It wasn’t long after Rob proposed to me that we threw around the idea of going to Iceland. We wanted to go for our wedding, or our honeymoon, or something. Iceland was somehow going to be involved. It was this epic ‘land of fire and ice’ that captivates millions of people around the world, either through Game of Thrones, Instagram, or volcanic eruptions. After the weighing of many pros and cons, we decided to do our honeymoon in Iceland, taking a camper van around the ring road for two weeks.
So naturally, as we approached the island, 20 minutes from touchdown on our Icelandair flight, I had… concerns. It’s hard not to have expectations of Iceland. Expectations lead to disappointment. Would I be disappointed if this crazy land of sagas and trolls and fearsome weather didn’t live up to its legendary reputation? “No way, Mel,” I thought to myself. “All those photos can’t be a coincidence.” If anything else, I was with Rob and we had two weeks together, no work, and just each other. Travel is more about your internal journey anyway, and the ones you’re with.
It was only a bonus that Iceland is fucking gorgeous, and I spent more time there with my mouth open, gaping at the landscape around me, than shut, or talking—or anything.
This little country totally blew us away, and was paradise for two weeks while we disconnected from the distractions of work, social media, and all that.
Arrival and Heading for Thingvellir National Park
We arrived in the dark and mist. We touched down at 5 a.m. in Reykjavik, and dragged our not-much-sleep-gotten, bleary-eyed selves onto the transfer bus to get into the airport’s main terminal. We had our two carry-on suitcases with us, and one piece of checked luggage full of camping gear.
A note here on our carry-ons: Icelandair was surprisingly firm on the carry on sizes. Originally we had planned to bring our two backpacks, but at the last minute decided to stick with our hardshell suitcases because our backpacks were about 1 inch too tall to fit the carry-on requirements. I’m glad we switched, because at the Halifax Airport check in the IcelandAir clerk made every person fit their carry on into that little box they have by the check-in counter. If your bag didn’t fit, you had to check it, which costs you a handy $150 round trip.
At the airport we took out some Icelandic currency from the ATM right beside the baggage claim. We took out about the equivalent of $200 in cash, figuring we might need it at some point, but to be honest we probably could have taken out $100 or less. Iceland is very much a cashless country. While, yes, everywhere will take your cash moneys—they prefer credit cards. Even the wardens who would come around to our campsites some nights to collect the camping fee would always have little visa machines on them. The only times we really needed to use cash were for showers at the campsites, or coin-operated laundry.
I grabbed a Nova SIM card from the 1101 convenience store on the ground level where the exit is for pickups and ground transportation. It was 2000 ISK—about $20, and gave us 1GB of data and unlimited call/text in Iceland for 30 days.
The Nova SIM cards are great because you can easily top them up online if you run out of data. We mostly used it for Google Maps, and doing location research once we got to a place. Before arriving I’d read that Google Maps isn’t great in Iceland, and that may be true in some places, but if you’re hitting up all the major tourist spots around the Ring Road, Google Maps worked great for keeping us on track. The highways are pretty well-marked too, with lots of signs for lookoff points and the like.
If you’re planning to use a SIM card in Iceland, just remember that your phone needs to be unlocked. Otherwise, they won’t work.
We had a bit of jet lag from our flight. It departed at 10:30 p.m. Halifax time, is only about 4 and a half hours long, and puts you in Reykjavik at 5 a.m. Jet Lag is strange. Your body is wondering when to sleep, when to pay attention, when to poop, etc.
Unless it’s late at night, I usually have a coffee whenever I land in a weird time zone change. We didn’t get much sleep on the flight, and it helped. We played cards and lazed around the pickup door of the airport until our 8am KuKu Campers shuttle came to pick us up.
Pro Tip: Don’t panic when you first start to drive away from the airport. When we were leaving Keflavik, all I saw was rain, mist, and flat land. It looked like Canada’s barren north coasts. Somewhere in the back of my sleep-deprived brain, a tiny voice said, “Fuck. The photos were a lie. We should have just gone somewhere warm.” So FEAR NOT if you have the same experience. This is just the airport area. Every other part of the island looks like it’s been dipped in golden sunsets.
How we camped and got around Iceland
For our trip we rented a manual transmission Dacia Dokker from Kuku Campers. Iceland has an overwhelming number of rental companies, since there’s an overwhelming amount of tourists, and a vehicle is the best way to get around the island, choosing where to get our camper from was one of the longest processes of planning the honeymoon. Ultimately, we went with these guys because the price was right, and because they had a deal going where they’d thrown in a free outdoor sex map of Iceland. Why not, right?
Rob and I were super pleased with the vehicle and their service. They were easy to deal with, were friendly, had good advice, and when we told them it was our honeymoon, they threw a bunch of condoms, heart-shaped pillows with pictures of ‘Frozen’ princesses on them, and a PASSION air freshener. The romance was palpable.
And I’m not gonna lie – having those extra Anna and Elsa pillows on the trip was KICK ASS.
For our trip around Iceland we took the counter-clockwise route. Starting in Reykjavik, we first went south to the Golden Circle area, then continued east, then north, then back to Reykjavik in the west.
Our first destination after grabbing a second round of coffee at the cafe near the camper rental, and getting used to manual transmission while driving out of Reykjavik (Rob is a saint and did all the driving for this trip since my manual skills suck and should only be used in cases of emergency), was Þingvellir National Park. That’s pronounced ‘Thingvellir.’ Icelandic has a few unusual characters outside the English alphabet. You get used to them.
Thingvellir National Park
Þingvellir is one of Iceland’s famous historical sites and national park, east of Reykjavík and in the golden circle area. It’s fame comes from being the site of the Alþing, Iceland’s first parliament form the 10th century, its stone ruins, and because the valley is situated right where the North American and European tectonic plates meet, causing huge, rocky cliffs, and beautiful fissures.
We pulled into our first camping spot here, paid for a night of camping to a handsome fellow with a big Santa Claus beard, and then went our first hike.
We checked out Öxaráfoss, where Brienne of Tarth kicked the Hound’s ass in season 4 of Game of Thrones, and the Stekkjargjá lookout. The famous waterfall was man made hundreds of years ago, to provide water for the great groups of people who could come for the large gatherings of parliament.
Camping in Icelandic is ‘Tjaldstaedi,’ so if you’re ever lost with no cell phone, look for signs with Tjaldstaedi on it. Or, you know, just ask someone. Almost everyone speaks English. I even met some sheep farmers, and we had a lovely chat about their families, jobs, and the weather.
Geysers, Fosses, and Horses
On our second morning at Thingvellir we took a hike to see the the southern half of the park, where the famous meeting of the tectonic plates really showed its face with the huge, craggy rock walls of the Almannagjá fault.
We hiked up to where the Lögberg, or ‘Law Rock’ used to be where the Icelandic parliament of old would gather. People would make their arguments, and the Lawspeaker would preside as the keeper of the laws of the land. This was the place to be from 930 until 1262, when Iceland signed allegiance to Norway in a treaty. It was ruled by Norway until 1380, and then the Danes had control until 1918, when the Kingdom of Iceland was recognized as its own country, and then in 1944 Iceland became a republic.
Here are some wicked views from the Hakið lookoff, reached by the footpath leading up from the fault. From here you can get a great view of the Þingvellir Church, Silfra rift, and the whole area.
The next stop on our road trip was Geysir (pronounced ‘gay-zeer’), the geyser for which all other geysers are named—really. When active, it can shoot water up to 70m in the air, but nowadays it’s usually dormant, sometimes for years at a time.
Luckily, the neighbouring Strokkur geyser on the path is quite regular. I stopped here to take my photo by the geyser. Normally it goes off every ten minutes or so, but this time it had three belches not 30 seconds apart. Like a triple orgasm, it took us by surprise. I got soaked.
So, fair warning, if you want to take your geyser photo, it may be best to do so upwind.
Next we headed to Gullfoss—another famous foss! Foss is Icelandic for ‘waterfall,’ and by the end of this post… You’ll have probably realized that anyway.
Like many of Iceland’s natural wonders, Gullfoss was situated on private land, that later became open to public visitation. Many of Iceland’s natural attractions have signs around them that tell their stories, but this was one of my favourites.
In 1907, an Englishman named Howells wanted to buy Gullfoss for energy generation. Farmer Tómas Tómasson who owned the land Gullfoss is on, replied with, “I will not sell my Friend.” Which makes me all teary-eyed.
Just east of Geysir, when we woke up the next morning we could see the erupting steam from the geysers blend into the morning mist.
Skjòl Campgrounds was a great stop, if a bit sassy. The check-in area is inside a bar. Behind the bartender sits a chalkboard, where scrawled in capital letters you can read, “THIS IS NOT A FUCKING COCKTAIL BAR, DRINK BEER.” Various currencies from around the world are strung up on fishing wire above it. The bartender made me a coffee with milk, filled mine 3/4, then used the rest to top off her cereal bowl.
On our way out to the camper I saw a menu that had a listing for $20 avocado toast.
I laughed at it, yearned for it, and then promptly returned to my camper where we had pasta and red sauce.
In the evening, I went to see the horse babies in the neighbouring field.
The Epic Highland Campground
When I woke it was cold outside and I had a sore throat. Probably from getting soaked at the geyser yesterday. But Rob, who is a Saint, and from the frozen tundra of Labrador, made me breakfast and a kettle of hot water for tea. To be honest, from this point on, he pretty much made all the food until the end of the trip. I busied myself with the very hard job of taking photos, and writing. Which is to say: Rob is the best, and I could survive without him—but I wouldn’t want to.
I drank my tea, ate my restorative eggs, then went to wash the dishes. The water at the sinks was ice cold, which was something I’d get used to finding at maybe 50% of our campsites.
Post-dishes, I checked the shower situation. I stuck my head into the shower room, where blissful clouds of warm steam billowed out like a sauna of the gods.
Heartened, excited, I ran back to the camper, grabbed my shower supplies, bought a shower ticket from the front desk, and sprinted for the showers, eager to jump into hot bliss and clear my sinuses.
I turned the corner of the building that led to the showers.
Some sadist had left the shower room door open. All the steam had dissipated.
“It’s fine,” I said to myself, “there will still be hot water.”
But oh, ladies and gentlemen, there was NOT hot water. It was all gone. No matter how many knobs I turned, times I pleaded, the hot water was all used up for the morning, and tepid, non-steamy, water was the best I could coax from the faucets. It was freezing. My nipples could have cut diamonds.
And that’s how I learned that when showering at Icelandic campgrounds, you want to either shower FIRST THING in the morning before everyone else, or at weird times, like 4 p.m.
If some nature-loving friend of yours ever extolls the virtues of cold showers to you… you should punch that person in the mouth.
Seljalandsfoss is a very photogenic waterfall with a unique feature—there’s a cave behind it you can walk through!
Where I made a cow friend, there was a full rainbow just hanging out all the time, and where there were 430 steps to take us up to the top of the waterfall. How do we know? We counted. Just another casual Iceland roadside attraction.
After Skogafoss we headed towards Vik, where we gassed up, and then looked for a campground for the evening. First we considered the standard, Vik Campground, but then the woman at the tourism information center recommended this other campground, with this legendary view and cool road. “Your camper should be okay,” she said. We looked on the map. It wasn’t one of those forbidden ‘F’ Roads we’d heard so much about, so we decided to go for it.
Guys. This was the best campground we stayed at. It was so cool, up this crazy highland road and totally worth it.
Þakgil Campground is in a beautiful valley, surrounded by mountains, about 20 km from Vik down a crazy highland road! Okay, by Iceland standards it’s not crazy, but for North American highway standards, it was awesome. Absolutely worth it, and doable in most normal vehicles. Maybe not a low-riding car, but any truck or camper should be able to do it.
‘Holy crap, if this isn’t an F Road… what is?’ Next time we come, I’d love to rent an F road vehicle, do some highland driving, and find out.
The road was so bumpy the protective air freshener cover flew off the ‘PASSION’ air freshener strapped to the rearview mirror. It was too much. We almost died in a haze of passion trying to get the plastic over back on before it suffocated us.
If you camp at Thakgil, I recommend parking on the western side, so you can catch the early, warm rays of eastern sunlight in the morning.
Black sands to white glacier
Before we could get to our next location, we first had to retrace the road through the mountains. We stopped a few times to explore troll country, and found this wicked cave.
We also saw a bunch more sheep. I noticed they always seemed to appear in groups of three. I thought I was crazy at first, but then I found out… they really do travel in groups of three! Most ewes give birth to twins, and then the twins follow their mom around.
When we got back to the main road, we drove into Vik to explore the Black Sand Beach.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Legend says the cliffs at the western side were trolls that used to pull ships from the water, but then the were caught in the sunlight and turned to stone. There were tons of seabirds hanging out here.
The black sand in Iceland is made up of volcanic rock, and actually most of Iceland’s beaches have black sand, so if for some reason you miss this one on your trip, you could easily have another black sand experience, maybe at the Diamond Beach, which we visited later.
This name. I struggled more saying this place than anywhere else we visited on our trip. Visiting here was a reminder that time of day is so important if you’re visiting Iceland for photography.
The best ‘view’ of the canyon (from the furthest platform, of course) was backlit when we arrived. I mean, I’m on my honeymoon, I was having a good time and was fine with it, but if you’re going for more of a photography trip, know that you’ll really need to adjust your schedule around the light.
Vatnajokull and Skaftafell National Park
This is the glacier where Batman fought Ra’s al Ghul. How do I know that? Because literally as we were driving through, every five minutes Rob would yell, “MEL! THIS IS THE GLACIER WHERE BATMAN FOUGHT RA’S AL GHUL!”
Driving up to this glacier is one of the most scenic ‘road’ shots from Iceland’s Ring Road, with the nice, beautiful white glacier in the background. Definitely don’t fall asleep on the way into the park and then wake up at the last minute and rush to get a photo. Not that that happened to me.
We spent the night at Skaftafell Campground, which was one of the nicer campgrounds we stayed at. Wicked, awesome, amazing showers. They’re also in a co-ed building, and the stalls are easily big enough to fit two people… just saying.
If we were going back here, I would spend more time at Skaftafell, maybe at least two nights. There were so many nice hiking trails here, and I could easily have stayed longer.
You know what’s better than drones? A Diamond Beach!
In the morning we started the day with a quick, brisk hike up to the beautiful Svartifoss. Surrounded by these beautiful, hexagonal basalt columns, it looked like a waterfall someone would make in Photoshop.
There was only one annoying drone operator at this location. Most of Iceland’s main tourist attractions are in protected areas where you can’t fly a drone without a permit. So instead, all these amateur operators set up like 100 feet outside the permit zone, and fly from there. Like, really dude?
I wouldn’t mind so much if they were silent, but when you’re there admiring nature and then you hear that, ‘Whirrrrrrrrrrrr,’ that sounds like a tiny air vacuum sucking through the sky above you. Well… you can see why they kind of suck. Especially when they’re accompanied by the sound of, “LOOK HONEY! LOOK AT WHAT I’M SEEING!.”
I love aerial footage, when done with intention. But by the end of Iceland, I was over drones. Just enjoy the scenery man. When you see these guys staring at the waterfalls through their drone monitors instead of in person, it just makes you feel sad.
On our way to the Glacier Lagoon, there’s another lagoon! I recommend seeing both, since they’re on the same road, and both offer a different experience. The Iceberg Lagoon is a sort of mountain lake you can walk right up to, closer to the actual glacier, whereas the Glacier Lagoon has these stunning, huge ephemeral icebergs all in shades of blue.
Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
We were in Iceland on the first two weeks of September, outside the high summer season, but there were still about 500 people in the Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach area on a Thursday afternoon. You can park at the Glacier Lagoon parking lot (I recommend the eastern side of the bridge, but the western side might have a better view depending on what the glaciers are doing that day) and then walk down to the Diamond Beach.
At the Glacier Lagoon, huge chunks of the larger glacier fall off—some the size of houses—and are slowly pulled out to sea by the current. The Diamond Beach is at the outlet of where the Glacier Lagoon feeds into the ocean, and is where chunks of icebergs wash up, creating a surreal landscape.
That night, we shacked up at Camping Höfn. The facilities were a bit ‘meh’ after Skaftafell and Thingvellir National Parks, plus epic Thakgil, but it was decent, and the view was beautiful.
There are only two showers here, and at night the lineups got loooooong. So once again, I advocate for showering at odd times, if at all.
On the plus side, the showers are inside a warm building with a pretty decent kitchen setup, and they also have free hot plates to use on the outside of the building, so that’s a nice camping bonus, especially if you’re trying to save your propane. The outdoor water for washing your dishes was also nice and hot, so that’s an A++ in my books.
All hail Petra, queen of rocks
This day was a big coastal drive for us, up to Egilsstaðir, the biggest city in Iceland’s east. This was one of our favourite stretches of driving road, and included a trip through a 6 km mountain tunnel. Mostly we just quoted scenes from the Lord of the Rings when they’re in the Mines of Moria. The sides of the tunnels were rough, and you really felt like you were traveling into the heart of the mountain.
We stopped in this tiny fishing village to stretch our legs and have some lunch, but it ended up being one of the most important stops of our trip, because it was here that we acquired… ICELANDIC PLAYING CARDS.
Now, if you don’t know Rob and I, we like to play a game of cards, or two, or three. Totally by chance, we heard there were free public washrooms in this little cafe down the street, so we walked in, and right beside the the toilet were these framed prints of Icelandic playing cards, with a little handwritten note under them, that said, “rare icelandic playing cards, available at cash, 1000 ISK.”
This was remarkable for a couple reasons. One, as I said, we love card games, and had already been many games deep into our two-person international crib tournament (where I was currently losing, but not for long). And two… 1000 ISK (about $10), seemed like such a deal in this incredibly expensive country.
So post-toilet, we wandered up to the cash and inquired about said cards. There were only two decks. One red, one blue. Rob and I both were Pokémon Blue kids, so I chose the blue deck.
Starting at this point in the trip, my card luck turned, and I started winning a lot more. I’m not saying those cards are magic, I’m just saying… They are now my favourite deck of cards.
Petra’s Stone Museum
This was a day of curiosities. First the Icelandic playing cards, and then Petra’s Stone Museum. Now, this is a place that should be experienced more than described, but I’ll do my best.
For all her life, Petra collected stones. Born in Iceland in 1922, she knew a very different country, much more disconnected than it is now. By the time she passed away in 2012, she had become famous and much beloved across the country. Both for her expansive stone collection, but also because of who she was. She really embodied something important to the Icelandic spirit, and you can feel that in the way the home celebrates her and her life.
It seemed like a gimmick when I first saw it on the map, but it was actually one of the most moving places we went. You should check it out. The museum is now run by her family members.
Camping by a lake monster
That evening we passed through Egilsstaðir, picked up some groceries, and then headed to Atlavík Campground on Lagarfljót, Iceland’s longest lake.
Lagarfljót is 25 km long and home to the Lagarfljótsormur—the Lagarfljót worm. At first, I was excited we were camping on a patch of grass only ten feet away from the legendary worm. “So cool!” I thought to myself, as I ate another helping of garlicky rehydrated mashed potatoes and bratwurst sausage.
But as night fell, and my tea grew cold, the fear set in. I made the mistake of reading all the Wikipedia articles and conspiracy theories about said worm.
After brushing my teeth and settling into bed, I whispered to Rob, “Maybe we should move the car.”
Rob, “Mel. It’s a made-up sea monster. We’ll be fine.”
Me, “But what if it GETS US? What if it drags us into the lake?”
Rob, “Mel. It’s never been seen. It would have to be big enough drag a two tonne vehicle into the water.”
I’m now imagining us waking up in a car filled with water, deep in the jaws of the worm. We’re so close to the shore of the lake, I can hear the water lap against the shore from inside the van.
“What if we just moved the car back like 20 feet, just in case.”
We are also the only people at the campground. There was no one around. If we go missing, no one would know for days. If the monster were to crawl up on the shore, we would be the obvious choice of meal.
It’s cold and I don’t want to go outside to move our suitcases from the front seat and move the car, I decide to sacrifice precious megabytes of SIM card data to watch a 2012 YouTube video of the worm monster sighted in the lake. I deemed it lame, and managed to finally fall asleep. We woke up the next morning. Still alive. Take that, worm monster of my fears.
Hiking in the footsteps of Odin’s horse
It seemed like every waterfall in Iceland is known for a different thing. ‘This is the tallest, this is the blackest, this is the one Thor once threw his left shoe into.’ The next foss on our path was Dettifoss, Iceland’s—nay—Europe’s most powerful waterfall. 500 cubic metres of water pass over the falls every second.
What was more terrifying than the sheer force of the falls though, was how many tourist were walking literally feet away from death, in order to get that ‘gram. We saw a girl stumble here and almost fall over. She could have died. Be careful, guys. Pictures aren’t worth risking your life!
We came to Asbyrgi campground and canyon in the early afternoon. This was one of my favourite natural locations on our trip. Asbyrgi, known as the Shelter of the Gods, is in Jokulsargljufur canyon in Northern Iceland.
The canyon is 3.5 km in length, and 1.1 km across, with walls 100 metres high in some places. Legend says Odin was once riding his 8-legged horse, Sleipnir, here, when the horse put its foot down and created Asbyrgi, the horseshoe-shaped canyon.
Asbyrgi is also allegedly the capital city of Iceland’s Hidden People, the elves and other fairy folk who live in the cliffs. You never know what might be true. In this land, looking around, you believe anything could happen, from lake worm monsters, to trolls and hidden folk.
The horseshoe of Asbyrgi is divided by a large cliff, kind of the frog of the foot, if you’re familiar with horse anatomy. In Icelandic it’s called Eyjan, or ‘island.’ If you hike to the top, you’re rewarded with a stunning view of the valley.
Asbyrgi for us marked the halfway point in our journey, and was an excellent spot to do laundry. Laundry in Iceland is expensive. At most places, to wash and dry our clothes would have cost about $30. Here to do a load of laundry at the campground was only 500 ISK, or about $6. They then had drying racks that campers could use for free to hang their clothes to dry. We hung our clothes up before our hike, and by the time we came back for supper, they were almost dry.
Hot springs and love caves
Having been on the road for a week, we were starting to pick up that fine smell of two people spending every day outside and then sleeping, living, and cooking in a van.
We decided today would be a great day to check out the Myvatn Nature Baths hot springs. Myvatn is like the blue lagoon, except less expensive, less populated, and more northern. On the day we went the weather was quite cool, so we actually got a discount on our entrance fee. At $30 each, it was a steal.
We swam in turquoise waters, soaked up the sulfurous goodness, and generally chilled the eff out.
After, we had cold beers and hot mushroom soup with homemade bread, and it was one of the most glorious meals.
Feeling clean, relaxed, and like we’d just had massages, we knew what our next stop should be.
The Jon Snow Love Cave, “Grjotagja.”
This was a beautiful cave! The Game of Thrones team used it as the backdrop for this big love scene in Season 3 between Jon Snow and Ygritte. If you’ve heard the catchphrase, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” That’s them.
Sneaking into this beautiful cave and hidden hot spring, any romantic overtones we might have had here were overshadowed by the thick line of people weaving in and out, and in particular one woman’s voice that reached out of the dark to yell, “IS THIS WHERE JON SNOW HAD SEX? DID JON SNOW FUCK HERE?”
Welcome to touring natural wonders in the 21st century.
By the time we came to Godafoss, we were feeling a bit fossed out—sleepy from our time at Myvatn, full from our lunch, and tired of crowds from the love cave.
We took a walk around the rim of the foss of the heathen gods, and then jumped back in the van to head up to Akureyri, Iceland’s hip northern city, where there is beer and the views are beautiful.
We spent the night at Hamrar Campground, a family campground in the outskirts of Akureyri. The best part? It was full of tiny bunnies.
Bunnies are not indigenous to Iceland, and I’m not sure how these ones got here, but I’m glad they are. It reminded me so much of Canmore in Canada, which is also overrun by adorable bun buns.
My sheep wishes comes true
It was on this day that my sheep prayers were answered. This whole trip, I’d be attempting to photograph the elusive and skittish sheep of Iceland. There are more than twice as many sheep on Iceland as there are humans. Perfect! You’d think. Getting a cute sheep photograph to celebrate this trip should be easy. They’re everywhere.
False. Wrong. No way.
Every time I’d walk up, sneak up, sit on a hay bale in hopes that a sheep would wander my way, I’d be treating to the sight of fluffy retreating butts, or (with one particularly nasty sheep), a stream of piss aimed at me, before running away.
We were headed down the highway, when I spotted it…
RETTIR! Iceland’s annual sheep round-up. It’s at this time that farmers bring their sheep down from the highlands where they’ve been grazing all summer, to their lower fields for the winter.
In the middle of the field was a giant pinwheel enclosure full of sheep. In the center, a giant open circle, with gated sections (like pizza slices) around it. In this case, there were five families worth of sheep. They had all worked together with their ATVs and sheepdogs to bring the sheep down from the highlands. Now, they were sorting them all out into their respective pizza slices of the sheep pen so they could bring them to their farms.
The families were super nice and jovial, and as long as you didn’t get in their way, happy to talk with the tourists who stopped by to chat and take pictures. One of the coolest things about watching Rettir was seeing how involved every generation of the family was, from grandparents watching babies, to Moms teaching their kids how to wrangle a sheep.
The day before we came they’d sorted about 100 sheep to each family, today they hoped to sort maybe 200 more apiece. You had to respect their hard work. Not only are these skittish sheep harder to wrangle than they look, but when the rain came and we headed back to our vans, the farmers continued their work.
We came about Rettir in Oxnadalur in Northern Iceland, a valley in Eyjafjordur where Jonas Hallgrimsson, one of Iceland’s most beloved poets, was born. Rettir happens all across Iceland in mid-September, so no matter where you are, you should be able to catch some Rettir action.
One of my favourite facts about Iceland is that 10% of the population will publish a book in their lifetime.
Camping at Borðeyri
That night we camped at Borðeyri, a small hamlet in the Westfjords with a population of about 100. This campground was run by a woman in the small hotel at the entrance of the campground. It was one of the few places where we had to pay cash, and there were no showers, but was only 2000 ISK, so all in all not a bad deal.
Iceland’s western peninsula, which is hard to pronounce
We’d made it to the famed Snæfellsnes peninsula! Called ‘Iceland in miniature’ because it squishes so many samples of the country’s natural wonders all into one place, this place is named after Snaefell, a 700,000-year-old, glacier-capped volcano at the western tip.
The volcano is known as where the protagonists of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth find a passage leading through the center of the earth.
We began our exploration of the peninsula by going to get some magic wishes.
A charming town, we visited the Sugandisey Island Lighthouse here and ate some great pizza bread in Stykkisholmur, even getting some more for the road, on our way to Helgafell, in search of our three wishes.
Helgafell is a small hill on the outskirts of Stykkisholmur. Keep your eyes sharp because we actually missed it the first time driving through.
Legend says that at Helgafell, if you climb the hill in silence and don’t look back, when you get at the top and face the east, you’ll be given three wishes. You can’t say what they are to anyone. What I will tell you, is that ⅔ of the wishes I’ve made there have come true so far. The last one was abit abstract, so who can say if I’ll ever be able to claim that one, but ⅔ ain’t bad.
Kirkjufell + Kirjufellsfoss
We stopped here to see Iceland’s most-photographed mountain, called ‘sugar top mountain’ by the old Danish sailors who used to visit it, but now known as Church Mountain in Icelandic—Kirkjufell.
The mountain was formed when glaciers carved out the land around it, giving its unique shape. When we visited there was a big red helicopter parked in front of it because someone had either gotten stuck on the mountain, or they were running an evacuation practice exercise. Can’t be sure. Either way, a good reminder to be in awe of nature, and respectful.
Kirkufellsfoss is across the road from Kirkjufell, and most people shoot over these waterfalls to capture the classic shot of the mountain that you see everywhere. I was not above shooting this classic angle of Kirkjufellsfoss. It’s been done a million times, but like Pokemon, gotta catch ‘em all, red helicopter or not.
The waterfalls feel quite small in person, especially compared to some of Iceland’s other famous falls, but they’re really lovely, and it was nice to be able to walk up close to a waterfall without getting soaked for once.
While exploring the top of Saxhóll in Snaefellsjokull National Park, we almost got blown into the center of the earth, with winds so strong you could lean against them.
We ended the day in the stark but beautiful Arnarstapi. Punctuated by modern wooden buildings, there were a few lovely restaurants here. We decided to spoil ourselves and get supper out, with fine fish n’ chips plus beers at this cute place.
The menu was inspired by Jules Verne and there wasn’t a second I didn’t love it.
I forgot to mention the smell of the water, but I’ll mention it now because I remember it being particularly strong here. Most water in Iceland is heated by geothermal energy. Thus, it has the smell of sulphur, as do most of the country’s hot springs and geysers. If you can’t stand that eggy smell… maybe Iceland is not for you.
When we were at Arnarstapi, there was some confusion about how to access the site’s ammenities. The washrooms and showers are all in locked buildings that you need a keycode to enter.
You need to pay at Arnarstapi Center (which is a fancy restaurant) for your camping, and then they’ll give you the keycode. Only when we went in, the person we talked to didn’t give us any of this information—cut to us trying to break into the washrooms hours later when we really needed to go.
If there’s anyone Googling this who needs the code for the camping washrooms at Arnarstapi, it’s 1234. Because of course.
Buying gas in Iceland
This was also the day we learned the parable of the ‘Fill Tank’ option at the gas stations. It turns out when you choose that option at the gas stations, they place a hold on your credit card for about $250 that will then clear about 2-4 days after you buy gas, and be replaced with your actual gas spend. So if you spend $50 on gas, there’ll be a $250 hold on your card, and then $200 will be released a few days later.
We wondered why our funds had been dwindling quicker than expected. It turns out we had about $700 worth of holds on our card that hadn’t reverted yet. SURPRISE! I mean, it was fine once they were refunded, but if you’re on a tight budget, it’s not ideal.
So, to learn from our mistakes, choose smaller, specific amounts on the gas machines, or buy prepaid gas cards.
Buðir is beautiful, and so are goats
The landscape as we started this day was a scene of rolling boulders covered in moss. Great, green majesty. It made me think of endless scoops of chocolate chip ice cream.
Hotel Búðir and the Black Church
At one point we’d actually planned to get married here, but when we arrived, we realized we’d really done the right thing by getting married at home. There were so many tourists around, and it would have been a big financial ask of our family and friends to have them all come out here.
We explored the church paths, them got cozy inside, sipping our hot drinks, and just feeling like we’d made the right call, feeling love, and also taking like a million photos. This place was beautiful and I wanted to shoot like 10 editorial covers in there.
We had some time to kill before our next stop, so we stopped at the Ljómalind Farmers Market. Now, there were many places along our trip where you could buy Icelandic wool sweaters, but let me tell you, this was one of the best places we found. Tons of handmade sweaters in different patterns, and other handmade wool souvenirs, and traditional handicrafts.
There was also a really nice N1 gas station next door, that had a great cafe area where we grabbed some lamb soup and wifi time. N1s in Iceland are like little havens on the Ring Road. They’re a great place to grab one of Iceland’s famous hot dogs, or an affordable hot meal before hitting the road again.
Icelandic Goat Center
The Goat Center at Haafell is dedicated to protected the Icelandic goat, an endangered species unique to Iceland. Goats are nowhere near as popular in Iceland as sheep. Which is a shame, because they’re about 1,000 times more personable. Basically they’re cats with horns.
I’m not saying this was the happiest day of my life, but have you ever held a tiny baby goat and had it nuzzle into your arm before?
I also met this famous goat who appeared in Season 4 of Game of Thrones as the goat who was not eaten by Daenerys’ dragon.
Julie from Switzerland gave us a tour of the farm, and then after we chatted with Johanna, the family’s matriarch, who gave us samples of their various products, and talked about life in the farm. Her family has been there for 400 years. It’s pretty amazing. Her quest to save the goat species is well documented, and even without the backstory, it’s just fun to play with the goats. Also, their goat sausage and cheese are delicious, and it’s nice to hear about life on a farm.
You have to accept that these animals are both cute, smart, and amazing, and also get made into delicious meats. Cycle of life, baby. The friendliest and fluffiest (really – cashmere is legit) ones do get kept on to act more as visitor greeting goats and breeding ones, so, if you’re ever born a goat and want to stay alive: don’t be a dick, or at least have an engaging personality, ya hear? They also make some delicious syrups, jams, and jellies using local herbs and plants like rhubarb.
Rob bought some prime goat sausage here, scented with juniper, but I’m sad to report that it was confiscated by customs upon our return to Canada.
If you’re coming in the shoulder season like we did, just email Johanna to arrange a visit. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That night, we pulled in late to our campsite at Akranes, on Kalmansvik bay.
Coming full circle with an ice cave in Reykjavik
After driving for 11 days, on day 12 we returned to Reykjavik. It was bittersweet. We didn’t spent too much time in the city here. We wanted to do more naturey things (and also save our wallets). But we did visit the Perlan Museum, for the view, and the ice cave.
Here we stumbled upon another great deal, a section of the museum was under construction (but not the part we wanted to see), so we were granted tickets at a discount, half price! The money gods were smiling on us.
After exploring the ice cave, glacier exhibit, volcano exhibit, and grabbing a bite to eat at the upstairs cafe where we got a skyline view of the city, we decided to head back to nature.
This cool geothermal area has a beautiful little boardwalk that winds through a bunch of bubbling and hissing mud pools. At the main geothermal field, Seltún, we found a path that wound up the muddy side of a mountain and gave us a beautiful view of Graenvatn, the green lake about half a kilometre down the road.
Hendur i Höfn cafe in Þorlákshöfn
Looking to kill some more time before we headed to our campsite, we headed to Þorlákshöfn, a small fishing town. Not expecting much, we ended up coming upon the greatest artisanal cafe. It had a family-friendly vibe, lots of things for kids, and the nicest washroom change station I’ve ever seen.
They had a full menu that looked really good, but we just stopped for tea and cakes. It was something you might find in the popular hipster neighbourhood of a larger city, but it was just chilling out in this tiny fishing village. Highly recommend.
Gata free camping!!!
Our biggest camping win yet, price-wise. Amenities were few at this place, but there were toilets, a cooking shelter, water, and the FREE price, was right. You can leave a small donation if you like to help the family that owns it. It’s one of the few places left in Iceland that offers truly free camping.
If you’re trying to find it, just type ‘Gata Free Camping’ into Google Maps, and it should come right up. It’s about 15 minutes west of Þorlákshöfn.
Netflix and chill
Our final day in the camper. We’d done a lot and felt pretty proud of all the ground we’d covered. We’d circled a whole country! At this point, to be honest, the nights were starting to get cold. Second week of September, and snow was forecast to start falling the next week.
If you were on the road any later in the season, you would probably want to get a rental vehicle with a heater inside. Our camper didn’t have a heater, but with cozy sleeping bags inside with sweaters and each other, we were warm every night. It was hard to leave the blankets in the morning though. The morning runs to the washroom were probably the hardest part of my day. S
As we drove back in to Reykjavik, I was a little sad to turn in the camper we’d called home for 12 nights.
But, man oh man, was our warm and cozy little AirBnB some nice. We booked a private and cozy apartment in Hafnarfjordur, in a neighbourhood south of Reykjavik’s downtown, but still only a 20 minute bus ride from the city center.
The AirBnB is close to Kuku Campers, so it was easy to catch a bus back to our warm and cozy place after we returned the camper. Here we played cards, drank tea and coffee, did a ton of laundry and watched Gladiator on Netflix. We chilled out and got ready for re-entry to normal life.
Where to find the cheapest beer at Keflavik Airport
Our last day was pretty straightforward. We said goodbye to our lovely AirBnB, had brunch at Norðurbakkinn near our bus stop. Caught the bus to the Keflavik Airport, and then had some final beer and cards while waiting for our flight.
Beer is pretty expensive in Iceland, a bottle can easily cost you $10. The popular Einstök beer was 900 ISK at the cafeteria area near our gate, but only 250 ISK at the Icelandic specialty food souvenir store just 20 feet away! And at the food store they’ll even open your beer for you. So definitely get it there, and not the food court. They also had a surprising number of affordable food items, like things I thought were not ridiculous for Icelandic prices.
How much did this trip cost?
Everything from the plane tickets, to insurance, to car rental, gas, and every single thing we bought during the trip was less than $5,000. For two people spending two weeks enjoying an expensive country… that’s not bad.
There were a few tips and tricks I used to save money and make this. trip affordable for us. I’ll be writing another post about how to budget for an Iceland Honeymoon, where I talk about those.
The travel insurance I used when we were traveling in Iceland was World Nomads. You can ever buy it while you’re on the road, so no sweat if you forget to buy it before you leave. I also used them for my trips to Bosnia, Japan, and London. If you’re thinking of buying travel insurance for your next trip, click the affiliate link above. It won’t cost you anything extra, and it’s like a digital high five for me.
Thanks for reading! Is there anything else you’re wondering about? Planning the Iceland honeymoon of your dreams? Let me know in the comments below.