Friday, July 10, 2015

Icleand (Ring Road)

The idea of a road trip was always fascinating. So, when I started exploring the options of a road trip, a few ideas that popped were that of cross country, a national park loop in Utah-Arizona or Iceland. Now Iceland was very enticing given that it would be the best way to see the country and also we'll not run in to too many tourists! So, we came up with a 7 day road trip for Iceland and it was fantabulous. It is an absolutely gorgeous and stunning country with such a variety of serene landscapes to offer and 24 hour daylight made it even more enjoyable.

Our route over 7 days
Here is our brief itinerary with Google maps route:
Day 0: Arrive in Reykjavik.
Day 1: Reykjavik -> Vik.
Day 2: Vik -> Hofn
Day 3: Hofn -> Seydisfjordur -> Lake Myvatn
Day 4: Lake Myvatn -> Husavik -> Selfoss/Detifoss -> Akureyri
Day 5: Akureyri -> Reykjavik
Day 6: Snaefellsness peninsula
Day 7: Golden Circle & Blue Lagoon
Day 8: Fly out

Pointers for planning:

  • Visa: Like any other Schengen visa, you have to take a set of documents and a schengen visa application form to the nearest embassy. For us, it was the Norwegian embassy in San Francisco and they sent us our passports in two business days!
  • Make reservations for your stay as soon as you can. They fill up very fast, especially in summer. Unless you plan to go camping, which a fantastic idea!
  • We stayed at guesthouses and they were all pretty good. Mostly shared bathrooms, but it wasn't much of a trouble
  • Just in case you love waterfall, like me, this is a super resource.
  • If you are looking for hostels and a 7/10 day itinerary, this is extremely useful.

When in Iceland:

  • Sunset was around midnight and sunrise was at 2 am. But it was always twilight, never completely dark which gave us plenty of time to drive around
  • Stock up your car with food, water supplies. You will be on road for hours before you see a store or a food joint. Fill gas when you get a chance.
  • We rented a 4 wheel drive. Though most of the roads are paved, we thought it was always better to have an all wheel drive.
  • An old saying in Iceland is, "If you don't like the weather, wait for 20 minutes" and it is true! Weather here has terrible mood swings :)
  • Vegetarian food is not a problem. Everywhere, they had an option for a veggies burger or a veggie sandwich! Food hunting wasn't an issue at all.

Day 0:

We arrived at the Keflavik airport (KEF) around 10 pm or so. It was twilight and a little rainy. We got our car and drove straight to the 24 hour subway and then to our hotel close to the airport, The Airport Inn. Nice small rooms. For after hours check in, they send you their entry codes and you can pick your key from the envelopes lying on the shelf once you are inside. Pretty smooth and after a good night's rest we were all charged up the next day to start our road trip!

Day 1:

We drove from Keflavik to Reykjavik. About 20 minute drive. On our way we stopped at "Bonus", their supermarket chain and got some basic snacks, water and stuff. It was rainy and cloudy. After we reached Reykjavik, we found an Indian/pakistani restaurant, Shalimar for lunch. But parking here is a nightmare, like in any other city. After we found a parking garage, we walked to the main square and ate a filling and sumptuous meal. 
And then we started our Ring Road Tour. Got on to Hwy 1 and as soon as we crossed the city of Selfoss, it was just a visual treat for next 7 days. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss. Set in a pristine landscape, you could take a short walk to this small cave like lookout behind the falls. This got us our best shots. We got fully soaked in all the mist flying around, but it was totally worth the effort and our water proof jackets were now a justified expense ;)  We continued on Hwy1 and the landscapes were so beautiful that we wanted to stop everywhere and take pictures, but camera can never do justice to such views. Our next stop was Skogafoss. Another beautiful waterfall. We hiked to the top for even better views of the lush green hill tops and the meandering river.
Views by the roadside
Next stop was Dyrholaey Arch. It was a little steep uphill drive and very foggy. A couple driving downhill recommended that we head back. However, we decided to drive and see where we get to. Once we reached the top, the clouds were swept away by the winds in a couple of minutes and it looked bright and sunny and clear. Beautiful views of the arch. On our drive back to join the Hwy 1, we stopped by to pet some Icelandic horses grazing on a farm by the roadside. They look like they walked right out of Vidal Sasson. Such beautiful tresses!
Basalt columns by Reynisdrangar beach
View from our restaurant
Next stop was to see the famous basalt columns. And they were magnificent. We drove up to the Reynisdrangar beach which is a black sand beach and has towering basalt columns. Hiked up a few of those to take some great pictures. After some pictures, we decided to drive to Vik for some dinner. We hadn't realised, but it was already 8 pm, but the sun was up in the sky and shining bright. Had pizza at Strondin. Then walked up to the coast to get some pictures of the tall rocks in the seas. Now was the time to drive back and sleep. We had booked Glacier View Guesthouse an hour south of the Skaftafell national park. But we drove up to the Kirkjugolf basalt columns via the vast lava fields (Eldhraun). Weather kept changing from foggy to clear. After spending some time here at the basalt columns, we drove back south to our guest house. It felt like it was in middle of nowhere but that was the fun part. And then we retired after a long day to get ready for another long day.
On our way, I missed visiting the plane crash site Solheimasandur. It is a little difficult to track it, but this is a good resource. It was a short detour and completely slipped my mind. The fuselage still lies here untouched even after so many years.
Our route for Day1

Day 2:

Ready to hike
Icefall - up,close and personal
We got up really early, around 7 am and were eagerly looking forward to our glacier hike. We packed our stuff and after a good sumptuous breakfast served by our very kind and polite hostess, we headed toward the visitor center of Skaftafell National Park, where our tour was supposed to start from. We took the full day glacier hike and lagoon tour (Glacier Grand Slam) through Glacier guides. We geared up with our helmets, our axe and most importantly our crampons. Since we were supposed to drive further up north, we chose to drive ourselves in stead of taking the tour bus. We just followed them to the base of the glacier where we were given some instructions on basic do's and don'ts and we were split in to smaller groups of 6 people.
Our guide was, well, I can't spell the name, but she was really sweet and so very fit! First was a 45 minute hike to the base of the glacier. It was mostly through the silt or the sand and was like any other hike. But from distance it wasn't impressive at all. Once we reached the base of the Falljokull glacier, its vastness just left us awestruck. It was amazing how little streams of melting glacier are forming rivers. Once we reached the base, we were reminded that walking on ice is no easy business and it wasn't. Time and again I felt, I will slip and I did slip once. Twisted my ankle at least 3 times and the fall left a black-blue bruised knee too. But, it doesn't mean it wasn't fun. It was an amazing experience. I would rate it as the best activity I did in Iceland. Surprisingly, it wasn't really cold up on the glacier and we were fine with one warm jacket. After we hiked for a little while climbing up the glacier, we drank water from the streams. Purest form of water, straight from glacier ice. We hiked all the way up to the base of the icefall. We had to be cautious of the treacherous crevices and weak spots. Once we reached the base of the icefall, we found a spot to have lunch. Some folk tales and local stories later, we headed back. Once we reached the base, we unloaded all the gear and felt so relieved.
Ready for our lagoon boat ride
 Once back to our car, we drove another 30 minutes to a glacier lagoon, Fjallsarlon. Just the drive on Hwy1 was so beautiful. There were so many glaciers on the left and the ocean to our right. It was bright and clear and the views were so different from the previous day. Once at the lagoon, we wore these red jumpsuits for our safety and got on a boat for a ride in this lagoon. When our guide lifted what looked like a tiny piece of iceberg, we understood what "tip of iceberg" really means. It is only 10% above the water surface. 30-40 minutes later, we were back to our car and ready to drive further north to our final destination for the day, Hofn.
We also stopped at Jokulsarlon, the bigger lagoon and definitely the more crowded one. Fjallsarlon was very tiny and nothing compared to Jokulsarlon. It is a huge lagoon, unbelievably huge. There are boat trip here too, but it way too crowded and there was a long queue. We stopped here, took some great pictures and just admired the beauty of this place. A hot chocolate later, we were back on Hwy1 heading to Hofn.
On our way, we took a couple of detours and just drove towards some glaciers and then got back to Hwy1. before we reached Hofn. Once we got here, we found a place to dine. Tired, we grabbed a bite and crashed in our guest house, Hafnarnes guest house. Shared bathroom again, but neat. clean and very comfortable. Plus, some pretty views in the backyard.
Our route for Day2.

Day 3:

Gufufoss enroute to Seydisfjordur
Good morning Iceland! We left our guest house in search of some breakfast and ended up doing some snack- shopping at a convenience store. The goal was to reach our airbnb guesthouse close to Lake Myvatn by the end of the day. And we were in no hurry! We decided to drive through the fjords and took the longer route Hwy 1- Hwy 96- Hwy 92 instead of Hwy 1. Although the fjords aren't very steep, it just lush green or snow covered mountains on one side and the sea on the other. After a while I just lost the count of waterfalls we came across. Was a very surreal landscape.
We drove to Eglisstadir town and from here, took Hwy 93 to get to Seydisfjordur. A beautiful drive which was 50% of the times in the clouds because of the elevation. It was a very different experience and once at Seydisfjordur, we decided to get some sushi. Good food. The town is however, mostly famous for lobsters and other seafood. A very pretty town and  after driving around for a few minutes we decided to drive back to Eglisstadir and continue on to Lake Myvatn as we still had a long way to go.

Hevrir mudpots
We got back on Hwy 1 and continued on to Lake Myvatn. This drive too was very foggy and had patches of clear weather. However, once we crossed the Jokuldarlur valley, it was very sunny and clear. On our route, we decided to take a detour, 8 kms south of Hwy 1 to a small town Modrudalur. Here we just drove around and took some pictures of Icelandic horses and sheep. A very small town with nothing much to offer, but the landscape was that of an alien land. Suddenly, all the memories of Star Trek (the original one!) were refreshed and I was certain that either they were shot here or inspired from this landscape. We got some beautiful shots of the sun in the clouds too!
Anyway, we continued on Hwy1 towards Lake Myvatn and> on our way were the geothermal mudpots - Hevrir. It was very small area with the pungent hydrogen sulphide odor and marked areas to walk. We walked around for 15 minutes, took some pictures and then headed straight to our airbnb guesthouse. We drove around the south border of the lake. Had some beautiful views of the sunset, as it was around 11 30 pm and the sunset was scheduled for 12:15 am. Well, it never really sets, but the views it offered were breathtaking.
Anyhow, we reached the guesthouse in Laugar and met another couple from USC! Chatted for a while and then retired for the night as it had been a long a beautiful day and we deserved some good rest :)
Our route for Day3.

Day 4:

Our agenda for the day was to explore the northern part of Iceland. So we drove from guesthouse to Husavik. Took minor detours as we felt like as everything around us looked right out of a textbook landscape description. After we reached Husavik, we parked our car and explored the town on foot. Not a big city, but a lot of activity around the harbor. We were in two minds about the whale watching tour and eventually ditched it. Instead, went to a nice restaurant and had a sumptuous filling meal. Then shopped for some souvenirs, went to 66 degree North showroom. Really liked some jackets, but decided to get them later. And from here we started driving to Asbyrgi Canyon. Just followed the directions on our phone. Some vista points were good photo ops on our way. Once we reached the park, we stopped at the visitor center and they advised us to drive to the base of the canyon and do a short 1-2 mile long hike there. And that is what we did. Not very exciting, now that we have some real jaw-dropping canyons in the US, this one didn't look as majestic. Once we got back on the road, we were wondering whether to take 864 or 862 to see Detifoss and Selfoss. The viewing area is the same I am glad we asked the visitor center guides and they pointed us to 862. It was 37 km dirt road to Detifoss and Selfoss.  There was quite a bit of elevation gain and we were back in the martian landscape. Once you reach the Detifoss area, you park your car and walk down to the view points for both the falls. I haven't seen a waterfall as majestic as this one. (Disclaimer: I haven't been to Niagra yet!) I just fell in love with this one and we just sat there for a while taking pictures. Lot of mist and slippery rocks here, so be careful.

Viti crater
Lake Myvatn
Then we got back on 862 and drove to Krafla volcano and Viti crater. Well, the crater was pretty and reminded me of crater lake (much smaller than crater lake actually), but nothing great about the volcano. From here, we headed to Dimmuborgir. Some interesting stone structures here and there is a hike at the base of these structures too, but we wanted to get some pictures of Lake Myvatn and spend some time here. So, we skipped the hike and headed to Hofdi. A small hike later, we were at a good spot to take pictures and admire the lake. It looks exactly like in pictures. A lot of people suggested we take thermal baths here, but we had already planned for Blue Lagoon. We stopped by at a few more spots around the lake before heading to Akureyri where we were planning to stay for the night.
On our way, we stopped at Godafoss and I really can't compare any of these waterfalls to each other. They are all just so beautiful and different, plus I love waterfalls, so I may be biased ;) After stopping here for a bit, we headed to Akureyri. It was around 12 midnight and as we got closer to the city, we were driving along the coast and the sun was setting. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen. Then we reached our hotel/hostel accommodation at Hotel Edda and crashed for the night. 
Here is our route for Day4.

Day 5:

This was the day of kirkjas or churches! We started our day by visiting the church in Akureyri, Akureyrakirkja. Good architecture, pretty modern, Then drove around the city a bit and got on to Hwy 1 to drive to Reykjavik. On our way we stopped at another church, claimed to be the oldest church in Iceland. It was a mile long detour to Videyjakirkja (I may have the name wrong). Old old church with a cemetery behind it. Then, we were back on Hwy 1, and just drove to Reykjavik. Stopped at some scenic location to eat our subways we had picked up in the morning. Not many pictures on this day. Once we reached Reykjavik, we headed to Hallgrimskirkja. What a pretty church! Looks bigger in the pictures though. Took some photos, went to the top and got some nice views of the city. Then our next stop was Gandhi, the Indian restaurant. Oh boy, what good food! One of the best Indian restaurants I have been to. Plus, it is located in a very lively central market place area of the city. We walked around a little bit after our dinner and explored the shops around. Then we headed to our guesthouse for next two days, Minna Mosfell guesthouse. The location and views were beautiful. Plus, the hostess helped us with our itinerary for the next two days. Highly highly recommended. She suggested we explore the Sanefelles peninsula the next day and told us exactly what to do! It was a relaxed day and another day well spent. 
Our route for Day5.

Day 6:

Just one of the many views
The aim of the day was to go around Snaefellsness peninsula. Before I forget to mention, the route we took was Hwy 1 -> Hwy 54 -> Hwy 574 -> Hwy 54 -> Hwy 56 -> Hwy 54 ->Hwy 1 -> Hwy 47 ->Hwy 1. Details in link below. We started our day early and drove straight to the famous church by the seaside which is now a popular destination for weddings. The Budir church. A very different landscape along the coast. We continued on Hwy 574 to get to the national park. We stopped at  a small village Arnarstapi and had some coffee and snacks. From here we hiked to Hellnar. A 3 mile hike or so, but along the coast and offered some very beautiful landscapes with puffins all around. One of the rocks almost looked entirely white because of the number of puffins occupying the rock. We went only about half way and returned as we had parked out car in Amarstapi and wanted to drive further. From here we drove to Hellnar, where the office for the national park was located. After talking to the ranger, she suggested we do the cave tour. So, we drove further and stopped at Vatnshellir Cave for their tour. We didn't book in advance and there wasn't any need to. The caves were dark and scary, but a different experience. We also stopped at a few other vista points and hiked around. 
And by now we were super hungry and our goal was to simply find some good food. So, we drove further and found a nice restaurant in the small town of Olafsvik. Gobbled up a lot of food and were ready for some more driving. We kept driving on Hwy 574 -> 54 towards Stykkisholmur and took some detours and got back on 54. We reached the town of Stykkisholmur. Hiked up one of the small mountains (Hellgafells) and got a beautiful view of the peninsula. Took some pictures and then got back on Hwy 54 and drove to Hwy 56 towards Reykjavik. From 56 we again joined 54 and finally we were back on Hwy 1. After driving for a while, we decided to drive around the fjord and took the detour on Hwy 47. Added about an extra hour to our drive but was very scenic, especially since it was twilight. And after some time we were back in our guest house, tired and sleepy.
Our route for Day6.

Day 7:

Thermal mudpots
Our last day in Iceland was kept for all things touristy. We had to visit the golden circle this day and then blue lagoon. So we started from our guest house towards the Pingvellir national park. The first stop was the first parliament of Iceland. Not very exciting. From here, we drove to the Strokkur Geyser. A collection of many geysers in this geothermal area. A good tourist place with restaurants and shops across the road and very crowded. The Strokkur geysir erupts frequently and reliably. A lot of people crowd this area and you have to be careful of the winds, as there were some accidents reported in the last few days. After spending some time watching a few eruptions, we headed to the restaurant for lunch. Good veggie burgers! :) Then we drove to Gullfoss. It was by far the most voluminous waterfall I had seen in Iceland. We took some pictures from the viewing trail. Now was the time to drive back to Reykjavik. I wanted to see the phallological museum, but it wasn't very exciting. So, we hunted for food and decided to have our final desi meal at Austur. Not that great and quite expensive. From here, we drove straight to the Blue Lagoon.
Once at Blue Lagoon, we had to get wrist bands which were color coded as per your package and also served as a tab for what ever services you entail at the bar or the spa. We got to the locker room and then as per the tips on many travel forums, applied conditioner in our hair as the water in the lagoon is very harsh for your hair. Then once outside at the lagoon, we totally missed each other and spent some good 15 minutes trying to find each other! But well, after the chaos was over, we spent a lot of time in the lagoon, applying mud masks, taking pictures and then just enjoying the warm water in the cold weather. Yes, it is expensive, but well, why not do it now that you are here. Once we were done, we changed, got out and drove straight to the airport inn, where we were staying for the night before flying out to New York in the morning. It was the same hotel we had stayed at on our first day. Very comfortable with all the basic amenities. 
Our route for Day7.

Day 8:

We packed our stuff and left for the airport. Once you return you car, you have a decent 10 minute walk to the terminal. There is no shuttle and you have to carry your own luggage, so just keep that in mind. Once at the airport, the check in was quick and the terminal was huge with lots of restaurants and shops. We shopped somewhat before we got on to our flight and bid adieu to this beautiful place. Iceland is indeed the most untouched natural beauty I have ever seen. Hopefully someday we'll be back for northern lights :)