June 26, 2017

Driving Iceland and The Golden Circle - Part 1

Golden Circle Roadtrip Iceland

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know I've recently been to Iceland because I may or may not have posted a few photos... It's a place I've always wanted to visit (who doesn't?) and I can safely say it was a dream trip. I've never seen so much dramatic and ever changing scenery all in one place.

We were originally going for a week, but once we bought our kitchen, they gave us the dates for fitting and they happened to fall while we would be in Iceland. As we'd been without a kitchen since January, we didn't want to delay any further so changed our flights and had 4 full days (Weds-Sun) to pack in what we could, deciding to concentrate on the South and South East. I was initially super overwhelmed when trying to plan the trip, but once we decided to concentrate on an area rather than trying to do too much, it fell into place. In hindsight, I had nothing to worry about. It's a really easy place to navigate - the Ring Road is just that, an 828 mile road that spans the entirety of the country - and get around in and you can totally make it work on a budget with a bit of foresight and planning. One thing I will mention is that speeding in Iceland is taken very seriously - yes, it can feel slow, but definitely observe the speed limit. We saw several people who had been pulled over by police and there's speed cameras along the Ring Road.

Day 1

We flew into Keflavik Airport, picked up our hire car from Europcar* and made our way South via Reykjavik and The Golden Circle, which refers to a popular tourist route with a lot of attractions/sights. We stopped in Reykjavik for a hot drink and some food at Sandholt Bakery. A word of warning - a hot chocolate, a coffee, waffles and a sandwich was close to £40(!), which seems to be standard in Reykjavik, but it was tasty and much-needed as we'd been awake since 2am to get the 6:30am flight from Manchester, an hour's drive from Leeds. 

After refuelling, we strolled around Reykjavik and headed to Hallgrímskirkja, a 74.5 metre high Lutherian church and Reykjavik's main landmark. It's an impressive sight and seemed even more dramatic due to the weather. Inside, we were lucky to see/hear the 25 tonne pipe organ in action. We went up to the top of the tower and were treated to amazing views all across the city. The viewing windows are protected by metal bars so you can't stick anything other than an arm/camera out (if you're brave enough), but the winds coming through were so intense. (No photo of the actual church here as I only got one on my film camera, which I'll be posting photos from separately.)

We made our way back to the car and picked up some groceries at Bonus, a common shop that you'll see a lot driving through Iceland. The branding is bright yellow with a cartoon pig. It kind of reminded me of Netto mixed with Home Bargains? We spent about £30 and stocked up on things like Skyr, porridge oats, bread, cheese, dried pasta, bananas, pesto and cup noodles for the first 2 days. Not the healthiest, but we deliberately chose things that would be easy to make in our accommodations - which I made sure had stoves/kettles/toasters when I booked. It's the easiest way to save a lot of money and absolutely makes a trip to Iceland more accessible, plus it meant we could make sandwiches for the car as we'd be spending a lot of time driving. We stopped at petrol stations a couple of times and had a veggie burger/fries one day, as well as making plenty of stops for coffee! If you eat meat, the hotdogs in Iceland are cheap and plentiful.

We then drove up through Þingvellir national park (Thingvellir), going onto Geysir/Strokkur and Gullfoss. The winds were getting stronger and it was quite the experience driving through such open plains while the car rocked. It was also really stormy, meaning we didn't get to see much of Thingvellir from outside of the car. On the way to the geyser area, there's an excellent ice cream parlour and cow farm called Efsti Dalfur. It's a nice place to stop even just for a hot drink and a snack and you can look through a glass panel at the cows and calves in the barn.

Due to the winds (70 mph at least), Gullfoss is one of the few places I've genuinely feared for my life, but I can't pretend it wasn't thrilling. I couldn't get any photos of it (or of the nearby geyser area when Strokkur erupted) because I couldn't hold my arms in the air.  My phone and camera would have been whipped out of them straight into the waterfall. They were both sights worth seeing, but heavily populated by tourists. It seems like you can't go to Iceland and not see these sights, though. By this point it was around 5pm and we'd been travelling since 2am, so we started to make our way down to our accommodation for the night, stopping to say hello to some friendly Icelandic horses along the way.

On our first night, we stayed at a horse farm called Hestheimar, near Hella, which is situated near one of Iceland's most active volcanoes (apparently showing signs of erupting again), Hekla. We had a really lovely experience and the cabin was super cosy and very Icelandic. We ate noodles at the table while looking out at a beautiful landscape, complete with horses grazing. We had hot showers (yeah, the water can smell 'sulpher-y'), which felt amazing after such a long day, and slept so good that night.

Day 2

We got up early the next day to go on a 2 hour horse ride through the surrounding scenery - valleys, canyons and even rivers. We were well prepared for the weather and layered up, but it was absolutely freezing cold. We rode with a guide and another couple (and the farm dog who trotted along next to us the whole time) and it was actually quite nice to chat with them - it turned out the woman was originally from Leeds. The horses were dreamy to ride and very responsive. Josh, who has sat on horses as a kid but is a total beginner, said he really enjoyed himself and found it easy. If you're visiting Iceland I recommend going on a ride, whether you're a novice or advanced rider. Here we are looking like total nerds - and wearing our hats under the riding helmets, total life hack against the wind. (That's Josh's default "I hate having my photo taken" face.)

We then set off to The Secret Lagoon in Flúðir for a dip in the geothermal water. The Secret Lagoon (Gamla Laugin) is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland and the water is fed from the hot spring at a consistent 38-40°c. Like a giant, warm bath. If you don't want to do the whole Blue Lagoon thing, this is a great way to experience geothermal pools. I booked it a couple of days before, which is recommended on the website. It was roughly £20 each and we also hired towels, for £4 each, as we would be between accommodation. The changing areas and showers are split into male and female, but the showers are communal once inside. There's lockers for your stuff with a key you wear around your wrist. You're supposed to shower naked (without your swimsuit) in Iceland at public swimming/geothermal pools before getting in. This can bother people not accustomed to the idea, and I can understand how it may pose problems for some, but for me it personally wasn't a big deal and it's a rule for a reason - it washes off any body fluids etc. and makes it less of a gross experience for everybody getting into the water, which isn't chlorinated like a standard pool. It's just a very normal thing in Iceland. There actually wasn't anybody else in the shower when I got in before and only two people after. You then walk out of a door to meet the side of the pool - and get straight into the water if you know what's good for you. The feeling when you get into the water is incredible. Relaxing in the hot water and watching the steam rise, as well as the little geysers in the area, makes for such a contrast with the cold air (you definitely don't feel cold once you're in, it's just like a hot tub on a grander scale!). I could have spent hours there, but after about 90 minutes we were getting hungry and had to get moving. 

Back in the car for lunch and a drive to our next stop, Kerið volcanic crater. Kerið is also on the Golden Circle, but we figured we'd tack it on after The Secret Lagoon as we'd be heading back to the Ring Road meaning we'd pass it. There's an admission fee of 400 ISK / £3 GBP which helps the landowners maintain the area with the heavy tourist footfall. Kerið is a treat for the eyes. There's so many colours from the high mineral content water, which makes it an opaque blue, to the moss and vegetation covering the area. It's worth a stop and there's steps down to the "lake" of the crater. We walked around the circumference at the top, taking photos and trying not to get blown in. Changing a roll of film at the top of a windy volcanic crater is something I can now add to my skill set.

Our accommodation for next the two nights was Hörgsland Cottages, almost 3 hours away from Kerið. Earlier that morning, we had been told that a road was closed near Vik due to the storms and we may not be able to get down as far as Kirkjubaejarklaustur, where Hörgsland Cottages are. We decided to start the drive down, knowing we'd stop for supplies and see some sights along the way, giving time for the storms to hopefully pass - which they did. Road closures and dangerous conditions are common in Iceland - I recommend checking SafeTravel.is for real-time updates and safety alerts, it was really useful.

The drive on the ring road towards the South East took us past some breathtaking sights, including Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls, which you see in the distance as you drive along the ring road. This stretch of road seems to have waterfalls in abundance. It's like, NBD...

Me: Is that a waterfall coming out of the side of that cliff/mountain thingy?
Him: Yeah, I think it is.

We pulled in at the carpark and went to explore, getting soaked in the process. You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss, and to see more of Gljúfrabúi, you almost go inside a little cave and have to wade in the river somewhat. It was so wet in there that I couldn't take a photo - I recommend waterproofs! I was lucky enough to have my Stutterheim Stockholm Raincoat which kept me dry, but I would totally rethink wearing jeans the next time...

We continued on, stopping off at Skogafoss, another HUGE waterfall that's awesome in every sense of the word, with 527 steps up to a viewing platform. If you're wondering - yes, we did climb them and yes, it nearly killed us. If you're wobbly with heights, I wouldn't do it because the platform itself is just steel and bolts and you can see right down, with no 'solid' floor. You end up being about 200ft above the ground, so it's not for the faint-hearted. I really enjoyed the alternative view and standing on the edge of the platform, watching as the water crashed down. Some serious Twin Peaks vibes.

From Skogafoss, we still had a 90 minute drive ahead of us to our cottage and it was already 8pm so we set off. The amount of daylight really prolongs how much time you can spend on the road in Iceland. We were there mid-May and it gets even lighter as Summer progresses. The drive to Kirkjubaejarklaustur took us through Eldhraun lava fields, where moss covers lava that flowed from the Lakagígar volcanic eruption for eight months, between 1783-1784. It had devastating consequences on Iceland. The landscape left behind is something else. The moss is so spongey and soft and I couldn't help getting out of the car to look at it up close and see if I could bounce...

I could.

We arrived at our cottage around 9:30pm. Tired and wary, we ate some pasta, showered and concluded our second day with a cold beer...

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions about travelling/road trips in Iceland, please feel free to ask - I'm happy to help. Have you been to Iceland? What were your favourite parts? Leave a comment below!

The second part of our trip is incoming! I wanted to split it up to help make it more digestible - and I took so many photos, both on my iPhone and OM10 35mm camera. All photos here were taken with iPhone 6 - hence the great(!) quality.

I think I'll dump the 35mm photos in one blog post separate form Part 1 and 2.

* When booking flights with Easyjet, you'll probably notice on the confirmation emails that car rental with Europcar is encouraged. I guess they're partners in some way? We noticed a section mentioning that if Easyjet customers find a cheaper quote with a competitor hire company, Europcar will refund double the difference. We did find a quote for considerably less and we applied for the refund, which they honoured. It was really helpful considering how expensive the trip was and made a difference. It's worth reading the small print!

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