Nature therapy in Iceland

Words by Angie Dazé, photos by Sylvain Gatti

 

After a difficult year, Sylvain and I felt we owed ourselves a break. For us a good holiday involves a bit of adventure and a good hit of nature – we’re not the type to sit on a beach or traipse through museums. Iceland has been on my destination list for a while now and it seemed to meet all of the needs – a bit of cool city time in Reykjavík, ample opportunities for hiking and being in nature and small enough to manage in a couple of weeks.  Throw in volcanoes and elves and it was a done deal.  We booked our flights, bought a guidebook and started planning our Iceland trip.
Vacation in Iceland in a camper van
Our happy home on wheels
Van life was new to me.  I’ve done loads of camping, but usually involving a tent and either a canoe or a heavy backpack.  I am not a road trip person – Sylvain dreams of someday owning a camper van, but I was very resistant to the idea of driving around for a holiday.  However, Iceland being what it is, the camper van seemed like the best way forward, combining transport and accommodation in one cute little Kangoo.  I worried a bit that we’d drive each other nuts being crammed in such a small space for two weeks, but I decided to treat it as another marital challenge to be overcome.  In the end, I loved the camper van experience, and I was certain that it was the right choice when it was shaking in the wind and the rain was pounding the roof – those poor people in tents were on my mind as we cozied up in our little home on wheels.
Sleeping in a camper van
Cozy in the van on a rainy, windy night
Everything I’d read seemed to indicate that the Northern Lights were rare in September, so that was one Icelandic experience I was not expecting on this trip.  In Reykjavík we heard rumors that they had started, so we were cautiously optimistic, Sylvain setting his alarm for midnight in hopes of catching them.  On our second night in Hellissandur, they appeared, green and purple streaks dancing across a clear, starry sky.  Everyone in the campsite was out of their tents and vans, but it was completely silent. Sylvain set up his tripod and captured some brilliant photos, while I gazed at the aurora and tried to spot shooting stars.
Northern lights above Hellissandur
The Northern lights over Hellissandur
We hiked all along the way, in Snæfellsjökull National Park, Siglufjörður, Mývatn, Seydisfjörður and Vatnajökull National Park.  Our walks took us through spectacular lava fields and over mountains to volcanic craters, the most amazing waterfalls and stunning beaches.
Doing our trip in September meant chilly weather, but also, importantly for us, less people.  What we didn’t realize was that most people stick close to their vehicles, so choosing to hike meant that we had many of these spaces completely to ourselves.  And the fall colors – red blueberry bushes and yellow ferns –add a whole other dimension to the landscape alongside the various shades of green moss and multi-colored rocks and mountains. We’re fairly used to being in the mountains, but the Icelandic trails offered up some navigational challenges: we learned to keep a constant focus on the next green and yellow post to avoid losing the path.
Waterfall in Seyðisfjörður
Waterfall hike above Seyðisfjörður
Iceland seems to have endless natural wonders.  The glacial lagoons at Jökulsárlón
and Fjallsárlón are incredibly beautiful, with icebergs of all colors, shapes and sizes. While not as dramatic as these, the lagoon at Heinaberg was magical, not least because there were no tour buses and we were able to quietly contemplate the glacier and its ice floes drifting away.  Definitely worth leaving the main road for.
The amazing ice lake Jökulsárlón
Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
Around Mývatn, we were awed by the volcanic activity, with its diversity of colors and textures creating an otherworldly atmosphere.
Leirhnjúkur in Krafla geothermal area
Steamy Leirhnjúkur in the Krafla area
We are not big on organized activities when we travel, but there were two experiences we didn’t want to miss.  We spent an amazing morning with North Sailing in Húsavik, which included a spectacular show by a humpback, as well as beautiful scenery and lots of birds.  We would highly recommend this company for their beautiful boat, interesting guiding and respectful approach to interacting with the whales.
Humpback whale in North Iceland
Secret the humpback whale in Skjálfanda Bay
Our last full day in Iceland was also our third wedding anniversary.  We decided to celebrate with a guided walk on the Svínafellsjökull glacier.  Walking on the ice gave us a whole new perspective on the dynamic nature of the glacier, constantly changing and evolving. Being inside the glacier, in a natural ice cave, was a highlight of the morning. Icelandic Mountain Guides provided us with a great experience.
Glacier walking in Iceland
Walking on thick ice on the Svínafellsjökull glacier
Food is very important to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of creating yummy meals with minimal ingredients on a one-burner camp stove in windy conditions.  We also had amazing meals out at the Settlement Center in Borgarnes, Sjávarborg in Hvammstangi, Narfeyrarstofa in Stykkishólmur, and Pakkhús in Höfn, among others.  Being vegetarian, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find good food, but all of these restaurants had delicious and creative veggie options, while Sylvain was more than happy to sample the local fish and seafood.  Topped off with great coffee and carrot cake or innovative Skýr-based desserts, we were very satisfied foodies.  The Skaftfell Bistro in Seyðisfjörður was another favorite, providing a cozy, comfortable refuge with pizza and wine on a particularly wet, gusty night.
Cooking & Camping in Iceland
Gourmet camp dinner in Skaftafell
It’s a bit difficult to get around Iceland, not because the roads are bad or there is a lot of traffic, but because you want to stop every few minutes to take another photo.  We drove over two thousand kilometers in two weeks and there was not a single stretch that wasn’t spectacular.  The diversity of landscapes is just breathtaking.  There were moments where I had tears in my eyes and others where I laughed out loud because I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I have been very lucky to travel to many parts of the world, for work and for pleasure, but this trip will stand out in my memory for years to come, and it won’t be long before we are planning another camper van adventure in Iceland.
Fjallsjökull glacier
Fjallsjökull glacier and Fjallsárlón lagoon
Happy Camping!  #CamperStories

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