Zero plans in a Camper Van
An hour after landing in Keflavík, we were on the road. Two young travelers, one spacious camper van, zero plans, and a week to go. It was only on our way back to the airport we realized the stretches of pale green moss and sapphire waters we found ourselves admiring on the way to Reykjavik were nothing compared to what we’d come across along the Ring road…
Part one – Sugar & Spice
It’s a testament to Iceland that an entire museum dedicated to male genitalia was one of the least surprising things we encountered on our trip. As interesting as The Icelandic Phallological Museum was, the real attraction of Reykjavik, in these two traveller’s minds, was the food. We found a little cafe at the corner of Rauðarárstígur and Laugavegur in the center of town, and let me tell you, there’s no coffee so good. In fact, and this goes for all of Iceland- everywhere we stopped for it, the coffee was as luxurious as the very best in the US. And don’t even get me started on the croissants! It’s true what you hear though, most food is expensive! (Later on, in the southeast, facing the fierce storms of the Atlantic, the sheer stubborn madness of the sailors who must have brought that food here put the prices in better perspective). After the brief indulgence, we headed over to a Bónus (the grocery store chain) and picked up our supplies for the trip. The little fridge provided for us in the back of the camper van had just enough room for everything we needed, from beef for Stroganoff to a bit of Iceland’s secret pearl, Skýr (Icelandic yogurt), and everything in between. One trip to the store, and a very reasonable 5000kr (about $50), got us through the whole week just fine, with one cheat day- The restaurant Greifinn in the northern city of Akuryeri deserves a true shout out; in generous portions, they have, certifiably and without a doubt, the best lobster soup in the universe, worth every last penny.
Part two – Fingers & Toes
Our natural phobia of tour buses scared us right past the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and into the Westfjords- And how grateful we were.
On the ins and outs of every fjord, we passed waterfalls from infinitesimal to the thunderous, circled waters of indescribably blue depths, and passed through what are likely the most charming port towns in the world. It makes one wonder.. Do sailors paint their homes bright colors so that from out at sea, they might catch a sight of home among the gables?
The waterfalls are evidence of the preciousness of this part of our route- the snowmelt never ceases, and many roads are closed outside the summer months.
One road in particular, just outside Bolungarvík, had washed halfway into the ocean at one point (good job, camper van, for making us through it)! Not to worry, though, there is at least one 5 kilometer long one lane tunnel dug under mountains if you want to avoid that sort of thing. Needless to say, this really got our adventurous spirit going.
We visited what is likely the northernmost point we’ll ever go on this earth, just about level with the highest point of Alaska. The views after a precarious, zigzagging turnoff from HWY 630 were staggering and incomparable.
We flew a kite there, in the steady sea wind, and seagulls darted to-and-fro to investigate it. Around noon, an incredibly thick fog blew in from the valley, and we couldn’t see each other from twenty feet away!
On our way down, it happened to be the eve before the Icelandic holiday of Commerce Day. At the innermost point of many fjords, a community of locals were gathered around brilliant bonfires late into the night, and we watched, with warmed hearts, as their reflections danced along the water and out of view.
Part three – Victory Rose
To keep things in the spirit, we decided to listen to the music of Iceland on our journey. Starting with the obvious, Björk kept us company, then came Sigur Rós. We realized, just in time, and in a flurry of delight, that their latest album is actually a map of Iceland! The album, called Route One, is composed entirely of songs titled in GPS Coordinates along the Ring road. And let me tell you, the international fame of this band is not unjustified- the genius of Sigur Rós proved itself once again in this love poem to the island. It’s no Shakespearean set of yearnings, but rather a careful, voyeuristic eight piece study of Iceland’s soul. The motifs of the album might even seem empty without a place to put them, so overwhelming they become in comparison when you’re sitting in the landscape they’re written for. Wordlessly, Route One both embodies and fulfills the locations it directs one to, (which, in some cases, might be easily overlooked), as the songs quite literally encompass the island of their heritage and tenure. In the spirit of adventure, we’ve decided not to reveal any more about the places- suffice it to say that any car can trace the album’s steps and discover the secrets it holds. To the curious and adventurous, a map of the locations can be found here (credit to Reddit user u/docqtor for compiling this). Below you can trace our tracks along (and off) Route One, and sample the journey.
Part Four – The Colors of Ice
The moments here are spread out along the rest of the Ring road. Each photograph tells a little story of our trip, and we hope you enjoy this small taste in these wonders Iceland has to offer.
Along the Southeast coast, there is a solitary, oversized, red wooden chair out on the rocks. Whether it’s art, was forgotten by giants, or a spontaneous growth of lichen, we never determined. Nonetheless, it presents a fantastic spot for pondering the foreboding trident ahead. Something about the sharp jutting of the rocks into the ocean just further down route one seemed familiar; it turns out, the edge of The Wall in Game of Thrones was filmed here!
This lighthouse is dedicated to a boat of Spanish ballerinas that sunk here in 1615. Similar ones pin down the island all along the coast, and they became one of the few familiar sights on our trip, along with the sheep and the ponderously patient rolls of hay they’d eventually eat.
This is a painting. It was painted by a husband, and afterwards, embroidered over by his wife! This type of collaboration, we learned, was popular through the mid 19th and 20th centuries, just as an activity- hundreds of people did it for fun, with the husband painting or drawing, and the wife sewing over it! We found this one at the Safnasafnið Folk and Outsider Art Museum, a white and window affair on the outskirts of Akureyri housing powerful artwork from folks no one else would dare to, from the developmentally disabled to the creatively (in our opinion) probably insane. A fantastic secret lies outside the building, but you’ll have to find that one on your own (you can use the kaleidoscope for a clue)!
This is the moss that covers the most of Iceland sometimes inches, sometimes feet (!) deep. Often, it stretches for miles unobstructed except by cairns, and just as often, it takes more colors than you can imagine, from orange, to white, to jet black. You can visit this Instagram account for a more in-depth exploration of the rainbow of mosses in Iceland.
In Jökulsárlón, we witnessed the melting of a glacier into the ocean. Shards of crystal clear ice washed up everywhere on the bank, and we thought we’d never before held, or even beheld, a piece of anything literally millions of years old. It’s inexpressibly humbling to find oneself in such a refined expression of time’s passage.
The wildflowers in Iceland are not to be underestimated. Every color, shape, and size imaginable beckoned to us along the Ring road. Once in awhile, we couldn’t help but stop and admire their sheer fortitude at living on an island that’s all snow half the year.. Their bravery for showing their colors in spite of wind and volcanoes is a little contagious.
Black & White
Skálholt Cathedral has the most brilliantly chromatic abstract glasswork we’ve ever seen, though you’d never guess it from this side. It stands on the same site as nine previous churches, dating back to 1056! An awe-inspiring collection of historic books dating back nearly as long is on display in a sod-roofed longhouse just beside it during the day. They charge a small fee to see the old tomes, but between you and us, the doorman was fast asleep…
Part Five – All the Rest
Our camper van had ample room to sleep in and cook in at the same time! It was simple to open up the trunk and cook, despite the phrase ‘If it’s not windy, you’re not in Iceland.’ Kept us plenty warm the whole time too!
There was a moment on the Atlantic coast we’d been whipped to-and-fro by the highway winds, and for some, unknowable reason, we stopped the car and struggled against the fierce winds and rain across slippery ocean rocks until there was nothing left between us and the ocean but an inch of sea. Against the furious wind and into the sea spray, we screamed and shouted on that black beach like we never had before! For no reason! Except to stand there and face the sea. I think, in some small way, after doing so, that somewhere deep down, we were less afraid than we were before.
We found a number of lovely hotpots to soak in along the way, too, but we won’t mention our favorites; they were so special precisely because of their seclusion! The adventurous can visit this map for tips, but be safe, and make very, very sure to do your research before diving in!
Part Six – Advice?
First of all, notice the little things. We found some of the most exciting places on our whole trip by following a quaint trail, or while trying to take a picture of a spider. The natural beauty of Iceland is unique on this earth, both biologically and geologically, but the opportunity to witness such an alien world comes with responsibility, too. We noticed when some moss was too fragile to even step on, or some roads were marked with “No Camping,” and we thank all the adventurers before us who did so, too!
Our second piece of advice is to take Frost’s Road, and discover the fun on your own. Every exit to the ring road is an entrance to an adventure of your own making! We happened upon the world’s first ability inclusive, sustainable, organic, farming commune by complete accident (it was incredible)! It just goes to say, you can find anything in Iceland if you look!
The Road not taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
by Robert Frost
Our third, and last, piece of advice was already written for us:
One last shout out needs to be made- we were running late on our way back to the airport, and Rent.is’ employee Steinþór (hopefully that spelling is right!) did us a real solid by driving us himself to get us there just in time. Thanks again Steinþór, we owe you an Einstök on our next visit!
Read more: Iceland: The second time around
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