Stykkishólmur sea cliffs
Within the 15 months that we spent travelling on our epic 2016/2017 journey from South and Central America to Mediterranean Europe, there have been some undoubted personal highlights.
First there was Antarctica with its pristine majesty, and then soon after that it was trekking through the wildflower-strewn landscape of Patagona during springtime. Further up the South American continent it was the Galápagos in Ecuador that stole my heart with its natural beauty and incredible wildlife.
And then this.
Grundarfjöður’s imposing landmarks of Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss
Iceland, with its roaring waterfalls, volcanoes, fields of lupins, countless rainbows, beautiful horses and endless rugged landscape.
This small island nation isn’t the most wallet friendly destination, however, and to put it bluntly, it kind of killed our daily AUD$200 budget.
Having said that, it was well worth it.
Driving Iceland’s Ring Road exposes you to some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, and the best way to see it all, we think, is to have your own wheels. That way you can drive down any road, see what you want, for as long as you want. You can do your organised bus tours, which can be great if that’s the only option, but they all come with their own restrictions.
More details on our campervan rental at the end of the post.
We gave ourselves 5 days to drive the 1333 km Ring Road which, in retrospect, may have been a couple of days too short. This is a place where you’re forever pulling over to see or photograph something, and there were a couple of corners we wanted to get to, but simply didn’t have the time.
Our arrival from NYC was sometime after midnight, and once we were picked up and brought to the rental office by a company representative, the inspection was made, the contract was signed and off we went.
Seeing it was already so late, we needed to find a place to park, grab a bite and sleep.
A glamorous late night sandwich from Subway at a strip mall and watching the sun dip below the horizon well after midnight. This is where we slept for the night, as well: in our van which we parked just metres from the franchise, to keep within range of their wifi.
Day one began by driving straight through Reykjavík and following Route 1 as far as the hamlet of Borgarnes, where we veered onto Route 54 and the 90 km-long Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Only a couple of hours from Reykjavík, the peninsula is filled with lava fields, waterfalls, mineral springs, glaciers, basalt columns, endless green fields and golden sandy beaches.
Our sights were set on getting to the village of Grundarfjöður, a sleepy place that’s the gateway to Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and the conical Kirkjufell mountain which forms the most perfect backdrop to them. There’s no shortage of photo opportunities here!
It was a tad early to be stopping for lunch in Grundarfjöður, so the drive continued to the small village of Stykkishólmer at northern tip of the peninsula. Plus there was a hot dog van in town that I wanted to see.
The town of Stykkishólmer is built around a small harbour that opens onto the vast Breiðafjörður bay that’s dotted with numerous small rocky islands. The town is filled with traditional houses, a striking church and a smattering of eateries.
This was our first chance to stock up on a few groceries from the budget-friendly Bónus supermarket in town. Not necessarily cheap, but cheaper than its competitor Krónan. One thing you don’t need to buy in Iceland is drinking water, as what comes out of the tap is very drinkable.
Hot dog from Meistarinn Pylsuvgn
One sad reality for us was that our daily budget was already spent on van hire, so eating out simply wasn’t an option. These were our restrictions. Restaurants in this country aren’t cheap, and aside from the one hot dog from Meistarinn Pylsuvgn, it was van-cooked food for the rest of the trip. A bit of a killer for a pair of foodies, but sacrifices needed to be made.
As tasty as that hot dog was, it barely touched the sides. Nothing a homemade sandwich using supermarket ingredients can’t fix. Plus that corn bread was sensational!
There was no plan for where we’d be parking the van to spend each night, so that was figured out by looking at the map as we drove each day. The only conditions were that it be a town or village, somewhere to top up on fuel if we needed, a place to park for free and hopefully a café to grab a morning coffee. Tapping into free wifi was an extra bonus.
The first day’s driving ended in the harbourside village of Hvammstangi, where our second home for the night was in a carpark just metres from a seal museum, a swanky restaurant, café and the waterfront. Aside from that, it’s a sleepy place with not much more going on.
There is a campsite in town with facilities such as a bbq, swimming pool, wifi and power, but why pay around AUD$30 when you can park next to the supermarket for free and be befriended by an adorable cat that loves to snooze in a campervan? And the water view is better than the camp site.
The village supermarket isn’t the best we came across in Iceland, but there was no need to buy food as we already had some instant cheesy pasta to cook up with fresh broccoli.
If we had a spare AUD$34 for lasagne or AUD$21 for a panini we may have considered grabbing a bite at Hlaðan Kaffihús, a cute vintage café across the creek.
Rather than stick to Route 1 on day two, we veered onto Route 75 which runs on the east side of Skagafjörður fjord. This area is one of the country’s richest agricultural regions and home to horse breeding and widespread sheep and dairy farming. Simply put, it’s kind of beautiful.
Following a quick pit stop in the tiny hamlet of Hofsós to stretch the legs and get some fresh air, we had another stop in the fishing town of Siglufjörður.
Come winter and this town is a magnet for skiing, skating, slalom and zipping around in a snowmobile. There wasn’t much snow about in July, but if we had the time we could have gone mountain or valley hiking.
Aðalbakarinn bakery café – Siglufjörður
Instead, we were more interested in dosing up on caffeine at Aðalbakarinn, a fab little bakery café that serves up Illy coffee, a great range of baked goodies, soup and even some beautiful locally-made ceramics.
The village itself is a compact centre with a few eateries, a Folk Music Centre and an award winning herring museum. Doesn’t everyone want to know about the importance of the herring industry?
Enroute to our next chosen home for the night, there was an obligatory stop at Goðafoss – or Falls of the Gods. This incredibly beautiful set of falls can be found on the fourth largest river in Iceland – the Skjálfandafljót. Regarded as one of the most spectacular falls in the country, Goðafoss is definitely worth spending a little time at.
Of all the villages and towns we drove through in Iceland, this would have to be the most picturesque. Known as being the whale watching capital in the world, Húsavík draws people for just that; and there are enough agencies in town that can get you closer to seeing these majestic mammals.
This was home for our 3rd night in Iceland.
When that seemingly eternal afternoon sun is shining, wandering about the old fishing village is a real treat. Start by visiting Húsavíkurkirkja, the town’s church which was built in 1907 from Norwegian timber.
Drop by the civic museum to brush up on local culture, biology and seafaring history, or grab an ice cream, some booze or food at one of a handful of joints scattered about the village. The good thing is that almost any place you choose has a lovely outlook over beautiful Skjálfandi Bay.
So where did we park the van for our third night? Well, none other than the delightful N1 petrol station carpark. Sadly there was no wifi within the carpark, but there was a self-cleaning bay with excellent pressure hoses to wash off all the dust and grime from driving along gravel roads. Exciting stuff!
Our free wifi was sourced at the lovely North Sailing Café in the centre of town; a perfect spot to kick back, have a beer, vino or coffee and soak up the morning or afternoon sun. This is the first place I spotted hjónabandssaela, or happy marriage cake: a rhubarb-based cake unique to Iceland.
North Sailing Café
Not that we even realised it, we were actually setting out on the Diamond Circuit Route, which encompasses routes 87, 85, 862 and 1. We weren’t going to be driving the entire 260km circuit, but starting off in Húsavík on the northwest portion of it (Route 85) and going as far as Krafla Viti Crater meant we did about two thirds of it.
Our first stop was Ásbyrgi Canyon, a horseshoe-shaped depression in Vatnajökull National Park. Dramatic cliffs rise 100m from woodland that’s filled with birch, willow, pine and spruce, plus many purple and yellow wildflowers. There’s a network of walking trails throughout the canyon with duck-filled ponds and raised decks for perfect viewing.
Driving down Route 287 from the canyon started off really well, but the road quickly transformed from asphalt to a virtual 4×4 track riddled with muddy potholes. For just over an hour we could drive no higher than 2nd gear as we jumped and bumped our way to Dettifoss, one of Iceland’s most popular attractions.
This waterfall is reputed as being Europe’s most powerful, with glacial water from Iceland’s second longest river, Jökulsá á Fjöllum, roaring 44m into clouds of ice cold mist.
Fans of the movie Prometheus may recognise Dettifoss from the opening scene where that guy drinks the potion and disintegrates into the water.
Conveniently, Route 287 is fully sealed as you approach the carpark to the falls.
Krafla Viti Crater
Cooking up lunch along Route 1
Continuing south to Route 1 we followed the Diamond Circuit Route in an anti-clockwise fashion, turning off onto Route 863 to check out Krafla Viti Crater. Man, there sure is some geothermal activity in this region, as you smell it as soon as you drive into it.
Is that a fart I smell, or is this a contribution to 70% of Iceland’s energy needs being met from geothermal energy? All of this is evident as you approach Krafla Viti Crater with the network of steaming pipes and a power station along the road: the fifth largest in the country.
The 818m Krafla Volcano is 10km in diameter and its explosion crater named Viti was formed when Krafla erupted in the early 1700s. Today the 300m diameter crater is filled with aqua blue water and can be easily viewed by walking less than a minute from the carpark. And it’s free!
After an 11-hour day of driving and stopping, our forth night was spent in the sleepy town of Seyðisfjörður. Driving for an hour through thick fog along a very wet and gravelly Route 93 didn’t reveal any of the landscape.
It was only until the winding road descended below the cloud line that we could see the countless waterfalls cascading down the steep, horseshoe-shaped cliffs towards the village and fjord.
This avalanche-prone town has a rich history in “the silver of the sea” – herring, and thanks to the long protective fjord also named Seyðisfjörður, it soon became one of the most prosperous towns in East Iceland.
Once again we made our home in the supermarket carpark. Another night without wifi, but if we went to the Nordic Restaurant or Kaffi Lára over the road for a drink, we could reconnect in a flash. For those with a heftier budget, you can also tuck into the likes of baked local cod, bbq Icelandic pork neck, lamb and reindeer.
Seeing we were already on the east coast of Iceland, we thought we’d leave early and take a little diversion northward to see some birdlife. We’re not generally ones to go birdwatching, but when there’s the option of getting up close with lundi (Icelandic for puffin) in their natural habitat, well, we were all over it.
These gorgeous little creatures nest in the grassy cliffs of Hafnarhólmi in Borgarfjörður Eystri’s harbour, and can be seen from mid-April to mid-August. Raised stairs and platforms offer extreme close-ups to these curious-yet-shy birds, and the best time to see them is before noon and after 5pm when they’re not out fishing for food.
Allow about 3 hours for the round trip to the puffin colony, including time there. There’s no entry fee.
We already knew we had a long day of driving ahead of us, and taking the side trip to the puffin colony didn’t really help. Once we were back on Route 1 we continued south, and rather than follow the road to Breiðdalsvík on the east coast, I thought we could save time by cutting down Route 939.
And I’m glad we went with that decision.
The landscape along this unsealed road is spectacular, to say the least. Numerous impressive waterfalls, gorges, cliffs and bright green moss as far as the eye can see. The untouched rawness of the land is jaw-dropping. We found ourselves pulling over almost every five minutes to breathe it all in.
The next stop seemed like it took an eternity to get to, and when you’re stuck behind a convoy of huge campervans driving under the speed limit, it seems even longer.
Jökulsárlón, better known as Glacier Lagoon, is the next stop. This is where the tourist numbers get pretty hefty, thanks to it being a popular stop for tour buses doing day trips from Reykjavík.
The lagoon is formed by meltwater from Breiðamerkurjökull, a glacier from Europe’s largest ice cap called Vatnajökull. Many icebergs break off the glacier and fill the lagoon, after which they either drift off into the ocean or wash onto the black sandy beach of nearby Breiðamerkursandur.
After a little more driving and a couple more stops, we made a spontaneous decision to overnight in the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Another petrol station carpark and no wifi – unless there was a tour bus parked nearby where we could tap into their free network. There is a cafeteria and basic groceries at the station, but we were covered with our supermarket delectables.
Glacier Lagoon and Black Beach
Another bright and early start to the day and a perfectly stunning morning to be on Iceland’s south coast. The convenience of overnighting in the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur meant we could arrive at our first pit stop before the crowds descended.
Fjaðrárgljúfur is a beautiful 100m deep, 2km long canyon formed by the run-off from a glacial lake 10,000 years ago. Visitors can see the canyon by walking along a trail that runs above the canyon, with a couple of newly-build metal walkways and viewpoints on the precarious ridges.
The great thing about being in Iceland in July was the seemingly endless fields of lupins that coloured-up the landscape. The largest concentration of these predominantly purple flowers was just east of Vík, the southernmost village on the mainland.
Whilst the town itself doesn’t have an abundance of attractions, you can take a short drive to Reynisfjara, a black pebble beach with spectacular stepped basalt cliffs. The same basalt can be seen jutting out of the water in the form of stacks, eroded over thousands of years.
Reynisfjara beach and Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks
Day 5 meant we were on the home stretch, completing the Ring Road back to the city of Reykjavík. The southern part of Route 1 is noticeably busier than the northern part: much more traffic and considerably more tour buses.
It’s also where you can see more of the major waterfalls, all of which are teeming with tourist hoards.
One of the biggest is Skógafoss, a 25m wide and 60m high beauty that you can view from above and below the falls. The same river, called Skóga, boasts more than 20 waterfalls, all of which you can see by hiking along the river.
We didn’t get as far as seeing the remaining waterfalls along the Skóga, but we did stop further along Route 1 to see one of the country’s highest and most photographed waterfalls – Seljalandsfoss. Surrounded by cliffs and green slopes, the thing that makes this one stand out is that you can walk behind it.
A little further up the road is Gljúfrafoss, a 40m high fall that’s partially hidden behind a cliff. To see it you need to either get your shoes off and wade in ankle-deep water, or jump a few stones around a cliff, contend with a good amount of spray, and see the falls from below.
Our final waterfall encounter was with Gullfoss, a series of two falls: an upper one of 11 metres and a lower one of 21 metres. The Hvítá river canyon is an impressive sight on its own, but it’s those falls that draw thousands of people each day. Seeing a rainbow here is a given, much like the previous Skógafoss, and as an added bonus you get to be drenched in the spray as you make your way along the ridge above it.
It may be the largest city in Iceland, but by no means does Reykjavík feel that way. I guess there’s only something like 120,000 people that live there.
The setting is picturesque, as well, with mountains and water surrounding a city filled with unique architecture. The skyline is dominated by the imposing 74.5m Hallgrímskirkja on the hill of Skolavorduholt. Entry to the church is free, but if you want a view from the tower there’s a ISK$900 entry fee.
The Punk Museum
The primary shopping street in town is Laugavegur where you can spend hours spending up big on fashion, accessories and homewares or kick back at one of the numerous cafés, restaurants and bars.
If all of that’s too much, head down Bankastræti and seek out the Icelandic Punk Museum, filling the subterranean void of a former public toilet. Play instruments, listen to some albums and learn a bit about the development of this genre in Iceland.
Not too far from the museum is one of the city’s striking modern buildings – The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. Head there to catch a photographic exhibit, a show, see a concert or just wander through the building and gawk at its stunning design.
The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Vínarbrauð at Brauð & Co. – Frakkastigur 16
Bakarí Sandholt – Laugavegur 36
Reykjavík has some excellent bakeries and you could easily go mad and spent a ridiculous amount of krónas. Brauð & Co. is one not to be missed. It may be small, but those flakey croissants and crusty breads piled in the window are sure to make anyone hone in for a closer look.
Sampling the vínarbrauð was the best decision ever. This is Iceland’s version of Danish pastry: filled with almond paste, vanilla custard and topped with nuts. Sometimes some icing is put on top.
A minute down the road is Bakarí Sandholt, another one worth checking out. Pre-made sourdough sandwiches and quiches fill the window and glass cabinets inside are lined with many cakes, cookies, pastries and even hand-made chocolates.
Reykjavik Roasters – Kárastígur 1
Reykjavik Roasters – Brautarholt 2
We looked no further than Reykjavík Roasters for all our coffee needs, and having two outlets in town made it all the better for us. The original can be found a block down from Hallgrímskirkja on the corner of Kárastígur and Frakkastígur. It’s a cosy set-up with a smattering of tables, some food and they even roast in-house.
The second outlet is a bit further east on Brautarholt and Stórholt in an apartment building. It’s airy and filled with light and you can fill up on sourdough topped with avocado & lemon, hummus & date chutney or go for a bowl of porridge & yoghurt. Great spot to chill with an espresso and get some work done.
When it comes to booze time, many bars have happy hour deals; which is damn excellent as it costs a fortune to have a drink in this town. Not that everything else is affordable.
Two-for-one pints are offered at Kofi Tómasar frænda from 4pm-7pm, a comfy corner café-bar on the main shopping street of Laugavegur. When a pint normally hovers around the AUD$15 mark, this is a bargain. Another happy hour worth checking out is at Bravó Bar, where you can ‘get happy’ between 11am and 10pm every day!
Kofi Tómasar frænda – Laugavegur 2
Bravó Bar – Laugavegur 22
With our budget in mind, there was no point in hiring a car and paying for accommodation along the way. It’s simply too expensive. We hired the Dacia Dokker 2 person Camper from Ace Car Rental. It’s $300 per day and has a 140cm x 200cm double bed in the back, which was just long enough for my 195cm height.
Included with the van are two pillows, plates and cutlery, pot, pan, small gas stove and water container. We hired two sleeping bags, which were definitely needed, but the cooler esky we rented wasn’t used at all. You can even add on 3G/4G mobile Wifi.
Fuel costs were around ISK$189 per litre (AUD$2.40).
Travelling in July meant we had no issues with snow on the roads, the daylight hours were long, but it also meant we weren’t going to be seeing any aurora activity. Bummer.
The sun set around 10.30pm and rose at 4.30am, it never got dark and night time was more like a 5-hour twilight. A bit strange to get used to, but a sleeping mask and having curtains in the campervan definitely helped with that.
June to August is the high season, thus more expensive.
If you’re planning on drinking in Iceland, then your best bet is to stock up at the duty free at Keflavik airport when you enter the country.