Active volcanoes ready to burst, dramatic ice caps and creeping glaciers, the beliefs of elves living in the lava fields, and the place where you can literally stand on two continents at once: This place is a weird and wonderful array of all that you can image in your wildest dreams, all crammed into a small nation in the middle of the North Atlantic. Straddling the arctic circle, battered by icy cold waters angered by the gulf stream, and temperatures that are quite unexpected: It’s warmer in Iceland in the wintertime than it is in New York or even Montreal! It has a charming Scandinavian feel, yet with a character all on its own. Icelanders are very proud of their heritage – as they should be! It is a truly magical place with folklore and sagas passed down by generations, remnants of the last mini-ice age, and volcanoes ready to erupt at a moment’s notice. You would think that it would be unsettling to visit such an unpredictably active place – yet it is quite the opposite. I have found more peace and solitude in my 3 visits to Iceland than I have living in Canada for years combined. It is a place all on it’s own, with the nearest neighbours being Greenland to the West and the Faroe Islands to the East, and the Atlantic spanning all the way to Antartica. In one place, you can visit hot geothermal active grounds, walk on glaciers, visit ice caves, step foot on the top of Europe’s biggest ice cap, and so much more. It is a landscape that only dreams are made of, yet they exist in real life! So it’s about time you get yourself over there… But before you do, read below first! 🙂
This is part 1: South Iceland in October!
* The opinions and experiences expressed in this article are mine and mine alone unless otherwise stated. This is written from my experience in Iceland and my point of view.
Icelandic Fun Facts!
♦ Unlike most countries, Icelanders do not carry out “family” names, or last names/surnames. Instead, the father’s first name will be used, and “sson” will be added for a boy, and “dottir” for a girl. So for example, say Jón Einarsson has a son and they name him Ólafur and a daughter named Sigriður. The children’s last names will not be Einarsson as their father’s, but rather Ólafur Jonsson and Sigriður Jonsdottir, deriving from their father’s first name: Jón! A bit confusing yes, but quite charming and different to what we are used to!
♦ More than half the population believes that elves exist and that they live in the mossy lava fields that reign the land. 🙂 There are so many stories and folklore about trolls, ghosts and the like, and they are all so so interesting to listen to! They even have The Icelandic Elf School to teach students and foreigners about Icelandic Folklore… For real!
♦ The population of the country is just over 330,000 and about 50% live in the capitol, Reykjavik, and with and average of only 3 persons per km².
♦ Remember 2010? This unpronounceable volcano: Eyjafjallajökull (try saying that 5 times! Actually, try learning how to say it first!) that disrupted flights all across Europe and even North America and became world famous for creating chaos in the airline industry! Volcanologists and even the President of Iceland say that it’s only a matter of time before it happens again, and it will most likely be sooner than later… it’s just a question of when!
This is what the glacier-covered volcano (and surrounding area) looks like today… hardly any evidence from 2010!
♦ Iceland has 30 active volcanic systems (about 130 volcanoes in total, both active and inactive), and many have been consistently active since settlement in the 9th century. Currently, there are 4-5 volcanoes that are being closely monitored for potential eruptions in the near future due to increased seismic activity lately!
♦ About 11-12% of Iceland is covered in glaciers, and about 8-9% of that is by Vatnajökull in the Southeast (Europe’s biggest glacier by volume) alone! (shown on the map, and more info about Vatnajökull below!)
♦ Iceland sits on the mid-atlantic ridge: the rift between the North America (on the left) and Eurasian (on the right) tectonic plates stretching all the way to Antartica, and they drift apart at about 2-3cm (1 inch) per year! t’s the only place on land where you can can stand between these two continents, as the rest is under water in the Atlantic Ocean!
♦ Iceland is known to be amongst the top 3 most peaceful countries in the world according to the U.N., and I would whole-heartedly agree! They don’t even have a standing army!
♦ The purest water can be found here, mainly derived by melting glacial water, and is the most delicious you’ll ever drink. No need to buy bottled water here; it’s the cleanest you’ll ever find! In some areas of the country where it’s very geothermal active, the hot water will have a sulphuric smell (yum!), but you quickly get accustomed to it!
♦ Iceland also uses 100% renewable energy, and 90% of homes are geothermally heated. Talk about efficient and a model for the rest of the planet!
♦ The weather changes constantly and the Icelanders have a saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes!“. Literally true!
♦ The green moss that covers the lava fields is extremely fragile and takes an average of 70-100 years to grow!
♦ There is 4,970km of coastline!
♦ No mosquitoes in Iceland! Finally…
♦ Iceland has the highest swimming-pool-to-human ratio in the world!
♦ Many sights in Iceland have been the setting for some well-known movies and tv series, with the most recent being Games of Thrones. But there are some other cool movies to check out, like some James Bond movies, Interstellar, Into the Inferno, Batman Begins, and my favourite: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s an interactive map that can be found here with all the locations where each one was filmed, if you fancy to check them out during your trip! It’s only in Icelandic for now, but it’s fairly self-explanatory!
Good To Know Before You Go…
♦ Umbrellas in Iceland are pointless as the wind is notoriously strong and ever changing. So best to leave it at home. Instead, opt to bring a complete set of rain gear: waterproof and windproof jacket and pants, and a pair of calf-high rain boots (like these, my faves)! You’ll thank me later!
♦ Bring layers and lots of them! Thermals are also a good idea to have with you to keep you warm if you’re outside for a while (which you will be!). Snow/ski pants are helpful in the winter and good for those long nights waiting for the Northern Lights to show up! No one cares about fashion statements in the middle of nowhere, and unless you’re planning to party in Reykjavik, strive for comfort and warmth over looking stylish and freezing your butt off just to look cute! You’ll enjoy your time there so much more! And again, you’ll thank me for the tip!
♦ If you’re into photography, bring a tripod! Especially if you want to photograph the northern lights. Tripods can be a pain to travel with due to their size and weight, but I opted for this one and it was great. I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a tripod that would be subjected to extreme elements, and I didn’t want one that was heavy. This one was the perfect combination of light, sturdy for a DSLR, easy to use, and budget friendly!
♦ You can buy a SIM card for your phone if it’s unlocked by your mobile carrier, and you can even grab one at the 10/11 store in the arrivals hall at the airport. They have 3-4 companies to choose from. I personally chose Simmin’s 5GB plan for 2300Kr (about $20USD). It also came with some minutes to make calls, both locally and internationally. It comes in handy to be able to use GPS when you’re trying to find something in the middle of nowhere. However, Google Maps and GPS isn’t always the most reliable, and you need to make sure to have the correct spelling (some towns and places have very similar names) and an idea of where you’re heading, or you may end up lost for 6 hours!
♦ The currency in Iceland is the Icelandic Krona, however, credit cards are widely accepted, and most of the times even preferred! I honestly only changed 50$CAD when I arrived and it was plenty! You will need some change for parking fees at the very touristy sights and in Reykjavik itself (I know, a pain!), but the rest of the time I used my debit and credit card without hassle.
♦ When you pass a gas station, stop and fuel up. The next one may be 150 km away! Also note that many gas stations only accept credit cards and you must prepay… so if you don’t have a credit card, you’ll need to buy prepaid cards at the stations themselves which is a pain. Also, I’ve heard that some people with credit cards WITHOUT a chip and PIN will have problems using them at the payment machine, so something to keep in mind. Most gas stations are open 24/7 and are automated without an attendant at odd hours!
♦ You can find free maps of the country pretty much in any touristy place: hotel, info centre, airport, etc., and I would highly suggest getting a few and studying them for a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the land layout. Icelandic names are confusing, some very similar to one another, and others almost impossible to pronounce. Your best bet when asking someone for directions: just show them on the map where it is you want to go!
♦ Always check the weather and road conditions (even in the summer), as there are often warnings out for storms or high winds. Take these warnings very seriously. Iceland’s weather is unpredictable… and unforgiving! Here are the two best sites to get the most accurate and up to date information: Weather updates and forecasts: www.vedur.is : They also have an app to download. Driving and road conditions/warnings: www.safetravel.is
♦ In case of any emergency, call 112. There’s also a great app called “112 Iceland“, where you can “check in” if you plan to go hiking to let emergency responders know your location in case of an emergency, or another button where you can send an emergency call signal if you happen to get yourself in an unfortunate situation. It’s free to use, and can be helpful to have!
♦ Bring and buy food as much as you can if you’re on a budget! Even for those whose purse strings aren’t the tightest, they will be after you visit Iceland! It is EXPENSIVE! Eating out will set you back about $50 per person for every meal, and I’m being generous! The prices are outrageously high! However, worry not, as there are ways to be more cost efficient! There are 2 main budget supermarkets: Bonus and Kronan. See further down in the “Where to Eat” section for more info!
Arriving in Iceland
Unless you’re arriving by ferry from Denmark, the only other port of entry is through Keflavik airport in the Western Reykjanes peninsula. The airport is a modern installation with services open at all hours. Once you exit the arrivals hall, you’ll be able to either collect your rental car with the company you booked with, or buy your ticket for the bus to Reykjavik and surrounding areas.
I highly suggest renting a car if that’s possible for you. It will open up so many options to explore on your own terms, without being on someone else’s schedule. However, there are many tour companies with similar and competitive prices that are well worth trying out! See further below for my top picks of tour and activity companies!
There’s definitely a choice of car rental companies to choose from in Keflavik and in Reykjavik as well. I chose SadCars as they had better prices than their competitors. Also, I really like the fact that they don’t require a deposit on your credit card (some of us don’t have sky-high limits!) and for me that was a tipping point to choose them, along with their very reasonable rates. They don’t have an office directly at the airport, but they do pick you up and bring you to their office which is about 7-8 minutes drive from the airport. It did take some time waiting for them to pick me (and others) up, so be patient. They have a wide selection of vehicles to choose from, but I just chose the basic model. The cars they do have are slightly older models than their competitors (meaning they’re not brand new cars, and may be a year or two old). I was more than fine with that. They are thoroughly inspected before/after every use, and I honestly didn’t have any issues with them whatsoever. They also don’t have a “full tank” policy, so the tank will most likely be empty when you pick it up, and can be returned empty as well. Don’t worry, there’s a gas station 3 km down the road from the office.
They do a good job at explaining the road regulations in Iceland, and all the fine print that comes along with renting a car in another country. Overall, I highly recommend if you’re on a budget and aren’t looking for luxury. After all, you’re not cruising the beach in Miami!
Side note: They have a current contest going on from November 15th- December 19th 2017, where 2 lucky winners get an all-expenses paid trip to Iceland!
Click here for all the info and to participate! Good Luck!
A couple of driving pointers:
-Respect the speed limit. Iceland has many free-roaming animals, and they obviously don’t understand the concept of speed, or moving vehicles for that matter. Sheep often wonder onto the road because they feel like it, without notice, which can be a hazard to say the least, so be aware of the surroundings. Gravel roads have speed limits to around 80km/h I believe, but I found that to be wayyyyy too fast, as there are pot holes and flying rocks. Best to avoid any damage to the rental car, or getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere… literally. I was driving 30km/h on some roads, no joke!
-Always keep your hand firmly on the door when opening it. Again, winds in Iceland are notoriously strong and wind gusts are unpredictable, which could cause serious damage to a car door’s hinges preventing you from closing it. Not something you want to deal with. That being said, drive with both hands on the wheel as wind gusts can easily push you off the road, especially in smaller cars. I luckily didn’t have any of these issues, but spoke to people who have! It’s not uncommon.
-Just use common sense, and stay off F-roads unless you are clearly allowed to go on them with your rental car (4X4’s only!).
-Driving off road is illegal and is subjected to high fines! Don’t do it, even if you see “tracks”. The land is extremely fragile and take several decades to recover, if at all (like the moss I mentioned earlier). Please be respectful and stick to the roads.
Overall, driving in Iceland was fairly easy for me, but Canada has brutal weather and even more brutal winters, so it didn’t phase me much. However, the one thing I did not enjoy AT ALL are the one-lane bridges! I kid you not when I say that every time I would approach one, I would say out loud to myself “These damn one lane bridges!”. I hated them. You’ve been warned!
Where to Stay in South Iceland
From West to East
I’ve compiled my selection of accommodations in the South of the country which was my most recent visit in October (I’ll be writing about the other parts in other posts to come), starting with Reykjanes peninsula in the West, and going Eastbound until the town of Höfn. I’ve also made a map to have a visual of where they are located as I go through them in detail. All links posted are the proper website links to get in touch with each one of them. Let’s begin!
*Please note that the locations on the map are approximative.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious hotel that’s about 30-40 minutes to/from the airport and right next door to the Blue Lagoon, then this place is for you!
Northern Light Inn is about 10km or so from the town of Grindavik, and the area is well known for the world famous Blue Lagoon. As soon as I stepped foot in this place, I knew I was in for a real treat! They have two types of rooms, standard and deluxe, and I had the privilege to stay in their deluxe double room in the new wing of the hotel. A plush king size bed with soft pillows and a fluffy duvet cover, USB ports built into their electrical outlets, a 50″+ screen TV, a sitting lounge, mini fridge with drinks, chocolates, and a coffee maker with varieties of coffee and hot chocolate! The bathroom was equipped with a glass shower, and L’Occitane quality products that smelled so good! Bath robes with slippers, and plenty of soft towels were provided. Also, Deluxe guests have exclusive access to their newly opened Wellness Spa, which has 3 types of saunas and a steam room, a tranquility space and a gym. A nice way to end the day!
The hotel facilities are well thought out, Wifi in all areas, a self-serve “Honesty Bar” where you serve yourself and write down what you took on a form by the bar itself. There’s also a main lounge area with a nice fireplace lit up every night (at least in the fall and winter). The best part: from 2-4pm, they have a self-serve waffle station that is complimentary to all guests! They also have a viewing platform made of glass for viewing the Northern Lights in the warmth of the hotel! And get this, to live up to their name, they have a list where you can write your room number and they will call during the night if the Northern Lights happen to make an appearance. They called me at 1:30am to let me know the show was starting! Nice touch guys, nice touch!
The breakfast is also included in the room rate for all guests, and is plentiful! It’s served in Max’s restaurant from 8-10am with a variety of fruits, cereals, breads, croissants, coffees and teas, skyr (Icelandic yogurt), eggs, meats, and even smoked salmon which was especially delicious! Max’s restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner as well!
I highly recommend this place if your budget permits!
Look through this photo gallery to see for yourself!
Laugarvatn (Golden Circle Area)
If you’re looking for self-catered apartment for yourself or your travel pod, then look no further than Golden Circle Apartments!
These apartments are an extension of Heradsskollin Hostel right next door and owned by them as well. You can choose to stay in a private room or dorm in the main building, or opt for a full service apartment across the access road.
I stayed in a one bedroom apartment and it was heaven! I love having my own kitchen to prepare food and cook some meals. Especially in Iceland, as restaurant prices are astronomically high! So before I even got to my apartment, I stopped at Bonus Supermarket to pick up some food! I love being able to cook while traveling!
The apartment was lovely: clean, warm, comfortable, and private! Equipped with a pull out couch, a bunk bed, and a private bedroom with either two beds or one queen bed, you can easily fit 5-6 people! A great way to save some extra cash by splitting the cost when traveling in groups! The kitchen has all the necessity one can need: toaster, kettle, pots and pans, and dishes. The bathroom was standard, with a corner shower and towels. The whole apartment is very bright with large windows and a patio. The heating system was controllable with nobs on each respective one, as it is geothermal heating. The wifi was very good, and I had no problems connecting to it.
The main building is quite interesting: it is an old school from the 1920’s, turned into a hostel and restaurant, however all the artifacts were kept, so you can walk around and see old furniture and school desks which is very cool! There are 3 levels to the building, with rooms on all floors, and a cathedral ceiling which is beautiful!
Here you can see photos from both the apartment and the main hostel building!
Langholt (Golden Circle Area)
A very lovely guesthouse near the town of Fludir in the Golden Circle area, Guesthouse Saga is a newly opened (April 2017) family-owned property in a beautiful country setting! Owned and operated by SouthIceland Riding Tours (see below for more on that!), it is a very nice place to stop in an explore the area, and of course see some Icelandic horses and even go for a ride!
The guesthouse itself is run by Arna and her boyfriend, and they do an exceptional job at making you feel like family! They are so welcoming in every way! There are a variety of 12 rooms, ranging from single to multiple beds, and all with shared bathrooms. Everything in this place is so modern and comfortable, it’s crazy. The heating is all done geothermally and through their flooring system, so you’re never cold! There’s also a nice hot tub with hot spring water directly from the ground, and a common kitchen free to use as long as you clean up after yourself. Breakfast is served on the ground floor every morning from 8-9am, and was plentiful, with yogurts, cereals, waffles, eggs, coffee and teas, and the like.
It is a very serene place to stay, with horses nearby and views to die for! I’d stay here again in a heartbeat!
Guesthouse Husið – Hvolsvöllur
Just 10km outside of the town of Hvolsvöllur, Guesthouse Husið is a quaint little place off the beaten path. They have the main building which used to be a school, and now has been turned into a guesthouse, mainly used by school groups. Most rooms have bunk beds and have kept their originally 1929’s charm! Each one has their own character (see photos below), and its a great base for large groups and those who want to do some activities in the area, like Landmannalaugar or Þórsmörk, or even Seljalandsfoss waterfall and Eyjafjallajökull.
They also have a newly built separate house across the street that the owners have turned into another guesthouse, with brand new furnishings, a full service kitchen, and dining room. This is where I stayed for one night. My room was equipped with 2 bunk beds, so 4 beds, and a bathroom just outside. As my heating had been turned off accidentally before my arrival, my room was very cold and took a while to warm up, however this was not an overall issue, as the common areas were fine.
The breakfast was served in the main building across the street, in a country-like dining room with glass windows all around. It was very lovely! The breakfast was typical as most places: coffees ad teas, toast, eggs and yogurt.
Hornafjördur (near Höfn)
Surrounded by glaciers and incredible views, this is a beautiful setting to stay at for peace and quiet. Away from the crowds and most tourist attractions, it is neighboured by the all-mighty Vatnajökull National Park and a great place to explore the majestic surroundings. A great place to stay if you’re looking to do ice caves in the area, or even want to chill out at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, which is about 40 minutes away.
Owned by Sigurlaud and her husband, Brunnholl Country Guesthouse is more like a country hotel, with an onsite restaurant, homemade ice-cream that comes from their family owned dairy farm, and a cozy atmosphere! It is by far the best place to stay at for miles!
My room was exceptionally cozy, volcanic rock heated floors, and modern furnishings. The bed was very comfortable, and a great place to rest after a full day of exploring. The breakfast was great, and at par with all other higher-end accommodations. They offer tourist information, what to see and where to go, as well as maps of the area. The decor is fitting to the history of the dairy farm they own, with cows and Icelandic ways of life! Their on-site restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner, with windows facing the glacier views, and I hear they serve excellent food! I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to have a meal here! Next time!
A truly lovely place to stay… and did I mention the views? WOW! The are at least 3 glaciers visible from the guesthouse! I couldn’t peel my eyes off them!
A wonderful, lovely stay! I’ll definitely be back!
What To Do – Tours & Sightseeing
In South Iceland
Once again, I’ve narrowed down my “go-to” places to see and things to do, along with some awesome tours that I’ve personally done that you can partake in!
I’ve listed them from West to East just to keep the consistency going, and have also mapped them out!
*Please note that the locations on the map are approximative.
Nordurflug Helicopter tours offers a variety of flights to suit everyone’s desires. They are located right by Reykjavik domestic airport in the city, about 45 minutes away from Keflavik International airport, and maybe 10-15 minutes to downtown Reykjavik.
I had the opportunity to join them on one of their tours, which was the Countless Craters tour. They basically take you through the Reykjanes peninsula, to the coast, landing in a geothermal area, up and over many dormant volcanos in the area, and whatever else the weather permits during the tour. It was really beautiful, and I would highly recommend seeing Iceland from the air if you can allow it! It gives you a whole different perspective, and gets you closer to some areas that are inaccessible otherwise. Here are some of the images I took during the flight. The weather wasn’t the best as it was very cloudy in some spots, but hey, that’s Iceland!
If you’re looking for a full day tour departing from Reykjavik and focusing on the main attractions in the south, then look no further! Hidden Iceland is a new startup company by 3 friends, and I had the pleasure of joining in on their “Fire and Ice” tour before their initial start date! Lucky me!
The tour takes a maximum of 10-12 people from Reykjavik (you can also contact them if you want privates tours, or have special requests) to the main attractions such as Skógafoss, Kvernufoss, Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, Reynisfjara black sand beach, includes a glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier, and even a stop at The Lava Centre to learn about Iceland’s geological formation and it’s glaciers and volcanos. Needless to say, it’s a full day, but you get to see it from a knowledgable guide’s perspective who knows what he’s doing! The order of the activities are arranged according to the available daylight, so in the wintertime, the times and order of things will differ than summertime.
Waterfalls: Skogafoss is one of the most popular waterfalls to visit, and is right off the ring road. There are usually a lot of people here, and for a good reason: it’s quite impressive. You can walk up to the top of the falls, which includes countless stairs, to get a different perspective. Right next door, is Kvernufoss, which is more of a hidden waterfall, however is getting known by more and more people unfortunately. It’s still possible to find yourself alone here if you’re lucky. It’s a 15 minutes hike or so into the canyon, relatively easy, and it leads right up to the falls, which you can go behind on good days (maybe too icy in the winter, I’m not sure!). Seljalandsfoss is another famous waterfall that you can completely walk behind when there’s no ice. You need complete rain gear though as you’ll get soaked. In my opinion, it’s way better to do so in the summer. Right next to this waterfall is another one that you can walk right up to through a slot canyon and wading in ankle deep water, called Gljúfrabúi. This one is my all-time favourite! Again, you need rain boots, and complete rain cover if you don’t want to get soaked, which made it so much easier to just walk right through the water instead of trying to step on stones. I highly suggest bringing calf-high rain boots (like these, my faves)… and a waterproof camera (this is the one I have and love it)! I saw some people going in there with their uncovered iPhones… yikes! I would not recommend doing that!
For the glacier hike at Sólheimajökull, keep in mind that it is one of the closest glaciers to hike nearest the city, so there are definitely more groups there than if you decide to go more East. Still so breathtaking and humbling to take in the grandeur that is nature. All the gear is provided: crampons, helmet and safety harness (all precautionary and necessary). You do need ankle high sturdy hiking boots, since it’s still uneven rough terrain and definitely best to avoid any injuries (like a twisted ankle!). Wearing the crampons and trusting them takes some getting used to, but they are awesome once you see how well they work! The ice is so compact and compressed it’s unlike anything you can imagine until you witness it yourself.
The Lava Centre, which opened in 2017, is actually also really cool to visit! It’s an interactive display of how volcanoes are formed, how different earthquakes happen, and even gives you a taste of what an earthquake feels like (I’m sure it doesn’t compare to a live one, but still pretty cool). It’s open to the public, and also has a huge cafe/cafeteria and a gift shop.
Here are some photos from the day spent with Hidden Iceland!
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths is a nice relaxing spa-like place to go and spend the afternoon/evening! I went there on a rainy afternoon while I stayed in Laugarvatn in the golden circle area, and I really enjoyed my experience. They have 3 different pools at different temperatures varying from 33-40ºC, and one pool that is more “natural” in stone, which was my favourite. The water, however, is directly from the ground and all naturally heated, which has a sulphuric smell to it (you get used to it really fast). There’s also a platform that leads down to Laugarvatn lake if you’re brave enough to get in (the water is about 7ºC in October). Other facilities include 3 steam rooms which all are from natural steam from the ground, and 2 saunas.
The changing room facilities are nice and cozy, with modern installations, plenty of lockers and space. Keep in mind that showering completely nude is absolutely mandatory for everyone before entering the baths anywhere in Iceland as the water is not treated and is all natural. So to keep it clean, everyone must shower and wash thoroughly before even putting their swim suits on. Don’t worry, it’s a way of life and everyone is used to it.
It’s definitely a nice way to relax and spend an afternoon after visiting the area, like Þingvellir, and taking advantage of one of Iceland’s best-known natural phenomena: geothermal baths!
Tucked away in the town of Fludir in the golden circle once again, is Secret Lagoon. This is another geothermal area, and steam engulfs the surrounding areas. It’s fed by natural spring water directly from the ground itself, and is a very low key kind of place. It’s quite small, nothing fancy, but it’s very mystical with all the steam and sun passing through it. The water is quite hot, around 38-40ºC and feels amazing on those cold days! If you want something low key to end your day touring the golden circle area, this is a great stop for a couple of hours, and is close to Gulfoss and Geysir. Note that it is basically one lagoon with a sandy bottom, so it’s different from the regular “pools” you’ll get elsewhere.
The facilities are modern and clean, and perfect for what is needed. It’s definitely not the same atmosphere and luxury that the Blue Lagoon has become, and in my opinion, thats a good thing. Just a nice low-key place to relax and enjoy!
There’s also a nice little pathway around the area that you can walk through to see the natural boiling pots and their explanations of how it all came to be.
Riding Tours South Iceland are the same owners at the Guesthouse Saga I mentioned above. It is a lovely family-run Icelandic horse ranch, and has been around for over 30 years. If you’re staying in and around Reykjavik or in the Golden Circle area, this is THE place to see Icelandic horses, and even go for a ride!
I had the privilege to be taken for a ride by Heidi, one of the Finnish ladies who works there. She took me around the whole property, and up the hill which had a gorgeous view of Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes in the distance. It was a beautiful clear day, but cold and windy!! I would suggest dressing appropriately.
In the winter, their tours are confined to 1-2 hours, since it’s too cold to be out any longer. However, in the summer, they offer a wider range of tours from a couple of hours to several days into the Highlands!
They have approximately 150 horses, and all of them are so gorgeous! I spent time photographing them and just being with them! Icelandic horses are so gentle and calm in nature, and they just want attention and to be scratched! I delightfully obeyed!
They also sell their horses to other farmer in Iceland and out of country as well. One interesting fact about Iceland and it’s horses, is that there is no other breed in the country except for their own. Also, once a horse is exported out of the country, it can never return. There are also no importations of horses even if they originated from there. This is to protect the gene pool and also to avoid any diseases to be imported by other horses. Even being on a foreign horse farm before arriving in Iceland can pose a serious threat to their breed as they are more susceptible to diseases. So please keep that in mind if you’re in close proximity to horses before your arrival and protect their animals!
Most Icelandic horses are 5 gaited, with their famous gait being “the tölt”. It is a very steady and fluid gait, and I can only tell you to watch it on youtube to see for yourself as I am no expert on the subject! It is however very noticeable when you command the horse to tölt. I have to say, as much as I love all horses, Icelandic horses are my absolutely favourite!
Check them out if you’re in the area!
Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is one of the top tourist attractions in the country. However, since it’s about 5 hours east of Reykjavik, it’s a little harder to get to and takes some planning. It is one of my all time favourite places in Iceland (I feel like I say that alot!), and is like nowhere else in the country!
Breiðamerkurjökull is the outlet glacier tongue which created the lagoon, descending from Vatnajökull ice cap above it. It is known as one of the fastest retreating glaciers in Iceland, at an average pace of about 300m per year, or more in warmer winters. As the glacier retreats, chunks of ice, known as icebergs, fall of the glacial wall and end up in the lagoon. The name Jokulsarlon literally translates to “glacier lagoon”. In the last 70-80 years, the glacier has retreated 8km from the ocean, meaning that 70 years ago, the glacier reached the bridge. Because of many factors, mainly global warming, the glacier is retreating faster and faster. As the ice melts and retreats, the lagoon gets bigger and bigger and may one day soon become a fjord. It’s sad, very sad, yet so beautiful nonetheless.
I joined the zodiac boat operated by the glacier lagoon administration itself, and it is truly a sight to see! Large icebergs float throughout the lagoon, and with the zodiac boat, you get quite close to them and even closer to the glacier wall itself (still at a safe distance). The shades of blue are outstanding and remarkable! The blue comes from the lack of oxygen in the ice, as it is so compressed and lacks light. Usually, icebergs that are very blue have recently capsized, and as they sit and are exposed to the sunlight, they slowly lose their blue hue over time. The black lines seen in some of them, also referred to as “barcodes”, are from past volcanic eruptions. Since that ice was, at some point, higher up on the glacier, they were exposed to volcanic ash. As volcanoes erupted, the ash got deposited on the ice, then large amounts of snow would cover that layer. The process would begin again, and over time, all of it would get compressed more and more and the ash and snow would turn to ice, creating the black streaks seen in the icebergs and crevasses on the glacier itself.
The lagoon itself is a mere 250-280 meters deep, which is kind of eerie if you ask me. It’s the deepest lake in Iceland. It is roughly 25km², and once we got up to the glacier wall, we were informed that most of the glacier was under water. Just like the saying “that’s only the tip of the iceberg”, in this case is quite literal. About 50m of it is visible and above water, and 200-250m underwater. Just as 90% of icebergs are below the surface, it’s hard to wrap your brain around it.
While on the zodiac, the guide would show us and explain the calving process. Once a piece falls from the glacial wall, it floats around in the lagoon for approximately 5-7 years before it makes its way out to sea. Seals live in the lagoon as well, as there are fish that make their way in from the ocean and seals love to float on icebergs! There aren’t any predators in Iceland (no, there are no polar bears!), so the lagoon is a haven for them!
Seeing icebergs and getting close to the front of a glacier is definitely a must do! However, do note that they only operate from May to October, as the lagoon freezes over in winter. You can still visit in winter, but the boats don’t run! Even so, this place is impressive, magnificent and magical!
Ice Explorers superjeep tour is so much fun! The tour consists of taking a group of people up a very steep and narrow road, which eventually leads to Vatnajökull glacier. It´s a bumpy ride, but very fun! Heinabergsjökull is the glacier tongue we drive past and stop at for some photos ops (and the one you see at the top of this page!). They have a specialized 4×4 truck that they utilize for this tour. It is customized for this journey, and is able to drive over crevasses and ice once on the glacier itself. We climbed from sea level to 1400m where the glacier is about 400m thick. Vatnajökull ice cap is the biggest in Iceland, and is the biggest in Europe in terms of volume. At it’s thickest point, it is 11oom thick of pure ice, and underneath it all: volcanoes!
The views from up there are breathtaking and absolutely incredible! Snow on hard packed ice as far as the eye can see. It is approximately 8000km² in volume. Apparently, if the whole ice cap melted, it would raise sea levels around the world by 1-2cm. It is massive!
We made a few different stops along the way. 2-3 stops on the way up to get some outstanding views of glacial rivers, the mountains that housed the glaciers in the past, and to view the glacier outlet Heinabergsjökull itself. This area is also where part of the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed.
Being close to glaciers makes you feel infinitely small and insignificant. They are massive works of art by nature itself and a force not to be messed with (never ever go walking on a glacier without a guide!)!
Once we were on the glacier itself, the landscape was calm and white. We stopped and walked around for quite a while, not straying too far of course! We then stopped at another view point at 1400m where we stood on the side of the mountain, and where the drop off was about 1000m high, so better not to get too close. At this spot, it was insanely windy and cold, but I could not have asked for a better day, as the weather was superb and the light just exquisite!
Ice Explorers offers these super jeep tours from May to October, and from November to April they offer ice cave tours and I believe glacier walks all year round (always weather permitting).
Do check them out as they are excellent, safe, reputable and will give you a once in a lifetime experience!
Where To Eat
Although my options are quite limiting as I tend not to eat out very much, I don’t have many places to suggest aside from the few I list below. I always bring some food with me whenever I travel, especially to expensive countries like Iceland. Even the locals will tell you it’s expensive, if that says anything!
Essentials I always take with me from home:
♦ variety of nuts (like trail mix, or I make my own with almonds, walnuts, raisins, etc.)
♦ protein powder that I can mix with milk or water. I don’t use this much but it has come in handy when stuck.
♦ packets of tuna (not cans, but sandwich-ready packets that you can add mayo to and make a sandwich on the go)
♦ dry cereal or crackers to munch on as a snack.
♦ A Tupperware dish
I always stop in supermarkets, and in Iceland the best and cheapest ones to go to are Bonus (my favourite) and Kronan. Be aware though that they are located in between Keflavik and Vik… anywhere east of that you won’t find them. You will find local ones that have the basic necessities, but the Bonus won’t be anywhere until you hit the east fjords. So if you’re planning on going to South and South East Iceland, make sure to make a stop and stock up before hand. Most things are in Icelandic, but with some imagination, you’ll be fine!
These are the items I tend to buy (of course, this is my personal preference):
♦ Skyr (Icelandic yogurt), because it’s the best thing ever! They sell 500g sizes, so I buy a few to have for a while.
♦ A loaf of bread
♦ Spread or jam or nut butter.
♦ Ritz crackers (great car snack)
♦ Slices of cheese
♦ Coleslaw (I forget the name, but it’s super delicious and made with grapes!)
♦ Eggs (I then boil them when I know I have use of a kitchen. Hard boiled eggs are a great saver and good protein on the go)
♦ Chocolate – because who doesn’t love some chocolate!
♦ Pasta and sauce (again to cook when I have use of a kitchen)
♦ And whatever else I see that I can grab on the go!
If you’re wondering where I keep this stuff if I don’t have a fridge, the answer is it’s stays in the car. Iceland is usually around fridge temperatures 8 months out of the year, so no need to worry about stuff spoiling! Haven’t had a problem yet!
As for places to eat out…
Fish n’ Chips, Secret Lagoon, in Fludir
When stopping at the Secret Lagoon, or doing the Golden Circle, it’s worth a stop at the fish n’chips joint right next to the entrance of the Secret Lagoon. I was hungry when I arrived there, and so I decided to get myself a plate. It was delicious! Hands down the best fish n’chips I’ve had in years. It’s freshly caught Atlantic Cod, soooo good! It came with a side of fries and a choice of homemade sauce. All for 1800kr ($18USD).
A little hidden from the town, so you have to know it’s there. Follow the signs for the Secret Lagoon and you can’t miss it.
Skaftafell Information Center, Skaftafell National Park
On my drive back from the East, I stopped here to stretch my legs, check out the area, a grab some food. They have a cafeteria with a wide choice of food, hot and cold dishes. I got myself a grilled vegetable sandwich, although the smocked salmon sandwich looked really tempting as well. It was decent, a good place to stop and the food was good and reasonably priced. I believe I paid 1200kr ($12USD).
Höfnarbundi, in Höfn
I found this place on Trip Advisor for having the best lobster sandwiches in the area, and since I was staying 30km away, I just had to try it. It had excellent reviews, the cheapest places for miles, and known as a local joint.
It’s a small little dinner-type restaurant with quite an extensive menu for such a small place. Iceland is known for their fish and seafood, so they always have fresh ingredients!
I had the lobster sandwich after asking the staff what their specialty was. Apparently that’s it, and I can see why! It was by far the best sandwich I had ever eaten in my entire life, without fail! They also had fish’n’chip, cod sandwiches, and other things I can’t remember, and the next time I’m in that area, I will be stopping in for sure… and getting an extra one to go!
Prices are VERY reasonable for Iceland. A lobster sandwich was 2000kr (about $20USD) and a French fry for 5000kr. All in all, for 25$, it was a steal.
I honestly wish it wasn’t so pricey to eat out, but since my first visit in 2010, the prices have gone up 60%. I kid you not!
A meal that I remember being 20$, is well over 50$ now; something I just can’t justify!
I would highly suggest looking up places before hand, like on trip advisor, for some honest reviews, and take it from there! Or better yet, ask some locals where to eat for a reasonable price! Local advice is always the best!
That’s a wrap on Part 1: South Iceland in October! If you have any questions, feel free to email me or comment below! Don’t forget to sign up to get notified of future content!
One last thing to keep in mind that is very important is that nature can be very unforgiving, even in the most unpredictable situations. Please be cautious and conscious of your actions, and always be aware of what is happening. Also, always trust locals’ advise, especially if you happen to be there during a catastrophic event, such as a volcanic eruption, which can very likely happen. Stay calm and follow directions. Don’t worry, most Icelanders speak English and are warm and kind-hearted people.
Last but not least, please respect the land and the people. Needless to say, this should apply to anywhere you visit in the world. Iceland is a beautiful place, but with increased tourism also comes increased stupidity unfortunately. Don’t be one of those people! Help keep Iceland natural, clean and beautiful.
Be humble, be kind, and leave with great memories!
I always keep this quote in mind, and it’s pretty much what I live by. I hope you can to do the same wherever you go!
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”
Love and Light,