Turning dreams into plans
The Ring Road – Þjóðvegur 1 (National Road 1) – is the Icelandic road trip every Iceland fan dreams of. It’s an 820-mile (1,322 km) highway circling the country. VisitIceland and Rick Steves both say you can do it in seven days as a minimum; if you’re planning, see Driving Iceland’s Ring Road: All You Need to Know : Nordic Visitor. My brother and sister-in-law (Ron and Jo) were joining me for a vacation of ten days, starting before my birthday and ending after their anniversary, and were renting a car. My brother put no limits on his willingness to drive and explore. But as you’ll read, we did not make this a full Ring Road trip.
For the last four years or so, I’d been determined to spend my 70th birthday riding Icelandic horses, in Iceland, where I longed to return. Last fall, when Jo heard my intentions, she said she’d love to do that. Her turn to choose their vacation, luckily. Not only does she love horses, but all wildlife, so the chance to see whales and puffins added to the appeal.
Þjóðhátíð, like Heaven, must wait
I’ve dreamed of getting to Þjóðhátíð, the national festival on the Westmann Islands, and the 2023 dates were during our stay! Exciting opportunity! I hate crowds, am not much for popular music, but the atmosphere of this festival fascinates me. I would love to experience it. This blog post from Wilderness Coffee and Natural High will clue you in.
Exceptionally, I’ll listen to and like things in another language that I’d never abide in English. Check out my youtube playlist of Icelandic songs from the 50s till now, in a wide range of styles, that I’ve used to advance my Icelandic; songs are super for learning or teaching languages. The first on the playlist has been a theme song of the festival. (I’ve just added the song Vinátta to the list, because it repeatedly lets you hear the pronunciation of the the festival name.)
I’d thought I’d borrow camping equipment from a Danish friend and take it back afterwards …. But now we were three, and Ron and Jo were not up for sleeping out, and there was nowhere left to book. I imagine you must get lodging a year or even several years ahead. I could have gone on my own. But my brother and I have not had a vacation together as adults, and I thought our road trip would give me experiences I wouldn’t have any other time, and that it would be more meaningful than any festival experience no matter how cool. Turned out to be absolutely right.
Anybody want to join me for Þjóðhátíð in, maybe, 2025 or 2026? Let me hear from you! Or should I make that my 75th birthday goal? Hmm. Maybe 73rd is a better idea; why chance waiting? Whenever, will have to be the simplest and cheapest visit possible, but I will keep hoping.
Plans turn into bookings
Next plan. My suggestion was to forego driving the entire Ring Road. Not that we couldn’t have, but we’d want time for riding (several times!), for whale-watching tours, for detours and exploring whatever caught our eyes. I didn’t think the pressure of having to get back to Keflavik on a fixed date only 9 days off would let us feel as free and relaxed as one wishes on vacation.
Also, you know Iceland is very sparsely populated; there is not an abundance of lodging. It’s not a place where you can just find a room for the night if you didn’t plan ahead; outside Reykjavik, for summer, MONTHS ahead and possibly a year. The Ring Road seems to me to be best for campers.
I suggested flying to Akureyri on arrival. Flights are frequent and cheap. They’re from the national airport which is by the bus station that your Keflavik airport transfer will bring you to, so you do have to transfer, but it’s easy. We could have rides along the northern fjords, go whale-watching, explore the coast and Mývatn. Then, back in Reykjavik, we could make day trips around the south.
Ron was game to drive both ways instead, taking the western leg of the Ring Road and allowing some detours. We did keep the idea of lodging just in the two towns. Jo took my list of suggestions of things to see and do in Iceland, did her research and booked us a fantastic vacation. I outline it here as a sample of what you can manage to do in this amount of time. Since we liked everything about the trip, this is also a page of recommendations, peppered with links, of course!
I can’t not point out that Iceland is a very expensive destination. Lodging can be somewhat reasonable, about like any capital city even in a hamlet or village, but restaurants are high. Happily, so is the quality. Outstanding food and museums … and to my great surprise, Ron and Jo made everything we did that week a birthday treat. I was overwhelmed when Jo told me that at our first dinner. Am I the luckiest person you’ve come across?
A ride before hitting the road
I got to Reykjavik before Ron and Jo, spent three nights in a 52-bed dorm in the grungiest hostel ever, and got to have a ride with Eldhestar – something I did not want to risk missing. They’re southeast of the city, near Hveragerði, a town known for its geothermally heated greenhouses and its springs, earthquakes, and craftsmen. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a car, as Eldhestar will pick up and drop off in Reykjavik with no extra charge. My post about that day is Eldhestar and Fálki!
Our road trip
We headed north and made a detour of some hours around the southern part of Snæfellsnes Peninsula where we enjoyed our first whale sightings just from the coastal cliffs. There is dramatic scenery on this peninsula, from the glacier over the volcano to the rocky coast. Follow the Day 1 title link to learn about this area.
After a long day on the road, we were ready for a very good dinner. Múlaberg Bistro and Bar in Hotel Kea looked upscale and proved to be outstanding. They call their menu “Nútímaleg frönsk-norræn matargerð / Modern French-Nordic cuisine.”
The event of the day was a whale and puffin sighting tour in Skjálfandi Bay, starting from Húsavík. Gentle Giants took us out in a RIB speedboat after we donned the provided waterproof overalls. First pause, Puffin Island. After that, we chased whales – seeing a good number of minke whales, many quite close, and a number of white-beaked dolphins as well.
After a couple of hours out on the water and in the fresh air, we asked for a lunch recommendation and found this delightful spot. Ron went with seafood soup, Jo with fish and chips, and I took sauteed fish. Super delicious.
We had a delightfully indulgent day at Mývatn Nature Baths, with cocktails from the swim-up bar in the geothermically heated lagoon, a steam room, and a simple lunch on the patio. On the way back to Akureyri, we stopped at splendid Goðafoss, a 30-meter-wide waterfall on the river Skjálfandafljót.
We’d had a light, late lunch at Mývatn Nature Baths. Back in Akureyri, we chose a simple place . With a few hitches, we ended up with decent dinners. None of us was inspired to take a photo; the restaurant view is from The Official Travel Guide to Akureyri, https://www.visitakureyri.is/en/see-and-do/eat-drink/bautinn
We took a ride – Jo’s first in Iceland – with Pólar Hestar based by Grenivík. The fjord views, the sky, the trails around the hills were marvelous. We liked our young guides, on break from school or work in France and Denmark (and surely a few other countries). The ride was a delight, and afterwards we were treated to hot beverages and cake at picnic tables at the farm. Lovely, happy experience, and we would both recommend the riding tours here.
We’d had our eye on this but it wasn’t open early in the week. After riding, Jo and I were more than ready for wine and good food! This new spot created by a young team was a delight, with an unusual wine list and a small menu of tasty dishes.
We headed back to the capital but this time our long stop was in the town of Borgarnes, where I noticed a sign for a museum called The Settlement Center. It had fun and informative exhibits on the settlement of Iceland and Egil’s Saga: Landnáms-og Egilssýningar. A stop worth making, no question. We each bought a few things from their gift shop as well. We didn’t get photos of the museum; not remarkable from outside, exhibits too close up and a bit crowded for photos inside. I snitched a gift shop view from their website. All in the aim of showing the place off.
We were too late for the lunch buffet at the Settlement Center. We’d enjoyed breakfast at Bláa Kannan Cafe before leaving Akureyri, so hadn’t been in a hurry to find lunch. But now we were ready to eat, and the place was so charming, we quickly decided it was the spot.
Another ride for Jo and me, this time with Sólhestar. We took the 2.5-hour Red Lava Tour. We didn’t meet owners or management, and the guides were young Germans, so we couldn’t learn about the place; the horses didn’t look like prime examples and we wondered about their story. After a stretch all together, the guides separated those who wanted a fast ride and those who didn’t, and Jo and I went separate ways. We were both happy with the experience, and as always here, the fascinating scenery.
I’d found this online, but couldn’t find it on the street. Went into a store to ask and was told it was in Hlemmur Mathöll, a food hall by the bus station. That sounded discouraging, but the young woman said she loves the atmosphere there and the restaurant we had in mind was superb. Fingers crossed. Oh, were we happy. Food was outstanding. And we had so much fun with the bartender. You notice what she’s mixing is not what you see us drinking? We had quite a night at the bar!
First stop, Kringlan, the largest mall in Reykjavik, second in the country to a mall in Kópavogur, just to the south. Then we were back downtown to the pedestrian street, checking out clothes, crafts, art and souvenirs. We made our way to Sandholt for pastries to sustain us – and have for the morrow’s breakfast. On the way back, we stopped at Hallgrimskirkja and had the luck of entering when a young organist was practicing, so we sat and enjoyed the music a while.
Strolling along Laugavegur again, enjoying the shops, we looked for a lunch spot. Ron was in the mood for pizza, and Rossopomodoro hit the spot. Expensive pizza … but this is Iceland. We all agreed the crust was one of the best anywhere, and toppings were indeed tops.
Ron & Jo’s anniversary. They started with The Icelandic Phallological Museum, then picked me up to visit Perlan Nature Museum together, where they lunched; I fasted this day. Perlan was fantastic, with exhibits covering sea life, birds and other wildlife, volcanoes, glaciers and ice caves, springs and rivers, trees and mosses, and the Northern Lights. Outstanding exhibits and more information than one can take in. Afterwards we drove the coastal road and stopped for pictures of Jon Gunnar Arnason’s ‘Solfar’ or ‘Sun Voyager’ sculpture on the waterfront.
Ron & Jo had a date night at the restaurant they’d enjoyed their first night in town, before we met up Sunday morning for our road trip.
As we had a car, we could enjoy seeing Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss at our own pace. How stunning Iceland’s waterfalls are!
We wanted something different and went to the harbor area to try Forréttabarinn, which looks like quite a casual bar, but in fact has an outstanding kitchen. Though the menu is small and some items weren’t available, the flavors were exquisite. I don’t know why we didn’t take more photos – probably because after all the sights that day, we were ‘clicked-out.’
We went to the airport very early, leaving time for returning the car and for lunch in high style as a perfect finish: a Danish-style spot with tablecloths, good cocktails and many special akvavits / brennivín / schnapps. Jómfrúin’s original restaurant in Reykjavik would surely be a good place to drink and dine.
What did we miss?
Well, of course, the East Fjords, the southern and eastern coasts, and lots of towns! There is a lot to see in Iceland. You could easily fill four to six weeks taking the Ring Road and detouring to peninsulas, beaches, and interior mountains as well, while visiting all the towns and all the churches. Not to mention, the Westmann Islands.
Once upon a time, I was enthused about the possibility of snorkeling in the Continental Rift. I thought on this trip, Ron could get a thrill diving there, and Jo and I could snorkel. The Silfra Fissure is at Þingvellir National Park – site of the first Alþing (national assembly) in Iceland, around 930 – so I knew we’d get there. But then we read all the details: warnings, that is. For such cold water, you need a serious dry suit (tour operators will provide that) and then you have quite a challenging slog. None of us felt we could handle it, much less enjoy it. So sad.
On the other hand, in 2012 I went to a concert at the marvelous then-new concert and meeting facility (several concert halls, can’t just say it is a hall) on Reykjavik’s waterfront, called Harpa. The architecture and the materials used in the building are fascinating, and the evening was a delight. I would very much like to go to a concert there again, but there was nothing going on that fit into this trip.
My wish list, if I can return
- A multi-day riding tour; probably with Eldhestar (which was my original birthday plan), but possibly Pólar Hestar
- an opera or classical concert at Harpa
- a solo or ensemble performance by the tenor Gissur Páll Gissurarsson
- a swim in a geothermically heated lap pool, as I enjoyed in Hveragerði in 2012 (with snowflakes falling on my face!)
I found an interesting page with a video series on the Icelandic sagas. Haven’t seen them yet, but am sharing the link with fair confidence that it’s worthwhile.