Van Life around the Ring road
Day One – Golden Circle
It didn’t help that we’d spent the past four days walking. With mud and basalt from the Laugavegur trail still wedged in the crannies of our boots, we trekked three miles from our hostel to where we thought we’d find the Reykjavik Rent.is rental office, only to learn that Google Maps is viciously unreliable in Viking territory.
Some sympathetic locals working in a home goods store confirmed we’d come to the wrong place, called us a cab and even gave us coffee while we waited for our ride to arrive. While the others kept watch over our backpacks, Siyang and I dragged our sorry selves into the cab and over to the rental office, where we were greeted with the first glimpse of our glorious Renault Master 5.
The thing was jacked. Dishes and cookware for five, complete with two stoves and running water; cozy beds stocked with individual sleeping bags and pillows; ports for playing our favorite jams through the van speakers and, the happiest amenity, unlimited WiFi waiting for us to connect. I sent a quick message to my mom (“Picked up the camper van, hope we don’t crash…”) before circling back to show off the new wheels to the rest of our crew.
Once all five of us had settled into our new home, we headed straight for the day’s second most important stop: the hot dog stand.
Parking near this little hut was pretty much impossible, but the seemingly massive RM5 fit on the city streets as well as a sedan. The ladies did a couple circles around Reykjavik while the boys waited in line for grub, and an hour later we were well-fed and officially cruising southeast down the first stretch of the Ring Road.
Despite being spoiled on the Laugavegur Trail with about thirty of the most incredible waterfalls any of us had seen, we spent our first afternoon in the van seeking out Brúarfoss, Gullfoss, and Strokkur, a reliable little geyser. Strokkur was worth the stop, since a few of us had never seen a geyser before; it erupts about every seven minutes, so we couldn’t miss it. And Gullfoss was impressive as expected, if only for its size.
Brúarfoss, though, truly competed with the secluded waterfalls of the trail. We parked the van on a gravel road and walked down an overgrown path to find a short bridge overlooking the water. The bridge was ours alone for the half hour we spent with that humble waterfall.
We drove for a few more hours and parked at a campground around 9:30pm. Circled around the van’s fold-up table with a stock of Carlsberg and Tuborg in the minifridge, we spent that Thursday night the same way we spend most Thursday nights at home: making jokes and playing card games with our best friends.
Day 2 – Black Sand Beaches
After an exhausting first day in the van, we all took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in on Day 2. Except Kate, who must not have gotten the memo and had to wait two hours for the rest of us to get out of bed. (Sorry, Kate!)
Despite the lazy morning, we quickly kicked ourselves into high gear to tackle they day’s busy agenda. First was a quick stop at Skógafoss. We had seen this waterfall just a few days before at the end of our hiking trip, but it was no less spectacular the second time around.
Skógafoss in all its glory. Definitely worth a visit.
Our next stop was the famous abandoned plane wreck on the beach at Sólheimasandur. We parked our van in the lot just off the Ring Road and took the deceptively long walk to the site of the crash. Undeterred by the sharp and rusty metal, we had fun climbing through the wreckage and taking some glamour shots on top of the plane.
You don’t find many tourist attractions like this in the U.S.
After the trekking back to the van, we cooked our first of many hot dog lunches. We learned quickly that the only way to eat cheaply in Iceland is to buy hot dogs and sausages – everything else is too expensive. It wasn’t exactly fine dining (unless you ask Claire, the hot dog fanatic), but it was definitely the best way to go given our budget.
Probably not the best idea to cook inside the van, but we cracked the door and windows and were very careful!
After lunch we made the short drive to the Dýrhólaey peninsula, a popular Puffin hangout according what we’d heard. Personally, seeing puffins was high on my priority list for our Ring Road adventure so I had high expectations. The scenery was beautiful, with majestic cliffs and giant rock arches and structures out in the ocean, but… no puffins.
Feeling dejected but not quite ready to give up, we continued walking along the cliffs, eyes peeled for puffins. Suddenly we saw a crowd of people forming, all pushing past each other to get to the front. Sure enough, someone had spotted Puffins! The birds were roosting on one of the tall, pointy rocks out in the ocean. We didn’t exactly get up close and personal, but it was good enough for me! Puffin search: success!
Figure (left) Cool rock formations at Dýrhólaey, a beautiful spot. (right) There are puffins in this picture, I promise!
After a long while we said goodbye to our puffin friends and continued down the road to the black sand beach in Vik. A sign warned us about “sneaker waves” as we walked onto the beach. I have no doubt it’s a serious danger, but we nonetheless found the term “sneaker waves” pretty funny.
The beach was unlike any I’d ever seen. The main attraction was the giant wall of columnar basalt and the cave that formed underneath it. We spent a good chunk of time here climbing the basalt and skipping rocks into the ocean. Luckily we did not get swept away by the sneaker waves!
Our last planned stop was a liquor store in Vik to stock up for the next few days (being from Wisconsin, we consider beer a necessity). We were a bit crunched for time, as we’d spent longer than planned at the beach and the liquor store was closing in about 30 minutes. We rushed back to the van to get back on the road and were greeted with an unlikely delay – a herd of cows!
In Vik, cows always have the right of way.
Traffic slowed to a crawl as the cows took their sweet time, apparently unaware that we were racing against the clock. Luckily, the cows cleared the road just in time and we reached the liquor store a few minutes before closing. We stormed in grabbed an assortment of the cheapest beers we could find just before time ran out. Close call!
We had a little trouble finding our campsite outside Vik and it was dark by the time we arrived. We cooked up a pasta dinner, quickly reviewed tomorrow’s itinerary, and went straight to bed, completely drained from an eventful day.
I’ll be the first to admit it: although I did the most journaling of everyone in our happy band of campers, I failed to write down the names of any towns, attractions, or campsites we visited. Furthermore, Kate and Siyang did all the driving while Mike, Danny, and I napped or read in the back of the van like bums, which meant I had a thin grasp on where we were on the map at any given time. Not knowing where anything was or what anything was called gave me the sense that the five of us were floating from heavenly site to heavenly site rather than choosing destinations and driving to them like we did in our boring lives at home. And to me, Day 3 was our most spectacular day of floating.
I commented in my journal that we could have titled this day “Pieces of Ice Floating in Water.” First up, a lagoon—not the famous Blue Lagoon, which we planned to visit on our last day in Iceland, but a lagoon that was pretty darn blue if you ask me. See for yourselves:
Google tells me this is called Jökulsárlón Lagoon
Here, we skipped rocks and Mike and Kate, the buffest members of our van community, did some push-ups.
Mike and Kate: In constant pursuit of physical perfection
Just a little down the road is a site called Crystal Beach, which I’ve since learned is the beach area the mouth of the same lagoon. It was astounding. Fragments of ice were scattered along the black sand beach, giving the impression that the ground was full of diamonds—hence the beach’s second nickname, Diamond Beach. We couldn’t have found a better lunch spot.
After eating, we walked along the beach, skipped even more rocks, and built sandcastles. We even caught a glimpse of two adorable seals playing in the waves. I left the beach pretty convinced we wouldn’t see anything as beautiful for the rest of the trip.
For the rest of the day, we made our way up the Eastern coast of Iceland via a steep and treacherous “shortcut” that ended up taking us a long time to traverse. We emerged from the fog to find a campground—likely at Höfðavik, based on a quick analysis of Google Maps—where we saw some of our first trees of the whole journey.
Kate remarked that the campsite wouldn’t have looked out of place in our home state of Wisconsin. She was right, and for the first time, I felt a little homesick. I was just starting to gaze wistfully around the campsite when Siyang pulled out the hot dogs—nothing cheers me up like a hot dog—and Danny lit up our little camp stove. Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of cooking dinner, any ache I felt for something familiar vanished. I still didn’t know where we were, and I certainly didn’t know where we’d be floating to next, but for now, I was home.
Day 4 – Driving to Akureyri
Day four kicked off with…you guessed it, more driving. But driving is never dull when you’re with close friends, spectacular views of Iceland right out the car window, and new experiences around the mossy corner. The view for us today? The stark beauty of the Icelandic highlands. The new experiences? Civilization. Concrete. Fine dining. The city of Akureyri, Iceland.
When we reached Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, it felt like eternity passed since we were in a bonafide city. Reykjavic, the concrete mecca of Iceland, had become a faded memory. We had become van people, nomads, road dawgs (that’s how road dawgs spell “dogs”). After days of life on the road, we had to readjust to the worldly ways of these fancy city folk. Them with their impractical shoes that didn’t protect ankles, shirts with collars, draped in elegant white / black monochromatic color palettes.
Akureyri was the place where we decided we’d have our one fancy dinner out in Iceland. We decided to go to Strikið. Eating out here was something I looked forward to. I was excited for a chance to sample the weird meats only available in Iceland, so, when I saw the menu, I knew exactly what I was ordering—the seafood sampler—which included a helping of Puffin! You may be shocked that I’d be able to eat such a cute creature, but my response to that is always the same. The looks of the creature should matter less than its intelligence. If we eat pig, then there should be no problem eating any animal as dumb as a pig.
When I first got the platter, I thought, “Where’s the Puffin?” It turned out the little black pieces that I had mistaken for prunes was actually puffin. I ended up being very pleased with the “faux prunes.” The Puffin was cooked perfectly with a minimal amount of flavoring. This allowed me to get the full experience. One bite was all it took for me to realize it had a texture unlike any I’ve ever tried. I can best describe it as a bizarre morph of fish and chicken, with a much smoother texture than both, and no flakiness. The flavor was less of a surprise. It tasted exactly like what you’d expect from a bird of the sea. I quickly devoured it all, and then ate the food my travelling companions were unable to finish.
We ended the night with a beer at the local hostel and then retreated to our van bunks.
It was a lovely day, another reminder of how new places can freshen up old bones. However, as I wither away into old age, mind slipping ever slowly into the abyss, it’s not the places I’ll remember, but rather the shared moments with people I love. From this day, the memory I’ll always cherish, is the memory of how Claire Parrott, that clumsy goon, nearly set herself afire.
On Day 5, we all awoke with excitement. Trip Master Kate had planned a full day of activities, and we were all ready to continue our journey. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men (and cats) often go awry.
The day began with a search for pastries, fuel for the start of any big day. However, as it were, Day 5 was Commerce Day, a day to celebrate Icelandic merchants and tradespeople. An honorable cause to be sure, but one that makes it more difficult to fill a belly. We persevered.
Our travels took us to the Gates of Hell, a misnamed rock formation that emphasizes the point made by Miley Cyrus in The Climb. “It’s not about how fast I get there, it’s not about what’s waiting on the other side, it’s the climb.” The Gates are, in fact, an archway of rock crawling with tourists. However, to get to the Gates, we had a beautiful mile-long hike through the Icelandic tundra. Well worth it.
Next, we found ourselves descending into a cave to see a pool that acted as a scene for Game of Thrones. Terrifying though the cave was, we had all packed our Valerian armor and braved the descent. We were rewarded with a pool so blue that songs of sadness were echoing off the cave walls.
Finally, we traveled through the Western tip of Southern Iceland where we found a lovely campsite on a lava field with an ocean view. Easily, this was the most scenic campsite we had found to date in the van. So, we fired up the stove, made some pasta, had a few drinks, and enjoyed the night, sampling the local flavor. Once again, Iceland did not disappoint.
Day 6 – Snæfellsjökull
It was our last day on the road, and we intended to spend it absorbing as much nature as possible before returning to the big city (that’s Reykjavik).
We kicked off the day with a short drive into Snæfellsjökull, the only national park in Iceland that extends to the western seashore. A sleepy Siyang caught some extra time in bed while the rest of us proved our strength on Djúpalónssandur, a black pebble beach where men used to show how big and strong they were by lifting boulders above their heads.
Mike and Kate’s beach-side push-ups paid off
This beach was Claire’s favorite—it was secluded, inspired introspection, and was far enough from the highway that we heard nothing but the splashes of waves on the rocks.
Siyang was still in bed when we visited the Well of the Irish, a windy stop just down the street from Djúpalónssandur, but he joined us when we arrived in Reykjavik for an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet—a welcome departure from the pasta we’d been eating every day in the van.
We spent the rest of our final afternoon in Iceland saying goodbye to the city. We walked around in the freezing drizzle and shopped for sweaters, and later in the evening we found our favorite bar, a place called Dillon (not to be confused with the place called Chuck Norris, directly below Dillon) that offered a cozy upstairs with live music.
Day 7 – The Blue Lagoon
Day 7 marked a full week of #vanlyfe and the end of our Icelandic vacation.
We rose early (all of us this time, Siyang included) and drove to the Blue Lagoon, an iconic stop that we couldn’t bring ourselves to skip despite the expense.
For our fellow travelers intending to spend a day at the Blue Lagoon, we have the following advice: bring your own towel (they charge through the nose to borrow) and take advantage of the free shower; wear the goopy mud mask after you steam and sauna; dry yourself off before you go back into the locker rooms, or you will get yelled at; and, most importantly, make sure you lock your own locker—their automated system nearly locked Claire and me out of ours, and gave access to someone who just happened to arrive at the same time.
For our fellow travelers debating a day at the Blue Lagoon, we have the following advice: it’s not really worth it.
We love a good spa as much as the next set of weary adventurers, but after immersing ourselves in everything Iceland along the Ring Road, the Blue Lagoon seemed to epitomize the commercial. The mountains curling around the hot springs at the head of the Laugavegur trail far surpassed the man-made mounds that enclosed the Blue Lagoon, and while the sauna and steam room were lovely, after fifteen minutes in each we were both dehydrated and overheated. If you’ve got a few free hours and some cash to spare, head back to downtown Reykjavik and get some pastries or a pint.
We cleaned out the van in the parking lot and headed toward the Keflavik airport, where we would say goodbye to the trusty Renault Master 5 that had proved a perfect home for the week.
Before this trip, if anyone had suggested the five of us live in a van with a total square footage smaller than a master bathroom, I wouldn’t have believed we’d all still be friends at the end. I wouldn’t have believed we’d make it to the end of the trip without killing each other. But we are, and we did. The magic of the van is that it made a small space feel large, and it turned time spent inside the van, on the road, into time spent connecting with the outdoors. We’re looking forward to many more vanventures.
Kate, Danny, Mike, Siyang, and Claire
Read more: When your round trip turns into a south-west trip
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