Puffin Tours Iceland in VW Campervan
This blog records the experiences of Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Peterson who traveled in Iceland between 20 and 29 July in a 2017 Volkswagen California Camper van which we nicknamed Beethoven (in honor of the band)…
…together with our mascot puffin, Vanessa.
Renting a camper van allowed us to come to Iceland without a planned itinerary. In fact, campgrounds in Iceland don’t take reservations. We could not begin to imagine how this would work until the first night of our trip when we discovered that there are no demarcated spots, just parking areas and open fields where everyone fits in as best they can.
Sometimes you have a lot of space…
…and sometimes it is very close quarters.
On our first day, we learned all about the features of our camper from Sanda.
The van even had its own free WiFi!
Our favorite part was the popup roof that allows for enough headroom to stand up inside the van…
…as well as a place to sleep up top.
After a stop to collect our luggage at the Reykjavik Lights hotel (we stored all our camping gear in Reykjavik while we traveled in Europe) and another at a supermarket to stock our pantry and refrigerator, we headed west to check off some of the obligatory Golden Circle sites such as Þingvellir (site of the first democratic parliament in 930 AD) where the European and North American tectonic plates are moving away from one another at an alarming 18 millimeters per year…
…the geothermal field at Geysir (for which all geysers are named)…
…and our first waterfall at Gullfoss.
Though we spent our first night at Laugarvatn, our real destination was Gamla Laugin (Secret Lagoon) natural hot springs at Flúðir.
From here, our trip joins and departs from a classic ring road tour. The picture below is the standard tour marked clockwise.
Ours is counter-clockwise and looks more like this.
On our second day, we took short hikes to several more waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi) including one we think might be featured in an art work by our colleague Stephen Hilyard.
This was before we realized that there are so many spectacular waterfalls in Iceland that we would never be able to complete the tour if we stopped for all of them. Often from the car it was possible to see dozens at a time.
After stocking up in Vík (which we liked less than we expected based on tour book and tourist accounts), we opted to spend our second night in the small town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, stopping enroute for our first puffin encounter at Dyrhólaey, (also the first of several locations at which we failed to see seals).
In the morning, we made a bee line for Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park with hiking as our priority. The glacier views during our hike there counts of one of the top experiences of the trip.
Almost as high on our list was the boat ride on the glacial lagoon of Fjallsárlón.
Laurie Beth used the lake shore of Jökulsárlón as the setting for her Iceland mask walk. (Look for a tiny figure in the lower right below).
Then we had a long afternoon in the town of Höfn, where we ate their famous humar (Icelandic lobster or langostine) at Humarhöfnin…
…within view of the boat that catches them…
…and then bathed in the city swimming pool Sundlaug Hafnar.
Laurie Beth left behind her prescription goggles and swim radio at this community center and did not realized until our next hot spring experience. With the help of our Madison-based Icelandic friend Salvör Jónsdóttir we were able to reclaim them and they are now en route to the US.
Coming to Iceland, what Laurie Beth was most looking forward to was the chance to spend a lot of time in hot water. This can be done at spas (mostly located at the sites of natural hot springs) and in public swimming pools (every community has one). Though this post contains three photos of “natural” pools, we did not take our camera into any of the community pools visited. In lieu, we offer this photo of a roadside hot water shower near Mývatn. We think it’s an art work but we’re not really sure.
We camped that night near Stokksnes at the Viking Café where we made our second (of three) failed attempts to see seals. A two-hour hike took us through some spectacular scenery but the seals were apparently out to sea.
The wind here was so strong that we slept in the lower part of camper van and did not raise the roof. Instead, the next morning we drove through the tunnel…
…and into a different weather system (our first sunny day!) before making breakfast.
It was important to us to visit Seyðisfjörður…
…where we’ve twice applied for (and been rejected by) the Arts residency program at Skaftfell Center for Visual Art.
While in this community, we visited the charming Technical Museum of East Iceland…
…and ate sashimi from local fishes (salmon, raw and smoked arctic char, deep sea snapper, plaice, mackerel, sweet shrimp, eel) at Norð Austur – Sushi & Bar.
We returned to our campground to find that tents had closed in all around us, so early the next morning we opted again for breakfast on the road, which actually allowed us to climb out of the fog and into the sunshine again.
Then we drove directly to Borgarfjörður Eystri to see lots more puffins!
Stopping only for the waterfalls at Dettifoss and Selfoss (which we nicknamed Dentalfloss and Selfiefloss)…
…we took dirt roads to the “primitive” campground at Verstudalur (within the northern unit of Vatnajökull National Park), which was by far our favorite of the trip.
Our hike there, among these unusual lava formations, was excellent…
…as was the the one we took the following morning in Ásbyrgi.
Enroute to Húsavík, where we’d booked a whale watching tour, we stopped to give Michael a chance to swim in the Arctic Ocean (which means he has now swum in every ocean except the Southern Ocean which surrounds Antarctica).
Whale watching (we took a boat with North Sailing) was outstanding. Sunny clear weather (with very rough seas which luckily does not bother either of us) and more than fifty (humpback) whales in the three hours we were out. Whales are challenging to photograph but here’s a “goodbye tail” for you.
That night, we were able to reach another stunning campground, this one on the lake in Mývatn. The reason one comes to this area is for the geothermal activity and we were not disappointed by the landscape…
…or by the Nature Baths.
A final waterfall at Goðafoss…
…before going on to spend the night in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city (18,000), where oddly our campground proved to be one of the most private of our trip.
In Akureyri, we visited the Botanical Gardens…
…and the Art Museum where we saw a show of contemporary art from the region of North Iceland.
The most memorable and provocative work in the show was Hatikvah by Snorri Ásmundsson. If you have a chance to click on the title link and watch the embedded video, we’d be very curious to hear your thoughts.
Leaving Akureyri, we experienced a series of small disappointments in our detours off Route 1. First, we arrived at the Iceland Seal Center in Hvammstangi (for our third and final attempt to see seals). There we learned that the seal beaches were many miles further on (time we could no longer afford) and that, in any case, the seas were too rough that day to make sightings likely.
Then we went on to Deildartunguhver (“Europe’s most powerful hot spring”) where we found the Krauma spa not yet open for business. Poor fact checking on the part of Lonely Planet which, even in its online listing, describes the facility as already open!
The upshot was that we decided to drive another two hours to camp at Grindavík which would allow us to end our trip with a morning visit to the Blue Lagoon (which had not been in our original plan). I really cannot think of anything better to do before getting onto (or for that matter off of) a transatlantic flight then to spend three hours soaking in hot water.
When she travels, Laurie Beth likes to read contemporary fiction by local authors so, while in Iceland she read several Icelandic novels. The one she most recommends is The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (an Icelandic story at it’s core even though much of it takes place abroad), but she also read Lovestar by Andri Snaer Magnason, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason, Reyjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason and Angels of the Universe by Einar Már Guðmundsson.
We haven’t said much yet about our meals on the trip.
We cooked out using two camping burners.
After a month of rich Italian food, we were in the mood for healthy, low fat foods. Though limited in our facilities, appetites, and ingredients, we still cooked delicious meals that included a curried yellow pea soup with smoked lamb, fried rice with lamb bacon, a Spanish-style tortilla…
…and this excellent smoked salmon sandwich made with all Icelandic ingredients. The cucumbers are grown in greenhouses using geothermal heat!
During all our time in rural Iceland, we could not figure out where to buy fresh fish. There was plenty available in restaurants but none in the supermarket and no (visible to us) fish stores. When we asked, people told us you get fish directly from people who catch fish. It was not until our last day as we passed through Blönduós (which Lonely Planet describes as an “underwhelming service town”) that we drove by this sign…
…screeched to a halt and found this unlikely looking door…
…inside which there was actually a well-stocked fish counter where we bought cod for our final meal.
We’ve not raved enough about the spectacular and unending beauty of Iceland (which we are now revisiting on Netflix through the television series Trapped) but we hope that we’ve communicated it sufficiently through some of our pictures.
Part of what’s amazing about Iceland is the way that so much spectacular landscape is visible from the road. One does not even need to leave the highway to see many spectacular sights—glaciers, waterfalls, geysers—though of course it gets better if one does.
In all, a near perfect trip where the only things that went wrong were lost goggles, a closed hot spring, and a failure to find seals. Our biggest regret is that we did not have the nerve to attempt one of the famed four-wheel drive roads.
Vanessa has no regrets!
Read more: A Troll in Iceland
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