The Ultimate Whirlwind Tour of Iceland
TK & I booked our tickets to Iceland long before we had any clue what we were doing. Our dear Icelandic friend was getting married in Reykjavik, and we decided that we may as well make a small vacation out of it. Besides, we had heard Iceland had some cool scenery and stuff… Hello! understatement of the year! Little did we know that we were about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, that we would fall head over heels in love with this little country, and that we would be daydreaming forevermore about our return (maybe even for good?!)
Because we had booked our tickets before we planned anything, we had naively thought “a week will surely be enough time to drive around Iceland and see everything!” Imagine my panic two days to departure when I realized the sheer number of sights, destinations, and experiences we needed to cram into those 7 days. Luckily, we had the stroke of genius to book a camper van, which allowed us endless freedom and flexibility. Nevertheless, my overwhelming FOMO led me to hash out an exceptionally aggressive road trip of Iceland, Westfjords, Eastfjords, the whole shebang. Hey, if the sun never sets, we can just keep driving, right? Amazingly (or insanely), we hit everything we had aimed for. Even crazier, we did a whole lot more than planned!
We’re in Iceland!!!
After a 9 hour flight from San Francisco, we landed in Keflavik at 4:30AM. Time to hit the ground running! We grabbed an Iceland SIM card from the convenience store in the airport and hopped over to the Rent.is office right across the street. After checking in and guzzling some much needed coffee, we were introduced to our new best friend – our very own Renault Kangoo Camper complete with cute Icelandic decals.
It was love at first sight! I was extremely impressed with our camper. The vehicle itself was fairly new, which meant it was in pristine condition and came with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles like Bluetooth & USB. Even more astounding was the massive full size mattress in the back, battery powered heater & fridge, full retinue of cookware, folding tables & chairs, GPS, and portable free WIFI! I thought we would be “roughing it” for the week but this camper was pure luxury! Better than some overpriced apartments in SF, that’s for sure. Thanks, Rent.is!
For our itinerary, we decided to go clock-wise around the island since we wanted the freedom to be able to linger in the more remote areas (Westfjords) early on. As an added bonus, we were able to extend our camper rental by one day, meaning we could stay out on the road until the very last minute before the wedding. Phew, we thought, we can go at an easier pace this way. Nope, with that one extra day, we ended up adding about 5 more days worth of stuff. YOLO!
First stop: West Iceland & the Snæfellsnes Peninsula! From the first view of rolling countryside and distant mountains, we were hooked! We stopped by the scenic town of Hellnar before looping around the tip of the peninsula, marveling at the majestic Snaefellsjokull glacier. Despite being delirious from our flight, we made sure to stop frequently for hikes, views, and tastes of local culture.
I love the lighthouses here! The majestic Lóndrangar cliffs
They are all a wonderful shade of orange.
Our ending point for the first day was Stykkishólmur, an adorable town with a convenient ferry to the Westfjords. We bought our tickets for the next day’s 9AM ferry and settled into the campsite. But not before taking a walk around the harbor and admiring another lighthouse.
Ah, camper life.
DAY 1: 359km driven
Enter the Westfjords
Rise and shine on day 2! We were a little groggy from jetlag and looking forward to a relaxing 2.5 hour ferry ride across the bay. The boat ride was fantastic with lots of gorgeous views of the small islands along the way. We saw lots of birds flying alongside the ferry as well.
We docked at Brjánslækur around noon and were off like a shot towards the edge of the peninsula to find the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs, the western most tip of Europe!
On the way, we took a detour to Rauðasandur, an impressively large glittering rose-hued beach. We even managed to pick up 3 hitch hikers! They very much appreciated the comfy ride on the mattress in the back. The roads were rough (many of the official numbered roads approved for normal vehicles in Iceland would be considered off road in the USA! We salute this rugged country and its brave people!) but it was all worth it.
We stopped by the oldest steel ship in Iceland right along the main road.
…And finally made it through the winding moon-like landscapes to Látrabjarg, the famous bird cliffs! Standing close to the cliff’s edge is not for the risk-adverse!
Can you spot the puffin??
Afterwards, we rolled through adorable Patreksfjörður and stopped by the wonderful red-roofed Stúkuhúsið Cafe for a late afternoon refresher of coffee and cake. Iceland’s pastries are top notch! We highly recommend this quaint and homey establishment.
We made sure to pay tribute to astounding Dynjandi along the way, right as the sun was at the peak of its golden hours. It was an incredible sight. I loved hiking up past the smaller falls to the very edge of this enormous waterfall, where you can feel the force of the water and get soaked by glacial spray!
Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords, was lively when we rolled in at 1AM, thanks to the annual Mýrarboltinn, a festival centered around mud football tournaments! We were sad to have missed the messy matches but were glad to have a place to call it a day.
Day 2: 344km driven
58 km by ferry
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Journey to the Edge of the World
While my initial itinerary cut out most of the Westfjords, with our luxurious additional day, we decided to drive through the desolate Strandir coast.
If you go through the area southeast of Ísafjörður, don’t even think about omitting a stop at Litlibær for coffee and waffle goodness! The old farmhouse-now-museum is filled with relics of another age and is a wonderful place to chat with other travelers.
We also made a pit-stop in Heydalur for its natural geothermal spring. The guesthouse here also has an amazing greenhouse pool, complete with lush plants, rope swing, and outdoor hotspots!
Finally we approached the Strandir coast and it was the first time in my life that I truly understood the meaning of the word “breathtaking”. There were times that I was so awestruck, I felt like my heart would beat out of my chest.
The hair-raisingly narrow gravel road wound us at cliff’s edge through the fjords, past lonely farmhouses and small fishing villages forgotten by time. The drive was certainly as stressful as it was utterly beautiful. Two hours of careful driving later, we were very glad to make it finally to Djúpavík, the coolest little town that ever was.
The abandoned herring processing plant in Djúpavík is ridiculously photogenic and houses a photography exhibit of local artists. We went a little crazy over how cool this place was.
We had a much needed dinner at Djúpavík Hotel of freshly caught cod and local beer (Icelandic brews are delicious!). We hemmed and hawed over whether we should keep going to the very end of the road or turn back. But once I came across the part in the guidebook about a geothermal pool at the end of the world, I knew we had to keep going. We were so close!
After another bumpy, adrenaline-pumping ride north, we made it all the way past Norðurfjörður to Krossneslaug, the pool of our dreams. It was late so we had the whole place for ourselves. The geothermal waters set right at sea level overlook the turbulent waves and far off fjords. The whole experience was beyond mystical.
It was nearly midnight as we picked our way back along the coast back towards Holmavik for the night. Thank goodness for that endless daylight that makes summertime in Iceland so divine.
Day 3: 464 km driven
Read more: Top 10 swimmingpools in Iceland
North Iceland here we come!
We set out to carve a large chunk out of North Iceland, but not before checking out Holmavik’s Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft. What a creepy and fascinating detour! If you ever want to know how to get rich, check this place out for some gruesome spells to that end. Icelandic folklore is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
As we left the Westfjords behind us, the landscape transformed into rolling countryside populated by lots of majestic Icelandic horses. We were happy to be driving on dry land and paved roads after 3 days of harrowing coastal excursions. We made a brief pit-stop in Hvammstangi to high five our friends who were going counter-clockwise and exchange travel notes. San Francisco represent!
Our goal for the day was Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland. We enjoyed plenty of scenery and stops along the way, taking a little detour up north along the coast to check out Hófsós with its sleek swimming pool and Siglufjordur’s Herring museum. The large black sand plains near Sauðárkrókur were also spectacularly dramatic. We made it to Akureyri just in time to take a relaxing evening stroll through the sprawling botanical gardens. It was marvelous to see so many plants and flowers blooming so far North.
Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft Black Sand Beaches
The Wonders of Mývatn
The Mývatn area was definitely one of my favorite parts of our trip! I’m glad we spent an entire day thoroughly enjoying all that the lake had to offer.
We started our morning with a brisk hike up to the summit of Vindbelgjarfjall to get a bird’s eye preview of all the fascinating geology in the area. During our hike, we were introduced to all the midges that give Mývatn its name. A fun tip: wear a hat or raise your hands above your head – midges tend to swarm to the highest point on your body so this way, they won’t be getting into your eyes and mouth.
Next up, the most handsome crater I’ve ever seen- Hverfjall. Tall, dark, and brooding, it is unsurprisingly very popular with tourists.
We then swung around to the lake’s southern shore to check out the pseudo craters but ended up being very distracted by this PERFECT RAINBOW arching over the lake! I’d never seen anything like it! We ended up seeing 6 or 7 more of these throughout the rest of our trip, each time just as mind-blowing. Iceland is truly a magical land.
Afterwards, we visited Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum on the north side of the lake. It had a very impressive and beautiful collection of taxidermy birds – both native and non-native species of Iceland. It’s no surprise that Iceland is such a birder’s paradise – our feathered friends love this country as much as we do!
We were famished at this point and beelined to the acclaimed Vogafjós Cafe, which serves delicious Icelandic faire featuring dairy products made from the milk of their on-site dairy cows! The milks, cheeses, and creams at the cafe were unbelievable – a full testament to how happy and well-treated the cows are here. Neither TK nor I eat a lot of dairy in The States, but I have to say we thoroughly enjoyed all the delicious dairy foods we had in Iceland. I’m sure I ate more whipped cream in our 1 week trip than I ever had in my life.
With full bellies and happy hearts, we ventured over to Grjótagjá Cave. As avid Game of Thrones fans, we were very excited to see this infamously romantic filming location. It’s hard to believe this cave is natural – it’s pretty much the perfect swimming hole. Resort hotels probably model their pools to look like this one. It’s not open to swimming anymore unfortunately, so I could only gaze longingly at the steamy crystal clear water.
Grjótagjá thermal spring
Luckily, our next stop was the acclaimed Mývatn nature baths!! We hiked the path from the cave over ominously barren lava fields, the cloud of steam in the distance beckoning to us enticingly. The Nature Baths were glorious! I hardly noticed the eggy smell – the steamy water was everything I wanted it to be after the day’s hikes.
But our day wasn’t over yet! After our hot dip, we went to go see some serious geothermal phenomena at Hverir. Walking around here was like being on another planet – silent steam obscuring a red and barren landscape overlaid with the sound of deep bubbling and hissing gas. The boiling mud pools definitely evoked simultaneous feelings of ‘wow’ and ‘gross’.
Only stand downwind of a fumarole if you want to be smothered by an eggy steam cloud!
The last stop of the day was Krafla, with its futuristic geothermal power plant and volcanic pools. It’s hard to believe this place was ablaze with fiery volcanic activity only 40 years ago.
From Mývatn, we hoofed it up north, stopping by Húsavik briefly in hopes of spotting some whales (no luck) before setting up camp at the Ásbyrgi canyon campsite at the north end of vast Vatnajökull National Park.
Day 5: 291km driven
The Peaceful East
Waking up in a national park is always a treat! We started the morning with a stroll through Ásbyrgi canyon, marveling at its tremendous u-shaped walls. Legend has it, the canyon is actually a hoof print created by Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Heading south through the park along the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum, we stopped to explore the Hljóðaklettar, Echo Rocks – huge basalt formations with hollowed caves and crevices. Volcanoes are serious landscapers.
As we exited the park, we made sure to stop by Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. We could see its thunderous plume a long way off and up close, its rumbling roar was definitely awe-inspiring.
From there, we set out East, aiming for Borgarfjörður Eystri, renowned for its puffin colony! When we arrived, we didn’t immediately see any of the fat little birds, but then realized that there were hundreds of them bobbing in the water offshore. Before long, several birds flapped onto the cliffs to their grassy burrows. We caught this guy with a mouthful of fish hanging out on his stoop!
Lastly, we drove up and over a huge summit and descended into the quaint and picturesque town of Seydisfjordur. Its colorful houses and artsy vibe spoke to me immediately and we spent the evening, like true Americans, consuming copious amounts of pizza, beer, and cake at artsy Skaftafell Cafe and homey El Grillo bar.
Day 6 – 334km driven
Flying along the south coast
The next morning, which happened to be a Thursday, we walked out to the harbor of Seyðisfjörður to watch the immense weekly ferry load up for its journey to Denmark. What a ride that would be! We spent the rest of the morning checking out the picturesque church and quaint artisan shops around town, including the hip and charming Gullabúið boutique adorned with the work of a local graffiti artist.
Bláákirkja church & Gullabúið shop
This day was a bit of a free-for-all – we didn’t quite know where we wanted to end up but decided to just start driving and see where the day took us. Turns out, the day would take us very far indeed!
Our first stop of the day was the Viking Cafe en route to Höfn. Just a little ways off highway 1, the Viking Cafe serves up some delicious Icelandic treats. What’s really special about this spot is its replica Viking Village, constructed to be a movie set 10 years ago to age and weather for a future film. Rumor has it filming begins next year so we’ll be eagerly waiting what this cool spot will look like on the big screen!
Höfn treated us to some delicious langoustine baguettes, which we munched happily on the way to Jökulsárlón. After being in very remote areas for the past few days, seeing the buses of tourists was a bit jarring! Luckily there were enough icebergs for us all.
Jökulsárlón’s smaller cousin Fjallsárlón nearby had way fewer tourists.
We continued on along the South coast. The massive glacier encrusted mountains besides us were certainly awe-inspiring. Iceland’s ever-changing and diverse landscapes made being stuck in a van for hours at a time exceptionally pleasant. Even the flat, barren plains of glacial outwash (known as sandar) were enchanting.
Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon Sandar
We enjoyed the black beach at Reynisfjara as the sun was slowly setting.
Black sand beach
After making record breaking mileage, we ended up making it all the way to Skógafoss and fell asleep to the lulling roar of the falls.
Day 7 – 545 km driven
Adventures in Þórsmörk and so much more
We decided last minute to catch a bus to forested Þórsmörk for some hiking. Before our 10AM bus, however, we quickly backtracked to checkout the eerie Sólheimarsandur plane crash. This US Navy plane crash-landed on the beach back in the 1970s. Luckily, everyone survived the emergency landing. The trek out to the wreck was long, rainy, and bleak, but the apocalyptic sight that greeted us made it worth it a thousand times over. The lighting at 7AM was beyond divine and every photo we took looked hauntingly unreal.
At Hvolsvöllur, We bid our camper van buddy adieu for the day as we embarked on the bumpy ride to Þórsmörk, complete with deeply rutted tracks and gratuitous river crossings.
Þórsmörk was everything we had heard it would be and more. It was wonderful to stretch our legs and breathe the fresh, misty air. The area is packed with hiking trails, secret caves, beautiful vistas, and interesting rock formations. We also had the pleasure of running into several furry fox friends. The little guy in the video completely snuck up on us!
After a long day of hiking, we took the bus back to Hvolsvöllur to reunite with our trusty steed. And since it was only 9PM and plenty of light left in the day, we decided to take on the Golden Circle! We chased the daylight through Gullfoss, Geyser, and Thingvellir, very happy to have most of these places entirely to ourselves. We would definitely recommend visiting these popular tourist destinations at off hours!
We rolled into Reykjavik around midnight, stumbled into our AirBnb, and took the best showers of our lives, egg smell and all. While the camper was cozy, sleeping in a real bed was absolute heaven.
The next morning, we took our beloved van back to Rent.is, 3200km older. “You drove a lot”, the rep told us with a smile. We certainly did and we would do it again in a heartbeat. Thank you for the adventure of a lifetime, Iceland, we will be back! And thank you, Rent.is for making it all possible.
Day 8 – 280km driven
104km by bus
Carol & Turner
Happy Camping! #CamperStories
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