May 31, 2015 – June 8, 2015
A popular question I received while planning for my second trip to Iceland in two years was, predictably, “Why are you already going back to Iceland?” I definitely understand the motivation to cover as much ground as possible in the time you’re given on this planet, but I also believe that an adventure back to a place you’ve loved requires neither rhyme nor reason. Sometimes it’s simply impossible to resist a place you’ve already traveled and enjoyed. Regardless, there were two reasons for my trip back to Iceland other than the simple, “-because I liked it so much.”
- I had already been to Iceland with my boyfriend in the winter, and we wanted to know what Icelandic summers were all about. The start to summer in Iceland is June 1, and the spring (when we’d visited before) is essentially still wintertime. We’d wanted to visit the Westfjords during our last visit, but they are inaccessible via road most of the time during the winter season. This is why so many vehicles on the road in Iceland in the winter have tires the size of baby pools. Even though Iceland’s summer still isn’t particularly warm, it’s light out almost twenty-four hours a day, and the roads are less dangerous. It appeared that in June, we could finally make it to the Westfjords.
- We fell in love with Iceland during our last visit, but it was a challenging time in our relationship. We were approaching some major changes, including our first jobs out of college, a potentially major move, and adjustment to post-undergrad reality. My perceptive boyfriend, deciding it would be wise to relive the Iceland experience now that we escaped that shaky stretch of uncertainly, decided to plan this trip as a birthday surprise.
Of course, despite the fact that this trip was a gift, I couldn’t handle the idea of being uninvolved in its planning. Half the fun of travel is planning. I spend most of my time on Expedia and reading travel blogs even when I’m not planning a trip, so to hand over the reigns for both accommodation and activity planning would just be too much for me. Fortunately after our last trip we had a pretty good sense of what we would like to do more of, and what we could do without. Our goals included visiting a town called Ísafjörður in the Westfjords, visiting a few sites that are only dirt road accessible and hard to get to in the winter, and experiencing the midnight sun. I also hoped to see some puffin, but ultimately they eluded me.
We’d learned from experience that something as random as a sandstorm can spoil a drive in Iceland, and something as minor as a snow patch can completely alter the course of a trip. We planned accordingly for our second vacation here and scheduled the bulk of our drive through rural parts of the country for the beginning half, providing wiggle room for the inevitable hold-up. This time we rented a car for eight instead of four days. The second half of our trip would involve shorter drives along the south coast, and some time in Reykjavík to enjoy the city.
Predictably, we did end up running into some harsh weather on our trip to Ísafjörður, a sizeable town in the far north Westfjords. I can’t stress enough the importance of checking road conditions before a long drive in Iceland, especially when summer’s presence is still precarious. It also may be valuable to keep in mind that the end of the season for snow is different in the northwest than in Reykjavík. After a perfectly fine, three hour drive from Reykjavík to Hólmavik to visit Iceland’s excellent Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum, we got back into the car for another three hour drive to Ísafjörður and ended up terrified on a stretch of road called the Steingrímsfjor∂ur hei∂i. For those interested, this is a portion of the only road by which you can access Ísafjörður from Hólmavik, Route 61, which brings you over a mountain to avoid having to drive the length of a large fjord. My observation was that the farther from the coast, particularly far north, the more risky the driving conditions. Driving along the fjords is somewhat dangerous, because you are driving very close to the water on potentially slippery, winding roads, but driving inland was much scarier to me because the mountains often involve fog, ice, snow and wind.
Long story short, the drive along Steingrímsfjor∂ur hei∂i was brief, but seemed to last years as we were driving on a mountain with poor visibility, on a road caked with drifting snow, in a car that seemed to have trouble maneuvering inclines, in June. Even if you’re visiting in June, check the weather wherever you plan to drive! Don’t assume it won’t snow! I spent the entirety of Steingrímsfjor∂ur hei∂i clenching my fists and combating wafts of nausea, and I wasn’t even the one driving. If we hadn’t had four-wheel drive, it may not have been wise to plan such an ambitious road trip. In my retrospective research I also learned that this stretch is supposed to be haunted with trolls, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
I am pleased to report that our visit to Ísafjörður was well worth the drive. I think my boyfriend would have stayed there, if he weren’t already employed in America. Ísafjörður has a population of a modest three thousand, but when compared to other towns in the Westfjords (and Iceland, for that matter), Ísafjörður is booming with activity. The downtown area has lots of lots of restaurant options for those interested in seafood, but since neither of us are, we were content eating pizza and ice cream. Many convenience stores/small grocery marts in Iceland have restaurants attached, and we ate in places like these when our only alternative options involved seafood. After walking around a bit to get a feel for the town, we hopped back into the car for a brief ride to our hotel in a neighboring town, Suðureyri, which was much smaller than Ísafjörður but no less charming.
Once we made it out of the Westfjords and back over the Steingrímsfjor∂ur hei∂i, I could finally breathe again and the remainder of the trip was a breeze. We followed our Westfjords adventure with a drive to Iceland’s southeast coast to see Jökulsárlón, my favorite spot from our previous trip, and ended up seeing so much more than we’d noticed last year. During our last visit we did the Ring Road drive in its entirety, clockwise all the while, and it’s amazing what the mountains, cliffs, peaks, and bumps obscured that driving in the opposite direction revealed. During our long drive counterclockwise to Jökulsárlón we stumbled upon Seljalandsfoss, an overwhelmingly beautiful waterfall right off of Ring Road that you can actually walk behind. When we popped into the small gift shop next to the waterfall, a local recommended a hidden gem of a hike about two miles away called Nanthusagil (for which there is minimal signage, and apparently nothing on the internet, so ask a local for specifics if you’re thinking of visiting). Eventually we made it to the glacial fragments in the lagoon and along the beach at Jökulsárlón, before turning back around rather than continuing forward on Ring Road.
On the way back to Reykjavík we did a short hike to see Svartifoss, another remarkable waterfall, and stopped to visit Fjaðrárgljúfur, a river canyon that turned out to be the most exceptional spot on our journey. While visiting Fjaðrárgljúfur requires a car that can withstand a short stretch of rocky dirt road, a small hike up at least one hill, and a tolerance for heights, it is breathtaking and absolutely worth the effort. When we reached the top of the canyon and were able to look down over the river, I couldn’t understand why this didn’t top charts of things to do in Iceland. My boyfriend and I were both blown away, and had trouble leaving. We stopped in a small town called Vik for dinner twice during our south coast visit, first heading east and then heading west, and loved one particular restaurant called Halldorskaffi enough to go both times.
Keep in mind that our many little stops once we left the Westfjords took place over the course of multiple days (which I’ll detail in the Day by Day), and although Iceland is small I full heartedly recommend giving the countryside the time it deserves, particularly if you have any major hikes in mind. When we drew our second trip through the Icelandic countryside to a close, we still didn’t feel like we’d covered enough ground. When we made it back to Reykjavík for a few final days to enjoy the city before heading home, we were already reminiscing about the things we’d loved about the country and what we would like to do on our next visit. For instance, google pictures of Icelandic ice caves… They look breathtaking, don’t they? Next time.
It was great to revisit some of our favorite spots in Reykjavík, especially before returning to the States to spend what will probably be at least another year of missing Iceland. I take comfort in knowing that I’ll be back. Please contact me if you have any questions about visiting Iceland, because although I have yet to explore so much of the country, I’ve certainly done my research! I end almost every trip I take wishing I’d had time to do more, and I suppose that’s what keeps me traveling.