I first visited Iceland five years ago and while that’s not a long time, since then the island’s popularity has reached a fever pitch. Almost too many people visit Iceland every year, making travel there in peak season a little more challenging than it was even a few short years ago. Although it is changing, change in Iceland has been slow, thankfully, and once you leave Reykjavik it really does feel like a small island, a private place and a destination full of wonder and awe. Iceland is one of my favorite places to visit for a variety of reasons, but most of those traits I love most can be found in one form or another when you drive along Iceland’s south coast. This picturesque drive is the most popular route in the country for a variety of reasons. It’s close to the capital, there are more amenities along the way and it’s home to many of those iconic sights for which Iceland is now world famous. There are though, I think, a few things any first time visitor to either Iceland or the country’s south coast should know, including these important points to keep in mind.
Short distances can take a long time
Looking at a map, driving from one end of the south coast to the other doesn’t look all that daunting. I even entered it into Google maps and while the drive was a few hours each way, it seemed manageable. Seemed is the operative word here because in Iceland, everything always takes longer than you think it will. Weather plays a role in this sometimes, but not as often as you would think. Thanks to the peculiarities of the jet stream, Iceland doesn’t see the extreme weather as one would find in Greenland. What does happen in Iceland are incredible windstorms, which in turn create blizzards of snow and generally inhospitable conditions. The Ring Road is also not a four-lane highway and during prime tourist season, there are frankly a lot of cars and buses on the road. Finally, it seems as if there’s something remarkable and impossibly beautiful to see every few feet, turning an easy 3-hour drive into an all day affair. That’s one reason why I personally have explored Iceland slowly and methodically over the years and why you should too. No, unless you spend a month there, you will not see everything you want to in Iceland on one trip. Multiple trips are needed because going slow isn’t only preferred in Iceland, it’s almost required.
Since one should never attempt to drive the length of the south coast in one day, waypoints are essential. The trip can be broken up in any number of ways over as many days as you’d like. I chose two different hotels at either end of the route and from there I launched more local explorations. Since restaurants, gas and other services are also few and far between, using waypoints really is key. Without a doubt my favorite overnight stay was at the luxurious Hotel Ranga. 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.
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.
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.
That stupid plane
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.
Pervasive natural beauty
Ultimately, most people travel to Iceland in order to enjoy the incredible natural beauty that is almost too good to be true. This is a country of elves and legends, glaciers and black sand beaches and, most notably, waterfalls. 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.