I scan the landscape as I pull out of Keflavik Airport.
Customs was quick and easy, and I’m happy to already be at the wheel of my newly acquired rental car. Green moss covers dark volcanic rocks in all directions. Small yellow posts line the highway before me, providing the only real contrast to speak of on this otherwise greyscale day. No other cars are in sight, and this two lane highway feels distinctly large as it meanders toward Reykjavik, the most northerly capitol city on Earth.
Driving faster now, I roll down the window. A blast of arctic air – as clean and pure as you can imagine – enters the car and I feel suddenly invigorated despite my long journey. I’ve just arrived in this place, and I’m already hooked. Two weeks here won’t be nearly enough.
This is going to be a destination like no other.
Having lived my life in the USA, the thought of driving around an entire country is nothing short of daunting. But Iceland is different from nearly everywhere else in nearly all respects, and when you get right down to it circumnavigating this place couldn’t be easier. Route 1, or the Ring Road, stretches 828 miles around the country. I’m told the road can be driven in one very long day, but there wouldn’t be much point to speeding through the most exotic landscapes on the planet.
The country’s otherworldly terrain has repeatedly been featured in books and on film, serving as a convincing stand-in for scenes taking place on other planets and for exotic Earthly locations. Prometheus’ alien themed opening scene was filmed at Dettifoss, James Bond drove an invisible car through Jökulsárlón* in Die Another Day, and Snæfellsjökull* was made famous in large part thanks to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. More recently, Ben Stiller longborded through Seyðisfjarðarvegur* in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which also featured scenes from Greenland and Central Afghanistan filmed in… you guessed it, Iceland.) And if that wasn’t enough, Iceland’s Westfjords served as training ground for Apollo astronauts in the ’60s as they prepared to walk on the moon.
All this is to say that if you want to know what it’s like to visit another planet, but sadly you were born a bit shy of interplanetary space travel, come to Iceland.
*And if you can’t pronounce any of these, don’t worry. Neither can anyone else. Except of course, Icelanders, who seem to understand each other just fine, and also universally speak perfect English.
Starting off in the Cool Capitol of the North
Any sensibly done roadtrip around Iceland starts in Reykjavik and ends in the famed Blue Lagoon (more on that later.) Reykjavik, despite being Iceland’s big city, feels like a small town. Renowned for it’s nightlife, the normalcy is what struck me the most. Iceland’s capitol resembles a more northerly, slower Dublin or perhaps a less crowded Galway, a place where the shopping and restaurants and grit of city living provide impetus to host such great nightlife, possibly also because attempts at “normal” here might be found wholly unnatural in such a magnificent place, where the main remedy to such extrinsic displacement might be found deep in a glass at 4am. And so the bars do stay open late, the people do like to party, and Reykjavik suddenly becomes a destination in and of itself.
If I was Icelandic I would probably live here too (along with two thirds off all other Icelanders.) And if Reykjavik were in any other country, I’d be content to simply stay put: restaurants are top notch, live music is abundant, coffee shops are everywhere, and views from the city are fantastic. But great though it is, you don’t come to Iceland for the city.
I meet up with my girlfriend in Reykjavik and we spend some days planing out our next two weeks. It’s late September and the summer crowds have dropped off. We form a vague idea of where we’d like to visit, make some hotel bookings in advance, and before we know it we’re on the road.
It doesn’t take long
We hit the road with a full tank of gas and plenty of coffee and snacks on board. Reykjavik quickly fades into the rearview; it’s an odd realization that if we drive far enough, and if we stay on this road long enough, eventually we’ll come upon Reykjavik once more. But until then, it’s pure, unadulterated country, and there’s already tons to see. We head toward the Golden Circle to get our first experience with open Iceland.
The Golden Circle consists of three main sights: Strokkur (pictured below) offers eruptions every 4-8 minutes, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) marks the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates, and Gullfoss is a nearby waterfall renown for it’s size and beauty. These can all be done within about a half day from Reykjavik, making the Golden Circle extremely popular with those tourists sticking to the local area. For us they’re each an appetizer of sorts, offering just a taste of what’s in store for this grand journey around the country.
Fresh fish, Icelandic horses, sunset on the beach, and northern lights. Not bad for Day One.
There are always the “must sees” of travel, the Eiffel Towers and Taj Mahals of the world, places which you’d be remiss not to at least lay your eyes upon should you ever find yourself nearby. But that’s not why I travel. Seeing the things missed by those who don’t look, discovering that which is easily lost in the rush of today’s fast paced world, finding stories untold, and creating my own adventures along the way – that is why I travel. In that sense, I find guidebooks to be simultaneously helpful but also quite limiting. It’s nice to just do your own thing, especially in as open a place as this.
Iceland is full of little unexpected gems, and the open freedom of Route 1 provides ample opportunity to explore. Having done Reykjavik and explored the well traveled Golden Circle, I am already starting to desire something different. We find it in spades in southern Snæfellsbær, part of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland. I had found what looked to be a simple B&B online, and driving there is straightforward enough.
Upon arrival, we discover an experience which the web can’t show in pictures and the guidebooks can’t tell in words: beautiful log cabins near the beach, each with perfect views of Snæfellsjökull volcano, a serenely quiet surrounding area, complete with Icelandic horses grazing nearby, all against what would later prove to be one of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve ever seen. It feels like we have the place all to ourselves. Down the street is a small restaurant, empty save for the owners who looked a bit scruffy, as though they have a direct lineage with old Norse seafarers. Intimidating appearances aside, they speak perfect English and they happily cook up freshly caught fish (pictured above) served with warm bread and hot soup.
Later that night, the northern lights show themselves for the first and only time of the trip. Seeing the northern lights is a bit tricky: it requires both the right space weather and the right weather here on Earth. A cloudy night here blocks even the most incredible displays, while a clear night here shows nothing but open sky and stars when the Planetary K index is too low. But as luck would have it, when I glance outside our cabin before bed I am greeted to the most beautiful show of greens and reds dancing in the sky above. I excitedly grab my camera and rush to the spot I had picked out earlier in the day, should I be so lucky.
Later, my mind wanders as I finally go to bed. If I ever got stuck in a Bill Murray Groundhog Day-type situation, I think, and if I could choose which day to relive again and again and again, this day might very well take the cake. It was as perfect a day and as perfect a place as I can imagine. I’m more tired than I realize, and my thoughts fade as I drift into a deep, happy sleep.