Photography / Travel

7 Days in the Land of Ice

I finally made it to Iceland earlier this year. My friend and I decided to make the trip with very little planning – all we knew at first was that we wanted to see as much of the country as possible and document our travels through pictures and film.

We had a full week to spend there it made sense to rent a 4WD vehicle and drive around the entire island. We put together a rough itinerary of places we wanted to see and booked our hotel accommodation accordingly.

I was inspired by friends who’d recently made the trip. I know many others who are interested in going themselves. Maybe this will help you plan a trip of your own – it’s a brief day-by-day account of where we went and what we did (with pictures to prove it).

Enjoy, and let me know if you have any questions, or recommendations of your own. I’m already looking forward to going back!

Day 1 – We landed early on the morning of April 10th and breezed through the airport. As two Arab-looking men accustomed to the trials and tribulations of dealing with US customs officers, the arrival process was exceptionally smooth and straightforward.

The weather outside seemed pleasant at first but I soon regretted shedding my jacket, so I made sure not to leave the car without it again. After stocking up on groceries we started our journey along the Ring Road (aka Route 1).

We headed northwest from Keflavik, making a few stops along the way. We started with a slightly misguided attempt at hiking to Glymur, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls. After walking around for a while and discovering that some key trails were closed, we got back on the road again and headed towards Kirkjufell Mountain. Glymur (and the Budir black church) would have to wait until the next trip.

Conditions outside had been deteriorating all day, and by the time we got to the mountain, the scene was washed out in snow and clouds. We made the best of it though, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no sunset to speak of that day.

By the time we got to the Gauksmýri Lodge under a flurry of snowflakes, it was nearly 11pm. I was worried that we’d have problems checking in, but as soon as I opened the glass door, I saw two sets of keys and welcome notes waiting for us on the counter.

After settling into our small rooms, we decided to get back in the car and attempt to see Hvitserkur under the Northern Lights. Near-blizzard conditions didn’t help our quest, and driving along the pockmarked road leading to the iconic stone structure was taxing, especially for two guys who had been traveling for so long. It was definitely an adventure though, so no regrets.

Day 2 – When it was time to leave the lodge, the snow had turned to sleet and the morning sun was helping the thaw. It made for a much more ‘pleasant’ drive to Hvitserkur than the previous night.

Once we made it, we ignored the signs and the line of cars at the top of the hill and we parked right by a paused construction site adjacent to the overlook. Others soon followed suit. It seems they’re working on fixing up this relatively well-known tourist attraction in a part of the country that many visitors choose to ignore.

After taking some photos of the basalt beast from the overlook, we went our different ways to reach the shoreline. The black sand was littered with broken blue mussel shells that I regret not photographing. But the sleet had turned to rain, and it was practically impossible to keep our lenses dry.

I climbed back up the muddy hillside, keeping my gear clean at the expense of my clothes. All in all, we spent more than an hour at Hvitserkur, but we would have stayed even longer if the weather had been more agreeable.

We were back on the road and hungry after braving the elements. Lunch was served from the trunk of the car: cold-cut sandwiches, chips and juice. Since we were on a tight schedule and had a lot to see, these quick meals were our main source of sustenance for the duration of the trip. I highly recommend the smoked lamb (hangikjöt).

There wasn’t time for many stops on the way to our next location, at least nothing too far from the main roads. We pulled over a few times to take pictures of whatever grabbed our attention, but we were tired and needed rest.

We checked into nicer rooms at Hotel Akureyri and and got ready for dinner – a short walk to a place serving fresh fish and chips that I wish I could have right now!

Akureyri is a quaint fishing town in the north where whale watching tours set off from. Less than 20,000 people live there, but it’s Iceland’s second largest urban center outside of Reykjavik. On another trip, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time in the town, taking some pictures, and maybe catching one of those tours.

Day 3 – We headed straight for Godafoss in the morning. It was the most crowded site we’d visited so far, but that didn’t stop us from spending nearly two hours there. It was a good day to fly the drone too – the weather had finally started to improve.

Once we were done with the Waterfall of the Gods, we continued driving east in search of springs and geysers. On our way to Namaskardh, we caught site of an impressive crater from a distance. Thinking it might be filled with water, we set out to find it.

After an hour or two, we finally pulled up at the foot of the volcano. Hverfjall didn’t seem quite as impressive up close as it had been from afar. We debated whether or not to hike up to the top. I pulled out the drone to do some recon… and nearly lost it in the process. After seeing the video feed, we wisely decided to keep it moving.

We got to the steaming springs of Namaskardh as the sun was starting to set. Luckily, that’s a long process in April, but the road was calling, so when we were done taking pictures and breathing sulphur, we moved along.

Our next stop was the Icelandair Hotel in Herad. The rooms were the nicest and most spacious of the trip. We ate a couple more sandwiches there before calling it a night.

Day 4 – The plan was to spend the whole day exploring Iceland’s eastern fjords. We set out relatively early in the morning and began moving north along the jagged coastline.

Since we had to head south eventually, we didn’t want to go all the way up to Seydisfjordur, but while we were going in that direction, a mural in a small village caught our attention. We pulled over and took a few pictures and did some exploring.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Reydarfjördur is where the show Fortitude was filmed. It seemed eerily quiet at first, but as I approached the local church (lots of those all over Iceland), I could hear a service in session. By the time we got ready to move on, the service had ended and a small stream of people trickled out into the street.

After some marginally successful lighthouse hunting further north, we turned around and headed south passing by a quiet Reydarfjördur on the way south.

If you can see your surroundings, the drive along the eastern coast line is supposed to be spectacular. Unfortunately, the visibility was horrible that day. It was overcast and there was a constant drizzle of rain or snow that sometimes grew stronger.  We kept going.

Eventually a big black house in Teigarhorn caught our attention and we pulled in for our longest stop of the day. Currently managed by the country’s National Museum, the farmhouse was once the home of a couple that had 14 children. Four of them died in a boating accident. Another one used to study photography and there are plans to rebuild the photo workroom that she’d built there. We spent over an hour taking it all in.

Our next destination was Stokksnes where, among other things, there are stunning views of the mountains and surrounding water. Like so many of Iceland’s tourist attractions, it sits on private land. Unlike most of Iceland’s landowners, this one charges a small fee.

It was snowing so hard by the time we pulled up to his farm that we turned back and kept driving until we reached Hótel Höfn. It was late and the kitchen was closing, but luckily we were able to have a nice dinner in the lobby restaurant – our first proper meal of the trip. I can’t stress how good that salmon and cod tasted!

Day 5 – Our mission: the glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Our problem: the weather was still horrible. But all things considered, we had little choice but to press ahead.

The road conditions were less than ideal at first. But just as we got closer to our destination, the sky started opening up. When we reached the bridge leading to this incredible place, the weather had improved considerably.

Jökulsárlón means glacial river lagoon. Over the years, climate change has literally turned that lagoon into a lake. As the nearby glacier melts away, the shoreline turns into an ever-changing trail of icebergs in varying shades of blue and white. It makes for quite the spectacle. So we ended up spending more than four hours there.

At one point the sun was out and I may have momentarily taken off my jacket. But eventually the cloud cover came back and reminded us where we were.

The next stop was by far the coldest of the whole trip. Breidamerkurjökull is the glacier that keeps receding and to form the icebergs that make up Jökulsárlón. The wind at the edge was bone-chilling and strong enough to blow away a small child. We practiced our leaning walk and returned to the car as quickly as possible.

Although we failed to find a nice place to photograph the sunset, we were still happy as we made our way to the Icelandair Hotel in Klaustur. While checking in, the guy at the front desk asked if we wanted wakeup calls. We gratefully accepted, but kept our expectations low – the forecast was not looking too promising for the evening.

Just as I was falling asleep around midnight, the phone in my room rang. I got up and knocked on my friend’s door who’d also gotten the call. There had been a sighting.

I’d been told that we could see them from the back of the hotel, but that wasn’t good enough. We took a short drive to get away from streetlights, and in hopes of finding some decent foreground. We managed to find darkness, but then the dancing aurora borealis forced us to stop in our tracks. I’m sure that by local standards, there was nothing special about that night, but to first-timers like us, those Northern Lights were magical.

Although it was the least varied day of the trip, it was easily the best. It didn’t hurt that I had some amazing arctic char at a restaurant somewhere along the way!

Day 6 – Life is full of balance. Maybe that’s why the best day of the trip was followed by the worst. It started with some technical difficulties that I won’t bother getting into… but let’s just say things got off to a rocky start and lots of time was wasted.

After an unsuccessful stop at one of the canyons by our hotel, we started making our way towards Vik. It was later than we would have liked and we didn’t have a chance to get a proper feel for the place. There were many reasons for that.

Iceland’s southern section is far more popular than the north, and after spending five days in virtual solitude, the swarms of tourists in Vik were a little too much to take.

We pulled up at a gas station to fill up (something that costs twice as much as in the US). I needed to use the restroom but was immediately turned back by the massive hordes that had descended from the buses nearby.

As we were leaving, I managed to take one of my favorite shots of the trip.

We checked out the black sand beaches before going on to chase waterfalls. The trail leading up to the first one on our list was closed. So Svartifoss would have to wait.

But we did make it over to Skógafoss and joined hundreds of others under the rain to witness one of the country’s iconic falls. When the rain had finally let up, a couple rainbows streaked across the stream. If only all the people would have disappeared!

Since it’s another one of Iceland’s best known waterfalls, we knew that Seljalandsfoss was going to be just as bad, if not worse. Luckily someone had recommended a ‘secret’ waterfall nearby that most tourists still don’t know about. It was well worth the hike.

After a while, we’d had enough of waterfalls and we made our way to Hotel Borealis. The lady at the front desk scoffed when I asked her if we were likely to see the Northern Lights again that night. She claimed the forecast was not looking right.

We had a good dinner at the hotel despite some exceptionally negligent table service that practically ruined the experience. It was my first time eating properly cooked Icelandic lamb, and I was very pleased with that. But I think I had a Kit-Kat for dessert in the room.

Before calling it a night, we checked the scene outside and were pleased to see it contradicting the hotel receptionist. So we got layered up and headed back outside for 90 minutes under the aurora borealis. I was growing numb to the cold.

Day 7 – As soon as we left the hotel, we headed towards Kerid. We had passed by the crater the previous day and paid our only entrance fee of the trip, but the lighting was horrible so the young man at the booth agreed to let us return the following day for free.

It was nice walking around the ring of the crater, but the whole experience would have been better if we had arrived an hour earlier. Nevertheless, it was well worth it.

Our next stop was Thingvellir National Park. I didn’t realize it at the time but the park is part of Iceland’s Golden Circle, which I had been told is a bit overrated. I didn’t see enough to pass judgement myself, but it didn’t take long to realize why so many tourists base their whole vacations out of Reykjavik – there’s a lot to see nearby.

We drove and walked around a little bit until it was lunchtime. Once again, the throngs of tourists were something we couldn’t tolerate for long. We ate the last sandwiches of our trip in peace on the banks of lake Thingvallavatn. Then we kept going west.

Anyone who’s heard anything about Iceland knows about the Blue Lagoon. The tourist trap wasn’t high on our agenda, so we skipped it. But we did do a drive by so we could get a sense of the area and take pictures.

If I had been traveling with my girlfriend or wife, I might have made it a point to stop by the man-made lagoon, but I would have been more keen to check out the smaller and lesser known springs scattered around the country. Maybe next time.

The last night of the trip would be spent at Hotel Keflavik. We checked in sometime in the afternoon and left a couple hours later. We were finally on our way to the capital.

We’d seen Reykjavik in the distance upon our arrival but we had decided to save it for our last day. Unfortunately, we got there just as the sun was setting. By the time we reached the Church of Hallgrímskirkja, it was already getting dark. It was also freezing.

A friend of mine who lives in the city had recommended that we have dinner at Matarkjallarinn; I’m glad we took her up on that suggestion. Once again I had lamb, and once again I was very satisfied. I hope to return.

Once dinner was done, we met with a friend’s cousin on Laugavegur Street. It was a nice way to cap off the trip. Not only were we hanging out with locals in a relaxed environment, but all three of them seemed like great people. The only reason we didn’t spend more time with them was the optimistic aurora forecast we had seen earlier.

As we were reminded on countless occasions, the weather is unpredictable. It started to get cloudy that evening and we thought hope might be lost. Then, just as we were getting closer to Keflavik, there was a glimmer in the sky. So it was that we saw three consecutive nights of Northern Lights… even if the last night was the weakest.

We made it back to our hotel less than four hours before we needed to head out again. Luckily I had packed earlier that afternoon and set multiple alarms. I contemplated pulling an all nighter before passing out on the bed.

Day 8 – Our departing flight would be boarding exactly one week after we walked out into the Iceland air. There was a storm approaching though, and we pondered the prospect of being forced to stay longer as we made our way to the airport.

Things began to look even more ominous upon our arrival. We were expecting it to be just as smooth on the way out as it was on the way in, but the densely packed lines of people inside the airport did not look good.

After a short panic inside, I was relieved to know that we didn’t need to stand in any crazy lines. We ended up getting to our gate after going through the same procedures that have become customary for anyone traveling to the US. But it wasn’t so bad. I want to say it was smoother than usual, but I can’t recall all the specifics.

What I do remember is the bittersweet feeling of leaving. It’s always nice to go home after any trip. But sometimes it’s just as nice to extend that getaway for as long as you possibly can. Iceland is a tempting place to do precisely that, and although that wasn’t what happened this time around, I hope to return at least twice – once in the summer, and again in the winter. There are many other wonders that I look forward to seeing.

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