South Iceland

South Iceland

15 min read
by Jannieke, 08 August, 2020

Can't you stand the cold weather as well? And you can't you wait for summer in autumn? That's exactly the person I am. Don't get me wrong, autumn is beautiful with all the coloured leaves and colour contrasts. But the cold and harsh winds, rain showers and autumn storms are not things that make me happy. As if autumn doesn't last long enough, there are then three months of cold winter coming right after. After a month of cosy lights and drinking hot chocolate, I'm ready for more daylight and more sunshine.

So when Nick proposed to go to Iceland I've been telling him no, for years on end. But he kept persisting that it's a beautiful country and that it will be well worth the trip. Last year, it was finally time. I wanted to escape the hustle and bustle with the holidays and meanwhile, we didn't have to sacrifice our summer vacation. So we booked a flight to Iceland and looked for a nice place to stay.

Read along, or click here for our Top 5!

Right there was our first challenge, we booked a place via homeaway.com and found out through the owner that the house was already booked. Thankfully she was an honest-to-god lady and she wired us our money back when she got received it from homeaway.com. The customer service of HomeAway is terrible, after contacting them several times we didn't receive any word from them even months later.

Tip 1: always book something with a credit card. It has extra insurance, through which you can demand refunds when anything goes wrong.

So we had to look for another place and checked the website of Bungalow. Only three days before we left we realised we never received any confirmation of the reservation and we didn't hear anything else of it. So no news was in this case bad news.

Tip 2: always check if your cottage or booking has been confirmed.

So eventually we booked a cabin through Airbnb from a super host! Any communication was quick, effective and friendly. We received tips for seeing the Northern lights, we could ask how the hot tub worked and even the host notified us about all the shops being closed when we would land, due to Christmas time. He offered to do some basic groceries for us and so we arrived in a warm cottage with a filled fridge. The cottage was about 12 miles north of Selfoss and remote enough to imagine yourself being all alone in the world.

We flew with WOW Air. Alas by now the airline company has gone bankrupt. To get the best flight possible (time- and cost-wise), we booked through CheapTickets.nl (since we're Dutch, but Skyscanner looks like a promising international alternative). After doing some research we've decided to rent a car. Through a free shuttle bus, we could easily find the rental company and minutes later we were having a car. Because we wanted to save some money on our trip, we chose a cheaper 4x4, the Suzuki Jimmy. A 4x4 is truly recommended in Iceland because otherwise, you cannot access some country roads.

Tip 3: do not save money on a car! You'll be spending a lot of time driving to all the different sights and lot's of roads are intensely bumpy with big holes in them. Spending a little bit more would be worth it!

We went in December. When it's light in December in Iceland, it's a continues state of twilight. Highly recommended for taking beautiful pictures! I regret not bringing a good camera. That investment is worth it there! Especially since it's not a country you'll be going back too soon (unless you win the lottery).

Tip 4: be sure to bring a good camera.

In December it's cold. The temperatures were similar to those that we're used to here in the Netherlands. But since it's an island, there's a lot of wind and it's an icy sharp wind. I was really happy that we only brought our snow wear and some thermal clothing. Just let your vain self at home and go for warm and practical!

Tip 5: be sure to bring snow wear. A few thermal leggings and sweaters and proper snow boots together with one pair of snow pants and and a snow jacket is sufficient for one week.

DAY 1: ARRIVAL

When we arrived we first picked up the rental car and drove to the cottage. All around there's good safety information for driving in Iceland. As they only have one "highway" around the island (Route 1), it's advised to read the information about driving on the other roads.

Tip 6: before hitting the road, check the website https://www.road.is for current traffic information. This site is well updated and very accurate. You could also download their app. Be sure to follow any instructions!

Arriving at the cabin, which took us some time because we had to search for it in the dark, we were welcomed by a comfy heated cottage. The geothermal sources in Iceland are providing this place with hot water for heating. So it's very sustainable! The cottage was completely made of wood and was elevated to supply great views from the porch. One wall almost consisted of only windows in the living room, giving us great views during the little daylight we had. There was also a hearth, which unfortunately we couldn't use at that time. Still, at most cottages in Iceland, you should be able to use one when visiting. The best thing about this place was that it had a hot tub outside on the porch. It wasn't a hot tub like I imagined beforehand, it was more like a huge bathtub outside. After receiving instructions we filled it up with geothermal water which was extra hot. From this tub we were watching the stars nice and comfy, do you see yourself already lying there? Imagine being able to see the Northern lights at that moment!

It was already late so we quickly heated a pizza, played a pocket-size game and went to bed early, so that we would be well-rested for the next day and use the little daylight we would have as efficiently possible.

DAY 2: HITTING THE ROAD

Adventure time! We drove around and followed some signs to different sights. The brown signs are stating what kind of sight it is and how far it is. At first, I thought the landscape was kind of boring and I was mainly concerned with the hardships that the lack of suspension of our car caused us. But once we arrived at the first waterfall, I quickly learnt that all the trouble and cold were surely worth it. Immediately I fell in love with the beautiful landscape! Language fact: 'Foss' means waterfall. So wherever a sign states 'Foss' you'll know what's coming up next.

First stop: Haifoss. This is the second-highest waterfall in Iceland. A beautiful sight! Unfortunately, the weather conditions were not ideal so we left pretty quickly, but on a clear day, this must be amazing!

Haifoss

On the road, we were surprised Hjalparfoss. We left from the other waterfall and came across a sign for this waterfall. It was good for the first day in truly quiet surroundings. Maybe it had something to do with being Christmas Day, but we rarely ran into anyone else that day.

Hjalparfoss

Last stop: Nick saw a vantage point along the way: Gaukshöfði. I was still cold from the earlier stops and wanted to stay in the car to warm up. Nick went up the hill and enjoyed the long stretches of nature with diverse landscapes.

Gaukshöfði
Tip 7: don't immediatly go to the best sights. Everything you visit after would feel less. For us the built-up and variety of these waterfalls was perfect.

DAY 3: TAKING IT EASY

Today we're doing a little sightseeing nearby: Kerið. It's a crater that originated from a lava chamber from another volcano nearby. You're paying a little entrance fee, but this money is used to maintain the grounds.

Kerið

I've noticed that Icelanders are very conscious of nature conservation. Paths are being marked and outside of these paths, you're not allowed to enter because you might harm the vegetation.

We've made reservations for going out for dinner at one of the few restaurants still open with Christmas, afraid we wouldn't have a place to eat because it would be packed. Little did we know. Icelanders just eat at home, so going out for dinner wasn't a problem. We went out for dinner at Skyr Gerdin and together with some other tourists we were the only ones there. The place had an authentic Icelandic menu and is connected to a traditional Skyr factory. The Skyr being made at the factory is being used in the restaurant. As was with our delicious dessert, Skyr Cake! It was like a cheesecake meets quark cake, with a crumble bottom. This particular version was filled with After Eight chocolate chips, topped off with strawberry gelatine and some fresh strawberries. I was impressed with the balance. I'm not a sweet tooth and generally, I'm horrified by After Eight, but this cake was delicious!

Skyr Cake

The restaurant has a comfy setting with natural materials and colours. The food was of good quality, but if you want to save money you shouldn't go out for dinner in Iceland. This restaurant was pricey, but this even was one of the cheaper options that we discovered in the neighbourhood. My main course consisted of traditional lamb soup. This is a stewed lamb bone with some potatoes and vegetables in it. It was tasty, but not very specific. But I love lamb so I was happy. Nick had grilled beef with a puffed potato and some vegetables, he told me it also tasted fine but wasn't impressed. Still, the dessert made everything right and we enjoyed our little night out!

At night we drank tea or our own brought beverages and often we would play a game or read a book until we're tired. This brings us to our next suggestion. n

Tip 8: if you're attached to a specific drink or snack in the evening, bring it from home. All the groceries are very expensive in Iceland, especially the imported kind.

DAY 4: CHANGE OF PLANS

We got up extra early today, to make a trip to Jökulsárlón. This would be a 5-hour drive, without stops, but we were told it was definitely worth visiting. Unfortunately, halfway we came across a deadly accident. So I repeat my earlier point about checking the website www.road.is!

Tip 9: stay within the speed limits and keep your eyes on the road. Follow the instructions like being stated on the roads and be careful when driving on bridges, because these can be slippery.

Route 1 is the only way to the glacier lake, and it was closed off due to the accident. So first we enjoyed the scenery around us, mountain formations with snow and astonishing long stretches of lava fields and turned around.

Lava Fields

Last-minute we chose to drive towards the Fjadrárgljúfur canyon. Initially, we had this planned for another day, but this way we could save that day to try and visit the glacier lake again. The road towards this canyon is one of these roads only drivable by a 4x4 and even still it was a really bad road. Hold on and keep in mind that you'll be driving longer than the navigation tells you because of the bad road conditions. But oh boy, is it worth it! This canyon truly was one of the highlights of our trip for me! The contrasts, the different layers of earth and the clear water made it easy for me to watch this beautiful canyon with waterfalls for hours!

Fjadrárgljúfur

We continued along the road back to Vik and it's beautiful black beaches with volcanic rock formations. We drove to Reynisfjara Beach, a  location great for taking pictures!

Along the way, you can admire numerous waterfalls. There are several waterfalls you can drive to, but unfortunately, we were running out of daylight. For us, it was time to go back to the cottage and prepare dinner.

Tip 10: plan your daytrip in a way that you can optimally make use of the daylight. Leave in the dark and try to arrive in first daylight. That way you can be sure that you'll have plenty of time.

DAY 5: LET IT SNOW!

Finally snow! Of course, we couldn't come back home without having some snow pictures. We weren't in Iceland in December for nothing!

We drove to Þingvellir National Park, a real must-see in the area. This park is commonly used for filming movie scenes. Like for instance the Game of Thrones scene, where Arya and The Hound were travelling. And where the fight between The Hound and Brienne took place. Another nice little fact is that traditionally the meetings between Vikings have taken place here and also alliances have been made. For entrance to the park (or mostly just to park your car), you'll pay a relatively small fee. You can spend the whole day here! Look for more information on https://www.thingvellir.is/en

There are different hiking trails, but we just drove straight to the waterfall near the tectonic plates. It's the North Atlantic and Euro-Asian plate that are both visible. Iceland is one of the two places in the world where the seperation is visible above ground. The tectonic plates are still moving away from each other, an overwhelming thought when you're just standing there. The waterfall Öxarárfoss is located on the side of a tectonic plate.

From below we walked up towards the service centre where also a vantage point is located. The walk is incredibly impressive, but also difficult to walk on when there's ice. The Icelanders scatter black grit to make it less slippery, but proper snow boots and spikes are recommended for harsh weather conditions. On the way back down, I started following the example of others and just shoved down my butt like a child. Many took this example, especially because many also fell ;)

Vantage Point at the Service Centre

On the way back we wanted to visit the only working geyser in the world. So on to the surprisingly named village: Geysir. It's very touristic but still worth a visit. It smells an awful lot like sulfur and there are several sources. The working geyser itself puts up a show about every 7 minutes, so it's hard to miss this spectacle!

Nick was completely set on visiting a lagoon. I didn't feel like taking a bath smelling of sulfur in the ice-cold, with unknown dressing rooms. Still, he managed to convince me to visit one.

Tip 11: be sure to bring your towel and swim clothes! Enjoying a natural hot spring for just a bit, warms you right up to continue your trip.

Watch out for lagoons that are asking unreasonable prices and that isn't even heated by the natural geyser water. Because we did some research beforehand, we went to the 'Secret Lagoon'. It's an affordable, smaller and special experience. The boilng geyser water is running down the edges into a basin, giving you the chance to pick your preferred temperature. Aside from that, drinking an overpriced cold drink inside this lagoon was blissful! Don't forget, swim-wear is mandatory! And you'd want to bring slippers and a towel for the cold outside air!

A true gift, when we arrived back at our cottage, the northern lights were visible right above us! It was magical. We took our chairs, something to drink and started to enjoy this natural spectacle. You can't stop looking! Even with a good camera, it's really hard to capture the lights, so just be sure to enjoy it for yourself! Also, watch the weather forecast. On nights with clear skies, there's a higher chance that you can see the northern lights.

Tip 12: pick an evening or night, with clear skies. Download the app My Aurora Forecast and keep an eye on the forecast and when the signal is high, make sure you are outside somewhere without any light pollution. Please note: your eyes need about 15 minutes to get used to the darkness. Just wait a little while if you're not seeing anything.

DAY 6: GLACIER GREATNESS

It was really early yet again because today we definitely wanted to visit the glaciers and Jökulsárlón!

It's an incredibly long drive. Our navigation told us that it would take 5 hours, but we also wanted to stretch our legs once in a while. You'll be driving through the middle of nowhere for times on end and sometimes you'll pass by a little village. Feast your eyes along the way, because you can never get enough of this scenery. For us, a little bonus; the lava fields were covered in snow, a totally different view!

Tip 13: if you are on the road and bump into a gas station, be sure to fill up your car and do a toilet break. You can be driving for hours without passing a gas station or anything else!

Once arrived, we first went to the great glacier lake and parked our car. Careful, it's probably very busy. But taking our time to look around granted us a parking spot. I'm lost for words to describe the area, so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. Truly it's like Disney Land for nature lovers!

Tip 14: if you're able to plan a few days ahead, be sure to visit this area on a clear day. The sunlight glistering on the glaciers and the lakes create a stunning view.

After, we walked down to the beach. It's called Diamond Beach because the melted ice floes washed ashore again on the black sand.

Diamond Beach

We continued our trip to Fjallsárlón. A glacier that flows into a valley, creating a small lake. It's reachable by a 4x4. However, it's not without reason that a huge warning sign precedes the entrance of the road there. Be sure to read this before driving towards the glacier. Once again, the drive was well worth it! At the lake, you're out of the wind and it's very serene.

Fjallsárlón

DAY 7: THE FINAL LAP

The final day for things that we still wanted to do and now we're having time for! On towards Gulfoss. This is a well-known waterfall. According to most people, it's a must-see. Once there, yes, it's a beautiful waterfall. But the winds were very strong, so strong that I had to grab hold to anything just not to fall over. Because of all the other things we've seen in the past few days already, I was feeling pretty underwhelmed. If you ask me, this ain't a must-see, but maybe nice to visit earlier in the total trip, as I stated earlier in tip 7.

Gulfoss

We took a look around for a little while and drove around some more to take in the scenery before our final departure. Early into bed, because the next day we had to take an early flight. We left about three hours earlier than necessary because a blizzard was predicted. Luckily our host also warned us for this! Rather wait longer at the airport than get stuck on the road in a blizzard ;-)  With returning our car, I had to get my suitcase out of the car. The wind was so strong that my suitcase of 20 kilos flew right into the air (which fortunately I was holding on tight).

Tip 15: always leave on time! You'll never know what the weather- and road conditions might be. Returning the rental car and checking in hold luggage can easily take up to two hours.

Lot's of articles and people recommend doing the 'Golden Circle' tour. What this tour entails differs per article even. We checked beforehand and made a list of must-sees for ourselves and made a top 5 out of this (click here for our top 5!). Nick and I generally don't like big cities and so Iceland didn't seem like the country to spent a lot of time inside a city (I mean, did you just see those pictures?!). It's very personal what appeals to you and what doesn't, so I say: forget the 'Golden Circle'!

This was the end of our journey. I never thought beforehand that I would say this: I will definitely go back and then with a good camera. Maybe rent a camper and tour around in the summer, because I've heard there are huge flower fields in summer!

Do you have any tips for visiting Iceland, or experiences you'd like to share? Leave a comment or just DM us on Instagram, we'd love to hear from you!

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