Friday, April 17, 2020


Well, seeing as the whole world is on lockdown for the foreseeable future, I might as well put this time to good use and finally start writing the blog for our trip to Iceland. Better (5 years) late than never! And I'm not sure why I never got round to writing this one, as Iceland is right up there with our favourite ever countries. Even now, 5 years later it still stands at a very respectable 5th place in our overall rankings (behind Mongolia, Japan, Myanmar and India).

Furthermore, and say this quietly, but... it's nicer than Ireland! I know, it's an outrageous statement, but hear me out. All of the places we've visited around the world have been great in their own way, but after each one we could always say, "Well, it's not like Ireland...". But Iceland very much is like Ireland, but so much more beautiful! The rivers are clearer, valleys are deeper, the coasts are rockier, the villages are quainter, the roads are twistier - the only advantage we seem to have is the weather, which is not something I thought I’d ever boast! During our trip here, we drove around the island completely in 10 days and not once did we see anything unsightly. The worst it ever got was “pretty nice”, in a momentary lapse from jaw-dropping, breath-taking and heart-stopping.

If you want to get around the island, renting a car is definitely the best way to go and, although I've done it many times since, it was my first time driving on the right-hand side of the road (intentionally anyway…). I thought it would take quite a bit of getting used to, especially things like changing gears and anticlockwise roundabouts, but it actually came surprisingly naturally. Maybe in a former life I was from… pretty much any other country on the planet!

The only major negative about renting a car here is the price. Iceland is an expensive country anyway, but the car rental fee was especially steep. Still, we certainly got the most out of our vehicle / occasional accommodation / shelter from the rain / luggage storage / sit-in restaurant / home cinema, all rolled into one!

So, after landing, collecting our car, and circling Keflavik a few times looking for a way out, we finally hit the road proper. We actually didn’t really get lost at all in our time here. Everything is pretty well signposted and, 90% of the time, you're on the Ring Road which circles the coast of the island.

On day one, we drove the short distance to our home for the night, the small town of Grindavik. Actually, outside of Reykjavik, every town was a small town! We spent most of the day at the nearby Blue Lagoon, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole country. It was quite pricey, but it's one of those must-do activities. It would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. It was a nice place though and pretty much every other attraction in the country was free, so we could afford to splash out here!

On day two, after stocking up on supplies at a local supermarket, we had our first day of actual navigating, as we made our way to Þingvellir National Park (the letter "Þ" is pronounced like "th"), which is probably one of the most significant places in the world, both historically and geographically. 

First of all, about 20 million years ago, at this very point on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the North American and European tectonic plates pulled apart, creating the actual landmass of Iceland, which makes it, geologically, the youngest country in the world! Go Iceland! And if that wasn't enough, around 1,100 years ago, Þingvellir was the site of the first ever Icelandic parliament, which is the oldest parliament in the world! Double go Iceland! This is literally the place where Iceland was formed, in every sense of the word! You can even climb down inside the chasm between both tectonic plates and stand in the no man's land right between North America and Europe.

Did I just piss myself, because I'm definitely feeling incontinent!

The rest of the day similarly played out like a Junior Cert Geography textbook, as we visited the volcanic crater of Kerid, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the geyser of... well, Geysir.

After a full day of exploring (and with the Icelandic summer daylight, it almost was a full day!), we drove on up into the mountains of Landmannalaugar, where we would be spending the night. Now when we were doing our research beforehand, we were intending on just hiring a regular city car for the trip, but we read that you really do need a 4x4 if you're going into the mountains. We were originally just going to just chance it, after all, how rocky could the roads really be (?!), but decided in the end to play it safe, and bulk up for the journey. And it's a good thing we did! Once we got off the tarmac and started the climb, it was a long, steep, bumpy road to the top. It was pitch black at this time too, with no other cars in sight. Not the time or place for a breakdown.

But we made it in one piece, folded down the backseats, rolled out our yoga mats and sleeping bags, and had our first night on the road.

The next morning, we were ready to start our mountain hike. The entire trail is four days long, but a half day trip was enough for us, so we just strolled along for a few hours until we saw enough, and then headed back. It was definitely worth the effort though, as we saw some incredible sights even in that short time. And what would a trip to Iceland be without some ice!

And even this high up in the mountains, there were still thermal springs bubbling away. It’s a strange mix seeing boiling hot water flowing and frothing right alongside solid ice and snow.

Each night, we alternated between sleeping in the car and getting accommodation, so that we didn't have to go too long without a bed or a shower or somewhere to cook a proper meal, instead of solely living off bowls of Cheerios, and Nutella sandwiches.

One very worthwhile purchase we made in preparation for this holiday was getting ourselves a plug-in kettle for the car. We still have it in fact! Just fill it with water, pop it into the cigarette charger and voila! Those mugs of tea and cuppa soups kept us going through the cold evenings.

On day 4, we got the ferry from the mainland out to the island of Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. As well as being a beautiful island with a lovely little town, it was also an incredibly interesting place to visit as, in 1973, there was an underwater volcanic eruption lasting 5 months which, not only destroyed a chunk of the island, but also added 2 square km of land to the island’s eastern coast! Pretty strange to be walking across terrain that simply didn’t exist just 42 years before!

The island has a little puffin colony too, which they seem to be very proud of. Every second restaurant or shop had some sort of puffin logo, or souvenirs for sale. Puffins are great though! I'd say they're possibly my number one bird. 

As for the rest of the island, it's a lovely place to spend half a day. There are some really nice hikes and cliff walks, with views over the island, and even some quirky street art. Well worth the ferry ride over.

On the journey over, you also pass by the island of Elliðaey, which is home to probably the best spot to find yourself in during a zombie apocalypse.

Thanks once again to Iceland’s long summer sunshine, after a half day on the island, we still had plenty of time to pay a visit to two of the country's most beautiful waterfalls – Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. Well, I say "pay a visit", but in reality, all of the natural wonders here were completely free, so despite the cost of the car rental, our days were pretty cheap!

Seljalandsfoss is tall and thin, with a cool little cave behind the falls that you can walk behind. Skogafoss is shorter and wider, with a path leading to the top where you can look down from above. Both definitely worth visiting.

Frankie, nooooo!!! I'm still not over it. :(

We also drove past that volcano that erupted in 2010, causing flights to halt all over Europe. Bonus points if you can remember the name. That’s right – Eyjafjallajökull. So obvious when you hear the answer! 

That's it... Not really as menacing, or even as volcano-ey, as I was expecting.

The good thing about sleeping on the go in Iceland is that it's very easy to find somewhere safe and private to pull up for the night. Basically anywhere! The country is bigger than Ireland in size, yet only has a population of just over 350,000, so it's unlikely you'll have too much competition for a quiet spot. In fact, while we were in the country, we were told by a local that there were about 500,000 tourists in the country at the time, which is a lot comparatively, but you still wouldn't see many people about. We spent the night once more in our bed on wheels, this time overlooking the black sand beaches of Vik. 

It wasn't just the night, the sand was black in the morning too!

The following morning, we also visited the nearby Reynisfjara Beach with its basalt columns. And this is another reason why Iceland is more beautiful than Ireland. In Ireland, the Giant's Causeway is one of the main tourists attractions, and it is an incredible natural wonder, unlike anything else in the world... except Iceland. In Iceland, you can hardly walk down the street without tripping over basalt columns! Seriously, in our time here, we saw all sorts of similar and better sights. We saw basalt column caves, basalt column waterfalls, upside-down basalt columns, flat basalt columns... the list goes on (or rather, stops there).

We also visited the glacial lake of Jökulsárlón, where blocks of ice slide down from the glaciers, into the lake and then out to sea. The best part though is probably the nearby Diamond Beach where some of the ice chunks wash up on the black sand.

We were back to home comforts that night as we stayed in the Taergesen B&B, which is apparently used as a filming location for the show Fortitude, if anyone watches that...

The next few days were put down as more scenic days, rather than visiting specific sights, however with the inescapable thick fog, we couldn’t really get the most out of the east fjords. We did however stumble across a Mexican party – it was a fjord fiesta! We also hired a guide around the area – it was a fjord escort! We also came across a wild horse - it was a fjord mustang! Ok, none of those things happened, but the puns were just too good to pass up. The landscape was still incredible, it was just a lot harder to see in the mist. It also made driving a lot harder. You really needed to keep a fjord focus! Ok, that’s the last one!

Also, funny story! A few years after this, we visited Cinque Terre in Italy and stumbled across another barrel, painted almost exactly like the one above! Is this a thing? Do people do this? Is this a particular character, or just a huge coincidence? Answers on a postcard please.

We also added another few waterfalls to the list, Detifoss and Selfoss, as well as some others that weren't even mentioned on the map. Imagine that, having so many waterfalls that you don't even bother labelling some of them. And these weren't little trickles either. We passed a few that would be main attractions in other countries, but weren't even signposted here!

We spent the next day in the Lake Myvatn region, enjoying the array of volcanic creations, with lava fields, volcanic craters, sulphuric pools and bubbling mud pots. The landscape was out of this world, and I mean that in the most literal sense - it really looked like something from another planet. 

We also visited a thermal spring cave which was just like a regular cave but had a warm lake inside. It was also the cave where Jon Snow and Yggritte got busy in Game of Thrones. As far as I know, all of the snowy landscape scenes north of the wall were filmed in Iceland.

And then, to round off the day, we threw in another waterfall (sure, why not!) with Godafoss. On our journey, we probably stopped at about 7 or 8 waterfalls in total, and drove by dozens more. And you’d think that surely they’d be quite samey, I mean how varied can falling water be? It turns out, quite varied! And we enjoyed each one more than the last! Lisa Left Eye Lopes would be turning in her grave if she knew what we were getting up to!

The next couple of days were again more about the general landscape than any one thing in particular as we continued along the Northern coast and into the West Fjords. Like before, much of the scenery had to be deciphered through a thick veil of fog, but we still had a blast driving through the countryside like the only people in the world.

We stopped in a tiny town called Holmvik where we had dinner in probably the only restaurant in town. Our options were pretty limited, so we had to take what we could get. As they say, “When in Rome…”, so we imagined we were in Rome and ordered two 16 inch pizzas!

The food was actually pretty decent overall, especially considering that, in some towns, you may only have one or two dining options. We didn't get too adventurous in our time here, like having fermented shark (that is a real dish). We did have fish and chips quite a bit, which I guess is local food. And we had plenty of skyr, which is an Icelandic dairy product, like a yogurt, but not a yogurt. We were told this on more than one occasion.

The next day, we travelled through Patreksfjordur, which was named after St. Patrick! It turns out there's very strong historical connection between the two countries with many of Iceland’s inhabitants having Irish roots. Apparently, of the initial Viking settlers on the island in the 9th century, around 70% of the women were of Gaelic descent (most likely slaves), with a similar percentage of the men coming from Norway. In fact, the guesthouse we stayed in a couple of nights before was owned by an Icelandic woman named Siobhan!

The most exciting thing that happened that day was when we arrived at our accommodation, a little cottage in the middle of nowhere, and were attacked by a flock of arctic terns. It was actually quite frightening. There was about 50 of them and they kept swooping and cawing at us. We had to duck for cover any time we went to or from the car. It was like a scene from The Birds!

Luckily we managed to survive the ordeal unscathed, but who knows what would have happened if things took a tern for the worse!

And so onto day 10, our last one on the road as we headed back southwards towards Reykjavik, journeying across the Snaefellness peninsula. The car had become filthy from driving across the West fjord’s bumpy dirt roads, so I gave it a wash at a petrol station while we stopped for lunch. This is the second time I’ve had to do this on the trip, and it’s funny that I’ve washed this car twice in 10 days, yet we've had our Irish car for 6 years now and I've never washed it once!

That’s another great thing about Iceland actually, many petrol stations have a DIY carwash facility with hoses, brushes and vacuums so you can clean up for free. You can also pay for petrol by card right at the pump, very handy. We actually didn't use cash much at all during our trip as everything is done by card. That's not as groundbreaking now, but it was in 2015!

The final drive south was a nice one anyway as we rounded off our Icelandic road adventure.

We got ourselves an Airbnb in Reykjavik, as we would be spending four days in town before our flight home, and it's a lovely city to spend a bit of time in. It's not too big, but I like that in a city, and there was plenty of quirky little things to make a stroll around worthwhile.

And we made a little video diary for ourselves while in town:

We also did a walking tour and it's actually a very interesting city, and country! Some fun facts for you:

- Iceland has the best gender equality in the world
- Iceland gets almost 100% of its energy from renewable sources
- Iceland is one of the few countries that doesn't have a McDonalds
- Iceland doesn't have a military
- Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world
- The Icelandic language hasn't changed in centuries
- Only 2% of Iceland's area is covered in forest
- Around 11% is covered in glaciers, covering a bigger area than the rest of Europe combined

And that was Iceland! 5 years later and it still ranks up there with the very best. I know nobody will be going anywhere in the near future, but it's definitely somewhere to put on your post-lockdown list. It's very close by, only a bit over 2 hours from Dublin, and you can see an awful lot in a short space of time. The summer was a great time to visit with a good 20 hours or so of sunshine per day, but we would equally go back there again in the winter to see the place with a bit of snow and the Northern Lights.

This is usually where I'd tell you about our next trip, but we might be waiting a while. In the meantime, I might go back and write some other blogs for countries that I've neglected!

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