Traveling anywhere off-season usually means tossing plans out the window and making the best of what's available. Sherri Rifkin and her adventurous boyfriend spent a whirlwind week road-tripping around Iceland and found harsh weather, miles of desolation, breathtaking scenery, and quite possibly a few fairies.
ICELAND – It all started with the film Land Ho!, which my boyfriend Rich and I saw during the Tribeca Film Festival last spring. It's about two septuagenarians who go on a spontaneous road trip to Iceland. When the lights came up, we were riding high on a wave of good feeling, the song "In a Big Country" blaring over the closing scene and credits. I turned to Rich and, surprising myself, said, "That looks so cool! I could go there."
"Really?" Rich replied, wheels already in motion. "It's been on my list forever."
Rich — a surfer and an Alpine skier — is way more outdoorsy than I am. And he's a much more extensive traveler, having been to Antarctica, Africa, and Thailand, to name just a few. I am an indoor cyclist and a yogini with far fewer stamps in my passport.
What the hell, I figured. If two seventysomethings could brave the unique geography and harsh elements of Iceland, then surely I could, too.
HATCHING OUR PLAN
We decided that summer was the wrong time to go — too popular, too expensive, too touristy — so we settled on a week in the fall, which happened to be the time of year the filmmakers shot the film.
We didn't book our plane tickets in advance, which may or may not have affected prices, as they are higher than one might expect for off-season and Iceland. But late October was cheaper than early October, and that sealed the deal. We knew the weather would be dodgier and that we'd miss the famous midnight sun (Rich was doing a lot of research), but the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights seemed like a decent trade-off.
A box arrived in the mail filled with performance gear for me — windproof and waterproof pants and anorak. Rich ordered it because he knew this was not part of my city girl wardrobe. "It's all about the layers," he said. "You need to be warm and dry. I know you love your umbrella, but it will be useless there. People in Reykjavik don't even use them." Clearly, this wasn't going to be a cute trip.
As the primary trip organizer, Rich's Plan A was to circumnavigate the island via the Ring Road, Route 1, their famous (and really only) highway, starting in Reykjavik and traveling clockwise with one big detour around a nearby peninsula in the west. Despite mostly cleaving close to the Ring Road trail, we would be going off the most beaten path. This itinerary would preclude a visit to the Golden Circle in the southwest, one of Iceland's most popular attractions and the area featured in the film, but we'd get our share of waterfalls, volcanoes, and natural wonders, as well as a healthy sense of the entire country.
Friends, a current native, the Icelandic tourism board, and a Trip Advisor forum had different opinions about whether six days would be enough to complete the loop (possible but ambitious) and if the weather in the north would be so bad it would prevent us from traveling in any direction (possible, but not a foregone conclusion). Rich's Plan B was to concentrate on the south and the southwest, but that meant backtracking, which neither of us wanted to do. Plan A would mean a lot of time in the car and less time on the ground, but driving is our thing, so Plan A won.
ON THE ROAD
DAY 1: NYC to Reyjavik
Overnight flight on Icelandic Air, arrive early morning. No agenda. The weather was cool but pleasant, so we explored the city on foot and took photos. The country's famous handmade knit goods and high-tech outdoor gear from brands like 66º North are sold everywhere, but when you do the currency conversion, they lose their appeal. (Also, the wool is super scratchy.) That night, we tried to find the much-hyped Reykjavik nightlife. No luck. Even at 11 p.m. on a Friday, we couldn't find a hotspot to tempt us away from a good night's sleep.
Hallgrímskirkja Church: Have you ever seen or heard a pipe organ with 5,275 pipes? They happened to be tuning it while we there, and it was better than Phantom of the Opera. If there's good visibility, pay for the ride to the top of the tower for panoramic views of the city and the surrounding water and mountains.
Laugardalslaug: Went for an early evening dunk in the outdoor geothermal pool. More community pool than spa, the water felt heavenly.
Where We Stayed
City Center Hotel: Despite the nondescript name, this is a funky boutique hotel with good breakfast (most places include breakfast buffets as part of the package) and a microbrew beer bar. Conveniently located an easy walk from the main drag, Laugavegur.
What We Ate
Breakfast at Prikið: It smelled like a greasy spoon because it was. The menu was more American diner than local cuisine.
Lunch at Bergsson Mathús: The Scandi-chic café serves a small menu of delicious soup, crazy good homemade bread, and cold salads.
Afternoon pick-me-up at Reykjavik Roasters: A hip local coffee bar that roasts their own beans.
Dinner at Fish Market (Fiskmarkaðurinn): Very expensive (even for Iceland), but delicious and sophisticated. You can reserve a table online.
DAY 2: Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur
The loop around Snæfellsnes Peninsula was our one major detour off the Ring Road. The landscape is beautiful, especially on a sunny, clear day. On one side was the ocean; on the other, a snow-capped mountain range and Snæfellsjökull, the massive glacier-covered volcano at the tip of the peninsula. The area, incidentally, is the setting for Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. We stopped at less showy but undeniably picturesque spots along the way and spent the night in the village of Stykkishólmur, which, while pretty, is clearly a summer destination. With the exception of a handful of hotels and guesthouses, the place was pretty much shut down.
Settlement Centre in Borganes: Lonely Planet made this sound as spectacular as the Louvre, but sadly the museum was the definition of hokey.
Rauðfeldsgjá: In a few minutes, you can hike up to this enchanted waterfall and step inside a hidden grotto.
Búðir: An abandoned fishing village near the bay of Budavik with a tiny black-and-white church that sits in the middle of lava field. This is the definition of picturesque. We didn't have time to walk the various marked trails in the grass-covered lava field, but we would have liked to.
Hellnar and Arnastapi: We also didn't have time to walk the cliff-top path between these two old fishing villages. Apparently, it's amazing.
Where We Stayed
Planned: We were supposed to stay at the adorable yet twee Hotel Egilsen, a highly-rated boutique guesthouse, but there was a booking snafu.
Actual: Hotel Stykkisholmur. Devoid of charm, but clean and comfortable.
Where We Ate
Lunch at Hotel Rjúkandi in Vegamót: Authentic homemade soups with tasty fresh bread. They told us about great sights on the peninsula that we would not have otherwise found.
Dinner (sort of) at Plassid: We didn't actually get to eat a full meal because the kitchen closed at 8, despite the fact that it was a Saturday night and we arrived at 8:30. They offered us all-you-can-eat mushroom soup without mushrooms and bread slathered in as much salty butter as it could stand.
Day 3: Stykkishólmur to Akureyri
We had a lot of ground to cover to reach the country's second biggest city in the north, so we didn't see any famous sights. Instead of navigating back to the Ring Road, we took the more scenic northern route, which was predominantly gravel but smoother than anticipated. We were blessed with sun for the first half of the ride and beautiful vistas of mountains, sheep-filled fields, and fjord-forked valleys.
This is where Rich found his spirit animal, the famous Icelandic horse. We found four of them hanging out near a fence by the road. After shooting close-up photos for a half hour, one took a shining to Rich and followed him to the car, pressing its nose against the window. They definitely had a moment before the horse wandered away in search of more grass — or maybe a photographer with sugar cubes.
Where We Stayed
Skjaldarvik Guesthouse: It feels like an institutional residence, but the owners have added sweet, homespun touches to soften it into a clean, inviting guesthouse near Akureyri by the Eyjafjörður fjord, the longest in the country. They only have shared bathrooms, but the place wasn't full so there was never a wait. They also have a hot tub and offer horseback rides.
Where We Ate
Lunch at Potturinn in Blönduós: Large and nondescript restaurant with a mix of local specialties and run-of-the-mill Continental fare.
Dinner at Bautinn in Akureyri: They specialize in local cuisine, but we both ordered fairly simple pastas. It was Sunday night, after all.
Dessert at Eymundsson in Akureyri: An Icelandic bookstore/café/gift shop chain.
Day 4: Akureyri to Lake Mývatn
A morning drive got us to Lake Mývatn by midday. The lake region is beautiful and much smaller than I had envisioned, but it's full of natural wonders.
Goðafoss: Snow made the waterfall particularly dramatic and mystical.
Krafla/Viti Maar/Leirhnjúkur: We tried to explore the opaque, teal green crater lake and the surrounding steaming sulfuric and volcanic terrain, but it was snowing and visibility was low. The road leading up to it the parking area hadn't been plowed, so despite our best efforts to get there on foot, we had trouble navigating.
Hverir: A walkable area with steam fumaroles, boiling mud pools, and sulfurous puddles galore. The promised colors were muted due to a dusting of snow ringing the area. There's a hike up the surrounding hill from which you can see the views, but we didn't know that until it was too late.
Mývatn Nature Baths: Not as big or as amenity-filled as the famous, theme-park-like Blue Lagoon, but it's the same idea and totally dreamy on a snowy night. We got ten percent off the ticket price from our guesthouse.
Dettifoss: Another disappointment. We wanted to see the most powerful waterfall in Europe, but the roads hadn't been plowed.
Where We Stayed
Dimmuborgir Guesthouse: Mini cabins right on Lake Mývatn.
Where We Ate
Lunch was fast food at the info center/supermarket/gas station in Reykjahlíð.
Dinner at Vogafjós Cowshed Café and Guesthouse: So tasty! They make their own mozzarella and the bread is baked in geothermal heat. But the real draw is the view into the cow barn from the dining room. We watched the girls as they were milked.
Day 5: Mývatn to Hornafjörður
Biggest travel day of all, from the north all the way around to the southeast — about six hours of travel time all in — and, as anticipated, the trickiest, conditions-wise.
What happened that day could be its own short story. The road options south past Egilsstaðir weren't great. We could have taken the very long way, which was unplowed and treacherous, or the shortcut, which was also unplowed and treacherous. We opted for the latter. The falling snow and suddenly terrible visibility in the higher elevations didn't help matters, but we made it to the other side thanks to Rich's mad driving skills and, I suspect, help from Icelandic elves and fairies. Once we made it through the mountain pass, we were rewarded with amazing views of the southern coast and a gorgeous sunset and moonrise.
Egilsstaðir Info Booth: As we asked the attendant's advice about the second part of our journey, she had the most memorable quotes of the trip. "It's not how much snow," she said, "it's the kind of snow that you should be worried about." Then, after telling us that there were fifteen cars on the unpaved, not-so-well plowed shortcut to Hofn since midnight, she said plainly, "We count cars in Iceland."
Where We Stayed
Hali Country Hotel: Located in Hornafjörður, 60km west of Hofn, right on the ocean and at the base of a mountain. Rooms are generic but clean and spacious.
What We Ate
Lunch at Salt Café and Bistro in Egilsstaðir: Tasty and filling flatbread pizzas.
Dinner at the Hali Country House restaurant: The hotel's restaurant was decent, though not exactly brimming with atmosphere.
Day 6: Hornafjörður to Skógar
We had the least ground to cover kilometer-wise and were able to spend much of the day enjoying the local sights.
Jökulsárlón: A stop at this glacier lake had always been at the top of our list. We arrived just before sunrise. The area was empty and the winds were calm. We were hoping to take a boat tour, but the lagoon was too icy, so we spent a couple of hours taking photos and watching the sun change the color of the icebergs. Magical.
Svínafellsjökull glacier walk in Vatnajökull National Park: Fitted with crampons and ice picks, we set off on a guided walk of one of the tongues of the glacier. We spent about two hours on the glacier tongue itself, though there were many stops for photos and talks by our guide. We saw crevasses and dirt cones and crawled through a moulin, a small cave formed by water. We lucked out with mild, calm conditions.
Vik: The village is famous for its black sand beach and dramatic headlands and sea caves, but it was almost dark and spitting rain by the time we arrived. As I waited for Rich to try to take some photos, I swear I saw an elf.
Where We Stayed
Hotel Skógar: A totally cool and cozy guesthouse with a sauna and a hot tub within walking distance of Skógafoss. Apparently, a major Russian pop star had stayed (and drunk his head off) the night before.
Where We Ate
Lunch was fast food at a gas station/info center. We ate dinner at Hotel Skógar's restaurant.
Day 7: Skógar to Keflavík International Airport
Last day! We scheduled three stops as we hauled ass to the airport.
Skógafoss: A 60-meter waterfall. We walked up the stairs alongside it to check it out.
Seljavallalaug: We wanted to visit the man-made geothermal pool built in the 1920s because it was one of the most memorable locations in the movie. But the wind, both sustained and gusts, was insane in this valley, so much that we couldn't even make the ten-minute hike up the mountain.
Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Centre: An intimate museum where we watched an excellent short film about one farm family's experience during and recovery from the famous volcanic eruption of 2010.
WHAT I KNEW ON THE LAST DAY THAT I WISH I HAD KNOWN ON THE FIRST
Other than Reykjavik and a couple of towns we stayed in, the country is predominantly devoid of civilization, which is appealing or unsettling depending on your tastes. Many areas were beautiful, especially with a coating of snow, but there are large tracts of barren land without even a bird or a tree to give any sense of life.
At times it was hard to believe we were on the country's main road, as we'd go long stretches of time without passing another car or seeing any signs of humanity other than power lines and yellow road markers. We felt like we were on the moon, or l ike we were the sole survivors of an apocalyptic event. Likely this was a byproduct of visiting off-season, but considering how short the summer is and how remote everything is (aside from the showier and more convenient natural attractions), Iceland's isolation within itself is unimaginably vast, real, and profound.
We never did get to see those mythical Northern Lights, but we saw things that we believed existed only in fairy tales and science fiction books. Iceland stays with you long after your plane touches down on your home soil.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
We rented a 2WD car from Fox, which must have some relationship to Átak. Snow tires were a must, as was getting an understanding of the road system (paved vs. gravel vs. dirt).
We were surprised to learn about the various types of insurance policies beyond the standard ones that are specific to Iceland, like gravel damage and wind damage, e.g. from doors being blown off when opened in high winds, which is apparently quite common, or from paint being stripped from the car. We didn't quite believe that one until our last day when we experienced winds so strong they blew Rich's glasses right off his face and nearly knocked us down as we clung to each other for balance. Now that's wind.
You also have to be very careful of livestock, like sheep, horses, a the occasional reindeer, wandering in the roads, especially in summer. Even if they are outside their fences, which they often are during the summer, the ranchers can hold drivers liable.
Weather in Iceland is a moving target at best — it's hard to predict and can change before your eyes. This quirky stream-of-consciousness website makes an earnest attempt at forecasting.
What To Wear
Layer, layer, layer — waterproof and windproof — if you're thinking of going anytime other than high summer. Even then, the weather can be chilly and unpredictable. Hiking boots are key and snow boots come in handy even in October, especially in the northern region, though there had been dustings in the south as well.
Everyone speaks fluent or close to fluent English. Pronouncing place names can be tricky. The words are long and filled with letters whose pronunciations require using muscles in your mouth you didn't know existed.
If you're traveling off-season, be sure to check if the restaurant, tour company, guesthouse, store, etc. is open and if so what the hours are. Don't get shut out of dinner like we did. Rich eventually realized that his bible, a.k.a. the Lonely Planet guide, is geared toward summer travel, so do your homework and manage your expectations so you're not disappointed if you can't do the thing you wanted to do.
SOME NOTES ABOUT THE BATHROOM
1. There are no rotten eggs hidden in the bathroom. Any water that has been heated by geothermal energy smells like rotten eggs. You get used to it. And you don't taste it or smell like it afterwards.
2. Speaking of water, geothermal water feels slippery and can be very drying for your hair. It supposedly doesn't damage hair, but I wasn't taking any chances. Rich bought me a metallic purple swim cap (so sweet), which must be the coolest one ever made. I'm sure people were laughing at me at the pool in Reykjavik, but I didn't care. Even if you're not protecting an expensive dye job, bring a lot of conditioner and use it prodigiously if you care about your hair.
3. Bathrooms and lack thereof: If you're driving long distances, prepare for a noticeable lack of rest stops (and gas stations for that matter). Mother Earth will often be your loo.