Leaving Your Heart in Iceland
I’m not entirely sure how we decided on Iceland. I’m actually not sure how we decided to go on a trip at all. But I do remember saying I was going to travel, and my boyfriend said he’d follow me. So, I said Iceland. And then we went to Iceland.
We arrived in Iceland on a Saturday morning at 5am and it was already bright out, which was oddly amazing to me. With tickets to the Blue Lagoon at 7am we were eager to get to our van and get organized.
When we arrived at the van rental location I met our van for the first time: a Volkswagen Caddy. It was love at first sight. It had everything you could need for a trip around Iceland: comfortable seats, lots of storage room, a stove, a cooler, pots and pans, knives and plates, even a heater in the back. The thing even came with unlimited WiFi, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve always dreamed of living in a van, so this was a dream come true.
We immediately loaded our bags and hit the road, heading to the Blue Lagoon. The weather was cold, but the skies were bright blue, making for a really whimsical experience once we got into the lagoon water. It’s hard to describe the Blue Lagoon but imagine a pool of bright blue water planted right in the middle of a volcano field. Totally magical. The pictures don’t do it justice.
After the lagoon we took a 20-minute nap in a grocery store parking lot and headed for Route 1. The scenery was indescribable, from rolling hills to dramatic mountains, it all felt like a scene from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.
Our first stop was Kerið, a bright blue lake sitting in a volcanic crater amid colorful slopes and lush plants. Its sheer size was overwhelming, and we couldn’t help but Face-time our friends to show off the first sight on our trip. At this point I was glad we bought good hiking boots, because it became apparent that we would be going uphill a lot.
Next, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, arguably one of the most beautiful waterfalls we saw on our trip. Walking behind the falls was amazing and I can confidently say nothing beats cold waterfall mist hitting your face. We spent so much time here taking photos and drone footage, just so we could remember it long after we left.
One stop I was really excited for was the “Walter Mitty Waterfall”, aka Skógafoss. This waterfall was hands down my favourite. There’s not much else to say other than one of the most magical places on the island. This waterfall is massive, and I think that’s what made it so impressive. That’s probably why the movie Walter Mitty shot one of its scenes there.
Along this stretch of highway was another one of my favourite places: Seljavallalaug. Built in 1923 it’s one of the oldest pools in Iceland and it was built directly into the side of a mountain. In order to beat the crowds and have some alone time with the pool, we arrived at 6am. Which was totally worth it. The temperature was warm, and the cold morning air made the whole pool steam. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. If you’re looking to get the pool to yourself, you must arrive early. By 6:45am another couple had arrived so just take that into consideration.
The black sand beaches of Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara are not to be missed. Between the amazing rock formations and dramatic colours it’s easily one of the best photo ops on the Southern coast. I even brought home a handful of beach rocks with me, trying to bring home some of the island’s magic. Please visit with caution however, the waves are known to sweep away travellers who get a little too close, so keep your distance.
Fjaðrárgljúfur – yes that’s a real word and no I don’t know how to pronounce it… is another place that blew us away. This canyon is two kilometres long and 100 metres deep, making it a very scary place to try and capture drone footage. Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful stops along Route 1.
Because we loved the rock formations of Reynisfjara so much, another stop of excitement was Svartifoss, a dramatic waterfall surrounded by dark lava columns. The hike to this waterfall took a bit longer than we anticipated, but it’s totally worth the trip, obviously. If you do the full loop, it will take you about two hours. Less if you’re really pushing yourself, more if you’re walking casually.
Jökulsárlón was the logical next stop and I cannot stress enough that this is a must-see destination if you’re visiting Iceland. The rich blues and dramatic whites made for amazing photos and there was nowhere else in Iceland that I thought was as unique as this glacial lagoon. We even saw a seal playing among the icebergs – it was breathtaking.
The next leg of the journey mean for a decent bout of driving, from the Southern coast through the East to Seyðisfjörður. There are a few places where you can pull over and get some great pictures of the coastline, which I would highly recommend. Take it slow however, as a lot of these roads are steep and winding, making it easy for sheep to jump out and startle you.
We arrived in Seyðisfjörður pretty late and night, which wasn’t part of the plan, but it was meant to be. Because the second we pulled into the village, the Northern Lights decided to dance across the sky. I was in absolute awe – I yelled for us to pull over and jumped out of the van while it was still moving. This night made the entire trip for me. Not only because it was my first time seeing this magical phenomenon, but because it’s pretty rare for the lights to make an appearance in the middle of August. For us, this was the most unexpected yet memorable experience. We both had huge smiles across our face as we went to bed in our cozy van.
The next morning we woke up and explored Seyðisfjörður. There’s a lot to see here and I don’t think we managed to see it all, so give yourself a few hours to wander around. The highlight for me was the adorable blue church with a rainbow painted across the street to its doors. Waking up to take those photos was the perfect way to start the day.
Next we headed towards lake Mývatn. Hverir was our first stop and we quickly developed a love hate relationship with this bubbling geothermal field. First things first, it’s strangely beautiful. I’ve never seen mountains of that colour and the ground looked like a watercolor painting. That being said, the smell was bad. Not a little bad, a lot bad. We were on the verge of puking the entire time we were there so remember to bring a buff to block out the awful sulfuric smells.
Grjótagjá was the next quick stop for us and I was mainly interested because a scene from Game of Thrones was filmed here. The bugs were pretty bad but it was still cool to see the small thermal spring hidden inside the lava cave. While you can’t swim there anymore, it’s neat to know people used to bathe there.
Hverfjall was another fan favourite, mostly because it made me feel like I was on the surface of Mars. This otherworldly site is a tuff ring volcano, that’s one kilometre in diameter. The hike was decently challenging, but if you take it slow you won’t have a problem. It’s definitely worth it for the views once you make it to the top.
If you’re near lake Mývatn, you should definitely take the time to drive up to Húsavík. This charming village has so much to see, from the Whale Museum to a church built in 1907. We opted for a whale watching tour, hoping that maybe we’d be able to see something. Little did we know we’d get a pretty up-close encounter with a Humpback whale. This experience, on a authentic Icelandic sailboat, was really amazing for us.
The next morning we got up early and headed to Goðafoss. This waterfall reminded me of Niagara Falls, with its horseshoe shape and rushing blue water. It was awesome for getting photos and there were a few other smaller waterfalls in the area that made for nice photos as well.
We drove for another two-ish hours to the town of Sauðárkrókur and couldn’t help but pretend it was pronounced “soda cracker”. Here we went on a horseback riding tour. I’ll be honest, Icelandic horses put Canadian horses to shame, but they are more like small tanks. They are so beautiful, yet so muscular and powerful. Riding them was an amazing experience. Plus the landscapes were beautiful so it was a win-win.
That night we stayed in the town of Búðardalur and woke up early to drive around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. From start to finish, this took us about four hours. But you could probably do it longer or shorter, depending on the sights you want to see. For us, we were amazing by the endless cliffs, adorable village churches, and the seals at Ytri Tunga.
That night we explored Reykjavik. From the Hallgrímskirkja church to the small record shops, we tried to take in as much as we could. I fell in love with the colourful apartments, charming local shops, and the overall upkeep of the city. It was impeccably clean and well cared for, which you don’t see in every country around the world.
Our last day in Iceland was spent driving back towards the South coast. It was a little odd to redo some of the driving that we had already done, but it was some of our favourite landscapes, so it was a treat for us. We spent the night at Hotel Ranga, one of the most amazing hotels I have ever visited in my entire life. The hospitality was unbeatable, the food was delicably, and our room was flawless. After a week on the road, this was the perfect way to end our trip.
The next morning we cleaned out our camper van and headed for the airport. It was a quiet drive, because I think for the most part, we weren’t ready to go home. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry a little on the plane ride home.
Driving around the Ring road in Iceland made me realize there is no better feeling that being in awe of something. Everywhere we stopped was magical. Everything we tried was new. And sleeping in a van made me feel like a true explorer. When my time in Iceland finally came to a close, my heart was heavy. Not because the trip wasn’t everything we imagined, but because it was so much more.
The best places you visit are the ones that are the hardest to leave. And Iceland, you will always have a piece of my Canadian heart.
Read more: Eternal sunshine on the cloudy island
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