Is it worth doing a stop over in Iceland for 50 hours you ask? Oh yes, yes it is!
I took an Icelandair flight to London and decided to take advantage of the stopover offer at no extra charge and no need for a visa, to experience what I could see in 50 hours.
I saw A LOT and I’m already planning another visit so that should tell you something.
First a comment on Icelandair – the price was right and the aircrew was friendly, accommodating, and helpful. I will definitely fly them again.
Granted, I usually fall asleep the minute my bum hits the seat, but I did manage to stay awake for some of the flight and they were polite enough to not mention my snoring, plus I’m pretty sure one of them mopped up my drool while I was sleeping. Order the baguette and skyr for your meal by the way – delicious.
I visited in late April when most of the snow is melted but it hasn’t greened up yet. If you go in peak season be aware that costs for everything from tours, hotels and rental cars will be triple the price, and the crowds quadruple in size. Aim for the shoulder season if you want to avoid hoards of tourists.
One essential to pack – a really good raincoat. The weather is more than changeable, it can be damn well schitzophrenic.
Landed at Keflavik International midafternoon and got through customs and immigration in 10 minutes (literally). Then picked up my prebooked rental car, which was reasonably priced. You’ll get a manual unless you wish to pay through the nose for an automatic. An economy or compact is all you need but do take the full insurance once you get to the desk as the roads and weather can be damaging, to put it mildly.
Do read the hints sheet they give you about driving, and the GPS is really helpful if you’re navigationally challenged and have trouble with Icelandic place names (which is everyone but the locals). You can book onto a tourist bus that takes you in to the city but a rental car allows you to maximize your time. The cost was less than what I would have paid for tour costs and let me set my own schedule.
Post car pick-up, drove 30 minutes to the Blue Lagoon, driving through what looked like a volcanic moonscape. My aim; to relax and rejuvenate post flight. It was 5.30pm by the time I got there so the queue was less than three people and the Lagoon wasn’t overly crowded. The water was heavenly and the geothermal steam lingering over the water makes it a very ethereal experience.
You have to prebook your ticket on their website and choose your date and time so a little preplanning is required. Plus you get a complimentary drink and silica mud mask with your ticket, both of which you get to indulge in while soaking in the water. Absolute bliss! You no longer have to shower naked communally anymore but the changing rooms are shared.
After watching the American twenty somethings trying to cover up and show as little flesh as possible I threw my lot in with the locals and proudly bared my plump little body in its full glory. Very liberating.
Arrived at my hotel in Reykjavik by 9.15pm having booked at the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll. Right on the water, next to the Harpa Concert hall, slightly away from the noisy bars but only five minutes walk to the main tourist shopping streets. Parking is limited but there are paid parking areas. If you stay here there is a secret spot on the side of the hotel facing the water.
Look for the two handicapped spaces and there is one regular free space next to them. I snagged this space every time I parked. Post check in, had a quick walk on the waterfront to see the Suncatcher sculpture and soak in the view, then headed to dinner just up the road on Ingolfsstraeti to the Icelandic Bar for meat soup and a Viking stout, the dinner of champions. Try the fresh fish and fish soups, fish jerky, and lamb dishes – you’ll love them.
Tummy satisfied I headed to bed, finishing my night with a small welsh whiskey enjoyed in my room. Liquor is expensive here so I brought my own with me picked up in duty free at Heathrow. I like to plan ahead for the important things!
Woke with the sun and out of the hotel by 7am to avoid traffic and tourist buses (which start leaving the city around 9). Started the day with the Golden Circle area with the classic tourist must sees, but well ahead of the aforementioned tourists. Once out of the city and having negotiated multiple roundabouts (of which there are many) drove to Pingvellir National park.
Roads are two-laned and deserted much of the way and you get to feel like you’re the only tourist who’s out and about. I arrived early enough to hike around the park with a few other early birds. It sits on the edge of a large lake, surrounded by cliffs with fields of moss and lichen. Scenery for the soul. Once back on the road made my way to Geysir.
Stopping on the way to have a lunch of delectable cauliflower soup with bread at the Galleri Laugarvatn, a café and guesthouse, where I got to have a lengthy discussion with a young child for 10 minutes in Icelandic. I didn’t understand a word she said but it was like listening to music spoken. A wonderful treat.
Stopped at Efstidalur II, a farm and ice cream mecca for dessert. Watched the cows munching, while the farm dogs lazed around. Devoured my ice cream in a most unladylike manner. Worth the stop. Just look for the sign then head up the hill towards the farm. I heard the burgers are to die for too.
Next stop Geysir, to wander round the hot pools and see Strokkur erupt. Stay on the paths and don’t stray.
Onward to Gullfoss waterfall. Absolutely magnificent with water the colour of aquamarine to glacial blue and the noise thunderous when up close. A must see when you come here. You can experience it from right next to the falls or view it from above. With half a day left headed down to the south coast. You can plan your stops or just drive and stop at whatever looks interesting and catches your fancy. You are only constrained by when it gets dark, so at certain times of year that might be 3am or later!
By now I had decided this was going to be a waterfall day so back on the road and next stop Seljalandsfoss where I walked behind the waterfall and enjoyed a good soak – wear your wet weather gear so you can truly enjoy it then walk five minutes down a track to Gljufrabui. You’ll wade through a small river into a narrow opening in the cliff and get to experience being enclosed and cocooned with this hidden waterfall.
Then south again down to Skogafoss to stand at the feet of this amazing force of nature. After a quick stop at a local grocery store to marvel at how much they love their dried fish and gather a dinner for on the road (does fresh buns with cheese and several pastries constitute a dinner?) it was down to the southern most tip of Iceland at Dyrholaey. With the view, wind, rain, black sand beach, jagged rocks and salt spray it proved to be a visceral and memorable experience.
Not wanting to be a hazard on the road I trekked back to Reykjavik and was lying in my oversize and wonderfully deep hotel bath by 10.30 pm with my glass of scotch, chocolate covered licorice, and a good book. To quote the locals – Eg er i sjounda himni – I’m in seventh heaven!
Wandering the streets and soaking in the atmosphere at 8am having already packed and loaded the car. Headed up to Hallgrimskirkja, the church that dominates the Reykjavik skyline. Head there early so you can be first in line to go up the tower to marvel at the panoramic view it affords of the city and its surrounding landscape. On a clear day it seems you really can see forever.
Everything is in walking distance in the main area of town so next stop was a trip through history and culture at the National Museum and then a walk through the sculpture garden at the Einar Jonsson Sculpture Museum, this last one being free. Then, because no vacation is really complete without it, I went shopping through the various tourist and artist’s shops in the area.
What did I buy? A lovely knitted piece from the Handknitting Association of Iceland store, and local made herbal teas and soaps. If you’re here on a weekend hit up the flea market to hunt down well priced local goods.
Back to the airport to wait for my flight home and peruse the duty free, then sit and people watch while indulging in a tasty treat and coffee.
Where did the time go?
Iceland – how to sum it up? Beautiful, desolate, primal, expansive and otherworldly; yet modern, friendly and easy to navigate. You feel like you’re standing on the top of the world, but could fall off the edge. Truly worth a visit.
Now when’s a good time to book my next trip back to Iceland?