Driving Iceland

As a horse-crazy young girl, the photos of Icelandic horses in my library of equine picture books caught my eye every time.  Noticeably smaller than other breeds, their coats were covered with a gorgeous range of colours and patterns, with fluffy manes blowing in the wind, their eyes reflecting their gentle nature. These adorable beasts had me instantly sold on taking a trip to Iceland one day, but the country’s haunting and untouched natural beauty has now secured its place on my list of favourite destinations.

Many years ago, a short three-night stopover in Reykjavik left me absolutely certain that I would return to Iceland one day. A random fact – an Icelandic horse is not allowed to return to Iceland once it has left the country, but luckily the same restriction doesn’t apply to humans! It took me a bit longer than planned before I returned, but the wait was more than worth it. This time, I was able to explore some of the country’s more remote destinations on a self-drive adventure, taking in some incredible scenery and experiences along the way.

In Iceland the journey itself is a major highlight, and the exact path you might take has endless possibilities. The country is perfect for a self-drive, allowing you to turn off where others might choose to drive on. Conditions can be extreme in this island nation, so don’t try to pack in too much and do leave some gaps to allow for the unexpected – both scenic highlights and unpredictable weather! A self-drive journey is best taken during the summer months, and you’ll be glad you had the extra-long daylight hours too.

The southern coast of the country is deservedly famous – the black sand beaches near Vik, the numerous waterfalls and the glacier lagoon of Jokulsarlon are all exceedingly beautiful. However, my trip along the Ring Road left me with the following personal highlights:

East Iceland

This less travelled area is filled with dramatic fjords to explore, all with amazing views, winding roads and a wonderful sense of tranquillity. For a colourful and oh-so-cute shattering of the silence, don’t miss the famous puffin colony in Borgarfjörður Eystri. From mid-April to mid-August, about 10,000 pairs of these ‘clowns of the sea’ nest here, and the boardwalk system and viewing platforms allow you to safely observe their antics from a close distance. An evening in remote Mjóifjördur eating some of the best lamb I’ve ever had (NZ has some competition!) and running it off with an impromptu game of football ranks as one of my favourite unplanned moments of my trip.

Dettifoss

Iceland has around 10,000 waterfalls, so clearly seeing all or even most of them isn’t going to happen! My advice is to pick a few that you don’t want to leave without seeing and then enjoy whatever else you stumble across.  For me, Dettifoss was the top of my ‘must see’ list of waterfalls, and it didn’t disappoint.  What it lacks in colour (it can be quite a washed out mix of white and grey), it makes up for with the sheer volume of water. The most powerful waterfall in Europe, it is truly thunderous and left me feeling very, very small!

Husavik

Husavik is a charming town in the north with wooden fishing boats in the harbour and sparkling seas surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is best known for its excellent whale watching opportunities, but I spent the afternoon in a café packed with locals hoping to see the country’s football team continue their magical Euro run. Sadly, France put a quick end to that with several first-half goals, but it was still such a treat to ride the wave of joy they had for their national team. I told myself that perhaps it was best they didn’t win, as Iceland is not really the most wallet-friendly place to get swept into buying a round of celebratory drinks in!

Landmannalaugar

Only accessible on basic dirt roads after the snow melts (July and August are your best bet), a Super Jeep day trip to this incredibly special place was easily the highlight of my first visit years ago. This gem in the highlands region is part of a famous multi-day hike, but shorter walks on a day visit will still give you a taste of the amazing landscape. The soft pastel colours of the rhyolite mountains, steaming geothermal activity and bubbling hot springs will always define Iceland in my mind.

You might be wondering “Do I need to pay extra for a 4WD vehicle?”, and if you plan to drive on any of the F-roads, the answer is yes.  These roads are mostly in the interior highlands, and are generally referred to as ‘mountain roads’ – lots of loose gravel and the possibility of river crossings. Because I visited Landmannalaugar, accessible only by F-roads, an upgrade to a 4WD was required. If you’re travelling during the summer and aren’t looking to veer too far from the Ring Road, you’ll find a regular 2WD will suit you just fine. If you would still like to see the interior highlands, consider taking a Super Jeep trip to this region for the day and let one of the locals do the driving!

Other options for exploring Iceland include expedition-style cruising with Quark Expeditions or Hurtigruten, while others opt for small-group guided tours.  I personally recommend a self-drive itinerary such as World Journeys’ Arctic Iceland Self-Drive which is an incredibly scenic roundtrip from Reykjavik, taking in all the highlights at your own pace.