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  9. Iceland: Two days exploring...

Iceland is a land of volcanoes, geysers, glaciers and powerful rivers, all of which have carved the physical and cultural evolution of this Northern land

Set in the Northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is an incredible place to visit. First impressions of the country are that it is cold and barren, but is full of life and in that lies its true beauty. Born of volcanoes and ice, Iceland remains volcanically and geographically active to this day.

The first mention of a settlement dates back to 874 AD when Norwegians travelled here followed by settlers from other Scandanavian countries. Iceland has a small population of about 360,000 spread across 103,000 km2 (40,000 square miles), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Of those inhabitants, two-thirds live in and around Reykjavik

We travelled to Iceland on our way to Europe and spent two fascinating days exploring the country. I only wish we had been able to extend this time a bit longer!

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A Two Day Itinerary:

  • Reykjavik
  • Þingvellir
  • Haukadalur
  • Gullfoss
  • Seljalandsfoss
  • Jökulsárlón lagoon

When we landed in Reykjavik it was late evening, but as we were in early July, and just past the summer equinox, it was still daylight. It took us about 45 minutes to get to the apartment we were renting, which was small but perfectly formed. We were dog-tired so it was time to retire for the night! Unfortunately, I was unable to sleep, tossing and turning for hours – we had some life-changing decisions that were weighing on our minds.

Day One: Reykjavik and Þingvellir

Reykjavik is a modern town, within a progressive country. The population of Iceland is only about 320,000 people, making it the 177th largest country in the world. It is the size of Kentucky, with half the population of Wyoming, the least populous state in the United States.

After a fitful night’s sleep, we were really hungry, for food and exploration! We quickly found a coffee shop and had our fill of coffee, hot chocolate and pastries. Boy, oh boy things are very pricey in Iceland. The next stop was to pick up our rental car and begin our Icelandic experience.

40km from Reykjavik, Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. Its name is derived from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr, from þing (“thing, assembly”) and vǫllr (“field”), meaning assembly fields. 

1. Þingvellir National Park

 The Lögberg (Law Rock) was the focal point of the Alþingi and a natural platform for holding speeches. Þingvellir was the centre of Icelandic culture. Every year during the Commonwealth period, people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country, sometimes numbering in the thousands. They set up dwellings with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing and stayed in them for the two weeks of the assembly.

Þingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley. The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region, the largest one, Almannagjá, being a veritable canyon. This also causes numerous earthquakes that occur in this area.

Despite being early July, it was absolutely freezing. To think, a week or two before we had been baking in the deserts of Death Valley. Luckily, we had packed some warm clothing – but this did not seem enough at the time.

Even in July it can be cold - Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park
One of the most interesting features in Þingvellir National Park is its rift valley
Walking through the rift valley
Looking across from Þingvellir National Park
A hanging rock atop of the rift ridge - Þingvellir National Park
A waterfall in Þingvellir National Park
The evidence of lava flows are everywhere in Þingvellir National Park

2. The Golden Circle – Haukadalur

Continuing our journey we completed the rest of what is known as the Golden Circle. The next stop on our Golden Circle road trip was Haukadalur, a geothermal area about 60km away from Þingvellir National Park. There are two famous geysers here called Geysir and Strokkur. In fact, the general term “geyser” was named after this particular one in Iceland.

The Earth churns up boiling hot water that smells like rotten eggs, with steam rising from vents in the earth next to mud pools, fumaroles, and mineral deposits.

The original Geysir no longer erupts after an earthquake shut it down, but a second one called Strokkur constantly explodes with scalding water shooting 100 feet into the air every 10 minutes or so. Haukadalur has a gift shop & restaurant where you can warm up with hot soup.

A group of people wait around the Strokkur geyser at Haukadalur
Strokkur geyser erupts
You can get very close to the geysers at Haukadalur
A bright blue hot spring at Haukadalur
Bubbling geyser
Geyser eruprs - well a little ... Haukadalur geothermal area

3. The Golden Circle – Gullfoss

The mighty Hvítá river abruptly disappears into a ravine at a spectacular waterfall called Gullfoss, the next major highlight on Iceland’s Golden Circle. This wide and fast-moving river turns a corner and falls 100 feet, over two stages, into a crevice in the earth, producing thick mist and frequent rainbows. The average amount of water running down the waterfall is 140 cubic metres per second in the summer.

After descending a long staircase from the parking lot, a concrete pathway allows visitors to walk along the edge and look down into the roaring cascade of water. The area around the falls was very windy, and a waterproof jacket was de rigueur as were getting soaked by the spray from the falls. The dramatic scenery at Gullfoss makes it one of Iceland’s most popular attractions.

The mighty Gullfoss waterfalls along Iceland's Golden Circle
The power of the water leading into the Gullfoss Falls is immense
A photo opportunity at Gullfoss waterfalls
The water plunges over the edge at Gulfoss falls Icleand
A romantic cuddle - or was it to keep warm

Day 2: Seljalandsfoss and Jökulsárlón lagoon

For our last full day in Iceland, we decided to head out from Reykjavik to the east coast of Iceland – which not far in distance takes some time along the roads of this country. Our destination is the Jökulsárlón lagoon, where large chunks of ice carve off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier into the lagoon and make their way out into the Atlantic Ocean.

As we travel along the southern coast along Route 1 we come across the waterfall known as Seljalandsfoss, which drops 197 feet into a large pool. One of the interesting features of these falls is that there is a trail that runs up behind the falls.

1. Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss - Iceland
Climbing the trail that goes behind the falls

2. Jökulsárlón lagoon

We arrived at the Jökulsárlón lagoon around lunchtime and book ourselves onto a duck (amphibious vehicle) tour of the lagoon. There is a bit of a wait, and we only too pleased to spend time in the confines of the basic but warm café drinking cups of hot chocolate. When our turn arrived we donned our life vests and boarded our vehicle. It was a truly inspiring experience to navigate through the frigid waters among the hulking icebergs, and despite the cloudiness of the day we got to see the translucent blues and greys as the light passed through the iceberg and reflected off the water of the lagoon. All too soon it was time to start our laborious journey back to Reykjavik.

Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland
Monument remains of skeidara metal bridge damaged by volcano and glacial floods in Iceland
You can take a 'duck' (amphibious boat) tour out on to Jökulsárlón lagoon
On the beach at ökulsárlón lagoon the deepest lake in Iceland
Dad the ice is cold!
Jökulsárlón lagoon is full of icebergs
The icebergs in Jökulsárlón lagoon have broken off Breiðamerkurjökull is an outlet glacier of the larger glacier of Vatnajökull
Jökulsárlón lagoon is a place to see climate change in action
Ice floating on Jökulsárlón lagoon
Enjoying our journey on the amphibious vehicle

In summary …

  • Iceland is a small country and can be easily explored in 2 or 3 days.
  • Probably the best way to explore the country is by car, it gives you more opportunity to stop and see things at your leisure
  • Iceland is not a cheap place – accommodation and food are pricey!
  • This is a great place to visit as a stopover from North America to Europe or as a short trip from most European countries
  • This is not a beach holiday location. It is chilly even in the summer so take some warm clothes with you!

Planning your visit

Icelandair is the country’s main international carrier, offering direct flights to Reykjavik‘s Keflavik International Airport from several U.S. cities. Flight time from Boston is only about five hours; from Seattle, it’s a little more than seven hours. The airline makes it easy to add an Icelandic side trip to any other European vacation; you can stopover in Iceland for up to seven days without paying an additional fare. For our trip to Iceland, we did a 3-day stopover on our trip from the US to the UK. Keflavik International is a 45-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik. Most travellers take the Flybus, a comfortable and reasonably priced shuttle that runs throughout the day and will drop you off either at the main bus station south of downtown or directly at your hotel (for an additional fee).

Iceland’s main cities and towns are served by several bus companies. Reykjavik Excursions, operator of the aforementioned Flybus, offers scheduled bus service to destinations including Vik, Myvatn, Akureyri, Hofn and the highlands. Buses are comfortable and offer free Wi-Fi. You can buy tickets online, at the main BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik or at most tourist offices.

If you want the freedom to explore at your own pace and pull over any time to snap that gotta-have picture of an Icelandic horse, you’ll want to rent a car. Iceland’s 827-mile Route 1, or Ring Road, circles the island and is paved all the way around. Many secondary roads are gravel, though, and some are not navigable with a 2WD car. If you want to venture much off the Ring Road, you will likely need to upgrade to a 4WD vehicle.

Best time to Iceland

In Iceland, the climate is cold, windy and cloudy for most of the year. Of course, it’s a cold country because of the high latitude, and it can receive cold winds from the North Pole, but it’s also tempered by the ocean, as well as by the mild Gulf Stream. The result is a perpetually unstable climate, with sudden changes in weather and temperature, but with a limited temperature range, both between day and night and between winter and summer. Calm and sunny periods are rare. The northern coastal area is colder than the southern one because it is not reached by the Gulf Stream.

In the south rain can exceed 1,300 mm (50 inches) per year, and reaches up to 2,400 mm (95 in) in the most exposed areas, while it’s much more scarce on the north coast and on the north side of the inner plateau, so much so that it descends below 500 mm (20 in) per year, although it is well distributed throughout the year.  Reykjavik, receives about 800 mm (31.5 in) of rain or snow each year. On the southern slopes of the highest mountains, precipitation, which almost always takes the form of snow, can exceed 4,000 mm (155 in) per year.,

Where to stay

1. BLACK PEARL LUXURY APARTMENTS

The Black Pearl luxury apartments in central Reykjavik are just 1,150 feet from Old Reykjavik Harbour. Each features free WiFi, contemporary furnishings, an iPad and city-view balcony.

The bright and spacious suites at Black Pearl Apartment Hotel all have large windows, blackout curtains and heated, marble floors. Each apartment’s seating area has a flat-screen TV with satellite channels.

The Black Pearl is close to many of Reykjavik’s main attractions.

2. SKUGGI HOTEL REYKJAVIK

Skuggi Hotel Reykjavík offers accommodation in Reykjavík only 450 feet from Laugavegur Shopping Street. Guests can enjoy the on-site bar or visit one of the many restaurants and bars within the area. Free underground parking is available on site.

Each modern room is equipped with a TV and a private bathroom.

You will find a 24-hour front desk at the property. The hotel also offers bike hire and car hire.

3. KEX

Housed in an old biscuit factory in the heart of Reykjavik, KEX (the Icelandic word for ‘biscuit’ is just steps from all the bars, clubs, and music venues. It’s also a short distance from late-night munchies and a mind-boggling array of coffee houses, shops, and tourist attractions. KEX has a café and bar, lounge area, heated outdoor patio, tourist information desk, laundry room and free Wi-Fi.

In addition to the dormitory rooms, there are three different double rooms. The Double Plus has one double bed, a private bathroom, linens and towels and a fantastic seaside view.

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