There’s just something special about Iceland that makes it totally unlike any other place I’ve ever been, which is probably why I have visited three times over the last four years. It’s also why I decided tong-ago to tackle this mystical island in the North Atlantic slowly and methodically. Iceland may look small when compared to other countries, but once you visit you’ll understand that packed into this compact space are so many things to see and experience, that multiple trips aren’t just a luxury, they’re a necessity if you really want to see the best of Iceland. On this, my third trip, I decided to tackle the south coast of Iceland, which also happens to be one of the most popular areas for tourists to explore. There are many reasons for this popularity, it’s easy to reach from Reykjavik and it also offers many if not most of those iconic Icelandic experiences we all want to enjoy. I knew I would enjoy this south coast drive, I just didn’t know how much. Even though I’ve only just recently returned, I want to share what are among my favorite experiences from the 3 days I spent driving along the Ring Road from Keflavik to Jökulsárlón and back. While I did a lot, there’s still much more along the south coast of Iceland to enjoy, but these are my own personal highlights.
Iceland has no shortage of waterfalls, of that there can be no doubt. Almost everywhere you drive around the country you’ll find them in all sizes and shapes, each one with its own legends and mythologies surrounding it. But some are something special, something different and several of these must-visit waterfalls are found along the Ring Road. Seljalandsfoss is popular in large part because you can see it from the road, making a stop a foregone conclusion. But that’s not the only reason, as I learned while investigating the natural wonder. The waterfall itself drops about 60 meters, but the most interesting aspect of Seljalandsfoss is the fact that visitors can walk behind it, offering a different perspective and plenty of chances to spot a rainbow. Further up Route 1 is another popular waterfall, Skógafoss. This is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country, at a width of 82 feet and a drop of 200 feet. The spray from the waterfall is incredible, but it’s thanks to it that rainbows are also easy to see here. Next to Skógafoss is a hiking trail up to the top of the waterfall, offering amazing views down below.
Vik and Reynisfjara
I honestly thought Vik would be larger than it is, but it’s not the first time I’ve been fooled by the size of towns in Iceland. Vik is small, but it’s an important pit stop along Route 1 not because of this not-so-bustling community, but because of the natural landmarks surrounding it. The town is perhaps best known for the black sand beaches found along the shore, remnants of the volcanic history of this fiery country. While the beaches themselves are something extraordinary to see in person, at Reynisfjara you’ll find something a little extra special. Here are located some of the easiest to access and finest examples of basalt columns; hexagonal pillars formed by the cooling of lava. Not unlike what you’ll find at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, it’s a fantastic stop and the perfect first introduction as you leave the farmlands of agricultural Southern Iceland to the more bizarre landscapes of the East. There’s also a nice restaurant at the beach, one of the very few non-gas station meal options available in Vik.
Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Even before my first trip to Iceland, this was an experience at the top of my Iceland to-do list and I was excited that on this trip I finally was able to experience it. But the experience started long before I reached the famous glacier lagoon itself, and that’s due to the incredible size of Vatnajökull itself. One of the largest ice caps between the Arctic and Antarctica, this 3,000-mile glacier is massive and seeing it from the road was a special moment, one I had to stop the car to properly enjoy. The terrain in this part of the country is otherworldly, varying from black sand glacial flood plains that look more like the surface of the moon than a real place on Earth. This transitions to vast fields of green, moss-covered boulders, so large it looks like giants had placed them there eons ago. But of course, the reason why I was that far east in the first place was the glacier lagoon, and the experience easily exceeded even my very lofty expectations.
Global warming is the reason we have to thank for the emergence of this lagoon fed by glacial waters and chock-a-block with calved icebergs in all sizes, shapes and colors. 75 years ago it didn’t exist, but today it’s one of the top attractions in the country. There are a few different options to experience the lagoon, from just admiring it from the shore, to taking a duck-boat ride to the option I selected, a Zodiac boat tour. The Zodiac is, I think, the best option, if you really want to make the most out of your once in a lifetime experience on the lagoon. For more than an hour, our captain took us up to the foot of the glacier itself as sheets of ice crashed noisily into the water below, and dodging in between icebergs throughout the lagoon. It was fun, it was exciting and it was one of my favorite experiences on the trip.
The food (some of it)
Finding something to eat outside of Reykjavik can be very hit and miss. Over the course of several trips, I’ve learned to change my normal travel habit of discovering new local delicacies and have accepted the fact that sometimes in Iceland the only meal option for a 300-mile radius may be Subway. That’s fine, I’ve accepted it but it doesn’t mean I don’t still look out for local favorites, and near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon I found just that. An easy 15-minute drive east from the glacier lagoon is a small country hotel and restaurant, the Hotel Hali. This is the only food option for MANY miles, but lucky for me it was a delicious one. The owners may be a little gruff and the menu somewhat limited, but the homemade lamb stew and warm bread was the perfect antidote to a chilly morning out on the water. Add in a traditional Vinarterta dessert, and it was one of the simplest, but also the tastiest meals of my trip. These local experiences do exist, you just have to look for them and better yet, ask people where to find them. Hali was a tip I got from my glacier lagoon boat guide, and I’m so glad that I asked.
While Reykjavik is slowly getting more and more hotels, and even some luxury options, the rest of the country is a little behind the massive tourism boom Iceland is currently enjoying. That means finding and booking a great hotel can be a challenge, but when I discovered the Hotel Ranga I knew I had found something special. The resort is built in a log-cabin style and was the first hotel in Iceland to become a member of the Great Hotels of the World. This 51-room property has also been a celebrity hot spot over the years, the luxury and beautiful location attracting people from around the world.
Driving up to the hotel, conveniently located along the Ring Road, I was excited for my stay, one that promised to be an experience and much more than just a nice place to spend the night. Checking into my room, I opened the door and was blown away by what I discovered. The suites at the Hotel Ranga are decorated by theme, each of the 7 continents are represented. I was booked into their Asian suite, and it was as if the door I opened transported me to Kyoto. Every detail, from the shoji screens to the traditional bathtub and wooden slippers in the bathroom were straight out of a Japanese design book, and a great introduction to the incredible level of detail for which the hotel is known. One of rural Iceland’s few luxury properties, everything at the hotel is executed perfectly from the service and rooms to the fine-dining restaurant that was one of my favorite meals in Iceland. Add in the pastoral beauty of rural Iceland on the hotel’s doorsteps, and this really is a must-stay hotel along the Ring Road.
My lukewarm endorsement of the abandoned DC-3
For years I had seen images of the eerie and rotting debris of the DC-3 on the black sand shores of Iceland. Photographers around the world have done a fantastic job of capturing it from every angle, at every time of day and in all seasons. The US Navy plane crashed in 1973 and rather than stage a recovery, the plane was left to rot. Since then, it’s been a popular stop and one I have long wanted to see in person. The problem was my timing. Up until a few months ago, visitors could drive right up to the plane, take their photos, admire the weird beauty of the plane and leave. Then some rowdy visitors went a step too far, causing the owner to ban cars and limit access to foot only. This means that today, to visit the plane you have to walk 4 kilometers each way across incredibly boring black rock plains to get there. It takes forever and has probably led to an outbreak of people going insane from the monotony of it all. More than once I considered turning back, but I plodded on until I finally reached the plane. Yes, it was beautiful and I was happy to get the photos. But I am NOT at all convinced it was worth the 2-hours of my very limited time in Iceland to see it. For some it’s more important to visit and that’s fine. For me, I’m still on the fence to be honest.
I’m thankful I made the decision to spend a day visiting the Westman Islands, because it counts amongst my all-time favorite experiences in Iceland. Easy to reach from the south coast, the ferry ride is a short 30-minutes, but it feels like a world away. The Westman Islands are small and the only inhabited island, Haimaey, is just 7 square miles in size. 4,000 people call this rock home, but as I discovered on a tour around the island, it’s one of the most beautiful places not only in Iceland, but arguably the world. A combination of the gorgeous landscapes and the hospitality of the people who call it home, I fell in love thanks to the total experience and I know it’s an island I will return to many times in the future.
The drive itself
It sounds trite, but the best part of the road trip along the south coast of Iceland is the drive itself. There is a very good reason why so many movies and TV shows film in Iceland, it feels like it was plucked straight from the pages of a fantasy novel. The south coast of Iceland best encapsulates this otherworldly beauty, from the soaring verdant green cliffs dotted with sheep to the weird moss-covered boulders that cover hundreds of square miles and even to the volcanic deserts, devoid of life but not personality. The drive through these incredibly varying and stunningly gorgeous landscapes is the real joy in exploring the south coast of Iceland, the stops and experiences mere blips on the map in comparison.