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Exploring Iceland’s Ring Road & Beyond

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Iceland has always been high on my list of dream destinations. I first saw it in Delta’s Sky Magazine quite a few years ago. They were introducing non-stop service to Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital city), thus highlighting it as a featured “not-to-miss” destination. This was the beginning of Iceland’s tourism boom.

All good things come to those that wait (unfortunately—why can’t they come now? And there’s Gen Y trait rearing its ugly head) and so I waited. Luckily for me, it was not that long of a wait. WOWair (Iceland’s budget airline comparable to our Spirit Airlines) began to introduce fares from Boston or Baltimore to Reykjavik for $99 each way. That’s unheard of! Myself being the savvy airfare watchdog that I am, I snatched up a roundtrip ticket right away before they sold out the next day. I eventually talked my sister into taking another trip with me (see Part 1 of the Nowicki adventures here) and so began the ever-anticipated Icelandic Adventure.

We are the type of travelers that can’t sit still. Beaches, lounge chairs, and poolside margaritas? No, thank you! Because of this, we decided to take on the Ring Road in just five days/four nights. To be clear, the Ring Road is not the same as famous Golden Circle. I know, two similar adjectives with completely different meanings. Welcome to Iceland! The Ring Road is the 828-mile long road wrapping around the entirety of the island. As all geography buffs should know, Iceland is a semi-round squiggly island, thus the “ring” shape of the road. Conversely, the Golden Circle—also a road shaped in a semi-round fashion – see where the confusion comes in? – is near Reykjavik, highlights three major sights to see, and can be done within a matter of hours. This is more ideal for those that don’t have the time trek the Ring Road. And that wraps up your geography lesson, for now. You’re welcome.

As I said before, the Nowicki sisters (and family in general) are not ones for relaxing travel. We hit the ground running… literally. After landing in the capital city, we were off. If Iceland was our oyster, the Ring Road was our knife, peeling apart and revealing its contents as we went. We knew our final destination each night, but in between was the open road. We stopped as we pleased (sometimes every few kilometers), ate as we felt hungry, and hiked when the signs prompted us to. This is how we like to travel. No plans, no commitments; just a tour book in Jessie’s hand and the steering wheel in mine.

That’s the beauty of traveling in the shoulder seasons. We did this with New Zealand and now again with Iceland. Sure, some shops, restaurants, and rest areas were still closed in May, but the snow had just melted enough to where the major hikes and natural attractions were now accessible and the crowds hadn’t quite picked up yet. Just like with New Zealand, we could drive for kilometer after kilometer without seeing a soul. This left us with the flexibility we wanted. I would imagine that it’s hard to feel close to Iceland when you have hundreds of people standing in your way.

Anyways, the tiny town of Vik was our stop for the first night, but we had 185 kilometers and countless sights to see before we arrived. Our first stop was, of course, the grocery store. I think after New Zealand, we developed a mental road tripping grocery list so that was a quick stop.

Soon after some easy driving, Seljalandsfoss peeked around the corner. One thing to remember in Iceland, anything ending in “foss” is a waterfall. This is about as accustomed to the very complicated Icelandic language as we could get. When we saw “blahblahblah-foss” noted on the road signs, we knew there was going to be a waterfall up ahead.

Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls for two reasons, its close proximity to the capital city (you could easily make it over there in a quick day trip, but again don’t confuse this with the Golden Circle), and secondly you can walk behind it. The sun was on our side when we got there and the rainbows were in full view. End to end visibility, minus the pot of gold. There is no hiking needed to get good views of this stunner. A short walk from the parking lot will get you right up to the falls. If trekking behind the fall is on your agenda, be sure to have a raincoat. The freezing water will tame for no one.

It was another short jaunt on the RR to make it to Skogafoss. Another waterfall with relatively close proximity to Reykjavik, and one worth seeing. With rainbows still aloft—just for us, I’m sure—from the water’s misty resonance we hiked up the 5 million some-odd stairs (or so it seemed) to make it to the top. Once atop the outlook point we walked around the edges of the river which carried water to the edge of the falls. The grass surrounding was still dead from the winter, but golden with the spring’s sun reflecting. Balancing along the goat’s trail lead us to the “face in the rocks” forever admiring the falling water.

The day ended with a visit to the beach of Vik and the Reynisdrangar pillars. Legend has it, two mischievous trolls went out to the ocean to grab a ship right from the water, but with the rising sun they turned to stone. It wouldn’t be Iceland without a few whimsical stories!

After getting out of Vik the next morning (no point on staying any longer than to sleep; there’s nothing there) we were immediately introduced to Iceland’s most abundant geological formation, volcanic rock. Stretching out as far as the eye can see this moss covered rock laps at the edges of the road like waves. A brilliant sea of green and black. After getting out of the volcanic ruins we are lead into a vast expanse of flatlands. Ships used to run aground here before modern navigation systems because it simply looks like a continuation of the ocean. Black waters that present themselves as black sand and rock only when it is too late.

Soon we arrive back in the rocky mountainous area where we leave our car for a hike up to Svartifoss, yet another waterfall, most notable on practically every Iceland postcard ever. It wasn’t the easiest hike for us (meaning me) out-of-shapers, but it was worth it in the end.

After hiking back down and grabbing a quick lunch, we headed to the Jokulsarlon Iceberg Lagoon, where brilliant blue icebergs break from the nearby glacier. They slowly, but surely make their way out to sea from here. But here’s the secret to enjoying the lagoon. Forget the lagoon! Not entirely, still go to see the icebergs drift by, but the beach on the other side of the road is where the fun begins. The black sand beaches are a stark contrast to the sky blue of the icebergs that tried to get away, but were pushed back onto the beach. They are fun to run around and climb on if you are a 6-year-old at heart such as myself.

After an exhausting and rainy day, we settled for the night in Hofn, a small fishing town on the southeast coast. Here we got to try our first Icelandic hotdog! Icelanders love their hotdogs and it is a must to try. Make sure to get a hot dog with “eina med ollu” or “the works”!

The next morning, we set out for the east coast fjords. Up until now, we had been traveling mostly along the flatlands, and climbing into the cliffed coastal mountains was quite the difference, not to mention Icelanders don’t seem to believe in road safety. Guard rails are positioned where they are unnecessary and missing where they’re needed. It’s a pretty drive, but one to be taken with caution. Looking down from the road to the coast hundreds of feet below can be dizzying to even the most trained of drivers—and let it be known that I am not one of them.

The quirky town of Djupivogur is worth a stop if only to visit the “shop of oddities”. Here you will find fossils, bones, sculptures, and every curio in between. A man and his charming dog run the place and create the art he so proudly displays. His dog was used to strangers and wouldn’t leave you alone until her ball was thrown and retrieved… and thrown and retrieved, on and on. This was, of course, just fine with me.

Continuing our weaving track in and out of the fjords we came across plenty of beautiful Icelandic horses known for their long hair and friendly demeanor. Horses are seen just as often as cows are in the Midwest. We opted to stop almost every time we came across some, of course.

From the fjords, we made our way inland through the mountains. We had just missed a snowstorm by a couple of days so the roads were cleared, but there was still 5 feet of snow on either side of us at some points. As I said, the shoulder seasons have their perks, but you can still risk being unlucky, especially with the snow.

We decided very last minute to hike up to Hengifoss. A completely uphill battle lead us to the falls, which to our dismay were still almost completely frozen. It was definitely one of those “is that all there is?” moments. The highlight of the hike was turning around from the forward trail to admire the sun beginning to set below the mountains on the vast valley behind us.

After arriving at our end point for the day, Seydisfjordur, we headed to the bar to relax after a very stressful driving day. Of course, we missed last call for food by about a half hour so we settle for beer. Come to find out, “cheaper” domestic beer is $10 a bottle! Needless to say, we savored every drop.

We knew we had a busy day ahead, so a very early rise was in order the next morning. Luckily, the sun rises that time of year around 4am so we had no problem waking to daylight. After much mumbling and grumbling (I’m not a morning person) we set out on our way to Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Iceland. It took us over 2 hours to get there and I don’t think we saw a single other car the entire time. We were driving on top of an icecap most of the way so it was a bit unnerving to think there was no one around for miles. But alas we made it to the falls, which are so powerful that you can hear them from quite a ways off. We didn’t spend too much time here, as the falls were partially still frozen and it was cold!

Lake Myvatn was next on the agenda. Around the lake are plenty of sights to see, including volcanic craters, funky volcanic rock formations, sulfuric hot springs, mud pits, and, of course, waterfalls. I won’t go into much detail here because it is basically what it sounds like. The attractions around Lake Myvatn are like a gigantic natural obstacle course; complete all for the highest score.

We landed in Akureyri for the night. Boasting the title of, “capital of the north”, Akureyri is a hip college and fishing town. It felt nice to be in a larger town for the first time in a few days. Crowds aren’t always bad, especially after you’ve seen less than 100 people in the last four days. We were recommended a nice family restaurant for dinner. This was our first real meal the entire trip so we decided to go all in. A fun anecdote for you; anyone that knows us, knows that the Nowicki sisters can never have enough nachos. Much to our happiness, nachos were on the menu! We hadn’t eaten all day so the nachos were the much-anticipated first course. Come to find out, their definition of nachos were quite literally Doritos on a plate. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The drive from Akureyri to Reykjavik is a relatively easy drive through the valleys. The highlight of the drive were the horses. Much like the rest of Iceland, they are everywhere. I made a few new friends along the way and it was difficult to say goodbye. Jessie had to drag me away a few times. I hate to say it, but the fact that horse meat is a staple in the Icelandic diet made parting ways even more distressing.

Finally, we made it back to where we started. We’d been driving all day so upon a late arrival into Reykjavik, we were ready for dinner. The city sightseeing would have to wait.

And now comes the time to revisit our geography lesson. We had made it all the way around the Ring Road. Yay! Now that we were back in the Reykjavik area, we thought we might as well visit the Golden Circle. As I mentioned, the Golden Circle is the Ring Road’s little brother; highlighting three major attractions for those that don’t want to venture too far outside the capital. Here’s the thing that I will say about the Golden Circle though; don’t do it after you have already done the Ring Road. It’s like going all the way to Rome to have your very first taste of gelato and then coming home to store-bought gelato. It’s satisfying, but entirely disappointing compared to your first Rome gelato. The Golden Circle is ideal for those that don’t venture out to the Ring Road, not necessarily the other way around.

We started off our day on the Golden Circle with some casual snorkeling. You read that right, snorkeling… in Iceland. One of the “big three” attractions on the Golden Circle circuit is the Pingvellir National Park, home of the Silfra Fissure. This is quite literally the crack between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The crystal clear waters in the fissure leave for an exciting, albeit chilly snorkel. The dry suits helped with the just above freezing temperatures though. The water is too cold for wildlife, but you can still enjoy the ultimate feeling of being in two places at once.

Next stop was Gullfoss, Golden Circle’s claim to fame. Gullfoss is quite spectacular, if you hadn’t been witness to the countless other waterfalls that Iceland had to offer around the Ring Road. Again, with the satisfying; yet semi-underwhelming gelato.

The final stop on the loop was Geysir and Strokkur. We’ve covered geography, now for a bit of English. Here, Geysir is the proper noun, everywhere else, geyser turned into a common noun, thanks to Geysir the proper noun. Make sense? Unfortunately, for us Geysir (the proper noun) doesn’t erupt unless there is an earthquake. I’ve heard it’s pretty spectacular though for the few that actually get to see it. Strokkur is the active one out of the bunch. For those that have never seen a geyser (the common noun) erupt I’m sure it is also spectacular, but for Jess and I, it’s certainly no Old Faithful in Yellowstone!

On our last day together we spent our time meandering around Reykjavik. The highlight here being a quick trip into the Hallgrimskirkja church observation tower. This is where you will find the best views of the city, colorful roofs and all. There are certainly museums and lots of shopping to be done, but that wasn’t entirely our interest. A couple days in Reykjavik was definitely all we needed.

The Blue Lagoon is perhaps Iceland’s most famous “natural” wonder. Just outside of Reykjavik on the way to the airport, the Blue Lagoon draws thousands to its milky blue waters. It is a natural oddity, but it is not naturally heated and there are a few chemicals added to the water to give it the spa-like quality they are looking for. Thus the quotes around “natural.” Something to remember, book your time spot in advance. We tried to just show up and were turned away because they were full for the rest of the day, even in the off-season. Apparently we missed the memo. It was interesting to see all the same. Worth $50 to swim in? I’ve heard it go both ways.

That evening we made our way back to the airport and I sent Jessie on her way. She was catching a plane to meet a friend in Poland (so nonchalant, I know) and I still had another day and a half in the country of fire and ice to explore.

And so, by my lonesome, I set off for the West Peninsula the next morning. Outside of Reykjavik is a long 5-kilometer tunnel connecting two of the fjords. It’s basically a shortcut. We had come through this tunnel on our way into Reykjavik a couple days before, but it costs over $10 to pass through. So on my way back out of Reykjavik I thought I would take the road along the fjord to avoid the tunnel, thus saving me money. No one rips me off; I’ll show them (shaking fist and all)! Well, it turns out this road took me 1.5 hours out of my way and wasted almost my entire morning. I can see why that tunnel was built now. Word to the wise, just pay the ten bucks and get over it.

After getting back on track, the drive along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula was a beautiful coastal drive with volcanic rock fields, ice caps, and pillared beaches. It’s no wonder Jules Verne made this the setting for his book, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. I also stopped at a roadside attraction to go down into a volcanic cave; hardhat, flashlight, and all! Definitely worth the $20 entrance fee.

Once up and around to the northern side of the peninsula I could glimpse the snowy mountains of the West Fjords, comically mistaken as Greenland by myself for about a split second (maybe two). It was a long drive back down to the capital city, but well worth the day trip. And in case you were wondering, on my way back in, I sucked it up and paid the tunnel fee once again.

The next day I said goodbye to the strange little country that held a bit of everything. Turns out that the Delta Sky Magazine was right. Iceland is the next not-to-miss destination to visit. Their tourism is still growing—and hopefully with that will come some guardrails on the fjord coastal roads. Just a few, that’s all I ask—but it is such a diverse and exciting place to experience all the same. Iceland will always be worth the wait.

P.S. Note to readers: don’t speed in Iceland, especially in the aforementioned tunnels. They will catch you on the speeding camera and they will send a ticket to your home… I speak from experience.

Hannah Nowicki About the Author: Hannah was Classic Travel’s group travel specialist from 2014 to 2016. She left us to take an indefinite sabbatical backpacking throughout Europe. We wish her well on her journey!