Just back from an amazing 2,000 km 5 day roadtrip around Iceland & thought I would share my top tips. Also – if like me you’ve been meaning to go to Iceland for the past 25 years but just haven’t got round to it yet my best advice is just go. Easyjet flies there now (even from Belfast!) so there’s no excuse. It’s really unusual & well worth it.
A quick caveat – on this trip we didn’t go to Reykjavik or the Blue Lagoon & we didn’t see the Northern Lights (as it’s June, it doesn’t get dark at all). We’re saving all that for a short winter break instead. We flew into Keflavik airport & spent the first night at Flokalundur in the West Fjords, second night in Svalbardseyn on the fjord just north of Akureyri, third night in Skalafell near Hofn and the final night in the shadow of that troublesome volcano that no-one can pronounce the name of, Eyjafjallajokull. Here are my tips.
1 It’s all about the outdoors. 3 of the 4 hotels we stayed in didn’t even have a tv in the room although all had decent wifi. Everything you’re there to see is outside. Apart from in the main cities & towns, most restaurants & bars are located in hotels that are open from June to September. Dinner service finishes at 9pm pretty much universally. Don’t go if you need to be entertained.
2 Don’t judge distances by the distance, judge it by the state of the roads and pay attention to your maps.
We classified our 2,000 km of roads into Levels 1 to 5 with 1 being the best (tarmac or good surface, single lane going in each direction) and 5 being roads that are under repair or construction. The 120 mile evening round trip from our hotel in Flokalundur to the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg took us 5 hours & we completely missed dinner. However, it was so worth it because getting to Latrabjarg & back felt like a real adventure – it’s remote even by Icelandic standards. The birds there are so unused to humans that you can get very close to them as they have no fear. Also – when we got back to the hotel at 10.30pm, the girls took pity on us & rustled up a few sandwiches. There’s always a way! Consider hiring a jeep or a 4WD if you’re heading off the beaten track. We had a Hyundai i20 & in truth we treated it quite unfairly.
3 It’s empty. Iceland’s population is only 330,000 people in a country slightly smaller than England, and most live in the capital. You can easily drive for 50 miles without seeing a house and there are no hotels or shops or bars or even petrol stations outside of the villages. Bridges over rivers are built as single lanes because traffic is so light – you just wait your turn if someone’s coming towards you.
Petrol stations are all unmanned. You prepay with a credit card & have to guess the value of the fuel you need. If you get it wrong & pay too much – tough! This caught us out the first time we tried it as we weren’t really sure of the exchange rate or the size of the hire car tank. Even hotels can be people-less. The hotel we stayed in the last night had no reception – just a lockbox with keys & a pin number to give you access to the lockbox. The Borrowers came in overnight & laid out breakfast in the kitchen. I found that to be a bit impersonal and am unlikely to try it again – but it was a novelty. So – keep an eye on your fuel gauge and when the sign says no petrol station for 200km take it seriously.
4 Dress appropriately. Daytime temperatures this week fluctuated between 3 & 12 degrees C, probably a bit colder in the snowfields north of Lake Myvatn on the way up to Krafla or up around the glaciers when the wind’s blowing.
Ok – admittedly I’m not known for being very outdoorsy but even I made some concessions – I took hiking boots (children’s department sale in Lillywhites – £11.99 – more than adequate), hiking socks, a few warm layers and a men’s pac-a-mac from Primark (£4.99). Don’t let my parsimony stop you though. You can spend as much as you like keeping yourself warm & dry – the other tourists were all head to toe in waterproof designer gear.
5 Prepare yourself for the expense. We weren’t on a tight budget but we didn’t consume any alcohol when we were there & we only managed to get to a restaurant once. The rest of the time we either weren’t near anywhere or we got there after 9pm so it was too late, and as a result we lived off picnic fodder. The one evening meal we had out was soup to start followed by local fish & veg/potatoes accompanied by coffee/coke & it cost about £60 in a very basic restaurant – nothing fancy.
I think our trip all in (flights, 4 nights hotel for 2, car hire, petrol, food) will probably come in close to £1,500 with the hotels accounting for half of that. On the upside, the national parks, waterfalls, geysers, etc are all free to visit and the hotel price always includes a decent-ish buffet breakfast.
6 Take binoculars. Even if you aren’t a birder there are so many birds to see that you’ll want to be able to see them properly. I regret not having an Iceland bird book or app with me as I was unable to identify half the birds we saw and am about to start trawling through retrospectively.
At this time of year the seabirds are all present (including the puffins of course) and there’s an especially diverse mix of waterbirds & ducks on the rivers and lakes. Great for spotting Harlequin ducks surfing on the river at Laxa and Red Necked Phalaropes everywhere around Lake Myvatn. A real treat. There’s an odd lack of other animals. Didn’t see a single rabbit or hare, there are hardly any cows or chickens and most livestock is sheep or ponies – the ponies in every combination of colour & hairstyle.
7 If like me you love your tea, take a travel kettle and tea bags. Only 1 of our 4 hotels provided a kettle.
8 Don’t put your fingers into the boiling water rivers coming from the Geysir. There are signs everywhere telling you the water is 80-100 deg C. My husband still had to test that for himself however…
9 Be prepared to be amazed – you’ll see sights you’ve never seen elsewhere. Bright blue icebergs floating in a river surrounded by seals where a glacier meets the sea (Jokulsarlon), spouting geysers, boiling bubbling mud, heat rising up out of the ground, weird man made piles of stones, waterfalls everywhere you look, cliffs made of lava that looks as though it set yesterday, a land that still seems to be forming in front of your eyes.
10 Do go out in the middle of the night – just to make sure it’s still light. I did – and it was.