Day 1: Keflavik to Selfoss via the Golden Circle
The plan for day 1 was to see the popular Golden Circle sights that so many tourists do as a daytrip from Reykjavik. They’re perhaps not best Iceland has to offer, but are accessible and therefore busy in peak season.
We had booked a private room at the Selfoss Hostelling International, so leaving Gullfoss, we took the 35 south. This however turned out to be a gravel track, and not yet confident in the Micra’s ability to handle unsurfaced roads (it later turned out to be fine), we turned around and took the longer, but tarmaced, 37 down to the ring road into Selfoss.
Hotel Selfoss & Spa was very pleasant with good cooking facilities and a really cool spa. Just what we needed.
Day 2: Selfoss to Kirkjubæjarklaustur: Eyjafjallajökull, Skógafoss & Vik
Highway 1 features many marked picnic spots that normally have a point of interest and information signs associated with them. The first of these that we stopped at was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, with a path to walk behind it for some added interest.
North of the ring road, the now famous Eyjafjallajökull icecap, whose 2010 eruption caused massive disruption to western european air traffic, is visible in the form of glaciers descending down to the flood plains below. The owners of a farm on the plains below the icecap, who lived through the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, have opened a visitor centre with lots of interesting information about the area and a short film chronicling their experience as the skies went black with ash in 2010.
A few minutes drive on from Eyjafjallajökull, through huge expanses of wild lupins, is the Skogafoss waterfall. This is particularly dramatic when viewed from a rather exposed bit of hillside that protrudes in from the side. Rainbows were aplenty.
Slightly west of Vik, the rugged coastline of the Dyrholaey peninsula is home to a huge variety of birdlife and has dramatic views along the cliffs. The black sands here, and most famously in Vik, are made from dark basalt rock, hence their unusual color.
Day 3: Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Vagnsstaðir: Skaftafell, Svartifoss and Jökulsárlón
First stop was the Skaftafell National Park, a great base for hiking up onto the icecap, or shorter walks to Svartifoss and viewpoints over the glaciers. Svartifoss waterfall sits among hexagonal basalt lava columns and is quite an impressive site. A gentle climb further, great views can be had over the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. There is a map of the hiking trails on a board at the National Park visitor center.
We could no doubt have spent days rather than hours at Skaftafell, but Jökulsárlón iceberg lake was next en-route, and it was definitely worth making some time for. Featuring in two Bond films, plus Tomb Raider and Batman Begins, many people will have seen Jökulsárlón on the big screen without realizing it.
The Jökulsárlón lagoon is formed by a glacier's retreat leaving a lake of melt water with a narrow exit into the sea. Large chunks of ice break off the end of the glacier and float around the lake, while the short river to the sea flows alternately in and out with the state of the tide.
Day 4: Vagnsstaðir to Faskrudsfjordur: Hofn and the Eastern Fjords
Leaving the oft-visited Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón behind, the ring road continues to Hofn, the last town before the isolated Eastern Fjords. We took the opportunity to stock up on food in the Hofn supermarket, then followed the coast along the south-eastern corner of Iceland. Steep mountainsides descend directly into the sea, with the ring road picking its way above the cliffs and past gravel beaches.
Having previously skipped the puffin watching destination of Heimaey, we spotted a poster at the Vagnsstaðir hostel for boat trips to the small, puffin-inhabited, island of Papey from Djupivogur harbour (details here), so planned to arrive there in time for the daily 1pm departure. Timeliness, however, was not our strong point, and it was only midway through a leisurely lunch overlooking the sea that we realised we had left it too late to get to Djupivogur for the trip. There was a biting cold north-Atlantic wind, so perhaps it was a blessing not to be out in a small boat, but puffins were not to feature today after all.
After the fjord north of Djupivogur, the Highway 1 ring road heads inland and we opted to stick to the coast on the more minor road 96. Winding in and out, along the sides of the fjords, the 96 took us to Faskrudsfjordur. While light on 'attractions', this stretch of coast is certainly dramatic, and still had snow on the mountain tops towering up above the road.
Day 5: Eastern Fjords to Lake Mývatn: Seyðisfjörður, Borgafjordur-Eystri & Dettifoss
Leaving Fáskrúðsfjörður, we took the new tunnel northeast to avoid the apparently sketchy coast road, and continued on to the town of Egilsstaðir. The rain was intermittent and the cloud low, but we had plenty of time to take a couple of detours before heading east to our destination for the day of Lake Mývatn.
Access to Dettifoss on the road east of the river, no. 864, was drivable in our 2-wheel-drive rental car, albeit with 30km of constant bumping around. We had read that the road further west, no. 862, is suitable only for 4x4 vehicles and is extremely bumpy, but I now note that Wikipedia says that a tarmac road has opened along that route. We had decided not to visit the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park north of Dettifoss because of the poor weather, but it's worth investigating the road quality in advance if planning to drive there in a 2-wheel-drive car.
First of the geothermal sights in the Mývatn area that we visited was Krafla, Iceland's first geothermal power station. It's possible to drive through the middle of the site and visit the craters nearby. It was extremely foggy as we arrived and the jet engine-like roar of steam vents dotted around the site added a very surreal air to the place. We came back the following day when it was much clearer to take the photo below.
Day 6: Lake Myvatn to Akureyri: Hverfjall, Grjotagja, Dimmuborgir
We started with Hverfjall, a large tephra (volcanic gravel and ash) crater, now extinct. The short walk to the crater rim gives good views across Lake Myvatn and the middle of the crater itself.
Nearby, the Grjotagja caves contain hot pools in which people used to bathe. This is now not advised, since, while the surface temperature might be moderate, it can be scalding hot beneath. The pools are within a large fissure that runs along this part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It's a dramatic sight and shows how powerful tectonic forces can be.
South of the Hverfjall crater, the unusual rock formations at Dimmuborgir ("Dark Forts") are another volcanic phenomenon. As vast quantities of lava from volcanoes to the south flowed down over the Myvatn area, the molten rock super-heated the marshy ground beneath, resulting in high pressure steam beneath the cooling lava. The steam escaped explosively through the hardened crust on top of the lava, leaving sharp, erratic shapes in the rock.
A few kilometers further east of Myvatn, Námaskarð is an area of boiling mud pools and steam vents (fumaroles). Marked paths navigate through the geothermal ground.
Day 7: Akureryi to Hrútafjörður via Dalvik Whale Watching
Our main activity for today was to be whale watching at Dalvik. We had spotted a leaflet in the hostel for a whale watching and fishing trip with Arctic Sea Tours of Dalvík, and booked on for the afternoon. They were considerably cheaper than trips from the more well known Husavik, though the whale watching conditions differ very little.
Leaving Dalvik, we had a 2 hour drive west to the Sæberg hostel, an old farm house overlooking the sea at Hrútafjörður. A walk on the beach was called for, despite the bitterly cold wind, to appreciate the beginnings of sunset.
Day 8: Hrútafjörður to Reykjavik via Víðgelmir Lava Tube
The guide book mentioned some interesting caves in the Hallmundarhraun lava field, about 30km east of the ring road from Varmaland. Information was a little thin on the ground, but we set off along the gravel road 523 following a signpost to Víðgelmir. As we neared the point where road 518 turns around at the top of the valley towards Husafell, a sign for "lava cave 2km" caught our eye, and we found an information board about the Víðgelmir Lava Tube. A short walk took us to a section of the lava tube where the roof has collapsed, allowing access into it.
Lava tubes are formed when the surface of a lava flow cools and sets, while the hotter, more liquid, lava below continues to flow away leaving a void beneath. The Víðgelmir tube is about 1.5km long, though access is restricted by an iron gate somewhere along its length to prevent damage to the delicate lava formations within. Equipped with head torches, we were happy to explore the first 100m only.
Surtshellir, a larger lava cave in the same lava field, is further up the valley along the road F578. However, this road isn't suitable for 2-wheel drive cars and not wishing to destroy the Micra, we didn't explore further. The sign warning off rental car drivers must be a result of the locals tiring of rescuing stranded tourists!
Arriving in Reykjavik late afternoon, we had a wander down the main shopping street of Laugavegur. The numerous coffee shops were mostly closed, so we opted for beer then dinner instead. Delicious cod and langoustine ravioli were had at the pleasantly informal restaurant/bar Vegamot. Our exploration of the legendary Reykjavik nightlife extended only as far as a few more drinks; going out clubbing seemed like an exhausting prospect!
Day 9: Reykjavik and Keflavik: Coffee and Puffins
Suitably caffeinated, we walked up to Hallgrímskirkja, the striking church visible from all of central Reykjavik. The architecture may not be to our taste, with imposing concrete columns mimicking the basalt structures that occur naturally around Iceland, but the view from the top of the tower was excellent. Reykjavik's brightly coloured rooftops make for a vibrant scene, with the bay and mountains beyond a stunning backdrop.
Since our previous puffin watching attempts hadn't worked out, our last opportunity was to take a boat trip to Lundey, a small island in the bay. Wise to the steady flow of tourists, the puffins at Lundey take flight as the boat approaches, or dive beneath the water and disappear, unlike quieter spots around Iceland. Close-up photos were definitely not possible, but it was impressive to see their sheer numbers nesting all over the low island.
Perhaps anticipating our return to the UK, we were tempted by posh Icelandic Fish & Chips. Oven roasted 'chips' and various savoury flavours of skyrr yogurt accompany your choice of fresh fish. The fish was superb, though the potatoes were nothing special, and the portion sizes rather mean compared to classic British fish and chips.
With thoughts of home, we picked up the car to complete our Icelandic Loop by returning to Keflavik. It was a sunny evening so we stopped en route to look around the Reykjavik Botanical Gardens, then joined road 41 to finish the journey.
By the time we dropped off the rental car at Keflavik airport, we had covered over 2400 km. Not bad considering Iceland is only ~300 km across. All-in-all, a great trip and highly recommended. We'll be back!