Putting the Ring on a Ring Road Adventure
It’s October of 2016 and a couple of women from Santa Cruz, California set their travel sights on a little isle called Iceland. The trip is expected to be as much relationship building as it is adventuresome. Travel is known to be a stressful way for a couple to spend time together. It was thought that, if they can make it through the challenges of Iceland, the relationship’s chances of survival would be pretty high. And their trip, like their relationship, proved to be one honeymoon after another!
A few hours after taking off from San Francisco Intl airport the passengers were greeted with a broadcast message from the Captain. “Excuse the interruption, folks, but if you’ll look out the left side of the aircraft you’ll see quite an extraordinary Northern Lights.” The girls, having lucked out with assigned seats on the left side, peered out the window, mouths agape with awe at the beautiful sky filled with green vapor just outside the window. A cloud of translucent glowing dust unfolded and stretched like an aircraft’s contrail across the clear night sky. They were flying at the same altitude as the Aurora Borealis!
Not the types to hog a vista while less fortunate, right-side seated passengers looked longingly at their astounded selves, the girls stood up from their seats to let the poor sops borrow their view. The formerly sleepy atmosphere of the plane was suddenly abuzz and as electric as the sky. Still mesmerized, the girls sat back down in their seats, gripped each other’s hands and smiled! If the trip was off to THIS great of a start, how much better could it possibly get?
A few hours later the Boeing 767 touched down at Keflavik Airport, just outside of Reykjavik. WoW airlines, later shortened to just “Ow” for the ever-escalating add-on prices, were going to get less than three stars on Yelp. The Aurora Borealis was magnificent but Ow Airlines is not without its challenges.
4am is not always the best time to make big life decisions. It is ideal though for impulse shopping; or so the Duty Free store at Keflavik airport would like its customers to believe. On a trip down the aisle of this ultra clean store, the girls spotted what they thought were Icelanders, and grabbed similar supplies to what they were loading in their carts (Travel tip: stock up on Einstök beer, Aquavit & Brennivin–the national drink of Iceland if you like the hard stuff) and then they set off to find their camper van from Rent.is had a minivan outfitted with queen sized bed, refrigerator, heater, GPS, WiFi hotspot and buckets of camping supplies waiting. After a brief how-to from the Rent.is crew, Debra & Nia (DebraNia–pronounced “deh-BRAIN-eeAh) hit the road.
Tired with jetlag at 5am local time, the girls pulled into what they would come to find out was a grocery store chain, “Bónus,” to catch a few hours sleep. Around 10am the “Bogus” mart was accepting customers. Debra felt she slept quite well for having roosted just a couple hours in the back of a camper van. Sitting upright, she stretched and took in a deep breath. Enthusiastically, she piped: “Wake up, Nia… it’s time to bag a glacier!”
Heading North and West from Reykjavik, Debrania took the counter-clockwise route around the country in hopes that they’d make it to Fosshotel Vatnajökull by happy hour that day. Here is the pic of their Google-map of their Ring Road adventure.
The weather was overcast but the sun peeked out now and again. Waterfalls and lighthouses dotted the landscape. It was rare that there wasn’t some cascading horsetail of water in view from the car. Bouncing in time with new jams by The Weekend and others, Debrania set sights on their first waterfall: Skógafoss!
What a site. The falls towered above them and projected more rainbow colors than San Francisco during gay pride month. The air was crisp, refreshing, and the girls drank it in with throat-tingling fervor.
Climbing the sometime slippery stairs to the top of the falls, the girls took in more breath-taking views.
Once at the top, they paused to peer out at the verdant hillside flanking the falls, as shown here with Nia in the foreground.
Chilly and damp after so much time spent at these first falls, they climbed back into their trusty Rent.is camper van, cranked up the heat, which worked quickly and abundantly, and got back on the road to head toward their next stop: Jökulsárlón – Glacier Lagoon in Iceland.
The lush lagoon was loaded with hues of reflective blues and glassy whites, reminiscent of those summertime popsicles of DebraNia’s youth. They paused with a sigh before climbing up the slight hill to take in the view of the majestic growlers from above the lagoon. Sunset arrived and it couldn’t have illuminated the Glacial Lagoon more beautifully. Just as they were about to leave, a large chunk of glacier calved from a sizable ice mound and hit the water with a voluminous splash. The sound silenced the girls with its echoes of epochs gone by. They paused to watch the newly formed ice raft float toward its warm-ocean demise.
Back on the road, tranquil songs by Junip & Jose Gonzalez now scored their journey. As it went dark, they pulled into Fosshotel Vatnajökull hotel just in time to sneak in under the Happy Hour discount. Waking up at the mouth of a glacier where this hotel is positioned was awe inspiring. After a quick continental breakfast on the ground floor, Debrania bounced out towards Höfn a dozen kilometers to the east. Churches and rugged landscape made it hard to take eyes off the countryside.
Egilsstaðir, Iceland (Northeast)
By dusk Debrania had arrived in the Northeastern area of Iceland. Quiet and minimally inhabited, the town of Egilsstadir had ample charm (and cold weather!) to make up for it. A car camping site was located, and to the girls’ delight, it was connected to a little bar. After a vegetarian pizza and vegan tandoori at Salt Café, the bar in the campground was next on the list.
Kaffi Egilstaðir had a soccer game projected on the wall. Locals watched and cheered as goals landed in the net. After spilling a couple thousand krona from Nia’s bank account via Apple Pay, which works almost everywhere in Iceland, she had herself a warm shot of that aforementioned Aquavit (see: duty free shopping at Keflavik Airport). Notes of licorice and caraway lingered after every swig from the shot glass.
Shops close early in this part of the island and when the bartender started vibing the girls with his “I’m ready to go home” glances, the two walked the 10 meters back to their camper and climbed in for their first full night of van camping.
…then the storm came.
Nia woke up an hour into her slumber to violent shaking of the van. Winds buffeted the vehicle and she was convinced the van would tip over “Puffins?” she thought; No. This was 60 knot wind (100+ kilometers per hour). It felt to her more like a carnivorous lizard from the Jurassic period was smacking the car with it’s horned tail. Over and over, for hours, the van shook and trembled. Lying awake, Nia worried about the people she’d seen camping in tents outside there. Should she check on them? Invite them in? No. Getting out of the car simply was not an option in this typhoonery. These winds might inflate her parka’s hood and send her skyward, leaving Debra to carry on the rest of the journey alone. Even worse, the exposure to such elements could inflate Nia’s inclinations for melodramatic storytelling (wink wink!). She decided it was not worth the risk, so she rode out the storm, wide-eyed and worried, while watching incredulously as Debra slept peacefully through the whole ordeal, snuggled in her abundantly warm sleeping bag.
Oh MýVatn, Iceland
Morning came and their faithful rent.is van had kept them safe and warm throughout the night. Debra awoke with a spring in her step and motivation in her driving foot as the couple set out towards Volcanos in MýVatn.
The route to MýVatn was surreal. At this elevation, it seemed as if nothing lived. The herds of wild horses and sheep they’d previously seen along their route were nowhere to be found. Clouds formed concentric, puffy spheres above this high desert region and the landscape was bespeckled with odd-shaped volcanic droppings of otherworldly formations. One would not want to break down here. It was miles from any help. But that didn’t stop the girls from pulling over for some roadside photos. The amorphously shaped scenes were too much for these amateur photographers to pass up, so they stopped for a few snapshots.
Cresting one of the summits with the Bluetooth stereo bumping Phantogram the adventures were transported into more seemingly supernatural scenery when a steam filled mountain range came into view. Lava fields, where magma once scorched the earth, offered more than a few opportunities for hiking and exploration. Dimmuborgir park offered beauty and a little danger that many can’t resist.
Hiking done, the afternoon came full circle with a relaxing float in the hot sulfur baths of Jarðböðin.
The same volcano that violently cast rocks the size of a hippies’ VW bus into the sky now heated fissures that warmed the waters of this serene resort Jarðböðin. It was now time to make a dash for the civilized part of the country, but not without expressing their feelings about a lesser travel van company they spotted along their route.
Ryan Goðafoss-ling Falls
Easy to miss on this drive is one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls: Goðafoss. American readers may have heard this destination referred to simply as “Ryan Godafoss-ling falls”.
The surreal sights and sounds of the rushing waterfalls were magnificent, and like nothing the girls had ever seen before. Reaching over the rocky cliffs near the rushing water, Debra filled a cup of this sweet Icelandic water and sipped it like the Nordic blessing it was.
Acclimatizing in Akureyri, Iceland
In only another hour on the road the two descended into the valley of Akureyri. The water in the bay reflected the city back at itself, but upside down. The full color carbon copy of the town reflected an abstract impression of this modern skyline up towards the sky.
A campground called Hamrar (see above pic) was located easily in Akureyri. Modern facilities made the stay here comfortable. Arctic bunnies scampered around at night. Wild horses chomped grass in the morning. These features made the cold evenings seem like a small price to pay.
Read more: Top ten campground in Iceland
Abundant vegetarian foods were found just a few miles from the campground in downtown portion of the city (Nia’s a vegan; she doesn’t eat fish but she can drink like one). Restaurants like Akureyri Backpackers provided both beer and veggie burgers. These places were every bit as good as the restaurants on California’s Central Coast.
Two days in Akureyri was not enough. They didn’t want to leave but they had to stay on schedule. Plus, the locals from Akureyri were in pursuit of the girls. Townspeople there had a suspicion it was these girls who had filled the jukebox at the Akureyri Café with hundreds of Krona and selected Twisted Sister’s song “You can’t Stop ROCK & ROLL” on repeat playing again and again. As shown in the photo below the local townfolk apprehended Debrania in the town square. The townies could not hold onto the slippery girls. It was into the camper van for a quick escape to Reykjavik.
This next leg, between Akureyri & Reykjavik, was long so they bid farewell to the wild horses grazing around the outer boundaries of their campground and continued on their journey.
Yet another visit to a volcano broke the ride into pieces. Flume, ZHU, and Sigur Ros provided the soundtrack for this leg. Debrania did their obligatory volcano check-in on Facebook & FourSquare with the usual collage.
Arrival in Reykjavik marked the return to hotel life. Camping in the van is fun but sometimes a private shower beckons. Hotel Eyja Guldsmeden has a happy hour from 16:00-19:00 at the bar. Draft beer is just 550 Krona. Word of warning: the animal skin decor is creepy.
Reykjavik provided no shortage of good food, happy hours, comedy clubs and landmarks. These points of interest almost dared their visitors not to shoot photos. One thing the couple learned about staying in a 100 sq ft B&B rental: ya can’t wait to get out of that box and onto the town. Gló & Vinyl are the two best places to eat in the vegan’s opinion. Vinyl is a restaurant that has Technics turntables that customers can use to play their jams. Crates of records are everywhere and span music genres from rock to disco and jazz to folk. There’s even a little fossil rock one of the girls observed. Later that night, it was agreed that Bravó has the best happy hour and best ambiance in town. Krua Thai Express is undoubtedly the best Thai food in Iceland.
Daily excursions were easy from the Capital. Boo & BAE, as they’d call one another when egos were shed and endearing terms could surface, took a romantic drive up to see the North American/European tectonic plates at Þingvellir National Park. First snow fell and it was delightful. The Rent.is van handled the snowy road conditions very well. Nothing compares to the sight of a tectonic rift, with waterfalls throughout, and snow falling all around.
Based on a recommendation by a local they had met, they stopped at the 66º North Outlet store to get Cool Icelandic winter clothing shopping done. 66º North is the equivalent to Columbia or Patagonia found in the US. Much to the couple’s disappointment, the prices here were still prohibitively high so they opted to walk across the street to the Nordic Store, where Debra found prices more aligned with her budget. This place was tax-free at that! She left that store with a jacket in hand, tax-reimbursement paperwork in her purse, and a smile on her face.
Another day landed the gals in the Volcanic Veins: that is, CAVES, outside of Reykjavik. Debra suffers from claustrophobia and this excursion would put her to the test. The bus driver from Extreme Iceland customized their route to pick the gals up at Eyja hotel. Along the way, the Extreme Island shuttle picked up 10 other aspiring troglodytes from various places around Reykjavik. The mood on the bus was one of excitement as the guide shared his knowledge of caving, lava fields, and landmarks along the route. The snowy mountain tops and volcanic formations made for another otherworldly view on the approach to the cave. Inside, a lamb’s bones are preserved in this 50º F tomb. Backs arched, the girls inched through the vertically challenged space seeing stalagmites and eerie formations that only happen in isolation chambers like this.
Reykjavik was the final destination for the two. It provided the nightlife, sit-down meals and all the civilization that the two require.
A complete list of each place visited is found on Foursquare. Type in “Iceland” under “in this area” as shown below and all of these great destinations (restaurants, hotels, camping,etc) can be bookmarked for your own visit to Iceland someday. Foursquare is one of the best ways to lookup businesses and navigate to points of interest on your itinerary.
The couple, who were on a metaphorical rocky road coming to Iceland, traveled some literal rocky roads in their time together. The union stayed strong throughout the trip and long after their return to Santa Cruz thanks to proper planning and a solid foundation of communications and accommodations from great Icelandic folks. This Ring Road won’t be the only ring they would share as a couple because . . .
…SHE SAID YES!
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