Iceland: Circling the land of fire and ice

Why Iceland?

We are so excited to finally be sharing the details of the first stop on our journey. When planning this trip, Iceland was high on my bucket list due to it’s Mars-like terrain and incredible vistas. Over the past several years it’s been ascending in popularity, with one million visitors annually (3x the population). So while Iceland is certainly no longer an undiscovered gem, it’s still an unbelievably  gorgeous country, and you can’t beat the price to get there: $300 SEA ✈ KEF.

Rejecting the idea of a typical Iceland “stopover” trip which includes a night in Reykjavik and a pre-airport dip in the Blue Lagoon, we decided that we would do Iceland the right way, and plan an extreme road trip around the Ring Road. Ok well, not so extreme that we’d consider camping (too cold) or even renting one of those camper vans (too claustrophobic), but an adventure nonetheless.

Truth be told, neither one of us had a clue what we were getting into, so it definitely put our relationship as a traveling couple to the test. While we both came away unscathed, a fast-paced 8 days in Iceland helped us realize how not to travel moving forward. Also, Gaetan is never letting me plan a trip solo ever again.

The Ring Road

The famous Ring Road is Highway 1 in Iceland, looping all the way around the island, perfect for road trips. The beauty of the Ring Road is that 90% of the destinations worth seeing in Iceland are on the Ring Road, or just a short detour away. The only exception here would be the Westfjords, details provided in the below section devoted to that particular detour.

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Highway 1 along the Eastern fjords

We followed a fairly ambitious 8-day Ring Road itinerary, heavily inspired by Alex Cornell’s Iceland Travel Guide. Most blogs and online itineraries say to go in a counterclockwise direction to ensure that you see a lot of stuff at the beginning. As we were somewhat limited by lack of available lodging in certain areas, we decided to flip it and go in a clockwise direction. That said, I have to say that we preferred the clockwise version, as we were able to get a lot of driving (ie: the Westfjords) out of the way early on, with days 4-8 having a much more relaxed tempo.

8-day itinerary

Popular opinion is that 8 days is a bit too short to truly experience a lot of the island. 10-14 days allows for a more leisurely pace. But even with limited time, we thought that 8 days was totally fine to drive the entire Ring Road and even venture into the Westfjords. Here is our itinerary, which is also detailed below:

  • Day 1: Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes Peninsula (Ólafsvík)
  • Day 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Westfjords (Ísafjörður)
  • Day 3: Westfjords to North Iceland (Sauðárkrókur)
  • Day 4: North Iceland to Myvatn (Grímsstaðir)
  • Day 5: Myvatn to eastern Fjords (Vopnafjörður)
  • Day 6: Eastern Fjords to Höfn
  • Day 7: Höfn to Vestmannaeyjar Islands
  • Day 8: Vestmannaeyjar to Reykjavik

Day 1: Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Arriving at 6:30 AM on a redeye out of Seattle, I was ready to start driving. We fueled up in at Kaffivagninn in Reykjavik, a great seaside spot for a hearty breakfast after a long flight. With G snoozing in the passenger seat, we started making our way over to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. This is an exciting place as it has been named “Iceland in a nutshell” due to the many national sites found in the area: especially the Snæfellsjökull national park. Unfortunately, with jetlag kicking in, we were only able to do two short hikes to Gatklettur arch rock and the Londrangar basalt cliffs before settling in early in the small fishing village of Ólafsvík.

All in all, Snæfellsnes was cool, but we don’t recommended trying to conquer it in its entirety on a first day as there are plenty of adventures to be had:

  • Snæfellsjökull national park
  • Fjöruhúsið café. A delicious spot right on the water to grab a bite before the hike to the arch rock
  • Gatklettur arch rock
  • Londrangar basalt cliffs

Day 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Westfjords

The Westfjords – a remote, lobster-shaped peninsula – are serious business in Iceland. Though popularized as of late in Bloomberg, and a favorite of musicians and tech moguls alike, they are rather difficult to access, and are thus seen by fewer than 5% of all Iceland visitors. 

We spent most of this day driving through the fjords to Ísafjörður and almost running out of gas. Word to the wise: fill up when you have ½ a tank. Nonetheless, we still saw a few cool things on this day:

  • Kirkjufell church mountain
  • Ferry Baldur. We made the mistake of not booking this ferry in time, which goes from Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes peninsula to Brjanslaekur in the Westfjords. This would have saved us 3 hours of driving (and almost running out of gas), so learn from our mistakes!
  • Ísafjörður town. Try Tjoruhusid, one of the best seafood restaurants in the Westfjords

Day 3: Westfjords to North Iceland

Ideally, we would have given ourselves an extra day in the fjords to really explore the Westfjords region, as most of the sights are rather long detours off of an impossibly windy gravel road. For this reason, our time in this region was the only time I felt like we truly needed an SUV.

  • Hellulaug hot spring. One of the many free geothermal hot springs in Iceland. This one was right at the base of the fjords & provided a nice infinity pool view to the water
  • Latrabjarg cliffs. Iceland’s westernmost point
  • Raudasandur red sand beach
  • Dynjandi waterfall. A 3-tiered waterfall, our favorite waterfall of the entire trip
  • Galtarviti lighthouse. A bright orange lighthouse on the edge of the Westfjords. Hosts a residency program that has inspired Icelandic musicians, artists and writers for years.

Day 4: North Iceland to Myvatn

After spending the night on another farm in the middle of nowhere (Sauðárkrókur) we were off to the Lake Myvatn region. On the way, we passed Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city. It was Icelandic Independence Day (from the Danes) so the town was bustling with celebration.

The geothermal region of Myvatn is a must-visit for anyone who goes to Iceland. We felt like we we were on Mars the entire time, and loved learning about Iceland’s geothermal energy program (which supplies ⅓ of the country’s energy). Some spots not to miss from that day:

  • Godafoss waterfall
  • Lake Myvatn
  • Námafjall geothermal area
  • Hverfjall crater
  • Myvatn Nature Baths. I think this was G’s favorite spot of the trip. A smaller, cheaper and significantly less crowded version of the famous Blue Lagoon.

Day 5: Myvatn to eastern Fjords

Since our next stop was only 90 mins away – a nice reprieve from our copious daily driving – we spent some of this day exploring the rest of the Myvatn region before spending a rainy evening relaxing at our guest house in Vopnafjörður. Had we been on a tighter timeline, we could have certainly skipped this day and just book it all the way down to Höfn from Myvatn.

  • Dettifoss waterfall
  • Krafla power station
  • Viti crater
  • Kaupvangskaffi cafe. A wonderful spot for a meal if you’re in the Vopnafjörður area

Day 6: Eastern Fjords to Höfn

Fully refreshed from our first long night of sleep, we set out to drive all the way from the top of the Eastern fjords, down to the Southeastern point of the island. We hit some great weather, which allowed us to take in the beautiful vistas, do some picnicking near a waterfall, and do a couple of great hikes along the Stokksnes headland and Lækjavik coast.

  • Borgarfjörður Eystri. A great place to see puffins!
  • Stops along the way. We pulled over several times to hike to random waterfalls and pose on a random red chair!
  • Stokksnes
  • Lækjavik coast

Day 7: Höfn to Vestmannaeyjar

Southern Iceland is widely regarded the most beautiful and part of the country. Along the Ring Road, there are plenty of icebergs, glaciers, to beaches and cliffs, and more than your fair share of waterfalls. Seriously, toward the end of our trip, we weren’t even that excited for the waterfalls (even though they were spectacular!) just because there were so many.

However, since this area is just a short drive away from Reykjavik, we were prepared for busloads of tourists blocking our photo opps. Given the 22 hours of daylight in this part of Iceland during the summer, we saw some of the sights during off hours, like the 11PM sunset, which was a great way to capture the beauty of the glacier and iceberg lagoon.

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Jökulsarlón
  • Jökulsárlón
  • Diamond Beach
  • Vatnajökull glacier
  • Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon
  • Svartifoss waterfall
  • Reynisdrangar & black beach
  • Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. We didn’t see this because it was raining and required a 45 min hike to the beach, but based on photos alone, I recommend it!
  • Skógafoss waterfall
  • Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
  • Seljavallalaug Pool. One of the oldest (warm) swimming pools in Iceland, it requires a short hike to a relaxing experience.
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Diamond Beach

*One of the things we do regret doing is booking a night in Vestmannaeyjar (Westman islands). This is a small island chain right off of Vik in the Southwestern part of Iceland. I thought it would be a cool way to finish our trip and see some puffins. Unbeknownst to me, this is also the rainiest part of Iceland: we hit some rough weather and got seasick on the ferry ride over and also found out that the puffins had retreated due to the terrible rainstorm. So the next morning we sailed back to the mainland with nothing to show for our efforts.

Day 8: Vestmannaeyjar to Reykjavik

Originally, we were kicking ourselves for limiting our time in Reykjavik to a single day. But after getting there around noon on our 8th day, 10 hours was a perfect amount of time to explore the town, eat a few meals and even get in some culture before an early flight out the next morning. The city is small, so we could accomplish most things on foot. We recommend checking out the Hallgrímskirkja church and the Harpa concert hall, both beautiful & modern structures that add to Reykjavik’s skyline.

As the culinary hub of Iceland, food is definitely something that Reykjavik gets right. There is a ton of variety (which we missed whilst road tripping) so we stopped often for a quick snack, coffee or glass of wine.

  • Kaffivagninn. A lovely seaside spot for a hearty breakfast or nice seafood lunch.
  • Sandholt. My favorite restaurant-bakery with super cozy nordic decor. Try the veggie sandwich.
  • Brauð & Co. A simply amazing bakery with like 3 things on the menu. Get them all.
  • Gló. A vegetarian’s paradise that won’t break the bank
  • Kex Hostel. This is the place to stay/hang out while in Reyk. Reminded us of the Ace Hotel. They have a nice gastropub with a solid happy hour, and  also frequently host live music (we heard some great Icelandic hip-hop!)

Do’s and Don’ts

A few valuable takeaways from our trip for anyone planning a trip to Iceland or around the Ring Road.

DO

1) Be ok with driving…a lot. Iceland may seem like a small country, but if you’re doing the Ring Road in a week, be prepared to cover the equivalent of a road trip from SF to LA every day.

2) Make a good playlist. You’ll be doing a lot of driving, so make sure to download a bunch of songs on Spotify. Our playlist was heavily local: Kaleo, Bjork, FM Belfast, Mugison, Mammút and of course, Of Monsters and Men.

3) Pass on the Blue Lagoon. What most often comes to mind when people hear “Iceland”. Stunning as it may be…you’ll easily forget that after paying $100+ to get in and find yourself rubbing shoulders with thousands of bussed-in tourists. Myvatn Nature Baths is another blue lagoon that is a bit cheaper, but much more relaxed. If you must check out the Blue Lagoon, I recommend staying at the Silica Hotel and getting access to your own private lagoon.

4) Layer! Doing the Ring Road in the summer was a bit like experiencing all of San Francisco’s various climates in one week: from foggy mornings, to sunny 65 degree days, to perilous freezing rain and wind. Pack a variety of comfy driving, hiking and warm winter clothes (we were somewhat limited in space and ended up wearing the same jacket and 2 pair of pants for 8 days in a row).

DON’T

1) Get too ambitious. I had a very specific idea of where I wanted us to go every day & couldn’t wait to start driving once we landed. This basically resulted in me experiencing the first day in Iceland solo because G was asleep in the passenger seat.

2) Try to stay on budget. Iceland is a remote island with a very strong Krona. Everything from food to gas to lodging is expensive. If you try to be too frugal, you may end up running out of gas after you’ve skipped lunch for the 2nd day in a row, ready to kill your travel companion. If you have the means, make the most of your trip by trying the local cuisine & bringing home a nice Icelandic wool blanket.

3) Spend too much time in Reykjavík. For those of you living in larger cities, Reykjavík will seem like a suburb of a suburb. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a growing city with an amazing food scene, as well as a pseudo-Brooklyn hipster vibe. But after 1-2 days, you will have walked every street 5+ times and find yourself asking what else is out there.

We hope you enjoyed reading about the first leg of our trip! Gaetan will be posting his Iceland song soon. Now, on to Sweden!

4 thoughts on “Iceland: Circling the land of fire and ice

  1. Hey Xenia & Gaetan. Thanks for the beautiful post with the dazzling photographs. You are a very lovely couple. Such an amazing location! I really wished I had a drone to take stunning footage of diamond beach Iceland.

    Liked by 1 person

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