Three o’clock in the morning is never an easy time for me, even in the land of the midnight sun. And technically it was August, so dim light on the horizon, yes, but not quite sun. We awoke in one of our less exciting camping spots – no towering mossy and rocky mountain; no lupine-laden, rainbow-draped field; no ash-covered glacier in the distance – but it was still one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I’ve slept in all my years of travel.
When you’re sleeping out of a camper van in Iceland, a welcoming country with spectacular views every which way you look, you get spoiled for choice. And aside from getting ready to finish off 11 days of road-trip bliss in our home on wheels, we were about half a kilometer from the place we had married just a little over a year earlier – Seljalandsfoss.
Photo courtesy of Dani Davila Photography, 2015
This time the early morning rise was necessary, as we wanted to get pictures of this place – which meant so much to us a year ago and will always be part of our story together – but minus the crowds. Just Chris and me, our waterfall, and a sun slowly climbing in the sky to warm the crisp North Atlantic air.
To me, repeating our honeymoon just a year after getting married in Iceland seemed like the greatest idea I’ve ever devised. A honeymooniversary. I wasn’t sure if Chris would go for it, though. Maybe he would rather see somewhere new? Visit a slightly warmer destination? But there’s a reason I married this man, specifically that we share similar passions. And one of those is a deep connection with this country.
I had already visited Iceland a handful of times in the last few years, but I’m always drawn back. The beauty, the isolation, the vast landscapes, and just the two of us on an open road. Exchanging the hectic rush of daily life for an 11-day drive, music, the occasional glass of wine to go with our hot chocolate, friendly locals and more sheep than you can shake a stick at (disclaimer: don’t shake sticks at sheep).
Rather than provide a chronology of our trip, we’ve compiled a list of what exactly we love about this mysterious island hiding out near the top of the world, combined with photos and recommendations.
Freedom of spontaneity (aka Campervan)
A campervan was an obvious choice – we wouldn’t travel this country any other way, nor would we advise anyone else differently. It was a no-brainer after our honeymoon a year earlier, when we first discovered all the benefits of taking your home on the road. First and foremost, we only had one reservation to make – the van itself. Having no hotel reservations meant the freedom to tailor our trip spontaneously: not to dates on a calendar, but rather to where Iceland decided it would take us. Our room would always come with a view, and every day a new one. We always had the opportunity to pull over and nap when tired, cook when hungry, and take pictures when inspired. And the latter happened way more than you could imagine.
A stop for lunch somewhere in the East Fjords
Another plus was the cost factor. You’d have to be insane to go all the way to Iceland only to hang out in Reykjavik, so obviously wheels are a must-have. Because we were able to sleep in ours, this meant we never had to spend money on hotels. Our van also came with all the cooking utensils we would need to make breakfast, lunch and dinner, so we were able to save money by buying groceries rather than eating every meal at a restaurant. And despite all the driving we did over 11 days, we only had to fill up our fuel-efficient diesel-powered camper a handful of times. The mileage we got out of it was a pleasant surprise to a couple of Americans more accustomed to gas-guzzlers.
Read more: Fuel stations in Iceland (Including an interactive map)
Chris cooks me a romantic dinner just west of Skaftafell You can see who the cook in this family is
What may have been my favorite benefit of our home on wheels, however, is how charmingly romantic it is. Rather than campsites, we instead opted to pull over anywhere we found to have a great view, where we could cook a meal and enjoy each other’s company with no distractions from the outside world. We always had a cozy spot to nap or take a rest. And we always felt like we had our home with us. It was these aspects that had made renting a campervan the perfect honeymoon idea a year ago and why we didn’t hesitate to celebrate our first anniversary and my birthday the exact same way.
A wedding gift received last year Goofy socks and stunning views are what keep our marriage going
Given that we got married at a waterfall in Iceland, it seemed obvious that this geological feature would make our list of most inspiring features. Regardless of how far we drove, how long we stayed or how many hundreds of waterfalls we had already seen in this country, each one was a new, unique treat.
On our return trip, we couldn’t resist revisiting some of Iceland’s most famous falls, and once again, they were not to miss.
To the north of the country, prior to a stop at Mývatn Lake for a night, we stopped off the Ring Road for another visit to the famous Goðafoss, aka Waterfall of the Gods, just east of Akureyri. This was one we visited on our honeymoon, but we wanted to be sure to see it from a new angle this time. Most visitors only experience Goðafoss from the top, near the parking lot, but we found a path to the other side of the falls. At the bottom, the crowds thinned out significantly, and we were able to get a clear shot of the beautiful curtains of water cascading into the turquoise pool below.
At the foot of Goðafoss
Another highlight was Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. We both stood in awe of the sheer power of this behemoth, occasionally peeking out nervously from behind our cameras as other visitors stood at the edge, seemingly unfazed by the drop below.
Dettifoss from road 890 in the northeast
Not a bad idea to bring a raincoat – the fury of Dettifoss Waterfall
While Iceland’s most well-known falls are clearly deserving of their fame, the country is home to thousands of waterfalls, both named and unnamed. And many of those are just as beautiful. Last year our schedule only allowed us to witness the stunning Skógafoss from below, but this year we budgeted the time to climb the steep trail to the top, and hike along the gently rolling lands beyond. The river feeding Skógafoss cascades over countless smaller falls along the way. With crystal clear glacial waters framed by brilliant green moss, each waterfall had its own unique beauty, straight out of a fairy tale (or Game of Thrones).
Waterfall along the hike up from Skógafoss We lost quite a few of the crowds up here
This trail continues another 20k to the Thorsmörk Reserve, a hike the locals usually accomplish over two days. Unfortunately, our schedule only allowed us a brief taste of the wonders along this trail, and left us pledging to hike the full length next time. Iceland always leaves us planning our next visit even before our current trip has ended.
I’m of the opinion that some of the best things in life are the ones you have to work for. An hour south of Egilstaðir in the East Fjords, we cooked a quick meal in the parking lot below the trail to the waterfall Hengifoss, using the gear provided with our campervan. We figured we’d need some fuel for what was supposed to be an hour-long hike. For two photography nuts, however, getting up the hill in an hour turned out to be a lofty goal; every turn of the trail revealed another stunning vista, and we had to slow our pace to try and capture it all. Before reaching Hengifoss, we passed Lítlanesfoss, a one-of-a-kind waterfall cascading down a wall of thin vertical basalt columns.
When we finally reached sight of Hengifoss, we were rewarded with a spectacular view. The multiple layers of red clay wedged between the darker basalt layers made it truly unique. Although Hengifoss is the third-highest waterfall in Iceland (at 128m), there were far fewer crowds on this trail than the more well-known waterfalls closer to Reykjavik, making it one of Iceland’s hidden gems.
Hengifoss waterfall, East Fjords
For a country still in the midst of its geological adolescence and one found so far north on the globe, it’s hard to imagine Iceland having much biodiversity, and yet it’s teeming with it. As Oregonians and scuba divers, Chris and I have an enormous appreciation for and love of wildlife.
Our honeymoon drive through the West Fjords last year had been a bit too quick, so this time around we made sure to pencil in enough time for the drive out to Látrabjarg. Situated at the westernmost point of the fjords, Iceland and in fact all of Europe, the road leading to this phenomenal site curved around to end at a parking lot, where we had a 5-minute walk up the hill and onto vast cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic. Our guidebook and a sign at the site advised visitors to crawl along the edge in a horizontal position, and it was immediately clear why you wouldn’t want to approach these cliffs standing upright. The potential combination of eroded soil, surprise gusts of wind and the distraction of puffins teetering on the edges – hundreds, to be exact – made the belly-crawl seem appropriate, and proved the best way to see these unique and iconic Icelandic birds.
A puffin settling in on the cliffs of Látrabjarg, West Fjords
Chris in position for a (safe) photograph A puffin poses for us at Látrabjarg
Later on in the trip, in the fjords found in the north of the country, Chris and I knew we wanted to experience whale watching, which we hadn’t found time for last year. Húsavik appeared to be the best place for such a treat. In spite of our last-minute booking during peak season, the friendly staff at Gentle Giants were happy to welcome us aboard.
There are no words to describe our emotions – other than frozen in amazement – as not one, but two humpbacks joined alongside our boat in an almost intentionally playful manner. After witnessing our boat full of gazing eyes, gaping mouths, cameras to faces and sounds of “oooh” and “aaah”, another boat quickly realized we had found something good and veered over to join in on the fun.
A boat of onlookers watches as a humpback swims alongside our boat in Húsavik
Every day we were treated to an animal spotting of some sort, including my first reindeer sighting. Iceland’s famous horses were always eager to say hello, especially when saying hello involved a gentle stroke of their faces as well.
Reindeer feed on the side of the road near Húsavik Chris making new friends at a farm on Snæfellsnes
Whale-watching in Húsavik
It’s not a honeymooniversary without a bit of relaxation, but we’ve never been the types to lie around on a beach all week. And while it can be chilly getting in and out of the water in a country where the mercury rarely ever hits 60°F/15°C, the second your body is submerged in geothermally heated Icelandic water, your muscles melt away into pure bliss. In addition to the obvious must-see spots like the Blue Lagoon in the west and Mývatn Nature Baths to the north, our favorite hot springs were less than an hour’s drive off the Ring Road between the West Fjords and Akureyri. Take road 748 to Grettislaug, or “Grettir’s pool.” Named after the subject one of Iceland’s famous sagas, this is supposedly the pool where Grettir the Strong warmed himself after swimming the frigid waters from the island Drangey to the mainland. Fortunately, swimming in ice cold water beforehand isn’t a requirement. The two hot pools are situated between mountains and sea, with a spectacular view and a charming little café. We stopped for an evening and celebrated my birthday with a soak.
It’s not enough to just get married, honeymoon and spend your
first anniversary in Iceland. A birthday swim was also in order.
One thing to note about Iceland: it’s incredibly random. But in a charming way, I promise. We found ourselves pulling over the camper van at least once a day to investigate random artifacts on the side of the road. Giant red chair bolted to a rock in the East Fjords? Check.
Me, somewhere in the East Fjords. We didn’t swipe this
photo from an Icelandic sweater catalogue, I promise.
Shower in the middle of nowhere after coming down from a hike on the Krafla Viti crater near Mývatn? Check. The obvious question here: was the water warm? Indeed it was. Why had we paid for a shower that morning at a pool in Húsavik when we easily could have had a free one here?
A shower RIGHT where you need it!
You know the old story about how the Vikings named the green place Iceland and the icy place Greenland in order to keep this place their little secret? It turns out it’s only half true, as there was plenty of ice to be found in Iceland, even in August. And considering it’s just frozen water, it is stunning. Before leaving home I received a tip to take a trek with Icelandic Mountain Guides.
It was hard to settle on just one day-excursion from their starting-point at Skaftafell, in Vatnajökull National Park. Ultimately we decided we needed to try our skills at ice climbing, which they offered in combination with a glacier hike and a stroll through the soft blue waves of an ice cave. The day turned out to be a highlight of our trip.
Iceland’s only natural ice cave safe enough to walk through,
or so our guide claimed. Skaftafell in the southeast.
Chris and me, ice cave exploring I’ll resist the urge to drop any bad puns about how cool this experience was (you’re welcome!)
Not bad for a first-timer! That’s me, climbing some glacial ice at Skaftafell.
Another icy treat not far from Skaftafell was the Glacier Lagoon (extra points if you learn to pronounce the Icelandic name, Jökulsárlón), complete with Diamond Beach just a five-minute walk towards the sea. It’s not hard to see how this beach got its name, as chunks of ice constantly wash ashore and glimmer well into the evening dusk.
Way better than the beaches most people honeymoon on. Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón.
It seemed like a perfect place to set up camp for the evening, until Chris decided he needed to get some photos of icebergs in the soft evening light and headed out from the van towards the sea. “I’ll be back in 30, 45 minutes tops,” he explained to me as I prepared to settle into our cozy sleeping bag for a relaxing night. Three hours later, no longer seeing the shine of his flashlight, I went into full panic mode. Did he get lost and is now braving the North Atlantic elements in the dark? Did a wave come ashore and wash him out to sea? Does Iceland have a crazed homicidal lunatic on the loose looking for tourists to kidnap?
I crawled out from the warmth of the sleeping bag, put a couple of layers on and went out to hunt for my husband, only to find that he had discovered an iceberg he couldn’t resist photographing, turned off his headlamp to capture the ethereal glow, and set up the camera on the tripod to get some long exposure shots. And although I was furious at him for worrying me to death, I couldn’t help but forgive him immediately once I laid eyes on the end result. The things photographers (even amateurs like us) will put up with to get a shot.
Icebergs on Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón: the photo that
came at the price of my panic. He apologized for worrying me.
I’ll offer a disclaimer on this category and say that no image of Iceland will ever do its landscapes justice. We certainly tried our best to capture their beauty with a camera, but even the best photo you can find will never be as breathtaking as standing on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, in a valley staring up at a volcano shaped by recent lava flows, atop a hill gazing out at green and black of moss-covered volcanic rock for miles, or before a glacier inching its way down a slope towards a milky lagoon covered in spatterings of deep blue ice.
The lush hills of Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Dyýhólaey. Easier to look at than to pronounce.
It’s a place in which you won’t go more than a few hours without something new and beautiful to feast your eyes upon, and a country that has inspired countless classics of artistic expression, from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. The latter was even quoted on the side of our campervan, prompting me to croon the opening riff of “ah-ah-aaaaaah, ah!” as I came to the realization that Chris probably didn’t marry me for my angelic voice.
Just down the beach from the Reynisdrangar basalt columns
Even before getting married, with two trips to this magical place under my belt, I had a special relationship with Iceland. Its people, the landscapes and the geological diversity combined with the peaceful feeling of isolation and powerful reminder of how small and insignificant we are when staring up at a thundering waterfall. These were all reasons I knew I wanted to share this place with the love of my life, hence our decision not just to exchange vows there, but to create memories throughout the country and repeat the experience just a year later. We have no doubt that we’ll be back to do it all again very soon – campervan and all.
We’d like to share some tips on how to have a successful trip in your campervan. We truly believe there’s no better way to travel around Iceland.
– Although everyone says to pack light, once you’re in your campervan you won’t have to carry anything. For this reason, we recommend bringing all the photography equipment you want. Iceland is a country you’ll want to photograph at every turn, so the right equipment is important. Things we used constantly were a good, heavy tripod; extra batteries; a neutral density filter to get those silky waterfall photos during the day; and a wide-angle lens. If you have a DSLR camera, you can rent good lenses from a local camera shop.
– The campervan comes with two sleeping bags, but we brought our own and used the ones provided for a little extra warmth on the colder nights (You probably wouldn’t expect someone who gets as cold as I do to be so in love with a place called Iceland!). They also provide fleece blankets, which you can stuff in the sleeping back to stay extra cozy if you don’t want to run the van’s heater all night.
– Buy a gas card from N1. They allow you to pre-pay, so you can use them at un-manned stations (especially in isolated places like the West Fjords) without having to worry about whether your credit/debit card from back home will work.
– Bring a parachute cord and tie it into the holes in the ceiling of the van. This way you can hang swimsuits, towels or any other wet clothes while you drive. By the time you stop to camp for the night or wake up in the morning, they’ll be dry.
– Remember that during the summer months, it stays light pretty much all the time. It is, after all, the land of the midnight sun. Ask for a couple of extra blankets to hang over the windows for some darkness when you sleep or bring a sleeping mask that blocks out the light.
– Campsites are great if you’re looking to get to know other travelers, but if you want solitude, pull over wherever inspires you (but be sure it’s safe!). Icelandic law states that you can camp anywhere that’s not private property (which is usually pretty obvious) or otherwise marked with a “No camping” sign. However – and this is important – BE RESPECTFUL OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS and LEAVE NO TRACE. Don’t drive over grass or flowers, and be careful of where you step. Don’t leave toilet paper – we kept used toilet paper in a Ziploc bag and emptied it in trash cans daily along with our other garbage – or any other waste behind. Save the bowel movements until you’re back in civilization and have a toilet at your disposal. Nobody wants to step in that. And keep in mind that this beautiful place is getting more visitors every year. You might not think you have a huge impact on the ecosystem, but when combined with the thousands of other people who may have also stopped to camp in that same area, it adds up. We want Icelanders to keep inviting us back, so please don’t trash their country.
– Stop at swimming pools. They’re a huge part of Icelandic culture, and added bonus – you can shower! The entry fee is usually very reasonable (ISK 700 or so). At one point we paid that much to use a shower at a campsite, but had to wait in line for almost an hour and had five minutes of hot water. At the pools, however, we got a relaxing swim, soak in a hot tub and shower all in one!
– Buy a power inverter that you can plug into the cigarette lighter to charge laptops and camera batteries.
– Take time to learn about Iceland’s history and geology. It’s all part of the country’s fascinating story and will make the trip even more enjoyable.
– Don’t climb over/under barriers intended to keep you alive. We saw many people at waterfalls and cliffs climb over ropes to get pictures. We could only stand in horror, hoping our trip wouldn’t be ruined by watching someone die. Even if it looks safe to you, you have no idea how quickly wind, soil erosion or a wave crashing in from the sea can make you lose your footing.
Read more: Be safe in Iceland
– Restaurants and companies we recommend:
Mývatn Nature Baths
Vogafjós Cowshed Café at Lake Mývatn – great food and the best skýr in all of Iceland!
Gentle Giants (whale-watching) in Húsavik
Icelandic Mountain Guides (ice climbing/glacier hiking) in Skaftafell
Restaurant Varmá in Hveragerði – this is where we had our wedding reception last year. The food is to die for.
Seylon (Sri Lankan restaurant) in Selfoss – say hi to the owner Renuka, who is a wonderful woman to chat with and treats every customer like they’re an old friend
Pink Iceland (who planned our wedding last year, took us and our wedding guests on an excursion to Landmannalaugar and were PHENOMENAL).
And of course, Rent.is. We loved our campervan!
Thank you Rent.is and Go Iceland!
Much love from Melissa and Chris, Portland Oregon (USA)
Read more: Travel lovers takes on Iceland
Happy Camping! #CamperStories
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