I took an eight-day drive with my wife and partner Sarah around Iceland’s famous and rugged Ring Road. In the last post, I explained how we did it. In this one, I explain what we saw and ate along the way.
Against popular currents we took a counterclockwise route around Iceland’s 830-mile Ring Road, starting and ending in Reykjavik. Because we only had eight days and a 2wd car, we limited our exploration to:
- South Iceland (Day 1-2)
- East Iceland (Day 3-4)
- North Iceland (Day 5-6)
- West Iceland (Day 7-8)
This left out areas like the Westfjords and the Highlands, but those can be for next time. As the Jewish people say, next year in the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
After leaving my apartment at 11 a.m. to take the CTA to the airport and fly to JFK with a 3-hour layover, we touched down at KEF at 7:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. Chicago) the next day. It was early morning but bright as high noon. We picked up our rental car from Budget, a disappointing dirt-colored Ford Focus, and immediately hit the road for Höfn, 280ish miles from Reykjavik.
As I got my bearings, I didn’t really pay attention to the landscape until we were past Reykjavik city limits and headed down Route 1 towards the southern coast. Immediately outside the city are moss-covered volcanic fields and gnarled mountains black with ancient soot. Smoke pours from geothermal vents surrounding a large aluminum smelter just off the road and power lines wind across the barren landscape.
Despite the light industry, infrastructure across the island is spotless, because Iceland is one of the cleanest energy countries in the world. Only 0.1 percent of its energy is produced by fossil fuel—the rest is geothermal and hydro. And it only makes sense, because waterfalls are everywhere. Spit and you’ll hit one. We stopped at three waterfalls right away, including Vatnsleysufoss, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind.
For lunch we stopped in Vík, where we explored the town’s famous Black Sand Beach. White sea birds circled the cliffs high above as we sat at a picnic table in the warm sun and ate the first of many PB&J sandwiches for the week, using “USA Style” peanut butter from the town’s small grocer. I also bought a bag of “American Flavor” Doritos. They tasted like powdered cheese and Bernie Sanders.
Just as the weather changes every five minutes in Iceland, so does the landscape. Back on the road we passed more mountains, lava fields and alien landforms straight out of a Ridley Scott money machine.
By mid-afternoon we reached our hotel just outside Höfn, Fosshotel Vatnajökull. It sat in the shadow of a deep red mountain, alone at the edge of an open field flattened by an ancient glacier. In the distance were the mountains and glaciers of the Vatnajökull National Park. Aside from a breeze across the plain and a few whimbrels foraging in the grass, it was completely quiet.
For dinner we ordered some langoustine pasta and a couple of Icelandic Einstock beers from Kaffi Hornið, getting our first taste of Icelandic cuisine (and economics: those two dishes and two beers came to around $80). As Nordic people they like their seafood but still haven’t figured out their spices.
There was an American Millennial couple sitting next to us who loved the food, but they were from Florida. They were at the end of their trip and reminded us that even though the food’s expensive, you don’t need to tip. “It makes a HUGE difference,” the guy said.
By 10 p.m. it was still light out but was as dark as it would ever get, so we went to sleep. Fatigued by a day of planes, trains and automobiles and an uncomfortable bed, I had the first night of many lucid dreams. They were never pleasurable or terrifying, only orange with five arms.
The next day we headed back down Route 1 towards Jökulsárlón, a 6.9-square-mile glacial “lagoon” with massive ice chunks from the Vatnajökull glacier. We watched seals play just a few yards from shore, giving us curious looks before rolling back into the windswept waves. We hiked across the rocky landscape and took a break on in front of a massive mountain range peppered with waterfalls. And on the other side where the lake connects to the ocean, we walked through a swarm of arctic terns who clicked and barked at us and divebombed our heads, pulling our hair. These birds cover enough distance in their 13-year lifespans to go to the moon and back seven times, so they don’t fuck around.
The sun was out all day but I was convinced that there was no threat of sunburn so close to the Arctic Circle. I was wrong.
We ate at the hotel that night, trying the lobster soup and a few pints of the famous Vatnajökull beer, which is made with “1,000-year-old glacier water” from the icebergs at Jökulsárlón. It was no Schlitz, but it was pretty good.
After a slow wakeup on day 3, and a breakfast of coffee, hard rolls and lox from the hotel, we got back on Route 1 to head to our next destination at Seyðisfjörður (I called it S-town), where we were planning to stay at the Nord Marina Guesthouse. It’s a small town of around 700 people at the peak of one of the eastern fjords, notable for being port to a car ferry connecting the island to Denmark and the Faroe Islands. And as we learned later, it’s also the town Ben Stiller longboards into in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:
The drive along the coast took us alongside mountains and daunting coastal cliffs. Massive waves crashed into black rocks far below and seabirds circled high above us between dark patches of fog and bright slivers of sun. The whole Ring Road is cinematic, but the views along the stretch of road between Höfn in the south and Egilsstaðir in the east (the town you need to drive through to get to S-town) is straight out of a sci-fi epic.
East Iceland is also one of the island’s least populated areas, so at times we’d be on the road for up to 45 minutes without seeing a house or another car on the road. At one point you turn left and the road turns to gravel as it dips into a lush valley before taking you up a steep, snow-covered mountainside and heading again back towards the coast. The Ford Focus did surprisingly well, even on the single-lane wooden bridges.
To get to Seyðisfjörður you get off the Ring Road at Egilsstaðir and drive another 25km over a massive mountain pass, still snow-covered and wintry. But the roads are paved, and eventually the town sweeps into view. And no matter what angle you look at it from, it’s a postcard. Flanked on both sides by tall, snow-covered mountains turning green for the spring, the streets are lined with old Scandinavian shops and homes and the smell of freshly caught fish lingers in the air. The tallest building in town is the church, blue and white with a towering steeple just waiting for the Ingmar Bergman treatment.
With its shared bathrooms and guest kitchen in the main house, the Nord Marina Guesthouse is more like a hostel than a hotel. But it sits right on the water’s edge and its proprietor, an impossibly polite and humorless dad-type guy, told us about the porpoises he watched on the water when the winds were quiet and the water calm.
For dinner we headed to Café Lara El Grillo Bar. Their special for the night was an Icelandic horse fillet with pepper sauce, and not having eaten horse before, I ordered it. When in Iceland. The guy taking our orders did a double take, probably only used to annoying horse questions from Americans, not full meal commitment. It tasted like an unseasoned steak, but stringier. Sarah ordered the lamb, which tasted better. To top it off we had a couple of locally brewed El Grillo beers.
The mountains were still too wet and muddy for hiking the next day, so we decided to drive up to Borgarfjörður Eystri, home to a massive puffin colony. The two-hour, 50ish-mile drive is mostly on gravel roads and requires driving over at least three mountain ranges, including an occasionally terrifying cliffside drive with explicit landslide warnings, and at least a dozen sites of recent washout. I thought, if I die today, at least it would be in a Ford Focus.
When we got to the colony most of the birds were out to sea, but we hung out for a while watching them build their nests and yell at each other. After a little rock hunting on a nearby beach, and watching a few birds fight over the scraps of a dead bird carcass, we headed back over the mountains to S-town.
To be ready for the four-hour drive the next morning for our scheduled whale watching tour in Húsavík, we called it quits early, back to El Grillo for a couple of burgers, which were served on sesame seed rolls with sprouts, radishes, some kind of squash and a baked potato on the side, served with a heaping portion of butter.
Back at the guesthouses as we waited for the shared bathrooms to be available, we checked out the main kitchen, where some other travelers were frying up some fish they’d caught earlier in the day. We had the I’m-from-Chicago-where-are-you-from conversation and said goodnight.
When we woke up the clouds were low and it was cold and misty outside, but the air was crisp and the streets were quiet. We headed back to the Ring Road towards Húsavík, the self-proclaimed whale watching capital of the world, for a three-hour whale watch on the Skjálfandi bay.
The clouds stayed low and made me nervous as we headed into the cold, stony mountains of northeast Iceland, with Game of Thronesian names like Gimbrarhnjukur, Almenningsfjall and Bessahladhahnukur. Aside from a few 4x4s on the road, some ducks and geese wading in mountaintop ponds and small groups of reindeer foraging on the plains, there was nothing but snow and rock. Visibility diminished the higher we climbed, and parts of the road were hidden under slushy drifts.
It was the only time on the drive where I wanted 4wd, but because there are no alternate routes, the only way forward was through. I turned up the Radiohead and drove white knuckled through the mountains. Eventually we came out the other side as the clouds gave way to a steady gray rain. Despite the weather we were still ahead of schedule, so when we came upon the steaming, alien landscapes at the Námafjall geothermal area, we stopped for a quick photo-op.
Clouds of hydrogen sulfide steam (swamp gas) poured from deep holes in the ground and the soft, warm soil was dirtied with streams of hot white and yellow minerals. Massive mudpots boiled and spurted, with signs saying that they can reach temperatures of 500 °F. It was a totally alien landscape, devoid of any plants or wildlife, probably because they know better to grow near the smell of hot White Castle-diarrhea.
Due to minor hydrogen sulfide poisoning we felt nauseated when we got back in the car. So we did what anyone about to go whale watching should do and stopped on the way to Húsavík to eat some hot dogs, an Icelandic speciality.
We’d originally booked a “GG1 Whale Watching” tour with Gentle Giants, which is their cheapest option and takes you for a leisurely three-hour tour of the bay on a medium-sized wooden boat. But due to confusion at the docks, we ended up donning bright safety overalls and waterproof gloves and boots for the more expensive “GG2 Big Whale Safari & Puffins” tour.
The winds were high and we jumped high over the whitecapped waves speeding around in our 14-passenger dingy. After circling a massive puffin colony, we spotted a few bay porpoises and some humpback whales. The Chilean tour guide kept telling the German tourists at the front of the boat to stay sitting in their place. They didn’t respond well to orders, which seemed strange.
The swamp gas, hot dogs and choppy water wreaked havoc on Sarah’s stomach and she went to the back of the dingy to be miserable into some empty plastic bags. When we finally got back to shore she was pale and shaky, so we went straight to the car and drove the rest of the way to Akureyri, where we would stay at the Hrafninn Guesthouse, a nice little place with horrible beds, but only a block from the town center.
Settled since the 9th century and with a current population of around 18,000, Akureyri is Iceland’s second-largest city and self-proclaimed “Capital of the North.” Despite being only 50km-or-so south of the Arctic Circle, it has moderate winters (record low is around -9 °F) and mild summers (record high is around 85 °F), so after a day in the snow and rain, it was nice to be greeted with sun in Akureyri.
For dinner we walked down to Bryggjan, which supposedly has the best pizza in the city, though “best” could also mean “only.” As a building the restaurant has been in use for more than 140 years. I ordered “the Deck Officer” pizza with pepperoni, ground beef, onion, bacon, and black pepper. My heart didn’t stop while I ate it, so it was good.
The next day we originally planned on driving up to Dalvík to take a three-hour ferry to Grímsey, which is the only part of Iceland that actually crosses the Arctic Circle (you get a certificate if you make it there), but based on how we performed on the water for whale watching, we figured six hours on the water wasn’t a great idea. So we spent the day exploring the town, which has an outdoor botanic garden, one of the northernmost in the world.
We also tried to do some shopping, but an American dollar doesn’t get you very far in Iceland, so I settled on a deck of playing cards and we grabbed thai food for dinner at Krua Siam, which has a taste described by one TripAdvisor reviewer as “a bit toned down for the western palate but good nonetheless.” That’s one way to put it.
For our last two days in Iceland, we headed back to Reykjavik to complete the Ring Road circuit. The landscapes on this portion of the drive were of sweeping valleys and low mountains. Due to timing we needed to skip the Westfjords, so on day 7 we mostly concentrated on getting to the Capital Inn in Reykjavik.
On the way we made one detour at Hraunfossar and its neighbor, Bjarnafoss, both popular Golden Circle sites. They stand in the middle of a gigantic lava field along the River Skjálfandafljót. Hraunfossar translates to “lava falls” and were created when a lava flow exposed underground springs, which formed into waterfalls along the river. Bright blue and ice cold the water literally flows from inside the earth. And just upriver is Bjarnafoss, a violent and churning waterfall shrouded in the mythology that ties into much of Iceland’s natural wonders.
One myth is about two boys from a nearby farm, Hraunsás:
One day, the boys’ parents went with their ploughmen to a church. The boys were supposed to stay at home, but as they grew bored they decided to follow their parents. They made a shortcut and crossed a natural stone-bridge that was above the waterfall. But on their way, they felt dizzy and fell into the water and drowned. When their mother found out what had happened, she put a spell on the bridge saying that nobody would ever cross it without drowning himself. A little while later, the bridge was demolished in an earthquake.
As with most Nordic myths, the moral here is straightforward: listen to your parents and go to church or you will die.
Though it was sunny at the waterfalls, it would stay rainy and cloudy in Reykjavik. The Capital Inn sat off the highway and was sort of like an independent Motel 6, if Iceland had those. After a week around mountains and glaciers it was kind of bleak, but only a five minute drive into the city center, which is full of awesome old architecture, tons of street art, and impossibly cool and tragically hip young travelers and Reykjavik natives doing their best imitation of Brooklyn trust fund bohemians.
For dinner we ate Italian at Rossopomodoro, including a great bruschetta with smoked fish. Everything was prepared by Italian chefs, so it was worth whatever we paid for it. I tried to stop paying attention at this point.
Compared to walking through Chicago late at night, walking in Reykjavik is like streaking in Celebration, Florida. Even small children are walking home from school alone. The first ever police shooting in Iceland happened in 2013, and the cops even apologized to the man’s family after the incident. So, no, crime isn’t really an issue in Iceland.
And then for our final day we headed out for a 90-minute drive to Geysir and Gullfoss, two of the most popular sites in the Golden Circle. Despite the wind and rain, tour buses and legions of European families were out in full force. Geysir (one of the first geysers discovered and also where we get the term “geyser”) is also a large geothermal site and the lingering smell of swamp gas was making Sarah quesy, so we didn’t stay long. At Gullfoss we parked, we took pictures, got soaked in the rain, and left.
On the way back the clouds cleared and we found a small roadside picnic table nestled into one of Iceland’s few evergreen forests, where we finished off the rest of our PB&J and said our final goodbyes to the Icelandic countryside.
After a bit more window shopping back in Reykjavik, we headed back to the hotel to get packed up. Downstairs was a small restaurant with a sole Italian man as waiter, chef and staff. The small menu listed a few burgers and entrees, including “The Moby Dick,” a whale burger prepared medium rare.
Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where whaling is legal, and one of the only places in the world where you’ll find it on the menu. As part of my try-anything-once philosophy, I ordered the Moby Dick, again to the surprise of the chef who probably expected a moralistic tirade against the greed of the hunting industry and the destruction of the global whale population. When I took my first bite, I thought less of the plight of the whale than of the pain of the vegans on my Facebook feed.
The joke was on me though, because it turns out whale is disgusting; like an ocean-flavored ligament steak. I ate the whole thing, and later, about a half-dozen Tums. Sarah opted for the lamb burger. Smart.
On the way out I asked the chef what kind of whale I just ate. He took out a Gentle Giants Whale Watching brochure (go figure) and pointed to the picture of the minke whale. “I just got three of these,” he said, and asked if we ever had whale in America. “I think they’d be calling for crucifixions if that happened,” I said. He asked, “What about shark?” I said, “That’d be even worse.”
“I have shark here. Want some?”
The train had already left the station, so I said sure. He walked us back to the kitchen and pulled out a small white container from the freezer with the orange silhouette of a shark on the lid. Inside were little cubes, like small pieces of tofu. He waved a bottle of some foreign liquor and said most people eat the shark and then drink shots of this stuff. I said the shark would be fine, and took a bite. Also disgusting, but salty.
He offered to send us back with some shark, but I said we’d probably get sent to Guantanamo and decided better safe than sorry.
The next morning we got up at 4 a.m. to head back to the airport. It was overcast but bright as day. All flights departing KEF were delayed because the Icelandic air traffic controllers had just ended a strike around midnight. Turns out they had been protesting pay and working conditions since April, but when two staffers called in sick on the night before our departure, the airport couldn’t find replacements and had to close the airport. Which is to say, politics are pretty simple in Iceland, and compared to Chicago, hilarious.
When I went to Iceland, it didn’t seem real to me. When I was there, it didn’t seem real to me. Now that I’m back, it still doesn’t seem real. Between the lucid dreams, the ethically compromised meats and the psychedelic soundtrack, it might never seem real. And that’s okay.