On the second full day of our Iceland trip, we walked down to the harbour to pick up a rental car and set off on an adventure to the south coast.
Driving around the perimeter of Iceland is easy thanks to route 1, known as the Ring Road, which goes right the way around the island. It’s mostly just one lane each way, like the UK A- or even B-road, though there are some two-lane bits near Reykjavik. Our first stop was a cute pair of small fishing villages called Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri, which are a five-minute drive from each other and about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. These photos were taken in the former, where many of the buildings were dated with the year of their construction – mostly 1919 or thereabouts.
The pole thing is (or maybe was) a signalling system where colour-coded flags were raised to indicate sea conditions.
The fish heads dangling from this wooden frame gave us the impression that fishing still forms part of the economy in this village. But there was nobody around – we had the whole place to ourselves.
In the other village we came across this amazing traditional turf house, which was once home to a fisherman. This is the kind of home Icelanders lived in until the colourful houses for which the country is noted became the norm. Incidentally, the colourful houses – like those in the photos above – are made from wood clad in corrugated iron, and are basically kit houses shipped in from Norway. Some are really old; in Eyrarbakki there’s one from 1765, and it’s one of the oldest surviving residential buildings in Iceland (it now houses a museum, which wasn’t open when we visited).
From there we drove back to the ring road and continued on our way down Route 1. The further we drove, the more impressive the scenery got; the ocean on our right, and snow-capped volcanoes on our left. We drove in and out of heavy showers and stopped from time to time to admire the views. I was impressed by this road sign!
An unexpected discovery along the ring road was this beautiful waterfall, called Seljalandsfoss. You can see it from miles away, and it couldn’t be easier to visit, with its own carpark just off the ring road. It was pouring with rain when we pulled up in front of it, so we didn’t venture out for too long. You can actually walk behind this one (which is why it’s among the most famous in Iceland), but there was so much spray that we didn’t want to get even more soaked than we already were!
There’s me for scale, though the tiny people in colourful jackets to the right of the waterfall give you a better idea of its size!
Continuing along the ring road, we came to a view point for Eyjafjallajökull (do NOT ask me how to pronounce that!), the volcano that wreaked havoc with flights in 2010 and that left my mum and me stuck in Rome for two weeks (thanks, Eyjafjallajökull!). We weren’t too sure which bit was the volcano; despite the title of this post, there was in fact no magma in evidence! There’s a little museum dedicated to the 2010 eruption close by, but we didn’t have time to go in. It must be scary living in this small settlement, right in the shadow of the volcano. In an interesting sign of the times, there was a sign on the fence overlooking this peaceful scene warning people, “no drones”.
Minutes down the road from there was our next stop, Skogafoss, another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls and the primary reason for the south coast road trip. The ledge over which the waterfall flows was once the coastline, but the sea has retreated, leaving the cliff high and dry, so to speak.
I’m not sure if you can see in this photo, but there’s a little footpath snaking its way up the cliff to the right of the waterfall. I’m ashamed to say it, but we took one look at how many steep, slippery steps there were and decided we could appreciate it just fine from the bottom! Next time, we will be less wimpy!
Of course, Skogafoss (and Iceland in general) is a photographer’s dream, and there were lots of people with serious-looking camera equipment – and even drones – filming it from all angles.
Watching this video clip, you can get a better idea of the awesome power of the water through the sound of it crashing down.
After admiring that for a while, we jumped back in the car and continued along the ring road. From there we spotted a glacier in the distance, which we were both very excited about. Neither of us had seen one up close before. When we spotted a sign post for “Glacier Cafe” off to the left we couldn’t resist, and this spontaneous detour proved to be one of the best stops of the day.
About 4km up the twisty road from the ring road we reached a car park with two shipping containers, which turned out to be the aforementioned cafe. We couldn’t see the glacier from the car park, but there was a promising-looking track leading away from it that teams of hardcore-looking climbers – wearing helmets and carrying ice picks and crampons – were disappearing down. We donned our layers and set off behind them.
Apart from having to pick our way through a small stream, it was a pretty easy 15 to 20-minute walk up a rocky/gravelly path to the glacier, which is called Sólheimajökull; the “jökull” bit means “glacier” or “ice cap” (note that the volcano’s name has the same ending because it is covered by an ice cap).
You reach a sign that tells you not to go any further, and the properly-equipped ice climbing teams were heading away beyond that. We stopped there and admired the glacier from a respectable distance.
It was awesome, in the real sense of the word; particularly when you looked closely and saw all the big cracks in the ice, and how small the people on it looked. I’m not sure I’d have wanted to climb onto it; I was quite content to look at it as a whole.
You can see from these photos how blue the ice looked.
This was the view the other way, where the glacier had obviously retreated.
Pleased with this chance discovery, we made our way back to the car, and it didn’t take us long to drive from there to Dyrhólaey, a scenic lookout point just round the headland from the village of Vik. This place is closed for part of May and June owing to the number of sea birds that nest here. There are sweeping ocean views on both sides of this promontory, and with the sun setting over the black sand below, it was an impressive sight.
The view back towards the ring road looked as though it had come straight out of Lord of the Rings – a grassy plain with snowy mountains in the distance.
This was the view one way…
…and this was the view the other.
Our final stop was Vik, just around the coast from Dyrhólaey. You don’t see Vik until the last minute, the little church perched on the hill being its most prominent feature on the drive down into the village. It has less than 300 inhabitants, but it’s the biggest settlement for 43 miles around.
Known for its black sand beach and dramatic sea stacks, there isn’t an awful lot else there as far as we could see. Three Icelandic horses and their riders were enjoying the beach, and it was lovely to see them silhouetted against the sky.
The sun was setting as we began our drive back towards the city. We drove through a few more heavy showers and completed much of the journey in darkness. We were glad, after darkness fell, to have a tourist coach to follow back to Reykjavik.
We just had time before the sun went down to make a final stop at Seljalandsfoss to enjoy the waterfall again now that it had stopped raining.
It was a lovely end to a day in the fresh air and to the trip as a whole. Once again I found that I felt calm and peaceful in Iceland; out in the wilderness, you can truly leave the anxieties of everyday life behind. With such a tiny population – just 330,000, most of whom live in and around Reykjavik – it’s easy to get away from other people, and most of the time we could easily stop on the biggest road in Iceland and have it completely to ourselves.
The feeling of relaxation is present even when you’re in the city, because it lacks the ‘busy’ feel of most capital cities. Even though more and more tourists are discovering Iceland’s charm, at no point do you ever feel stressed out or unsafe walking around the streets of Reykjavik. Of course, despite being relatively quiet, Reykjavik does cosy cafes and restaurants very well indeed, and the country feels so civilised and connected despite being relatively isolated geographically. And how delightful to be in a country where seeing the Northern Lights is a possibility as soon as darkness falls (though we didn’t see them this time, sadly – too much cloud)! Iceland is an expensive destination, but I’ve yet to find anywhere better for a short break that really recharges your batteries, so it makes the cost totally worthwhile. I’m looking forward to our next trip already.