Observations from the Ring Road
While spending two weeks in Iceland this June, we, two Canadians, picked up on a few things. Here are our observations and tips.
1 – The Roads
You just can’t get away from single lane bridges or roundabouts. They are everywhere. Best to read up on how they work before you arrive. Maybe we’ve been living under a rock, but a two lane roundabout was something new for us.
Gravel roads aren’t that common around the Ring road. That being said, routes that we think were major highways (aka the only way into town) were gravel.
2 – The Animals
Sheep, horses, and birds are even more plentiful than the roundabouts. They are on the roads too! The sheep in some areas don’t appear to notice the cars, while others on the more isolated routes will startle and run across the road. The horses are beautiful with many unique hair styles. As for the birds, well, there’s the Puffin. Every tourist shop has something for a Puffin lover to buy.
We discovered through chatting with locals at a pool that the best chance to see a puffin is to be near their nesting areas in the evening, and the locals were right. The Puffins fish during the day and return to their nests around 8 or 9 o’clock. There are these pesky birds, the Arctic tern, that seem to be nesting in June and they are very territorial. They swoop and send a shower of droppings down if you get in their territory, we learnt this one the hard way while walking along the road side.
3 – The Pools
Get over your shyness and respect how clean they try to keep the pools. Also, they don’t like it if you get the change room wet. You just need to towel off after you take a shower to leave the pool. The public pools are affordable and nearly spa-like. They are in almost every town. We went out of our way in the east fjords to visit the pool in Neskaupstaður, it was worth it. The pools haven’t really smelt of sulphur (although some hot water taps and hot springs did). Every pool we visited had a hot-hot bath, a hot bath, and the medium temperature swimming pool. These are especially nice compared to the cold pools we’re used to back home.
There’s also water slides, not just for the kids 🙂 Watch for the head over wavy water on road signs or the words “innilaug” and “sundlaug” which we are pretty sure translate to indoor pool and sunny pool. Sun is not guaranteed, but the outdoor pool was perfectly enjoyable in a light rain too. The history of the pools is interesting going back to the 1920’s when they didn’t want people to be afraid of swimming. There is an abandoned pool that is now hot spring fed just a little off highway 242. The scenic mountains and small stream make it feel unreal.
4 – The Rocks
The columns, the caves, the beaches are all beautiful. The Cave in west Iceland is a great way to learn about the formation of the rocky landscapes. The guides are funny and clearly know a lot about the geology of the land of Iceland. Our respect for and interest in volcanoes grew throughout our trip.
5 – The Waterfalls
They are also everywhere. There are the main attractions but also off the beaten path there are some beauties that present as more than a big drop. Go chasing the waterfalls!
6 – The Boats
A big oak boat took us from the shores of Húsavík out to 66.1 degrees north and we saw whales. It was awesome. The guide was kind and the donut that they offered at the end of the trip, the kleinur, was delicious and started a new obsession. Nearly every town we visited was along the coast, the views of the ports and harbours did not get old.
7 – The Foods
Once we knew about the kleinur, we found them (and bought them) at all the supermarkets. Even IKEA has kleinur. IKEA also offers the cheapest meal we found, other than hot dogs. We made a point to try lamb, fish, hot dogs, and skýr yogurt.
Bónus is a good grocery store, however not always open late. Nettó, Krónan, and Hagkaup were good alternatives. The cooler and stove that came with the van served us well to stock up, and cook along the way (even right beside waterfalls).
8 – Reykjavik
Start with the walking tour, we really felt the comedian guide had a lot of insight and history to offer. Noon and 2pm by the Lækjargata clock tower in Reykjavik during the summer. The guide was very funny and a great story teller. They offer other information of things to do in the city, even on the cheap. We have a better appreciation for the Icelandic society, the history, and the city of Reykjavik. The National History Museum had amazing old relics and easy to follow information. We feel this is also a great place to visit. The exhibits take you through the history of the nation and left us with a great appreciation of Iceland’s development.
9 – The Wool
The Icelandic wool sweaters are magnificent. Tourists and locals alike sport them proudly. We were happy to buy sweater quantities of Lopi yarn and Kaitlyn will be busy knitting our souvenirs this winter. The yarn is everywhere, which as a knitter is fun to see. Yarn in the gift shop, yarn at the grocery store, yarn, yarn, yarn! Where there’s yarn, there’s sweaters, hats, scarves and mitts, all with beautiful colour work and design.
10 – The Language
As our tour guide said “why do we do this to ourselves” as he said a ten syllable street name. We did what most visitors wind up doing and simply shortened the names to the first few syllables. We are pretty sure even the maps and signs abbreviate at times. We learnt that some words are made up of many words, so that multi syllable name is maybe a combination of mountain, glacier, and other natural elements. We were impressed to learn that this language is so well preserved from its roots.
11 – Soccer or Football
We were lucky enough to visit during the World Cup. Our first indication that Icelanders were passionate about soccer was at the airport, as t-shirts with “waiting for the World Cup since 1947” were proudly on display. The children in all towns, all around the island, were wearing Iceland gear or kicking around a soccer ball. We saw a group of Icelanders passionately cheering with synchronized thunder claps. It was something to behold. Their excitement is contagious.
12 – The Sun
We knew it would not be dark at night but I don’t think we quite knew what it would feel like. The curtains in the van did their job well. We also made use of sleep masks. We definitely didn’t need to bring our head lamps or flashlight. The beauty of the midnight sun is that driving at night is not intimidating and there is more opportunity to see sights and hike with less people around.
13 – Our Favourite Stops
We spent a day in the Westman islands. These beautiful islands can be seen jutting out from the sea on the south coast. An easy ferry ride across the water lands you in the harbour and near the area that was very interesting. We hiked to the top of a volcano, then went to the museum and learnt all about the volcanic eruption that occurred in the 1970’s. We have a high appreciation for the power of volcanoes and the resiliency of the Icelandic people after seeing the history and recovery of this town.
The steaming river is exactly what it sounds like and it was so amazing. A hike out to the river and some stealthy changing lets you soak in a natural paradise. There’s really no words other than “ahhh, pure bliss”. Water shoes were a good call as the river bed is rocky. We also recommend warm clothes for the hike back to the parking area, as that’s when the chill sets in. Find it by searching Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River.
The camper van gave us the freedom to explore and change our itinerary as needed. We may not have had as many opportunities and would not have made as many great memories if our trip was structured a different way. Enjoy yourself out on the road and safe travels!
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