Here are some of the things we enjoyed around this spectacular country…in three geographical regions. Secondly, the north, which we felt represented Iceland in microcosm and was a good area to explore if you have too little time to spend in the country.
We drove the complete ring road of Iceland, a roughly 1400 kilometer trip according to Iceland, but we added side trips and sections off the main road, eventually finishing over 3000 kilometers instead.
TOP TIP FOR ICELAND: If you only have a short time (a few days or week), or you’re short of funds in this expensive country, do less by selecting a single region such as the north. No matter where you go, you will see wonderful things – and not just find you’re pushing yourself along the road. So relax, pick any of the sections we posted about. Plus, choose your tours wisely as the price can mount quickly too.
What a day! We had one of our best Icelandic experiences at Holmavik in the Westfjords, as we joined a whale watching expedition into Steingrimsfjordur fjord. There are many other locations up north to do this, but Holmavik was recommended for being less touristed, for the closeness of the wildlife to the harbor, and the best of chances to see it all.
We had worried that the fog had barely lifted off the water by mid-morning. The skies remained thick with grey clouds. But the conditions below the water were just right for marine life. Half a dozen humpback whales, dozens of pilot whales (short video), hundreds of puffins, swooping fulmars, scores of white nosed dolphins (short video)…and just to round things out, a rare sighting of a Basking shark. Couldn’t have been better!
Pilot whales aplenty. Much smaller than humpbacks.
A humpback whale dives below. Many of them were content to float at the surface, with their top fin just visible.
White nosed dolphins
Two of many puffins
The sun finally shone back at Holmavik, but we found that even a grey day can be quite spectacular on the water.
Akureyri and vicinity
Iceland seemed to take a little breather from spectacle as we joined up with its ring road after Westfjords and then hit its second city, Akureyri. Many travel writers tout this city as a much better base for exploring the country than Reykjavik. In part, that’s because it is a very pleasant, relaxed place whose outskirts begin only a few blocks from its center. And, in part, that’s because the town is a launch point for delightful islands like Grimsey and Hrisey, excursions to see marine life, quiet countryside to hike, as well as the volcanic heartland around Lake Myvatn. We agreed that you’d have a splendid visit by skipping the headline grabbing sights near Reykjavik and spending your time up here instead.
Yes, there are waterfalls in the north as powerful as around Reykjavik and its Golden Circle. Here we delight in booming Godafoss on a misty day.
Iceland’s waterfalls are truly uncountable, but it’s especially pleasurable to find one off the beaten track with such pizzazz. We picnicked with this view for about a half hour at the tongue-twisting site of Kolugljufur, sharing it with only five other people.
Hrisey Island was hidden in the morning layer of mist at this tiny ferry town near Akureyri. Grimsey is the more visited island because it’s above the Arctic Circle and is a haven for many bird colonies. But, at Hrisey, we were on our own for nearly all of our four hour sun-lit wander around the island, saw plenty of birds on shore and whales at sea, plus enjoyed this view much of the time.
As befits a country founded by Norse and Vikings, belief in pagan legends and fanciful creatures remained strong despite the adoption of Christianity within a century or so. We discovered this much more recent tribute to a forest spirit in a large wooded park in Akureyri.
Other than Akureyri, this is what most towns up here look like. As you might expect, mobile phone service is quite spotty around the country. Yet every little town is connected by fibre-optic cable providing virtually free internet service (and open wifi that a passer-by can latch onto).
How can you not love a city that puts its heart into a request to stop?
Trolls often venture from their grottoes into downtown Akureyri to shop among the odd-looking tourists. These two skipped street lasagna, the only offering at the just opened food stall across the road, but went for the popular local ice cream instead.
You can find typical Iceland landscapes up here as well. In the fields below the hills, you see a recurrent feature of the country: rolled and wrapped bales of hay that will feed the livestock in the winter. One nifty machine cuts, rolls and shrink-wraps the hay for the farmers – and you can choose among pink, white, green, blue, yellow and black wraps.
With perhaps the exception of a regular geyser, you can find about any volcanic feature of Iceland around Lake Myvatn, east of Akureyri – lava fields, fissures and tubes, thermal regions, old and new volcanoes, craters and pseudo-craters…as well as filming sites for Game of Thrones. Throughout the area, you are wise to obey the warning signs and avoid stepping where you would poach yourself.
This mountain has turned red from all the sulfurous steam and water flow percolating out of it. Around it, bubbling mudpots and steaming pools spread across the valley. In the highlands behind at Krafla, you can visit a massive geo-thermal power plant with a sprawling network of pipes to run it. Much of Iceland’s electric power comes from geothermal powered generators. Moreover, steam is pumped into homes from hot springs to provide both heating and hot water at a tiny cost to the residents.
The cracked dome above Grjótagjá, the pool cave.
Below, a pool of hot water permanently fills the lava tube. It was once popular among locals as a natural hot tub, but usage has been banned, partly to preserve it and partly because the water heated up to over 41 degrees C, or 106 F – poaching range. We were told that it was the site used to film a notable seduction scene in Game of Thrones.
Skutustadagigar, a site at the south end of Myvatn, where we walked for several miles among dozens of pseudo-craters, hollows created by the sudden explosion of steam rather than lava.
Dimmuborgir, or Dark Castle, where you can walk for hours amid fantastical formations of lava rock created by the collapse of multiple craters. Up close, the formations can look like ruined forts or the home of elves.
The waterfall fed by this, named Dettifoss, is one voluminous and thunderous flow of water, so strong it makes your chest thump. Reputedly it’s the highest volume spillway in Europe. To us, though, more visually interesting were these upper feeder falls called Selfoss. Here, the turbulent water funnels through walls of hexagonal basalt columns, a curious phenomenon visible all around Iceland and the result of cooling lava flows.
Lake Myvatn is fringed by bastions of lava that formed mini-fjords and twisting channels at its eastern shoreline.
The lip of the biggest crater around here, Hverfjall, is about 100 meters (or yards) high and a walkable 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) around. It’s only a few thousand years old. We loved its austere, stark beauty.
More colorful is the storied Viti crater at Krafla near the geo-thermal plant. Though it looks placid, it is still dangerously active with eruptions in the vicinity as recently as 1984. The name means ‘hell,’ but it didn’t seem so on a drizzly quiet day.
(Also, for more pictures from Iceland, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the itinerary page.)