Iceland's Ring Road
An adventure by camper-van. A land that showcases the tremendous powers of nature as if it were a giant art gallery. A land with more sheep than people. A land that is said to be secretly inhabited by invisible elves and mountain trolls. These are all things I did not expect when I visited Iceland in August, 2018.
As our University graduation gift to ourselves, my friend and I decided to fly to this mysterious land and drive the much talked about Ring Road. This is a popular option for visitors who are wanting to see more of the country than beyond the famed “Golden Circle” (three wildly natural attractions that lie close to the country’s capital, Rejkjavic; the geyser, Thingvellir National Park, and Gullfoss Waterfalls). The Ring Road links the North, South, West, and East parts of the country. Each area of Iceland is entirely unique and provides a handful of spectacular sights to behold. Many travellers opt to self-drive to these sights, spend nights at the numerous designated campsites along the way, or choose a hostel or Inn in remote towns.
Our rented camper-van was perfect for two, and was well-equipped with a “sleeping room” in the back featuring a pull-down double bed, an overnight heating system, sleeping bags, optional WiFi, camping gas, kitchenware, a small fold-out table and chairs. Although many taking on the Ring Road can do so in 7 days, I would recommend dedicating at least 10-14 days to allow for the SEVERAL stops you will want to make along the way. Bad-weather days are characteristic to Iceland, which may delay your sightseeing. Or, a volcano may erupt underneath a host glacier, causing floods along the country’s only highway. And yes, this did happen to us.
After a long night spent fully exploring Reykjavik (and taking advantage of the country’s midnight sun!), we set off on our adventure. In an effort to keep this blog-post short, I will distill to name only the highlights of each “region” of Iceland.
Rejkjavic: Kex Hostel, which had the most lively bar and microbrewery I've ever seen in Europe, and attracted a younger crowd. Hallgrímskirkja Church. Whale watching (with the added bonus of puffins!). The Harpa concert hall, an architectural feat. The Blue Lagoon. And lastly... Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand – famously claimed to be the best hot dogs in Europe. These hotdogs are made of Icelandic lamb, pork, or beef, and are topped with raw onions, crispy onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade – the Icelandic way.
South: Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon – potentially the most breathtaking sight I have seen in my life, to this date. Skógafoss – a waterfall you can dance around the base off, amidst the mist and rainbows. Kerid Crater – a volcanic crater lake.
West: Barnafoss (“Children’s Falls”) and Hraunfossar (“Lava Waterfalls”). Hraunfossar was probably my favourite waterfall in the whole trip. Snorkelling between the tectonic plates (Silfra) in Thingvellir National Park. Geysir Geothermal Area (home of great geothermal activity). Gullfoss – a powerful waterfall contrasted by rainbows.
North: Akureyri – Iceland’s fourth largest municipality, and a worthwile stop on the way; known for its fishing ports. Goðafoss – waterfall of the gods. Dettifoss – said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe (and after seeing it, I definitely believe it!).
East: Vatnajökull National Park – covers 14% of all of Iceland, but many parts of it can only be accessed by a 4x4 vehicle or by helicopter. Jökulsárlón – a large, glacial lake, see glaciers, ice bergs, and sealions! Svartifoss – “black waterfall” – which rests on a geometric rock face.
To this date, if I were to pick one word to describe Iceland, it would be “alien”. Whenever the country comes up in conversation, I adamantly try to convince the other person to go visit. There is truly no area in the world quite like it!
Disclaimers about Iceland:
- Even if you are camping, expect to pay more than you might expect, at least $400 on gas alone. Meals in restaurants are high, and groceries are also costly. I recommend you shop at Bònus – a popular budget grocery store.
- This will not be a culinary adventure. Iceland is known for many things, but food is not one of them. Try some of the country’s unique foods - pick up Skyr for your travels (a healthy Icelandic yoghurt, my favourite Icelandic find!), harðfiskur (salty fish jerky), and if you’re really brave, hákarl (fermented shark). I can’t promise you will like them!
- This is not your vacation to the Bahamas. Despite visiting in early August, the warmest weather we experienced was 14C... and that day was described to us as a “rare delight” by locals. We were blessed with “good weather”, which meant it didn’t rain for 5 out of 10 days we traveled. Bring sweaters, layers, and your best windproof and waterproof rainjacket.
- You may not meet many locals. Sitting at a population of only 350,000, there are almost 3 times more sheep than people traversing Iceland. You’ll find that most people you encounter working in tourism are vacationing from other European countries, working in Iceland seasonally. You will find mostly tourists circling the Ring Road. If you love the social aspects of travel, it is still a lovely country to meet travellers around the world. Take advantage of summer season’s midnight sun, extending the capital’s bustling nightlife.
-Take photos. Iceland is a photographer’s dream come true! Bring an extra memory card, camera battery, and as much photography gear you can handle.
All of these disclaimers are not meant to discourage you from travelling there, but instead, to understand there is NOTHING quite like this trip. It is a very different country, with a very unique set of experiences to offer. Once you understand what Iceland is, and what it isn’t, decide if you are up for the adventure... and GO!