For its size, Iceland offers an unparalleled array of sights and experiences – from the bustling capital, Reykjavik (covered in Iceland Post 1) to serious treks and outdoor activities (second Iceland post) to every kind of topography one can think of. Today, I wrap up my Iceland entries with a compilation of all the other great stuff we saw and did in our eight days in this marvelous little country.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula: With a just-barely-more-pronounceable name than the famous volcano in my last post, this western spit of land was one of our favorite parts of the island. Perhaps it was because it was our first destination outside of Reykjavik, but the Snæfellsnes peninsula really struck us with its natural beauty. We covered nearly the whole peninsula in the car, starting on the south shore with a hike near Hellnar, passing through Hellasandur and the national park at the tip, and circling back on a more northern route via Olafsvik, Grundarfjörður, and Stykkishólmur. At the end, we crossed the rugged mountain range separating the north and south coasts. Highlights were a short hike from Hellnar to Arnastapi (under two hours round trip) on a coastal trail reminiscent of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, wild horse sightings all along the roads in the national park, and the charming fishing village of Stykkishólmur.
The South and Southeast: Maybe it was the appearance of the sun one day, but the whole south coast was among the most memorable of our countryside outings. We loved the marshy, riparian look of Hella and Hvolsvollur, the lush mountains above Skogafoss in Skogar, and the eerie black “ashtray” landscape near Thorsmork. Continuing east, we marveled at the blue-tinged chunks of ice in Jokulsarlon’s glacial lagoon and the black sand beaches of Vik. We hit luminous Höfn at the peak of afternoon sun and lazily drank a beer at a picnic table in the harbor, then ambled out along the beach with a spectacular view of mountains, a glacier, marshy grasses, and water. We did not do justice to Skaftafell National Park, a majestic collection of trails and sights; it was the day after our intense Fimmvörðuháls hike and our legs were just not cooperating! We stayed for two nights in tiny Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a perfect location between all the sites above, and found our most economical meal of the trip here – delicious pizza and salad at Systrakaffi.
The Golden Circle: This loop, just a bit north of Reykjavik, is the most popular tourist route outside of the capital. The iconic Iceland sights are all here – the geysers in Geysir, the stunning double waterfall, Gullfoss, and the heart of the nation, Thingvellir, where early parliaments met and the impressive continental rift can be seen. In spite of its fame, this area was one of my least favorite overall; the driving was unexciting and the crowds detracted from the rough Icelandic beauty we saw in so many other places. It was a must-see while in the country, but I’m glad we spent a few hours here and not a whole day. (Likewise, the Blue Lagoon was an interesting stop on our way to the airport at the end, but definitely not a highlight – too many tourists and vastly overpriced.)
Big scenery, small buildings: Everywhere we went, we saw huge mountains, trees, and waterfalls looming over teeny houses and churches. There’s a reason so many photos of Iceland portray this contrast; it’s an irresistible juxtaposition of the grand and the simple. In many ways, it’s symbolic of the country in general. The scenery in Iceland is some of the most striking and imposing in the world, yet the human presence in this sparsely-populated land is meager – only some 320,000 people in the whole nation.
Language: With two language teachers on the road together, it was inevitable that we would be fascinated by the daunting-looking Icelandic language. Like German, to which it is related, Icelandic is an agglutinative language that uses many compound words, resulting in long strings of vowels and consonants that look outrageously difficult to pronounce but can easily be broken down into separate words that we began to recognize over the course of a week. Nevertheless, we found ourselves using only the first few syllables as we checked our maps and books; we stayed in “Stykkish,” drove to “Jokuls,” climbed near “Eyja,” and slept in “Kirk.” We had loads of fun turning the noun “snyrting” (toilet or restroom) into a verb and ordered many a “pylsur” (hot dog) in the gas stations along our route. (And by the way, gas stations like N1 were a godsend to our food budget; these clean, well-stocked shops had wonderful – sometime even chic – cafés with good food and shelves of healthy snacks.)
From town to country, peak to shore, majestic to simple, Iceland was a land of stunning contrasts – and we loved them all.