After biking in Germany and hiking in Austria, we decided to see what all the “Iceland buzz” was about and do our own exploration of the island (taking advantage of IcelandAir’s “Stopover” offer to break up our flight back from Europe with a 5d visit). After making our way through hordes of other travelers at Keflavik Airport who clearly had the same idea (!), we made our way into the countryside and quickly found ourselves treated to the stark beauty, wide open spaces, and dramatic landscapes that define this remote place.
Since most of the country’s ~330,000 population live in and around the capital of Reykjavik, it doesn’t take long to escape the crowds. We wanted to spend more of our time exploring than driving (always about the physical adventures!), so had decided to focus our visit on the southern part of the island and headed to the town of Hella where we had booked an AirBnB for the duration of our trip. The landscapes along the way varied from stark coastlines to dramatic expanses of black and gray lava, to rolling green fields punctuated with widely spread farmhouse and Icelandic horses (lots of horses!), to striking waterfalls tumbling off of high cliffs.
We found our place on a typical Icelandic farm, situated on expansive fields under a wide open sky, and wonderfully quiet, being 12 miles down a dirt road!
Iceland has a long and stormy past, tracing its roots back to a series of explorers, invaders, and adventurers, from Irish monks as far back as 700-800 AD, to Norwegian Vikings, to the Danes. Traveling through the stark and dramatic landscapes, one quickly gets a keen appreciation of what its settlers must have endured with extremes of cold, wind, and isolation – never mind the periodic volcanic eruptions! (on average, Iceland has had at least one eruption every five years, including the most famous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010, the fame of which actually helped launch the current explosion in tourism!).
Not being quite so hearty (!), we decided to stick to day hikes, and headed to Skaftafell National Park, part of the enormous Vatnajokull National Park which includes the dramatic Svartifoss waterfall, multiple volcanoes and glaciers and covers more than 14% of the entire landmass in Iceland, including the largest glacier outside of the Arctic. We were lucky to have several days of clear sunny weather, and enjoyed fantastic views of Svartifoss, the surrounding peaks, and glaciers.
The hike down gave us views of dramatic glacial run-off streams, and of course warranted a post-hike treat of Icelandic apple pie (being compelled to sample cafe treats in every country).
We took advantage of the long Icelandic daylight to continue our trek up the south coast past more dramatic glaciers to Jokulsarlon and its beautiful iceberg lagoon, where dramatic blue ice icebergs float in a small glacial lake just off the Ring Road…
… and on the drive, were treated to even more dramatic views of pristine snowy glaciers that advance nearly to the edge of the highway.
The next day we decided to venture further inland to explore the Thorsmork area, hopping one of the high-suspension explorer buses built to ford the rushing glacial streams (yes, that’s water we’re crossing in the bus – making us very glad we heeded the tourist warnings and didn’t take our own car!).
We appreciated another clear day to hike the Valahnukur Circle, giving amazing views of the surrounding glaciers, glacial canyons, and valleys.
While our good weather luck ended shortly after that, the rain didn’t stop us from enjoying a ride around the “Golden Circle”, a ~140 mile loop that includes some of the most popular natural attractions in the country. We started with a soak in one of the famed Iceland hot springs, Gamla Laugin (“Hidden Lagoon”), and continuing on to Geysir (from which all others are named), the spectacular Gulfoss waterfall, and Pingvellir National Park, home of Iceland’s first (outdoor!) legislature, dating back to the 10th century.
While it was admittedly a short trip, we greatly enjoyed the visit and appreciated the opportunity to get at least a taste of Iceland’s dramatic beauty before heading back home to enjoy summer in Maine – always a welcome destination for yet more adventures!