A land of mystery, brazen landscapes, northern lights and midnight sun – Iceland is like no other place on earth. At its warmest, the country reaches a pleasant 16 degrees, but in my Icelandic horse owner’s words, ‘‘what a day!’’ he said as he sweated profusely, exacerbated by the heat. In Iceland during the summer, kids ride horses bare-backed and bare-footed, and people come from all over the world to soak in mineral-rich hot springs under the midsummer night sun.
Find Your Base
Almost every great Icelandic adventure begins and ends in Reykjavik, the country’s charming capital city located just 45-minutes from Keflavik International Airport. It’s worth spending some time in Reykjavik and getting a taste of Icelandic culture, before heading out on the road. Alternatively, you could do as I did and use the city as a base for a range of day-trips across the south-west region of the country.
Handy hints and must dos in Reykjavik:
- Crossing the road is a game of polite badminton: Icelandic people are so well-mannered that cars are likely to stop in the middle of the street if you vaguely look like you might want to cross it, regardless of whether the spot is a pedestrian crossing or not. This will end in a lovely round of ‘you go – no, you go’.
- The water that comes out of the taps is pure, chilled Icelandic spring water and ready to drink. While the hot water smells like rotten eggs, that’s just due to the high sulphur content, pumped straight from steamy underwater springs.
- The trick to all great road trips is an early start and the perfect breakfast. For the best coffee and scones in town, head to the effortlessly cool Kaffismiðja Islands.
- Must try: Lobster soup from The Sea Baron Restaurant – a green-painted fisherman’s hut down by the old harbour.
- Check out the commanding view from Hallgrímskirkja.
- Experience the thermal baths and pools with the locals (there are 17 thermal pools around the city).
- Ride an Icelandic horse – daily tours depart from Reykjavik for half day riding tours or longer overnight horse riding trails. Ride a horse on a property just outside of the city, or choose from horse riding tours on the beach, the Golden Circle, or through the island’s most loved volcanic regions. These beautiful creatures are the purest breed of horses in the world. If a horse leaves Iceland it can never go back; a rule to keep breeds pure and disease at bay.
- Car hire: If you’re just following main roads, a regular car is fine – be careful to follow the map and not go off-road, as you could find yourself in bumpy terrain, or worse! For any trips off the main roads, you’ll need a 4WD.
The Golden Circle
The most popular tourist route in South Iceland, The Golden Circle is a leisurely 300-kilometre round trip from Reykjavik and can easily be done in one day. First stop along the way is Thingvellir National Park, home to Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
Have a stroll around the National Park, then it’s on to the geothermic active region of Haukadalur. While it might smell like rotten eggs, the show that Geysir and Strokkur geysers put on is impressive enough to distract you from the smell. Watch them shoot out steamy bursts of vapour as you try to capture the moment with your camera – no mean feat!
The final element of the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss Waterfall – translated to ‘Golden Falls’, the water plummets down in two stages into a rugged canyon that reaches 70 meters in height. There’s a story about love and devotion, but most of all the falls are a stunning sight and the lamb stew at the tourist centre cafe is a must for lunch!
Tip: As you’re driving through Iceland’s moonlike landscape, you find wonder and amazement at every bend. Be sure to stop and get out when you see a nice patch of green moss-covered rocks – walking on these feels like walking on fluffy green sponges.The moss is actually bouncy and one can imagine a Viking would have used these green mossy clouds as a comfortable bed for the night when out exploring the land. Icelandic legend has it that gnomes and elves live under these mossy knolls, so don’t bounce too hard!
The Blue Lagoon
The ultimate in relaxation, you’ll love sliding into the Blue Lagoon’s geothermal water. Your skin will glow after you lather your body from head to toe in the silica mud mask available in pots all over the lagoon. Why blue? That’s the silica, algae and minerals working their magic. Here, you can partake in a spa experience, enjoy a healthy meal or simply float for hours in the warm, milky lagoon. If you visit in the summer, take advantage of the evening entrance, and bathe in the sun up until midnight.
Tip: Even if you’re not planning an extended holiday in Iceland, if you’re flying through Keflavik with Iceland Air (who have very cheap flights between London and New York City, by the way) the airline will usually have a stopover of at least five hours – in which time you can catch a shuttle bus to the Blue Lagoon, have a soak and be back in time for your flight! There is seriously no better way to stop over. I did this on my first trip to Iceland and loved it so much I had to come for a longer jaunt.
A trip around Iceland’s west coast peninsular is easily doable in a day from Reykjavik too. Be sure to fork out the money for the Hvalfjörður tunnel to save time. As you wind along country roads, you’ll get a sense for the remoteness of Iceland and you’ll see quaint farmhouses sitting lonesome, almost ghostly, between rolling fields. Along this coastal route there are ample opportunities to stop and explore the rugged coastline and you’ll also set your sights on the mighty Snæfellsjökull volcano.
Tip: Stop in for lunch at the Hotel Budir. This charming hotel offers romance, history, fairytales and gourmet dining.