Iceland, the Land of Fire and Ice is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean and about 750 miles from the coast of Greenland. It lies just south of the Arctic Circle, to the north-west of Scandinavian Europe, and is one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth. Home to unrestrained beauty, Iceland, with its out of this world backdrops ,creates an unforgettable and striking image of beauty and splendor . Known for its dormant volcanoes, erupting geysers, lofty waterfalls, tranquil lakes, sprawling glaciers and raging oceans, Iceland is not a journey for the faint-hearted or the fancy holidaymaker. Travelling to this island nation needs mental strength to bear its icy coldness, bare and barren wilderness, rugged landscapes and the dangers that ice, sleet or snow can bring to the casual wanderer. It is but, a heaven for nature lovers and landscape photographers, and Iceland offers a challenge in its diversity, a deceitful simplicity and forbidding natural beauty. Iceland hung on the top of my Bucket List for the last few years. End of March 2017, after months of planning and research it finally became a reality.
In this article you will find everything needed to prepare you for a trip to Iceland. All information you need to Plan for an Iceland Road Trip is here, and so are some of its Secrets. All images copyrighted to Samit Bhattacharya
When to travel to Iceland ?
Iceland is visited in both the seasons, winter and summer. During winter, people visit Iceland for the Northern Lights, Husky-Dog sledging (northern Iceland) and Glacier and Ice Cave Treks. During summer tourists pour into Iceland for the “Midnight sun”, Horse Riding, Sea Puffins and Off-Road Highlands driving. Summer begins officially on the first Thursday after 18th of May, when they have the ‘Gleðilegt Sumar ’ or Happy Summer parades, and lasts till September 31st . Winter temperatures can drop south of minus 20 degree Celsius in many parts of this Island nation, while summers nights has a minimum of about 6 degrees Celsius.
Travelling to Iceland needs proper detailed planning The Sighting of Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights depends on a lot of factors including the prevailing weather conditions. Spring Equinox, on 21st of March and the Autumnal Equinox on 22nd September are both a good time to see the Aurora. So is a new moon night since the sky remains dark and accentuates colours for the normal eye to see. Location wise, you need to be at a place where external lights from the locality does not affect your eyesight.
Locations in Iceland ?
Iceland, a land of untamed splendour, forbidding and alluring is probably the last civilized country to offer such uninhabited beauty in both its stillness and its turmoil. The minimum time frame needed for a complete tour around Iceland is two weeks. This means driving all around the island nation on Iceland’s Route #1. The central part of Iceland is the Highlands area and is not navigable from October to May. It is here that Vatnajokull, the second largest glacier of Europe, covering 8100 square Kms is located. To the west lies the capital Reykjavik, and to the East lies the fishing harbour town of Hofn. Most travellers who travel to Iceland prefer the Southern part of Iceland including the Golden Circle, which connects most of the iconic attractions and natures wonders. Northern Iceland is more desolate, uninhabited and isolated. The two main cities of Iceland are Reykjavik, the capital, and Akureyri the largest city in the north.
. The below map charts the sights and locations we visited in Iceland
Iceland is magical and beautiful, thus stressing on particular locations is inappropriate. It doesn’t do justice to its miles and miles of untouched unhindered beauty. Iceland needs not only to be seen, but its divine nature needs to be felt and absorbed. It needs to be grasped in its entirety. The same scene appears different at different times of the day, as rain drenched icy fields change to golden snowflakes at sunset. Above is our 10 day Iceland Road Trip, map .
Where to fly into Iceland ?
You can either fly into Reykjavik or Akureyri , the second city in the north. Between these two, Reykjavik is far more well connected than Akureyri.
There are two airports in Reykjavik. Keflavik (KEF) is the larger one which flies all international routes. Reykjavik (RKV) Airport is the domestic and smaller one, mostly used by chartered and private flights, and flights into Greenland. So in case you are pre-booking rental cars, as you should be, your pickup location needs to be Keflavik airport. This airport is located about 45 kms west of capital and is a nice 40 minutes drive.
How to travel around Iceland ?
Iceland is an ideal country to go on a Road Trip. Dazzling sunsets and breath-taking waterfalls will force you to stop your car at every nook and corner. You should preferably book an SUV or a 4X4 vehicle if you do not have prior experience in driving on snowy roads and icy terrain. And always purchase a comprehensive insurance cover: the risks of sand gravel water and ice damages are high. I would suggest you to book your car only from those who have offices inside the KEF Airport Terminal, like Avis or Hertz
Camper-vans and Motor homes are for the more adventurous roadies, to travel between May and October. There are many parks available to pitch a camper and use the water and washroom facilities, but during winter it is better to check ahead to identify the ones which stay open based on your route.
One can also avail different conducted tours from Reykjavik. They have options from a single day to a 9-Day Sightseeing Tour covering most of south Iceland. It is better to book in advance. Tours to North Iceland are less and not a popular choice in Iceland because of its more challenging nature and scarce human habitats.
The maximum speed when driving inside Reykjavik and towns is about 50 kmph while the maximum speed on highways is 90 kmph. Be courteous to the other driver when you are passing through single-lane bridges. You never hurry on Icelandic roads. For any road trip, you need to acquire the knowledge of changing your flat tires. Since you will be travelling miles and miles out into the outlands on your own, there are no immediate auto service garages that you may find.
What to wear in Iceland:
The weather changes every couple of hours in Iceland. A bright sunny day can transform into a menacing, icy ,windy, cloudy day in a span half an hour. Do not get depressed on seeing a rainy, icy morning. Be prepared, it can clear any time. Plan for extreme cold and damp climates: Heavy woolen inner, protective thermals and thick jackets are an absolute necessity. Dress in layered clothing and carry a rain-wear. But the most important item in your packing list should be a sturdy pair of shoes which can withstand cold and water to an large extent.
Outdoor Activities in Iceland
A multitude of outdoor activities are available, but most of them are pretty pricey. Glacier walk, Ice Cave tour, back-country skiing,snowmobiling are common winter activities. Highlands driving, whale watching, Icelandic horse-riding and glacier-lake boat rides are summer activities. Glacier and Ice cave walks are undertaken with a local mountaineering guide and available till end of March. Whale watching and boat tours at Jokulsarlon takes place only when the water in the lagoon melts, and allows the boats to ply.
Important to know before you travel :
There are a few sites and numbers you need to know before you travel.
For emergencies, dial 112. Modern Smartphone users should also download and install the 112Iceland Mobile App before you land at Reykjavik. This is available in both Apple and Android versions.
For local weather, driving and road conditions please check with http://www.road.is which is available in Icelandic but the map for weather conditions is also available in English. You can also call 1777 (+354 522 1100) which is open till 4 pm in the afternoon.
For Northern Lights or Aurora sighting, keep checking the Vedur website .This is available in English and a scale on the right of the page forecasts the chances of Aurora. Remember that white swatches on the map means no cloud cover or clear skies, and increases the chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
Tips for sighting the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis
The Spring Equinox, on 21st of March and the Autumnal Equinox on 22nd September are both a good time to see the Aurora. So is a new moon night since the sky remains dark and accentuates colours for the normal eye to see. In order to experience this phenomenon, one needs to be at a place where external lights from the locality does not hinder the eyesight. The main colours in an Aurora are green, blue and red, though in Iceland it is mostly the green colour which is prevalent.
What else to pack for Iceland ?
Apart from your clothing you need to carry road maps and keep stock of quick bites along with you. Carry some biscuits, cookies, cashews-walnuts-almonds-raisins or chocolates,muffins with you. Also,have an extra pair of sports shoes in the car.
A good camera with a spare battery is advised and so is a rain-cover for your camera and lens. A sturdy tripod is a must to capture the Aurora if you are lucky.
Pick up a local sim -data card and we found NOVO Sims to be good. You can buy them from the Duty-free store at Keflavik International Airport.
Icelandic Food and Drinks :
Iceland is famous for milk and milk products especially the yogurt known as Skyr. Icelandic lamb is tasty and so are its steaks. Among Icelandic drinks the most famous is Brennivin or the Black Death. Reyka is a smooth Icelandic vodka distilled with wheat, barley and glacial waters. Icelandic steak tastes delicious.
One last word about Icelandic Krona
Though Iceland is part of the Schengen, it uses its own currency: the Icelandic Krona. The conversion of ISK to US Dollar stands about 105: 1 as of April 2017. But please spend or reconvert back your currency to USD /Euro before you leave Iceland. The reason is that you will find very few countries other than Norway or Denmark where you can exchange it for USD for your unspent Icelandic Kronas. I have learnt it the hard way!!
Our Iceland Road Trip: 10 days Travel Itinerary for South- Central Iceland
Our itinerary included six nights of out-lands throughout South Iceland, returning to Reykjavik to stay there for 3 nights. We flew into Reykjavik from Dubai on a Norwegian flight which had transit at Stockholm and Oslo. After picking up our car from the Keflavik airport we drove into the city and en-route picked up food, and necessities from a local Bonus supermarket.
We stayed at Uthlid Cottages for the first three nights, a village of exceptional beauty. This is about 110 kms from Reykjavik and The cottages are spacious and modern, and the backside porch opened onto miles of unhindered snowy view. The hotel additionally operated a small restaurant and a grocery store where you can also pick up some daily necessities. .
From Uthlid we visited Geysir and Strokkur and the majestic Gullfoss. Geysir and Strokkur were about 12 kms away, and Gullfoss is about 25 kms from Uthlid Cottages. Geysir is the first fountain geothermal geyser known to Europeans, but is now dormant. The neighbouring Strokkur is still active, and shoots out hot steamy water every five to ten minutes. Gullfoss is the most popular and iconic waterfall of Iceland, and also its second largest. This majestic falls, with its series of water rivulets dropping into icy water foam and mist inside a ravine, will captivate you.You can walk towards the extreme left end of the falls. It gives a surreal view of the snow and gushing water, while the mist and the spray creates rainbows on the further side of the waterfall. Both Geysir and Gullfoss are prominent attractions included in the Golden Circle Tour.
The next day we braved snow and hail to reach Thingvellir National Park, 40 kms away. Thingvellir lies on a fissure in the geologic tectonic plates that separate the northern America from Europe running miles deep under the earth. The park hosts a cafeteria, a visitors corner for collectibles and toilets. The European tectonic plates lies 3 kms before you enter the Park. Though not demarked, you can pick this up on your wayas you are bound to see cars parked on the sides of the road. DO NOT drive in excess of 50 KMpH in snowy or icy conditions. Our car skidded and I lost control, and am lucky to be alive and writing this article.
Icy winds and biting rain cut short our outing at Thingvellir, and after having a quick look we planned to visit Kerid Crater lake from here. This is about 35 kms from the National park, and sometimes in between, the skies cleared, and nature enthralled us. We could suddenly see low table top mountains draped in snow basking in the yellow sunlight, behind aqua blue lakes and clear blue skies forced us to take a breather for some photo ops somewhere out in nature.
We moved our base from Uthlid to Peutersey, a village near the south coastal town of VIK. Vik lies in close proximity to the folkloric waterfalls, Seljalandsfos and the double rainbows of Skogafoss. Both of these are part of Iceland’s top attractions and lie on Golden Circle Tour. Seljalandsfos is special since it has a narrow path following a flight of stairs leading you to a ledge behind the water curtain. Beware, the path is narrow, wet, slippery and challenging; incessant spray of water and cold icy gusts will hurt you as you trudge your way for the stunning view of the world through the water curtain Skogafoss gets shortlisted in as one of the most scenic waterfalls of Iceland because of its beauty. Both of these waterfalls, located 15 kms apart will captivate your heart.
From Vik you must visit Reynesfjara or the Black Beach, now famous as a ‘Game of Thrones’ setting. Amazingly black volcanic rocks, basalt octagonal stacks, and black sand completely dominate this beach, while two strange monoliths rise out of the turbulent seas a few hundred meters away. The place looked surreal on a cloudy misty day, with its raging waves, snowy foam crashing on the black shoreline. Be aware, deaths do happen at this location, the latest was in January 2017.
The DC 3 plane wreck of 1973 is also a tourist attraction but includes about 45 minutes of hiking each way from the unmarked the parking lot. We had icy cold rains pattering on us that day, and had t ostrike it off our travel plan. Instead, we included Solheimajokull, the incredible shrinking Glacier of Iceland about 25 kms East from here.. From the tourist Office and the cafeteria next to its parking, it is a 20 minute walk to the mouth of the glacier. You can rent mountaineering gears or book a guided tour too, but the last one leaves at 3 pm. Iceland is one of the best places to experience a Glacier, up close and personal. Here you can do moderate trek by yourself, upto the mouth of the glacier. Anything higher up or deeper into the glacial bed warrants a local Mountaineering Guide. Else, the results can be fatal.
Jokulsarlon, the glacier lagoon 250 kms away was our target the next day. We drove alongside Vatnajokull Glacier and Skaftafell National Park is situated bordering the glacier. At Skaftafell, you can enjoy various hikes and nature walks. There are a few stores for snacks and refreshments around a large parking lot . After a little rest we started back on our way towards Jokulsarlon. Fed with the icy water from the Vatnajokull Glacier, icebergs float on the Jokulsarlon Lagoon as it flows towards the Atlantic. A myraid of colours reflect on the floating ice formations during sunset, the Huge boulders of ice appearing bluish grey mostly while the blackish sand beach creates a stark contrast. A cold heady windy forced us to hug deep into our heavy jackets. Here you get a chance to pull up a chunk of an iceberg for a snap. The other attraction is seals. Walk 500 metres towards the end of the lagoon, and you are bound to se seals frolicking and swimming within the icebergs.
We stayed for the night at Hofn, a sleepy coastal town about 80 kms East of Jokulsarlon. The next day we drove 450 kms back to Reykjavik. On our drive, we stopped at waterfalls gushing along the road, and saw a perfect rainbow over some low hills as it formed after some short rains. The sunset was incredible, and lasted close to an hour as we drove westwards into Reykjavik.
Major attractions at Reykjavik:
Reykjavik is a small and beautiful capital city of Iceland and has enough for 3 days of stay. With well maintained roads which use geothermal technology to melt its snow, Reykjavik has fantastic nightlife, its pubs and bars stay open till 1 am at night on all days.
We visited the Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church in the center of the city.It is an architectural magnificence of expressionist form, built in the shape of lava formations cooling into basalt rocks. In front of the church stands the statue of Erikkson who had discovered America 500 years before Columbus did.
The Saga (Vikings) Museum is also a must see, ticket price is 20 USD for Adult – as of March 2017. The museum has a self-explanatory audio guided tour, which elucidates Iceland’s history and socio-religio-political fabric over the last one and half thousand years. The Whale Museum is close to the Saga Museum.
The other attraction of Reykjavik or Iceland in general are its geothermal pools. Though the Blue Lagoon is the most well-known, locals feel it is overrated and over-priced. TOne can enjoy the same bath at many of the government managed pools around the city. We did it at Laugardalslaug which featured hot tubs, a swimming arena, children’s activity area and a botanical garden. Remeber, showering nude before stepping into these swimming pools is a mandatory practice.
We checked the Sun Voyager, situated on the Seabraut Road, resembling a Viking ship of the past. It is an ode to the Sun symbolizing light and hope in this sun starved country. A prominent setting for photoshoots, it is frequented by visitors and locals alike. One can also visit Bessastadir where the President of Iceland lives in a beautiful farm house at the end of the lane. You may visit Jorfavegur which gives a panoramic view of the city from a different bend of the shoreline.
Shopping, restaurants, bars and nightclubs are in and around Laudevegur street , the main commercial and business district of Reykjavik. Iceland uses Icelandic Krona, Euro is hardly is use here. You can use a credit card almost everywhere.
Chasing the Aurora at Reykjavik
If the forecast is high you can chase an Aurora at Reykjavik too. You just need to drive somewhere where the city and ambient light is low. We first stopped for an hour near the Sun Voyager , and then we drove to the west of Reykjavik into an area named Sandgerdi. There is the Gardur lighthouse at the end of the road, and the Aurora is pretty visible from here. Park your car, be prepared for bracing chilly winds and wait for the sky to fascinate you with its colours.
Nature’s abundance is everywhere you look in this country. From the muddy green expanse of moss and lichens, to the snowy peaks and glaciers, running waterfalls and geysers, and wild horses doting the horizon all along the way, Iceland offers you nature’s untouched beauty like no other. Respect nature, adore the sights and enjoy Iceland. There isn’t a more beautiful country to be seen on this earth.