anyway, there was a lot of wind, not too much sunshine, and it was low tide, so probably the view would not be spectacular anyway. But it frustrated us anyway. We continued in the direction of Lon, but were not too impressed with the natural sights here.
So we returned for a langoustine sandwich at the Hafnarbudin in Hofn, which tasted really good, and went for a relaxing evening at the hotel.

The guesthouse is cosy but quite small and there are two bathrooms, for eight rooms to share. The breakfast is very good with a large choice. The guesthouse is OK if all visitors are aware of its small size and behave accordingly, but the second night a small group checked in and immediately the noise became annoying for the other guests. They also have rooms with private bathrooms, and two small separate  houses for rent.

Day three:

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On this day we would be driving for the most part of the day, about 5 to 6 hours, since we had to drive all the way up to Akureyri in the North of Iceland. The road first takes you passed two fjords in the East: Berufjörður and the Fáskrúðsfjörður and via the tip of the Reyðarfjörður. The road offers you great views of the fjords.

We stopped for a take away coffee in Saxa guesthouse in Stöðvarfjörður. It is in this little harbour town that you can visit Petra’s stone collection. From there you drive  through a mountainous plateau. After Egilsstadir you follow the river Jokulsa a Bru that meanders through many gorges. The Jokuldalur is a wide valley with many up to 80 m high waterfalls that can be seen from the ring road. Just before Myvatn you have a high viewpoint over the lake, the many geothermic fields and the volcano crater.

We stopped for a coffee and some cake in Reykjalhid, in Gamli Bistro. We arrived in our Hótel Sveinbjarnargerdi just North of Akureyri in the late afternoon.

The hotel has a great views of the Eyjafjordur. We went to eat in Akureyri Fish & Chips, but chose grilled salmon instead of fish and chips. Some brave tourists ordered the fermented shark as appetizer. I wonder if they liked it. The waitress did not react very enthusiastic when asked if it was a good choice.

Day four:

With great anticipation we drove to Husavik in the early morning to go whale watching. We had booked a place on the boat with Salka wale watching the day before by phone. Weather forecast had looked really good, but that morning it was very foggy when we got up. Also in Husavik it was very misty. But with good hope we went on board. We were warmly welcome by Loes, a Dutch marine biologist, who would accompany us on the Fanney, the boat of Salka whale watching. We received a warm overall to put over our clothes and the eight of us looked for a good spot to sit. The trip lasted three long hours, all of those three hours on a windless very calm but very foggy sea. We managed to see some white beaked dolphins who also swam under our boat, and a humpback whale that humped only once and then disappeared. The sighting lasted 5 minutes out of the three hours. Loes really pitied us and offered us a second free tour on the same or on one of the next days. Convinced that the mist would dissipate in the afternoon we booked for the 4:30 PM tour the same day. In between we drove up to Asbyrgi, a large canyon that measures approximately 3.5 km in length and 1.1 km across, and with steep sides that are formed by cliffs up to 100 metres in height. We took the F864 road to the west of the canyon, but the drive to Detifoss was just a bit long, but we managed to see the waterfall north of Detifoss; the Hafragilsfoss. We returned to Husavik, but the fog was worse than in the morning, so we asked for a new reservation for the next morning at 9 AM.

We decided to visit the Detifoss waterfall anyway, but from the other side, via the 862 road coming from Myvatn. We stood in awe before the Detifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall and the upstream beautifull Selfoss waterfall. The power of the water is scary and exciting at the same time.

We had dinner in Gamli Bistro, where we had a lamb hamburger. Hamburgers and hot dogs seem to be the daily food of Icelanders, or is it served to please most tourists?

Day five:

The next morning we woke up with beautiful sunshine, and Husavik also looked bright under a sunny sky. This time we had to share the boat with twenty others. But the reward was immense. We managed to see three different humpback whales, who each came up several times, arched (hump) their backs and raise their tail flukes above water. One whale entertained us twice with a lobtail. This time the three hours passed very quickly and we also enjoyed the beautiful views from the boat of the mountains and the shoreline.

We ate lunch in the Salka restaurant, where we enjoyed 10% discount with our whale watching ticket. We had a wonderful fish soup and grilled cod.

That afternoon we visited Myvatn lake. We drove around the lake, made an hour walk in the Dimmuborgir, a lava field with large and oddly shaped lava formations. We drove to a deep fissure in which the Grotagja thermal pool is hidden. (known from Game of Thrones)

The water has a beautiful deep blue and green color. We then tried to take pictures of the bizarre baby blue coloured lake, north of Myvatn. The lake gets its colour from the non toxic cyanobacteria, which is not a bacteria but an alga.  We visited Krafla, a geothermal zone.

We drank a coffee, ate a starter and a dessert as dinner at the Vogafjos Café (Cowshed cafe), a peculiar place where you look right into the cow stables from the café. We ended the day with a walk in Hofdi, a little peninsula along Myvatn lake, with birch trees, beautiful flora and nice lookouts over the lake.

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Day six:

We enjoyed the breakfast an ate another Skyr, a famous low fat but very creamy cottage cheese, which I like a lot. This day we would have to drive back to Reykjavik, and would have to decide where to stop along the way depending  on the time and weather. The first part passes through high mountains which then flow over into very green highland. In Blonduos we stopped for a coffee. We decided against a stop in Hvammstangi to see seals and instead decided to take route 550, by turning of in the direction of Reykholt taking route 50.

We stopped to see the waterfalls Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, that lay side by side, somewhere after passing Reykholt. We took the F550, a gravel road, where only 4×4 cars are allowed. You drive past the Ok volcano and the Lanjokull glacier, up to Pingvellir. The 33 long F550 road does take about an hour and a half to cover. In Pingvellir, you see the Eurasian and the American tectonic plates pull apart by 2,5 cm a year. Pingvallavatn is Iceland’s largest lake.

In the evening after checking in to the Hilton Nordica hotel, and we had dinner at de Matarkjallarinn er Grill – Food cellar,  in the old centre of Reykjavik, a good choice for seafood and fish.

Day seven:
I took a walk through the town of Reykjavik. The main road: Laugavegur, is dotted with shops and restaurants. I turned towards the seea to visit the landmark statue of the city: the Sun Voyager. From there it is a short walk to Harpa, the concert hall. From inside you have views over the small harbour. I walked towards the Tjornin lake, and got fascinated by the colourful corrugated iron houses. I walked all the small side streets to photograph the typical houses of Reykjavik.

I rested a bit in the afternoon, and we had dinner in Vox, the restaurant of the Hilton Hotel. We took the chef’s choice menu, and we were pleasantly surprised. We had a starter of raw scallops, grilled cod as a main and a dessert of licorice cake, yoghurt ice cream and wild berries, all really top!

Day eight:
At 6 AM we returned our rental car without any hassle to Blue car rental. At the airport you can self-check in on monitors, and drop your luggage at the self-drop counters. We had a quick breakfast, and enjoyed our Icelandair flight with in-flight movies and a free drink.

Þetta reddast!! It did work out great, our trip!

Some good to know advice:

1. Everywhere in Iceland you can pay by credit card, yes really everywhere, even for a toilet stop, I kid you not. So no need to withdraw cash money, just take your card and you will be fine. Hassle free!
2. Take your earphones with you if you fly Icelandair, they have in-flight entertainment on a monitor in the seat in front of you, but they do not give you the earphones. You can buy them, but better just bring yours along.
3. All nature sights are free to visit. And those are the only cheap things in Iceland, all the rest: hotels, food, gasoline, drinks are all very expensive. There are no cheap alternatives, apart from a tent and making your own food. And some will say hitch hiking, which has become very popular at the moment in Iceland, so popular, that alas there are too many of them to keep it fun.
4. Do not pay to visit Stoksness, there are too many beautiful natural sights that are completely free. The best way to make the owner of the Viking café realize he is going the wrong way, is by not paying him, and go some place else!
5. The ring road is the only paved road around the island. That means everyone is using it, cars, vans, mobile homes, as well as bikes and pedestrians. If you plan to walk or bike, be aware there are no bike lanes or footpaths, and the road is quite narrow.
6. Do not stop your car in the middle of the ring road! This is really dangerous and there are really enough places available to stop at the side of the road safely.
7. Take earplugs and eye masks to sleep, many hotels are small and poorly insulated and it stays light very late in summer. Most hotel rooms do have very heavy curtains though to block out the light.
8. Food tends to be quite simple and in most places you are given the same choices, hamburgers, hamburgers or hamburgers. OK I exaggerate a bit, but still. So do not travel to Iceland for culinary experiences, and do not try fermented shark (hakarl), it is an acquired taste that even many Icelanders dislike!
9. If you are sure you will only drive the ring road, than a normal car will do, no need to pay for a 4wheel drive. Only if you want to cover some of the highland roads you will have to rent a 4×4. And even with an normal 4 wheel drive you are not allowed to drive on all F roads. Our Kia sportage 4×4 was allowed on the F550 and F35. And always check the weather before venturing out on a highland road. The weather is very tricky in Iceland and can change quite rapidly.
10. Winds can be very strong  in Iceland, so always open your car door against the wind direction, if the winds are strong, and always keep hold on to them when you open them.
11. Plan well ahead. You will enjoy your trip so much more if you prepared well.
12. Bring a warm and rain-proof jacket, rain proof pants, a hat, gloves, a scarf, and bring good hiking shoes, you will thank yourself every day for it!
13. Bring sunglasses, sun protection and lip balm.
14. Bring a roll of toilet paper, a toilet is not always near by when you need one! And some plastic bags to put the toilet paper in, before you dump it in a trash can!
15. Do not leave any trash behind!
16. Bring enough water to drink in the car.
17. Bring a swimsuit and towel, there are many small pools and hot tubs around the island, some in very surprising surroundings.
18. Yes you might also need short pants and a tank top, on some moments it can get really warm, we had days where the temperature climbed to 19° C.
19. Bring a camera and a video camera if you have one, and enough place on your memory card, you have no idea of the amount of pictures you will take, but it will be a lot!
20. http://www.road.is/ for road conditions.
21. http://en.vedur.is/ for the weather forecast.
22.http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ and http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/ for the Northern lights forecast.
23. Vegetarians will have a hard time in Iceland, and it may be better to prepare their own food.
24. Sheep, sheep, sheep and horses, horses, horses, they are everywhere in Iceland, so if you do not have a picture of them yet, no panic.
25. Icelanders are not large talkers, they are very direct, but that does not mean they are unfriendly. And all of them speak English!
26. Iceland has a population of about 330.000, and 1,25 million tourists in 2015. Maybe they are getting fed up with tourism?
27. The names of most places are almost unpronounceable and very hard to remember.
28. Iceland is much more than a Game of Thrones film site! It is one of the most beautiful countries I visited. Amen

And as an extra, some minimalistic poetic Icelandic music for you to discover (thanks to Rikki from Iceland): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrrYbNuakoc

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