Iceland Road Trip, September 2016
So, Why Iceland?
Jeri and I have wanted to go to Iceland for some time. Partly because it is (or was) an unusual destination, but also the scenery we had seen in various TV and movies looked real appealing. Specifically, the 2013 film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” while not a widely noticed movie, used extensive locations in Iceland as a stand in for Tibet and Afghanistan (no, really). Another bizarre British TV series, Fortitude (2015) was filmed in the eastern fiords of Iceland and looked absolutely amazing.
Oh, and there are no McDonalds in Iceland. So there’s that.
The problem we faced was how to best get there, and could it be done at reasonable cost, if not cheaply?
Looking into the airline flight situation I was surprised to find some rather annoying scheduling. Essentially all flights to Iceland from North America were overnight flights, leaving in the evening and arriving early morning in Iceland. Jeri and I have become rather choosy in our advanced years and don’t do overnight flights unless there’s a good seat for sleeping involved. And all the aircraft heading to Iceland had only partially reclining seats, even in what passed for first class. And these were by no means cheap flights, coming in at $3,500 to $4,200 for first/business class seats. That was just stupid.
However continuing to poke around, I found a single sorta daylight flight on Icelandair out of Toronto, leaving in the mid-afternoon and arriving in Iceland just before midnight. If we booked a separate flight from LAX to Toronto it could work. I was able to find an American Airlines flight to Toronto late the prior day and we could overnight in an airport adjacent hotel as a big safety factor. For our return, it looked like it could be done all in one very long day, leaving Iceland in the morning, a 6 hour layover in Toronto, then return to LAX before 10 PM.
But the best part was since flights in and out of Canada are often much cheaper than flights out of the US, the total cost of the LAX to Iceland round trip, including the cost of the hotel stay in Toronto, was by far the cheapest of any combinations I could find. As in real good deal.
Icelandair offers three seating classifications, coach, premium economy (“Economy Comfort” and sort of a business/first class product (“Saga”). Because we were now doing a daylight flight, it was hard to justify anything better than their premium economy seating, which is a 3 x 3 seat configuration with the middle seats blocked out, and a bit more legroom. So I grabbed that for our outbound 6 hour flight. For our return, knowing it would be a loooong day, I splurged and spent some of our overall savings on this flight combo springing for Saga class. The American Airlines LAX-Toronto flights would be in first class, but in the rather small Airbus 319 which has only two rows of first class (almost a “why bother?” situation). That didn’t seem real appealing for a 5 hour flight, but it was what it was.
We decided we would do a road trip around the island, staying mostly at guesthouses in the small villages along the way. There are quite a few trip reports online of people doing this sort of trip, so I was able to put together an eight day itinerary, which included a couple of nights in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. All planning was done at least eight months prior to our trip.
Day 1: LAX to Toronto
Because the Toronto International Film Festival was underway, and American Airlines desperately wants to be “Hollywood’s Airline”, they were temporarily running an extra daily flight from LAX to Toronto in a three class Airbus 321T. You know, so important Hollywood types could fly a “real” first class. But since our departure day was the last day AA was running this extra flight, it was somewhat empty and I was not only able to do a same day flight change, but also got us upgraded to a real first class (I haz developed sum skilzs!). Yeah, we’re good at being poseurs. Of the 10 first class seats on that aircraft, only 5 were taken, us, another poseur upgrader, a business guy and some actressy looking woman who looked vaguely familiar. But wow, it was an excellent flight!
Day 2: Toronto to Iceland
After a pleasant overnight layover in Toronto with lots of sleep, our airline luck continued when Icelandair moved us from our premium economy seating to the 2×2 Saga class seating. I had read they often did this when much of Saga class went unsold and we had purchased our premium economy seats a long time earlier. We didn’t get the fancy Saga class meal or the free wifi, but for what we paid we scored big. Actually Saga class seats are about equal to domestic first class, so while they are nice for daytime flights, I wouldn’t enjoy trying to sleep in one.
And speaking of the food, that was a bit of an embarrassment. When we purchased our tickets far in advance, we were given the opportunity to order our meals too. Meals were included in the premium economy ticket price and consisted of a choice of simple sandwiches or boxed meals. As the months went by after my ticket booking, checking our status on the Icelandair website showed our meal order coming and going, finally it disappeared. No problem, we’ll just order when we’re actually on the plane. Which is what we did just before takeoff. And since it was “free” we were somewhat generous with the amount of items we ordered. Hey, it was a 5 hour flight! After we were in the air our food showed up. Our….first batch of food.
As we were starting to chow down, another flight attendant came by and said, “I see you’ve preordered, and here are your items”. Wait,…what?? She proceeded to dump even more items onto our trays before we had time to protest that we already had all the food we could handle. We could only imagine that the attendants were thinking us the stereotypical overeating Americans and would be talking for days about this exceptional piggy couple. In the interests of foreign relations we ate as much as we could and put the rest in our packs for later.
We landed at the Keflavik airport about 11:30 PM (Icelandair is one damn punctual airline) and walked over to the adjacent car rental place in a light, cold rain. At least I think it was rain as it’s been a long time since we had seen any. We picked up our 4WD Suzuki and drove a couple of miles over to our first night’s stay, near the airport. It was one of those basic places that get high reviews on TripAdvisor mostly because it’s so cheap, not because it’s great. But it was OK for a few hours of sleep.
Day 3: Keflavik to Vik
Thanks to modern pharmaceuticals we got a solid 6 hours of sleep and woke up really refreshed. We had just done a seven hour time zone shift and felt the best we had ever been, owing to the overnight in Toronto. We did a wet walk into what passed for town in this small community to pick up food and supplies for our road trip. After that, we headed for the coast.
Although our route took us past the famed Blue Lagoon, we weren’t interested in stopping. The Blue Lagoon is a series of extremely popular ponds fed by the outflow of an adjacent geothermal power plant. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Iceland, some of the Blue Lagoon are likely included. But to our minds it’s a pretty contrived attraction and far too touristy. All the traffic and busses turning into the site further reinforced that idea to us so we kept going.
We detoured to a geothermal area called Seltun and walked around a bunch of hot pools and mudpots while getting very wet. The rain had increased considerably.
Getting hungry and hoping to dry out a bit, we started looking for a place to have lunch. Our guidebook mentioned a fairly fancy place associated with an out of the way boutique hotel. When we arrived there was only one other group present and in the process of departing. While it looked pricey, the views out its windows were spectacular so we said screw the price, let’s do this.
Now admittedly it was a VERY tasty lunch. And this being our first day in Iceland neither of us had yet wrapped our minds around the odd conversion rate of Icelandic Krónur. It still felt like “play money” to us. The idea was we wouldn’t worry what it cost (within reason!) and just put it on the credit cards for sorting out later. And that, boys and girls, is how we ended up paying $141 for a lunch. And that’s $141 without any wine or alcohol!
Iceland can be a very expensive place.
We continued southeast along the coast toward our second nights stay at Vik. Along the way we hit our first major Icelandic waterfall, Skogafoss. There are just waterfalls everywhere in this crazy country so I’ll only note the major ones. Reaching Vik, we checked into our room then walked on one of the black sand (actually volcanic ash) beaches.
There was a sole gas station in the village of Vik, an N1 station. The pumps were automated and took credit cards. But when I tried to use mine, it prompted me for a PIN. Oh crap, I had been afraid of this.
Much of the rest of the world uses chip and PIN credit cards, while the US, in its infinite wisdom, has mostly switched over to chip and signature cards. And when you try to use a chip and signature card in a chip and pin card reader, the reader just laughs at you and tells you to go back to the US. This isn’t a problem where humans are around to get your signature, but gas pumps and toll roads can be problems.
Fortunately the station was open and I went inside to see what they could do. They were able to sell me a prepaid 5,000 Krónur gas card that could be used at any N1 station. Now 5,000 sounded like a lot, but in fact was really just enough to fill up our tank. No problem, now that I knew how it worked I’d pick up another card tomorrow to do another fill up.
Day 4: Vik to Hofn
It was still raining so we lingered at our guesthouse and enjoyed a great breakfast. Then we continued down the coast, looking at the myriad of waterfalls until we reached Skaftafell, part of Vatnajökull National Park. Most of the way, the visibility sucked so we missed a lot. Because it was cold and rainy, we hit the visitor center for some hot soup. Nice that we did, since while we were eating the rain let up and it cleared enough to see some glaciers a couple of miles away.
We knew there was a neat waterfall called Svartifoss nearby and saw a trail to it, so off we went with the break in the weather. We assumed it was like Skogafoss, with just a walk up to the base. Um…no. It turned out to be a several kilometer walk and climb to get to the stinkin’ thing. I’d like to say it was worth it, with its distinctive basalt columns, but my opinion is colored by the amount of rain we encountered on our hike back out. We were, once again, quite wet. And while we would have liked to have hiked over to one of the glaciers, the visibility was now lousy again and it was raining. So we hopped back in the car, turned up the heater and headed on southeast along the coast.
Probably the most spectacular site along this stretch of coast is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. It’s a large lake at the foot of a glacier into which small icebergs carve off prior to drifting out into the adjacent ocean. There’s a big parking lot at the entrance to the ocean, usually filled with cars and tour busses. Instead, we stopped at a small parking area in advance of the main one and had our portion of the lagoon mostly to ourselves. While the misty, crappy weather diminished what must have been a spectacular view, the floating blobs of ice were still pretty surreal. And we’ll have to take our guidebook’s word for it that there was in fact a big-ass glacier there. We couldn’t see that far.
At we continued on toward Hofn, we were impressed with the number of single lane bridges on this route, some quite long. The protocol for opposing traffic is that whoever gets to the bridge first has the right of way. While this probably wouldn’t work too well in the US, most Icelanders are much more polite, and coupled with the very light traffic made the driving easy.
Our accommodations for the night were about 6 miles in advance of Hofn, but we went into town for dinner. And this time we were a bit more careful on the pricing.
Day 5: Hofn to Egilsstaðir
This day dawned surprisingly clear and we finally got to see what we hadn’t been seeing. From our room we had a view well up the coast from which we had come, with massive glacial tongues hanging in the hills. Of course we had driven right by all that.
As we continued now northeasterly from Hofn, traffic dropped to zero and the scenery went to maximum. It was like California’s Big Sur on steroids. While the road itself had a really nice, high speed alignment (engineer-speak), there were virtually no shoulders and usually no guardrails between us and the drop off into the ocean below. It must be some sort of Icelandic philosophy to the extent that if you don’t do anything stupid, you’ll be just fine. Of course when we DID see the occasional guardrail, we immediately started wondering how horrific that section must be! Didn’t want to look over the edge.
We received a bit of bad news when we reached our planned gas stop. It was a very small station in a very small village….and it was closed. It was Sunday, and we didn’t yet have a feel for what services would be available in the rural areas. The pumps were accessible but I lacked a credit card that would work in it. Had I been thinking clearly (I blame jet lag) I should have purchased several of the damn prepaid cards when I had a chance, allowing for access to N1 stations 24 hours a day.
Not being able to fill up at my planned location left me nervous about taking the “scenic route” I had planned to Egilsstaðir. It was a roundabout way, in and out of several fiords. Instead, we diverted on a direct route to Egilsstaðir, which was a relatively larger town and was likely to have gas stations open. It wasn’t a real loss as the route climbed through some amazing scenery with yet more waterfalls everywhere.
Upon reaching Egilsstaðir we found an excellent N1 station, filled up the car and laid in several prepaid gas cards. I should mention that N1 stations are also minimarts and restaurants of sorts (as is true for many other gas stations). I also noticed they were selling hot dogs, wrapped in bacon to be specific. I had read a number of times about the Icelanders odd love of hotdogs, as well as their tastiness (the hot dogs, not the Icelanders), so I had to give it a try. Jeri thought the idea of gas station hotdog was something akin to licking toilet seat lids, but wasn’t about to stop me from doing stupid things (at this point she is well used to it). While I’m not a hot dog guy, it was actually pretty good. And it was, after all, “The world’s most famous Icelandic hot dog”, so there’s that. I can now die happy, hopefully not of hot dog poisoning.
Since it was too early to check in to our room and we had all the gas we needed, we took a side trip over to a small fiord town of Seydisfjordur about a half hour away. Turned out to be a lovely little town in a magnificent fiord with several waterfalls enroute (of course). We spent about an hour walking around the town’s harbor then stopped into a small cafe for something warm to drink. Without any prompting, the waitress pointed out the window to a prominent mountain and mentioned that was used as a backdrop for a prominent scene in the Walter Mitty movie. Weird.
And here’s a minor aside for an important point……Damn near everyone on that island speaks English, most very well. It felt very strange to be in small, remote places and have local folks speak perfect English to us. It made travelling decadently easy. Just as well, as Jeri and I looked at a few Icelandic phrases and they were pretty near impossible for us. So the language was a big surprise and very pleasant.
Another surprise was the terrain. Once we left the coast and headed inland to Egilsstaðir the nature of the landscape seemed strangely familiar (now that the clouds had lifted and we could see things). It reminded both of us of road trips we had taken through the Great Basin area of Nevada, as well as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We felt like we were on some neat SW USA road trip. Services in the small towns were all first rate, roads were excellent, things were clean (OK, that last part isn’t exactly US) and the rolling volcanic grasslands could have been the Great Basin. But with better hot dogs.
Day 6: Egilsstaðir to Akureyri
We left Egilsstaðir early and continued our drive through the American Southwest. Our main target for the day was the giant waterfall Dettifoss, which was used in the opening sequences of the movie Prometheus (The Alien prequel). It’s said to be the “most powerful waterfall in Europe”, whatever that means.
Now there are two ways to get to Dettifoss from Highway 1 (our main route). Either route runs parallel to the large river that eventually tumbles over as the falls. The westerly route is a paved, 12 mile route in used by most tourists and all the bus tours. The other route, on the easterly side, is 18 miles of gravel and dirt, used by….well, not many. So guess which route we took? Of course! We had paid for a 4WD and wanted to at least get some of our money’s worth.
It was along bouncy ride, but totally worth it. Despite the remoteness there was a good dirt parking area and even flush toilets. A nicely laid out trail led to the edge of the falls, but no nanny state railings to keep you from falling to your doom, were you stupid enough to do so. It was a REALLY impressive site!
Jolting our way back to the paved Highway 1, we continued on to the Krafla geothermal area and plant. This is an area of high geothermal activity (erupting not too many years ago) with all sorts of fumaroles and mud pots and a sci-fi geothermal plant. During summer months the plant has a visitor center open but since September is considered past summer, it was closed. But driving by the plant was very neat.
We then stumbled on a very fun geothermal area just off the road. Here there were mud pots and steam vents roaring like crazy. You wanna stand in the plume of an active steam vent? No problem, beyond getting a bit wet very fast.
Oh, another thing worth mentioning about Iceland. The place stinks. That’s not an opinion, it’s a statement of fact. Because of the widespread volcanic activity, that wunnderful rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulfide is very common. Since many places get their hot water direct from geothermal bore holes, sometimes when you turn on a hot water tap in Iceland you get a bit of hydrogen sulfide smell. It’s a little off-putting at first, but you quickly get used to it. This in fact does have a bit of an upside. One can fart away to their heart’s content and should anyone object, just blame the ground beneath your feet. That’s just a hypothetical example, of course.
Continuing westerly on Highway 1, we drove along the southerly edges of Lake Myvatn. The shrubs here were all flaming colors of red and gold, looking like the high plains of Montana. Shortly afterward, we came to the spectacular Goðafoss waterfall just off the side of the road.
By mid-afternoon we arrived in Akureyri, our stop for the night. After being in the real boonies for so long, the port town of Akureyri (population only 18,000) looked like a big city. In fact, it was a charming place and Jeri and I spent a lot of time just walking around exploring the town until it got too cold.
The weather in Iceland can go through a wide range of extremes very quickly. Add to that Akureyri was our furthest North point, just a bit more north than Fairbanks, Alaska and the weather can be…interesting. It still looked like we were in Colorado though. Excepting of course the large fiord in the foreground.
Day 7: Akureyri to Reykjavik
This was pretty much just a driving day to get our butts back to Reykjavik. This was by far our longest travel day at around 242 miles but the scenery was good and the traffic very light.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the drive was the Hvalfjörður Tunnel. This 3.6 mile long tunnel goes under a fiord on the way to Reykjavik shortening the trip by 28 miles. It’s fairly new, opening in 1998, and is one damn fine piece of engineering. It goes as deep as 540 feet below sea level, impressive since it starts right at the very edge of the water itself.
Our arrival in Reykjavik was pretty much a major pain in the ass. It was raining and our car’s GPS had no knowledge of all the closed streets downtown due to construction. In fact, the street our hotel was on was actually closed. I had to park a few blocks away and walk over to figure out how to get into the adjacent parking structure. Once parked, I quickly decided that car wasn’t going to move again until it was time to head to the airport.
And that wasn’t really a problem. Reykjavik is very walkable. We still had enough time to do some exploring before dark, although it was raining off and on. Mostly on. The street adjacent to our hotel was lined with high end shops, especially selling outdoor wear. Fortunately their prices kept me from buying anything.
Day 8: Walking around Reykjavik
The next day, our last full day in Iceland, started out clear and bright. Iceland’s way of making it up to us for the crappy weather.
Seizing the moment, we did a very long walk along the waterfront, impressed with the city’s skyline. Turning around we went back to check out a very interesting structure at the other end of the walking/biking trail we were on. Turned out to be Harpa, Reykjavik’s ultramodern theater and opera house. It was open for visits so we wandered through it taking in the views.
After that we ambled through the oldest part of Reykjavik and found a neat park and pond. Our map showed an adjacent cemetery from 1838 so that was a required visit. We find cemeteries to be an interesting window on to a societies culture. And they’re usually devoid of tourists.
And of course the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church on the hill overlooking Reykjavik. I’ve seen it in so many pictures but it was more impressive than I imagined in real life. VERY cool place!
For us, it seemed like one full day was enough for Reykjavik and to see everything we wanted to see. Your mileage may vary. Also, while as cities go it was very nice, it was no match for the general interior of Iceland. On any future trips to Iceland, we’d probably just bypass Reykjavik completely. But if you haven’t been there, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Day 9: Reykjavik to KEF to Toronto to LAX
Iceland’s international airport, Keflavik, is located about 30 miles southwest of Reykjavik, so it’s a bit of a drive to get there. So for our 10:30 AM flight we were up by 6 AM and off to the airport to drop off our car.
Icelandair runs their scheduling in a way I’ve never seen before. They arrange their arrivals and departures in simultaneous “waves”. For example, in addition to our 10:30 morning departure, Icelandair had four other flights to different cities in the US leaving at exactly the same time. They have their arrivals scheduled in a similar manner, with a horde of flights arriving at scheduled identical times. To me this seems like odd resource management as they need enough staffing to handle five departures simultaneously, rather than just moving staff around to board flights were they separated by 30 minute intervals. But why ever they do it, it certainly works. I looked out our plane’s window and saw four other Icelandair 757s trundling down the taxiway with us to the departure runway. As I already mentioned, they are a damn punctual people, which I love.
While it was cloudy and rainy for our takeoff, as we headed southeast the clouds below cleared. By the time we were crossing over the Greenland ice cap it was crystal clear, and just an amazing sight. I’ve flown over Greenland many times before but never had seen a view like that. I’m not one for taking pictures out an aircraft window, but I couldn’t control myself here.
Arrival in Toronto was right on time (of course!) and we got to do all our USA security clearing while in the Toronto airport. This meant that upon arrival at LAX there would be no customs to deal with and we could just head on our way. Still, we had a 6 hour layover at the Toronto airport to deal with, so that got old.
The 5+ hour flight back to LAX wasn’t too bad, especially considering we were flying a relatively small Airbus 319. Of course by the time we got home and to bed it was 11 PM local time, or 4 AM the next morning in Iceland. We had been up for 22 hours.
- We absolutely loved Iceland! It was clean, safe and very easy to drive in. And everyone we ran into spoke excellent English, even in remote areas.
- Iceland felt like a very large place but after looking up the statistics I was surprised to find it was only about a third of the size of Arizona.
- Credit cards seem to be accepted everywhere (automatic gas pumps a noteworthy exception) and run through faster than in the US. Don’t really need to carry cash. We never converted any currency for the trip.
- If you are doing a road trip, like the Ring Road as we did, be sure to stock up on prepaid gas cards. The N1 chain seems to be a good choice as they were most common in rural areas.
- We’d give the food situation maybe a B-. Not terrible (looking at you, England!) but not great. If you’re a fish fan you might move that grading up. Lots of pizza and burger options. Did not care for their “fish jerky”.
- I would say the country is like one big national park but it is in fact better than all the US national parks I’ve seen combined. Well, possibly excepting the Grand Canyon. It’s really that good.
- The Icelanders we met were all exceptionally nice despite having their country overrun by tourists like us. And we found they have a quite nice, whimsical sense of humor. Good people.
- If you look carefully, the country is set up as one amazing, giant tourist machine to efficiently push as many tourists through as possible. While that sounds bad, they do it with such grace and charm that it’s not annoying at all. And it’s now one of their major economic drivers, so that’s good.
- And speaking of economics, it’s really expensive there. No, I mean REALLY expensive, much more than you’d think. While you could do a relatively inexpensive trip, it might involve sleeping in hostels and eating at minimarts. Although the latter do offer up hotdogs….
So for us this trip really served as a sampling or reconnaissance. We now have a good feel for what the country has to offer and are now scheming as to how to best plan a return. There is so much more to see and I have yet to convince Jeri to try one of the hot dogs….