Everyone seems to raise their eyebrow when I tell them – emphatically – that the most beautiful place I’ve ever travelled to is Iceland. Granted, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s a country you’d probably have to see for yourself, but no other place – not even Santorini – has blown my mind in the same way Iceland has. I mean, where else can boast the biggest natural hot tub in the world?
When it came to planning our two month trip around the world, Iceland was always on the cards. It was going to be our second trip (with only 4-5 days spent here on our first trip, we barely scratched the surface). This time, we’d be driving around the entire country for eight days. It’s probably the craziest thing I’ve done travelling (aside from cycling around the South of France for a whole week by ourselves) but hey, you only live once.
After a ton of planning (thanks, Google!) using the Ring Road as our overarching guide seemed the most sensible and scenic. If you’re thinking of doing the same, I’d definitely start with other people’s itineraries on the internet (there’s heaps) and use mine (below) as a rough guide.
If you’re living vicariously for now, make yourself a mug of milo. This is one adventure I’ll be telling my grandkids about.
DAY 1 – Reykjavík > Borgarnes
We flew into sub-zero Iceland from sunny New York (it was only a 5.5 hour flight!) landing at Keflavík airport at around 6am. After collecting our luggage, bleary-eyed, we picked up our car from the rental company (it’s a short walk from the airport) and then made the 45 minute drive into Reykjavík. The plan was to stop into a cafe (Kaffitár – very decent coffee), acclimatise a little to the weather, and pick up a few grocery supplies from Bónus (a supermarket chain in Iceland with the unmistakeable cartoon pig as its mascot) for the road trip out north-west to picturesque and very, very remote Borgarnes.
The idea here was to set up camp in Borgarnes for the night as a pit stop before our bigger legs of the trip. The drive to Borgarnes was achingly beautiful. It rained for most of the way there but with the soothing strains of Sigur Ros accompanying us, it made for the perfect storm. It’s a shame that I will never be able to find the words to accurately describe how breathtaking the landscape unravelled before our eyes, so you’ll have to rely on our photos on this occasion.
After a couple of hours, we finally arrived at our airbnb and settled in for the night. This airbnb was more like a bedroom with an ensuite attached (it’s a semi-detached house so the host actually lives next door with their family) – but all the personable and thoughtful touches they added to the room made for such a lovely stay.
Because I wasn’t kidding when I said this town was tiny, we had dinner at a service station that actually had a really hipster-looking burger establishment attached to it (in typical Icelandic fashion) so you can guess what we had for dinner that night. It was the best. PS if you’re more of a hotel person, I’d recommend IcelandAir Borgarnes – in fact, all the IcelandAir hotels are modern, clean and such great value for money.
DAY 2 – Borgarnes > Snæfellsnes Peninsula > Akureyri
We spent the morning exploring a little more of Borgarnes before setting off further west for Snæfellsnes and Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall. After packing up our things, we had brunch at the only open-looking restaurant in town that morning – The Settlement Centre – and we dove into pickled herring and the like. The restaurant is situated near the peninsula so after brunch we took a walk and found ourselves at one of the most incredible places my eyes have ever seen (above).
A few quick snaps later, we jumped into the car en route to Snæfellsnes to check out Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall. The plan was to get to Akureyri by the end of the day, which – and we only discovered this later after my husband miscalculated the route – that it was no picnic in the park (or leisurely drive) from Snæfellsnes. But anyway, our drive from Borgarnes to Kirkjufellsfoss was honestly my most memorable. It was like a scene out of Walter Mitty (sans skateboard) with its winding, deserted roads and layers of majestic mountains that lay before us (photo below).
We stopped to take a few photos and filled our bottles with water from the glacial streams by the side of the road and it was the most incredible thing ever. Home felt such a long way away.
Because it was fucking cold and unbearably windy and rainy as hell, I set up camp in the car whilst my husband explored Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall (before you start thinking I’m a spoilt brat, even my husband insisted I stay in the car lol). The waterfall itself is modest but it sits opposite from Kirkjufell mountain which is a magnificent sight to behold on a clear day.
Time was escaping us quickly, so we decided to drive straight to Akureyri which was located in the far north. What we thought was a 4 hour drive turned into a 7 hour one once we correctly inputted it into the GPS, so after a minor freakout about driving 7 hours straight with no break and an arrival time of 9:30pm, we got our act together and hit the road.
The first half hour of arriving into pretty Akureyri was spent endlessly lost in pitch black darkness with our GPS losing its shit (Murphy’s Law after a 7 hour drive). We finally (finally!!) found our airbnb though and promptly dropped our bags off before driving back into town for a super late dinner. Note: restaurants in Akureyri (and there’s not many of them, by the way) tend to shut around 9pm. We managed to find a cosy cafe serving pizza and toasted sandwiches though and they opened til quite late, around 11pm.
DAY 3 – Akureyri
As Akureyri gave us a good base to explore surrounding areas (though you wouldn’t have thought so, being a mere 100km from the Arctic Circle) we organised to stay here in Iceland’s second largest city for two nights. It’s always lovely being able to spend longer than a night in any one town so we made the most of it and took in the area at our own pace.
We woke up late and then headed into town to make the most of the rare blue sky and sunny weather, exploring the city centre (love this bookshop cafe) and having fish and chips for lunch here (it was okayyyy, but it has nothing on Reykjavík Fish & Chips – THIS is a must do, by the way). But back to Akureyri, to be perfectly honest, you can hear the tumbleweeds rolling through the town on any given day so it didn’t take long before we ran out of things to do.
We spent the rest of the day making a pitstop at Bónus (our airbnb was equipped with the most amazing kitchen so rather than pay $40 for a mediocre burger that night, we thought we’d stay in and cook a roast for dinner) then taking a short drive out to the spectacular Godafoss waterfall. The best thing about visiting Iceland is turning up to a “major tourist attraction” then finding you’re the only one there (or being in the company of two other tourists, at most). Iceland makes it so blissfully easy to remember how far away you are from civilisation.
Calling it a day, we then ventured back to our airbnb and chilled out for the rest of the afternoon. Nothing beats that feeling of not needing to do anything else or be anywhere else.
Day 4 – Akureyri > Myvatn > Námafjall > Eglisstadir
We woke up to a BUCKETLOAD of snow this morning (about 10-15cm deep) which showed no sign of letting up. The plan today (before it was forecast to be snowing) was to have a dip at Myvatn Nature Baths (a geothermal pool) then let the Ring Road guide us around the Lake Myvatn area (to get your bearings, it’s north-central Iceland).
Breakfast was leftovers from dinner (so good!) and my husband and I mulled over the prospect of peeling off our seven layers of clothing and stripping down to our bathers to go swimming in negative-something temperatures while it snowed.
We decided to take the plunge and do it. And it was, hand on heart, the highlight of our Iceland road trip. Which is saying something considering I’m a tragic Perth girl who complains about how it “cold” it is during “winter” in Perth. Safe to say, after my trip to Iceland, I’ve hardened up. A LOT.
So we piled into the car, played a few Monsters and Men tunes, and 90 minutes later, we changed into our togs and went swimming. It was still snowing, I shivered my ass off, but I loved it. Myvatn Baths isn’t as fancy-pants (i.e. no Parluxes or GHDs in the bathrooms) – or as big – as Blue Lagoon, but that was the magic of it. It wasn’t deserted, but it wasn’t swarming with tourists either, so it was the perfect way to unwind at your own pace at this blissfully unpretentious haven. It’s also half the price as Blue Lagoon and you don’t have to pre-book so I highly recommend visiting it if you’re going to be in the area.
Afterwards we drove to nearby Námafjall where mud plots and lava fields awaited us. I swear, this is what Mars or Venus must look like; Námafjall felt like we were literally on another planet. It was so bone-achingly cold (real feel was about -7 to -9 degrees celsius) and blusteringly windy (the kind where you have to hold onto the car door as you open it otherwise it’ll literally fly off the car). It was so cold that my runny nose froze on my face – not even kidding. That said, Námafjall was as surreal and spectacular as you could imagine; an almost-eerie, menacing wasteland that back in the day, was a place where they banished outlaws.
Eglisstadir (so tiny it’s probably not even a town, really) was our port of call that evening so we jumped back on the Ring Road, explored a little more of Myvatn on four wheels (it was heavily snowing at this point) and made our journey across East Iceland. The plan was to call in for one night just to sleep before setting off tomorrow to Höfn. The drive to Eglisstadir from Myvatn along the Ring Road was beyond incredible: we were treated to cotton candy sunsets, dusk clouds that blazed across the sky, and snow-capped mountains and glaciers that stretched for miles and miles.
Day 5 – Eglisstadir > Höfn
We woke feeling fresh from the previous day, but it was a pity the weather had other ideas. As we checked out of the hotel (we stayed here) we were told a fair portion of the Ring Road was closed due to severe snow storms. They weren’t kidding. I stepped outside (it took a brave soul to even do that – the locals were having none of it) and the snow was at least 30cm deep. Our itinerary that day was a 186km drive from Eglisstadir to Höfn (south-eastern Iceland) but now we had to re-calculate the route and take several detours, it would take us double the amount of time to get there. Bummer.
As some of you may have experienced yourselves, it’s pretty fucking scary driving through snow and teetering on the edge of vertigo-inducing mountains (I must admit I feared for my life a few times) so for most of the way we were travelling at around 40-50km/h. But, better safe than sorry, even if it took us a few hours longer than planned to get to our destination in one piece.
So after another trip to Bónus to fuel up on car snacks, we set off for Höfn. The weather in Iceland has a way of either going really badly really quickly or really sunny just as swiftly but thankfully as we inched closer to Höfn, the snow stopped falling and the sky gave way to a spectacular sunset and scenes like these.
We checked into this simple but sweet motel/hotel that was literally plonked in the middle of nowhere (it was a great place to stay though), then ventured to the local pub to have dinner as it seemed to be the only place to be open. There didn’t seem to be much happening in Höfn at the time (honestly, I think things pick up more in summer) so we spent the rest of the evening resting up at our sleeping quarters, planning the next leg of our road trip.
DAY 6 – Höfn > Jökulsárlón > Vik
Only a couple of days left of our road trip! Having already driven three-quarters around the entire country, it’s hard to believe that although we’ve seen so much, we’ve only really scratched the surface.
Still, the best was yet to come.
We left Höfn after breakfast with Vik in mind as our final destination that evening. On our last trip to Iceland in 2013, we didn’t get the time to visit Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon so we made a point of finally dropping by. I was completely blown away by its untouched beauty, and its overwhelming sense of complete stillness. Being in Iceland – or a place like this – makes you realise how insignificant we all are when we’re in nature’s grip. Jökulsárlón had me completely floored.
We didn’t do the hike or anything fun and crazy like that, so we spent a couple of hours at Jökulsárlón, taking it all in and visiting the nearby black sand beach (which was a sight to behold in itself). The beach – with all its life-size icebergs washed up on shore – is just on the other side of the Ring Road. The ice bergs were like diamonds in the rough, if you will.
The cold was unbearable after a while though, so we piled back in the car, cranked the heater, and headed to Vik; a place we visited a couple of years prior but never really explored all that we wanted.
We arrived at Vik in the afternoon (staying here – I can’t recommend this hotel enough) and had an early dinner here. My husband had on his to-do list a sunset photography excursion to the Reynisfjara Beach, which translated to shivering in the cold until 10pm (it was almost summer so late sunsets were beginning to set in) whilst he got his time-lapse shot. With not a single soul in sight though and a blazing sunset that painted a fire across the sky, we were in good company. After that, we made our way back to the hotel, kicked back with a hot drink in the amazing lobby, then got some much-needed beauty sleep.
DAY 7 – Vik > Reykjavík
Ideally, you would set aside around 10 days for the Ring Road road trip – it’s at least a 1,332 kilometre drive.
We attempted to cram everything into 7-8 days. I had been booking the flights for the entire two months of our travel, and my husband was in charge of the Iceland itinerary so somehow we miscommunicated along the way and when we found out, he was not too pleased I had accidentally booked too little time in Iceland (the plan was 9 days but I mistakingly booked for 7-8). Whoops. Day 7 was our last leg of the road trip before heading back to Reykjavík and staying in the capital for one night before flying to our next destination (Munich).
We woke up in Vik with a few sights on the agenda before arriving in Reykjavík: Reynisfjara Beach (again) and nearby Dyrholaey (sadly we were in the wrong season to see Puffins); the site of the Crashed DC 3 Plane; and Skógafoss – which is known as perhaps Iceland’s most famous waterfall aside from Godafoss (the copious and incessant amount of tour buses gave a good indication if nothing else). I couldn’t even begin to tell you how windy it was that day; the day after we heard all roads around Vik were closed due to severe sandstorms, so we counted our lucky stars I mistakingly booked a day too little haha.
Anyway, visiting the eerie wreckage of a crashed U.S. Navy aircraft was kind of cool; my husband obviously enjoyed it more than I did, taking photos of it from a gazillion angles. Trying to find it was an adventure in itself, though. If you’re planning on checking it out also, the wreckage is located a loooooooonnnnng way from the Ring Road – as in, go off-road (there’s a small sign/open gate that’ll guide you through) and keep driving for about 10-15 minutes until you see the plane. We saw a couple of people make a wrong turn along the way but just remember to stick to the faint markings along the dirt road and you’ll eventually find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Next stop was Skógafoss. This was absolutely mindblowing. The walk from the car to the waterfall was a bit of a workout (it was so windy everyone was walking more backwards than forwards) but the sheer scale and overwhelming beauty of Skógafoss draws you in like nothing else. It was pretty barren in April (it’s a lot more green and thriving in summer) but the sun conditions that afternoon made it favourable enough to see a rainbow stretching across the 60m tall waterfall.
After battling the wind for long enough, we embarked on our final leg to Reykjavík to spend one last night in Iceland.
DAY 8 – Reykjavík
Despite how tiny the city really is and having spent a few days here already last time, I would have loved to have a couple of days up our sleeve in Reykjavík to wind down from the epic road trip we’ve just done. Last time we booked an airbnb, but this time we stayed here. It was okay – the wifi was a bit sketchy but it offered free parking for our car.
We were intent on making the most of our last day in Iceland, so I suggested a half-day trip out to Geysir (it was one of my highlights from our last trip). It was pretty shitty weather though and the Geysir was a lot more disappointing on this occasion (very infrequent and small eruptions) but we were pleasantly surprised to see a new restaurant and shops open up across the road (which weren’t there a couple of years ago) and decided to kill some time there. Weather-wise, I do recommend visiting Geysir in the summer just because it’s so much more green and beautiful during that season, which really adds to the charm of the area.
When we arrived back into Reykjavík in the afternoon, we explored all the little shops on foot and stopped in for a coffee at Reykjavik Roasters (best place in Reykjavík for a cup, in my opinion). That evening we had fish and chips for dinner (surprisingly not that expensive for what it is) and called it a night shortly after, as we were due to be at the airport at 6am the next day. And we all know how the next morning panned out…
For more recommendations in Reykjavík itself, check out my travel guide from my first visit to Iceland, if you haven’t done so already. You’ll find lots more things on that list that you won’t find here (and vice versa).
A FEW TIPS
The best time to travel to Iceland is May – October, particularly if you’re thinking of embarking on a similar road trip (less chance of inclement weather). If you’re visiting in early May or late October, it might be worth asking the rental car company to fit the car with snow tyres, just in case. The weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can turn very easily, very quickly.
Hiring a car is obviously essential. Our favourite rental car company is Budget. The cost of hiring a car is about the same as here in Australia. Definitely book online before you depart as you’ll be picking up the car as soon as you arrive at Keflavík airport (it’s super easy!).
A GPS is also essential. We downloaded the Tom Tom app on our iPhone (you’ll also have to download and pay for the Iceland map) but it’s money worth spending. If the car you’re hiring doesn’t come with a mount for your phone, make sure you bring one.
Set aside a fair portion of your budget for food and petrol – Iceland is as expensive as it gets in Scandinavia (almost as Norway) so be prepared to spend a bucketload on fuelling up (in the case of petrol, we were paying around $1.60 per litre).
Speaking of budget, I couldn’t tell you precisely how much the roadtrip cost us in total (unfortunately we are not one of those freakishly organised travellers who keeps a running tab of how much we spend in an Excel spreadsheet). Off the cuff, I’d say we averaged $150 per night for accommodation + $40-$60 per day for food (for two of us – and that included grocery supplies and 1 meal eaten at a restaurant whether it was lunch OR dinner (we rarely ate out for both lunch and dinner in a single day). Car hire was around $90 a day I think. We literally didn’t shop or buy anything other than food, hotels, drinks and fuel for the entire 8 days of our roadtrip, and tried to keep things pretty frugal (impossible when you’re in Scandinavia though).
When it came to food, most of the towns we passed through were so heinously remote that cafes and restaurants were few and far between. Each morning we’d start by heading to the nearest Bónus (there’s plenty of them around) which had everything you could think of under the sun. We pretty much bought our breakfasts and lunches from the supermarket, and then had dinner out once we reached our final destination. I definitely recommend filling up the car with snacks as there’s very few chances to do so as you start driving!
Pack as many layers and practical shoes as you can. In summer you can get away with sneakers and a couple of layers but during winter and the shoulder season, I was wearing up to 7-8 layers on the coldest days.
Lastly, if you’re searching for a blissful geothermal spa other than Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Baths, check out Fontana Spa. It’s new and I haven’t been there yet, but it’s only an hours’ drive from Reykjavík and perfectly located if you’re doing the Golden Circle on the same day.
Photography by Michelle and Jamie Lau with OM-D E-M1 | in partnership with Olympus Australia