After all the pizza and breadsticks the night prior, we slept very well at the Vík campground. We had to park close to the road where the non-electrical hookup vans parked, and we had a lot of road noise and lights throughout the night. Our van’s curtains helped shield the light, but we could still hear vehicles passing. We also had to walk forever to get to the bathrooms (really annoying in the middle of the night). Despite everything, we slept well and did not have pizza nightmares. In fact, we slept soundly most nights in the camper van.
We woke up somewhere between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. as we did most mornings. lying there with the light glowing through the curtains, we laughed as we recalled our unpleasant experience with the Witch of Vík. The whole scene was ridiculous! Then we looked at each other and decided that we just wanted to go! We hurried around, threw on our clothes for the day, packed away the bed, and drove to the bathrooms on our way out. We were just DONE with the place.
We pulled out of the campground, crossed the street, and purchased Starbucks coffee drinks at the N1. They even had an unsweetened caffe latte. I honestly don’t know why we hadn’t considered the convenience of canned coffee beverages.
Everything for our day’s itinerary focused on Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. We scheduled a glacier hike with Arctic Adventures for the afternoon. Our hiking tour would depart from Skaftafell Nature Preserve at the foot of Vatnajökull, so we decided to drive to Skaftafell and check out the scene.
As we drove from Vík, we started seeing white-capped mountains in the far distance. We drove and drove and drove, and for a while, it felt like it didn’t get closer. The glacier is just that big! Then we started getting close enough to see detail.
We reached Skaftafell and got our bearings. There is a campsite at Skaftafell, and we initially thought we’d stay there overnight, but we wanted to leave our options open.
Outside of the visitor’s center, we looked at maps of the glacier and read facts about glaciers. We lucked into another sunny day, and it was warm by Icelandic standards.
After checking out the scene, we returned to our camper van for lunch. With our van door open to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight, we ate egg salad and spicy tuna salad sandwiches and snacked on chips. Our camper van’s cooler (refrigerator) kept everything at a safe temperature throughout our trip.
After lunch, we decided on what layers to wear, stopped by the visitor’s center bathrooms, and headed over to the Arctic Adventures meeting point. Several people from all over the world gathered around the building. The largest group were from the Canary Islands, and one of their members provided Spanish translation for others who did not speak English.
Staff members checked our footwear to make sure we had enough ankle support. People whose shoes did not pass the test could rent hiking boots. Fortunately, our hiking boots passed the test! We’d had the same pairs of hiking boots for at least half of a decade, but we really put them through their paces on this trip, and at every turn, we were grateful for their comfort and features.
Once our shoes went through review, we lined up to get fitted for crampons. Groups of eight or so sat on benches in the building where Artic Adventures employees measured our boots and selected appropriate crampons. The crampons are adjustable (like old-school rollerskates that clamped on shoes), and the fitters locked down the right sizing before handing them off. We carried the crampons until they were needed.
After we got our crampons, the staff supplied us with the rest of our gear, including climbing harnesses, helmets, and ice axes. We were both so excited and ready for adventure!
We bundled up for our glacier adventure, but the staff told us that the temperatures on the glacier were quite mild that day. After a quick trip to the camper van to ditch our down jackets, we joined the others on the bus.
Getting to the glacier itself involved walking along a path from the parking lot and then hiking up a steep hill of gravel switchbacks.
Our guide Laris (I have no clue if I spelled his name correctly) came from Latvia to live and work in Iceland. He stopped along our journey to tell us facts about the glacier. As we made our way toward a tongue of Vatnajökull called Falljökull, Laris explained that within a decade or so this tongue would no longer be here. The glacier melts through the spring, summer, and fall, but it is not rebuilding enough ice in the winter to offset the loss.
After hiking up the steep black gravel switchbacks at the base of the glacier, we gathered along a flat area and applied our crampons. Now we were getting ready to walk on an actual glacier! Our guide instructed us on how to hike up and down the glacier using our crampons and ice axes for stability.
We could fill our water bottles from the little running streams of meltwater on top of the glacier. I tasted the water, and it was divine like all the water in Iceland. If you visit Iceland, don’t buy bottled water. Iceland’s water is fresh glacier water right from the tap.
We noticed deep holes through the top of the glacier. Our guide explained that the glacier is always moving and changing, and as rocks roll down the glacier, they land in spots, heat up in the sun, and melt down through the ice. They create deep holes. Our guide warned us not to drop anything in the holes, but about fifteen minutes after he told us that, a man dropped his glasses in one of the holes. Our guide rolled up his sleeve and reached down through the icy water. He had his arm so far down into the hole that it reached his shoulder and he pivoted his body as he stretched for the glasses. He actually managed to retrieve them! The man was so grateful. As somebody who has worn glasses since middle school, I could feel the man’s panic when he dropped his glasses.
We also learned that glacier mice inhabit this area. They aren’t rodents, but they are wads of moss that clump together on the glacier. They move around almost imperceptively over time. NPR had a story about them in 2022. I am bummed we didn’t get a picture of one.
Our guide moved nimbly up the glacier like a goat. He hopped ahead and tested ice with his ice axe. Every day is a different adventure for him as the glacier changes. He adjusts where he takes his tours based on the safest path. Once he got as high as he could safely take us, he helped take pictures of all of us.
When I planned our trip to Iceland, I wanted a challenging adventure baked into our itinerary. I read about glacier hiking and decided that it was something I wanted to do even though it sounded a little bit daunting as I imagined slipping on the ice. Still, how many opportunities will I get to hike a glacier in a lifetime? I wasn’t getting any younger. Altogether, the tour we took felt safe. Our guide did a fantastic job of providing instruction as needed without overwhelming us. We left with a massive sense of accomplishment and magical memories.
Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoon)
After our glacier hike, we hopped in the camper van and traveled to our next stop, Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon nearby. From the parking lot, we took a brief hike to the lagoon where we could see icebergs floating their way to sea. The sign for safety rules tells you about all the horrible things that would happen if you engage with the water in any capacity.
Once we got to the glacier lagoon, we hiked around one side of it. The icebergs floated by at a nice clip on their way to the ocean. We watched seals playing in the water and pulling themselves onto the icebergs.
Across the road from Jökulsárlón is Diamond Beach. The black sand beach stands in contrast to all the broken icebergs that wash ashore. We watched icebergs drift from the lagoon only to be beaten by the waves and washed back to shore.
Höfn Camping Ground
After visiting Diamond Beach, we hopped on the Ring Road again to head to our final destination for the night, Höfn Camping Ground. Diamond Beach happened to be the last of the super popular destinations along the coast, and the traffic thinned as we drove to Höfn. Like many of the campgrounds, this one provided easy walking access to the town’s amenities as well as a decently-stocked campground store. We decided to cook in our camper van that night as we had lots of tagliatelle nests and pasta sauce that we did not want to waste.
Before we could fix dinner, we needed to go shopping at the camp store first. Our camper van did not have sufficient lighting for dining, so we located a lantern at the store. Of course, it cost $60 USD and wasn’t all that, but it served the purpose.
Graham set up the cooking station outside of the camper van and used a flashlight to see what he was doing. Inside the camper van, the lantern provided enough light to make our living space cozy and inviting.
After dinner, Mother Nature put on a show for us! We chose September for our trip because it was just beyond the busy season and at the start of the Northern Lights season. So far on our trip, the nights had been too cloudy and the solar activity too weak to see Northern Lights. We used a Northern Lights tracking website daily to figure out our chances, and so far, we had been disappointed.
Graham went out to clean up the dishes after dinner and came back to tell me the good news. I could hear people oohing and aahing. I jumped out of the camper van and looked up to see what appeared to be waving white clouds in the night sky with faint hints of green. Graham pointed to his photos on his phone and explained that if you take a picture in night mode you can see the green better. We both shot several pictures. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be our one and only opportunity on this trip to see the Northern Lights, and we managed to see them by luck. I am forever grateful that we got to have this experience.
By the time I went to the campground’s bathroom before settling down to sleep, I could no longer see the Northern Lights. I slept well that night and looked forward to our drive up the east coast the next day.
After visiting the Blue Lagoon, Grindavik (volcano), and the Golden Circle, we finally started our Ring Road adventure on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. We woke up in our camper van in the Skjól campsite after a very peaceful night of sleep. This morning we took the time to make coffee and eat skyr (yogurt).
After breakfast, we looked at the day’s itinerary on the handy tablet provided by Happy Campers. We picked Seljalandsfoss waterfall as our next stop, but we watched the road for other interesting stops along the way. Renting a camper van allowed us the flexibility to decide where to go on a whim rather than being tied to check-ins at certain destinations.
It didn’t take long for us to find a place where we wanted to stop. Along the road, we saw the Lava Centre and decided we’d take a look. The lobby contained displays of major volcanoes in Iceland. These displays showed current seismic activity associated with each volcano.
The Lava Centre shows a film about the volcanos of Iceland. Afterward you can walk through interactive exhibits where you learn about lava flows, earthquakes, and how the earth is constantly changing. You can stand on certain areas of the floor and feel simulations of earthquakes. You could also point at images and learn more about historic volanic eruptions. In one room you can see a simulation of the giant lava tube underneath Iceland.
Icelandic Hot Dogs
After visiting the Lava Centre, we stopped at an N1 gas station to get hot dogs. The glorious Icelandic hot dog deserves a sub-heading of its own. In fact I could write an entire post about my love for Icelandic hot dogs, but I will just cover them as we eat them. Let me tell ya…these hot dogs are FANCY! They are made with organic, grass-fed lamb along with some pork and beef. Icelanders eat them with ketchup, brown mustard, a remoulade-type of sauce, fresh chopped onions, and fried onions. They are bursting with flavor, and unlike many foods in Iceland, they are inexpensive. I had read about these hot dogs before our trip, so I was prepared for something awesome, and I was not disappointed.
Shortly after lunch we reached Seljalandsfoss. You might be familiar with this waterfall as it is one you can walk behind. Once again, we grabbed our rain pants and waterproof rain jackets and headed toward the waterfall. With blue skies and dry weather, people flocked to this tourist site. We walked in a line up to the waterfall, and then we walked in behind it. You could feel the pounding water and mist as you got closer. Behind the waterfall the rocks were a bit slippery but manageable, and everybody had enough room to move.
We took a quick video so that we could capture the power of the waterfall.
Walking along a path from Seljalandsfoss, we could see a couple of other waterfalls followed by a cave waterfall called Gljúfrabúi. We could tell it was another amazing attraction as another line of tourists snaked back through the cave to reach the waterfall. At first I held back and let Graham go in and investigate. I wasn’t too keen on the thought of slipping on the rocks or dealing with the crowd, but as I watched more and more people enter and exit the cave, my FOMO got the best of me. I worked my way through the cave, balancing on rocks with other people balancing on rocks in a steady but shallow stream. Finally I decided to give my waterproof hiking boots a test and just stuck my feet in the water and walked. I walked past all the people delicately making their way into and out of the cave. Basically I gave myself a FastPass. I got to the main viewing area as Graham was turning to leave. We stopped and got a selfie while admiring the beauty of this secluded waterfall.
We captured a short video inside the cave.
On our way to the next waterfall on our journey, we stumbled across a roadside attraction that needed my immediate attention. I watched a travel video covering this odd place and wanted to see it, but I didn’t make an outright plan to visit it. Rútshellir cave is a man-made cave complex of unknown origin. Stories say it was inhabited by a troll, a thief, a farmer, sheep, and/or hay, and it might have been a pagan temple. A private farm owns the cave and allows visitors to access it via a little wooden ladder going over the fence. The official signage says that the caves were likely used for hay and a blacksmith’s forge.
Sometimes you just need to immerse youself in the mysteries of the world. We might not ever know the true purpose of the Rútshellir cave, but visitors decided it needed to be some kind of shrine to gnomes, elves, or something.
What is this wild sight? As a lover gnomes and such, I was thrilled to see this arrangement. Icelandic people believe in elves and trolls, and this display could be in honor of that.
The farm owners have a collection box for donations. We initially left some Icelandic Krona but realized it was not very much money. We added some U.S. dollars as well. I am sure the farm owners use the funds for upkeep of the cave and surrounding area, but I wanted to believe it’s a donation for luck.
After our Rútshellir cave excursion, we continued our journey to Skogafoss, a huge and powerful waterfall. As we approached Skogafoss, we could see a rainbow in the spray. The flat black sand and rocks at the base of the waterfall allow you to walk right up to it.
On the right side of Skogafoss, steep metal stairs take you to the top of the waterfall to gain a different view. The stairs seemed to go on forever, and I found I had to stop and catch my breath. Fortunately, other people joined me in these pauses. We gave each other permission to take a break. Meanwhile twenty-somethings ran up the stairs next to me. At this moment I realized I had not focused on the right kind of exercise leading up to this trip. Later I read up on why I was puffy and discovered that it has to do with a lack of fast-twitch muscle tone. If I want to breeze through seemingly endless steep stairs in the future, I need to focus on stair running, jumping, sprints, and heavy lifting.
Though I was puffy along the way, the view from the top platform made it all worthwhile.
On our way to Vík we drove a steep road up to the top of the Dyrhólaey Peninsula. Our Happy Campers itinery on tablet included this stopping point, but we had no clue what we’d find at the top of this road. We just let it unfold as we drove up. It turned out to be one of the most gorgeous places we’ve ever seen. This lookout point offers jaw-dropping views of the ocean, black sand beaches, and mountains (volcanoes!). You can see both Eyjafjallajokull (the volcano that shut down flights in 2010) and Katla (a volcano featured in the series Katla) with their glacier caps in the background. It helped that we enjoyed unusually sunny skies.
After a terrifying drive down the peninsula (I was pretty sure we’d fall off the side), we headed to Reynisfjara Beach, which is famous for its black sands, caves, basalt columns, and trolls. Yeah, I said trolls, but first, I need to address the sheep. In Iceland sheep roam freely through the summer months and into fall (which is basically September, when we were there). During September the local farmers, townsfolk, and tourists round up the sheep in a custom called the réttir, identify the owners, and relocate them to the farms where they belong for the winter. When we pulled into the Reynisfjara Beach parking lot, we saw sheep on an impossibly steep hill.
It’s not every day that you go to a beach with signs about not turning your back to the ocean. The swift waters will snatch you up and drag you out to sea if you’re careless, especially if you enter caves. The black sand beach is a mixture of sand and smooth rocks. It makes a delightful crunching sound as you walk across it.
The basalt rock columns look man-made, but they actually developed as lava cooled in the ocean. The geometric shapes look intentional as though chiseled.
At the edge of this mountain, you can see the Reynisdrangar basalt stacks (or sea stacks) going out into the ocean. According to Icelandic folklore, these basalt stacks are actually trolls frozen in stone forever.
The basalt rock formations surrounded us as we entered the Hálsanefshellir Cave, a sea cave. Geometric patterns lined the ceiling and walls.
Unfortunately, we lingered a little too long in the cave as the incoming tide washed in blocking our exit. As the waters receded, we managed to splash around the corner to return to our camper van. Those Keen waterproof hiking boots proved their worth once again. Our boots were covered in black sand, but our feet were dry!
After our beach adventure, we drove to our final destination for the night, Vík. The small seaside village sits at the foot of Katla. We drove straight to the campground, expecting the same laid-back and friendly service we experienced at the Grindavík and Skjól campgrounds. As we did at the other two campgrounds, we drove to a spot we liked and then planned to go to the check-in office. Before we could even begin to park, this woman ran up to the passenger-side window yelling at us. Apparently, we made a faux pas as we didn’t go to reception first. The woman demanded that we drive to the reception office, so we did as we were told, but I was totally pissed that this woman treated us like we were criminals or something. The campground was not even busy! After paying for the night, a different person at the reception office kindly instructed us to pick a spot without electrical hookups.
The experience with “The Witch of Vík” as we called her really left a bad taste in my mouth for the campground, but it was ideally-located (town center), and we were only staying there one night. After looking at Google reviews for the camprgound, I discovered that we were not the only people taken aback by this woman’s behavior. Do better Vík campground! Kindness matters!
Black Crust Pizzeria
Once we got settled in our appropriate camping spot without electrical hookups, we discussed dinner. On the way to the campground, we noticed a restaurant across the road called Black Crust Pizzeria. We were curious so we walked about ten minutes to the restaurant. Inside we found a mix of tourists and locals. We ordered garlic cheese-stuffed breadsticks and langoustine pizza. I also got a Gull beer (ah, when in Iceland…it’s a simple Icelandic lager). The pizza crust and bread are infused with food-grade charcoal to give them their black color. We loved both dishes and absolutely stuffed ourselves!
After we left the restaurant, we walked toward the beach and saw another angle of the sea trolls, Reynisdrangar. Then we caught a picture of Vík’s famous church above our campground.
Back at the Campground
Back at the campground, we pored over our copy of Rick Steves Iceland and planned our next day. Rick Steves guides provide great in-depth information about travel locations, and Rick will tell you if something is worth doing or skipping. Plus, his guide for Iceland includes a fantastic map. We looked through the book each night as we thought about activities for the next day.
While trip planning, I read about glacier hiking and decided that we’d make the decision whether or not to book a tour on the fly. For months I had been tracking the Arctic Adventures website and noticed that tours typically booked up on or near the day of the tour. Given that we were in Iceland during its very short fall which is a shoulder season for travel, I figured we could decide as we approached the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest glacier in western Europe. The weather forecast for the next day looked good, so we went ahead and booked the Glacier Wonders tour with Arctic Adventures.
The Golden Circle contains some of Iceland’s most-famous tourist attractions, and as such, it is packed with tourists. At this phase of our journey, we have not yet touched the Ring Road. Many guidebooks and online travel sites recommend visiting the Golden Circle first so that the rest of your Ring Road journey becomes less crowded and more relaxing. As someone who does not like crowds, I was eager to get this portion of the trip under our belts.
We woke up at the Grindavík campground a little later than we planned. I think my eyes opened at 9:30 a.m., but I laid there feeling cozy for another half hour. Our camper van’s heater rocked, and I loved being snuggled in my sleeping bag and comforter. I finally got the sleep I needed, and I reveled in it. When I did get up, I moved so slowly that we both decided that we’d get breakfast on the road.
I stepped out of the camper van to brush my teeth, and I noticed a sweet older couple in a camper van near us eating breakfast on their little folding table with camp chairs outside of their van. We envisioned having breakfast like that, but who are we kidding? We’re night owls, and mornings are a slog at best, especially with jet lag in another country.
We determined our order of operations for the day: breakfast, shopping at Álafoss wool store in Mosfellsbær, and visiting the Golden Circle. After we rearranged our items in the camper van (something we did A LOT), we entered Álafoss in the GPS on the tablet. We figured we would find something for breakfast along the way.
Outside of Reykjavík, we found a cafe next to a Bónus right off the highway. In the parking lot, we saw another couple with a Happy Campers 4×4 van, and we waved at each other. We later figured out they were from France. We encountered them several times during our trip, always waving at each other. We waved at all the other Happy Campers in their brightly-colored vans, including another passenger from the Happy Campers airport shuttle. She traveled alone in a Happy 1 van, and we saw her at several points and wondered how her trip was going.
Lindabakarí offered an excellent selection of pastries and coffee. We both got pastries we could not pronounce and shared them. Graham always does a better job at trying to pronounce Icelandic words. I just point and say, “that one.” Almost everybody in Iceland speaks English, and I was grateful for that oh so many times.
Álafoss Wool Store & Mosfellsbær
Álafoss wool store in the town of Mosfellsbær has been in business since 1896. They make woolen products for other companies, and they also have an online store. Graham researched wool shops and picked Álafoss as our best option for our official Icelandic sweaters. He wanted to order them online prior to our trip, but I wanted to try them on since sizing, especially for women, can vary widely. I am glad I waited. In the United States, I would typically wear a medium or large, but I ended up purchasing a small sweater. Graham bought a small as well. The only complaint I have is that even with removing the VAT (Value-added Tax – United States citizens can get it refunded by filing paperwork at the airport) we would have spent less buying online.
We wandered around the small town area of Mosfellsbær near the shop, and we took pictures of the Pride flag displayed prominently above a public outdoor amphitheater. Iceland embraces LGBTQIA and even has protections baked into its constitution. The country as a whole accepts people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and identities. Iceland encourages people to be who they are fully and without judgment.
Walking along the street, we noticed a little girl around the age of three watering plants for her family. She wore little wellies and took her work seriously. Down by the front door, we could see wellies all in a row and ready when needed.
Next door to this family, we found a knife shop simply called Knifemaker where the owner makes custom knives using local materials such as reindeer horn, horse hooves, and wood. The knives were gorgeous! Each knife display listed the materials the knifemaker used. We lusted after a kitchen knife, but with a price tag over $1,000 USD, we just could not take the plunge. I wished I could have bought one for my Dad, but as frugal as he is, he would have been appalled if I spent that much. He’d much rather find a deal on his own.
In Iceland the Western Eurpoean and North American tectonic plates meet. They create a fissure that slowly pulls apart over time. Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) National Park features this fissure, Öxarárfoss (a waterfall), and an area where parliament meetings took place.
The path from the parking lot to the main excitement of Þingvellir allows for easy walking.
The national park has built an outdoor amphitheater area above where the parliamentary meetings of old were held. At these meetings, the clans would gather in these fields to make laws, punish criminals, and discuss their differences and shared goals. It was a multi-day event, and groups would camp on the grounds.
Öxarárfoss is a man-made waterfall caused by intentionally diverting waters above it. Tourists packed the path to the waterfall.
We looked over the fissure between the tectonic plates. I believe we were on the North American side in these photos.
You might have heard about people dry diving in Iceland and touching the two tectonic plates. Dive.is offers that service in this park at the Silfra fissure where a glacial spring fills the fissure. We are critters of comfort and did not relish the thought of snorkling or diving during this trip; however, it is on the must-do list for many people. We saw the area where Dive.is customers meet and gear up before their adventure.
To save time and money, we ate lunch in our camper van before heading to the next stop. We snacked on charcuterie from Silica Hotel and ate sandwiches and chips.
Sometimes you just need the original. We went to Geysir, the first recognized geyser in Europe. The park contains numerous smaller geysers and hot pools near Geysir including Litli Geysir (Little Geysir) and Strokkur. Geysir erupts a few times per day while Strokkur erupts several times per hour.
After wandering through Geysir, we stopped in the visitor’s center to make a pit stop and refill our water bottles. It had a nice cafe and gift store, but we did not linger very long. We wanted to finish our Golden Circle tour and find our campground for the night.
After wrapping up at Geysir, we headed to our last stop on the Golden Circle, Gullfoss. We didn’t know it at the time, but seeing big and amazing waterfalls would become much more commonplace as our journey continued. This was our first BIG waterfall, and it did not disappoint! We are grateful we suited up with our rain pants and waterproof outer shells.
After hiking back up from the waterfall, we saw our first of many 4×4 tour buses. We wondered what it was like to ride in one.
We stopped at Skjól Campsite for the night. This campsite ranks as one of our favorites for the whole trip. It has clean, private gender-neutral bathrooms and decently-sized showers. Plus, the restaurant featured wood-fired pizzas and a full bar. We were in heaven! Also, we quickly realized that we didn’t have a huge desire to cook in our camper van. Inside the restaurant, we saw the French couple again, and we noticed that 4×4 Happy Camper van in the camping area. Great minds think alike!
Fagradalsfjall Volcano in Grindavík hit the headlines last year with its eight-month eruption. In August 2022 another seam opened and erupted near the original location. I was excited that we might get to see an active volcano during our visit, but Mother Nature put the skids on that eruption. Still we wanted to visit the site with its cooling lava fields, but first, we needed to get our camper van. We checked out of Silica Hotel, returned our rental car, and took a shuttle back to the airport where we boarded a van to Happy Campers to pick up our camper van rental.
Why Rent a Camper Van
Back in 2018 when I first started reading about Iceland, I stumbled on a blog detailing a visitor’s Ring Road adventure in a camper van. The Ring Road goes all along the perimeter of Iceland, not including the Westfjords or Snæfellsnes Peninsula and a few other peninsulas. You can rent a car and travel the road, staying in hotels or renting guest houses and AirBnbs along the way, but with a camper van, you have more flexibility. You can linger longer in some places and skip other places altogether, and with the abundant campgrounds throughout Iceland, you’ll always have a place to stay for the night. You can follow the good weather, back-track to places you missed, or spend several days in one area. I had not camped at a campground of any type since middle school or maybe even elementary school, so this would definitely be an adventure.
After reading reviews about camper van rental companies (there are many in Iceland), we chose Happy Campers. Their selection of vans covered both manual and automatic vans as well as 4x4s, and they had rave reviews. We picked the Happy 2 Auto. As is typical for many Americans, we don’t know how to drive stick, but with our love for travel, we probably ought to learn (something to put on the to-do list). Our camper van had all the essentials, sleeping space for two, blankets, pillows, refrigerator cooler, cook stove (and propane), cooking and eating utensils, plates, cups, and a heater. We also got some extras including additional sleeping bags, a tablet with maps and wifi, hiking poles, folding table, camp chairs, and French press travel mugs.
The staff at Happy Campers showed us all the ins and outs of the camper van. We got the insurance package that covers gravel damage (this is important in Iceland). Then we signed off on some paperwork, packed up the van, and took off on our big adventure.
First Things First – Groceries!
We are practical folks so our first destination was the Bónus grocery store. We stocked up on food for the next several days, including pasta, bread, skyr, creamer, coffee, various spreads, crackers, pears, apples, tuna salad, egg salad, chips, etc. Bónus reminds me of Aldi in its simplicity and wide assortment of food items. One of our most-treasured purchases happened to be a bag of black licorice in various flavors with a pirate theme. I had never eaten berry-flavored black licorice or chocolate-covered black licorice. We soon discovered that Icelanders love black licorice and even serve licorice ice cream (spoiler alert: it is outrageously delicious!).
As we sat in the Bónus parking lot around 1:30 p.m., we discussed whether or not to visit Fagradalsfjall volcano. We decided that even though it wasn’t active that we’d enjoy the experience of being near it. From what I could tell, the hike took about 3 hours up and down a mountain range around the cooling lava in the valley. The weather forecast showed sunny skies and high winds at 20 mph. Without very many trees Iceland experiences some mighty windy days so that is fairly normal. We decided to give it a go and drive south a half hour to the volcano.
We found several sight-seeing locations in the region of the volcano, and we had no clue which one to choose. We saw a busy entrance so we picked that one. We pulled our camper van up alongside a bunch of other camper vans and hopped out to get a feel for things. As soon became the norm for us, we made decisions about which layers to wear, which layers to leave behind, and what gear we needed. Though neither one of us had much experience with hiking poles, we decided to take them with us just in case, and I’m forever grateful we did.
The walk from the parking lot to the first sign about the volcano took at least twenty minutes, and I was already a little puffy despite exercising almost daily for months. We looked back toward our van, and it looked like a toy miniature. Scale proved to be the hardest thing to capture during this trip. Without a lot of reference points like buildings or trees, pictures look less grand than the reality.
From that first sign, we could hike down the hill toward the cooling lava, or we could hike up the mountain. Another sign explained how to stand to minimize inhaling gasses from the lava, but we figured the wind managed that just fine. We picked the mountain hike since we didn’t need to feel the heat of the lava to know it’s real.
The mountain consisted of lava gravel, sand, and dirt in switchbacks. The ground constantly shifted under our feet. We decided to each use one hiking pole since neither of us were versed in using two, and we found that the single pole gave us the stability we needed, especially with forceful wind gusts.
After we climbed one set of switchbacks, we would crest the mountain top only to see even more switchbacks going up another mountain. This went on and on for a couple of hours. In the valley below us and along the mountains across from us we could see black swaths of aging lava flows steaming and smoking.
We finally hit a point where we decided we had seen enough and turned around. The fierce wind nearly blew me over several times on the way back, but I dug in with my hiking pole and waited out the gusts. Once again, our layers saved the day, and we stayed warm even with the crazy wind.
Grindavík Campground, Fish & Chips, and a Pint of Gull
We pulled into the Grindavík campground around 6 p.m., located a nice spot for the night near the bathrooms, and paid at reception. Overall, we found campground staff throughout Iceland to be very relaxed and friendly. We checked around the town on Google maps and landed on a seaside restaurant within walking distance for dinner. After a day of adventure fish and chips and a pint of Gull (local beer) hit the spot at Brúin. We slept soundly in our cozy camper van, and I even got a FitBit sleep score of 82.
After arriving at Keflavik airport around 8:30 a.m. and retrieving our checked luggage, we boarded a shuttle to pick up our rental car and head to the Blue Lagoon. We rented a car because we didn’t know if we’d make the connection with the Destination Blue Lagoon bus in time (airport pick up at 9 a.m. and noon). What we didn’t know is that this bus would still be boarding passengers well after 9 a.m. and was timed to coincide with incoming flights. FYI…taxis are incredibly expensive even for the short distance between the airport and the Blue Lagoon so we got a rental car.
The Blue Lagoon is a large geothermal spa set among lava fields. The silica in the water imparts a milky blue color, and the floor of the lagoon consists of silica mud. While there are many natural geothermal lagoons or “hot pots” as the Icelanders call them throughout Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is man-made, and its waters come from a nearby geothermal plant. You’ve probably seen lots of photos of people soaking in the Blue Lagoon. It remains a popular spot for short excursions or layovers in Iceland, and buses run between the airport and Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon, the Retreat Spa, Silica Hotel, Lava Restaurant, and Moss Restaurant form the Blue Lagoon universe or so I later discovered while looking at our hotel room phone.
While planning our trip, we decided we’d splurge on some luxury for our first night in Iceland with a stay in Silica Hotel. I had a lot of anxiety around the logistics of our flight arrival time, transportation from the airport, security of our luggage, and timing of everything prior to check-in time. Getting the rental car alleviated a lot of my concerns, including providing us a place to stash our luggage. Note for anybody going to Blue Lagoon: they have an excellent luggage storage and private locker system. After experiencing Blue Lagoon, I realized my worries about luggage security were needless. They are used to catering to day travellers going to and from the airport.
We decided to drive from the car rental place to our hotel. We arrived five hours prior to check-in, but the staff at Silica greeted us warmly, issued/activated our Silica Hotel wristbands, confirmed our lunch reservation at Lava Restaurant and Retreat Spa entry time, and provided us with information about the area. They told us we could ask about our room after lunch for a possible early check-in. We threw on our jackets (Graham’s was a fleece full-zip, and mine was down) and grabbed our waterproof shells to wander among the lava fields and silica lagoon areas for a while, and then we walked to Lava Restaurant for lunch where we had 11:30 reservations.
Lunch at Lava Restaurant
Lava Restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Blue Lagoon helped get some light in our eyes after a sleepless flight. Our starter consisted of hearty breads, including Iceland’s beloved rye bread, with lava salt and oil. Graham enjoyed a bowl of langoustine soup while I ate beet salad. For our entrees, Graham chose the lambfillet, and I got the cod. Neither one of us could complete our entrees. Everything was delicious, but we got full quickly. Maybe it was the bread. We skipped dessert.
Early Check-in & Much Needed Warmth
By the time we left the restaurant, Iceland’s notoriously unpredictable weather swept in with rain and bracing winds. Fortunately, Graham wore his fleece jacket, and I wore my down jacket, and we both wore waterproof shells, but we both wished we had an additional layer (I wanted my fleece jacket, and Graham wanted his down jacket). We arrived back at Silica Hotel freezing to death in dripping jackets and wet pants. Thank heavens for our Gore-Tex waterproof jackets They kept our upper bodies dry! Don’t cheap out on your waterproof layer for Iceland!
The staff told us our room was ready, and we dashed outside in the wind and rain to grab our suitcases and backpacks from the car. Our hotel room welcomed us with the delicious geothermal heat and a heated bathroom floor. We stripped off our wet jackets and clothes, threw on cozy clothing, and jumped into bed to warm up and take a brief nap. Normally, we do not nap when arriving in another time zone. We are big believers in immediately getting on the new time, but we were so full from lunch that we just needed an hour of down time.
We got a Blue Lagoon Retreat Spa package with our room that included five hours in the exclusive, private Retreat Spa and access to the public Blue Lagoon. We were unable to take pictures in the Retreat Spa, but you can visit their website to see more. We took the hotel’s shuttle to the Retreat Spa. The staff issued us Retreat Spa bracelets that served as keys to our private changing room and allowed us to charge drinks and food to our credit card. The private changing room featured double vanities, double shower, and heated floors. We soon learned that heated bathroom floors are all over Iceland, a definite perk!
Iceland’s bathing culture’s rules enforce showering before and after entering a lagoon, hot tub, or pool. You often shower in a big room with other people before putting on your bathing suit and again before changing back into your clothes. Nudity is not a big deal at all, and I got used to it during our trip, but for our first venture into a lagoon, I appreciated the private changing room. For mineral-rich silica lagoons like Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Nature Baths, you leave conditioner in your hair and put it up before going in the water.
In the Retreat Spa, we soaked in various pools connected by bridges and steps. The silica waters smoothed my skin, and I loved experiencing the different levels of heat among the baths. The Retreat Spa limits the number of people allowed during its time blocks, so we only saw a few people the whole time we were there. It felt serene and private. The swim-up bar window offered all sorts of beverages. I stuck with Prosecco.
After soaking for a couple of hours, we went inside to visit the various resting rooms, saunas, plunge pools, etc. We went through the Blue Lagoon’s seven-step skin ritual and came away feeling silky-smooth and glowing. We ate dinner in the spa restaurant before changing back into our clothes and settling up after returning our bracelets.
At first we were going to take the shuttle back to our hotel, but then we noticed the the sun was setting and decided to walk. When we opened the doors, warm air rushed in. The clouds had parted. Everything glowed a vibrant pink and orange. You would never have guessed the weather of the afternoon would give way to this.
Back at our hotel, we decided to shower again and put our bathing suits back on to soak in the hotel’s private lagoon. We almost didn’t go back out, but I’m so glad we did. The sunset seemed to last forever as we oozed our way through the silica lagoon at the hotel. We were the only people out there, and it was heaven. Silica Hotel’s lagoon meanders through the lava fields outside of the hotel allowing for a perfect view of the sunset. We later learned that this prolonged sunset is called “the golden hour” and can last upwards of seven hours in the summer. We stayed in the lagoon until it was dark, enjoying every moment and wishing it could last forever.
When we returned to our room, we showered yet again and rinsed silica mud out of our bathing suits before diving into bed. Graham went to sleep quickly and slept very deeply. I actually had a hard time falling asleep even after a full day of soaking in geothermal baths. I think the hot baths mixed with Prosecco dehydrated me, and I had a bit of a headache (something I don’t typically get). After taking some Ibuprofen and drinking a lot of water, I got on my phone (bad habit) and chatted with friends back home, spot-checked the web, and finally went to sleep.
A Glorious Breakfast Buffet
The next morning, we went to the Silica Hotel breakfast buffet area only to discover one of the greatest breakfast displays we’ve ever seen. I noticed the usual suspects of breakfast buffets, including cereals, breads, and eggs, but Silica elevated them to something much more elegant with assorted granolas, croissants, brioche, sweet roles, assorted egg dishes. They also had gorgeous full chacuterie boards, salmon, and these deliciouss herring bites made of rye bread, egg, mustard, and herring. You didn’t just have coffee. You could use a machine to make whatever type of coffee you wanted from espresso to caffe latte to cappuccino and so much more. The meal brought our luxurious Blue Lagoon experience to an end and fortified us for the start of our Ring Road journey, a more rugged experience in a rented camper van.