I like value for my money, but not necessarily a bargain at the expense of other things. Comfort and convenience are very important to me. As an older couple driving ourselves around Iceland, I wanted to be sure we were safe, rested, well-fed, and had as little travel-related stress as possible.

First Task, Get a Good Car.

I selected an automatic with 4-wheel drive. My husband was doing the driving and is very comfortable with a stick shift, and even though I can also drive a stick (it’s been a while), I thought an automatic would be more relaxing. The 4-wheel drive was in case we encountered any of Iceland’s famous unpaved F-roads. The weather conditions we enjoyed were good and although we were on many gravel roads, the 4-wheel drive was not needed. I also opted to get GPS and a wi-fi hotspot. I know many bargain drivers opt for the hot spot and use car-play, but it was nice to have the GPS on while I looked up other info on my phone.

We also wanted an SUV and recommend Fara (ask for Andrea). They are a local family-owned company and really great to deal with. Don’t use Guide to Iceland to get your car. They were extremely difficult and frustrating to deal with. They are not based in Iceland, and do not answer questions correctly or efficiently; if you try to call them, you will be speaking to someone in Bangladesh. Ignore their impressive web-based marketing presence and try to go directly to the source whenever possible. I, regrettably, broke my own rule for direct booking.

Make Your Arrival Day Count.

Planes land in Iceland very early in the morning so you need a plan for how to spend that first day. Many head for the Blue Lagoon, which is about 20 minutes from the airport. We stayed at the Blue Lagoon to relax at the end of our trip. I knew we would probably be tired from the overnight flight (it’s not as easy as it used to be to sleep on a plane). I arranged for a private guide to pick us up at the airport and take us to the Golden Triangle. This allowed us to be driven around the first day, see some famous Icelandic sites, and have the opportunity to become oriented to Icelandic culture. We were very pleased with our guide from Tours by Locals. They offer a variety of tour options, and you can read bios and reviews to select your guide.

Time is a Valuable Asset.

The next day we explored Reykjavik on our own. On the morning we were ready to start driving, we arranged for the car to be brought to us at our hotel. Otherwise, we would’ve had to return to the airport which is 45 minutes away and not in the direction we were going. There was an extra charge to bring the car into town, but I felt the time saved (about 2 hours) was more valuable.

I chose to stay in the nicest hotels I could find, and once you are away from Reykjavik and the South Coast, there aren’t that many. Book well in advance.

Our Ring Road Itinerary:

Icelandic Travel Truisms:

  • Driving is not difficult if you are a sane, logical person
  • A clockwise route is best, in my opinion, keeping you on the inside of the rail-less mountain curves
  • Although dramatic, the roads through the mountains aren’t that high; usually, we were under 2,000’
  • One-lane tunnels and bridges can cause some anxiety
  • Buying gas is the most difficult hurdle. It’s no joke you need a card with a working pin number. Our debit card with pin did not work and we had to use a credit card with a pin (which incurs a surcharge). Glad we took both. If you don’t have a pin, get one ahead of time, it can take more than a week to process at some banks.
  • During summer months of extended daylight, blackout drapes are rarely 100% effective
  • Some bathroom sinks are like kids’ play-sinks, and often sinks are outfitted with fixed open drains, making doing a bit of handwash laundry a challenge
  • I never found a hotel laundry service in the north 
  • Take a face/head net if you are going to Lake Myvatn area or Dettifoss, you will thank me later
  • Open showers are trendy – I hate them, particularly when it’s cold
  • They seem to love the open closet concept here
  • Don’t expect American TV news (maybe that’s for the best); we saw CNN one night
  • Wi-Fi service was good almost everywhere
  • I activated my Verizon Global plan for $10 a day and had good service
  • Accept the fact you will never master even one word of the language
  • Can’t go wrong with the seafood
  • They do eat horse . . . horse tartare anyone?
  • Only one toll tunnel still exists (near Akureyri); you need to pay by app- ahead of time
  • You don’t need cash – everyone takes credit cards, even for pay toilets
  • Pay credit card bills in Icelandic Krona (ISK) when given the currency option, it will be the most economical
  • Buy souvenirs and gifts at the airport when you leave. Once out of Reykjavik interesting shops are hard to come by. I didn’t buy much: chocolates, stuffed toys for the grandkids, and silica crème at the Blue Lagoon (also at the airport).

Don’t Go to the Airport Early.

When you are flying out, there is no point in getting to the airport early, the counters don’t open until 2-3 hours before flights are scheduled, and from Reykjavik back to the US they leave late in the day. Self-service check-in kiosks are useless if you don’t have your international boarding pass (which you must get at check-in since it’s international). Until you get that boarding pass you are stuck on the first floor. There is one place to grab a snack, one grocery store, and some uncomfortable seating on that level. The second floor has all the shops, a food court, and the nice Icelandair Saga Lounge.

Look closely for people who did figure out how to explore more at Studlagil Canyon.

Would’ve, Should’ve . . .We managed to get around Iceland easily and check off the boxes for everything on our advance must-see list. In retrospect, one thing I wish I had done was allow enough time to see the historic Keldur Turf Houses on the South Coast. We were in the area too early (they’re open 10-5); it would be an interesting hour or two.

I hear the Lava Museum is also well done and worth a visit. We canceled our planned ATV tour due to our one day of bad weather. The same day, weather impacted our visit to the famous Black Sand Beach at Reynisfjara. The wind and waves were really whipping. I’m sorry I was not more resilient and willing to look around a bit more, but I couldn’t wait to get away from the blowing sand and back in the car.

And finally, if we had more time, I would’ve loved to get down to water level in Studlagil Canyon to be up close and personal with those incredible basalt formations. To do that we needed to get to the other side and have time to walk quite a few kilometers; 5 each way from where you park (10 total). From what I could see, the walk looks fairly flat. Anyone interested in exploring this area should allow at least 4 hours.

Resources & Blogsources:

Besides talking with friends who had previously been to Iceland, I read a lot of travel articles, googled dozens of sites and topics, and used travel books to prepare for and plan this trip. Books I found useful were Top 10 Iceland, which was great for visuals and a good overview, Fodor’s Essential Iceland for planning and route-specific info, and Rick Steves Iceland, which was my go-to reference during the trip. The walking tours and driving routes were indispensable. Be sure to check the publication dates before you order to get the most current up-to-date copy. The Michelin road map I purchased was, surprisingly, seriously outdated (Iceland has added and improved routes). Although useful for planning purposes, I would not recommend it.

The Facebook group “ICELAND – tips for travelers” had some really valuable specific tips from members and lots of inspiring gorgeous pics. Other bloggers also provided insightful perspectives, interesting ideas, and much appreciated direct follow-up. I’d like to thank four in particular: Lawrence from “Finding the Universe” was very helpful with my early planning and tipped me off to the wonderful reindeer safari. Jurga from “Full Suitcase” shared detailed location and route information and answered some of my logistical questions. Katie from “Two Wandering Soles” wrote a very informative series about the ins and outs of car rental in Iceland, providing must-have info for all of us visiting drivers. The best summary anywhere of whale watching options in Husavik was posted by Liz from “With Wonder and Whimsy”.

Safe Travels!

Seeing glaciers, icebergs, and Diamond Beach were a trip highlight.

Blue Lagoon Options Demystified

One of the many walking paths around the Blue Lagoon, in areas where there is no swimming.

My husband is not a spa guy. But I dragged him along for a five-hour experience at the Retreat Spa at the Blue Lagoon. It is the last full day of our trip to Iceland, and I thought it would be fitting to unwind and relax. Turned out it was a good choice.

We are spending our last night in one of the Blue Lagoon’s two hotels.  The Retreat Hotel had a two-night minimum for the weekend (and it’s a Saturday), so we are at the sister property Silica Hotel. As I sit typing this, I have a full view of one of the Lagoon’s milky-blue tentacles against the black lava. It’s beautiful.

The view from our room.

Iceland’s most famous geothermal spa is not a natural site, but man-made in the 1980s with water supplied by the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station; basically, it’s the wastewater by-product from the plant. Someone was a marketing genius. Open year-round, the Lagoon is located in a lava field about 45 minutes from Reykavik and about 20 from Keflavik airport. Its 100-degree warm waters welcome an average of 3,000 people a day in the public area.

The geothermal plant dominates the landscape near the Blue Lagoon.

The water is naturally renewed every 40 hours and due to its rich mineral content is reported to have restorative powers. It’s comfortable for adults to move around because the depth varies between waist and chest height. Both hotels have private lagoons and include entry to the world-famous Blue Lagoon. You don’t actually have to stay at one of the hotels to make a reservation at the Retreat Spa.

Staying at either hotel, or visiting the Spa, gets you direct access to the big lagoon, and each hotel has its own private lagoon as well. I think the private lagoon at the Silica Hotel is prettier, but both provide a much more private experience.  

The private lagoon at the Silica Hotel. In both hotels, you enter these private areas from an indoor pool.

The five-hour Retreat experience includes a private changing/shower room and three full body skin treatments you apply yourself with the guidance of the friendly, helpful staff: salt, silica, and algae. You can also spend time in the relaxation areas, which include a lava room with water features, hanging nest baskets, sauna, steam, cold plunge pool (no way), the private lagoon, and my favorite, the fire lounge. In this room, comfy seating and platform bedding are placed around a fire pit with, what else, lava rocks. No cell phones or photos are allowed in the Spa (sorry). During our visit on a Saturday in June, it was never too crowded, sometimes we were the only ones in an area. You enter the big public lagoon through a secret door that leads out of the spa from an indoor pool (note, you cannot access the public lagoon from within Silica).

The bar scene at the Blue Lagoon. The Lagoon is huge and meanders in many directions.

At first, I thought 5 hours might be too long, but it really does take that amount of time to get through the various stages, experience all the specialty areas, and see the lagoons. You start with a shower (which is why it’s nice to have a private area), and they recommend you put conditioner in your hair to protect it from drying out. You keep showering after every stage but are in your swimsuit after the first. Before you know it, it’s time to go, and you are well set up to shower privately a final time before leaving. Your changing room is equipped with a huge walk-in double shower, lots of towels, bathrobes, flip flops, dryer, flat iron, bath gel, shampoo, conditioner, and body lotions. Warning, the bag they give you for wet swimwear is not very thick – bring your own, I was glad I did.  

We enjoyed a really nice lunch in the spa restaurant, and there are ample opportunities and encouragement to stay hydrated. Everyone who goes into the Blue Lagoon is provided a towel and silica mud mask as well as a complimentary drink. The hotels have the same drink benefit, but you can choose to have your drink in the hotel bar, which is what we did. The Spa also offers various treatments, but we passed on those. Hotel and Spa guests are given plastic wristbands that serve as electronic room keys and access to all private areas.

There are two nice restaurants for dinner – Lava and Moss. Moss is the fancier, but Lava was lovely. You can access Lava from the Blue Lagoon or from the Retreat Hotel. The hotels can shuttle you between the locations, or you can take a long walk.

The Lava Restaurant.

Keep in mind, no matter your choice of visiting the Blue Lagoon directly, staying at a hotel, or going to the Spa, you should make advance reservations. In every case, you will have to take an au natural shower before you enter the water.

I can see why many, including those in their teens, 20s, and 30s, would prefer the more festive environment in the public portion of the Blue Lagoon. But for my money and relaxation, it was fun to experience it for a bit and then move back to a more private setting.

It was a lovely way to finish off two busy weeks in the land of fire and ice.

It was super breezy and I was trying to keep my hair out of my face to sign off from this series of posts. Soon, I will do a wrap-up with travel tips for Iceland and driving the Ring Road.

Iceland: Driving the South Coast

After a hard rain all night we woke up in Hofn to a beautiful rainbow – but clouds and rain hung around for much of the day. Our drive along the south coast was a mixed bag – mostly rain – but occasional flashes of bright sunshine. Along the route, we managed to get to all our intended sights.

We stopped back by the Glacier Lagoon to see how the icebergs had moved. The sky was dark with the wind whipping, and we could see the bergs floating and the blue ice seemed brighter than ever. Seals and birds were active.

We drove through the 218 sq mile Eldhraun Lava Field, a result of an eruption in 1783-84 that wiped out crops, and half the region’s livestock, resulting in the starvation of 25% of the population. There were fields of lupine (now considered a harmful invasive species here) and beautiful Icelandic horses. We had a nice lunch in the southernmost town of Vik before heading out to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, the last of my Game of Thrones sites on this trip. It was the site of Season 7’s Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

Signs everywhere warn of danger, the “sneaker waves” can appear without warning and have claimed victims.  Most people heeded the warnings since it was a particularly nasty part of the day and the Atlantic looked fierce. The wind was so strong I thought it was going to blow the phone out of my hand. You could see the basalt columns, cave, and enough coastline to get the idea. We didn’t stay long.

Suddenly the weather was better and well timed for our visit to 180’ high Skogafoss Falls and the slightly taller 210’ Seljalandsfoss Falls. Seljalandfoss is famous because you can walk behind it. If you do, you get soaked and it’s slippery, not something I needed to do.  

We ended the day at the lovely Umi Hotel, sitting off by itself with a distant view of the sea. Here is a sample of a few more scenes along the way.

This post is late and out of order . . . I don’t even know where to start – we saw so much during a very long day spent driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. They say you can see all of Iceland’s various typographies with a visit here, and while I can’t make that claim, I can say we had a real variety of experiences.

The landscape en route from Reykjavik was quite varied, and we experienced a misty intermittent rain.  Colors changed from brown to a soft yellow and you can see every shade of green painting the surrounding mountain slopes.

Water is everywhere, snow caps, the peaks, and fills the crevices. I can’t even begin to guess how many waterfalls there are. The two-lane road is outlined with yellow (snow) markers on both sides and provides a good visual, particularly when there is no other traffic.

Rauofeldsgja Gorge

We passed Borganes and continued to our first stop at Ytri-Tunga beach where seals are known to hang out. It was cold and windy. There were a few seals way off in the distance. Sightseers several decades younger than us were headed out on the slippery rocks to get a closer view. We stayed beach-side and just took in the whole scene. The skeletal remains of a whale (or very large seal) was laid out like a work of art.

I had to snap a pic at Budir of their famous black church. Nothing else is there except a hotel and the church – but it has become one of Iceland’s iconic visuals. We grabbed lunch at Arnarstapi and saw some basalt formations and nesting terns. The more hardy would hike along the coast towards Hollmar for even better views of the seaside rock formations.

Snaefellsjokull National Park is known for its imposing glacier, which dominates the entire center of the park. On this day the cloud-covered peak must’ve made tough conditions for the glacier hikers. At the entrance to the park, the Malarrif Lighthouse serves as a visitor Information Center with maps and displays. We did not plan to visit Vatnshellir Cave which goes 115’ slippery feet underground (only with a guide). It was enough for me to know it inspired Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

The glacier-in-hiding.

Coming around the western tip of the peninsula we saw the tallest structure in Iceland, a communications tower key to offshore shipping and quaint fishing villages. All a lead-up to a highlight of the day, Kirkufell and Kirkjufellsfoss.

Kirkufell and Kirkjufellsfoss.

Kirkufell is the famous arrowhead-shaped mountain seen in almost every photo display of Iceland. It graces the cover of tour books and website home pages. One of the most famous shots shows the waterfall with the mountain in the background. My attempt is not quite as dramatic, but you get the idea, and may even recognize the pic. The mountain, with a cover of snow, is also famous for its starring role in The Game of Thrones. Although seen in season 6, it is center stage in season 7, when Jon Snow and his army are looking for the Army of the Dead north of The Wall. Since photos don’t do any of these sites justice, readers should watch (or re-watch) Game of Thrones to at least see the spectacular scenery.

Continuing east, the coastal drive was beautiful, with passage through the Berserkjahraum Lava Fields and a swing through the colorful Stykkisholmur fishing village before we headed to Husafell for some much-deserved sleep.

Ytri-Tunga beach
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