Back in August 2018 I did a spontaneous tour through Iceland. It was one of the best trips of my life. Since I have been asked ever since about recommendations, here the recap, all with itineraries and times:
Being at the end of a difficult personal journey and also torn about the future of my professional career, I decided to take a 5-week vacation for the full August 2018. Clear my head, take a step back, get my compass reoriented. In my fourth week (still in Germany) I realized that I was still missing something, a fresh experience, the deciding push, a symbol for a new start. While that sounds a bit dramatic, I really were in a very dark place back then, having fought my way back. And it was exactly this personal situation, that made me immediately resonate with an ad I saw on the internet: a 1-week caravan tour through Iceland. I have never been camping before and it was also really cheap, something around 600 Euro including flight and car.
Of course the ad was a scam, only valid for some late time in autumn. But I was hooked and with only 3 days left to book & plan I had my destination. Iceland has a very convenient layout for a traveler. It is a rather small island with the main attractions being very close to the shore. And there is a road, called the ring road, going all along the shore in a full circle. It is 1.332km long. I booked a flight with Iceland Air through Expedia for 454,- arriving Monday at 15:35 and leaving the next Sunday at 7:25 (in the morning). That gave me 5 full days. It meant driving around 200-300km a day, which I was personally fine with. As it turned out, I did a 400km leg in the middle (I’ll explain later) which gave me plenty of time each day to do at least 2 sights with no rush at all.
So purely from the calculations, it seemed a bit ambitious but doable. I booked a Dacia Dokker at Ku Ku Campers and stuffed it with all kinds of extras to save luggage weight in the plane (even a guitar) for a total of 739,-. You get asked some for me unfamiliar questions about insurance due to the volcanic nature of Iceland and the state of the roads. I just took the gravel protection (but didn’t need it in the end, nobody really checked) but it somehow felt good to have and yes, there is definitely gravel around everywhere.
On my final day I planned to stay in Reykjavik so I booked the cheapest (!) downtown Hostel I could find, which was Loft HI Hostel for 228,- (did I already say, that was the cheapest?). It is right in the center and a bus station to the airport is just up the next corner.
Like a puzzle, I now had the frame and was safe to go. It was time to fill it with contents. After some research I found the perfect website. There, one can book a self-driving tour which looks awesome (but out of my price range) and there is a map and description for each day, free to see for everyone. This was my key. It is scheduled for 8 days so I had to optimize it a bit but to be honest, I think I did like 95% of it in the end.
So with no further ado, here my itinerary:
- Arrival at airport 15:35
- Taxi to KuKu camper station to fetch the car. There was a very nice welcome and explanation of everything. The car felt a bit crappy initially but it had Bluetooth for my music and was a very reliable companion in the end.
- Grocery shopping at 18:00 right next to it
- Drive to Blue Lagoon for the 21:00-22:00 pre-booked slot, which was the last one I could book online. Everything was sold out. Would I recommend it? Not sure. It is super touristy, full of bus loads of people and really expensive. I payed 70,- dollars and it was nice and relaxing, but honestly, if you have a nice spa in your area, you know the experience already and there are other alternatives in Iceland later on the tour (Lake Myvatn).
- Arrive around 23:00 at Grindavik in the south to spend my first night in a camper. What an adventure. A nice elderly camping veteran lady gave me a quick intro into the basics.
- Rose early full with excitement (so far all had been dark on my tour due to the late arrival).
- Leave at 8:00 for the Golden Circle
- Drive 427 east, take 34 to Eyrarbakki and then north to Selfoss, which was my the starting point of the Golden Circle
- I took a quick peek at Kerid which is some sort of water-filled crate. Was nice but if in doubt – leave out.
- Went back the 35 and then drove around clock-wise to Pingvellir, where the tectonic plates meet. Walked around a bit and took photos but not super much too see there for my taste.
- Drove back but this time stayed north on 365 all the way to Gullfoss, which is a spectacular waterfall.
- Since I had booked the 12:00 snowmobile tour I went there first. They take you with a huge, slow, smelly Nato bus all the way to a station where you change to winter clothes which they hand you and then all the way to the Glacier. From there, I hopped onto my own snow-mobile and we did a tour. It lasted for around 3 hours and was an amazing experience for me. If you like quad cars and similar stuff, this is for you. I figured, where will I ever again in my life will have the chance to drive on a glacier. Felt like James Bond. One of my definite highlights.
- Now took an hour to walk around Gulfoss waterfall, take endless pictures and enjoy the atmosphere. Incredible!
- Next stop: Geysir. Just a few minutes back on the road that I came. Spent another hour there and was mesmerized by the spectacle.
- Leaving the circle now by driving back south and then the Ring Road to Seljalandsfoss for 30min. Really worth it. Right on the road and a beautiful walk behind (!) the waterfall.
- Around eight in the evening I got to Dyrholaey and spent 30 minutes there watching a beautiful sunset on a lonely cliff.
- Drove back around to Reynisfjara beach which is spectacular for its black beach. Really nice.
- Finally arrived at the campsite in Vik and spent the night after eating with some folks in the common reception area and reflecting on the first day. Did I really see all these things already? Wow. And there is so much more to come. Best decision ever to come here.
- Leaving at around 8 I arrived at Skaftafell national park shortly before 10, had breakfast in a very nice atmosphere there and then packed a light travel bag for a short hike. There are multiple routes to select from. They typically all lead to the waterfall and branch off from there.
- I had planned for a 2 hour hike but was irritated after an hour that I was nowhere going into some direction back to the parking lot and there was also nearly nobody around. As it turned out, I took the wrong turn and instead of doing the 3km tour, I did the 17km one. As a reminder: at the waterfall when facing it, RIGHT is the short tour, LEFT is the long one.
- After estimating the time (I had a glacier boat trip booked at 16:00) I decided I can make it with the 2 hours buffer I had factored in and went on. In hindsight I often refer to this day as one of the best and most inspiring mistakes I made in a long time. If you have the time, do the long tour. It leads you up to the mountain and presents a spectacular view over two glaciers and amazing scenery all along the way.
- The thing is, 2 hours buffer is a bit tight. In order to make my other tour that day, I was forced to jog a bit. To my surprise, the way down the mountain goes through a stone pit, which makes running nearly impossible. With some exhaustion I made it back, drove on to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and after around 10 minutes started the tour there. Awesome!
- I really liked the glacier boat tour. In a small boat, don’t forget to bring gloves and a tight hat because the boat is FAST and the wind COLD, I was shown all kinds of ice formations and heard some interesting stories.
- When back, go to the left to the beach, which is called Diamond Beach due to the ice being scattered there.
- It was around 18:00 now and the road ahead would lead me to the Eastfjords. It basically means you do lots of zig-zag driving along the water. I reached the first one and it is a great view. Admittedly, the second one kind of looks the same and then there is a third one and so on. Spontaneously I decided to give myself until 22:00, turned on my sing-along music and tried to get as far as possible, maybe even beyond the Fjords so that I can spend as much time as I can with some new impressions the next day.
- The road is rather slow but I really made it all the way up the island to the Tjaldstæði campsite in Reyðarfjörður which surprised with a super clean and comfortable shower, something that I really started to appreciate after that hiking day.
- Having saved all that time the day before I could pack my next day with some very cool stops. The first area was Namafjall Hvrerir (the turn to the left, not to the right). There one can find pseudo-craters and super hot steam coming out of the earth. I loved it. I had never seen such before in my life.
- Then I drove to Mt. Krafla right through a steam power plant and went around the lake on foot which was great due to the enormous wind. Without it, it would have been a bit dull maybe but still a nice scenery.
- Now came Lake Mývatn. I stopped at Dimmuborgir and walked around for a while but basically just made a big tour around the lake. If time permits, here is the chance to take a steam bath to much more reasonable prices at Mývatn Nature Baths and I heard only good things about it from friends.
- I skipped that since I had booked a 3 hours whale watching tour in Húsavík at 15:00. I like boats and especially the small platform on top of the boat where you are all by yourself (Titanic feeling) was super cool. We were also quite fortunate to see a couple of whales and one was even fully visible once. It’s not a nerve-wracking spectacle but nice to see and since I had never done that before I loved it.
- Afterwards I decided not to eat the same tin-can food again as the days before but to actually go to a restaurant (and don’t look at the prices, which can scare you).
- Since I had some time left I decided to drive on. Shortly after 20:00 I came across yet another waterfall. I admit, I got a bit tired of waterfalls in Island after a while but boy was I happy I stopped at this one. It’s called Goðafoss and the special thing is that I could walk over some stones all the way to the cliff. Since it was evening and nobody was there to stop me I quietly sat there in amazement and reflected on how beautiful the world is. A perfect ending for an amazing day.
- I drove on and stayed for the night at the very big campsite up the hill in Akureyri. It’s a bit adventurous in the dark to find the right spot to park, so I simply stayed next to one of the shower houses which was very convenient.
- The frame for the day was driving down the west coast (rather long) to get to Akranes. My highlight would be the tour through The Cave in Víðgelmir at 18:00. Along the way I did multiple smaller stops. One was to shortly walk around the Settlement Centre in Borganes. It was free, close to the route and an interesting site but nothing spectacular. If time is of essence, leave it out.
- Another point of interest is a small peninsula which one can drive around to see Icelandic birds. I figured it’s a short way so I can do it easily. Oh wow was I wrong. The road consists exclusively of big gravel stones. In my cheap rental car I could go with 15km/h max or it would completely destroy the outside. When stepping out of the car after a while to assess the situation I knew, that road was not meant to be driven by me. My whole car was covered with mud and I knew it would be interesting to get it into shape again until the next day when it was due for rental return. I decided to cut my losses and went back.
- What I love about Iceland is how often I stumbled across fabulous sights by accident. A tiny sign and a parking space caught my attention and so I stopped and followed a small crowed up a hill. It was a walkway around one former volcanic crater with a superb view onto a second crater close by. Highly recommendable!
- On my way to The Cave I stopped at another really nice waterfall and then had to go again, to my big dismay, the last couple of kilometers onto a gravel road with no alternative. When I finally reached the parking space I went out of the car and immediately froze. There was a tiny noise and I instantly knew what it meant. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Damn it. I turned to my back tire and indeed, I could watch it go flat. The funny thing is, it must have happened right here at the PARKING space, not in the gravel road. What an adventure. In the middle of nowhere. I decided to think about the consequences later and registered for the tour.
- As it turned out, the folks there were super friendly and told me there is at least one car a day having the same issue. Since I was in the last tour they told me to do the tour and then they would actually help me fix it. Everybody I met is so friendly there in Iceland. Truly amazing and a harsh reminder to focus more on taking example of this.
- The Cave was a very nice experience since I really like caves and there are some great moments to experience in there and chatting with the guides is always a story in itself, since most people only come there for a limited time and have very interesting life-stories of their own. I can really recommend it.
- I successfully made my way back and drove on to Akranes, my last campsite. I parked right next to the ocean which was spectacular.
- I had contacted a horse riding our via email and telephone if there would be some short-notice space available. I figured doing one would be a great experience as well. Unfortunately, until this day, they never replied. I met some other people doing horse tours and I think it’s a good country to do such.
- So I went on to Reykjavik and parked right in the center at the sea side. I had booked a 2 hours Segway tour. There is a nice burger place right up the street and they actually took me in front of the line as I signaled I had only 15 minutes time. So nice!
- The tour was only done by 4 people, including me, two Americans (who later went on to a 16 day Greenland trip) and the guide. He was so cool and friendly and enthusiastic and we ended up doing a 3 hours tour after all because he simply wanted to show us so many things. I can only recommend this tour. We saw so many places in the city, went in to the big church and some other places, saw the embassies, heard very interesting stories and driving there is also lots of fun.
- Afterwards it was time to return the car. Luckily it had rained the night and I had also used the campsite water to help a bit and now it actually looked really good again. I had tried to get the flat tire fixed after my Segway tour but all shops had already closed. I explained the situation to the very nice lady at the rental car station and she just shrugged it off and said no problem, they will fix it. No charges for me. Wow. The handover took 2 minutes. She went around the car once and that was it. I went back to the city by bus.
- For the night I had booked the Loft Hi hostel right in the center to see some of the nightlife as well. With around 220,- Euro for one night it must have been the most expensive hostel I ever had. And it was the cheapest one in the area.
- I strolled around downtown and finally settled on a nice all you can eat fish restaurant to spend a nice last evening.
- Early the next morning I had to catch the 4:30 bus to the airport. That marked the end of my trip in Iceland.
- And I had to admit, it also marked the end of a trip I had started many months before inside me. My compass was reoriented. Lots of confusion inside of me had cleared up. And interestingly enough, I also found a new internal, super exciting job very shortly after. I had done it. One step back. And now two steps ahead. Up to this day, exactly one year later, I still feed from the energy I found there in this fabulous, wonderful place.
- A word on the weather. During my Segway tour for example, the weather changed every 10 minutes. From rainy, cloudy to a high-wind hail storm, to super sunny requiring sun lotion. The onion principle is key. I had invested into clothing before and never regretted that decision.
- I purchased a multi-layered very light but rain resistant Jack Wolfskin jacket. I also got a Merino shirt and a Merino loop scarf. Especially the latter one was sooooo good. It acted as a hat and as a scarf and I could easily adjust it all the time.
- Iceland is expensive. Everything there is. Everybody accepts credit cards even for smallest amounts. Even in the wilderness using handheld devices. Germany is so far away from this. Unbelievable.
- As always I packed two credit just to make sure if one stopped working I had an alternative. Ever since one got locked in America once (most likely stolen by a shady motel) I always stay on the safe side here.
- Overall the trip cost me around 3500,- Euro. And with that I already had taken the cheapest rental car, the cheapest stay and tin-can food. But all the excursions simply add up. The good thing is, even without all these, Iceland is amazing and a wonder to travel through. To me, the excursions added an additional layer, and a bit more excitement and if you have the money, really do them. At least the ones I did I can fully recommend and I still remember them fondly to this day.