This is Part 1 in a series outlining my family’s exploration of Iceland during the summer of 2019, pre-COVID. It was a mostly outdoor experience, exploring the wild and natural sights of a beautiful country during the height of summer. For the full journey, and notes on places to go and things to see, check out the other posts in this series.
- Part 1 – Grundarfjörður
- Part 2 – Snæfellsnes
- Part 3 – Golden Circle
- Part 4 – Roaming in Reykjavik
- Part 5 – Landmannalaugar
- Part 6 – Southern Coast
- Part 7 – Jökulsárlón
- Part 8 – Departure and Epilogue
As is typically the case on flights from the US to Europe, we departed at midnight to arrive near dawn. In our case, we landed in rain, falling heavy under low clouds. Our first impressions of Iceland were… underwhelming. With visibility only about a mile, all we could tell from the area around Keflavik Airport was that trees didn’t seem to exist here – but that’s true of airports everywhere. It was July, but it was chilly here, not cold, but cool and wet like a dreary October day at home. Still on the plane, we put on sweatshirts and jackets.
We THINK that it was during the clothes-changing exercise that David lost his phone and dropped it beneath the seats of the plane… but we didn’t know that at the time.
Customs seemed to take forever, but was endured without incident. We got our luggage, relieved to find it had successfully made the trip with us. It was around this time that David realized his phone was missing… so we spent another good chunk of time with Iceland Air’s customer service filing a report. Chances of recovery were pretty low here, but we had a good description of a unique lock screen graphic, seat number, flight number, and they do clean the planes between flights… fingers crossed.
Getting a rental car was another hassle. We had one reserved, of course – but all flights from the US happen to come into Keflavik at more-or-less the same time, and the rental agency (Blue, in our case) only had a few people working an ever-growing crowd. Again, patience was the only thing we had issues with, and eventually we got our car.
Driving in Iceland is really straightforward if you’re from anywhere that drives on the right (not “correct”, I mean “right”, not “left”) side of the road. You may have to get used to thinking in kilometers, and you may have to brush up on your European signs (e.g. blue circle with a red slash means “No Parking”), but you’ll look at some things and wonder why we don’t do that in the States – like the fact that red lights add a yellow to give you some indication that green is coming, and let you really accelerate as if you’re living your Pole Position fantasies.
Camper vans are really popular in Iceland. Several companies focus on that type of vehicle, and if driving the entire ring road and sleeping wherever gas takes you is your thing, they’ve got you covered. That is about the largest thing you’ll see, aside from delivery trucks. No giant pickup trucks, no huge SUVs. Gas is NOT CHEAP in Iceland – figure about the same price per gallon in the US, but it’s that PER LITER here. (I’m doing the Krónur-to-Dollar conversion here, so we’re talking equivalent dollars). It is really easy to drop $100 on a fillup, even on a small car here – so small efficient vehicles, including hybrids, are popular.
There are also a lot of roads in Iceland that require four wheel drive vehicles. Many people never take advantage of that, but it was part of our plan – so our chariot for the week was a little bronze-colored Dacia Duster. A 5-speed, manual transmission 4WD mini-SUV about the size of a Kia Sportage or a Ford Escape. Small but mighty. Dacia is a Renault-owned brand built in Romania. We were not in Kansas anymore.
All those boring arrival logistics took time, so we didn’t get out the Keflavik area until late morning. Our general plan was to start out on the Snæfellsnes peninsula (west side of Iceland, north of Reykjavik), and work our way generally south and east. We had three different base-camps planned, so with a missing phone hanging over our heads, we hoped our return through the Reykjavik area would coincide with a phone discovery (one can only hope), and we hit the road.
Honestly, the drive out north and west was not much to speak of. Reykjavik is a bustling, but not busy, little city, and traffic wasn’t an issue. We made it through town and out into the hinterlands pretty quickly, and abruptly. In the rain and fog, we didn’t get many views – occasional slopes and glimpses of the ocean, but no appreciation for the terrain that may or may not be around us. That said, we could tell that there was no “sprawl”. You were in town, or you weren’t. Once out of town, there were no billboards, and few signs. Just nature, an occasional farm, and occasional wandering sheep. No trees to speak of. The landscape was mostly grassland, and occasional rock – and that was the extent of our half-mile view in the fog.
There were also lots of pull-off spots, most with picnic tables. This is a feature we would be taking advantage of later, but for now we just wondered if there were any grand views to be had from these spots, or they were just wide spots in the road. We couldn’t see.
Occasionally, we’d enter a small village, indicated by a reduction in speed limit and a central roundabout. We made a couple stops to grab a bite. Coffee, in my case – little sleep and driving in a fog tunnel was not exactly the stimulation I needed to be a safe driver.
Finally, probably 3:30pm or so, we started a descent off the invisible mountain slopes down toward the ocean, and… our eyes might have been playing tricks on us, but the fog was lifting. We could suddenly see that we were in a valley, surrounded by steep mountains.
This would prove to be a dominant geologic feature for this trip – Iceland is volcanic. It sits astride the mid-Atlantic rift where the North American and European plates are pulling apart from each other. Here, the magma that emanates from the resulting crack have piled up above the ocean to form Iceland. It’s STILL happening, but we’ll come back to that. The resulting volcanic mountains, and active volcanoes, are not a huge, alpine range – but at 65 degrees north latitude, just barely south of the Arctic Circle, there is quite a bit of snow, and quite a number of glaciers. In addition, the entire area was under an ice sheet during the last global Ice Age. The net effect of all this is, multiple mountains and ridges of basalt pushing up out of the ocean, glaciers piling up on top, and both current and past glaciers carving steep-walled valleys and fjords, and in many cases carving out sheer cliffs before the Ice Age glaciers receded.
Now, we could see mountain plateaus with steep cliffs and hanging valleys descending to a coastal plain, and waterfalls plunging off EVERY cliff face. Steep walled mountains and waterfalls EVERYWHERE. And then, Grundarfjörður. This little town sits on the northern shore of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, tucked between the North Atlantic and a range of steep-walled, glacier-carved mountains, and sitting in the shadow of what is arguably Iceland’s most-photographed mountain, the conical Kirkjufell. I honestly didn’t know that when we planned this trip, and we couldn’t see it now, but Kirkjufell would prove to be a good indicator of cloud height over the next few hours.
You won’t find big name hotel chains in Iceland, but guesthouses and small hotels abound. We made our way to a hostel on the very north end of town, right down along the water, and settled in. A nice little suite with four twin beds (two pushed together), perfect for parents plus two kids, a kitchenette, private bath, and small breakfast table. That, and thick blackout curtains, and we were good to go.
After dropping luggage, we walked up the street to a local grocery store, a Samkaup in this case, and stocked up on breakfast food and snacks for the road. Generally speaking, we found food to be excellent in Iceland – lots of seafood (as you’d probably expect) and lamb, and, surprisingly, lots of beef. We were never disappointed with the availability or quality of food – but it IS expensive. We managed to adopt a pattern of using normal grocery shopping to provide our own breakfasts and lunches, so we were eating out (for dinner) only once a day, if that, and this kept the food budget to a reasonable level.
Our first actual MEAL in Iceland was not going to be in a hostel, however. We walked back to drop groceries, and then to the Bjargarsteinn Mathús right next door, where we had an excellent meal while watching the fog lift on Kirkjufell just across the bay. A lamb and potato shepherd’s pie, seafood soup, roast lamb, and snapper with blueberry sauce. Delectable!
After dinner, we got back in the car for a short drive to Grundarfoss. “Foss” means “falls” in Icelandic – get used to seeing some variation of this word! Like I said, there are literally waterfalls everywhere, but Grundarfoss is a particularly impressive single drop off a cliff with (even in July) snow capped mountains as a backdrop. Unfortunately, the clouds were still obscuring the peaks, but the effect was still impressive. Walking toward the falls also provided our first real prolonged time outdoors here, and let’s just say our appreciation for the cold and wind was increasing. Our normally brave, impervious teenagers had to admit defeat and promise to keep the windbreakers handy from here on out.
Next stop was Kirkjufellsfoss – or, the falls of Kirkjufell – and here, it suddenly occurred to me that this WAS, indeed the most photographed mountain, perhaps the most photographed SPOT, in Iceland. I promise you’ve seen some variation of a photo of this place. But we couldn’t get to it – not now. The tide was too high, and the creek that formed the short outflow from the falls before emptying into the ocean had overflowed both its banks and the trail that accessed the falls themselves. Some people were wading through, but we reasoned we’d have another shot in the morning so, for now, we were content to observe from afar.
It was just as well. Honestly, we were exhausted. The sun was still high in the sky, but somehow we’d let 9pm sneak up on us, and we’d been up (let’s face it, sleep on a midnight eastbound flight to Europe is hard to come by) for almost two days at this point… We’d only just begun, but Iceland was finally, slowly, starting to reveal its beauty and grandeur to us. We were excited to finally be here, and blown away by the scenery and vast landscape we’d already glimpsed. We wanted more – but we HAD to sleep, first.
Next — we explore the highlights of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and somehow avoid journeying to the center of the Earth.
Get Out There