Previously, when it came to Europe, most people would choose to visit the usual places such as France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, etc. It’s only in the recent years that Iceland has become a very popular holiday destination. So in August 2018, after much planning and researching, K & I along with a friend decided it was time for us too, to add to Iceland’s economy!
When to visit Iceland is a very pertinent question. Whilst I’m told that winter in this place has its own magic, we preferred to stick to summer and make the most of the long August days. But as you can imagine, most visitors have the same idea so it can get quite busy in summer and also more expensive. Having said that, other than in the Golden Circle (more on this in a bit), crowds were hardly a problem and it was nothing like what you might encounter in Paris, Rome, Athens, etc.
Given the increasing popularity of Iceland, it’s very important to book your accommodation well in advance of the trip. This is because unlike most other countries, supply has not kept up with the growing demand. So hotels & B&Bs are in short supply. This wasn’t really a problem for us because we decided to go camping instead! After Namibia in 2015, this was only our second camping trip and we were super excited. You can read about that fab trip here.
Day 1: Reykjavík and Þingvellir National Park
We had already booked a camper months in advance and the first thing we did after landing in Reykjavík was to pick up the car. This took a bit of time as the rental agency had to run through some checklists and update us on safety measures etc.
Our camper was really cool. It could sleep three adults, was equipped with a fridge, a heater (Iceland can get quite cold even in summer), basic utensils for cooking, cutlery and plates, a table and a few chairs. It was just perfect for our driving holiday. Before starting on our adventure, we needed to stock up on food and essentials. We had decided to cook breakfast and dinner everyday and grab lunch along the way. A quick stop at the supermarket and we had everything we needed for atleast the next three days.
Next stop was the city of Reykjavík. Given that we only had five days in Iceland (not enough on hindsight), we didn’t want to spend more than a few hours here. This was enough to see the main sights – Hallgrímskirkja, an iconic building dominating Reykjavík’s skyline; Harpa, another beautiful building which is a convert hall and a conference centre along the banks of the old harbour; some street art and the main city centre and surround inn streets.
After Reykjavík, we headed towards the famous Golden Circle – Iceland’s most popular tourist route that covers about 300 kms of southern Iceland, starting and finishing in Reykjavík. This route brought us face to face with gushing geysers, majestic waterfalls and some of the most intense and beautiful landscapes we had ever seen. The route covered three most popular attractions – Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
Our first stop, Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park was only 45mins away from Reykjavík . One of Iceland’s three national parks but the only one to have a UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Þingvellir is seeped in history and surrounded by astounding geology.
The first settlers put down their roots in South Iceland in the 9th century and in 930, Þingvellir became Iceland’s first parliament. This place was chosen as the assembly site because the region was accessible from all the most peopled areas at the time.
Þingvellir is also the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, creating some stunning geological sights.It is also the only place in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible above sea level. The magma that bubbled up as these two plates moved away from each other is what created Iceland’s land mass millions of years ago and their continued separation is the reason for the country’s volcanic activity and landscape.
By the time we finished exploring the Park, it was time to set up camp. The campsite we had selected was in the village of Fludir, about 70kms from the national park. It took us an hour or so to get there and by the time we reached it was past 8pm in the evening but there was still light as in summer the sun sets around 9.30pm.
Campsites in Iceland don’t need to be booked in advance. There are camping grounds in almost every town with more than enough space and you just have to drive in and register/pay at the office. Unlike Nambia, we didn’t find any really small or really secluded camps. This is because there are no trees in Iceland! Camp grounds are just large grounds with space to park and pitch tents. Facilities differ from camp to camp so its best to do a little research before heading off. Most are equipped with the basic facilities such as running water, bathrooms etc. In some hot showers are free whilst in others you might need to pay extra. The hot shower bit was the something I had read about – in camps where it’s paid, you need to buy the tokens for it separately and then jump in and out because its timed! The showers run for 5 mins and in that time you had better make sure all the soap is off. I was so paranoid the first few times that I think I managed to shower in under 3 mins!
Day 2: Geysers, waterfalls and lagoons
I don’t think any of us were really prepared to be awed and humbled at the same time and not once, but several times throughout the day. Day two was all about the natural wonders of Iceland.
Our camp was located only 20 mins away from the Geyser Geothermal area which is dotted with hot pools, steaming vents and chimneys. The geothermal activity is so intense in this area that you can see steam rising from the ground from miles away. Two large geysers – the Great Geyser and the Strokkur Geyser are both located here. The Great Geyser is the earliest documented geyser in European literature, and has been active for around 10,000 years. However, it is not very active anymore and only erupts during earthquakes. The Strokkur Geyser on the other hand, is highly active – erupting every 10 min, shooting up hot water to upto 40 metres.
Just 10-minutes from the geysers is the majestic Gulfoss waterfall. Since it was summer, we could walk right upto the edge of the waterfall and experience it in all its might and force. The waterfall is made of two drops, falling a total of 32 metres.
In Iceland, one of things that shouldn’t be missed is a visit to a geothermal pool. Enjoying the various health benefits of bathing in thermal baths is an Icelandic tradition dating back hundreds of years. There are lots of such thermal pools all across Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is one of the most famous and the busiest so we chose a slightly smaller one called Secret Lagoon instead. This is the oldest pool in Iceland and was opened in 1891. It was used until 1937 before being abandoned for over 60 years and has been renovated in recent years. Before entering any of these these pools, you have to take a shower and you have to be stark naked for this. You can then wear your swimming costume to go into the pool. The warm water rich in minerals has a very relaxing effect, leaving you totally rejuvenated for the rest of the day.
We continued along the Golden Circle to a somewhat lesser popular attraction – the Kerid Crater. Believed to be about 3,000 years old, the crater lake is filled with water ion a beautiful aqua-marine colour. It’s easy to hike to the bottom of the crater, down to the lake and around the crater too.
Kerid was our last stop along the Golden Circle and we we continued our drive along the southern shores of Iceland towards Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. The hour-long drive took us through some stunning volcanic landscapes. The waterfall itself was another mind-blowing experience. One of the few that can be fully encircled, i.e. you can walk around it completely! The waterfall originates from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. The volcano beneath this ice cap was the one that erupted in 2010 causing a lot of travel havoc across Europe.
From here we drove onto another really famous waterfall, Skógafoss – located just 30 mins away. It is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland with a drop of 60m. Due to the amount of spray consistently produced by the waterfall, a single or double rainbow (see picture below), is normally visible on sunny days. It’s possible to walk right up to the falls if you don’t mind getting drenched! There is also a viewing platform on top which provides beautiful views. The area has several more waterfalls of varying sizes and some are visible from the road as you drive along.
The last stop in our day’s itinerary was the Reynisfjara beach, also 30 mins away from the falls. Reynisfjara is a stunning black-sand beach backed by large basalt columns behind it and the roaring Atlantic in front. The entire place has a surreal look – nothing we had ever seen before. The sand is black because it is formed from heavily eroded volcanic rocks, which are black.
Our camp for the night was the remote and beautiful Pakgil camp – þak meaning roof and gil meaning canyon. As the name suggests, it was located in the middle of a valley surrounded by green mountains on all sides. Like the previous night, we arrived in the camp only after 9pm at night. After a long day’s drive, it was the perfect place to relax and unwind.