Iceland: Enjoy a cool summer trip on the fly with these hints
Published 11:51 am Tuesday, July 18, 2023
By M Ben Williams
If you are still pondering a Summer 2023 trip to mainland Europe, but are unable to get past the heat and crowds, consider Iceland! This modestly priced, do-it-yourself seven-day Icelandic trip includes geysers, waterfalls, black sand beaches, natural hot springs, Puffin colonies, oceanfront towns with lighthouses, whales, adventure, Reykjavik and cool weather.
The distances between sights are short, easy drives – the entire country is 85 percent of the size of Mississippi – and the country’s 375,000 residents are welcoming. This article is based on our family’s June 29-July 6, 2023, trip.
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Planning. Due to increased popularity, a trip to Iceland deserves some advance planning, but just a smidgen. Pick up a current travel guide. I recommend Lonely Planet and Rick Steves publications, as those guides tend to suit my mid-level budget and travel style. Focus on weather (think June-August) and airfare costs, avoid peak seasons (such as U.S. holidays), and make sure the volcanos aren’t acting up any more than usual.
I’m a reluctant reservation-maker, but since my family of four was traveling during the July 4 holidays (when Americans like to travel), I made a few reservations. I booked an SUV from Budget (about $90 a day). A few rental companies (like Budget) are conveniently located in the airport, while others are offsite. Pay the fee for an additional driver so you have some flexibility. We also booked several nights during the first part of the trip at two Lonely Planet-recommended abodes. We winged the last few nights.
Watch the Iceland episode of Down to Earth with Zac Efron before you go, and order Snowblind, a murder mystery set in Iceland by Icelander Ragnar Jónasson for a read during the trip.
Packing. Pack light, but plan for layering for some rain and cold weather. Necessities include sunglasses, raincoat, waterproof pants, windbreaker, lightweight gloves, hiking boots, bathing suit, sleeping mask, power converter (though the rental car is likely to have a USB port), a collapsible cooler, passport (with four-plus months remaining) and a driver’s license.
Credit Card. Don’t worry about converting money, but make sure everyone has a Visa or Mastercard with a chip and pin number. Icelanders “tap and go,” and tipping is uncommon. Currency is rarely used, and in some places you even pay for the toilets with a credit card. To save a little money, take a credit card without a foreign conversion fee. American Express is accepted at some larger establishments, but usually not at fuel pumps, grocery stores or smaller hotels.
Getting There. We flew from Memphis (MEM) to Detroit (DTW) to Reykjavik (KEF). For August 2023, a few Delta economy tickets come in under $1,000. Try to sleep on the plane for the approximately six-hour flight into KEF. You should consider signing up for TSA Precheck, CLEAR, and Global Entry to alleviate some of the vexations associated with international travel.
Getting Around. Driving a rental car in Iceland is easy. Even the airport and capital city were a breeze. Still, many tourists base their stay in Reykjavik and book tours available from Reykjavik. We preferred the flexibility of our own wheels.
Recommended Itinerary. The time difference between Mississippi and Iceland is five hours, and you are likely to arrive early
morning – maybe 6 a.m. Iceland time. Pick up your rental car and head toward Reykjavik. In 5 kilometers, you’ll come to a roundabout that has a fine Orkan supermarket. Stop and stock up on some basics for the trip (water, snacks, bread, sandwich meat, chips, condiments, ice, etc.) and place in the collapsible cooler you brought for a spontaneous picnic around the country.
As you get near Reykjavik, skip the capital for now and take either the South Coast or the Golden Circle drive. These are the two primary tourist routes for sights and adventure. Which you do first might be dictated by your booked accommodations.
SOUTH COAST. I’ll assume you take the South Coast route and are headed to the Midgard Base Camp, a hostel-like hotel in Hvolsvöllur with good food, bookable adventures, night-time music, a bar and a relaxing vibe, for a two- to three-night stay (visit midgardbasecamp.is). From KEF, Midgard Base Camp is just 147 kilometers or about two hours. However, sightseeing stops and lunch along the way will consume some time.
Stop in Hveragerði – the hot springs capital of the world – for your first waterfall hike (Reykjadalur). Next, head to Selfhoss, where chess fans can check out the Bobby Fischer Center. The town also has a Vinbudin – a government-operated liquor store. The next town, Hella, is relatively sleepy, but boasts one of the new tourist-oriented Stracta Hotels. Food in Hella is mostly found in the various hotels.
Finally, you’ll arrive at Midgard Base Camp, but probably far too early for the normal 4 p.m. check-in time – and the restaurant doesn’t open until late afternoon. Stow your luggage, nap in one of the lounge areas, grab lunch at the fine nearby Eldstó Art Café, and visit a nearby waterfall. If your travel book says the LAVA Centre in town has a restaurant, don’t believe it.
From Midgard Base Camp (or other hotel), spend the next couple of days exploring the nearby area and these activities:
Waterfalls. The eye-catching Seljalandofoss and Skógafoss shouldn’t be missed. Take your raincoat, even if it isn’t raining, so you can get close and, sometimes, walk beside, behind and to the top of a waterfall.
Island Trip. A day trip to Vestmannaeyjar Island, and particularly the small town of Heimaey, is a neat opportunity to ply the ocean, spot Puffins, ride scooters or ATVs around the lava island, and grab a fine lunch at Gott. You’ll want to make reservations for the 40-minute ferry ride and tours (van, scooters or ATV) around the island. The scooters are pretty cool! (https://www.eyjascootertour.com/)
ATV. Consider a one- or two-hour ATV ride (singles or doubles) from Icelandic Mountain Guides (www.mountainguides.is/tour/atv-black-beach-plane-wreck). The trip – which includes ATV, coveralls, helmet and boots – crosses creeks, runs down the black sand beach and makes a stop at the site of the downed US Navy C-117D Sólheimasandur plane that crashed on the beach in 1973.
Vik. The town of Vik – about 80 kilometers (one hour) drive east of Midgard Base Camp – occupies a dramatic setting on the ocean, with a huge cliff where intrepid adventurers hang glide toward the black beaches. Check out the basalt columns at Reynisfjara that somewhat resemble Northern Ireland’s Giant Causeway. This town is an alternative or additional lodging base.
GOLDEN CIRCLE. Leaving the South Coast, head toward the Golden Circle. The distance from Midgard Base Camp to Gulfoss (the farthest and most northern town on our itinerary) is a mere 95 kilometers (one and a-half hours). You can base yourself in Gulfoss, Geysir or Laugarvatn, all of which offer acceptable accommodations as well as a few fancy stays.
In the Golden Circle, you should visit:
Geysir. This free park is the site of the original “geyser” – the one for which all hot spouts are named. The park offers a nice walk around bubbling and spewing geysers, but literally falls short of Old Faithful. The Geysir Center offers a large assortment of goods as well as decent food options. For a splurge, check out the modern 4-start Hotel Geysir on site.
Gulfoss. This series of powerful and striking waterfalls spews 5,000 cubic feet of water per second in a stunning setting. The falls have appeared in the TV shows “Vikings” and “The Amazing Race.”
Laugarvatn. This small town offers accommodations and the swanky lakeside Fontana. For those unwilling to pay the Blue Lagoon admission (discussed below), this is an option. Just 15 minutes outside of town is the excellent Efstidalur II restaurant on a working dairy farm, which also rents cottages.
Þingvellir National Park. This historical site boasts a waterfall and access to the still-moving tectonic plates separating Europe and North America. Hike the trails.
Reykjavik Reykjanes Peninsula. We’ll leave the Golden Circle and head to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and largest city home to two-thirds of the country’s residents. Check out Old Reykjavik, the Old Harbour and Hallgrímskirkja – a captivating Evangelical-Lutheran church. For us, the capital warranted a day trip with our remaining time and nights spent in the adjoining Reykjanes Peninsula.
The country’s number one attraction – the Blue Lagoon – is a short drive from the capital or the airport through barren landscape to arrive at the huge, outdoor geothermal pool (spa) located in a black lava field. Prices vary from $75- 105 per person, based on the time of day, and sell out quickly. The base price includes a towel and one drink from the pool’s outdoor bar. Although you can stay till closing time, two hours in the 37-40 degrees Celsius (98-104 F) water will sufficiently drain you. The drive takes you near the site of the July 2023 volcanic eruptions!
Two reasonably priced meals (other than those picnics) can be found in the small town of Keflavik. I suggest one night at Fernando’s (get the lasagna) and one night at Malai Thai. Accommodations abound in the peninsula, especially in Greater Reykjavik and Keflavik (where the international airport is located).
As you are likely to depart Iceland in the early morning hours, I suggest a last night in one of the several airport hotels. The adequate Konvin Hotel fit our needs and allowed us a quick trip to the airport to return the car and run the immigration/customs gauntlet. The pricier Courtyard Marriott is a tad bit closer to the airport.
This itinerary covers only a small portion of Iceland. Travelers with more time or willingness to drive longer distances can try the Ring Road, which loops the country in 1,340 kilometers. If you visit in the summer, you’ll have plenty of daylight!
Ben Williams, an Oxford resident, is a columnist, photographer and Mississippi attorney. He has traveled to six continents and more than 52 countries. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.