I've always wanted to visit the Land of Fire & Ice. So when I found some cheap tickets in the off-season to Iceland, I did not hesitate on putting together a three day itinerary that would allow me to explore a good half of the island. I figured, I could always return for the icebergs and the whales.
Day 1: Reykjavik
We flew overnight from JFK to Reykjavik. The flight landed 30 minutes ahead of time. By 7:45 a.m., we had cleared customs, gotten our bags and picked up our car. By 8:45 a.m, we were in Reykjavik. We parked the car and headed over to Landsbankinn to exchange currency so we'd have some Icelandic Krona if the need for paper bills arose. We stopped by a few Puffin and Polar Bear gift shops.
We had an amazing breakfast at 101 Reykjavik Street Food consisting of golden-fried fish and chips and the most delicious lobster bisque that Reykjavik has to offer. We were the first customers of the day as the owner had just opened his doors at 11:00 a.m. We chatted a bit and laughed about us looking like hungry tourists who just got off a plane (that's exactly what we were!).
Thereafter, we walked along Skolavordustigur towards Hallgrimskirkja. A Lutheran Church, it is the largest church in Iceland at 74.5 metres (244 ft) high and among the tallest structures in the country. Inspired by the sea stacks at Reynisfjara, the church took 41 years to build. A lift can be taken to the top of the tower for panoramic views of the city. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation while we were there.
Interesting fact: the concert organ is the largest in the country. It was constructed by Johannes Klais Organworks in Bonn, Germany and has four manuals, a pedal, 72 stops and 5275 pipes. It is 15 metres (49 feet) high and weighs 25 tones.
We continued down Frakkastigur, where we stopped at Valdis for ice-cream. The strawberry cone was pretty tasty!
Here are some additional snaps from around town.
Afterwards, we headed to Laekjartorg to meet with some other tourists for a 1.5 hour free walking tour via Follow Me. We stopped by the Sun Voyager, the Icelandic Court of Justice, Parliament House, the National Theatre of Iceland, among many other notable places.
Being major foodies, we stopped by the Seabaron and Vagninn Fish & Chips for some munchies after the tour. The fish kebab and lobster bisque from the Seabaron were quite tasty. However, the Vagninn Fish & Chips was a bit of a disappointment. Both lacked seasoning and crispiness!
Our last food stop was at Hlemmur Matholl (Reykjavik's Food Hall). It was smaller than what I expected, but still offered some tasty bites. We got Vietnamese spring rolls and a sandwich.
Before leaving Reykjavik, we drove to Grotta Lighthouse. It was low-tide, so we walked over the sand to the lighthouse, instead of trying to balance on the huge rocks that formed a pathway from the mainland to the lighthouse. It began to drizzle, so we kept our visit short.
We ended the day with an hour drive to our Airbnb in Hestfjall. It was a lovely location between Selfoss and Hella. We ended the night in a hot tub waiting for a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, we were not lucky to see it.
Day 2: South Iceland
We began the day with a light breakfast at our Airbnb. On our drive out, we stopped to take photos of some very model-like horses. They seemed to have been waiting for their photo-op.
Our first stop along Porsmerkurvegur Road was Seljalandfoss. One of Iceland's best known waterfalls, Seljalandfoss is 65 metres (213 feet) tall and has its origins underneath the glacier Eyjafjallajokull (the volcano beneath this ice cap last erupted in 2010 and caused havoc at airports across Europe). There is a path that leads you behind the waterfall with cliffs that create a wide cavern. It is breathtakingly beautiful. However, be prepared to be soaked!
A short walk from Seljalandfoss is Gljufrabui, also known as Canyon Dweller. It's a hidden waterfalls behind a small opening in a considerable cliff in Hamragardar. At 40 metres (131 feet) high, the falls is fed by the river Gljufura.
After drying our coats, we got back into the car and headed to Rutshellir Cave.
One of several man-made caves, the main cave is arched and at least 20 metres (66 feet) long and 2.5 metres (8 feet) high. It was used for storing hay and livestock.
Here's a look at the entrance and the inside.
We continued on to Skogafoss. At a drop of 62 metres (204 feet) with a width of 25 metres (82 feet), Skogafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. Due to the high amount of mist/spray from this thundering beauty, a rainbow (sometimes double rainbow) appears every few seconds!
This snap was taken at water level.
The waterfall and south Iceland's coastline can also be viewed from above, albeit after climbing 527 stairs.
Finally, it was time to make our way over to Solheimasandur (the abandoned plane wreck site). This was a particularly difficult visit as it takes approximately 60+ minutes one way to the plane, while facing some 30 mph winds! Surprisingly, we did it in 48 minutes, after a lot of eye-wiping from teary eyes due to the intense winds.
Regarding the wreck, in 1973 a U.S. Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and was forced to crash land on the black beach at Solheimasandur. Fortunately, everyone survived. Allegedly, the pilot had simply switched over to the wrong fuel tank. The remains of the plane are still on the sand near the sea, and is absolutely picturesque against the black sand. It's very surreal-looking, almost appearing to be from another planet.
Approximately 30 minutes drive west of the plane wreckage is Dyrholaey Peninsula. The top of the peninsula offers breathtaking views in all directions. To the north, there is the Myrdalsjokull glacier, to the east there is the stunning black lava seastacks of Reynisdranger, and to the west lies the endless black sand coastline.
In the south (the front of the peninsula), there is a huge black arch of lava reaching out into the sea, from which the area gets its name. Dyrholaey translates to "the hill island with the door hole."
Here's a shot of our car from the top of the peninsula.
At this point, we were famished. We drove to Vik and had an early dinner at Halldorskfaffi.
Icelandic cod, with wedge cut potatoes and salad.
The food was delicious and we were moments away from Reynisdranger View where puffins were nesting.
Though we saw the puffins, it was quite difficult to get a photo of them (they're pretty tiny). Luckily, a well-equipped photographer with an extraordinary telephoto lens had just finished shooting some of the birds. He was kind enough to show us some of the shots he captured.
Our last stop was Reynisfjara Beach. The sun was setting and most of the light had disappeared behind the cliffs. This world-famous black sand beach is just beside the small fishing village of Vik i Myrdal. With its enormous basalt stacks, stunning panoramas and roaring Atlantic waves, Reynisfjara is widely considered to be the most pristine example of Iceland's black sand beaches.
The reason for the sand at Reynisfjara being black is that it is formed from heavily eroded volcanic rocks (or extrusive igneous rocks), which are black (or obsidian) to begin with as they have been formed from cooled lava which turns black as it cools and hardens. The most well known volcanic rock found in Iceland is basalt (there are at least 25 different types on the island).
Interesting fact: accordingly to local Icelandic folklore, the large basalt columns were once trolls trying to pull ships from the ocean to shore. However, they were dim and went out too late in the night, as dawn broke, the trolls were turned into solid stone. Another legend includes a husband whose wife was kidnapped and killed by two trolls. The man followed the trolls down to the beach where he froze them, ensuring that they would never kill again. I guess you can say the Icelanders really love their troll stories.
Our car against the black sand.
We drove 1.5 hours from Vik to Fluoir, where we again soaked in a hot tub at our Airbnb waiting for the aurora borealis. Unfortunately, no luck.
Day 3: Pingvellir National Park
On our final day, we drove along Laugarvatnsvegur Road towards Pingvellir National Park (anglicised as Thingvellir). Our first stop was Skalholt.
One of Iceland's most historic places, Skalholtskirkja was an espiscopal see, a school, a seat of learning and administration for more than 700 years. The present Cathedral was consecrated in 1963 and is renowned for its Summer Musical Festival.
Our next stop was Faxi waterfall. Here's a view of the road from the car.
Fed by the Tungufljot River, Faxi falls is often described as a smaller version of Gulfoss, but not as powerful.
Finally, we headed to the crown jewel of the Golden Circle Road drive - Gulfoss. Translated to "Golden Falls," it's one of Iceland's most iconic and beloved waterfalls found in the Hvita river canyon in south-west Iceland. The water travels from the Langjokull glacier before cascading 32 metres (105 feet) down Gulfoss' two stages in a dramatic display of nature's raw power.
Side note: trying to get a cute self-portrait can be quite difficult amidst the spray and high winds.
Another marvel along our drive was Strokkur Geysir. Found in the Geysir Geothermal Area, Strokkur erupts approximately every 20 minutes with blasting water to heights of around 15 to 20 metres (50 to 65 feet) high. Active geyers like Strokkur are very rare around the world because many conditions must be met for them to form. Thus, they are only found in certain parts of highly geothermal areas. The first condition necessary is that an intense heat source, magma, must be close enough to the surface of the earth for the rocks to be hot enough to boil water. Secondly, a source of flowing underground water is needed. Finally, to facilitate the burst, a complex plumbing system that allows the geyser to erupt. Above the intense heat source, there must be space for the flowing water to gather like a reservoir. From this basin, there must be a vent to the surface. This vent must be lined with silica so that the boiling, rising water cannot escape before the eruption. Quite complex indeed!
Thereafter, we visited Efstidalur II for some farm to table ice cream. The quaint ice cream bar has windows looking into the dairy barn. You can also visit the animals.
Side note, this dog greeted all guests at the door.
We continued to Laugarvatnshellir Cave for a tour with the "Cave People." The Cave of Laugarvatn is the only cave in Iceland where people actually lived (two families actually, you can read about their stories here).
We paid for a short tour and story-telling by a friendly gentleman who was dressed in his best tweeds.
Afterwards, we headed to Oxarafoss. Known as the waterfall in the Ax River, Oxarafoss is nestled inside Almannagja in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Interestingly, the waterfall is actually human-made. Geologists and historians have discovered that the river Oxara was moved hundreds of years ago to channel the water for the members and visitors of the Icelandic Parliament Althingi in the 9th century.
We left the park around 6:30 p.m. to make it in time for our 7:30 p.m. reservation at A. Hansen. We figured we'd end the trip with a proper sit-down dinner consisting of homey Icelandic dishes. We were more than satisfied with the hearty lobster bisque, lamb fillet and pork ribs. Would definitely recommend!
We ended the day at our Airbnb in Hafnarfjordur, 30 minutes away from Keflavik. We clocked in early, as our flight was 8:30 a.m. the next day and we needed to be at the airport by 6 a.m. to return the car and check in. Our flight left on time and we were back in New York by 10:30 a.m (EST).
It was a wonderful, albeit a bit hectic/overwhelming trip. Checked off most of the things on the itinerary, but of course, there's a whole other half of the island we didn't visit. As such, a second trip is definitely in order to see the icebergs, glaciers and whales!