Iceland offers so much more than a few days in Reykjavik, a coach tour to the ‘Golden Circle’ and a visit to the Blue Lagoon and it’s always worth trying to get out and explore as much as possible.
I’ve visited twice now and on both occasions we hired a car to explore much more than just the island’s capital. The Ring Road provides links to much of the country alongside a network of smaller and often very quiet roads. If you’re looking for car hire, I recommend Blue Car Rental. We used them on both visits – they offered us a discount for being repeat customers – and also offered us flexibility on returning the car
Last year, we drove from Reykjavik up to Akureyri which was a fantastic adventure. From stunning waterfalls, to awe-inspiring mountains, to picturesque villages, there’s so much to see and the freedom of doing it yourself means you can pick and choose where to visit.
Reykjavik – Stykkishólmur
The first leg of our journey was to the fishing town of Stykkishólmur. Instead of going directly to the village, we drove around the edge of the country, hugging the coastline to Snaefellsjokull.
The joy of driving is that if you see somewhere that you want to explore, you can simply park up and get out – which we found ourselves doing numerous times.
Particular highlights were the gorge at Rauðfeldsgjá (which you could climb into), the tiny village of Arnarstapi complete with its large stone monument to pagan figure Barður and the cliffs of Londrangar which resemble the remains of a castle.
Dominated by a large harbour, Stykkishólmur is very much a fishing town. It has a number of brightly coloured buildings as well as an eye-catching modern church.
We’d booked into Hotel Stykkishólmur as it was the only place in the town that had availability on our dates. Located on a large hill, it provided stunning views across the town – particularly when we were treated to a rainbow!
The hotel itself does have a bit of a Shining-esque feel to it but it was comfortable enough and provided a hearty breakfast buffet.
After a stroll around the harbour and climbing up to the lighthouse overlooking the town, we visited local restaurant Narfeyrarstofa for an evening meal which was a quaint and very popular little place which served excellent seafood
It’s not the busiest town, so after dining we headed back to the hotel and had a few Einstoks in the bar while watching Iceland qualify for Euro 2016.
Stykkishólmur to Sauðárkrókur
After a night in Stykkishólmur, our next destination was Sauðárkrókur. We had planned to climb Helgafell as our first stop off, but the weather conditions were far too poor and due to high winds, we’d decided it wasn’t safe to do so. According to legend, if you start the climb at the nearby church and reach the top without looking back or speaking, you’ll be granted three wishes.
We carried on with our journey on smaller roads until joining the Ring Road. Near Laugarbakki, we took a little detour to visit the waterfall of Kolugljúfur. We followed a small road until we reached a bridge which led us over the waterfall to a place where we could park. It was breathtaking and we climbed down to take a closer look.
Sauðárkrókur is a fairly large town made up of colourful buildings and located right on the coast with glorious views across to the adjacent mountains. It has good amenities including a couple of restaurants and the all-important Vinbudin to buy beer!
We stayed in Hótel Tindastóll, a historic building which claims to be Iceland’s oldest hotel. It’s full of olde worlde charm in the main building as well as having a more modern look in the annex, which was where our room was. There’s also a small hot tub out back and a breakfast room/bar in the basement.
We dined at Ólafshús, a bright blue building, offering a menu mainly featuring fish, meat and burgers which was fairly decent value for money, before retiring for a few beers in the hotel bar.
One highlight of our stay was the glorious sunrise overlooking the beach, sea and mountains. The colours were magical and it was worth the 5am wake up!
Located down a small track – with plenty of sheep blocking the way – Grettislaug is a unique way of making the most of Iceland’s natural warm water.
At the end of the road, there’s a small car park next to a building close to the coastline. With no signs, we parked up and were greeted by a jovial chap who came out from the building to meet us. He led us to the pool area – which was not what I was expecting! What we found was two small man-made pools which looked like they’d simply been dug out of the ground. A small changing area made of log fences to protect your modesty along with a ladder down into the sea completed the set up.
We paid up and proceeded to get changed in the au natural changing room surrounded by mountains, showered and climbed in. It was a fantastic experience – forget the Blue Lagoon, this is how to experience Iceland’s hot water at its best! With only a few fellow punters, it was a relaxing and peaceful time soaking and enjoying the views.
A small settlement located about 35km from Sauðárkrókur, Hofsós is a little place with one big attraction – its swimming pool. Hofsós’ swimming pool is almost an infinity pool thanks to its location built into the hillside above the sea, and provides stunning views across to the island of Drangey. Although it’s not strictly an infinity pool, it does feel like one!
It’s not a tourist attraction; it’s the village’s public swimming pool so it’s a much more relaxed place for a dip compared with some other swimming spots in Iceland. Along with the main pool, which is warm, there’s a small hot tub which is kept at a slightly warmer temperature. The facilities are what you’d expect from a standard pool but it’s definitely all about the views here.
You might recognise this small town if you watched Icelandic drama Trapped earlier this year as much of the show was filmed in Siglufjörður.
I was much taken with it from the approach on the mountain road to see the picturesque church and surrounding ocean. We only made a short stop in the town (there’s a good bakery and a little shop if you need supplies) but we both remarked it would be a good place to stay for exploring the area and where we’d choose as our base if we returned to north Iceland.
Often described as ‘the capital of North Iceland’, Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest urban area after Reykjavik. Driving through, it does seem a large place in comparison to the small villages and towns on the way from Reykjavik but the town centre is fairly compact.
The town is known for being quite quirky and artistic and this is evident from even the traffic lights which are heart-shaped!
Some of Akureyri’s main sights and attractions including the 1940s church Akureyrarkirkja that dominates the town centre, the swimming pool complex, the Botanical Garden (which is particularly enhancing when the sun goes down) as well as a range of museums. There are also plenty of boat trips on offer including whale watching.
It was a holiday apartment complex on the outskirts of the town centre that we’d selected for our accommodation: Saeluhus Akureyri. It seems to be popular for skiing breaks with areas to store gear, and when we were there in September it was fairly quiet. As well as the freedom and space that an apartment offers, ours had one extra special feature – a hot tub on the balcony!
Although we had an apartment, we choose to eat out each night and the town is well served in terms of restaurants. There’s less in the way of bars open, particularly during the week, but Akureyri Backpackers is a good place for a beer. It’s also the home of quite possibly the best ice cream place in Iceland – Brynja.
Powerful, all-encompassing and awe-inspiring, the 45m waterfall Dettifoss is one of north Iceland’s must-see attractions. The journey to the site is an odd one – you leave the main road and find yourself following a winding track through an area of brown land with no signs of life until eventually you reach a large car park.
Signs point the way to Dettifoss but due to the flat nature and almost desolate feel of the area, it’s almost hard to believe that a waterfall could exist in the area. It’s also fairly dusty and on a windy day (like the day I visited!) you’ll find yourself struggling to see at some points on the walk as a result of the dirt and grit flying in your eyes. My glasses seemed to offer no protection from it either.
But the path does eventually lead to a lush, green area and the waterfall. Its phenomenal power is obvious from the first sight of it and it truly demonstrates the sheer force of nature. Dettifoss is said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe and it’s an extraordinary sight to see. Just stay well back!
There are small barriers to stay behind but we did see some foolhardy/idiotic tourists choosing to ignore these to take photos which seemed absolutely ridiculous – so don’t be that guy!
Myvatn Nature Baths
The ‘Blue Lagoon of north Iceland’ is much quieter than its counterpart near Keflavik and also cheaper to visit. It doesn’t offer exactly the same facilities but it has clean changing rooms, steam baths and a restaurant (which appears to offer drinks service to you in the water) and is worth visiting if you’re in the area. Along with the hot lagoon, there’s also a cooler swimming pool as part of the complex.
Dettifoss was the most easterly part of Iceland that we reached as, after this, it was time to head back to Reykjavik to catch a flight to the Faroe Islands, but we managed to explore quite a lot of the country even only over the space of a few days – although there was so much more we would’ve liked to have had time for. Next time!