In July of 2012, my wife, our toddler, our 3 month old baby and I flew to Iceland for a two week driving tour of the famous Ring Road. Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1 Keflavik to Skogafoss Waterfall area
Day 2 Skogafoss Waterfall area to Skaftafell National Park
Day 3 Skaftafell National Park to Djupivogur
Day 4 Djupivogur towards Egilsstaoir area
Day 5 Egilsstaoir area to Lake Myvatn
Day 6 Lake Myvatn to Akureyri
Day 7 Akureyri to Skagafjordur
Day 8 Skagafjordur to Stykkisholmur
Day 9 Stykkisholmur
Day 10 Stykkisholmur to Arnarstapi
Day 11 Arnarstapi to Borgarnes
Day 12 Borgarnes to Keflavik
Day 13 Keflavik to United States
The weather during our trip varied from the low 50's to the mid 60's (Fahrenheit). I usually wore a fleece with a short sleeved shirt underneath, and there were a few sunny days when I just wore short sleeves. But I think we were lucky as a local Icelander told us that the weather was "amazing" during our visit. We only had two days with heavy rain, and only one day where the rain was heavy enough to limit outside activity.
We rented a small R.V. (also known as a "motorhome" or "camper") via an American-based company called Ideamerge. Ideamerge basically contracted the camper from a European company called Touring Cars. I reserved everything using the Ideamerge website and was able to ask them a few questions by phone. We decided on an R.V. instead of a rental car to limit the number of hotels we would need to constantly check in and out of while touring the Ring Road. I found the R.V. easy to drive, the only assistance I needed from my wife was help backing the thing up (there was a huge blind spot in the back as there were no rear windows). A back-up camera would have been useful. The R.V. had a gas-powered stove and fridge and we cooked several meals inside. The shower is pretty tiny and we end up using the nicer showers at the public pools (found in every town). There was a small sink for washing the dishes. The water tank could be filled up with a free hose available at almost every gas station. Be aware that gas prices are much higher here than in the United States. I would recommend using the free gloves offered at the gas stations as the pumps are fairly messy. I saw a few speed monitoring cameras on the Ring Road but no traffic police (one person told us police patrols are limited due to the high price of fuel). If you are coming from the United States be aware that your credit card probably will not work in the automated gas pumps in small towns, this could be a problem if the gas station itself is closed. I would recommend buying a few N1 gas cards so you don't get stranded in the middle of Iceland until a station reopens.
Making dinner in the R.V., Iceland
Day One: Keflavik, Selfoss, Dyrholaey, Skogafoss
Arriving at the small airport, we are greeted by a sign-holding representative from Touring Cars. Our R.V. is waiting for us in the parking lot so we load it up with luggage and are driven to the Touring cars headquarters. We go through a two hour R.V. orientation, this includes watching a video and reviewing the vehicle for damage. The rep is able to find even the smallest scratch on the R.V. and I'm a bit worried that we are going to charged for normal wear and tear during our rental, but this turns out not to be true. The rep warns me to pay attention to the wind speeds in Iceland as the R.V. cannot be driven when the wind exceed 20mps. She is a bit dismayed that I don't have a working cell phone for her to contact me if the wind picks up but I promise I will check my email via Wi-Fi whenever possible. Later we learn that there are helpful digital wind speed signs along the ring road to keep us up to date on this issue. The rep mentioned that every year, an R.V. or two is blown over due to high winds in Iceland!
We hit the road and I quickly get used to driving the manual speed R.V. and merging into traffic circles (these are still somewhat rare in the United States). We stop in the small town of Selfoss for some lattes (they even can make a soy latte) and great pizza at Kaffe Krus. Most cafes and gas stations have free Wi-Fi if you need to stay "connected" to the outside world. The majority of the people we encounter in Iceland speak England very well, although sometimes the accents are strong. The landscape soon turns to a bizarre mix of mossy lava fields and majestic mountains. The only thing missing from this landscape is trees.
We make another stop in the seaside town of Dyrholaey to view the famous bird cliffs. Down the road is the massive waterfall Skogafoss (bring a raincoat if you want to get close as there is a large amount water spray in the air). These two attractions and the Ring Road in general are very busy with traffic and tourists until we pass Skogafoss (as this spot is about the limit for day trips from Reykjavik).
I had read that you can camp in most public places without going to an official camp ground so we just pull over to the side of the Ring Road near Skogafoss for the night. It still feels strange to do this as I would guess in the United States you would probably have a police officer knocking on the R.V. door in the middle of the night wondering what you are doing. The sun never really sets in the summer in Iceland, but the R.V. is equipped with enough curtains and shades to block out most of the light for sleeping.
Our R.V. along the Ring Road, Iceland
Day Two: Fjadrargljufur Gorge, Skaftafell National Park
Today the weather is sunny and warm and we do a short hike at Fjadrargljufur Gorge, some of the fellow hikers are even wearing shorts. I use a backpack carrier called the Deuter Kid Comfort III to carry my 2 year toddler and recommend it to fellow parents. It places most of the weight of a heavy toddler on your hips and includes plenty of pockets and a sunshade. My wife uses the Ergobaby front carrier to tote around our 3 month old baby. Fjadrargljufur Gorge is reached by driving down a very rocky gravel road, there is limited space for two cars to pass each other, and the pots and pans in the R.V. rattle as we slowly make our way.
Fjadrargljufur Gorge, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
Back on the Ring Road, we cross the river Skeioara. In 1996 a large glacier runoff destroyed the Skeioara bridge (smashed by huge floating ice boulders) and parts of the Ring Road in this area. There is monument to the ruined bridge that we briefly visit. Then we continue on to Skaftafell National Park. Its campground is packed full of visitors. If you visit Iceland in the summer, don't expect too much privacy at the popular parks or sights!
Inside in the park, we do a steep hike to see Svartifoss waterfall (it almost looks fake with it's strange black basalt columns). This hike is graded on the park map as "easy" but I think in North America it would rank as "moderate". We leave the park for the evening and find an isolated spot to camp on a little-used access road to the glacier (Skaftafell campground was too crowded for our taste and has a reputation for loud partiers). There is a nice view of Svinafellsjokull Glacier from our camping spot and I only see one lone hiker and a few nervous sheep as the evening winds down.
Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
Day Three: Svinafellsjokull Glacier, Jokulsarlon,Djupivogur
In the morning, I go out with a Kiwi guide (Alex, from New Zealand) from Icelandic Travel Market and about 20 other tourists for a guided tour of Svinafellsjokull Glacier. You can sign up for this tour at the Icelandic Travel Market hut at the entrance of the park. The van takes us to the foot of the glacier and Alex shows us how to attach the crampons to our hiking boots. We are also given an ice axe, but I think this is only needed for photo ops. He warns us to walk with a wide stance to avoid ripping our pants with the sharp crampons. Soon I forget I'm wearing the awkward crampons and enjoy the eerie scenery, the glacier has a thin coating of black volcanic dust on top of the ice. One woman in our group almost falls in the water when she mistakenly steps on a small iceberg thinking it is a part of the glacier. There are many deep crevices to fall into here so watch your step.
Svinafellsjokull Glacier, near Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
We continue on the ring road and visit the surreal Jokulsarlon (Glacier Lagoon). This iceberg-filled lagoon is a must-see if you are in the area. Down the road we pull into the tiny fishing village of Djupivogur. I try to buy some gas from the automated N1 pump but my American credit card is rejected (even though I have a PIN for it). The attached grocery store is closed so it looks like we stuck in this town for the night as the R.V. is low on fuel. We have a fine dinner at Hotel Framtid and wander around a bit. There is a nice wild flower-dotted hill to climb that looks over the harbor. The town camping ground is crowded so we drive a short way out of town and camp in an area off an isolated side road near the local mulching dump.
Jokulsarlon (Glacier Lagoon), Iceland
Day Four: Djupivogur, Papey
After a decent breakfast at the Langabuo Cultural Center, we sign up for a tour of Papey via the tiny Djupivogur info office. We recognize the man working the counter as he moonlights as a waiter at Hotel Framtid. To kill time before the tour, we visit a local swimming pool for the first time, I really recommend doing this as a great activity to mingle with the local population. You will want to bring your own towel and bathing suit. There is very strict protocol to follow in Icelandic swimming pools. You must shower in a communal area (separate for men and women) before entering and some pools have signs to point out body "areas" to pay special attention to when washing. Then you put on your bathing suit and enter the heated pool. After swimming, you then shower again and should towel off before entering the locker room (it is considered bad form to drip water on the locker room floor). The tricky part for me is figuring out the acceptable method of holding a 3 month old baby while doing this. My method was to put the baby in a swim diaper in the locker room, then shower while holding her (not easy to do), then hold her in the warm pool (which she loved). One time an Icelandic man next to me asked me if I wanted him to hold the baby while I used the shower. I declined, but it was nice of him to offer. Our toddler also loves the Icelandic pools and we visited the pools in almost every subsequent town we visit during the rest of our trip.
Wash-up sign with special attention areas in red at swimming pool in Iceland
We pick up some groceries and gas at the well-stocked Djupivogur grocery store (The R.V. has a small fridge that can be powered from the battery when driving or gas propane when stationary). At 3pm we board a small boat that heads out to Papey Island. We had been warned that the ocean passage can be rough but today the water is fairly smooth. The boat pauses near some rocks that seals lounge on and also passes slowly by some cliffs just outside Papey containing thousands of seabirds. A guide takes us on a long walk around the island, this is a great place to photograph puffins, and you can get within 15-20 feet of them before they get nervous. If you want to see lots of puffins, the best time to visit Papey is when the weather is overcast. If it is a clear and sunny day most of the puffins will be out at sea fishing. When we return we have a quick dinner at Hotel Framtid again and then drive for a few hours before stopping for the night in the middle of nowhere.
Foggy spot to camp, Djupivogur, Iceland
Puffin on Papey Island, Iceland
Day Five: Egilsstaoir, Lake Myvatn
After lunch and a pool stop in the small town of Egilsstaoir, we continue to Lake Myvatn, one of the best geo-thermal areas in Iceland. The eerie thermal area of Hverarond is quite reminiscent of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. The smell of sulfur lingers everywhere. One of our best meals in Iceland is at the Vogafjos Cowshed-Cafe in Lake Myvatn. Half of this restaurant is a stable full of cows (viewable via a glass partition), and most of the cheese on the menu is made from these bovines. Kids can walk into the stable for petting/photo opportunities. For the first time on our trip we don't easily find a free place to park the R.V., so we stay at an official campground in Lake Myvatn. This campground is fairly crowded, but quiet at night. It is nice to have a large sink to wash our dishes in and be able to use full-sized bathrooms. We also plug into their electrical grid to recharge the electronics (Ipad, cameras, etc..) overnight.
Vogafjos Cowshed-Cafe, Lake Myvatn, Iceland
Empty Ring Road, Iceland
Day Six: Lake Myvatn, Godafoss Waterfall, Akureyri
In the morning, I dump the R.V. sewage into the campground provided tank. This is not as disgusting a job as you would imagine (the chemicals in the R.V. tank break everything down). We have coffee and tea at the pleasant Gamli Baerinn cafe in Lake Myvatn. The waitress is amazed at our tales of the high temperatures in the U.S. this summer (She asks if we stay inside all day during heat waves?). Drive by the bizarre Bjarnarlflag geothermal power plant (the pipes form a u-shape over the road as you drive under them) and then hike among the Leirhnjukur lava fields (a must-do in my opinion). The smoldering black lava fields look like a post apocalyptic natural disaster area.
Back to the Ring Road, we make a brief stop at the massive waterfall Godafoss. There are lots of steep drop-offs without any barriers here. I see an elderly gentleman get a bit too close to the edge and almost get blown down by a gust of wind. Picture Niagara Falls with no restrictions on where you can walk. Later in the day we arrive at the "capital of the north", the city of Akureyri. We park in the public lot and a nice local lady offers us her parking pass for free. We dine at the upscale restaurant Striki, located on the fourth floor. Then we go for a swim at the local pool, many of the locals are spending their Friday night here. This one has some great outdoor water sculptures (a giant mushroom, a long snake) that my children love. We decide to camp that evening in the city in the pool parking lot. The only minor issue with this is we hear the drunken locals stumbling home at 4 a.m. from a night out on the town.
Leirhnjukur Lava Fields, near Lake Myvatn, Iceland
Leirhnjukur Lava Fields, near Lake Myvatn, Iceland
Godafoss Waterfall, Iceland
Day Seven: Akureyri, Glaumbaer, Skagafjordur Today I get an interesting email from our RV rental agency, they are advising us to watch the wind speeds as they are approaching dangerous levels. We check the Icelandic weather website and determine we can probably make it to Skagafjordur safely, but probably should stay there until the wind dies down. We stroll around the city center for a bit and then have a great pizza at Greifinn in Akureyri. This restaurant has buzzers on the tables for summoning the wait staff, so keep your kid's hands away from them. We stop by the grass house museum near the town of Glaumbaer and walk through the tiny mazes of living quarters (the size of the beds confirm that people were much shorter back then). In the small town of Skagafjordur, we pick a spot at a tiny campground and then walk to dinner to the popular Olafshus. I bike around the scenic horse pastures outside of town and then have a drink at Kaffi Krokur. It is nice to be able to leave my bike unlocked outside the cafe and not have to worry about it being stolen (crime in Iceland outside of Reykjavik is quite low). My bike was provided by Touring Cars in case you were wondering, it is a no-name mountain bike that is carried on a bike rack attached to the rear of the R.V.
Biking along Ring Road at "night", Iceland
Day Eight: Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Stykkisholmur
A Ring Road gas station attendant advises us to take a shortcut on a well-maintained gravel road (Route 60). As we are slowly driving down this road I see about 40 Icelandic horses running towards us. They are being herded by some small cattle dogs and farmers on horseback. This is one of those vacation "moments". The town of Hvammstangi is known for its resident seal colony, but when we visit they have moved out of sight. In the seaside town of Stykkisholmur, we eat at Fimm Fiskar. There is whale meat offered on their menu. At Narfeyrarstofa down the street they are featuring a special of bacon-topped Cormorant. We continue our habit of hitting the local pools and then camp in the empty parking lot across from Fimm Fiskar. I pick up some great fresh bread from Nesbraud bakery on the edge of Stykkisholmur. The wind picks up and rattles the R.V. throughout the night.
Camping overnight in empty parking lot in Stykkisholmur, Iceland
Icelandic Horses running on Route 60, Iceland
Day Nine: Stykkisholmur
Today for the first time of our vacation the Icelandic weather does not cooperate. The winds howls and it rains steadily throughout the day. The boat sightseeing trips are cancelled. We can't leave the town as the wind is too strong for the R.V. There is not much to do in Stykkisholmur other than visit the pool again and then sit inside the R.V. reading and surfing the web. An interesting side note, in Iceland you can only buy beer and wine from a government sanctioned store called a Vinbudin. The operating hours of these stores are ridiculously short, sometimes they are only open for an hour a day. On day eight of our trip we are finally able to visit one during open hours. We spend the night in the city campground surrounded by other grounded Europeans and Icelandic tourists.
Day Ten: Stykkisholmur, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Snaefellsjokull National Park, Arnarstapi
The weather has cleared today as we drive along the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula and have lunch at Kaffi 59 in Grundarfjorour. Kaffi 59 has a bit of a "Roadhouse" vibe (If you have seen the Patrick Swayze movie). There is a very interesting lava field nearby known as Beserkjahraun. The story is that centuries ago there were wild tribesmen known as "Beserkers". One was captured nearby and was ordered to clear a path through the lava field. After doing so, he was betrayed and murdered (by being locked inside a sauna). I take my bike for a spin on the quiet gravel road here, only see a few other folks on the road. In lovely Snaefellsjokull National Park we do a few hikes and visit Djupalon beach. Djupalon beach is covered in black sand and have nice views of Snaefellsjokull glacier. There is interesting debris from a 1948 English Trawler wreckage scattered along the beach. In the evening we stay in the nearby town of Arnarstapi and from there I bike back into the park, taking advantage of the long daylight hours. Drivers here are very courteous to cyclists and give me a wide berth. As a side note, we see many European bike tourists riding the entire length of the Ring Road, that must be quite the adventure.
Biking through the Beserkjahraun Lava Fields, Iceland
Hiking through the Snaefellsjokull National Park, Iceland
Trawler wreckage on black sand beach, Snaefellsjokull National Park, Iceland
Day Eleven: Arnarstapi, Hellnar, Borgarnes
Amazingly the Arnarstapi camp ground serves an elusive soy latte (soy milk is usually only found in the major Icelandic cites). We do a nice hike between Arnarstapi and Hellnar (along the dramatic sea cliffs). Our hike ends with lunch at the impossibly small cafe of Fjoruhusid (it seemed completely lucky that we did not need to wait for a table at noon). That evening we drive as far as Borgarnes and camp at the city camp ground, next to some American Cycling tourists setting up their tents. The Borgarnes outdoor heated pool has some really fun steep and twisting water slides that my wife and I take turns blasting down.
Day Twelve: Reykjavik, Keflavik
Luckily we find an elusive free parking spot that is large enough for our R.V. in downtown Reykjavik (try parking on the corner of Frakkastigur and Skulagata, near the Viking Ship statue). We walk into the city center and have a great lunch at C is for Cookie (my toddler likes the fake stuffed rats in their restrooms). We walk along the busy shopping streets, my wife eyes some Icelandic-designed dresses, but the prices (around $450 U.S.) are too steep for her. I notice that Icelandic parents will leave their sleeping infants in strollers parked on the sidewalks while they venture into the stores or restaurants, must be nice to be able to do that. We drop the R.V. off at Touring Cars and they do a minimal check for damage (none found). We had planned to stay at the well-reviewed Hotel Berg in Keflavik, but annoyingly they have no record of our reservation (even though the owner had confirmed it via email with me several months ago). To their credit, they find alternative lodging for us at the fine Hotel Keilir and drive us over there. In the evening we have a nice final meal at Kaffi Duus in Keflavik and then back up for our return to the United States.
Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland
We really enjoyed our two weeks in Iceland. My wife and I would like to go back in the future and visit the rugged interior (hopefully when our children are old enough for summer camp!).