We set off on our quest to uncover the truth behind the age-old question: “Iceland is green and Greenland is ice, right?”. Very quickly we discovered that Iceland is not only a vibrant green paradise but also a frosty wonderland of ice, even in summer! Amidst the chill, we discovered magnificent glaciers, covering around 11% of its expanse and nourishing the lush green fields that stretched beneath their frozen majesty. And oh, the waterfalls! Countless waterfalls cascaded in all their splendor, over 10,000 of them dotting this diminutive country, which is merely a quarter of the size of California.
Day 1- Our journey commenced in Reykjavik, translating to “smoky bay” and named for the geothermal wonders that create steamy spectacles in the surrounding landscapes. We started our day with a visit to the Perlan Museum. It was such a hit that we canceled our walking tour of the city and stayed at the Perlan most of the day. We all marveled at the ice cave, a 100-meter-long tunnel crafted from a whopping 350 tons of real Icelandic mountain snow; other highlights included the Northern Lights and Lava shows. We then had lunch at the museum restaurant which surprised us with both delicious food and a revolving view that revealed ever-changing panoramas of the city and bay. That night we went to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa that is the most popular attraction in Iceland, but also reported to be crowded and overpriced. We were prepared for the worst, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience. The lagoon was huge and never felt “crowded” to us. We had plenty of quiet areas to relax, and the steam from the lagoon often obstructed much of our view of other people. It was a great way to reset and begin our real adventuring the next morning.
Day 2 we picked up our trusty motorhomes. The kids were ecstatic! We sprung for the “family” size motorhome with a full bed for the kids above the driving compartment. I can’t recommend this mode of travel more. It gave us our own space, full bathroom, and most importantly, a fridge and kitchen. We typically plan our vacations around food (yum), but this time we were able to stock up once and then focus on play. The other advantage of the motorhome was the ability to flex and change plans based on personal interest or weather. This is absolutely key in Iceland as the wind and freezing rain, even in summer, can require quick pivots. Booking hotel rooms requires a fixed itinerary and, for a family of 4, can be very expensive; maximum occupancy is typically 3 to a room.
We hiked through Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site nestled within a rift valley formed by the parting of two Atlantic Ocean tectonic plates. It is also where the governing bodies of Iceland would meet from 930 to 1798.
Day 3 greeted us with relentless rain as we explored the Geysir Geothermal area and then marveled at the colossal Gullfoss waterfall. The downpour seemed never-ending, but our earlier soaking from the rain prepared us for the drenching spray of the waterfall, which, amidst its two cascades of 11 meters and 21 meters, boasted an astounding 141 cubic meters of water per second. We encountered numerous other waterfalls on their drive, albeit from the dry interior of our trusty motorhome. In the quaint town of Vik, we sought shelter at the Lava Show, where a volcanic eruption was dramatically recreated using superheated lava flowing down a ramp. The presenter’s entertaining and informative storytelling shared insights into volcanoes, lava, and even recounted the gripping tale of a survivor from the last eruption of Katla volcano in 1918. Our hasty departure that night reflected a newfound respect for the looming threat of Katla’s overdue eruption, as a melted glacier could engulf the town and a significant stretch of the southern coast. Safe and sound, we journeyed onwards.
Day 4 we woke up in the shadow of the Skaftafell glacier. We loaded up our crew and joined Melrakki Adventures for what was meant to be a 4.5 hour trek over the glacier. We were given warm boots, crampons, a helmet, and an ice ax. We were then briefed on glacier safety before starting our climb. It was awesome… until it wasn’t. 2 hours in to our trek the driving rain came in and soaked us to our bones, despite our “waterproof” ski gear. After a few falls, one sprained finger, and a few tears, we turned around and trekked back early. We all highly recommend this adventure, but perhaps on a better weather day. We then drove to Hofn, an adorable fishing town on the southeast coast, and home to the coolest public pool. There are heated public pools in almost every town in Iceland, but this one was amazing. They had hot tubs, a heated lap pool, and fabulous slides for the kids (and us of course). There was also a cold plunge jacuzzi, but that was a bit too adventurous for us!
Day 5- the zodiac tour! We did a 70 minute tour of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and then walked along Diamond Beach, named for the icebergs that drift onto the black sand. The pictures speak for themselves. It was a great day, made even greater by the lobster rolls and fish & chips served up by the local food trucks.
Day 6- back in the shadow of Katla. We dared to go back to Vik. The draw of a sunny day on the beautiful beaches, seeing puffins, and eating at the Black Crust Pizzeria far outweighed the threat of Katla. The beach truly was beautiful but so windy that we we couldn’t even walk forward at times. We saw one puffin and then retreated with black sand covering every inch of us. Dinner was a more successful adventure. The Black Crust Pizzeria blackens their crust with activated charcoal to simulate lava and it was tasty, but their homemade macarons really stole the show. We left with a couple extra boxes to give as gifts, but they were a bit too good and didn’t make it to the plane after all. Sorry Nana!
Day 7- our final full day was another trekking adventure. We walked up, down and around stunning waterfalls, and then we climbed 3 km to the Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. This was another epic day- blue skies, gorgeous views, and a dip in a hot river with cold beer in hand. I don’t normally like beer, but this one was divine.
My final impressions:
1- 7 days is not enough to see and do all that Iceland has to offer. It is a nature lover’s paradise, but the weather can dictate what outdoor activities you can do. More time would give you more flexibility and the possibility of completing the entire Golden Circle.
2- The direct flight on Play airlines from Lisbon to Reykjavik was awesome. It was cheap and short (4 hours), and it was worth it to pay a small fee to upgrade to seats with extra legroom.
3- Motorhome/RV travel is a great choice for families in the summer. It was so much easier than packing and unpacking every day, and it allowed us total flexibility for our itinerary. None of the campgrounds required reservations, and the facilities at most of the campgrounds were very clean. It was also much more affordable than hotel rooms for a family of 4 or more in the summer.
4- The country is safe and clean and so easy to navigate. The people, for the most part, were friendly and kind, and we hope to return soon (before the glaciers melt away completely)!
*100% of our profits were donated to Landvern, the leading nature conservation association in Iceland