A Canadian Couple in Iceland
For us, the land of fire and ice was the land of wind and rain, but we had a great time anyway! Our trip came about because my partner, C, got a 6 month work contract overseas and that contract included a 2 week vacation with some paid expenses. He had suggested somewhere warm, but Iceland had long been on my bucket list. We both love hiking, camping, and photography so it didn’t take much to convince him to forget about Hawaii and to rent a camper van for a week and tour around Iceland instead! We did some research, talked to some people that had been and came up with a rough plan. We knew we wouldn’t have enough time to do the entire Ring road, so we decided to focus mostly on one part of the country and we decided to make that the south of Iceland. Given the time of year we were going we knew a lot of campgrounds would be closed, but it appeared that the south had the highest number of year-round campgrounds so that was a plus, and also I really, really wanted to see Dyrhólaey! It was about 90% of the reason I wanted to see the south. And I was definitely not disappointed, but more about that later. We booked our flights, waited a few long short months (I am not a patient person) and travel day finally arrived!
I landed in Keflavik at an ungodly hour 6:30 in the morning. My partner was coming from Europe so I waited around the airport for him to land. It was quite dark when I landed so I couldn’t see much. As the sun came up it started to get light out, I still couldn’t see much as it was quite overcast and raining. So the most exciting thing I did was eat some Skýr while I was waiting. Which is actually pretty exciting. The stuff is amazing, kind of like Greek yogurt but sooooo much yummier! I really miss it. Wish we could get it in Canada. Anyway, his plane finally landed and we were ready to start our adventure!!
Since we hadn’t seen each other in so long, we rented an Airbnb for our first night in Reykjavik. We wanted to spend some quality time together and sleep in an actual bed! Our gracious host accommodated us for an early check-in and we took a nap before heading out to pick up the camper van (I know, I know, too much excitement!). By the time we woke up and headed out to pick up the van, the weather had gotten quite a bit worse. The wind had picked up and it had started to rain. We picked up the van and then hit a grocery store and the wind tried to take away my passenger side door in the parking lot! So we picked up some food, had picked up wine in the duty free at the airport (all of the advice is true, if you want alcohol, pick it up at the duty free, it is so much cheaper!) so we were set to spend a cozy night inside.
The next morning we finally hit the road! Day 1 of the camper van adventure! We had decided to head north before heading back south so that we could tour around Snæfellsnes peninsula. When we started loading the van we found a wet spot on the mattress. It seemed the wind had managed to help the rain find a creative way in through the roof vent. We shoved a plastic bag underneath it to catch any more drips and left the wet spot clear so it could dry. (I was a little bit cranky about this and worried that it was going to be an issue the whole trip, but it wasn’t. It didn’t leak again the whole trip so the wind must have been blowing just right to allow the rain in). Then we headed out!
For day 1, we had loosely planned some things that we wanted to see and I had done some google-mapping to figure out distances and drive times (the only time for the whole trip that I had done this in advance, btw) and I figured we could probably make it to Ólafsvík for the first night. There was a cool-looking church there that I wanted to see. But otherwise, we were pretty much wide open for what the experience would bring us.
First thing I noticed was the roundabouts. There’s so many! We don’t really have a ton in Canada, and definitely not on the highway! It felt like every time we got up to highway speed we had had to slow down for another roundabout! It was an adjustment for sure. The frequency of these lessened however, the further away we were from the cities.
We made our first stop not far from Reykjavik at Esjustofa hiking centre. We hiked up a little ways and admired the view and took the first of what would literally be thousands of pictures between the two of us. A few miles further down the road we stopped again for our first views of the ocean and the waves crashing against the rocks. Pretty much everything was saw was just incredible.
The clouds and the fog really just added to it. It made the whole landscape look mystical. And then there was the wind. It was powerful and it almost blew us away several times! I could lean back into it and be fully supported! It was really something else! So our stops were definitely brief and we were happy to get back in the van and continue driving.
We stopped at Akranes and took some pictures of the ship and the coastline and stopped again at Borgarnes for some amazing views! By this point we were already making mental notes on what we would want to see more of on our next trip! Borgarnes is definitely on that list. The views were amazing and there’s so much history to explore there as well. And according to a friend, some pretty great restaurants as well!
Our next lengthy stop was at Arnastapi. This is one of the things I had google-mapped prior to arriving in Iceland and I knew there were some incredible views waiting for us (including a holey rock!) and I was definitely not disappointed. Prior to actually arriving in Arnastapi, we were struck by the fact that several of the waterfalls (by the way, you will get waterfall fatigue in Iceland).
There’s so many and they’re all so beautiful. You will want to stop for each and every one at the beginning. (That will pass) They were essentially flowing upwards due to the wind. We got out of the van and walked some of the path between Arnastapi and Hellnar. This path winds around the coast and it’s beautiful but it also means that it is super, super windy! The wind was blowing us around and was whipping up the ocean leading to some pretty impressive waves crashing against the shoreline. I took as many pictures as I could, but most of them turned out blurry! I don’t have any sort of protection on my camera lens so it was shortly covered in water droplets and salt so the autofocus was useless. And my glasses were covered in the same so I couldn’t manually focus either! My partner fared slightly better as his camera has a lens hood and he doesn’t have glasses but it was a challenge for sure. Also just so much fun. As cold and as windy as it was, it was still quite impressive. And it was sort of fun to be blown along the coastline. The path is far enough back from the cliffs that there was no danger of being blown off. We stopped for some coffee and cake and to warm up a bit before hitting the road again.
After spending so much time outside at Arnastapi in the, what was quite frankly miserable, weather (even though we did have fun) we were somewhat reluctant to get out of the vehicle again. We skipped Vatnshellir and the Lónsdrangar (which I am kicking myself for, but all the more reason to return!) but we did stop at Saxhólar because who can resist climbing to the top of a volcano! We made it to the top—and almost got blown right back off! I’m not kidding. The wind was brutal up there. I am not a small person and I felt like I was getting thrown around like a rag doll! It was an experience I did not enjoy. I would recommend not going up in really windy conditions. It was honestly pretty tough for me to enjoy the view or anything else about it. My partner however loved it. He got a few nice shots and then came down. It’s a stop I would definitely recommend if the wind isn’t bad which is probably most of the time. Just not that day!
From there we mostly stayed in the vehicle enjoying the views until we reached Ólafsvík. I got to see my church and there’s a really beautiful waterfall coming down the mountain just behind the church. We got some really nice pictures here. While I thought we would stop here for the night, we continued on to what would be our final stop for the evening, Grundarfjörður. We stayed at a small campsite and enjoyed a well-deserved soak in the local outdoor hot tubs. This was one of the most relaxing times we spent in Iceland. It was just the two of us outside, relaxing and enjoying the mountains. The wind was still quite strong, but very bearable when you’re in a hot tub! Unfortunately, we were not smart enough to feed ourselves first, so once we got out of the hot tub and back to the campsite, we had to bear the cold and the wind outside to cook our food (pro tip: get a camper van that converts so you can cook indoors or stay at campsites with indoor cooking areas 😉 ). We made it through though, enjoyed our somewhat hot meal and hit the hay for the night.
Day 2 started by backtracking a bit to check out Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss. This is the mountain that has found fame in Game of Thrones. The waterfall is stunning. We spent quite a bit of time here taking pictures.
We continued our way around the peninsula, sticking close to the coast. It was such a beautiful drive. It really amazed us how much the landscape in Iceland could change from one moment to the next. We eventually connected back up with the interior highway and started making our way toward the next destination: Þingvellir. I plotted out a route that would take us past Reykholt and past Langjökull glacier. I used the tourist map to plot out this route as it looked like the road past the glacier was just like every other road on the map but guess what? The tourist map LIES!! It was NOT like every other road, it was an F-road! Except it’s not marked as an F-road at the beginning of the road.
It was definitely an interesting drive with some amazing reviews. I had read somewhere that Iceland has stood in for Mars in a few films and I have no doubt that this is where it was filmed. It is very desolate but still quite beautiful. And – you guessed it – windy!! We ended up following the road up to the glacier, kind of drove up to it just to say that we’d been there and then turned around and headed back. Which made me quite crabby as we were SO CLOSE to our final destination! It would have taken us about 45 minutes on that road to get to Þingvellir but we just didn’t want to chance it as we were technically not allowed on that road. So we had to detour about an hour and a half back the way we came. The upside is we found some pretty great random waterfalls just off the side of the road that we went right down into.
The landscape down into Þingvellir is incredible. Lava fields galore! I was excited for this area as it was the site of the first open air parliament in history. It was starting to get dark by the time we got there and I had discovered that there were naturally-fed hot springs at Laugarvatn so that was our next destination! After the fiasco with attempting to cook outside in miserable weather, and since it was still windy and kinda rainy, we decided to splurge on a nice (indoor!) restaurant dinner.
We ate at Lindin restaurant in Laugarvatn and the food was so good! I had the Arctic char and C had the wild game dish which had goose, reindeer, and whale. I discovered when I got home that whale seems to not necessarily be a traditional Icelandic dish and that most of the demand for whales in Iceland is from tourists. So I felt a bit guilty in hindsight about that and would definitely stay away from whale in the future. After a wonderful dinner, we enjoyed being pampered and relaxing in the thermal baths. We ended up parking just outside a campsite for the night.
Day 3 was a very wet day for us! We got a very lazy start to the morning but still managed to beat the crowds to Geysir. There was a lot of fog that day which made for some pretty neat atmospheric pictures with the fall colours. And fun fact, there’s a random wrestling statue in the Geysir parking lot. Couldn’t really see a story or anything about it, but I really got a kick out of it.
From Geysir we headed up to Gullfoss where we got absolutely soaked. It was raining a bit and after taking in the view from the top, we made our way right down to the falls. It was pretty amazing. And we were so very, very thankful that we had invested in good windproof and rainproof jackets and outer layers. It really made a huge difference. From Gullfoss though, we had some decisions to make. The furthest east we wanted to travel on the trip was Jökulsárlón and I thought we had the van for 5 days. Since we were on day 3, I knew that we needed to push east and go as far as we could go in that direction so we could see the glacier lagoon then starting heading back in order to get back to Keflavik for 5 pm on the afternoon of the 5th day to drop the van off.
So I decided to forgo exploring more of Þingvellir so that we could get moving east. So we started heading south to meet back up with highway 1 and stopped in Selfoss to stock up on groceries. It was at this point that C mentions the dates we have the van for and I realize that we actually have the van for 6 days, not 5. Which means we could have stayed where we were to explore Þingvellir a little more, so I was super cranky for a good 20 minutes or so (because this day mix-up was obviously his fault, not mine for not being able to count 🙂 ). But oh well. Yet another reason to come back! We pushed on to Vik and Dýrhólaey and figured we would probably stay the night in Vik.
We caught views of incredible waterfalls like Skógafoss and Seljalandfoss, promising ourselves we would stop on the way back. We stopped to take pictures of Eyjafjallajökull and noted more things to stop for on the way back (that I have forgotten at this point because we did not actually end up stopping!) and made it to Dyrhólaey. There are two parking lots for Dyrhólaey, one road goes up and one goes down. We went up first. The view is breathtaking. You have a complete 360 degree view, the ocean and beach on one side, the mountains and glaciers on the other. It’s just incredible. Words and pictures simply don’t do it justice. And of course, this is when my camera battery died! It had been flashing red the whole time we’d been in Iceland (because I was not organized enough to charge it before I left home) and it finally gave out. But like I said, pictures just did not do the place justice anyway. The rock itself was just as grand as I’d expected. I would have really liked to have climbed on it, but it was blocked off and with the wind, it likely would not have been safe anyway. We went down to the second parking lot and the views were also incredible though these were mostly of the beach, the cliffs, and the ocean.
From here we drove a little ways down the highway to Vik and checked into the campground. Then we went for a walk to the beach. I love Vik beach. This is yet another area where I would have loved to spend more time. It seemed like there was a lot to explore in the town, and I would have loved to have enjoyed a few sunsets and sunrises here. As it was, the sky had cleared a bit and we managed to enjoy our first real sunset in Iceland on the beach! The sky was also clear after the sun went down so we got to see some stars. No Auroras though. It clouded over again and rained in the evening.
Day 4 dawned cloudy (again) and we hit the road to head east to Jökulsárlón. Entering the land of the glaciers was pretty neat. You drive along the coast for most of it and then through lava fields. C wondered aloud how long the lava had been there for it as it had moss growing on it, so I googled it (WiFi in the camper!!) and it turns out the last eruption had been in the 1700s. So geologically speaking, about 5 minutes ago! We didn’t stop very much on this drive until we got to the glacier lagoon.
I knew that there was a big parking lot and that it also opened up to the ocean, but I started getting glimpses of something on the other side of the hills we were driving beside and seeing little parking lots on the side of the road. Soon I got a big glimpse and I literally gasped (which scared C a bit!) and I told him to pull over. We walked up the hill and were greeted with an incredible sight of the glacier coming down the hill and the icebergs in the lagoon. Again, one of those views that pictures just don’t quite do justice to.
The sky had finally cleared a bit for us too so we had the incredible blue sky reflected in the water. And amazingly, managed to be the only people on that little beach for a short while which was so nice. We took our time, took about a hundred pictures or so, and then continued on to the main parking lot and then to “Diamond Beach” where the glaciers rest on the beach as they’re carried out to sea. All the different sizes and shapes of icebergs and the waves coming in around them was so neat to see. And made for some pretty cool pictures, too. We really enjoyed our time here, but we had to find a place to stay for the night!
We headed back west, stopped at Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon. It was much less crowded, so quiet and peaceful. The landscape is striking as the glacier comes down and feels so close, and there’s what looks to be an old volcanic crater right beside it. So beautiful.
We continued back west, spoiled by the full-on sight of a setting sun!! No clouds or anything!! The mountains looked like they were on fire! We stopped at Skaftafell campground in Vatnajökull National Park to camp for the night. This was the type of campground we were used to coming from Canada. Surrounded by trees, individual planned plots and a hut with washrooms and showers. Oh, and amazing views of a glacier and mountains! And if you’re up for a hike, there is a path that leads to Svartifoss waterfall right beside the campsite. The best part was that it was the first evening we had that was somewhat warm and not windy! We thoroughly enjoyed cooking our dinner outside (chicken cordon bleu and pasta with red wine!) and just enjoying being outside. We thought we might do the hike in the morning, but we were lazy and we did not!
Day 5 was the push back west and the “let’s see everything we missed” day. It started out sunny and clear where we were but as we drove west, it quickly became cloudy and foggy and not very pleasant! Since the weather was kind of yucky, and we were getting tired of yucky weather, we did not stop nearly as much as we had initially planned. We appreciated the view of a lot of waterfalls on the way by, but we did stop at Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon for some pretty amazing views. While you’re walking up the hill, don’t forget to look back and appreciate the lava fields as well. It really looks quite neat.
We also stopped at Hjörleifshöfði cave, which I thought was neat but C thought was pretty “meh.” I do think that the beach itself would be pretty neat if, you know, you’re there on a day that you can actually see it. So much fog on this day! So much!!
We then stopped in Vik for some pretty great food and beer at Suður Vik restaurant and then got some coffee from the grocery store. The coffee made me so happy. It was so needed! And it had a smiley face on it which made it pretty much perfect! Our next stop was going to be Reynisfjara Beach but with the gross weather (for the 4th out of 5 days so far!) we skipped it and headed on to Skógafoss. These falls are incredible. I had a pretty big grin on my face the closer we got. And close did we ever get! I went as close to it as you can possibly get (and got yelled at by a small French child 🙂 ). I got soaked, but it was so worth it.
I can’t even describe the feeling of being so close to such a powerful force of nature. We also went up the 300 and something stairs to the top which I highly recommend doing. The water running through the canyon makes for some pretty great photo ops and the path keeps going for some pretty spectacular high views. By the time we were done though, it was getting pretty late in the day. We were still coming up to Seljalandsfoss and I had read that there was a pretty cool falls up behind Seljalandsfoss in a cave that I really wanted to check out. Google told me there was a campground nearby, so we figured we would stay there the night, hike in the morning and then head back to Keflavik. Well. The campground may be a wonderful and beautiful campground in the summer, but not super functional in the fall when it is wet and muddy. Most of the camping appeared to be on the grass which was barricaded off (because it’s wet and muddy, makes sense) which left room for about 4 vans to park on the gravel. All of which were taken up. So, this was not the campground for us. So we decided that this was again something that would have to wait for next time and we pushed on west. Google told me there was a campground in Selfoss that had outdoor hot tubs, so we phoned and confirmed they were open and westward we went!!
Selfoss campground was lovely, had hot (free!) showers and a really nice cooking/eating space, complete with a cat! We took our sweet time here, especially in the morning of day 6. Day 6 was by far our laziest day. I think it was noon by the time we hit the road! We were pretty close to Keflavik so we were really able to take our time, which was nice. We drove around the Reykjanes peninsula.
The most interesting stop to me was the Hópsnes peninsula. This is a location that has had a lot of shipwrecks throughout the years and the debris of many are still there. There are signs describing many of the wrecks. And if you walk up some of the boulders, you get some pretty amazing ocean views. It was pretty eerie especially because (surprise, surprise!) it was overcast and a bit foggy. It’s a detour I definitely recommend taking. We continued on stopping at Miðlína bridge and Gunnuhver geothermal springs before making our way to Keflavik to check into our B&B (which was lovely!). We dropped the van off at the airport and enjoyed our final night in Iceland relaxing on a balcony with a bottle of wine.
We loved Iceland and will definitely be back. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and while we would do a lot of things the same on a return trip, there are also some things we would change. So the following are tips/advice/things I would possibly do differently:1.
- PLAN!! We kinda sorted half planned our first day and we knew how far east we wanted to go. That was about it. The rest of the time was spent on Google maps in the vehicle seeing what sights were nearby and looking up campsites. While this was nice in many respects because we didn’t have a timeline, it also meant a lot of time looking down at my phone instead of at the scenery, worrying about finding a place to stay for the night, and spending more time driving than doing anything else. So if nothing else, I would recommend at the very least having a few campsites in mind to sleep at the end of the day. If you depend on only one, there’s a good chance it could be full by the time you get there. Many of the campsites we stayed at filled up rather quickly, and that was at the end of October.
- Take more time! (If you can) We planned our trip around Icelandair’s stopover program that allows you to stay for up to 7 days with no additional airfare. We could have easily spent the entire 17 days we had off just in Iceland. Not sure our bank accounts would have agreed with that plan this time around, but it would have been amazing to have more time to explore. We saw some amazing things but didn’t have a lot of experiences, and spent almost 0 time hiking which is something we really enjoy doing.
- Consider what kind of trip/experience you want to have and choose the appropriate vehicle. Our next trip would likely be with a 4×4. There are many things that we would have like to have seen and done that required 4 wheel drive. Also, if you don’t like cooking outdoors or in a room with a bunch of strangers, you should definitely make sure you get the appropriate type of camper van! Our van was a bed in the back and didn’t convert to a seating area, so no cooking inside our own space! It was either outdoors, a communal kitchen, or restaurants for us!
- Clothes!! Bring appropriate weatherproof clothes and layer up! We had both invested in windproof/rainproof jackets before we left and it was definitely the smartest thing we did.
- Take time to actually appreciate the experience! Take the time to stand still at the base of the waterfall and just appreciate it. Take the time to breathe the mountain air, to enjoy the wind, to sit on the beach. Watch Strokkur erupt with your eyes and not just your camera! There were definitely a few times where we were caught up in getting the picture or getting to the next place that we didn’t fully appreciate the experience. I loved the moments where I just focused on the land and enjoyed the experience.
Ours was definitely the trip of a lifetime, but hopefully not the only trip to Iceland we take in our lifetime! We can’t wait to go back!
Happy Camping! #CamperStories
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