A man, a plan, a Camper Van!
“You know…” your know-it-all friends will say, repeatedly, as soon as they hear you’ve decided to spend your vacation in Iceland, “Greenland is actually cold and full of ice, and Iceland is warm and green. It was the original bait-and-switch by the Vikings.” While this may be technically true, even in August it’s still pretty darn cold in Iceland.
And we loved it! Coming from Washington, DC, which is a hot, steamy swamp all summer long, the crisp – okay, cold – weather felt amazing. Just remember to pack a couple of sweaters, even in August.
Read more: Wintercamping in Iceland
So, as a public service for you, the savvy traveler, we humbly offer a few suggestions for your trip to Iceland. You should totally go. It’s awesome. (And rent a camper van when you do!)
A man, a plan, a camper van!
Most people campervanning around Iceland are going to do some variant on the Ring Road – the 1,300 kilometer highway that circles the island. It took us about nine days, including several detours. While it could probably be done in less time, we definitely would have loved to have more time. Taking a camper van is by far the best way to see Iceland at its best.
There’s been an explosion of tourism in the country, and outside of Reykjavik many of the hotel rooms fill up months in advance. Bouncing around in a camper van is by far the best way to explore the country – you can spend extra time on the parts of the Ring Road you like, and jet past what you don’t, waving to all the sheep as you pass (we named them all Gary). None of the campgrounds we stopped at were ever full, even during the height of tourist season, and in the more remote parts of the country we would just find a quiet place by the side of the road.
With a camper van you have much more freedom to be spontaneous. If you wanted, you could just land in Reykjavik, pick up your camper van and then go – your only decision would be whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise. Even that’s up for debate. We weren’t 100% which direction we would go until we started driving.
Our route around Iceland
Getting off the not-particularly-beaten track
Even in the height of summer, the Ring Road isn’t too busy. Once you get to the more remote corners, you can actually travel for quite some time without seeing another car. Despite that, we still had the urge to get even further off the beaten track, and there’s several opportunities to do just that.
The Tröllaskagi Peninsula in the North is a winding collection of fjords that’s only recently been fully connected by road. The stunning beauty of the landscape is surpassed only by the huge numbers of sheep (all presumably named Gary). The Snæfellsnes Peninsula near Reykjavik is also an excellent side trip, featuring stunning sea cliffs and the massive Snæfellsjökull glacier.
John takes in the craggy landscape of the remote
Trollaskagi Peninsula in Northern Iceland
Iceland’s starting to develop quite a tasty craft beer scene. We really enjoyed all of the beers from Borg Brugghús – especially the Nordic saison and barrel-aged stout, as well as some of the offerings from Einstök and Gædingur. We learned the hard way that actual beer is only sold in the state-run liquor stores in Iceland, called Vínbúðin. We spent the first half of the trip drinking the fizzy yellow water sold in gas stations and supermarkets before we found out where the actual beer is.
Stopping for night on the Snaefellsness Peninsula in Western Iceland
Splish-splash I was takin’ a bath…
After all that driving and hiking, you’ll probably want a nice hot soak. From wild hot springs in the middle of nowhere to the community swimming pools in nearly every town, there’s always a place for this. Two of our favorites include the Hofsós Community Pool – an infinity pool perched on the side of a cliff with beautiful views of the sea, as well as the Mývatn Nature Baths – Northern Iceland’s answer to the Blue Lagoon.
Gourmet meals, camper van-style! Lamb kabobs, couscous,
tomato and cucumber salad and skýr tzatziki
Hot diggity dog!
Gas station hot dogs in the United States are best avoided. Made from the parts of the animal (cow or pig, if you’re lucky) too foul to be made into industrial lubricants or fed to prisoners and schoolchildren, gas station hot dogs spin in a special griddle for days or weeks, waiting for the foolish and unwary to eat them. However, pylsur are a different beast all together. Icelandic hot dogs are made from lamb, served in a soft, pillow roll and covered in crispy fried onions and remoulade sauce. While remoulade looks like mayonnaise that’s been left out in the sun, trust us, you want the remoulade.
Kate enjoys the dramatic view from the valley into
the coastal town of Seyðisfjörður in Eastern Iceland
Rotten shark is not that bad
After your know-it-all friends are done telling you ad-nauseam about how Iceland was named, they’ll probably start pestering you about hákarl – the questionable delicacy of rotten Greenland shark that’s been buried underground for six months. Food writer Anthony Bourdain famously described it as the worst thing he’s ever eaten.
While this is far from glowing praise, we are happy to report that while it is bad, it’s not that bad. We got ours straight from the source, the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, which is the country’s largest producer of this fetid treat, in addition to being a very charming little museum. The slow-moving, dopey-looking Greenland shark spends most of the year hanging out in really cold and really deep water. Because of this, its blood is full of ammonia, functioning like antifreeze. Basically, what this means is that hákarl tastes like mozzarella cheese soaked in window cleaner. One bite was plenty, followed by copious amounts of brennivin, a caraway-flavored liquor to rinse out the rotten shark taste.
Kate attempts to sample a large hunk of hákarl at the drying shed
Treat yo’ self
While our campervan experience was a fantastic adventure, after nine days and hundreds of kilometers we were definitely ready for some luxury. Because of psychology (nerd alert!). The peak-end theory in psychology says that our memories of an event (like an awesome vacation in Iceland!) are shaped by the most intense experience and the last experience.
To that end, we saved Reykjavik for the end of our trip, returning our trusty camper van and checking into the newly-opened Hilton Canopy. While our hotel room had the distinct disadvantage of not having wheels, the sleek design, crisp sheets and gravlax-filled breakfast more than made up for that. We wandered around the city, checking out Reykjavik’s great street art, shopping for souvenirs, and enjoying an excellent coffee at Reykjavik Roasters. We capped off our Iceland adventure with the delicious (and lengthy!) tasting menu at Fiskmarkaðurinn.
The Skaftafellsjokull glacier flows down to the coast from the highlands
Now that we’re back in the sweltering heat of Washington, DC, we’re already plotting our next trip back to Iceland to hit all of the places we didn’t have time for on this trip, especially Westfjords. Iceland is truly an amazing place, and we can’t wait to visit again.
Read more: 2 weeks in Iceland
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