What do you think of when you think of Iceland?
Icy glaciers? Northern Lights? Vikings and volcanoes? More waterfalls than you can shake a stick at?
Or if you’re me, then Game of Thrones. Come on, don’t be shy.
Although certainly emblematic of Iceland today, especially in travel blogs, there is so much more to see and experience in this itty bitty arctic nation.
As soon as I knew I would be in Europe this summer, I was determined to take advantage of the famous Icelandair stopover - did you know if you’re flying to or from North America to Europe, you can stop in Iceland for up to 7 days for FREE with Icelandair?
This was my chance.
Photo courtesy of Laura Hundersmarck
Tourism has exploded in Iceland recently, catapulting it into fame as the new “it” destination. Though Iceland itself is still very much “off-the-beaten-track,” tourists flocking there now tend to congregate in the same spots: Reykjavik nightlife, the Golden Circle, snorkeling Silfra, and the Blue Lagoon.
I’ve been stalking Iceland in National Geographic for years – there has to be more than that.
Though incredibly awesome sites to visit, instead, Tiny Iceland and I decided to make this trip about seeing the more remote, undiscovered spots in Iceland. And to make it even more interesting, we decided to make it a challenge and put the 7 day stopover to the ultimate test, with a hashtag of course: #IcelandChallenge.
So how much can you see and do in Iceland in 7 days?
As we found pretty fast – a whole hell of a lot.
Here are my 7 favorite challenges and adventures of the trip, some insane, some surprising, all awesome. What’s your favorite?
1. Driving off the Ring Road
Route 1 in Iceland is the main road that encircles the country. 800 miles long and nicknamed the Ring Road, it’s very popular with tourists who rush around the island, stopping at the main towns and well-known sites. While we knew we wanted to drive the Ring Road, I really wanted to check out some of the small towns and remote spots that fewer people visit, especially out in the east. And when I say small, I mean SMALL.
As it turns out, that was my favorite part of the trip. With our Sixt Rental SUV, we were able to climb up mountains and get out on overlooked secondary. Most of the traffic we encountered tended to be of the four-legged wooly sheep variety, with the occasional tractor thrown in for good measure.
If you come to Iceland outside the summer season, many of the secondary roads can be closed because of the snow and ice. That’s why coming in summer will let you see more of the countryside.
Having a rental car in Iceland was essential to our trip, and I really recommend trying to drive around and turn down as many winding little roads as possible. There is always some treasure or another at the end – that I can promise.
2. Exploring the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier and Vík under the midnight sun
The south coast of Iceland gets a lot of hype and for a good reason: it is so beautiful it looks fake. Our first day driving along the coast caught me with my hanging wide open more than once.
Vík greeted us with low-hanging clouds over the mountains and coast creating a very otherworldly feel to an already Jurassic-looking landscape. Many people tack on Vík as a part of a long day trip along the south coast, or just stop by on the Ring Road journey east.
However, I was really excited to get to spend the night in Vík and see a little more of this village: population – 291 on a good day. As the sun started to set (around 10pm-imagine that!) we piled in the BIGGEST JEEP IN ICELAND (aka a superjeep) with Katlatrack, and drove off towards the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier and Katla Volcano, a very active volcano buried under the ice. Driving among black sand fields and purple lupins, we slowly made our way under the sunset towards green mountains and the black glacier.
After a thoroughly foggy and misty day, whatever Icelandic Viking weather gods out there heard my prayers, and by the time we hopped out of the superjeep next to the glacier, only high colorful clouds remained, treating us to one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.
I can’t give too much away just yet, but once we arrived at the glacier and walked among the black sand pits and around the ice, I never felt more in awe of nature. It was so silent and majestic, it’s actual difficult for me to begin describing it here. Who knew I could ever be at a loss for words?
Standing under my first midnight sun with my toes in the black sand and the glacier twinkling in the distance, I knew I would never forget that moment as long as I live.
3. Jumping in the ocean at Borgarfjörður Eystri
Driving off the Ring Road in eastern Iceland, and weaving in and out of countless fjords tucked away between massive snow-capped mountains, I quickly realized this remote slice of the country was a new favorite. Traversing between hot sunshine and chilly fog, we never knew what weather was in store for us around the corner.
Over a dirt mountain pass and along a winding coastal road brought us to the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri. The sun was shining bright and it was considered “hot” by Icelandic standards. Our first stop was the Blábjörg Spa, where we sat out in different hot tubs and saunas under the bright blue skies next to the snowy mountains and blue ocean.
This of course prompted the hardest challenge of the trip: jumping in the arctic waters of the ocean next to the spa. While the weather was nice and warm, the ocean certainly was not.
Hopping up and down to give us courage, we counted to three and jumped off the dock. Well, counted to five or six in my case, that water looked SO uninviting!
Photo courtesy of Laura Hundersmarck
As my head popped up from the water, I am sure I was screaming bloody murder – definitely the coldest water I’ve ever been in to date. This was surely what Jack was referring to in Titanic when he was trying to convince Rose not to off herself by jumping off the back of the ship and the whole “thousand piercing knives stabbing you all over your body.”
Yup, sounds about right!
Luckily, the hot tub was right next door, so we warmed up again at the Blábjörg Spa.
What’s the coldest water you’ve ever jumped in? Would you jump in here?
Photo courtesy of Laura Hundersmarck
4. Hunting for Vikings in Hjörleifshöfdi
So I kind of have a thing for Vikings, legends and epic folklore, which makes my interest in Iceland all the more keen. When Inga mentioned we could hike up a mountain to a famous Viking tomb, I was all over that.
Hjörleifshöfdi – try saying that five times fast – is where the brother of the Viking who discovered and settled Iceland is supposedly buried. He also supposedly had his head chopped off by some unruly slaves in the woods and the mountain where he’s buried is supposedly haunted. Supposedly.
After spending several hours up there, I can definitely confirm that it is in fact haunted. But it’s still awesome.
It is a true mountain in that there are no people on it, it is very rigid with crazy cliffs overlooking the black sand landscape and sea, and it has stellar views. Following the sheep path with take you up to the tomb and ruined church, and be careful on the way down in case you lose your iPhone like me. Also be wary of the creeping gray fog that will engulf you in seconds at the top. Shiver.
Photo courtesy of Laura Hundersmarck
5. Seeing my first iceberg at Fjallsárlón
Once again maybe I have above average interest in Titanic, but ever since the age of 10, I’ve always wanted to seen an iceberg in real life. While nothing like the crazy ‘bergs I’m sure you’ll find in Antarctica or the north Atlantic, Iceland does have icebergs that break off from the Vatnajökull Glacier and float down to the ocean in a lake carved out by the receding glacier.
Finally my dreams came true when we visited Fjallsárlón, a glacier lake almost nobody knows about! Nearby is the very famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, which has been in tons of movies and is a very popular tourist attraction in Iceland, leaving the smaller Fjallsárlón often overlooked.
We arrived as the sun started to set, breaking through the low cloud cover and turning the lagoon gold. Simultanously yelling with the others, “Stop the car, stop the car!” we bolted out of our SUV and ran down to the glacier while the sun created bright rays between the clouds.
With almost no one else there, it felt like my own private glacier tour, especially compared with nearby overcrowded Jökulsárlón. I could have sat on the rocks by the lake for hours watching the blue icebergs float around.
The more well-known Jökulsárlón
6. Spotting puffins on Hafnarhólmi Island
In spite of all my travels, I have hardly encountered much wildlife on the road, unless you count the raucous teenage party scene in Europe.
If there was one wild animal I wanted to lay my eyes on in Iceland besides the arctic fox, it was the puffin. Small fat little birds with bright beaks, they remind me of a midget penguin, and I think they are beyond adorable. There are several puffin colonies around Iceland, the most famous being near Vík in the south.
Little-known is the island of Hafnarhólmi near Borgarfjörður Eystri in the east. Special viewing platforms have been built in the harbor so you can get quite close to the puffins and watch them fly and dive bomb into the surrounding water looking for dinner.
Hoping for a glimpse of this famous bird, it was a lot of fun to wait around until you could see the telltale orange beak pop out from their hidey-holes.
Can you spot all the puffins here?
7. Taking in 5 major highlights of northern Iceland in half a day
To say that Iceland has a bizarre, diverse landscape is a MASSIVE understatement. By the time we reached the end of our trip in northern Iceland, I felt like I experienced all 7 continents in a week. Not many countries out there can boast that kind of variety. Northern Iceland and the area where we spent most of our time was very volcanic, not something you get to experience just anywhere.
Because of some unexpected difficulties, our day around northern Iceland was cut short and we were left scrambling to fit in as many sights as possible AND make it to Akureyri in time for a dinner meeting. The sun was shining again, and we had perfect weather. Luckily since this was a challenge, we were ready.
Dettifoss – Lake Mývatn – Krafla Volcano – Mudpots at Hverir – Goðafoss
Let’s do this.
You might recognize Dettifoss waterfall from the movie Prometheus, where it was featured. Though while standing there at the edge of the biggest waterfall in Europe, all I could think about was how GIGANTIC and powerful it was, and to be perfectly honest, it actually freaked me out big time. It was pretty terrifying. Terrifyingly awesome. To soften the scary nature of this beast of a waterfall was a perfect rainbow arch, making the experience all the more memorable.
This part of Iceland was very flat with wide open skies, when suddenly the earth would rip open and reveal epic waterfalls and peculiar geothermal activity. We drove along Lake Mývatn aka Lake of the Flies before stopping at Krafla Volcano, an active volcano with a crater known as “Hell” that is filled in now with a greenish-blue lake. Taking advantage of the raw power there, Icelanders have built a geothermal power plant next door. Smart.
Nearby is Hverir, a geothermal area where you can wander around boiling mudpools and where steam shoots out of the ground. It is a place unlike any other and it reeks to high heaven.
We finished our challenge off at Goðafoss, another beautiful waterfall and perhaps less-known, crawling towards the edge and peeking over. This was one of my favorite waterfalls we visited, and it was a great way to bid farewell to this wild, volcanic region of Iceland.
Have you ever been to Iceland or want to go? Have you ever considered doing the Icelandair Stopover on your way to Europe from North America? What’s number one on your #IcelandChallenge list?