I’m really excited to share our recent family vacation — an incredible 10-day adventure to the land of the midnight sun. While most of the planet was in the grip of a summer heatwave, we were pretty cool and comfortable on an Iceland trip.In Alice in Wonderland, Unbirthday Party, I explained that my husband and I were both celebrating big-0 birthdays this year. Later this fall, we will also mark a big-5 wedding anniversary.
To honor these milestones, our sons arranged a 10-day family vacation. They presented the surprise Iceland trip, transportation details, travel route and accommodations to us in the late spring. That allowed plenty of time to plan and eagerly anticipate the journey using a gift package of maps and books.
And, believe you me, traveling over 900 miles around the entire country of Iceland takes lots of pre-planning.
Come along now, on the first couple of days on our incredible Iceland trip, We start our exploration of the land of fire and ice in the Golden Circle, and continue along the Southwestern Coast.
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It’s About the Journey
As the card said, it’s about the journey, not the destination. For me, the true gift was spending 10 entire days together as a family. Our sons’ careers have them working very long hours and traveling a great deal. Trying to pick a long weekend that all four of us could get together, was hard enough. Plus, we have four people living in three different cities. I was absolutely ecstatic!
Just a month after my Unbirthday Party, we were off on a grand Iceland trip and epic adventure. All of a sudden, I couldn’t wait to turn the big-something LOL!
Our route followed Iceland’s Ring Road, with several significant detours to more remote peninsulas and into the wilderness. We progressed counter-clockwise around the country, which is about the size of Maine. Starting from the airport near Reykjavik, we spent one night in each of nine different and varied accommodations during our Iceland trip.
A note on pictures: Photo credits to both my sons, who took many of the Iceland trip pictures. I don’t intend for these posts to be a family vacation album. However, I’ve included photographs with people in them, when helpful, to illustrate scale or perspective.
Iceland Trip Day 1: The Golden Circle
We were able to fly direct to Iceland last June. Apparently, it’s the hot (cool?) thing to do these days — especially by millennials like our sons. The guys flew together from Newark and our flights arrived within minutes of each other. We were all delayed about an hour, arriving in Iceland at 5:45 AM local time. There’s only a four-hour time difference with the East Coast. And, with 20 hours of daylight during the summer, there’s no need for savings time!
We grabbed our luggage, changed (into fleece, winter coats and waterproof hiking boots), picked up a 4×4 SUV, and hit the road for the Golden Circle. It took about 1 1/2 hours drive to reach our first destination.
The Golden Circle and Southwest have many of Iceland’s most well-known and visited natural wonders, and are readily accessible from Reykjavik.
Like most folks on an Iceland trip, our first stop was Thingvellir National Park. This is one of the few destinations I can pronounce, of all the places we visited during our Iceland trip! The dramatic gorge marks the pulling apart of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It’s one of the most iconic stops on the Golden Circle route.
Snorkeling on the Continental Divide
I know what you’re thinking — Debbee mixed up Grand Cayman vacation pictures with her Iceland trip. Nope! We actually went snorkeling in Iceland on the morning of our arrival! It was quite the wake me up!
The picture above is my son (thanks to a GoPro camera) snorkeling in the rift between two continental plates.
After a quick breakfast grabbed at the visitor center and overlook, we hustled to get to our dive meeting place by 9:30 AM (5:30 AM to us). I was a little dismayed that what they called a ‘place to change’, was just a large van! That seemed to be the case regardless of the dive operator.
We already knew we’d spend as much time getting into our dry (not wet) suits, as time in the water. You don’t wear swimsuits as I thought, but thermal long underwear to stay warm in the glacial water. It’s a two-person job to get suited up properly and insure a watertight seal.
In the picture above, we are the four swamp creatures in the back, preparing to enter the Silfra Fissure (i.e. the space between the two tectonic plates).
As I descended the stairs into the glacial water up to my chest, I was pleased to feel warm and dry. Then, the guide told us to put our faces into the water and start to swim. OMG — it was such a cold shock! It actually felt like the worst burn! I didn’t think I was going to be able to withstand a few minutes, let alone 40 with my face in the water. Even my husband and sons were unprepared for how initially painful it felt.
But, the body adjusts at the same time you are distracted by the view and swimming. It’s a one-way trip and others are continually coming in behind you. We all persevered and the worst was over in about five minutes. However, I did have some other trouble when we entered the current. A few helpful shoves from the boys kept me on course, and not headed into the lake!
There are no fish or coral in the water. Bright green and yellow plants cling to the volcanic rock. Most areas of the rift are narrow and deep, while others are quite shallow.
It’s an awesome experience and I’m pretty proud of myself for doing it! After all, my husband and sons are scuba certified, and have dived in Hawaii and Grand Cayman.
Ideally, we would have snorkeled the Silfra Fissure later or on the last day of our trip. But, we had a 10-day route ahead, and this was the logical first stop and best use of time.
Filling Up the Tank
Everyone was now wide awake and ready to eat! So, we headed further into the Golden Circle to the highly-rated restaurant Fridheimar, a tomato farm. Four different varieties of tomato are grown there, where guests eat lunch among the plants in the greenhouse.
My guidebook cautioned to make reservations ahead. Sure enough, when we arrived the place was packed and completely booked. Mind you, Fridheimar is what most would consider the middle of nowhere in Iceland!
Travel Tip: We found, throughout Iceland, that reservations, particularly for dinner and popular restaurants is advised. That includes secluded hotels where the restaurant is the only dining option. Otherwise, large travel groups can completely fill a restaurant.
However, they did offer us service at the bar, with a more limited menu. It actually worked out great, as we found a high-top table with four stools.
Hubby ordered us up four delicious bowls of tomato soup. Each came with a large freshly baked roll the size of a loaf of bread! In Iceland they serve glacial water free everywhere, and here it was garnished with tomatoes.
The soup really warmed us up and filled our bellies before continuing on.
Traveling in a Circle
It was rainy, overcast, foggy, and misty on day one of our Iceland trip. Fortunately, the weather was pretty good the rest of the vacation. But, the weather that first day did put a damper on things — most notably views.
Our next stop on the Golden Circle was Geysir. The geothermal field has walking trails among steaming vents, turquoise pools and mud formations. It’s where the English word ‘geyser’ comes from.
I don’t have any pictures because it was raining pretty good then. Having seen Yellowstone in the states, Geysir pales in comparison. But, for many Europeans it’s quite unique. It was still worth the half hour or so we spent there, as the geothermal field sits right on the way to our primary destination.
Gullfoss was just ten minutes further down the road.
Rain Gear: Required Icelandic Attire
Gullfoss is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, with a spectacular double cascade and dramatic drop that thunders into a rocky ravine. Part of its popularity is due to it’s easy access on the Golden Circle route. On our Iceland trip, we saw hundreds of waterfalls. Still, Gullfoss is definitely in the top ten and a must-do.
To get a sense of scale, look for the tiny people in the upper left of the picture above. Trails climb past the fall’s northern face, allowing you to get within an arm’s length.
My waterproof jacket, rain pants and foldable cap kept me surprisingly dry and comfortable. Whether it rains or not, wet weather gear is required for an enjoyable Iceland trip.
Travel Tip: Rain gear, including waterproof hiking boots, is essential to stay dry, warm and comfortable. We explored numerous waterfalls and coastal overlooks where it could be very windy. While whale watching by boat, there’s a high likelihood of ocean spray. Even hiking in misty and damp conditions will make you glad to be outfitted in waterproof gear.
Icelandic Horse Farm
Our oldest son researched and booked a great variety of wonderful overnight experiences for our Iceland trip.
Two-thirds of Iceland’s small population of 340,000 live in the Reykjavik capital region. Beyond the Golden Circle, places to stay are few and far between. Accommodations are at a premium during the summer months and need booked far in advance.
We stayed in one of three cottages at the Akurgeroi Guesthouse horse farm, located near Selfoss. A number of horses were just beyond our deck, grazing in wildflower-covered fields. Unfortunately, the haze and low ceiling hides the ocean lying beyond.
The AirBNB rental was my favorite accommodation in terms of charm. All the decor tied into the horse farm theme, including horseshoes and stirrups as hardware, and a galvanized bucket light fixture.
There was champagne in the frig, the makings for hot chocolate, and delicious Icelandic chocolate bars. The bathroom was decorated in a similar manner, with an antique sewing machine as the sink base.
Lobster Dinner Family Style
Food and alcohol are extremely expensive on an Iceland trip, because almost everything is imported. Even the locally-sourced seafood and lamb is very pricey. FYI, there are nine times as many sheep as people in Iceland!
Still, we decided to splurge on our first night to eat humar (langoustine or Norway lobster), right off the boat. Fjorubordid (The Water’s Edge) is a venerable, nautical-themed lobster house. There’s no view despite its location, and reservations are recommended. It was a Friday night, and we were lucky they had one table available in the auxiliary dining room.
The food was exceptional. We had the chunky lobster ‘soup’, which came with wonderful homemade bread. Icelanders make fabulous breads and pastries. Be sure to also order the trimmings; delicious cucumber salad with dill and vinegar, tomatoes with basil and black pepper, couscous with curry and leeks, fresh salad with balsamic oil, and baby potatoes. All was served family style. And, don’t forget the Icelandic craft beer to wash it down, with pitchers of glacial water.
I think it was everyone’s favorite meal. A great finish to day one of our Iceland trip!
Iceland Trip Day 2: Southwest Coast
The next day, we headed out on the Ring Road to explore the Southwest Coast with it’s gushing waterfalls, dramatic promontories and black sand beaches. Rolling green farm fields are dotted with sheep and Icelandic horses. I had worried we wouldn’t see many Icelandic horses, only to find there is one horse to every three people in Iceland!
All of this sits in the shadow of two glacier-topped volcanoes. Services are sparse, so we were sure to fill the car with gas and take advantage of bathrooms — whenever the opportunity presented itself.
A Walk on the Wet Side
Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a 210-foot drop waterfall within view of the Ring Road. Look for the tiny flecks of color in the background to see people on the trial and in the cave.
Dressed head-to-foot in rain gear, I was prepared for the slippery and sometimes steep hike behind the waterfall.
It’s an amazing feeling to stand behind the falls. Everyone stops here for a picture.
Waterfall Stop 2
Each waterfall was unique and different, as was accessibility.
Another half-hour down the Ring Road and we reached Skogafoss — much broader and powerful than Seljalandsfoss.
You can walk amazing close to the base of the falls, but it’s slippery and you will get wet.
A steep, 500-step climb provides a unique perspective from the top of the falls — a climb I skipped and waited for my guys at the base. I knew it would take me twice as long to reach the top as the marathon runner members of my family. It wasn’t lunchtime yet, and there were plenty of hikes and climbs planned for the rest of the day.
Afterwards, we had a lunch of delicious mushroom soup and freshly-made bread at the nearby Hotel Skogafoss Bistro Bar.
Dyrholaey Cliff & Natural Rock Arch
Dyrholaey promontory is a naturally formed arch in the volcanic cliff. It’s a steep drive up on a narrow dirt and gravel road, with no guardrails — the first test of our 4×4 SUV. I should interject here that although I offered a number of times, the guys never let me drive the car, LOL! Mostly I enjoyed the incredible views through the SUV’s panoramic windows.
The picture below provides no perspective of the height, or the wind at Dyrholaey— so powerful it nearly knocked me over!
Those who make the drive up are rewarded with great views of black sand beaches, and lava columns. And, for a few weeks each summer, nesting puffins cover the volcanic rock. We did see thousands of puffins later on our Iceland trip, but not a one at Dyrholaey.
An old lighthouse at the top offers overnight accommodations.
In the Shadow of Volcanoes
The Southern Coast lies in an active volcano and earthquake zone. Evidence of volcanic eruptions are everywhere. We saw more lava fields, volcanic cones, black sand beaches, and thermal activity than we saw ice and snow on our Iceland trip.
You might remember an Icelandic volcano erupted in 2010, disrupting airline flights all over Europe for months. We were in the shadow of the Ejafjallajokull Volcano for several days. And, the entire area was on elevated alert during our visit!
Reynisfjara black sand beach is tucked under grassy mountains. The beach here changes frequently, and the area can be dangerous, due to huge, unexpected surges of water.
Dramatic basalt formations (splintered columns of volcanic rock) and shallow caves are a magnet for tourists. Many of the sites there, can be seen in Star Trek and other movie scenes.
Just off the coast sit the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, also formed by volcanic activity.
Here I am staying way back from the water on the black sand beach, posing with the much-photographed sea stacks in the distance.
Dumb & Dumber
My very foolish son, however, decided to climb the rocks at the very end of the beach where the surf was crashing. He lost and retrieved a hat and then a wallet on the ocean side of the boulders. I could have throttled him. His younger brother and dad went to help. My whole world on a beach known for rogue waves…
I probably shouldn’t even post this photo so as not to encourage him. Please don’t try this on your Iceland trip!
Here I am marching the long hike back to the car. The volcanic sand is hard to walk on, especially in heavy hiking boots. I’m the aqua dot. Can you see the steam coming off me?
Oh, and this was only after the first retrieval of R’s hat. Once we got back to the car, a return trip was necessary to the rocks. That’s when my son realized his wallet fell out of his pocket, while reaching down to retrieve the hat!
A family vacation tradition is to have an informal award ‘ceremony’ on the last day of a trip. R won first and second place in the category, dumbest thing done on our Iceland trip. Actually, I think he ‘won’ third too; for being precariously close to a waterfall later during our vacation!
Hike Not Taken
The guys had one more stop they wanted to make; to see the wreckage of a plane that crashed on the beach in the 1960’s (everyone survived). Oldest son R works in the transportation industry and was particularly keen on seeing it. Me, not so much.
It was a five-mile round trip hike, on black sand. At that point, I was pretty worn out. I elected to stay in the car and take advantage of our mobile hotspot to check emails and text my parents pictures.
Travel Tip: Renting a mobile hotspot is essential on an Iceland trip. It’s also far more effective to use with your phone’s navigation system, than the waste-of-time GPS we had also rented.
End of the Day with Sun Still Shining
Our second night was spent at the new UMI Hotel, a very posh and ultra modern place. As was typical for most of our Iceland trip, hubby and I had one room while the boys shared another.
Here’s the view towards the ocean. As you can see, the weather had improved dramatically.
We went out to a nearby, modestly-priced restaurant for dinner. Gamla Fjosid (Old Cowshed) specializes in dishes made with beef raised there, and fills a rustic old cowshed.
Almost everywhere in Iceland offers free Wi-Fi, with the exception of Gamla Fjosid. I loved this sign and was happy to keep my sons’ noses out of their phones during dinner.
Are you a sweet or savory person?
Say Goodnight Debbee
Afterwards, we enjoyed drinks and card games in the hotel bar. Playing cards was something we did most evenings before heading to bed.
Travel Tip: A deck or two of cards should be on your packing list for an Iceland trip.
All our accommodations had blackout shades, but most nights I still elected to wear a sleeping mask. The mask and lavender pillow spray were one of the three things I received during the recent My Favorite Things gift exchange.
I had intended to cover the first three days of our Iceland trip, but this post is long as it is. Plus, I’m ready to call it a day here in Pittsburgh. Still regrouping from being in Florida to help my elderly parents deal with a health emergency.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the trip so far? Interested in seeing more?
Have you been to Iceland?
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