In March we spent six days and nights touring the southern coast of Iceland.
We did a lot or research prior to going and decided that as photographers we didn’t want to just spend the weekend in Reykjavik.
Where we went…
Day one - The Golden Circle
(from Reykjavik to Hella)
Leaving Reykjavik we took the Golden Circle tour route which takes in Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss Falls.
We took our time driving to Þingvellir enjoying our first taste of the incredible scenery on the way. Because the park is the first stop on most of the tours it was very busy when we arrived late morning on a Sunday, so I would recommend arriving earlier or later. The crowds did eventually thin out and by the time we’d made our way back to the car 2 hours later everyone else had gone. Þingvellir is where the worlds oldest parliament was founded and is situated between the Eurasian and North-American plates, which lie a few kilometres apart. Technically, the park is neither in Europe nor North-America and is smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Some of the tracks were closed as there was still plenty of snow around. The further we walked the less people there were around and we were rewarded with our first waterfall - Öxarárfoss.
We continued on to the Geysir hot spring area, the home of Strokkur which spouts water 30 metres into the air every few minutes. We were slightly non-plussed the first time it went off, it didn’t seem very impressive, but we soon realised that all spouts aren’t created equal! You don’t have to wait too long between bursts from Stokkur so it’s a rewarding worthwhile stop on the tour.
From Geysir we moved to the final stop of day one, Gullfoss. Photos of Gullfoss can’t prepare you for the sheer spectacle of it. It is mammoth, and even though it was still partly frozen, the sheer size of it, and the volume of water that passes through it is incredible. It was freezing though - this was the coldest I was all week - so cold that the spray froze to my camera lens. We got the photos and got out before we froze to death!
Day 2 - Waterfalls and Black Sands
(from Hella to Nupar)
Determined not to get stuck behind the tour buses again we set off a little earlier and got to Seljalandsfoss waterfall before it was too busy. In the summer you can walk behind Seljalandsfoss but sadly it was still closed off for our visit due to the danger of falling ice. A short walk down the path reveals a smaller waterfall that falls into a crevice, which the sturdy footed are invited to climb inside. Skogafoss was much more impressive, and although we declined the option to climb to the top we were lucky enough to see beautiful rainbows in the falls.
Moving further east we drove to Dyrholaey beach, with its black sand and typically Icelandic rock formations it’s worth the drive up the mountain to the lighthouse for the view. You can sometimes spot puffins at Dyrholaey and although unfortunately we didn’t see any when we visited, there is plenty of other seabird life around.
Day 3 - Into the Blue
(From Nupar to Jokulsarlon and back to Kirkjubæjarklaustur)
We had a long drive on Day 3 to the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon and its neighbour Crystal Beach.
Before we went to Iceland someone told me that getting great photos there was like shooting fish in a barrel. If that had been true so far on our visit then it was doubly so here. Iceland is breathtaking in all it’s guises, but this was my favourite place of our whole visit. Floating icebergs in the lagoon, giant blue crystal icebergs the size of cars, and then over on the black sand of the beach, blue icebergs and brilliant crystals of ice, thousands of years old, all of which have shorn off the glacier and floated through the lagoon out to sea.
The beach here was really really busy with coach parties. If you want anything approaching professional photos of Iceland (or even crowd free enjoyment), one thing I know is that you have to get up early to beat the crowds.
Day 4 Return to Reykjavik
(From Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Reykjavik)
A day with no plans other than a relaxing drive back to Reykjavik and a chance for us to stop off to photograph the places we’d missed on the way. Churches, ponies, lava rocks, barns and Hjörleifshöfði cave and the beautiful changing scenery as we returned via a different route to which we’d taken on our way east.
Day 5 The Secret Lagoon
We (I) always do a lot of research before going on trips and several people gave us a really good tip off not to got to the Blue Lagoon, but to go the the smaller, lesser known Secret Lagoon (the clue is in the name). A quick google revealed that this is a much smaller, less commercialised, hot spring out in Flúðir, in the Golden Circle.
This was our most relaxing day. A forty minute drive from Reykjavik out to Flúðir, I would recommend you prebook your visit - you can choose time slots and hire a towel too. We were relieved to find no coach parties there at all. The largest group was a well behaved six form trip from the UK, there was plenty of room, the facilities were immaculate and food and drinks are available - you can even take your drinks into the spa itself. I had been a bit worried about the floor being slimy, but it was like a sandy beach, with rocks all around the side that you could sit on. Parts of the lagoon, nearest the spring naturally, were too hot to stay in for very long, but you could move around freely and soon find the perfect temperature for you. If you’re feeling brave you can get out and walk around the hot springs; I saved that part until I was fully clothed again, the outside temperature was freezing.
Having not been to the Blue Lagoon I can’t say that the Secret Lagoon is better, but it was perfect for us. I hope it stays secret for a little while longer.
We were upgraded for our first night’s stay and this was definitely a nicer room than the one we had for our return visit at the end of the week. We had a room with a harbour view and it was generally larger, on our second visit the room was at the rear of the hotel overlooking the car park and was a lot smaller, with a condensation issue and a noisy shop unit which took deliveries from 6am. (We complained about this at the end of our stay and the reception staff did inform us that they were supposed to be restricted to taking deliveries after 8am only.)
This has only been open since last year, and is a small B&B with just 4 cabins.
Ragnhildur is a lovely hostess, we had a little difficulty finding the guesthouse, which it turned out she had pre-empted by sending a message through booking.com giving us directions. It literally is in the middle of nowhere with a view of Hekla Volcano. It is a beautiful place, and like all the places we stayed on our tour outside of Reykjavik it had zero light pollution so fantastic for spotting the Aurora Borealis and star gazing. The cabins were self-contained and had a small kitchenette, although disappointingly only provided things to make a black coffee, a trick missed I think. Fagrabekka, like most of the smaller places, only provides breakfast so that meant a short to drive into Hella to find dinner that night, where there were plenty of options. The breakfast the next morning was fantastic, with freshly made bread, still warm from the oven.
This was the largest hotel we stayed in and our least favourite. It was kind of like the Premier Inn chain and there are several of them dotted along the south coast. It was clean and functional. Because of it’s size it’s used by tour groups but that also means it has its own restaurant.
This was our favourite place of all - just 11 small cabins, beautifully appointed, another newly opened venture. The attention to detail with the decor was fantastic and the setting itself, on a lake, was stunning. This also had the benefit of a main house, where we were delighted to be greeted on our arrival with home made cookies and the offer of an evening meal. They don’t offer this all the time at the moment but I understand they are exploring as a possibility going forward. We were very happy not to have to drive to the next town that evening as MrS was exhausted at this point having been ill with flu since the first day we arrived. Never has a homemade lasagne and garlic bread tasted so good.
Where we ate
We used Trip Advisor on our first night in Reykjavik to find somewhere near our hotel and MrS came up trumps with Resto just a five minute walk away. The food was really very good, (salted cod, scallops, lamb and baked cod with chorizo) and whilst not cheap it wasn’t as eye wateringly expensive as we were expecting. For a random pick on our first night we were really impressed.
We had to drive in to Hella on our second night as our B&B didn’t do evening meals. We ate at Hotel Ranga, another pot luck Trip Advisor pick, which was evidently a top end tour stop hotel. The food was good but not memorable and the bill for it was more like that which we had expected of central Reykjavik restaurants. Of course you are somewhat of a captive audience here, but there are other places to eat in Hella if you’re ever passing.
The Food Cellar was the only restaurant I’d researched and pre booked. Listed as one of the top 10 restaurants in Reykjavik, it’s menu was really interesting and we opted for the Chef’s Surprise menu. Because we were chasing the Aurora Borealis on our final night, MrS had driven so we didn’t have the wine flight this time, although I opted for a couple of glasses.
The food was excellent, slow cooked cod, smoked salmon and caviar, langoustine, lamb cooked three ways, and topped off with the restaurants signature dessert, deconstructed Lion Bar. This is definitely work a visit if you’re in reykjavik.
Despite being in low-light-pollution areas all week, we didn't see the Aurora Borealis until our final night, when we were in Reykjavik. We were monitoring the forecast everyday and it was mainly at level 1. Of course it hit 3 on our last night when we had booked to eat at the Food Cellar for our final night. In the end MrS drove and as soon as we'd eaten we drove out to Reykjavik Lighthouse, as far as we could get away from the city centre and any light pollution and we were lucky enough to see them. along with several other hundred star gazers, but at least we saw them, even if not from our romantic Magma hideaway. They weren't very spectacular to the naked eye - more like a thin white bank of cloud, but as you can see they translated well to photos. I feel very lucky to have seen them.
What you need to know
Iceland is stunning. However, Reykjavik as a city is very small, and not a city you visit for itself, like say Paris or Barcelona. If you go, go with the intention of exploring further afield. There is good food and, I hear, night life in Reykjavik, but take a tour of the Golden Circle, visit either the Blue Lagoon or the Secret Lagoon or go whale watching (we declined, on account of BOATS).
There’s no such thing as bad weather - only the wrong clothes. I cannot over emphasise the importance of having the correct clothing if you are going to visit Iceland in the winter. Invest in proper base layers (I got mine from Uniqlo and they were great) and I mean long johns as well. We both wore lined waterproof trousers over ours, which are much better than jeans for staying warm, and also when getting down low for photos you don’t worry about getting wet. You will not be able to go without gloves for any length of time. I bought some mittens of which the ends folded over to reveal my fingers underneath to operate the camera, but I also wore silk liners under those. I wore at least 4 layers each day not including my coat.
If you are hiring a car, and intend to go further than the Golden Circle, get a 4 wheel drive. The main roads around Iceland are really well kept in general, however the roads that cross the centre are gravel tracks in some places, and certainly to get up the mountain at Dyrholeay and down to the cave at Hjörleifshöfði you need a 4 wheel drive.
You are not allowed to stop on the side of ANY roads in Iceland. There are many places specifically set aside for stopping near any areas of interest, and on the roads through the centre of the country there are plenty of field entrances to stop. You are also NOT allowed to go “off road” unless you’re on an official off road tour.
We had to pay to park at Þingvellir and Slejalandfoss and yet it was free to park everywhere else we stopped (outside Reykjavik, which has it’s own colour coded system depending on how close you are to the centre). All parking machines take credit cards.
MrS had a really bad cold while we were there and we found to our disadvantage that it’s impossible to buy cold and flu remedies over the counter and couldn’t get anything other than paracetamol, and even then it had to be from a pharmacist. Go prepared.
People who say Iceland is expensive are not exaggerating. It is possible to visit on a budget - for example the Foss Chain are very reasonable and if you avoid eating/ drinking right on top of any major attraction you will surely save some Kroner. We didn’t eat lunch at all while we were there, we didn't; t need to as the breakfasts were all buffet style and all exceptionally good. In our first hotel on our first night there were complementary reusable water bottles which we filled up each day and I’d packed some Twixes and Boost bars to snack on during the day. By the way, if you leave water bottles in your car over night they will freeze...
How we did it
We flew with BA and by booking our car hire with BA at the same time we saved a lot of money.
I researched various different tour company's itineraries online and worked out our route, then used booking.com to book our individual hotels. The only change I would have made was ditching the Foss Nupar Hotel and staying for 2 nights at Magma, simply because it was so beautiful there.