July 8, 2013

In the summer of 2012 my wife and I had a wonderful 5-day visit to Iceland, our first. A year later I’m getting around to making a few notes about the trip. Jump to the non-generic tips if you’ve already read a guidebook or two.

A slightly tatty, but still charming, example of a typical Reykjavik house.

An abandoned example of a typical Reykjavik house.

We stayed in Reykjavík for the first couple of days (at this Airbnb place). It’s a pretty laid back town and it really is a town despite being the nation’s capital, with 120,000 residents (about a third of the tiny population of the country). There are relatively few must-sees (which was fine by us) but it is a pleasantly walkable town on the ocean with some charming architecture and interesting museums. Also the daylight, so much daylight (as long as you’re there in the summer). Our visit was about a month after the summer solstice, so the sun did go down around midnight but it hovered just below the horizon providing a beautiful twilight all through the night.

Icelandic landscape

Icelandic landscape

We hired a car for the second part of our trip and took a leisurely drive around the SW corner of the Iceland. First we drove the Golden Circle route that takes in clashing tectonic plates, gushing geysers and crashing waterfalls. This is the major tourist bus route in Iceland, but far more enjoyable and unspoilt that that might suggest.

Selfoss waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall

Enough with the guidebooking

Here are four recommendations that you might not get from any good guidebook:

  1. Skip the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, it’s expensive, touristy and about as authentic as an Eiffel Tower snow globe (the water is geothermal yes, but actually the waste product of a neighbouring geothermal power plant, not some natural hot spring pool where the locals have bathed since time immemorial).
  2. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a drive around route 417 (aka Blafjallavegur) which loops about 10km outside Reykjavík’s outskirts. It’s an unpaved road that runs through some wild mountains where we saw zero moving vehicles (and a couple of hiker’s parked cars, all 4WD which might be a tip to avoid this road in bad weather).
  3. Tearing around beautiful mountain landscapes on noisy quad bikes wouldn’t usually by my thing. But we did this ATV ride and loved it. Don’t try to save money by sharing an ATV – the passenger would become queasy and resentful pretty fast.
  4. Reykjanes Peninsula will almost certainly be part of your trip, its tip is the home of the international airport. On the south coast of the peninsula is a long abandoned fishing village Selatangar. The remains of simple fisherman’s huts of piled lava rocks set right by the seashore make for an eerily beautiful stroll in the late evening sun.
Ruined fisherman's hut at Selatangar

Ruined fisherman’s hut at Selatangar