Take the ring road around Iceland for a road trip like no other. Rent a car, buy a map, and discover this remarkable country for yourself
Route 1, known commonly as the ring road, is an 830 mile road that takes you right around the coast of Iceland. If you’re in the mood for adventure, free from tour groups and guides, then hiring a car gives you the freedom to explore the land of fire and ice for yourself.
I travelled with my girlfriend in early spring, when the day is neither just a flicker of light between night and night, nor continuous and unrelenting as it is in the summer when the sun never sets. It is also before tourists really begin to assemble en mass, flooding the capital and flocking around the main sites of the ‘golden circle’.
We flew into Keflavik with Icelandair (www.icelandair.com) and after the 45 minute bus ride into Reykjavik we checked into the Bjork Hotel Reykjavik, an art deco style hotel with free breakfast and only a couple of minutes' walk from the main strip (a double room was only 81 euros when booked online).
The next day we rented a car from Hertz (www.hertz.is) at the tourist information centre in downtown Reykjavik, stocked up on some basic supplies and bought a map. Walking around the old town we found an empty café in Reykjavik’s City Hall, an impressive structure built right over Lake Tjörnin (+354 411 1111). After making the most of the free internet we began to discuss our route over a warming cup of hot chocolate. The friendly café server introduced himself and after realizing our plan gave us advice and a list of some absolute gems that we shouldn’t miss. Not only did he also work at the information desk just next door, he had made the round trip on numerous occasions. He had stopped and stayed at different places each time and what he gave us were the highlights of all his journeys combined. With our map peppered with crosses and detours in red biro we packed up the car and began driving, heading off clockwise around Route 1.
Once clear of the city and out into the countryside, we witnessed a wilderness so barren and beautiful it felt as though we were driving into a post card. A landscape crafted by volcanic eruptions and glacial slides, unspoilt by civilization. Snow-capped mountains shared the horizon with jagged cliffs and black sand beaches.
Around each bend along the route was a new surprise, as the weather seemed as diverse and beautiful as the scenery: sunbursts piercing through snow clouds, mist curling around mountains and rainbows sprawled right across the sky. Driving at night was no less spectacular, with the northern lights occasionally making an appearance to baffle and amaze us as they flickered in the sky above between a blanket of stars, unspoilt by light pollution.
There are countless waterfalls, rivers, lakes, glaciers and volcanoes to stop at and admire along the way, though there are a few which are unmissable. These were the ones circled on the map twice by our unofficial guide at the café. Not one of them disappointed.
What not to miss
Volcanic craters and mud pools of Namaskaro and Leirhnjukur (north Iceland). We climbed up the crater of a volcano that wheezed with steam that rose from the lava below, and from the rim stared down into the bright blue lake that filled the crater. A short walk from there were bubbling mud pools that were great to watch, though not so nice to smell - a powerful stench of sulphur.
We stayed nearby at the Sel - Hotel Myvatn, a calm and secluded hotel with great views over the pseudo craters. Although we were a bit too rushed to stop here for long, I saw that the hotel also organized a wide range of activities, from northern lights tours to horse riding across the frozen lake.
Whale watching in Husavik (north east Iceland). In Husavik we got out of the car and onto an old whaling boat that took us out to sea. It definitely felt worth the icy winds and frozen fingertips as we floated right past these enormous creatures. Apparently, there is a 90 per cent success rate for sightings. We stayed at the cosy Árból Guest House, the cheapest accommodation that we found in the area at 79 euros for a double. It was simple but great value with friendly staff who also organised our whale tour for us with North Sailing Whale-watching (www.northsailing.is/). The cost of this boat trip was 49 euros per person and blankets and a complimentary cup of hot chocolate were included.
Glacier tour over Vatnajökull (south east Iceland). This is Europe’s largest glacier and a great way to really appreciate its enormity is to take a skidoo or jeep across it. We stayed at the Fosshotel Vatnajo for fantastic views over the glacier. It was small and felt wonderfully isolated and the helpful staff organized our glacier tour for us with Glacier jeeps (www.glacierjeeps.is/etours.htm). The tour lasted seven hours as we abandoned the jeeps after 9km and walked back on skis. The Fosshotel was 180 euros for a glacier-view-room and the tour was 100 euros per person.
The waterfalls of Iceland are each uniquely beautiful. Gulfoss is the most famous waterfall in Iceland and for good reason. After a 70km detour off the ring road down route 35 and a 15 minute hike, sound-tracked by the roar of pouring water, we reached a two-tiered waterfall crashing down 32 metres and spraying up mist into the arc of a rainbow.
Skógafoss is a towering waterfall just off the ring road in the south of Iceland, 105km east of the town of Selfoss. At the time of year I visited some of this waterfall was still frozen, captured like in a photograph, mid-pour.
Dettifoss in the north is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and absolutely astonishing close up. 17km east of Reykjalið in Northern Iceland, there are also several other waterfalls in the area worth seeing if you have the time.
On our final night we treated ourselves at the luxurious Hotel Ranga. This really was a very special place to stay. A log-cabin style resort standing alone in the Icelandic countryside, it offers great views of the surrounding landscape, outdoor hot tubs, and a 10 foot tall model polar bear named Hrammur! A short drive from the ring road, double rooms start from 180 euros.
We drove on round to Geysir the next day. Although the geyser that this place takes its name from has been inactive since the 1960s, a few steps away is Strokkur. A smaller geyser than its counterpart, its spurting jets of water and steam still reach 30 metres into the air as it erupts every five minutes or so.
Being part of the ‘golden circle’, the Blue Lagoon can be very touristy. However, this open air health spa in the middle of the countryside is the perfect way to relax after a (very) long drive. After seven days on the road, sinking into the steaming turquoise pools seemed like the ultimate way to round off our trip. Not far from the airport, this was our last stop before returning our car and catching our flights home (23 euros admission for adults but you can stay all day you like; www.bluelagoon.com; 240 Grindavík; +354 420 8800).
Right now is the perfect time to visit Iceland. Their recent economic crises led the tourism industry to label it ‘HalfprIceland’, though with them well on the way to recovery now is the time to make the most of it while it still lasts.