The beauty of the glacier-swept region has topped bucket lists for decades, spurring a love for a winter-kissed Nordic escape blessed with icy volcanoes and boiling geysers. As the night sky parts with a curtain of lights, explore the dazzling city of Reykjavik and discover what more Iceland has to offer.
With bubbling anticipation, my three travelling companions and I made our way through Reykjavik airport on a sub-zero February morning. The assistant at the car hire desk immediately warned us of the harsh storm that was sweeping towards the South, and casually remarked that we ‘should be okay’ if we left promptly. This was our first brush with the glorious but ever-changing weather of Iceland, reminding us that how one spends his time here is often unpredictable.
Thinking of the many scenic landscapes we’d unravel for an entire week, we embarked on an icy drive to our apartment in Reykjavík city and then headed out in search of dinner. As we wandered into the many enticing food stalls at Hlemmur Food Hall, we settled on SKÁL!, a restaurant that focuses on foraged Icelandic ingredients and local traditions. The mouth-watering small dishes were so good that we returned the next evening!
The sun was still rising over the city at 10 am, the perfect hour for a good cup of coffee. Fortunately, premium coffee shop and roastery Reykjavík Roasters serve a fantastic flat white, as well as an array of good music, with its vinyl player and a library of records available for customers to choose tunes of their own liking. Breakfast was warm cinnamon buns and other Icelandic baked goods from the acclaimed bakery, Braud& Co. Hunger quelled and completely satisfied, we sauntered the quiet streets and admired the looming minimal structure of Hallgrímskirkja church. This prominent Reykjavik landmark can be seen from anywhere in the city.
Our first taste of the notorious Icelandic landscape was the drive towards the Blue Lagoon. At every turn, ethereal iced-over lakes, majestic snow-topped mountains and cosy cabins came into view – things only spun in dreams but are truly, astoundingly real. I had questioned myself whether or not to visit this busy tourist hot spot, but as soon as I plunged into the crystal-blue steaming water, all uncertainty melted away. After all, a world famous remote outdoor spa in-between the mountains was always going to be a spectacular experience.
Experiences as extreme as one can possibly imagine. Now let’s wrap our heads around driving through this rugged landscape in search for hidden waterfalls!
We awoke in darkness and carried out the same morning ritual as the day before. But before we could get to the cinnamon buns, a glow of pink light glistened from our window, dramatically emerging from behind the mountains. We hastily ran across the city to the water’s edge and basked at an unforgettable sunrise over the lake. We then bid farewell to city life on our journey south.
Pingvellir National Park was our first destination, but the drive was interrupted on almost every corner. A lot of times, we were compelled to gape at or take photographs of the unique terrain before us. Once we pulled up to the myriad of frozen lagoons in the National Park, the vastness of the landscape took our breath away. I was prepared for the cold Icelandic weather; however, it was still a shock every time I left the warmth of the car. This only added to the experience of Iceland – the country’s dramatic views are a privilege for those who are prepared to brave the cold and endeavour to get here.
After hours of driving on pure ice, we arrived at Heima Holiday Homes in the south of the country. This series of functional modern cabins are so remote that with the right conditions, you have a favourable chance to see the Northern Lights from outside your front door. We were able to spot the auroras twice!
Day four brought a meticulously planned mission in search of waterfalls and black sand beaches. Although this included the iconic waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, there were many other waterscapes in between, all similarly delicate and powerful. Such is the beauty of a road trip: endless opportunities to discover the unexpected treasures of traditional churches, the majesty of wild Icelandic horses, and breath-taking Games Of Thrones-style landscapes.
The black sand beaches of Vík was our next stop, and the colourful, moody sky was the perfect backdrop to the charcoal-coloured shore and foamy white waves. After a bitterly cold walk and a rewarding photographic session, our last destination of the day awaited: Seljavallalaug pool. The sun was setting rapidly, the hike was longer than anticipated, but we finally found it – the oldest pool in Iceland, wedged between the monumental mountains, with only two others for company. It was a wild contrast to the crowded Blue Lagoon. We swam in -7° temperatures, warmed only by a hot pipe in the corner of the 25-metre pool, with the sun illuminating up the mountains beyond. As the day’s tour ends, we unanimously agreed that this was one of our finest moments in Iceland.
That night, a text from our hosts informed us that the Northern Lights were starting to appear. Cameras in hand, we dashed outside to see a grey-green strip of light materialising across the sky. It gradually brightened and looked incredible on the camera screen, but less impressive to the naked eye.
On our last full day, the wind was extreme and seemed determined to blow the 4×4 off the road. We headed to the Golden Circle for more of Iceland’s legendary natural wonders, starting with Gullfoss waterfall. The sheer power of local waterscapes was something to behold. Next, we visited the Geysir hot spring area, a spot that is always bustling with visitors eager to witness the most famous geyser in the world. We waited and watched as the spouts exploded boiling hot water, some ten to thirty metres into the air. Our final stop was the Kerid Crater, a striking volcanic lake that is usually filled with milky blue water. When we arrived, the crater was covered in snow and the lake entirely frozen, but we still managed to walk up to the edge, battling the forceful winds to see people stepping out onto the icy lake below.
Our most challenging day closed with a magnificent sunset of pink and purple hues. While enjoying the homemade dinner in our cabin, another text arrived from our hosts, ‘Get outside, very good show!’ We rushed outside to witness flashes of green, pink and white, all dancing together like a symphony of lights through the sky. I instantly understood the obsession with this phenomenon. The other guests must have been woken by our screams of delight as they made their way out. All of us partook at what our host described the next day as the best Northern Lights display in over a year.
We left our cabin that morning with heavy hearts, wistful that we will be able to return soon. Our spirits soon lifted, however, as we arrived for lunch at the Fridheimar tomato farm. The farm had extensive grounds covered with snowy forests and horse paddocks, with a number of greenhouses growing different species of tomato. Everything we ate from the tomato-focused menu – including soup, salads and a delightful tomato and mozzarella ravioli – was delicately flavoured, ensuring that tomatoes were the hero of every dish.
Our final adventure was a trip to the coastal spectacle of Strandarkirkja church, where we photographed our last glimpse of the Icelandic landscapes while gazing dreamily out to the sea. At the airport, we said goodbye to our trusty 4×4 that had safeguarded us through storms and served as our second home for a week. The quaint memories of the freezing temperatures would ripple in our skin every now and then, but every wintry sting was beautifully wrapped with the sight of the otherworldly sceneries, and we could say that Iceland had certainly provided us with an utterly remarkable road trip. Words & Photographs by Holly Farrier◼
© This article was first published in Dec-Jan 2020 edition of World Travel Magazine.