I took an eight-day drive with my wife and partner Sarah around Iceland’s famous and rugged Ring Road. It was like a weeklong movie filled with mountains, swamp gas, lucid dreams and horsemeat.
In these posts, I explain how we did it and what we saw along the way.
For the past few years Sarah and I spent a lot of time on regional travel throughout the U.S., but armed with better jobs and more stability, we decided last November that our travel plans for 2016 would focus on one trip: Iceland.
I’ve always wanted to visit and finally had the resources to do it, so I set up ticket alerts on AirfareWatchdog and waited. Round trips averaged around $1,100 per person from Chicago, so the minute I saw tickets drop to around $600 in January, I jumped. We would depart Chicago late afternoon on Tuesday, May 17, with a short layover at JFK. The 5-hour flight from New York to Keflavík International Airport (Keflavíkurflugvöllur, the first of many unpronounceable words) got us in first thing in the morning May 18. We would head back to Chicago early morning Thursday, May 26, giving us eight full days.
High tourism season in Iceland runs from June to August. For a country of about 320,000 handling an annual tourist load of 1.3 million, that’s some high margins. By traveling in May, we had decent spring weather (sunny or partly cloudy and averaging 50°F most of the time) and room to breathe. We also had roughly 20 hours of daylight every day.
Outside of manufacturing, fishing, agriculture and some R&D-based fields, tourism is one of Iceland’s leading industries. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the options. Thanks to suggestions from Lonely Planet’s Guide to Iceland, we decided a self-guided road trip around the Ring Road would be the best fit. It got us out of Reykjavik and the overtouristed sites of the surrounding Golden Circle and gave us the flexibility to explore on our own time.
THE RING ROAD
The 830-mile Ring Road, or Route 1, was originally completed in 1974. At the road’s average speed of 90km per hour (56ish mph), you could make the whole drive in about 17 hours. Bu most people suggest 7-10 days, because there’s so much to see: lava fields, glaciers, mountains, pastures, parks, towns, geothermal pools, scenes from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But even if you had two months on the road, you’d still not be able to see it all.
Because much of central Iceland—the Highlands—is uninhabited (and uninhabitable), the Ring Road connects most of the island’s populated areas, meaning that road trippers have easy access to all shades of Icelandic culture: white, whiter, whitest.
People also suggest having 4wd to get around Iceland. I could have done that, but then I wouldn’t have been able to drive a Ford Focus.
A 4×4 would have been nice, but despite what everything on the internet tells you, you don’t need one to drive the Ring Road outside of winter. Even the unpaved portions are navigable. I was passing drivers in bigger, stronger cars on gravel. No issues on the single-lane bridges, blind hills, or mountain roads. And the Focus even took me through a snowstorm in the mountains in the Northeast without skipping a beat. So, one point for Ford, bringing their current score to -999,999,999.
With insurance the car rental came to around $700, and at around $7 per gallon, gas wasn’t cheap either. But there were plenty of roadside picnic tables to enjoy granola bars and PB&Js along the way, made mostly with supplies from Bonus, Iceland’s Aldi.
We charted a path counterclockwise around the Ring Road and set up our trip like this:
- Day 1 and 2, South Iceland: Drive from Reykjavik to Höfn. Stay at Fosshotel Vatnajökull.
- Day 3 and 4, East Iceland: Drive to Seyðisfjörður (S-town). Stay at the Nord Marina Guesthouse.
- Day 5 and 6, North Iceland. Drive to Húsavík for whale watching, then to Akureyri. Stay at the Hrafninn Guesthouse.
- Day 7 and 8, West Iceland. Drive to Reykjavik. Stay at the Capital Inn.
Even though we were visiting before peak season, we pre-booked everything, including the whale watching tour. It’s what happens when you have two Type A personalities playing travel agent. There were a lot of spreadsheets and Google Docs.
Every road trip needs a soundtrack. For Iceland it made sense to go psychedelic:
- The Black Angels, Indigo Meadow
- Jacco Gardner, Hypnophobia
- Jamie xx, In Colour
- Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze
- Mac Demarco, Another One
- Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
- Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
- Tame Impala, Currents
- Temples, Sun Structures
- The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
- WhoMadeWho, Dreams
- For all our purchases we used a Venture card, from Capital One. It has no international fees, and even the most remote towns and gas stations use credit cards. If we’d been paying fees, our wallets would have had new assholes.
- Tourists in Iceland are mostly retired Europeans or American Millennials with no kids. At least half the people on our flight to KEF looked like us: GoPros, Osprey backpacks, hiking boots, wool socks, trying to ignore our student debt.
- In addition to their native language, almost everyone in Iceland also speaks English. Best to stick to that, unless you want to get laughed at for trying your hand at Icelandic, which is also the closest existing language to the original Norse. There are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet, some with sounds that don’t exist in English. Remember in 2010 when the volcano erupted? It has a name, but it’s easier to say “that volcano in Iceland” than it is to say Eyjafjallajökull.