The husband and I spent 9 days on the road exploring the Southern Coast of Iceland. We drove 1000 kilometers in winter – through sunshine, snow , rain and gales of wind- with daylight averaging 5 – 6 hours a day. The sun was up by 10 AM and dusk fell quickly by 4 PM. Average temperatures hovered around freezing point. It was the husband, me and our Suzuki Vitara on the Ring Road through Iceland.
We’ve picked out our favourite spots on this trip.
Natural Hot Springs and Heated Pools:
Reykjadalur Hot Springs, Blue Lagoon and the Secret Lagoon
Iceland has many active volcanoes and this geothermal energy is harnessed for electricity and heating. Every town has natural hot springs or geothermally heated pools, which are thriving centers of Icelandic social life where people meet and relax in the warm waters.
Icelanders protect these pools and take cleanliness to heart. This is serious business and comes with its own rules of etiquette. The foremost being: Thou shall get naked and lather up before entering the pool. Except for the Blue Lagoon, which had shower curtains, all of the other pools we visited had communal showering areas with not a sliver of curtain to hide behind. I took solace in the fact that no one in the country knew me.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermally heated spa located 45 minutes away from the airport and is the most visited tourist attraction. The water is an opaque, milky blue and makes for great photographs. It’s also a great pool for pampering with silica mud masks and swim up bars.
The Secret Lagoon at Fludir is less crowded than the Blue Lagoon and not as fancy. It’s a much smaller pool frequented by smaller crowds.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs: This is a natural, hot river in the Reykjadalur Valley. It is an arduous 90 minute trek uphill to reach the spot but is absolutely gorgeous and very romantic. Please check weather conditions before you go. I’ve written about the trek here.
- You can book tickets to the Blue Lagoon here .
- If the Blue Lagoon is too expensive, head to the community pools or public baths in town. In fact, these are more authentic, frequented by the locals and lighter on the wallet. Here are two in Reykjavik: Sundhöllin, Laugardalslaug
- Swimming etiquette: You will likely have to shower in the buff in a communal bathing area before entering the pool
- We stayed in the property at the Secret Lagoon and so could swim any number of times throughout our stay. AirBnb link here.
- There is a world of a difference between something completely natural like the Reykjadalur Hot Springs and a designed pool like the Blue Lagoon. We loved experiencing both.
- Your feet will thank you for water shoes at Reykjadalur.
Ice Caves at Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier
Come winter, and the ice caves are opened up to tourists. As glaciers melt, the water carves long tunnels as it drains into a lake or the sea. These caves are constantly evolving and are ephemeral by nature. The largest glacier in the country is Vatnajökull ( vat – na – yo – coo – till) located in the south eastern part of Iceland.
We booked a tour with Ice Guides and trekked up Breiðamerkurjökull (bride – amer – koor – yo – coo – till) , an outlet glacier of the larger Vatnajökull. The trek lasted for 7 hours and we were dead tired by the end of it but it was definitely worth it.
- The ice caves are open to visitors only in winter
- There are multiple tour operators taking visitors to different ice caves. Each excursion has varying levels of difficulty. We booked a moderately difficult trek up Breiðamerkurjökull with Ice Guides
- If you are claustrophobic, you may want to sit out parts of the trek. I sat it out when we had to crawl through a 1 foot crevice in pitch darkness
- Those heavy DSLR cameras can really begin to take a toll on a long, arduous trek like this one. We also had to keep our camera dry as we crawled and climbed through the ice caves.
Waterfalls and the Northern Lights
Iceland, with its jagged topography, has tons of stunning waterfalls. What’s even more stunning is seeing the flickering Northern Lights over the falls.
We were up in the middle of the night, braving sub-zero temperatures and waiting in complete darkness with the camera mounted and ready for action. Most nights we left disappointed. We got lucky twice. The husband captured this beautiful shot of the lights twinkling in front of Skogafoss with a moonbow shimmering over the water. The 2nd time we saw it was right outside our apartment window in Reykjavik!
Seljalandsfoss (Sell – yah – lands – foss) is smaller than Skogafoss. We clicked some incredible pictures by walking the path that leads behind the waterfall.
Dyrhólaey Lighthouse and the Reynisfjara Beach in Vik
We neared Vik around dusk at 4 PM and experienced heavy gusts of wind averaging 15 – 17 miles per hour. As I stepped out of the car, a gale threatened to blow the doors away. Paying for wind damages to car door hinges is a common occurrence in Iceland.
We had rented a cabin with an exquisite view of the Reynisfjara Beach and the Dyrhólaey cliff.
Reynisfjara ( ray – nis – fya – rah) has black sand made dark by volcanic minerals. It is famed for towering basalt columns standing like a sentinel on one side of the beach. Legend has it that the 2 large rock formations in the water, close to the basalt columns, are trolls frozen because of past misdeeds. Standing on the basalt columns facing the water, to your right is the Dyrhólaey ( deer – hole – lah – ay) cliff and light house.
Getting to the lighthouse requires a 4 wheeled drive as the road twists and turns and is bumpy. The views afforded from the cliff of the white surf from the Atlantic ocean breaking on to the black sand are incredible.
- Watch out for sneaker waves on the beach. Reynisfjara Beach has seen numerous fatalities because of sudden waves that knock people off their feet and sweep them into the ocean. Warning signs are plastered all over.
- The beach is a popular tourist attraction and can get very crowded. Early mornings and late evenings are quieter
- You will need a 4 wheeled drive to navigate the winding, gravel road up Dyrhólaey. I’d avoid going if it’s raining and windy
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s deepest lake and is formed by the melting glacier. It is filled with ice bergs that break away from the glacier and slowly melt into the sea.
Right opposite the lake and across the main road is the Diamond Beach, named after the shiny, glistening shards of ice on the fine, black powdered sand.
Geysir and the Althingi at Thingvellir
Thingvellir ( thing – wet -leer) is a national park and is the site of the Althingi, the oldest surviving parliament in the world. It is also the site of the division between the North American and European tectonic plates.
The Althingi was founded in 930 AD when chieftains from Iceland met to decide laws and mete out justice. Today, the parliament of Iceland is located in Reykjavik.
Legend has it that in 1000 AD, the king of Norway, a recent convert to Christianity, was forcing Icelanders to follow suit. When Norwegian missionaries failed to convert the island, he kept several Icelanders hostage. At the Althingi, warring groups – pro and anti – conversion factions – decided to let the Law speaker decide the outcome for all of Iceland. The law speaker did not want to lose a good trading partner in Norway and after a good night’s rest declared that all of Iceland would be Christian but that Icelanders could still worship their religious gods privately. Thus, an entire nation was converted overnight peacefully!
The Geysir ( gay – sear ) is a 30 minute drive from Thingvellir. It’s fun watching the Geysir erupt every 10 minutes or so.
Architecture at Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik
The Hallgrimskirkja (hahtl – greems – keer- kya) is an iconic landmark in Reykjavik. This is a Lutheran church built off the inspiration of basalt columns as a tribute to Iceland’s volcanic origins.
Helpful tips for getting around Iceland
- We used our credit cards everywhere for payment. This was convenient and we never required Icelandic Kronas
- Eating out in restaurants can be pricey. 2 Entrees will come to about $40
- Outside of Reykjavik, supermarkets are hard to come by. 2 of the better known supermarket chains are Bónus and Krónan
- Gas Stations: N1 and Orkan are 2 gas station chains across the country. The gas pump consoles require credit cards with a pin to authorize payment. If you don’t have a pin, you’ll likely get frustrated wondering why your payment is getting declined
- SIM Cards: The best place to get SIM cards is from the duty free shop at the airport. With extreme conditions, you will want a SIM card to stay connected to the grid, check weather notifications and road closures and to help navigate. Some apps that you should download are 112 Iceland – an emergency and safety app to alert the response center; Aurora Forecast – for alerts on the Northern Lights
- Car rental is a big hassle and scam in Iceland. You will read horror stories about renting cars and being charged large amounts to cover small dents and scratches. We booked a car via a reputed rental agency – Avis/ Budget Iceland – and signed up for the Premium Car Rental Protection Policy with American Express in the US. At the time of picking up the car, we signed a document with Avis stating that we were waiving all insurance offered since we had the American Express insurance. We faced no problems with this insurance.