I’ve wanted to visit Iceland since was in high school and read a fictional book about it. The countryside, the Alþingi, all that history. I wanted to drive the ring road. And this spring I did it, with the help of my son (who did all the driving) and my grandson (who added his love and laughter).Based on our experiences I have a lot of suggestions and advice.
The high season is considered to be June through the end of August, but parts of the country (e.g. the south) were very busy even the last half of May. I speculate that the same might apply into mid-September. So unless you are gung ho for the summer festivals, I’d suggest going in May or September. Some facilities, including some camp grounds may be closed. I’ve heard that a winter holiday (excepting Christmas which is also very busy) are also great.
Iceland is horrendously expensive. We took some dried food, bought food in grocery stores, and camped for a good portion of our trip. We splurged on one dinner and a breakfast, and also had one fairly reasonable lunch. My son and grandson bought street fare – Icelandic hot dogs 3 times.
Camp grounds ranged from approximately $25 to $44 per night, not bad.After a while I just quit converting to Canadian dollars. One other monetary issue: in northern Iceland the machines (grocery stores, gas stations, etc.) declined my credit union master card, though the ATMs took both it and my bank Interac card. On my return I called the credit card company and found out that in the north there were “encryption errors.” For some reason the machines didn’t work properly for my card. Initially, though, when it happened, I visualized us in Iceland with no money! Good deals are to be had, however – more on that later.
Try to arrive in Iceland late in the afternoon (most hotels and similar facilities check in is around 2 pm, though you can often get in earlier). We arrived at the airport just after 7:30 am and if you’re like me you don’t sleep on airplanes. This means a looong day before bedtime and we didn’t want to waste the day sleeping anyway.
At the airport usually one takes a ‘flybus’ to the BSI bus station (unless you are booked for a car or camper van right from the airport – they will usually arrange transportation to their facilities if they aren’t at the airport). This is not a city bus station, but the station where a lot of different tour buses congregate. From here you can walk, take a cab or get a shuttle to your hotel. Depending on where you are staying, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend renting a car right away. Parts of Reykjavik (if that’s where you are staying all your trip or only for a few days) have very narrow, congested and one-way streets that may also become pedestrian only during the weekend. If you do rent a van or car, do a walk around check of tires, hub caps etc. every day to make sure all is OK. Ideally, take pictures with date stamps. We lost a hub cap, no idea were, and it cost us extra.We drove the ring road, with a couple of diversions in 9 days, eight nights. I’d recommend taking at least 14 days, or even 3 weeks if you want to see a lot and have the money. Another option is to stay in Reykjavik and either rent a car for day trips out or book one or more bus tours.
A pretty good deal is the ‘Hop on, Hop off’ red bus tours of Reykjavik. The ticket (approx. $50 per adult is a 24 hour one and you can pack in a lot of the sights – start at the Harpa (concert hall and convention centre on the harbour, buy your ticket from the driver), continue on to a square near the downtown centre, city hall, a whale watching sight (separate boat tours - we didn’t book this), the Maritime Museum, the National Museum, Hallgrimskirkja, Perlan (a great observation point), Kringlan Shopping Centre (just like most other malls in the world), Laugardalur thermal pools and spa (well worth a stop for a swim. Great for kids with a water slide; soak in the hot pools) etc. If you’re 67 or over you get a discount at many Reykjavik facilities, children are free at some or get a discount. The bus departs every half hour from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, the last one arriving back at about 7:30 pm. When you hop off, just make a note of the time and get back out to that stop ½ to 1 hour from that time. The bus includes earphones (take them with you each time) with multilingual channels for commentary.If you get accommodation in the central area of Reykjavik, anywhere from near the Hallgrimskirkja to the harbour, you’ll be able to walk to many places as well. There’s a variety of hotels and hostels (the latter would be cheapest especially if you don’t mind dorm rooms). We had a very nice hotel suite for our first few days with kitchen facilities to make our own meals and breakfast provided along with the fee.
Another option is to rent a car and take daytrips from Reykjavik:· the Golden Circle, which includes Þingvellir Park, Geysir hot springs, and Gullfoss (a waterfall – foss means waterfall);
· explore the Reykjanes peninsula where Reykjavik is located;
· explore the south coast (glaciers and coastline; Keldur which is off the beaten track has a small turf house village; see Mount Hekla; waterfalls; the town of Vik and the troll rocks). This area was very busy with people and traffic when we drove through at the very end of May.
Or go a little farther afield for 2 or 3 days and visit the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the northwest. Unfortunately we didn’t get there.Another option is to base yourself in the north at Akureyri, a northern town/city. This is a quieter area and several day trips can be taken from here. https://grapevine.is/news/2015/08/31/akureyri-town-or-city/ You can fly to Akureyri from Keflavik airport, near Reykjavik (which is where international flights usually arrive).
ývatn Lake with bird life and lots of old caldera and lava fields. Nearby is Dimmuborgir with its castle-like outcroppings and ‘troll caves.’ Beyond that it’s not far to Dettifoss (a couple more hours or about an hour from Akureyri by a different route). Just past Mývatn watch out for a place that looks like a construction factory on the right. Stop there – it’s supposed to be a place where they bake/steam rye bread underground. Unfortunately we missed it. We didn’t miss the sulphur springs – a field of steaming and stinking mud pools, not for swimming! Very impressive. And later just off the side of the road, some outdoor hot pools filled from hot springs, and yes you can soak here.
What did I love? The East Fjords (wish we’d had more time to spend there), Reykjavik, Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon on the south coast, Skaftafell National Park also in the south, and the town of Vik, the Golden Circle, Keldur turf village.
What do I regret not seeing? Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the west, the West Fjords, more of Akureyri, Dettifoss, the underground bakery, going on a whale and/or puffin watching tour, exploring an ice cave. Not enough time, not enough money.
I’m glad we had a van on those rainy and windy nights. I admire the young people who bicycled and camped in tents. One night I went to the kitchen/washroom area building in our campground (it was pouring rain) and the floor was filled with sleeping bags.
I’m home now and I keep having dreams of travelling across lava fields and in small spaces. I’m working on a long poem that I started in Iceland. I also have ideas for a story related to my series ‘The Leather Book Tales’ and just a smidgeon of an idea for a young people’s story.