Normally our blog is about realizations, streams of consciousness, etc and rarely do we write about where we went, how we got there and what we did. Before we left on our 16 month North American van adventure, many people told us where to go and how to get there and what to do. While we were/are grateful for the insight, it was overwhelming. We are more casual and prefer to go with our gut (or our google/Instagram) and keep our ears and eyes open to insight we get from others along the way. However, we recently spent 5 days in a van driving around Iceland and a quick visit to a place with so much to offer warrants some type of itinerary. We decided a summary of our adventure might be helpful for others who are headed to the land of fire + ice…cuz everyone seems to be doing it these days.
Stay tuned (or scroll) to the end of this summary for our reflections and thoughts in hindsight including what we would and wouldn’t do next time.
Why Iceland? Why not. For anyone who has been keeping up with our decision to travel in our van for 16 months, you’ll know it was prompted by a hectic 2013/14, which included a time when Jon was working the crazy startup life at Skratch Labs. As Jon was transitioning away from the day to day of Skratch, he happened upon two films which would prove to be influential in our decision to travel. The first was Chef and the second was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. After watching Walter Mitty and appreciating all that it had to offer, Jon had an Icelandic itch. Jon also recently became a licensed massage therapist and I wanted to celebrate his tremendous accomplishment and check on his bucket list in a meaningful way. I gave him the choice to either travel (as a result of an awesome deal on direct flights) or get something else that he has had his eyes on (item to remain nameless) and he chose to travel…no surprise there. Personally, I was curious to return to Iceland. I had traveled to the little island country in 2004 with my sister. I was living in Boston and it was a cheap and easy flight for a long weekend. All I could remember was the color of the earth as being chartreuse, cucumbers + baguettes, wind and waterfalls. But I knew that there was a coastal aspect to it and I knew that van lifers were digging it, so I wanted to go back. We booked some tickets and off we went.
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life”
– The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Thanks to for our friends Amanda + Jay Burns for sharing their itinerary with us. They went in mid-April and spent 8 days driving around the entire country. We didn’t have enough time for that, and we were a little concerned that it was truly still winter, so we picked bits and pieces and made our way along the southeast + northwest coasts.
Our decision to get a van for our accommodations was an easy one. In retrospect we have opinions about the size of van that we chose as well as the time of year that we went, but alas, live and learn. We knew it would be chilly and possibly snowy, but in a land that is known for being expensive (which by the way it really is!), economically the van as home base versus hostels/hotels made sense for us. Plus, van life is in our blood and the van was advertised to have a heater for comfy night time sleeping in cold temps. The van also had WiFi, which we were convinced would be marginal at best (turned out to be totally reliable). However, it was the risk we were willing to take based on feedback from other travelers that there was plenty of WiFi around the country. The van came with sleeping bags, sheets, cooler, camp stove + fuel, cutlery, table + chairs. All the basics. We decided to roll the dice…What’s The Best That Could Happen?! With hindsight on our side, we say that we won 50/50. More on this later.
We had a lovely direct flight from Denver to Reykjavik on the lovely IcelandAir. It’s not the first time I’ve flown that airline, more like the 4th, and I continue to love it. It’s a simple, smooth, friendly operation. They remain high on my list of favorite airlines. We bumped in to our friends Ashley + Brett Richard from Boulder (aka cycling sock mogul Handlebar Mustache @hbstashe) at the airport. They were bound for the Spring Classics in Belgium with a stop over in Reykjavik.
March 29 – Day One: Airport > Vik
We landed and were met by someone from Go Iceland (van rental agency) and driven to a place called Green Motion where we received our little van (nicknamed Baggie because it looked like a bag that seafood comes in – east coast reference – and was like living in a tiny little metal bag) from a company called Rent.Is. We were a little confused by the multiple companies involved in the transaction, but the van was the size and had all the amenities that we expected so off we went. Prior to departure, the van rental agency gave us three tremendously helpful websites to help navigate roads, weather and camping spots:
Rent.Is – a link to camp spots (important for winter camping)
Vedur.Is – weather by region, very accurate and worth check frequently as the weather changes frequently.
Road.Is – Road conditions by region – good in winter and good to know for 4×4 / gravel options
We did a quick food shop at a nearby grocery store and this proved to be the only food shop we did. Thus, for $150 we had all the basics for breakfast, lunch and snacks. We had one pasta meal as we planned to eat dinner in local towns.
And then we were off to see….
Seljalandfoss – waterfall along the way
Skogafoss – another waterfall…our last*
Seljavallalaug – drove back 3 miles from Skogafoss for a 20 min flat rocky hike to the oldest natural pool. TOTALLY WORTH IT. The pool was too chilly to get in but the hike was lovely and necessary for jet lagged bodies.
Dryholaey Light House – amazing views of black sand beach + mountains behind. Rocky dirt road but easy to do without 4×4. WORTH IT.
Dinner– in Vik at Halldorskaffi – it was a warm dry place on a rainy jet lagged night. It was perfect. Food was totally fine, nothing great but not bad.
Camping – Vik Campground was closed but there were tons of boondockers there so we rolled up and slept for 11 beautiful hours. The lack of heater when the van was off was a non-issue due to extreme exhaustion.
*Waterfalls just aren’t for us. I had this same feeling when I was in Iceland in 2004. They are amazing and incredible and breathtaking, but they are also where all the people are and we felt like we saw them from the car and could move on. I’m sure there are tons that you can hike too and that would be on the list for next time.
March 30 – Day Two: Vik > Glacier Lake > Hella
The goal of the day was to drive to Glacier Lake and back to Vik for sleeping. The drive was absurdly beautiful and very satisfying. We accidentally stopped at Fjallsarlon Iceberg Lake first and spent a bunch of time there taking photos, droning, walking around, enjoying lunch. It was only after we had been there for a while that we realized we had meant to get to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lake (a glacier that collides with the ocean). As a result, we moved on to Jokulsarlon but were overwhelmed by its size and the sheer number of people. Turns out that we were quite happy with our mistake of spending more time at Fjallsarlon.
We drove back to Vik and kept going to a known winter campsite in Hella. Goal: get a shower. We stayed at Arhus which had a restaurant onsite. For $20 we had a place to park, a common space for cooking (not heated) and a promised warm shower. Dinner at the restaurant was fine – nothing too exciting. This was the first night we were impacted by our van heater not working when the van was off. We are experienced enough to understand how house batteries work. We are experienced enough to know that sleeping was going to be cold without a heater. Despite sleeping in many clothes, a warm sleeping bag and hats, a cold nose kept me awake. The common cooking area for breakfast and coffee, while chilly, was a welcomed shelter in the morning. We are used to our big Ellie van which allows for cooking (and standing) when it’s cold out. Our little Baggie was only big enough to lie down or drive.
March 31 – Day Three: Hella > Snaefellsness Peninsula > Stykisholmur > Borganes
This was a big driving day. We had high hopes of some hiking but the whipping wind and chilly temps made us lazy, truth be told. It was a gorgeous drive. We did a clockwise loop of the Snefellsness Peninsula including whale watching (from land) + snow capped volcano views. We pulled off in to an idyllic seaside town, Stykisholmur, for a welcomed wander and the best food of the trip.
Stykisholmur – walked up to the lighthouse, walked around town in search of Meistrann Food Truck for Jon’s first hot dog (thanks Amanda for the rec) and found the little bar that was in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We ate the best meal of the trip at Sjavar Pakk Husid. I had a grilled fish sandwich on homemade roll and Jon had homemade seafood soup.
We had hopes of taking the ferry up to the West Fjord as the drive seemed a little daunting after a big driving day. However, the following day was Easter so the ferry wasn’t running. Bummed out we decided that, despite our desire to camp in this cute little town, we should move on as there wasn’t an obvious place to sleep. Back up plan, drive to an off-the-grid hot spring for the night. When we showed up it was so beautiful but so cold: 25 degrees and windy. I was shivering in my toes. Jon was brave and went into the hotspring. I went back to the van and looked up the weather. Snow was predicted for the morning and we were on a muddy dirt road. I was officially tired of being cold so we drove 45 min to the bigger town of Borganes and happily got a private room at the Borganes HI Hostel for a warm night sleep. At this point the lack of heat at night was getting a little bit exhausting.
April 1: Day Four – Borganes > Thingvellir National Park > Laugarvatn > Reykjavik
The goal for the day was to get in to some warm water and we did! We went through Thingvellier National Park and ended up in Laugarvatn at the Fontana Geothermal Baths. For $36 each we had access to a lakeside hot spring/bath with a natural sauna and steam room. Of course it was also good timing for a warm shower. Slightly over priced (a general theme), but it was worth it for us. We decided that our long driving days were over so we landed at the Reykjavik Campground for what we thought was the first of two.
This campground was a little pricey ($19 per person, not per vehicle) and in retrospect we probably could have just boondocked in the parking lot. After a quick jaunt in to town for Jon to try the world renowned hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, we took advantage of the heated common room and cooked our one and only dinner in – pasta never tasted so good.
April 2: Day Five – Reykajavik > Blue Lagoon
Good Morning! Opened the van door to 6” on fresh snow and a swirling wind. Brrrr… Sadly the warm common area was closed until the evening (a details we missed the night before) so we headed in to the city for some necessary coffee and warm eats. We landed at Kaffitir per the recommendation of a few people and were very happy with our decision. From there we booked a private room at the Loft HI Hostel in the heart of the city. There was a lovely common area that quickly became home base on a blustery day.
We spent the day walking around the city in a whipping wind and a snow that seemed to be going sideways and up. We went to the Viking statue by the water, to the church, to the cute nooks and crannies of the capitol. In dire need of vegetables and on the recommendation of Brett & Ashley, we at lunch at a vegan restaurant called Glo and it was great. Not Icelandic at all, but sometimes nutrition wins.
All day we were hemming and hawing about whether or not we should pay homage to the Blue Lagoon. I was extremely hesitant to return to the Blue Lagoon due to both my prior experience and recent reports of crowds. After my visit to the lagoon in 2004 with my sister, I was convinced I would have to shave my head. We returned to the States with dry, straw-like hair and each had to seek out a deep conditioning treatment to get it to return to normal. That reason alone had me worried, but we learned about a pre-conditioning treatment offered by the lagoon to put in your hair prior to entering. Problem averted.
Prior to the trip we polled a bunch of people and their advice about whether or not to miss this particular tourist trap was split down the middle. Again, we rolled the dice and overall are happy that we went. It was very mystical since it was snowing and there was tons of steam coming off the warm water. Yes it felt like we were being herded like cattle when we got there and the dressing rooms were crowded, but once in the water there were plenty of ways to get away from people. We were happy we went.
So there’s our itinerary with a little running commentary. Here are the big takeaways for us:
1). Van Rental Company (Go Iceland and all the associated companies): Not sure we would recommend them. I found an old hand warmer in my sleeping bad and the dishes were not spotless. Neither Jon nor I are squamish about stuff like this, but most other people would be highly bothered by this. We reported it to the agency when we returned the van and they told us that was odd since the bags were laundered and the dishes went thru a washing machine. However, they are totally doing right by us and refunding us for the hostel costs due to the broke heater. They are very accomodating regarding that. So..I guess do your homework and shop around.
2). Time of year – It’s probably pretty obvious that it was a bit too chilly for van life. We both agree that mid April or early May would be a more ideal time frame to choose the van life approach to Iceland. As experienced van lifers, we appreciate that part of the time is spent away from the van exploring and part of the time is spent in or near the van chilling out (reading, eating, writing, photo editing). Given the chilly temps of most days (as well as the size of the van) we did not have that time to hang out by the van and simply exist, which is our favorite part of van life. A warmer time of year would have helped.
3). Size of van – refer to #2 on this list. It would have been awesome to have a van big enough to sit or stand up in, much like our beloved Ellie. These size vans totally exists, we watched with envy as they drove past us, and we recommend them. Our tiny little minivan only had two options: lie down or get in the driver/passenger seat.
4). Explore the south coast further than we did because it’s truly stunning down there.
5). Iceland is expensive. We did not go with much of a budget aside from flights, van rental and basic food needs. However, given the high number of tourists everywhere we recommend some type of paid excursion. Either a boat trip to an island w puffins or a horse adventure. It will help get a more true flavor for things that are deliciously Icelandic.
6). Audiobooks – We are huge fans of listening to books. We listen in the states all the time and we did it during our Icelandic road trip. There’s a lot of territory to cover and you’re gonna be driving for handfuls of hours at a time. For us, audiobooks help pass the time and cultivate conversation and creativity in a truly enjoyable way.
7). Yes, we would go back. Yes, we would do a van again. Yes, we would do an excursion.
“The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five minutes. It’s totally exhausting.” ~Stephen Markley