It might not be the most groundbreaking revelation for me to tell you that Iceland is very, very cold. But there it is. It’s freezing. The icy wind feels like it’s blowing in directly from a glacier, and the air is so fresh that, after so long in London, I stepped off the plane and felt like I was breathing clean air for the first time in years. Which is all rather dramatic, but I imagine a face full of pure Icelandic air would have that effect on anyone. As we bundled up in our thick down coats, pulled up our hoods and headed out to find our hire car, I also began to regret the fact that all my jeans have holes in the knees.
Driving into Reykjavik from the airport is as good an introduction as any to the incredibly bleak and wild landscape of the island. The vast rocky terrain looks flat, endless and inhospitable, but then you come across some low, red roofed farm buildings, or a tiny nordic church with bright green panels, and the whole thing looks like it could be on a Christmas card. It’s very impressive. Abi and I barrelled along the gently curving roads in our little hire car, just staring out of the windows and trying to take everything in. (Although, in the interests of accuracy, I should note that Abi was mostly keeping her eyes on the road, and I was staring out the window, playing a lot of old Jamie T songs and yelling ‘best road trip ever!!!’)
We had booked an Air BnB about ten minutes from the centre of the city, where we were greeted by our host and able to spend a short time recovering from all of the fresh air that we had inhaled. It was quite late in the evening when we arrived, so we walked to the local supermarket to stock up on pasta and fresh veg, made a quick dinner and then drove into Reykjavik to wander around. We had been warned that Iceland is a very expensive country, and we were shocked by some of the supermarket prices (we spent about £7 on a small bag of cheese), but by using the kitchen in our Air BnB and making big pasta dishes that we took with us for lunch, we really kept our costs down. Peeking at the menu boards of the restaurants we walked past in the city, this turned out to be a pretty good move, as two-course meals start at around £50.
It was dark by the time we arrived in the city, and almost eerily quiet. We explored a few touristy shops and walked past lots of bars and restaurants, watched ducks on the lake and wandered the neat, well-kept streets. Apparently, the kids in Reykjavik don’t stop partying until the small hours on weekend nights, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that they don’t start partying until almost midnight, preferring to drink in their own homes to save on the astronomical price of alcohol in clubs and bars. I’m all for this idea, but it does leave the city feeling weirdly empty in the evenings.
The next day we set off unreasonably early to drive the ‘Golden Circle’ (Abi repeatedly tells me that 7am is a normal time to wake up, but I never hear her because I am too busy trying to go back to sleep with my head underneath a pillow) The Golden Circle takes in geysirs, waterfalls and hiking trails, and covers miles and miles of incredible landscape. It is also wildly popular with tourists, and so we chose to drive out to the furthest point first and then make our way back towards Reykjavik, stopping at the usual stops in reverse order, hoping to miss the worst of the coaches, crowds and tour groups. This (and our ridiculously early start) meant that we had the road almost to ourselves, and were able to pull over every now and then and jump out of the car to enjoy insane views and get blown around by the very strong winds.
As we drove further into the interior the landscape changed from flat rocky plains (‘this is kind of like the peak district’) to fields and farm buildings (‘this is very Nordic’) to mountains, lakes and black lava rock formations (‘this is Middle Earth’). Eventually we made it to Gullfoss, a huge waterfall which cascades between two rock faces, throwing up clouds of white foam and perpetually watering the valley with a fine mist, leaving the surrounding area incredibly green and fertile. The fall is impressive because of its size, but it’s also beautiful and kind of mesmerising to watch as the water thunders down with such insane speed and power. Iceland is a place where you are expecting to see an amazing waterfall around every corner, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Hundreds of years ago, when the fall wasn’t as large as it is now, a power company offered to buy it from the farmer who owned the land, and he famously replied ‘I will not sell my friend’. It might seem like a strange thing to say about a massive waterfall, but I do understand what he meant. Gullfoss feels like a living creature which is as much a part of the wild landscape as the Icelandic ponies or the hunched, windswept sheep.
It was a bright and sunny day, although still bitterly cold, and we headed back along the route that we had come, this time stopping at the site of the geysirs (gay-zeers), a large rocky area filled with geothermal springs and cut through with small streams of steaming water, which look pretty appealing until you see the signs warning that the water is hotter than 100 degrees. Abi didn’t like the geysir field at all because she was always expecting to be boiled alive by an eruption of extremely hot sulphurous water, but the geysirs are actually pretty well marked and fenced off and even the little pools of bubbling geothermal activity would be quite hard to accidentally fall into. There’s a ‘small’ geysir which erupts reliably every 8-10 minutes, and the ‘Great Geysir’ (after which all other geysirs are named) which hasn’t erupted for about 10 years (and as a result makes you feel like you should never turn your back on it as nobody is quite sure exactly what it will do next.)
The ‘small’ geysir creates a great deal of excitement, and it’s pretty funny to watch a crowd of tourists waiting patiently behind a cordon, camera phones in hand, all staring intently at a small hole in the ground. Of course, Abi and I eagerly began staring at the hole in the ground too, and joined in the collective speculation of when it was going to go. Every time the geysir bubbles or steams a little more than normal everybody gasps and points and gets very excited, so by the time it actually does erupt, shooting a jet of steaming water 40 metres into the air which then evaporates in a cloud of white steam, the crowd is in a frenzy. It’s all very entertaining and the geysir itself is incredible to watch – we waited around for twenty minutes or so and watched it erupt several times, carefully keeping down wind to avoid being drenched.
On the way back to Reykjavik we took a detour to visit a deep crater with a lake at the bottom (where a Japanese couple were inexplicably having their wedding photos taken in a white dress and tux and everything…), and hiked around Pingvellir, the ancient seat of the Icelandic parliament. It’s a very impressive place with a waterfall and lots of imposing rock formations, and it was fun to imagine that I was freezing my knees off in the place where Vikings once held court. Iceland is situated over the border of two tectonic plates, and Pingvellir is one of the places where you can actually walk in valleys which were created by the movement of these plates.
Back in Reykjavik we made the most of some daylight hours to explore some more, and after finding out how hard is to park in Reykjavik, and how determinedly Abi will go after a parking space after she spots one (it’s very impressive), we enjoyed views of the lake and walked up the hill to the iconic, unusually shaped cathedral. The view from the top is apparently amazing, but we were so exhausted from all the fresh air and frolicing around that we barely had the energy to walk around the building at ground level before taking a quick peek inside (it is of the minimalist design which I love), and then taking a seat on a bench outside to enjoy the sun and watch other tourists jump around and lie on the ground, trying to get the best shots of themselves in front of the massive building.
I should probably admit at this point that the whole reason I wanted to go to Iceland in the first place is because many years ago I saw on Instagram a selfie that somebody had taken in the Blue Lagoon. I looked at that selfie and I thought ‘I want to take a selfie in the Blue Lagoon, too’. So after a night of sleep, I was actually excited, for once, to get up at a ridiculously early hour and head out to the Blue Lagoon, selfie stick in hand.
The Blue Lagoon is actually much more man-made than most people think. It’s a geothermally heated lake (glamorously created by the activities of a local power plant) which has been smoothed and developed into a luxurious pool, complete with a restaurant, spa and changing rooms. It’s undeniably touristy and not quite the wilderness oasis that you see on Instagram (it’s all about the angles) but it’s still breathtakingly beautiful and it was probably the highlight of our trip. Once you’ve navigated the confusing locker system and the showers and you’ve found somewhere to hang your towel, there’s just a short dash out into the freezing air and then you can sink into 40 degrees of blissfully warm water. We arrived at 9am, so the early morning sunlight was slanting across the lagoon, picking up the white tendrils of steam that rise out of the hot water into the cold air, and making us feel like we really were in a lagoon in the middle of nowhere. We floated around, wading through the mist to explore the two large pools and finding little secluded spots amongst the rocks, trying out the silica mud face masks and standing under the powerful waterfall which is supposed to be good for aching muscles.
I had bought a waterproof case for my phone because I knew I’d want to take a lot of pictures, and although it probably would have been fine without, I’m glad I did just so that I didn’t have to worry about getting it wet (and also because when I put Abi in charge of holding the phone she had a habit of forgetting and dunking it under the water…)
Once we’d finally left the Blue Lagoon, we fought the urge to curl up and nap all afternoon and instead drove out to the end of the Reykjanesbaer peninsula and found a small village with a sweet lighthouse and tiny, brightly coloured houses that looked like they were straight out of a toy town.
Our time in Iceland was short but we loved every second of it. It’s an incredibly beautiful country – the landscape is just amazing and I really couldn’t get enough of the fresh air and cold, windy weather.
We got a lot of great recommendations before we went, so I’m passing on the favour with a few tips of my own:
- If you can, hire a car. It’s possible to see The Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon with a tour group, but if you are able to hire your own car, it’s worth it to be able to go where and when you want to (and avoid the crowds!)
- Book the Blue Lagoon ahead of time. It’s easy to do online and will save you waiting around if it’s busy
- Stay somewhere with a kitchen. Even if you want to eat out most of the time, it’s great to have a place where you could prepare your own breakfasts and the odd dinner so that you’re not totally reliant on pricey restaurant options
- Don’t try to do too much all in one day. I don’t know if it’s all that fresh air I keep banging on about but we found ourselves quickly getting exhausted from all the running around. Give yourself some time to take it easy and to really enjoy the amazing scenery
- Get yourself a killer playlist. Okay, so this one isn’t exactly essential, but this is going to be one of the most epic road trips of your life – you might as well make the most of it!