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Europe Iceland

A Return to Iceland

I love Iceland. I went a couple years ago with Sam, and we road tripped around the Ring Road and had a fantastic time. We snorkeled between continents and, in one of my top life experiences, we went hiking on a glacier for my birthday. So when my parents said they also wanted to go, I was happy to go again – my only request was that we went in the summer so that we could be there for the peak season for puffins!

One of the biggest highlights of the trip was seeing puffins in the wild!

The start to the trip was a bit rocky, due to a layover from hell that got me to Iceland significantly later than I was supposed to after a night on the floor in JFK, but when I landed at Reykjavik at around 11:30 pm, I got my first taste of an Icelandic summer with endless nights! It looked like mid morning when I stepped off the plane. It was unreal, and I never got used to it for the entire time I was there.

For the first day, we stayed based in Reykjavik and visited the sites of the Golden Circle! The three main ones, Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park, can get pretty busy, but it really is a great intro to the country. I think everyone should go beyond those areas, but as a first day, it was a great start to the trip! It also didn’t take us the whole day so we had a little time to walk around Reykjavik in the evening.

There were two main differences between the itinerary of this trip vs. my first one to Iceland. This time, we were going clockwise around the island, opposite of my first trip. And second, we were adding on the Westfjords! They’re more remote, with roads that are a less accessible (read: somewhat harrowing, especially when it’s foggy out) and they aren’t many people who live there. For the first day, we stopped at the Hellulaug Hot Pots (cool, but very windy and it wasn’t super fun to change into a swimsuit in the parking lot), the Gardar BA 64 Shipwreck (one of the cooler things we saw, the scale of it was amazing!) and the Raudisandur Beach (beautiful landscape but maybe not worth the road it took to get there).

The second day had some incredible scenery! We started at the Latrabjarg Cliffs, which are allegedly one of the best places to see puffins. We did see a puffin, but literally one. I still think it was a worthwhile stop but as a more rugged version of the Cliffs of Moher, and there were lots of other seabirds for the people out there who are interested in birding. Our other stop was the Dynjandi Waterfall, which was gorgeous! One of my favorite stops on the trip – it was one of the more spectacular waterfalls that I’ve seen in Iceland, and because it’s so remote, it doesn’t feel nearly as busy with tourists. My mom and I climbed most of the way to the top.

We had one more full day of driving to Akureyri, followed by a more chill day nearby at Lake Myvatn. There are a ton of things to do in and around this area, so we visited Godafoss, the lava fields, and some of the other geothermal areas. This is the area that reminds me most of Yellowstone. It was so warm while we were in Lake Myvatn that my mom ended up needing to buy a T-shirt! She had only packed sweaters and warmer clothes, which did come in handy on the south side of the island.

The next day started with a detour to Dettifoss, which is a great waterfall and definitely worth the drive out, but it was quickly overshadowed by Borgarfjordur Eystri! This is a famous puffin nesting area and it really delivered. We saw so many puffins and were able to get close to them without disturbing them. Puffins are one of my all time favorite animals, so it was such an amazing experience to just watch them in the wild.

We had wound our way through most of the Eastern Fjords, and so our next day started at the J√∂kulsarlon Lagoon! The last time I was there, I had thought the boat tours looked fun, but Sam and I didn’t have time with the glacier tour and our busiest driving day of the trip to get to our Airbnb. So this time I insisted we sign up for a zodiac boat tour. When we showed up, they got us bundled into these warm jumpsuits, which are mostly to protect us if we fell in but were also great because it was quite chilly out on the water. The glacier lagoon was absolutely incredible and a true highlight of the trip. After floating past icebergs, we got to get so close to the actual glacier, and we even saw a seal! On the drive from the lagoon to Vik, we also saw an arctic fox, so it was a great day for animal spotting.

From Vik, we didn’t go back to Reykjavik. It’s weirdly far from the airport, so instead I found us an Airbnb in Keflavik. On the way, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, which is one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland! I think it’s so amazing to be able to walk behind it. We did see some people getting very close to the edge of the water in a typical bold tourist move.

Our last stop was the Blue Lagoon! I hadn’t gone with Sam, as he wasn’t interested, but I knew I wanted to go. This was one of those where I was worried it would be too touristy. And don’t get me wrong, there were a ton of people while we were there. But somehow, it didn’t feel too crowded, and it was so relaxing. Such a good way to end the trip!

Overall, my second time in Iceland was incredible. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever traveled, and I would recommend it to anyone! After doing both directions of the Ring Road, I think I liked the pacing of the clockwise version slightly better, but both of those are amazing ways to do the trip and there’s no shortage of natural beauty and cool landscapes across Iceland.

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Europe Iceland

Iceland: Land of Glaciers and Volcanoes

I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for ages. It was starting to get popular while I was on study abroad, and living in Scandinavia made me particularly aware of it. So when Sam and I were looking for travel options for a week long trip, it was one of the first places that came to mind!

We drove the Ring Road in a week. Several people I talked to said that was too fast, which is dumb. Could I have spent more time there doing tours? Of course, it would have been fun. But it was super doable in a week, and no one day was too much driving. It’s such a small country compared to the United States. I don’t think we had a day over about 4 or 5 hours of driving, and it still felt like a relaxed experience.

We flew into Reykjavik and had a day of exploring and trying to recover from jet lag. I didn’t sleep well on the plane and spent the morning exhausted, but I still felt like we got a good initial sense of the city. It felt rather similar to Copenhagen, with nice pedestrian streets in the city center.

The next day was the Golden Circle and driving down to Vik! The Golden Circle is a famous tourist trail of attractions near Reykjavik, including Gulfoss, Thingvellir National Park, and Geysir, which is where the word geyser comes from. Around Geysir it started pouring rain. We lucked out overall on weather, but every so often we would get caught in a freak storm. Iceland is very unpredictable when it comes to weather. The locals often say if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.

We also visited Kerid Crater, which was a beautiful walk, and Seljalandsfoss, which is my favorite of the waterfalls we saw in Iceland! The trail goes behind the waterfall, which is a magical experience. From there, we made our way down to Vik on the southern coast.

Vik is well known for its black sand beaches and proximity to the glaciers! There are tons of things to do in this area, and if we’d had more time, I would have tried to spend more of it in this region. There’s a hike out to an abandoned plane that we passed but didn’t have enough time for, but I guess I’ll just have to come back!

The next day was a major highlight for me – we went hiking on a glacier! It was one of the best travel experiences of my entire life. We met up with our guide and got set up with helmets and crampons and ice axes. I’ll admit, I got concerned when they handed us the axes. This was listed as easy on the tour website, did I get myself in over my head? But no, it was easy to walk on the glacier, and I never felt unsafe. The only advice I have is to really be confident walking in the crampons. Some of the other people on our tour kept walking gingerly, and at that point it was less safe because they weren’t letting the spikes dig into the ice. This particular glacier rests on a volcano. The black veins of ash have helped protect it and mean that it is melting slower than some of the other glaciers in Iceland. Still, it is melting, and they showed us where it used to end a few years ago. Sad to see the results of human activity on such beautiful nature.

We also went to the glacier lagoon a few hours away. While we were there, we got to see seals! But the highlight of that area was called Glass Beach, which is an area where pieces of ice wash up along the beach and it is absolutely beautiful. From there, we headed a little farther east to our Airbnb. As soon as we got past Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, there was a major drop off in the number of tourists! There were not many people out on the east coast, which is a shame, because it is gorgeous.

There weren’t many places to stop or specific sites once we got to the east coast. Instead, it’s just a stunning drive along the coast and through the fjords. We stayed at an Airbnb at a tiny town, where the nearest grocery store was nearly half an hour away, and it looked out over one of the fjords!

One of the strangest quirks about an Icelandic road trip were the one lane bridges. This is something I’d never really encountered before, but the south and east had lots of them. It was fine during the day but a little scary at night – I don’t love going over a bridge not knowing if there’s someone waiting on the other side to collide with me head on.

Our first real stop of the day was Dettifoss, which is decently far off the Ring Road itself. It’s the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, and it was very impressive! It’s part of the Diamond Circle in the north part of Iceland. We went there and to Lake Myvatn, but with more time, I would’ve liked to hit the whole loop. Our destination, though, was Lake Myvatn, which is packed with cool things to see!

We started at the Hverir geothermal area, which was gorgeous and had this orange soil around the geothermal features. We also went up to Viti Crater, which was very windy and very turquoise and we had to drive past a power station to get there. We also hiked up the Hverfjall Cinder Cone, which was a cool look out point. It was also very windy. We were lightly worried about being blown off the edge. The last stop of the day was the Dimmuborgir lava formations, which had a nice path that we could wander through for as long as we wanted. After getting dinner in the area, we drove on to our Airbnb in Laugar so we could get a head start on our next day.

On our next day, we started with our last official waterfall of the trip, Godafoss. Iceland has so many waterfalls that I was pretty selective on what we stopped for – I didn’t want us to get “waterfalled out” so to speak. Godafoss is a horseshoe-shaped waterfall and was definitely worthy of inclusion, the multiple lookout points gave us a great perspective on the landscape. It was still a fairly quick stop and we were on to Akureyri!

Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland. We started with our COVID tests at a drive-through clinic. This was at an annoying time when the US was requiring COVID tests for all re-entry, but before they restricted it to one day before travel so we were able to do ours a few days in advance. Predictably, getting tested in Iceland was very efficient. 

Our travel logistics done, we were able to explore the city, which was super fun. One interesting cultural quirk of Akureyri is their parking system. Most residents have clocks where they set it in the window with the time they parked, and the zones are all based on how many hours you can stay in any one space. As foreigners, we didn’t have a clock, so we just had to write our time on the back of a piece of paper. Sam tried an Icelandic hot dog and we stumbled on some sort of festival for high schoolers where they were all dressed up in team outfits like superheros and Pippi Longstocking.

We couldn’t stay forever, though, because our Airbnb was still about 2 and a half hours away. After a beautiful drive, we found ourselves on a farm. The host told us to be careful on the road, because “it can be sheeps on both sides,” which is our new favorite saying and applies to a surprising number of situations.

On our last full day in Iceland, I’d scheduled one more tour! We had a three hour drive to get to Thingvellir National Park so that we could get to our tour and snorkel in the Silfra Rift. Outside of the glacier tour, this was the other thing I’d been most excited about. The Silfra Rift is the place between the American and European continental plates, and you can swim through it and touch both continents at the same time, which is amazing. Our guide suited us up in a truly comical amount of neoprene, including neoprene lobster-claw-looking gloves, which was good because it was absolutely frigid water. He told us we should try taking a sip of the water and it froze my lips to the point where it was hard to get the snorkel resituated in my mouth. But almost freezing was 100% worth it, because it was gorgeous clear water and I had a magical time swimming through the place where the continents meet.

Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday trip! The only thing that could’ve made me happier is if we’d seen the Northern Lights – I have terrible luck when it comes to trying to spot them, every time I’ve been somewhere it would be theoretically possible, the sky is overcast. But I guess I’ll just have to travel back above the Arctic Circle, how terrible….