Iceland… It’s hard to put into words, but if I had to choose one, it would be ALIEN. Man, that place is otherworldly! A place our imaginations could never construct, with a language I so hopelessly struggle to understand. In every direction you look there’s something mind-blowing or beautiful! The volcanic island of Iceland sits on a seam in the Earth’s surface, called the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and was born out of lava. It’s flat, treeless vastness can stretch for miles, leaving you feeling exposed in the landscape, until it’s juxtaposed with the mass-scale of uniquely textured mountains, powerful waterfalls and huge blue glaciers, all screaming to be explored.
In this blog post I will share with you our 5 day (slightly less touristy) itinerary and some tips for exploring Iceland.
To open 2019, friends (Tom, Jack, Elliot) and I departed the UK and flew directly into Reykjavik. We landed on the evening of January 2nd and headed straight to pick up our rental car from Rental Cars Com. We opted for a Hyundai Tuscan 4x4 with snow tires for added safety in the Winter. Overall, I’d say we were pretty happy with our motor, especially the heated seats, although with four of us plus gear, it was a tight squeeze between hotel stops at times.
Before we began our road trip along the South Coast of Iceland, we thought we’d spend our first day in the West, AKA Mini Iceland. So, after picking our car, we drove a solid few hours north-west in the dark to our Air-BnB wood cabin in the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
In Winter, Iceland has very little daylight. January gave us 5 hours of it, and our first couple of days didn’t even have cloud break! This wasn’t an issue though, we just did all of our driving in the dark to reach our destinations by sunrise (around 10AM). This prolonged darkness meant that I spent my first 16 hours in Iceland with absolutely no idea what it looked like! So when daylight came I was pretty flipping excited about it!
Sleep wasn’t great. Weather conditions were savage all night, and continued so for the rest of the day, it sounded like our cabin would blow down! That didn’t stop us though, we smashed some beans on toast and were keen to get out on Day 1 of our explorations. Around 10.30am Iceland slowly started to reveal itself to us with a long blue ‘hour’, hazed by the dense sheets of rain.
Our first stop was the distinct looking Kirkjufell Mountain, and it’s neighbouring waterfall (Kirkjufellfoss). It was pretty rad, visibility was low because the rain was so heavy, but we liked how moody it made Kirky look. After mentally preparing ourselves, we fought our way out of the car doors against the gale-force winds to soak up the scenes, get some shots and walk around the waterfall. Kirkjufell is super easy to reach, you can park your car right in front of it (as you can with many of Iceland’s sights, which the boys’ refer to as ‘car-park bangers’).
Full of anticipation to get out and explore, we all failed to put our waterproofs on (school boy!). In wind and rain so brutal it took minutes to be soaked through and cold - lesson on wearing the right kit learned on day one!
So, after our mini-exploration, we jumped back in the car sodden, whacked the heaters on and drove onto our next desto, via a cute little cafe filled with heritage in Grundarfjödurvia where we warmed up with coffees, refuelled with cake and attempted to dry our clothes under hand dryers. We thanked the owner for her hospitality, and moved onto Arnarstapi.
This old fishing village was the epitome of how I imagined Iceland to be, right down to weather. Rugged volcanic rocks and cliff faces with wild waves crashing against them, hardy golden grass growing anywhere it could and huge mountain scapes behind us suffocated by the thick storm clouds, humanised by scattered gingerbread houses - ‘it must be a tough life here’, I thought.
The West coast is also known as “Iceland in miniature,” a sampler, if you like, of the country’s most sought-after natural wonders, grouped together in one area. It was a great place to start to get a feel for what was to come, and I’d recommend heading there if you’re on a short visit.
Our 5 hours of daylight were up, so we jumped in our motor and commenced a long 4 hour drive along the South coast, to stay at Midgard Base Camp for the next two nights.
Day 2 started with breakfast at Base Camp and meeting the legend that is, Siggy B - our Midgard Adventure guide for the day. The weather was too brutal for a snow mobile expedition which we’d hoped for, but Siggy had one of his favourite hikes in Iceland lined up for us! With his local knowledge and strong passion for adventure, we knew we were in good hands - and booyyyyy did we have a killer day ahead of us!
We off-roaded in an absolute beast of a super jeep, over rocky terrains and through rivers to Thórsmörk, it was so much fun. Siggy knew how to navigate and read the rivers for danger - if amateurs had done this drive without that knowledge, they would have got stranded fo sho - so as with any adventure, please get clued up, or explore more extreme terrains with a specialist or local.
The weather was gnarly still, but it didn’t dampen our moods, we had the right clothes on this time so we were untouchable, and the challenge of the weather only added to the adventure - we loved every second. I can’t stress enough the importance of having the right kit, it enables you to push your limits more and keep your mood up. You can find my full Iceland kit list here.
The scenes on our hike in Thórsmörk were badass - raw and dramatic, I’ll let the next few pictures take you along on the adventure.
After yesterday’s hike we were keen to do some more and with aims to do a less conventional Iceland trip, Jack studied maps to find this crazy canyon. So after starting Day 3 with a quick, incredibly wet visit to Svartifoss, a cool waterfall formed out of black geometric lava columns, we set out to discover the secret gem.
While we were hiking we had no real idea of where we were going or what to expect, so it was a bit of an adventure but a fairly easy one non the less. The rain finally stopped and we had cloud break for the first time, so we were already pretty stoked! I was the last one to reach the top, and I remember watching the boys before me jump around like children at Christmas. Killer find! Adventure is about little moments like this, peaking the ridgeline of a raw landscape and looking across a canyon which takes your breath away.
To top off an already epic day, the Aurora danced for us that night! Seeing the Northern lights has been a huge dream of mine since, like, forever! I was so in awe from the experience and felt so lucky to have seen them! I can recall the whole event vividly, and I smile as I write remembering how pumped we were when we heard the news of the Aurora being out. We grabbed our gear, ran to the car and drove with a sense of urgency while hanging out of our car windows to watch them glow over the other-worldly Stokksness. It felt like we were on a space expedition with our head torches, watching alien greens rip above the beach’s mountains and black sand dunes. (Sorry, I didn’t get any photos because this trip was the first time I started using my little camera, and didn’t have the skills or the gear - plus, I really just wanted to be in the moment and experience it)
TIP: There are apps, such as Aurora Alerts, which monitor real-time auroral activity and alert you to let you know if there may be aurora borealis visible in the night. We kept our eye on this throughout the whole trip.
NOTE: If you’re wondering why I’ve not named the ‘Secret Gem’, it’s because some places simply cannot handle mass traffic and are better off lesser known to avoid being damaged. We all know how much Iceland has blown up over the years, and there’s not many ‘secret’ spots left. Those who really want to visit such locations are capable of doing so if they put in the effort to do some proper research, like we did. If you do visit fragile terrains, please be respectful and abide by the area’s regulations.
Iceland is known as the country of Fire and Ice, and on Day 5 we finally got the ice-ice-baby! We went on an off-the-beaten track Defender adventure into the mountains towards Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which has a surface area of approximately 3127 square miles! Although it is very sadly shrinking due to climate change, its recession is not quite as advanced as at other glaciers.
We can thank Local Icelander for showing us another rarely seen side of Iceland; a power-couple with a love for adventure and sharing the epic country they live in. One of the things this trip really solidified for me, is that you cannot beat local knowledge and hanging out with people who call the country you’re exploring home! It’s pretty impossible to pick a favourite day, when Iceland just kept on giving, but with this being my first ever ‘cold’ trip, the ice and snow had me all kinds of excited, and the company was sterling!
Afterwards, we made an obligatory stop at Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon formed out of melt-water from Vatnajökull Glacier. Like many places in Iceland, this really is somewhere you have to see to believe! Icebergs break away from the ever-retreating glacier, visibly demonstrating global warming, and float onto the blue lagoon, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. They then melt and drift out to sea, or get washed up onto the black sands of Breiðamerkursandur, where they glisten in the light like diamonds, hence it’s more recognised name, ‘Diamond Beach’.
Jökulsárlón is very easy to access, there’s a car park with public toilets built right next to it (‘car park banger’), so with thousands of people visiting the Glacier Lagoon all year round, it can be quite busy with tourists, but an absolute must, non the less.
To rest up after another epic day, we drove onto Hella, for a gorgeous and much deserved luxury 2 night stay at Hotel Rangá, with some delicious food and a much needed hot tub-soak.
After a full nights-sleep and a big breakfast at Hotel Ranga we were ready to take on our last day in this incredible country, and to close it, we got the January snow we were hoping for! We drove out through the vast Winter Wonderland we’d woken up to, for the incredibly impressive Haifoss Waterfall - at 122m tall, it’s one of the largest in Iceland.I’ve only ever seen waterfalls surrounded by greenery, so to see one coated with 6 inches of fresh pow was pretty mind-blowing! Getting a view from the top is super easy, as there is free parking close by. As a group of tourists landed in a helicopter before us (thanks for that highlight, guys) to soak up the views from above, we commenced our hike down to the bottom.
It’s incredible! The power and spray back, which froze in droplets on our coats from the fall was like no other I’d ever experienced before, and watching the water drop 122m from top to bottom was rad! Such a scene!
I had such an epic experience in Iceland with the team, it’s an insanely bewitching and wild country! I have every intention of returning to explore more of it, I think it’s one of those places I could visit over and never loose my awe. I would strongly recommended everybody puts Iceland on their bucket list!
If you’re reading this post because you’re planning on going, I’m already super stoked for you!
There’s no denying it, Iceland is expensive! But there are plenty of ways to lower costs, so do not let that put you off:
Car is the best way to get around Iceland, and it’s such an easy country to drive in. The majority of civilisation happens in Reykavik, so there’s nothing, really, in terms of public transport across the island. Grab a rental car from somewhere such as rentalcars.com, or a camper van from gocampers (used and trusted), and be sure to book in advance if you can, as rentals book out quickly there, especially cheaper ones.
For a Brit, this is pretty easy. It doesn’t matter if you’re visiting Iceland in the spring, summer, autumn or winter, the island’s weather is always unpredictable. Waterproofs, solid boots and thermals are a must! For more, read WHAT TO PACK FOR A WEEK IN ICELAND.