25 July 2018

From the hot to the cold - Iceland

Flying above Greenland
When we started searching for flights from the West Coast of the US back to Switzerland, we found an interesting offer connecting through Keflavik, Iceland's main airport just outside Reykjavik. Even better, the offer came with a free layover of up to seven days. We didn't hesitate for long of course and booked us a nice last destination on our way home.

Already the flight from Portland to Reykjavik was spectacular. As it was early July, the sun didn't set all night and so we could enjoy a beautiful view on the glaciers and fjords of southern Greenland. We landed early in the morning, just an hour earlier than our friends Sylvia and Jessica from Switzerland who joined our weeklong tour of Iceland.



The first challenge was finding our car rental guys. They were a bit too relaxed and only showed up after a good hour. The first car they gave us had problems with the gear box (a déjà vu from Australia), but an hour or so later we finally filled our car with all our luggage and four people and left. Our first stop was Reykjavik. We didn't know
Just outside our Airbnb in Mosfellsbaer
much about the city at this time and were all quite tired, but still managed to visit Hallgrimskirkja, the mighty church throning above the city center. Else, we were busy buying basic supplies (food, gas for the camping stove, etc.). As we knew we'd all arrive on a red eye flight, we booked a nice Airbnb in the suburbs at Mosfellsbaer for a good and relaxing first night. We went there already in the early afternoon for a quick nap and then decided to check out the local swimming pool / spa / hot tub (every village of any size in Iceland has one), a great way to chase away the cold.

Kirkjufell mountain
Refreshened after a good night's sleep and strengthened by some good food, we started the next morning on our road trip around the island. Driving was very straightforward: good roads, little traffic, almost nothing to worry about. I was happy we booked a 4WD, so we could also use the so called F roads which are unpaved and sometimes quite rough. At points they include crossing some small rivers, but more of that later.

The landscape was stunning and changed every kilometer. Plains with lots of grass and flowers, rugged mountains, some snow on top, rivers, the sea. We got it all. The weather changed equally fast: sun, rain, fog, wind and rain again. We visited some nice waterfalls and villages on the way. Soon enough we were tired of our journey and finally found a great camping spot next to a small side road close to Blönduós, on the north shore.


Plenty of waterfalls
With all our luggage we had to set up a tent first to all fit - or rather squeeze - into the back of the car for dinner. We realized at that point that we could maybe have prepared ourselves a bit better for the conditions in Iceland. But we were already there and on the road, so we made everything work anyway. At least the camping cooker worked perfectly and allowed us to fill our bellies with hot soup, tea and coffee. We went to bed when we felt tired and woke up when we had slept enough. It never really got dark, so we there was no point to wait for the sun to set or rise.

Turf houses
The next day we continued driving through amazing landscapes, visited plenty of waterfalls and got wet several times. In the afternoon it was pretty rainy when we arrived in Akureyri, the second biggest town of Iceland. It felt like a large village. But by now we knew what and how much provisions we needed per person per day, so we went shopping for pretty much the rest of our trip. Again we stayed at a very nice Airbnb appartment right in the city center of Akureyri. Me and Jessica went to the spa / swimming pool while Lisa and Sylvia went running and after a nice dinner we all fell asleep pretty fast.

Krafla lagoon
And that was that for the comfort options. As we couldn't find any affordable accomodation for the rest of the trip (most of Iceland is solidly booked in July), we were looking forward to a few more cold nights in the tent and in the car. Leaving Akureyri it was as rainy as the day before. This day brought us more waterfalls, but also traditional icelandic turf houses built with their covered rooves and plenty of volcanic scenery. Mud holes, plenty of smoke and sulfur, a beautiful almost green lagoon inside an old volcano and a volcanic spa next to the Myvatn lake (the so called green lagoon in opposition to the blue lagoon just outside Reykjavik). After soaking in the hot water for a few hours and playing with the black sand that covers the ground of the artificial lagoon, the perspective of a night in the car and tent wasn't actually too bad. We again found a nice spot quite close to the main (but extremely unbusy) road a few kilometers after leaving Egilsstadir.

A muddy ride
Even though the landscape in the east of Iceland was also spectacular, it was very rainy and foggy, so we drove onwards early in the morning. The ring road (main road around Iceland) then became much rougher, our car was covered in mud. But the rain would soon wash everything away again. As we reached Höfn early, we enjoyed a great surf n'turf burger there before moving onward to the spectacular glacier landscapes along the south coast. After a short drive, we reached the first glacier lake around Hoffell. From here, the scenery was pretty spectacular and we slowed down a lot, stopping at scenic spots and taking loads of pictures. Unfortunately it was raining quite a lot and mainly when we stopped at Jökulsarlon lake, but the ice still looked spectacular. As did the black plains around Skaftafell. Again we camped not much off the main road, but completely undisturbed by other tourists.

Glacier colors
The next morning weather wasn't much better. Still cold and wet, we decided to once again enjoy some hot thermal water for a couple of hours. After that, we went to a beach with completely black sand and stones. And there was something else we had been looking for since arriving: Puffins! We finally saw many of them, nesting in steep terrain above the beach and flying out to catch some fish for their offspring. After another few waterfalls, we turned inland, where the weather finally turned better. We even got some sun as we pitched our tent close to a river just outside Fludir.

Ice in the lake
On our last full day in Iceland, we could see why most of the people settle in the southeastern corner of the country. The weather was much nicer than the days before. We only needed our rain gear to visit Gullfoss, a mighty waterfall along the way. By the time we reached Thingvellir/Silfra, the sky was only a little clouded and it was much warmer. Thingvellir one of the places where you can see tectonics at work. Here, Europe and Nothern America drift slowly but steadily apart, a couple of centimeters per year. We didn't dive Silfra (the lake between continents), it was spectacular enough seeing the rift between the tectonic plates. We then drove to Reykjavik for another stroll through old town and finished the day in the local thermal pool where we could even soak up some long missed sun.

Puffins!
As our flights were very early in the morning, we set up our tent close to the main road on the way to the airport. But again at a beautiful und undisturbed spot. We woke up with the sun at 3am, gave back our car at 4am and boarded our planes before 8am to reach Switzerland around lunch time where our families and friends waited to welcome us home after almost two years!

Iceland was a great experience and I'm sure I'll go there again, as there is still so much to be explored. But next time, I'd do a few things differently. First, I'll try to go not during peak season, but somewhere more in the shoulder season like may, early june or september. Second, I hope to do more off the beaten path stuff, like hiking and camping in the highlands and only use F roads. Third, I definitely want to bring more gear to enjoy the rough and unpredictable weather. So the trip is going to be even more fun than this time!

More pictures of our road trip around Iceland

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