Iceland Mini-Guide

The following was originally a letter sent to a friend who was interested in traveling to this wonderful country. I summarized the experiences gathered during four photographic expeditions.

Skaftafell

We’ve never rented a camper, preferred the SUV/tent/camping/some hotels combination. Basically because normal cars are not insured in the highland area (some rental companies, e.g. Hertz explicitly stated that you should not go there with their cars). I don’t know if they have 4wd campers or not. So we traveled with mid-size SUVs. In that range avoid Toyota RAV4 at all costs… 4wd turns off at 40km/h, bad brake design, so you have to remove tires to pry out small rocks from the brake… Brrr… Suzuki Grand Vitaras proved to be surprisingly good even in the central highlands. We preferred one midsize SUV for 2 people, instead of renting a large size for 4 people. It was just more convenient. And talking about the largest issue – river crossing. Neither mid- nor large size SUVs are unsuitable if you face a really deep river. They have simply not enough clearance from the ground, and start to float very easily. Icelandic people (and tourist organizations) use special so-called super jeeps for river crossing (www.arctictrucks.com) but I haven’t found a place to rent one. So I’m curious what you will be able to do with a camper. Maybe you could combine a camper with day-tours (arranged by tourism companies on super jeeps). But around the country, and even on dirt roads (NOT marked with F) the camper could be a good choice. (The F marks mountain roads, with river crossing.) I think that with a 6 year old boy, you’ll be better with the camper though.

Campsites vs. hotels. Hotels in Reykjavik are quite overpriced. Expect 2x-3x of the ‘normal’ European prices. Outside the city, prices go down to the usual range. For example, my favorite hotel, Hotel Skaftafell (near the Skaftafell national park) is something I recommend to try. In Reykjavik, there are “guest houses” with shared facilities and are reasonably priced. Plus, there are a lot of good campsites. Quite good facilities, places for campers, electricity, water, etc. Although be prepared that you’ll find some places where the wind blows through the shower… (Stykkisholmur, for example…)

Maps. The best I’ve found is http://www.ourfootprints.de/gps/mapsource-island_e.html It works with Garmin Mapsource, and compatible programs. Although it has no route planning capability, the map is highly detailed. The road system around the island is really simple, but you’ll need the map if you go to the interior. This map marks (almost) all the fords on the rivers. Till the end of June, the interior is in thawing condition. http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/the-entire-country/island1e.html shows the actual condition. Be aware that “impassable” means really impassable. Believe me, I’ve tried it :) It either means a road with bomb-crater sized holes, or thick rock mud. http://www.vedur.is/ is also your friend regarding weather conditions. You can download the tracks my GPS recorded during the visits by clicking here.

Where to go/what to see. 8 days is a lot of time…. You definitely should do a walk around the city of Reykjavik. Go to the Hallgrimskirkja, and go up to the bell tower. The sight on a sunny day will capture your heart… (it did mine…) If you’re interested in Icelandic history, go to the Arbaersafn museum. They exhibit old houses, and show how the people lived there. On the Reykjanes peninsula, go to Blue Lagoon.

But… we usually go there at the end of the trip for some refreshing time. Spectacular. But, some more photogenic locations ;) Still on the Reykjanes peninsula, go to the south-western point (from the blue lagoon to Grindavík, then west). You’ll find a lighthouse there, and just 1-2kms before that you’ll find a geothermal area, which is very active. If you touch the ground, you’ll feel the steam boiling just a meter beneath the surface. The cliffs are also spectacular just after the lighthouse. I prefer to go there at the evening (because that lights the cliffside that you can see from the “parking lot”).

The next peninsula, Snaefellsnes, is a so-so. There’s a small glacier on the west side, and some good cliffs near Arnarstapi, but that’s all. BUT, there’s a ferry from Stykkisholmur to the northern fjords. It’s a 3 hour trip, through a relatively calm fjord. It’s worth to see it if the weather is good. Where this ferry arrives at the northern fjords, go to the west. Unbelievable sandy beaches as far as you can see. Arctic terns, American oystercatchers rule this beach.

A place where you should definitely go is Latrabjarg. This is the westernmost point of Europe, and also a home of the most confiding puffins on Iceland. Go there at the late afternoon, as the puffins start to gather on the cliffs at that time (or even later at the evening). Lots of puffins. Really. And I’ll never forget the time I’ve spent with them. They come almost that close that the penguins did at South Georgia. I’ve spent literally hours just sitting in the rain and watching them :)

Another place is the “golden triangle”. It includes the places near Geysir and Gullfoss. At Geysir you’ll see – surprise :) – geysers. Strokkur is quite active, erupts every 12 minutes or so. The area also contains several colorful hot water pools. But be aware that this is an area frequently visited by tourist – so you should photograph before 9am or after 6pm. Otherwise interesting area (I like the patterns on the rocks created by sulphur filled water.

Gullfoss is a spectacular waterfall just 10 minutes from Geysir. Go there at the morning, the light is best there at that time (if there’s light at all – be prepared that at least half of the time the skies will be overcast). Gullfoss is the gate of the mountain road F35. I recommend you to go there’ because it is almost passable with normal cars (there’s only one weak river to cross). The highlands are unbelievable. Almost as being on another planet. But quite different from Antarctica. In Iceland, rocks and rivers are plenty. There’s a geothermal area called Hveravellir next to F35. Here you could take a bath in hot water pouring out from geysers!

Another area at south Iceland but in the semi-highlands is the Fjallabak nature reserve. Green-black mountains, an active volcano Hekla, and rhyolite rules the view here. Landmannalaugar is big campsite, but you MUST cross a river to go to the campsite. Or, you could park the car just before the river, and take a walk. But beware of the glacier rivers! It could easily take off you from your legs – they are so fast.

On the southern coast, there are two spots I recommend. One is Vík. It is a small fishing village, but there are some rock formation worth seeing. Plus, if you go to the Reykjavik direction from Vík, turn to the left somewhere on the top of the hill (I asked my buddy to send me the GPS track from last year so I could provide better directions), and you’ll arrive on a shore near Vík Basalt organs, lovely rock patters await you there. Another place in that area is Dyrholaey. Arrive there at the evening, and go up to the lighthouse on the top of the rock. Also there’s some puffins and auks in a small nature reserve.

The eastern and northern coasts are so-so. I should mention two things. Myvatn is a large lake (with LOTS of mosquitoes) where you could experience spectacular sunsets. And Dettifoss is the largest waterfall in Europe. You could also find geothermal areas there, but I think the western and southern coasts are a better bet for a first visit.

Also, it is a good idea to include some “rain days” in your itinerary, because it rains a lot there. Waterproof jackets, pants, 2 pairs of boots is a must. They have 12 words to describe rain types :) Huh, that’s came to my mind at first.

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