Self-driving the Iceland ring road: ten days, three girls and one epic adventure
Six months ago I proposed the idea of a road-trip across Iceland to a couple of my best girl friends; it was the easiest sell of my life. Inspired by a travel guide put together by American photographer Alex Cornell, Natalie, Camilla and I started planning our route and itinerary. Iceland is small and tourism is booming so I wouldn’t recommend planning a trip like this one last minute; accommodation in some of the little towns fills up quickly. My intention with this blog post is to share every detail of our trip with you, to inspire and help you plan yours. I can quite confidently say that this adventure beats any other I’ve had and I hope you place Iceland firmly on your wanderlust list.
Dates: March 14 – 25th
Season: Spring (LOL, winter if you’re from Africa)
Weather (Reykjavik): 4° average, high of 6°, low of 1° (note, the highs in summer in Iceland are only around 14°). We did experience much colder negative temperatures in the north and along the East Fjords.
Why visit in March: While it’s a little breezier than the summer months, you’ll experience snow-fall, the mind-blowing Northern Lights and enjoy fewer crowds and lower prices
Route: Johannesburg – Amsterdam – Keflavik, however many European cities fly into Keflavik, we just happened to find the best prices with the least amount of travel time via KLM.
Visa requirements: Sorry South Africans like me traveling on the Green Mamba need a Schengen Visa, sadly. You can apply for a Schengen to travel to Iceland via the Danish Embassy, which takes 15 working days, a pile of paperwork and a DNA sample. Okay not really, but close.
Currency: Iceland uses the Krona and one Rand will get you 8.10 Krona, as of today’s date. We didn’t really use much cash and swiped our credit cards throughout.
Budget: R35 000 (All flights R13 000, accommodation R9000, car R3500, fuel R1500, food/drink/fun R8000). Food and drink is expensive, so get used to R100 petrol station coffees and R350 hot-dogs.
We opted to drive the country over ten days, anti-clockwise from Keflavik where the airport is situated. No more than one night is needed in many of the little towns along the way, and truth is a lot of the adventure lies is the journey to each destination. Yes, there will be a lot of packing and unpacking which is why packing efficiently is critical, but you’ll be really good at it after a couple of days.
Day one: Keflavik to Vik – 226 km
Vik is the southern most town in Iceland, famous for its breathtaking black volcanic beaches, Dyrhólaey (the arch in the rock formation in the ocean) and its puffins. Much of Game of Thrones was filmed there. Because the drive from Keflavik Airport is about 226kms to Vik, try and get a flight that lands relatively early in order to acclimatize to driving on the right-hand side of the road, and also to allow enough time enjoy the sights and sounds of Thingvellir National Park along the way. We unfortunately landed late and had a baptism of fire in dark, snowy, scary conditions as we pushed through to get to Vik, missing Thingvellir and it’s wonders including the famous Silfra Fissure which you can snorkel and scuba-dive into.
We woke up to a beautiful little snow-covered seaside town and back-tracked about 20 minutes to experience Vik’s black beaches from above, Dyrhólaey and the Hálsanefshellir Cave; totally worth it! At the cave, be super careful of the tide and sneaker waves which claim the lives of tourists regularly. The current is strong and the waves are more powerful than people realise, sneaking up onto the beach and pulling people into the icy waters below. The black beaches in contrast to the white snow that had fallen the night before were magnificent.
Unfortunately our backtrack didn’t allow enough time to visit Thingvellir National Park, so I’m saving that for my next trip to Iceland.
Stay at: Icelandair Hotel Vik
Day two: Vik to Brunnholl – 242 km
This magnificent drive started with a detour off the beaten track to check out the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. Tucked away along some farm-roads is a breathtaking little canyon that allows for some great photo and drone opportunities. Be warned, though: many public toilets are closed in the wintertime so don’t count on ‘comfort breaks’ at the sights along the way. You’ll have to bottle it up and blow it out as steam, as my mother likes to say.
The best thing about road-tripping Iceland is there’s beauty everywhere; you don’t need to be visiting the sights necessarily to experience things that leave your jaw to the floor. For example, driving alongside the mammoth Skaftafellsjökull glacier which looks like blue lava from a giant volcano frozen in time.
It’s on this leg of the trip that we visited the famous Skógafoss waterfall. It’s really easy to access off the main road which is great as it doesn’t require a detour. However, it’s easy access makes it tourist-central so get there before 9AM if you want to avoid the hoards of people that arrive in tour-buses. Fortunately visiting Iceland in the colder months means far less people at most of the sites; apparently summer is a nightmare if you’re trying to get a photograph without people in it.
About 20 minutes before you reach the Brunnholl Country Guesthouse you’ll pass the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach and the access point to the Jökulsárlón glacier and caves, all amazing stops and photo fodder.
The best thing about traveling with Natalie is she’s like a truffle pig for good restaurants. She sniffed out Humarhofnin on the Hofn Harbour where we indulged on lobster (it’s what they’re famous for).
Where to stay: Brunholl Country Guesthouse (or in Hofn)
Tip: they make their own ice-cream!
Day three: Brunholl (Hofn) to Egilstaddir – 187kms
Day three started with a little panic. Do we back-track 20 minutes to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and spend KR20 000 each on a pre-arranged glacier cave tour that we might miss because we have 20 minutes before the tour leaves, or do we skip it and save it for another glacier cave? We quickly realised we were literally running out of glacier and about to enter the East Fjords, so we drove like hell back to the lagoon and decided to wing it on the tour front. Advice: you do not need to pay a fancy tour company KR20 000 to explore the caves at a set time in order to experience this. In true South African fashion, we haggled with a couple of guys in a monster-truck with a sign saying Glacier Cave Tours Available and we managed to get a massive discount, leave when suited us and have a private tour of both the black and blue ice caves.
I’m so glad we made the decision to back-track and do this. The awe of being inside Europe’s largest glacial mass (the Vatnajökul glacier) which covers an area of 8000 km2, the thickest part being 1km in depth, is more than one can really comprehend. The blacks and blues of the ice caves we managed to enter by foot through two tiny openings in the snow were incredible. I learnt two things in the ice caves: crampons are super effective (you can also buy them at almost every petrol station in Iceland) and American tourists have a knack for ruining truly quiet, special moments. Again, get to the caves by 9AM if you’d like the opportunity to enjoy them (especially the blue one) without a bunch of people who will most certainly ruin your photograph.
The drive to Egilstaddir along the East Fjords was spectacular; snowy coastal mountain passes for days. Scary podcasts and winding roads lulled us into a quasi road-trip meditation. We finally had our snow legs.
Where to stay: Iceland Air Hotel Herad
Day four: Egilstaddir to Myvatn – 175 kms
The drive to Myvatn was a quick and easy one and we got to our super cute little cabins (owned by a working dairy farm) pretty early. The Myvatn area is rich in geothermals and you get the sense that there’s some incredible stuff happening beneath you. This is one of the things I loved most about Iceland; everything feels alive. The deafening sound of the steam escaping the earth at Hverarönd, the bubbling mud and stench of the sulphur quickly connects you with the earth and reminds you of the power of its core.
Our day in Myvatn was one of my favourites.
As we arrived at our cabin big, relentless fluffy snowflakes greeted us. Armed with cozzies, gins & tonic in squeezy bottles (my department) and giddy, girly excitement, we headed for the Myvatn Nature Baths for our first experience of Iceland’s famous piping-hot geothermal pools. I preferred these pools to the famous Blue Lagoon; it’s smaller, quieter and just as blue. One thing about traveling Iceland is you need to harness every opportunity it presents you with. Don’t count on another version of something later on in your trip. I wanted to take some photographs of the striking blues of the Blue Lagoon but the weather had other ideas and in hindsight I should’ve taken advantage of our time in Myvatn. I’ll never forget this day, running through a snow-storm in bikinis in negative temperature and diving into a 41° pool, heated by the earth’s core.
Did I mention that the restaurant at the Vogafjós cabins serves farm-fresh bread baked underground by the heat of the geysers? With home-made lamb and vegetable soup? OMG.
Where to stay: Vogafjós Guesthouse
Day five: Myvatn to Hvammstangi – 291 kms
Day five was a pretty long drive and one thing I’d change in this itinerary is adding a night at the seaside village of Akureyri. Although only a short drive from Myvatn, it’s a big enough village to warrant a day of exploration, a little shopping and probably some nightlife. From Akureyri you can go whale watching, do boat tours, photographic tours, off-roading and more. The bookshop in town also offers up a killer pumpkin spiced latte with whipped cream.
Hvammstangi somehow became the euphemism for number twos. When you’re sharing a small cabin with two of your besties, poo jokes are inevitable. Is there a geyser nearby or was that you?
We stayed in the Hvammstangi Cottages, a collection of wooden cabins atop a hill about 5 minutes outside of town. The cabins are basic but they have everything you need. We connected Camilla’s hard-drive to the flat-screen TV in the cabin and indulged on Steel Magnolias, gas-station hotdogs, chocolate milk and Mars ice-cream bars. Driving long distances warrants little rewards like Julia Roberts and carbohydrates, no?
We had supper at Sjávarborg on the harbour. This excellent, modern little seafood restaurant is completely out of place in the one-horse town of Hvammstangi. There was nothing open for breakfast the next morning as the town’s only coffee shop had shut for the winter (a common thing, particularly in the remote little villages); we took a little detour to what seemed to be a slightly bigger village and we happened upon the Laugarbakki Hotel (about a 10 minute drive out of Hvammstangi). From the outside it looked like a deserted insane asylum but ended up being really clean and modern inside and served up a mean breakfast.
If you’re staying at hotels that offer the option of breakfast, take it! Not only are the hotel breakfasts really expensive to bolt-on after the fact, but often the breakfast your hotel’s offering is the best, or only option in the village. You’re not spoilt for choice in Iceland along the ring-road.
Where to stay: Hvammstangi Cottages
Day six: Hvammstangi to Heydalur (Látur) – 250 kms
On day 6 Google Maps started to mess with us by telling us our desired route was impassable or didn’t exist. We encountered this a couple of times on the trip, so don’t rely on Google Maps. Our trusty Garmin was a lifesaver throughout our journey; some travelers will tell you not to rely on your Garmin and to always travel with a physical map, although we had no issues with our GPS.
This journey to the West Fjords was a pretty and easy drive along the coastline, however for all the hype the West Fjords get, I think the East Fjords are better. We didn’t realise how off-the-beaten-track our farm accommodation was and Camilla (affectionately known as The Spreadsheet) was slowly slipping to a horrie-hokkie as the kilometers passed and our accommodation didn’t. To add to her horries, we probably only had something crazy like ¾ of a tank of fuel left.
Meandering through trout fishing country we turned a bend and finally Heydalur Country House appeared. We were greeted by a lovely old lady, an African Grey parrot and a piping hot bowl of traditional Icelandic lamb soup. The hotel has a communal, country feel and it’s the kind of place I could imagine getting really festive if traveling with friends or making friends with fellow revelers. The restaurant is in an old barn and it’s filled with books, board-games and things. I chatted to an American lady who appeared to be working tirelessly through her ‘lunch break’. It turns out she’s retired and is spending three months in Heydalur learning the Icelandic language. It’s the kind of place I could imagine writing a novel, or just escaping life for a while.
Our accommodation was an apartment, comfortable and heated by the area’s natural geothermals. Although it’s in the middle of nowhere, the Heydalur Country House has a lot to offer and we had a blast in this hole in the wall. If you’re in the market for a wallow in a geothermal pool, or hot-pot as the Icelanders call it, you’re in luck. There’s a hot-pot at the foot of the hills across the river on the farm which features in records dating back to the 12th century. It took zero convincing for Natalie and I to whip our kits off in the middle of the snowy mountains and to plunge into the steamy, slimy hot-pot.
There’s a man-made geothermal pool at the hotel, as well as an indoor swimming pool and a Jacuzzi inside a hot-house, both also geothermally heated. The hot-house reminded me of Great Expectations and it had an eeriness about it. I think it was the leafless trees growing inside it, and the basketball hoop that had been claimed by creepers.
The farm has a stud of beautiful, fluffy Icelandic horses that one can ride. I spent a while with them giving them face scratches and trying to capture their fluffiness and fancy coifs on camera. Interestingly, in order to protect the Icelandic horse breed and blood-line, no other horses are allowed to be imported into the country and should an Icelandic horse leave the country to compete, it may never return to Iceland. They’re hardy buggers and spend the entire winter outdoors, weathering the cold and wind.
A highlight from our time at the Heydalur Country House was meeting Zora the resident Arctic fox who comes to the restaurant in the mornings for a little snack. I had no idea Arctic foxes were black. Also, kind of annoyed we didn’t call ourselves the #ArcticFoxes on this trip.
Where to stay: Heydalur Country House
Day 7: Heydalur to Búðardalur – 193 km
Búðardalur was the only place we stayed at that I felt was a bit of a lemon.
One helluva but.
It was a chance encounter at the Guðrúnarlaug hot-pot in the area that resulted in us going on a midnight adventure with a Czech couple we met there in an effort to hunt down the illusive Northern Lights. And we found ‘em! More on the Northern Lights further down, so make yourself another cup of tea and keep reading.
Where to stay: Hotel Edda – Laudar (FYI, Hotel Edda is not where we stayed – I’m not giving that place any airtime. Hotel Edda is situated next to the hot-pot and by all accounts looks lovely; we should’ve stayed there instead).
Days 8 – 10: Búðardalur to Reykjavik – 147 kms
The final leg of the trip from Búðardalur to Reykjavik was a quick 147km. By day 8 you’re ready for some city life, bustle, shopping and proper coffee. I’m going to do a follow-up post on Reykjavik and the walking food tour of the city we did through Wake Up Reykjavik, so I won’t embellish too much here; it deserves it’s own feature.
Reykjavik is a small but colourful and vibrant city and is home to 280 000 of Iceland’s population of 300 000. The houses are all painted in the most vibrant colours in an attempt to lift the spirits of a place that remains dark and gloomy for much of the year; Vitamin D deficiency among the population is a real issue, as is depression. The city is walkable and full of boutiques, restaurants and quirks. Do yourself a favour and grab a fresh cinnamon roll from Braud & Co. Accompany that with a flat-white from the Reykjakic Roasters and set off to explore the city by foot.
We had some killer meals in Reykjavik, particularly the 10 course tasting menu at Grillmarkaðinn for a cool 10 900 Krona per person. Dining experiences like this one are a real treat when you travel, and worth every cent in my opinion. Their cocktails, while also not cheap, were outstanding.
We ventured out to the famous Blue Lagoon on our second day in Reykjavik, a 45 minute drive. We bought our tickets through Gray Line in advance to avoid queues, which I recommend. Sadly the day we visited the Blue Lagoon it was raining/blizzarding/gusting and didn’t make for an enjoyable experience at all. This is why you need to make the most of your experiences in Iceland because the weather can be completely unpredictable and turn suddenly. We applied silica masks and hid under a bridge like trolls for while, seeking shelter from the elements. Eventually we decided to call it a day and head back to Reykjavik for our food tour.
Another reason to go back to Iceland.
Where to stay: we stayed in this gorgeous 4 sleeper AirBNB in central Reykjavik; great apartment, location and super-host!
The Northern Lights
Contrary to my prior knowledge and expectation, you don’t just sommer see the Northern Lights. You have to go out and hunt these trippy bastards and they make you work for it. Which is kinda nice, I suppose, because when (if) you find them, you feel like you’re deserving of their majesty.
Listen, I’m no Northern Lights expert and I’m sure some people have been super lucky and had an encounter with them while sipping on a beer in a geothermal pool (loads of places in Iceland market themselves through pictures of scenes like I’ve just described). But as far as I can gather, they’re pretty hard work and definitely not guaranteed.
When to see the Northern Lights: September – April (colder, darker winter months)
How to see the Northern Lights:
Use a reliable Aurora-spotting app or website like this one, Vedur. This is what we used to help us track them down outside of Búðardalur, so I can vouch for its effectiveness. The tricky thing is you need just the right conditions; not too much cloud cover, but clear-skies won’t do either, and total darkness. The scale showing probability of sighting is ranked out of 9, with a 3 being moderate, as per the forecast for Monday 10 April at 7PM below. Essentially dark green areas depict dense cloud-cover (which won’t work), and white areas show no clour cover (also won’t work), so you’re aiming for the light green patches. Zoom in to figure out where you are in Iceland and then aim for the light green patches nearby. What we did learn, at the end of our trip unfortunately, is that ‘low’ rankings like a 3 don’t mean you stand no chance. I think if we’d ventured out on some of the days when we checked the app and the forecast was low, we may have seen them.
The night we saw the lights outside of Búðardalur we had to drive to an area with minimal cloud-cover, as predicted by Vedur. You’ll need to get in your car and hunt them down. The aurora is also a sporadic phenomenon, occurring randomly for short periods. Our first magical display was over quickly (a minute or two, perhaps) so we got in our car and headed to another area about 20 minutes away where the app predicted clear-ish skies again. Here the lights danced and swirled and really showed off for us. It’s hard to describe the aurora because it’s like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. The bright green you see in photographs isn’t visible to the naked eye and it’s the camera lens that picks up on this intense green when shooting long-exposure. What I saw with the naked eye was white swirls with subtle purple and green tones, but I honestly don’t know if that’s what I saw or just how I remembered it. It was all completely bizarre and surreal and I’m so, so thrilled we got to tick this off our bucket list.
How to photograph the Northern Lights:
Everyone will tell you that you can’t shoot them on a mobile phone. This isn’t entirely true and depends on the device you have. The genius who developed the Huawei P9’s pro-settings incorporated a Star Track feature which allows you to photograph stars and the night sky using long exposure settings. Out of pure desperation (read: fail, my Fuji X-T10’s battery died after 3 photographs trying to capture the Northern Lights using my tripod) I remembered seeing some fancy settings on my phone that I’d never used, and low and behold, there was the P9’s Star Track feature within the Light Painting setting; eep! I help my phone up to the sky trying to keep as still as possible in the wind, and there in front of my eyes (lens) I manage to capture the most insane dancing greens. I’m really no expert and professionals have managed to capture the most awe-inspiring scenes, but this was good enough for amateur me.
If you have a camera you will need a tripod and you’ll need to to use a wide lens. Set your camera to manual and adjust it to its lowest F-stop, ISO 200, infinity focus and leave the lens open for around 10 seconds or more. Again, this was Natalie and my amateur approach, but it worked for what we were looking to achieve in the area we found ourselves in. Sadly we didn’t have a lake or trees or cabins to incorporate into the shot, but beggars can’t be choosers.
I’m surprised at how many people are surprised that we decided to self-drive. Maybe people don’t expect three chicks to embark on a ballsy adventure like this one, but it’s totally doable. In fact, I’d say whether you’re in Iceland for a short time, or a relatively long time like we were, self-drive is best because it allows you the freedom and flexibility to drive at your own pace and to stop as much or as little as you’d like. A friend of mine who popped in for the weekend from London to see me was dying to see and photograph the Icelandic horses; however the short tour they were on didn’t allow stops along the route.
Iceland is easy to drive and everything is well sign-posted. If you’ve done your research and you know what sights you’d like to see on a particular day, you really don’t need a tour-guide. You will need to be comfortable driving in icy and snowy conditions; things get pretty hairy up in the mountains and along the fjords, but as long as you’re relaxed and driving slowly without applying brakes if the car slides a little, you’re fine.
Tips & Tricks for self-driving Iceland:
- Rent a 4X4, we saw some small cars struggling in the mountainous regions and honestly, I just think it’s safer to be in a big car that’s equipped for the terrain and conditions
- We used Geysir Car Rental and our Subaru Forrester was only R11 000 for the entire trip. When divided by 3 it’s really not that expensive.
- Make sure your car has studded snow-tyres
- Get a car with heated seats front and back (if you have passengers sitting in the back); it makes for a super cozy and comfortable drive.
- Invest in some solid travel insurance! We were insured through Europ Assistance and the peace of mind is invaluable. You can submit your details online and they’ll handle it all for you, including obtaining competitive quotes on your behalf. Europ Assistance covers outpatient and in-hospital assistance, emergency medical evacuation and repatriation as well as offers comprehensive medical advice and assistance, interpreter referrals, lost luggage assistance, legal referrals, arrangement of bail bonds and more. I’ve used a few travel insurers in the past and the ease of getting this done quickly and easily online made it a great experience!
- Safe Travel is a handy website that’ll keep you updated on road closures, warnings etc.
- Download the 112Iceland app which will send regular location updates to the emergency authorities and should assistance be required, they’ll know exactly where to find you.
- Check the route you’re planning on taking each day; we literally avoided a death-pass (as Natalie called it), which our GPS would’ve taken us along through the East Fjords. Fortunately we had the information to make a slight detour and took a lovely, scenic coastal route instead. In heavy conditions some roads will be closed and planning detours in advance is a real time-saver.
- 112 is Iceland’s emergency number, so call it if you need help
- Going off-road is illegal in Iceland and you will not be covered by your insurer or car rental company should anything go awry. Stay on the roads and out of trouble.
- Be super cautious when opening your car door in gusty conditions; the wind can cause major damage to the car; we saw some scary pictures and got this advice from Geysir.
- Don’t rely on Google Maps! Many of the routes we were trying to plot were registered as unavailable, which was not the case. Pay a little extra and get a Garmin, it was worth every cent.
- If you’re checking travel time to a destination via Google Maps, double it. 80% of the time the route we were travelling took twice as long as the Google Maps estimation.
- We each spent about R1500 on fuel in the time we were there, filling up every couple of days. Petrol stations are self-service and credit-card operated; they’re dotted all over the country so you shouldn’t run out of gas.
For my full blog post on what to pack and wear, click here. We partnered with Duesouth and Duesouth Escapes for this trip; a really handy one-stop shop for hiking and adventure, as well as luggage and electronics. Not having spent much time in the cold, my winter wardrobe left a lot to be desired but fortunately Duesouth remedied that. My main tips are keep it light (around 18kgs), keep it small (you’re going to be packing and unpacking a lot so avoid heavy bulky luggage (another reason to opt for a 4X4), invest in a good pair of waterproof hiking boots with warm comfy socks, and pack a tripod if you want to photograph the Northern Lights.
I know this post is a long one, but I wanted to include as much information as possible to help you plan and organise your bucket-list trip to Iceland. I hope you found it helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please comment below. If you’re toying with the idea of visiting Iceland, book your trip immediately. I will be back again in this lifetime without a doubt; again in the wintertime and also in the summer. Thank you Iceland and your people for your hospitality and your beauty.
See you again.