We’re the Storms. And we have fernweh. (Which led us to Iceland, so that’s cool.)
Fernweh is the German word for the need to see the world in all its far-flung-ness. It’s literally farsickness (as in the opposite of homesickness). The intense to desire to explore hither and yon, and all things between Hitherville and Yonland. And woooweeee, our family has it. Bad. In-a-good-way bad. Chill background vibe, fernweh is not. It’s wanderlust (also German btw) with the volume fully cranked up to deafening levels. There’s no not-noticing it. (learn more about fernweh here.)
Josh and I have imparted (we hope) many things to our kids. A sense of humor. The importance of investing in relationships. Strong, stick-to-it-ive work ethic. Even stronger faith. And on top of all that, a (healthy)-obsessive sense of fernweh. So the past few years had us climbing the walls (on many levels, but on this topic in particular) – feeling overly confined, with nearly the full scope of travel possibilities no-way, no-how possible. We missed it. Hard.
We keep a running hit-list of places we want to go next, buuuuuut at the time we were trying to make it happen – everything was closed. Closed closed closed. Then we saw something not on our list open. Iceland. (Hmmmmm, Iceland? Quick, scan list. Nope, definitely a non-lister.) Then again, OPEN. So we did what anyone with fernweh would do at this point. Booked it.
Knowing virtually zilch about Iceland, I doubled (white lie: quadrupled) my usual absurd amount of pre-trip research time (for a total of absurd x 4), diving deep into reviews and travel guides while simultaneously perfecting our lodging/dining plan. I like to cover a lot of travel-blog ground, finding finds that take some time to sleuth out. Local guides and quirky sights that don’t always make the must-see lists. Josh doesn’t fully embrace my time-consuming immersion process up front, thinking it’d be equally fine to just wing it. But afterward, he’ll come around, going on about how all my (semi-ridiculous) planning was SO worth it. (Similarly, he’d be fine with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch for dinner, BUT if I put a steak on his plate, he’s all, “Yeeeaaahhhhh. Now THIS is dinner.”)
The first thing I gathered from my compulsive Googling is that there’s an 828-mile road that winds its way around the entire circumference of Iceland – appropriately called Ring Road, so there’s no confusion for the directionally challenged. Heads up to any shortcutters: there are none, meaning no routes running through the middle of the island. You either camp out in Reykjavik and go a little North, back to home base, then go a little South. OR, you pick a starting point and commit to making the entire loop. Most sites claim it’s a 22-hour drive totes. Felllllllt like said sites may be truth-stretching a bit, but we didn’t clock it, so we’ll go with their number.
For our Tour d’Iceland we took a nomad approach, remaining on the move, making it a 10 day jaunt in all – spending 7 of the days on the road, booking 9 different places to sleep, a couple excursions and a lot of natural wonder stops (no shortage of those!). We saw waterfalls, whales, icebergs, geysers, lava fields, glaciers, black sand beaches, wandering sheep, more wandering sheep – and puffins(!). All that time on the road with nothing but amazing scenery for miles, left us with a new appreciation (and dorky celebration dance) for gas station cheeseburgers and Pringles to-go.
When chatting with my parents about the upcoming trip, what started as a request to watch our dog for two weeks turned into an invite to come along – turns out, Iceland WAS on THEIR list. (Is fernweh hereditary? Googling it…) We had one caveat. This was an All-Play, so they needed to agree to join in on everything we had planned. No bench-warming or hanging back at the hotel with coffee and a book. (We got a quick and very emphatic yes.) So we swapped out our cool-ish rental car for a decidedly uncool conversion van, added a room to all our hotel reservations, and shelled out the big bucks for a dog sitter back home. Done. The Storm 6 prepare to take on Iceland.
This wasn’t a chill-out-under-a-beach-umbrella trip (which we also do wholeheartedly endorse). Nope. This was a pack-it-all-in-and-collapse-into-bed-fully-tuckered trip. An itinerary some might call “aggressive.” But definitely the right one for us. On our non-chill trips, we like to leave no sight unseen, unexperienced, unInstagrammed. My 70-something parents hung in like champs. Props, Mom and Pop. Your “I Conquered Iceland” medals are at the engravers now.
As the family CTPO (Chief Travel Planning Officer – a self-designated position), I decided it’d be wise to cap our daily drive time to 3-5 hours, and selected the most intriguing (IMO) stopping points along the way. Even though our daily jaunts weren’t all that far distance-wise, sometimes it took THEWHOLEENTIREDAY to get there, with sooo many stops for creation-admiring, glacier touring and other adventuring.
And now, we pause for a note on packing.
If you are Iceland-bound, DO NOT under any circumstances pack heels, fancy dresses, coat and tie…anything with sequins, glitter or possibly even ruffles. While fabulous on you, we’re sure, you will not need them. Pack sensible: jeans, sweats, sweaters – comfies you can layer and de-layer as needed. You can wear the same thing multiple days (and I did, strategically switching out my top so every pic didn’t look the same).
For luggage, I was a stickler, mandating and enforcing one carry-on bag per person, and allowing one communal mother of a bag for boots, coats, snacks and other group miscellany. This turned out to be pretty genius, since we could typically leave the big mother in our sweet van at night. And less to haul in and out for all those different stays. Plus, since most hotels limit room capacity to 2, it was key for everyone to keep their personal must-haves with them (vs trying to consolidate in 1-2 shared mega-bags).
Now, a note on plan-ahead-ing.
Some places are great for spontaneity. Iceland is not. It’s a plan-ahead kinda place. Before you go – make all your reservations in advance (emphasis on all). You can’t just pop in and say “Iceberg tour for six please,” or you will be sorely disappointed and hopelessly plan-less. You really need to advance-plan to maximize all the sightseeables. And watch Zac Efron’s show Down to Earth, the Iceland episode. It’ll get you pumped about some of your stops. (Will Farrell’s/Rachel McAdam’s Eurovision – also a must-see, but for entirely different reasons. Jaja Ding Dong’ll be stuck in your head for WEEKS. Our apologies in advance.)
Day 1: Land in Reykjavik and show that jet lag who’s boss (you are).
We never fly first class. But knowing the um, “ambitious” itinerary ahead and because my parents were with us, we felt we had enough rationalization ammo to justify the splurge in our budget-minded brains – for the adults, anyway. Kids rally faster. Economy for them.
We landed at 6:05 am. Like in, well, every place we can think of, most hotels will not be ready for check in until mid-afternoon. So we say use the wait time to your advantage and go pick up your car and head straight for the Blue Lagoon.
(WARNING/CAUTION/NOTE TO NON-STICK DRIVERS: your car will most-very-likely be manual – brush up on your stick skills accordingly). Once you’ve secured the car, zip over to the Blue Lagoon. You can get an appointment as early as 9 am and stay as long as you want. Upgrade your rez to get the robe, slippers, face masks and a bevvie. They’re kinda magical. Cold Prosecco, silica face mask – and POOF, the long overnight schlep is completely forgotten.
The cafe’s great for casual eats. Restaurant’s a little posher, but they do let you dine in your robe and slippers, which is a nice perk and even less fancy than a graphic tee. We opted for the snacky route of sandos and chips, which cost about $75 for 6 of us (helloooo, Iceland prices). Confirmation that the blogs are indeed accurate, even fast food is double-dollar-sign spendy.
The Blue Lagoon, with robes, drink and slippers included is about $54/pp. They ask that you shower before entering the lagoon. In typical American fashion, we showered in our swimsuits, but (heads up) in typical European fashion, there were a lot of nudies walking around all free and happy and clueless about how it might impact a modest 15 year old, to see an 80 year old prancing around in all her glory. Ohhhh, the things you can’t un-see. I digress.
We got a room for the night at Hotel Odinsve, a welcoming spot with an attached restaurant open for breakfast and dinner (not included, but convenient). Rooms were clean and it’s right downtown, so easily strollable to anything. Street park and pay the meter for 20 hrs – for about $8, so you can leave it all night. Our sleepy friend Jet Lag showed up when we got to the hotel around 2 pm, so we caved and took a quick nap. Later, we tucked into dinner, strolled around the beautiful city (wow, wow, wowwwww), then called it a night. Big week and a half ahead!
The famous church Hallgrimskirkja is here, and you can’t miss it. The whole town looks up at it and all main streets lead there as well. From the outside, you can’t help but be awed by its presence and interesting architecture.
As we wandered around town, we noticed a Swedish and mid-century influence on a lot of buildings. Many of the homes are painted in bright vibrant colors, giving it a small town European feel. Most are clad in corrugated steel on the façade and roof. We came up with all kinds of hypotheses about why they would use that and how it would never fly in Chicago. After doing some digging, I found the use of corrugated metal in Iceland was a response to natural phenomenons like volcanos, floods, earthquakes and the like (also called disasters, but “phenomenons” sounds less, well, disastrous).
Cashmere alert: luxe wooly accessories abound – go for it. I scored a powder pink hat and glove set and busted it out early-birdy in October (someone’s excited for winter!). If your crew’s hungry, nab a streetside pub table, feast on creamy mushroom soup and clock an hour or two just people watching. Then stop at Valdi’s for ice cream and continue strolling aimlessly. (See? I can be a semi-non-planner too. Sometimes. Here and there.) The streets are painted and stores are vibrant – Insta-fodder galore. (street pics, rainbow, turf, birds)
Back to topDay 2: Get thee to the Golden Circle and South Coast
The Golden Circle is home to some of the iconic “biggies” in terms of sights – it’s an absolute must-do. We worked our way across the country counterclockwise, but if you’re short on time and your home base is Reykjavik, you can hit the Golden Circle easily – just plan for an extended-play kinda day (read: lonnnng).
Þingvellir – I’m not a big “national park-er,” but this is not too far from downtown Reykjavik, and the front-desker at the hotel insisted we hit it up. SO glad we did (thanks, front desker!). Hiiiiiighly recommend. The first car park area leads you to a path with my kinda hike (5 minutes) to an astoundingly beautiful waterfall called Oxarafoss (above), that’s sort of hidden by a mountain. Do it! It’s breathtaking, private and unbelievably stunning. When you come down, head right, you’ll pass the bus parking lot and a public restroom that’s pretty nice as far as public restrooms go. Take the path up-up-up to see where the tectonic plates meet, creating the divide between what was Eurasia and North America. It’s a worthy stop, maybe a 15/20 min walk to the top. There’s a shop up there with coffee, water, souvies, etc., and on the way down you see things you didn’t notice on the way up.
Þórufoss – I wouldn’t know, never watched, but apparently this waterfall was in Game of Thrones, so if you are a hardcore fan, you may want to re-jigger your must-see list to bump this one up to the top. (Though if you’re that hardcore, you probably knew this and already have it at the top of your list.) After about 15km on Route 36, turn left on Route 48, drive 5km and look for a small sign on the right for Porufoss. Two pozzies: open 24/7 and free. PS: Look for Kerio crater on the way. (Somehow we missed this(!) Huuuuuhhh? HOWWWWW?? No idea. Hopefully, you won’t.)
Laugarvatn Fontana – This is a wellness spa with an optional geothermal bakery tour. (WHAAAA? Two of life’s greatest joys in one stop. Brilliant.) Remember that earlier note about booking ahead? We repeat. Book ahead. After hitting the Blue Lagoon the day before, not everyone in the group was gunning for another spa day (what is wrong with these people?!?) – but once we were there and situated, floating in the pools, gazing out at the ocean – they came around. (Heads up: more nudie sightings in the locker room.)
After this we promise to stop talking about the Zac Efron show, but he does visit this spot in the Iceland episode. Our host on the bakery tour (Siggie - same guy from the show!) was full of info and had a gift for making what could’ve been a total snoozer tour SO FUN. Post-tour, you get to taste the bread with butter and smoked trout and take Siggie-pics. We’re pretty sure Zac isn’t one of our blog readers (his loss), but we’re sending a shoutout his way regardless, since this was a trip highlight. Kind of a high, actually. Sitting in the Iceland sun, ocean beyond, sampling local eats and just soaking it all in.
In terms of logistics, towels are included and there’s a nice café with (more!) mushroom soup, light sandos, snacks and coffee as well as an indoor and outdoor seating area, which we commandeered for some late morning Prosecco and a few games of Big Two.
Open 10am-11pm, $33 pp.
The geothermal bakery where they cook bread in the ground is about 20 steps from Fontana, so book back-to-back. For what it’s worth, 1-2 hours at the spa is plenty, definitely not an all-day thing – there’s too much to see around the Golden Circle. Bakery tour is approx. $18.50 pp.
Onto the falls. But first, ice cream. Or Bloody Mary’s. Your call.
We did not partake, but here are two picks highly recommended by the bloggers I stalked in my research phase.
Farm fresh ice cream, literally on a farm.
On Route 37, after the split from 365, drive about 12km (pass Route 366 on the right) , you’ll see a sign for the farm on the left side of the road (look for Hey Iceland flags).
Eco-friendly green house that grows tomatoes and cucumbers, known for the best tomato soup, Bloody Mary’s and homemade bread.
Road 35 Reykholt, about $20 pp, only open 12-4).
Look for this stop on your way to the falls, park near the Geyser restaurant and walk 10 minutes to 3 geysers. The big one goes off every 15 minutes or less, and is strangely mesmerizing. You can get pretty close, which is cool, and people just sit there for a while and watch it go off, over and over, on repeat. It’s a great stop and free (aside from eats). The parking lot café is cool, great atmosphere, really big and well-stocked with the crowd-pleasers like gelato, big, fluffy croissants, coffee, etc. We picked up breakfast for the next day, since we were headed to a guest house that night. Get food where you can, it’s not always close by.
FAXI & GULLFOSS Waterfalls (do not miss this!)
Road 35 between Stokkir Geyser and the town of Reykholt, there is a small sign pointing left as you’re driving south.
We did not stop at Faxi, but we did go to Gullfoss and had quite a spiritual experience there. I know that sounds either hokey or pretentious, depending on your mindset – but here, words fail. (Sorry, Wiki, your tidy little summary falls so far short of the actual experience.) Its stunning-ness defies description. Even pretty words like beauty and wonder don’t quite cut it, but we’ll leave them here for now. Anyway, it’s huuuuge and you can take a long path alongside it and get really close to the falls. It’s breathtaking and must create the perfect environment for a rainbow, because we saw 2 or 3 in our short visit. We spent about an hour here and took an obscene amount of photos, but none of them do it justice.
If you’re still going strong (or feel a rally comin’ on) and don’t mind getting back into your swimsuit, stop at the secret lagoon on your way down to Selfoss.
For overnighting, I’d recommend you find something near Selfoss if you’re planning to head to the Southern coast. Booming metropolis it is not, however it does have a grocery store and some restaurants – the surrounding areas are pretty sparse. We chose a guest house here, and feel obligated to note that you should set your expectations appropriately (read: lower) for guest houses. They are informal, and a little, ah, “rougher” for lack of a better word. Most are tired by American standards (and it’s not just the designer in me talkin’ here). But when in Iceland….as they say.
Disclaimers aside, they do have a certain charm, courtesy of craggy mountainside views and freely roaming sheep. Our kids preferred the guest houses to nice hotels (go figure). One house we stayed in, was a definite non-reco from my POV (the tired-est of the the tireds), but it was their favorite. They felt really comfortable there, and free to explore and roam the fields late into the night. (It was Summer Solstice, so felt like midday.)
Back on my Plan-Ahead Soapbox, when you stay in a guest house, make sure you pick up food for dinner and/or breakfast, as there will likely be zero options close by aside from hunting/gathering, and we can’t speak to the legalities of either. We stopped at Miniborger, a small restaurant along the way, and as we were pretty hungry, the food tasted great. This was our first restaurant experience and we learned a few things:
- Order it all in one fell swoop. The wait staff is not big on chit-chat. They come to the table when they feel like it and say “What do you want?” That’s your one chance to get your order in, so be ready to rattle off the entire order.
- Don’t get fancy. They speak solid English, but food orders can get tricky, so skip all the complicated “can you put this on the side and cook this a different way” business. Just stick with the printed menu. My dad learned the hard way, attempting multiple times to order a vodka martini with a lemon twist. They’d bring him a shot of Martini and Rossi in a large glass with tons of ice. At one point I was like “Dude, just order a beer.”
- Don’t sit around waiting to pay – you’ll be waiting indefinitely. When you’re done, most places have you bring the check up to the register. At Miniborger, the bartender had our order written on a bunch of random sticky notes, but he got it right and somehow that system seems to work.
- Lastly, some places offer horse. I’m not encouraging you to eat it, just passing along that factoid.
Day 3: Scoping out the Southeast
Morrrrre waterfalllllls! We left our guest house around 9 am to head for the Saljalandsfoss. I was worried about missing it since I literally missed A CRATER the day before, until I saw a mountain with a huge waterfall, parking lot and people all over. You really can’t miss this one, it’s visible from the street. Wear gym shoes and a rain poncho if you plan to take the trail along the inside back of the waterfall (and if you can, you absolutely should). We gave my my parents a pass on the “All-Play” rule for this one, as it was a little steep and wet for them.
The Kvernufoss Waterfall is about a 20 minute hike and right around the corner from the huge, far more touristy Skogafoss. While Skogafoss is packed out with sightseers, few know about this lush green valley, so you can have a far less tour-bus-y experience and enjoy an equally gorgeous waterfall. Here's a link. We weren’t able to do this due to our tight schedule, but I had saved the following info just in case:
Start hike behind the Skogar museum just east of Skogafoss – just drive a minute or so around and park in the museum lot. Behind the museum, there’s a little step ladder for hikers to get over the fence (and keep the sheep in).
One of the things we noticed about Iceland is that you’re surrounded by dramatic coastline and crazy-gorgeous beaches, yet no one is on them. (No one!) Why? Well, first off, they’re cold, even in summer. The water is also scary-rough with a strong undertow, soooo not exactly swimmer-friendly. Cold, dangerous water aside, it’s glorious to just walk on the sand, sit in the sunshine and do some nature appreciating. Dyrholaey is a large rock sticking into the ocean with a sweet lighthouse. To the north you see the Myrdalsjokull glacier. To the east, you see the black lava sea stacks and (if you’re lucky!) puffins. Somehow, we missed seeing this too! I’m not sure how, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we were looking out the left car window and passed this on the right. Lots to take in.
We did an ice cave tour in the afternoon. Mixed reviews. The weather had been so warm (and overall global warming) that the ceiling had been falling and we were only able to stand at the foot of it, which was disappointing. It’s also nothing like the photos online, because so much of it has melted. I’m not sure which direction I would steer someone. It’s still cool to see an ice cave and glacier, and fascinating to learn about (like, "hey, why is it black and not icy-white?" Because it's covered in soot from the volcanoes), but it’s also a good hour-long drive in a bumpy van from the pick-up location, and then you have to bumpy ride back, so decide if you can hang before booking.
Dragon Glass Super Jeep tour. The tour was called “private,” but there were about 12 of us packed into a hot, smelly bus, like sweaty sardines. My mom and dad really enjoyed it, the idea of touching a glacier that’s been there forever and is 3x deeper than it is tall, was pretty cool. We also got to take an ice pick to the glacier and see the clean ice under the black soot of volcanic ash. Our daughter Parker decided to venture out on her own and landed in glacier “quick sand,” trashing her brand new gym shoes and the jeans she had planned to wear for multiple days (wow, I sound like a real mom). Oops. If you do go, show up early, the bus schedule is Swiss-like – there’s no waiting around for the tardy folks. We arrived 2 minutes late and they had to call the bus back for us. As you can imagine, our fellow sardines were a bit surly about that. Bit of an awkward ride.
Have dinner and stay over in Vik. It’s a larger town and the locale for the show Katla (which is the volcano there). Head for the pretty church, an ideal perch for taking in the whole town. We scarfed down some great fish and chips here at a pub called Strondin, then walked to the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach link. We enjoyed the beach (even in winter coats), but like the others, it was too cold and rough for swimming. Fuel up here on gas and food. Not many options before the next town stopover. We enjoyed the Hotel Vik I Myrdal. Breakfast included with rez, approx. $250 for a room. 2 Klettsvegur, Vik, 870, Iceland +354-487-1480 Directions here.
Day 4: Highs and Lows of the Eastfjords
We started the day with a nice hotel breakfast, and then THIS. Whoaaaa. The panoramic views of the 100-meters-deep-and-somewhat-narrow canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur will leave even the talkiest talkers speechless. This is Ice Age history still kickin’ two million years later. The Fjadra river runs through it. You can’t walk the river unless you want to wade through it, but there is a nice path up and some cool lookout points. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the top, and then you can stay until you tire of the views (hours?), or until you have to bounce to get to your next stop on time (the more likely scenario).
Skaftárhreppur – This is the area with the iceberg tour – a must. Non-negotiable. Daytime is best. No need to stop in town, but be sure to make your way through here and see all the see-ables! This district is the center of the south part of the country, known as the House of Iceland’s Natural Treasures. It’s the main point that leads you to the glacier lagoons of Jökulsárlón, Eldgjá fissure, Fjallsárlón Iceberg, Skaftafell and Diamond Black Beach. Go nuts.
Glacier Lagoon boat tour 2:30 pm in Fjallsarlon (awesome)
JÖKULSÁRLÓN GLACIER LAGOON
The Glacier Lagoon in Iceland is close to Highway Number One and considered one of Iceland’s greatest natural wonders (no small claim in a land this wonder-filled). This lagoon is a recent one, the result of a warming climate. The surface is at sea level and water flows into the lagoon at high tide. Huge blocks of ice constantly break off the glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull (an outlet of the Vatnajökull glacier), and large icebergs float on the lagoon. It’s not very wide but fairly deep, up to 250 meters – Iceland’s deepest.
FJALLSARLON GLACIER LAGOON
We opted for this less touristy glacier tour. We did the private option, and It. Was. Awesome. Ask for – no, INSIST ON – Clara. She’s such a great guide. They outfit you with a warm floating jacket, pants and a life vest. Bundle up in your winter wear, and bring a hat and gloves. Stop in at the little café before or after for soup, sammies and surprisingly clean restrooms.
Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tours ($61 pp) Fjallsarlon Rd, 785 Öræfi, Iceland.
After the tour, head down the street to Diamond Beach. Go left out of the parking lot, and take a right into the beach lot, just before the bridge (don’t fly by the entrance!). This is the most amazing beach I’ve ever seen, and you don’t really get it until you’re down by the water. There are pieces of iceberg all over the place. Yep. Like giant shells, only ICEBERGS!
Book your overnight stay in Hofn, the charmer of a seaside town with bragging rights for having the best (and PS, spendiest) dining scene on the East side. Not the place for a cheap night out, so consider this an official Splurge Night (offset by the aforementioned gas station burgers).
Hotel Höfn Vikurbraut 20, Hofn, IS Víkurbraut 20, 780 Höfn í Hornafirði, Iceland•+354 478 1240 about $280 per room.
Request a dinner rez at the hotel restaurant, the food’s incredible. Good good goooooooood. Still a casual vibe even though the cuisine is more elevated. In the morning, there’s a large breakfast buffet included with the room. It was probably the best and most robust of the hotel breakfasts we had, and we may or may not have pocketed a few cookies and croissants “to go.”
Day 5: Northern Iceland
Once you leave Hofn, get onto Route 1 and make a quick stop in Borgarfjörður (flowering plants, hiking trails, but not a whole lot else). You wind in and out of the fjords which seems inefficient, but there really is no other way around it, and it’s beautiful, so don’t get all hung up on the slowness and just enjoy. We stopped for some horseback riding to break up the 5-hour drive.
Our Fell Horse Rental day was probably our favoritest of many favorite days. We did a view-filled hour and a half jaunt through acres of picturesque land with streams and mountains, guided by the owner and her daughter. Icelanders are a little less “safety-first” than we are here in the US, so there was some galloping. And fear-swears. Followed by snort-laughing.
https://fellhorserental.wixsite.com/website, 1.5 hr horseback ride (Icelandic cash due at arrival, approx $75 pp). firstname.lastname@example.org, The address is Fell 761 Breiðdalsvík. You’ll find it on Google Maps as Fell Horse Rental.
If your kids are into crystally rocks, hit up these two spots:
Audunns stone and mineral collection.
Petra's Stone Collection – This is a stone museum with paid admission. We skipped it, but it would be a nice detour if you need to stretch legs and it’s right there on the drive – no detours or backtracking.
Take a gander around the town of Eglisstadir if you need a stop, or veer off on a brief detour to check out the small, adorbs Seyðisfjörður. Eats are available in the general store, and the locals there are all so kind. Plus it’s a big hit with kids because: fries, cheese sticks, hot dogs, etc. We got talked into buying dried fish chips, apparently “the best in the land,” (not entirely sure what that means, given they’re dried fish bits). But hey, we’re gamers, and figured we’d try ‘em. Side note: you have to be able to eat something that tastes and smells like fish, but doesn’t look like it. More about that later. [didn’t see more on this - did you want to add something??]
Our next stopover was in the farthest Northeast corner at this Blabjorg hotel, a place I found online and one of our Top Most Favorite Stays – hands down. It’s middle-of-nowhere remote, and the restaurant is off-the-charts good. Also: puffins(!), and a hot tub with killer views. Take a 5 minute drive around the fjord to do some serious puffin stalking. And be sure to make reservations in advance for the onsite restaurant and hot tub.
Try and rent the apartment (about $335/night, breakfast included). It sleeps 4 and 1 extra could crash on the sofa. Otherwise, there’s another large apartment adjacent to it. If you rent a regular room, you’ll be in a more European part of the hotel (read: shared bathrooms, kitchenette, etc.) That whole situ wasn’t apparent to me when booking, so figured I’d clarify. https://blabjorg.is/musterid-spa-and-wellness/
Gamla Frystihusid, 720 Borgarfjordur Eystri, Iceland
Puffin webcam live! We texted our peeps back home to log on at 6 pm Chicago time, then went out at 11 pm (since it’s still light out super late in summer). See signature dance moves and lots of waving here.
Oh those puffins, little heart-stealers they are. Completely captivating just watching them go about their normal everyday bird business. But standing there, we noticed something else. To our right was a gorgeous flowering mountain, and to our left was a glacier covered in snow. So strange to see these two things side by side – and just so…Iceland. One minute you’re looking at fields of purple Lupin, the next – moss covered lava, and around the bend, a glacier, followed by a waterfall. Almost too much to take in. (Guess we’ll have to go back, haha.)
Day 6 : The North, headed West
Our remote hotel/puffin adventure put us a bit out of the way, and we had to make some serious tracks to get to our next stop: sailing tour!
The landscape along the way was really gorgeous, but do gas up before you go, because when I say there is nowhere to stop, I exaggerate not. We eventually came upon this little oasis, in the middle of nowhere, a corrugated steel and wood building with a café inside, snacks and clean bathrooms. We loaded up on some Pringles (a fam fave), and then kept on rolling. Husavik or bust.
But, if you’re not in a rush to get to a sailboat or whatnot, do make a morning stop in Dettifoss (and report back).
WHALES! 3 glorious hours of ‘em on this Husvik SAILING TOUR. After 2 hours they slow the boat down and serve cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate (with rum if that’s how you roll). We booked with North Sailing, about $80 pp. Check in off the main street for your tickets, and make sure you show up at least 30 minutes in advance. We got there about 15 minutes early and thought we were golden, but in realty we were nearly the last ones to arrive. Everyone else was in their full gear, ready to load the boat. Like the iceberg trip, they give you the proper pants and jacket to wear, which are also flotation devices, but bundle up underneath. It’s a long time out on in the elements. Post-tour, if you’re up for a walk-around, there are some nice shops and cute restaurants for lunch or dinner.
Stay in Husavik or find a hotel or guest house in Akureyri, about an hour away. You don’t need more than half day in either of them. The nice thing about to getting to Akureyri is that you shave an hour off your drive the next day.
Day 7 – Stopover in Hvammstagni
https://www.wildwestfjords.com/shore_excursions/Akureyri_Food_Walk/ This tour is a solid option if you're a foodie. We spent our morning here exploring Akureyri – a half day is plenty. It’s a charming coastal town, but small. Favorite part of Akureyri was the stop light situ!
Some things to do in the area:
Kolugljufur Waterfall (just before Hvammstagni)
- Icelandic Seal Center - Sadly, the seals were being shy when we were there (c’monnnnn SEALS, show thyselves!). It’s an additional 30 minute drive both ways, but a nice little detour if you just want off the main roads for a bit.
- Woolfactory Shop KIDKA - Not so great, a lot of itchy wool stuff. I’d bypass this whole area and scoot along to your next stay.
- Stora - Asgeirsa - Potential spot for overnighting.
- Gauksmyri Lodge – Didn’t make it, so can’t vouch for it, but must’ve seen this place on a few lists since it’s in my notes.
One of our best stays was at the Hotel Varmaland, a former girls’ school beautifully converted to a hotel with a modern addition. It reopened right before Covid, so sat empty-ish for a year, which means everything was still brand new. Casual vibe. Spectacular fine-dining restaurant. Lovely staff, and the kind of lobby where you want to cozy up for a few hours each night with a bottle of wine. So we did.
There’s a hiking trail out back that leads to some great views. Online pics are a little confusing – you can’t actually go into the greenhouse or ride the horses, but we did wander over to the corral to say a quick howdy. If you’re early for dinner, have a drink in the bar or grab a table outside.
This stop in Borgafjodour was a great way to wrap up our trip before heading back to Reykjavik, ($164 per 2 person room, generous breakfast spread included). Be sure to make a reservation for dinner – even though it seems way-the-heck out there, people do travel from Rejkavik to eat here. Long drives ain’t no big thang for Icelanders.
From Varmaland you can head to a Fjord on the West side to see more parks and attractions. We heard there was some cool stuff like Snaefellsnes, Krauma hot springs and Grabrok Crater, but we opted to head back to Reyjakiv because I had a li’l surprise in the works for my dad and Josh. Golfing on the coast at an unbelievably stunning oceanfront course (as a thank you for their patience with my hourrrrrs upon hourrrrrs of pre-planning and research). See? Totally pays off for everyone in some way. Occasionally in the form of a once-in-a-lifetime golf day.
Day 8 – Travel back toward Reykavik – book a return Covid test (if that’s still a thing)
For now, even if you travel with a vaccine card, you’ll need a Covid test before you return. There’s a rapid test facility in Reykjavik, and they emailed us results in 30 min, but you can’t book more than 2 days ahead. Fair warning, they really shove in that Q-tip with gusto. All of us came out emotionally disturbed.
We stayed our last two nights in the Odinsve Hotel Apartments across from the Hotel Odinsve, where we spent the first night. There are oodles of hotels on the main shopping street as well, but this was a quieter street with lots of restaurants, and still walking distance to all the good shopping. The apartments were nice and more spacious, which we appreciated since we were there a few days. After some walking around town, we opted for take-out Italian and watched a movie – a chill wind-down night.
Odinsve Hotel Apartments, about $350 a night for a 4 person room.
Day 9 – Golf!
I originally thought we might go back to the Blue Lagoon again at the end of the trip, but it’s not super close and we were a little all-drived-out. So my mom treated us to manicures while the guys golfed 12 holes (haha, it’s like they ran out of land, but that is not a typo, LOL). The course was amazing and they had a blast. I had pre-booked the time, club rental, cart and pick-up from our place, and we were all surprised how reasonable it seemed:
Brautarholt Golf Club. ($180.50 pp, includes golf, transfer/pickup, cart and clubs)
After golf, the guys met us for (yes – more!) creamy mushroom soup at a little bistro while we wrapped up souvenir shopping and I gathered some Icelandic product for our store. I did come home with 4 insanely soft and beautiful blankets which I was so excited to put on the website, but then some clients snagged them once we staged them for a shoot, soooo I guess I have to go back.
If you're lucky, you get to see a fresh lava field…
While we were galavanting around the country, an active volcano erupted. Wait, what?! Yep. It had finished flowing into the valley (near Rejkavik) by the time we arrived ("you went to see it?!") and it created a once-in-a-lifetime sight to see. The chances of you seeing the same is highly unlikely, but we thought we'd share what we saw. Just 1 meter below this hardened, black rock is a layer of lava at a cool 400º. That's pretty hot, so we refrained from walking on top, just in case.
Things we didn’t get to but (of course) wish we had:
There are several of the “wish we’d gotten there” spots woven into the daily itinerary above, but here are two more. Never enough time!
-Heard this was a short, nice hike that leads to a natural hot spring creek and pools, maybe save enough time to hang there and relax on your last day.
A note about departure.
Go early. Like waaaay early. 3 hours-before-departure early. The lines are long and slow-ish, they require a Covid test form to be pre-filled out, proof of your negative test, and there are no shortcuts (no TSA or anything to speed you through the line). It’s about an hour from Reykjavik to the airport, plus give yourself a cushion for the rental car return and shuttle.
- Area code for Iceland, dial: 011-354 then number.
- Download maps.me and an Iceland map, so your phone doesn’t die, works well for routing around the country. Bring a car charger!
- Internet was pretty good – had a little trouble when we were in the far northeast, but that’s about it.
- Many times we found we would plug in an address and it would take us to the wrong spot, close to where we were going, but not exact. However, if we plugged in the main town, got close to it and then entered the exact address, it would get us there.
- You can drink the water, but it often has that sulpher smell, sometimes even at hotels, so if that smell’s a no-go for ya, get bottles to have on hand.
- If you like wine and plan on booking guest houses, you should stock up at the airport duty-free shop. You literally cannot find a store with wine, and it’s about $20 a glass at most restaurants.
- Bring an eye mask for sleeping, it looks like noon at 2 am during summer solstice, makes it hard to sleep. Most hotels have blackout shades, but guest houses do not.
- Bring snacks for the car, there are not a lot of places to stop.
- Get gas anytime you are at half a tank or less (see note above).
- Show up early for all adventure reservations. They begin promptly, and don’t wait for stragglers. Often they outfit you – especially if it’s on the water – in flotation and weather safe gear, so that takes time too. I’d say get there at least 30 min before the tour starts.
- Before you make a hotel or guest house reservation, check to see if breakfast is included. We found that 8/10 places we reserved had a complimentary breakfast, and that was great because you can’t go grab a bagel or egg sandwich unless you are in a major town like Reykjavik (considered the capital of the South) or Akureyri (considered the capital of the North).
- Food is pricey. Getting a 4 person lunch with soup and drinks can easily cost $150, so plan to spend a decent amount on food.
- Most free hotel breakfasts consist of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, tart yogurt with granola, cereal and milk, fresh tomato, cucumber and meats. It’s more than your basic continental breakfast, but less that an American buffet. There is always good coffee.
- We packed carry-on suitcases for our daily stuff, since we were in a different hotel every night. In our large suitcase, we packed food, coats, hats and boots, so we could leave it in the car and just access stuff when we needed it.
- If you fly Iceland Air on the night flight, they don’t give you food or drinks unless you go high-roller and fly first class, so bring something along. Also, one way, the TVs didn’t have anything to view, so pre-load some Netflix. It’s a lonnnnng time to just sit with your thoughts, haha.
- Reserve a van if you have more than 4 people. The cars are compact and you need room for suitcases. Thrifty and a couple other brands don’t have a station at the airport. You look for a person holding a sign with the car rental brand name, and they shuttle you to the facility. The van we got was manual with no option for automatic. Manual is actually better with all the hills and occasional dirt roads – just make sure you know what you’re getting and bring someone who can drive stick!
Lastly, just go! Pack light. Book ahead. Try everything.
My last bit of advice? Embrace adventure. Try it all. For a family that’s highly partial to Caribbean beaches and all things Italy, I was a teensy bit worried this trip would not make our list of Best Evers. I teensy-bit-worried for naught. We still can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it and subjecting anyone who seems mildly interested to a “brief” slideshow of about 5 billion pictures. It’s an incredible country. The people are kind and warm and ridiculously hospitable. And I’ve just bestowed upon you this gift of approximately 237 hours of pre-trip research, which happily, you now do not have to invest. (I exaggerate. Slightly. Wait – Josh says no. 237 hours sounds about right.) Go! Go now!!