WHERE WE STAYED: In Reykjavik, Gunnar from “Erik the Red Guesthouse” rented us an apartment which we shared with an old German couple (we never saw them, since they left the house at 5am and went to bed by 8pm). After that, as we circled the island, we stayed at a series of hostels. We got a great package price for our car and hostel stays. They ranged from fantastic to pretty basic, but it was all we needed. The absolute best was a farm in Húsey. In Moldnupur we stayed at the quaint Hotel Anna. (The perk: a herd of horses woke us up one morning by running by our window.)
BEST MEAL: Sandwiches in Hólmavik at the Witchcraft museum: beets and sheep’s paté on sweet rye bread. Weirdest meal: reindeer meat balls. We weren’t brave enough to try the true delicacy, putrefied shark.
WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS: Horseback riding on fuzzy, stout Icelandic horses, experiencing their unique fifth gait (very smooth). This took place at an incredible, secluded farm in Húsey (also a hostel) run by a family of seal-hunters. We met some wonderful travellers here, sharing stories, cookies and warming shots of bourbon.
NATURAL HIGHS: The cliffs dotted with hundreds of puffins at Dyrholay, surrounded by black sand beaches and ocean as far as the eye can see.
• Huge Gullfoss waterfall: a guy with a Viking hat and a beer stood on the very edge of a cliff, inspiring awe as well as fear.
• Floating on a water-bus through Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Locals boast that scenes in Tomb Raider and Bond movies were shot here. We even gnawed on little pieces of ice and found out that Iceland has the cleanest water on the planet—you can drink it from streams.
• Geyser: it may be crowded with tourists, but the heart sure beats faster at the sight of hot water exploding into the air.
• Lava fields of Dimuborgir: this is what metal bands dream of.
• The neon green grassy fields in Northern Iceland, intersected by streams and dotted with sheep.
DON’T MISS: The hot river at Hveragerdi. It’s about an hour hike through rolling hills and fields of bubbling thermal pools. Bring your bathing suit. (tip: walk until the water temperature suits you, there is a sweet spot where the hot river is cooled by an icy stream)
• Numerous public thermally heated pools, they are the hangouts of young and old Icelanders.
• Reykjavik’s quirky cafes/bars on Laugavegur and excellent museums: Saga Museum at Perlan (hot water tanks converted to exhibition space) & The Settlement Exhibition of archeological findings, burrowed beneath Reykjavik’s downtown streets.
YOU’D BE SURPRISED TO KNOW: There are virtually no trees in the countryside, they were all cut-down many years ago. And the ones you see in/near cities are all planted in neat man-made grids.
RISKIEST MOVE: Driving on rough, interior roads, thinking we can do river-crossings. Nope. The tiny car smoked at the first knee-deep puddle and we turned back, leaving lots more to see on our next trip.
HIGHLIGHT: Blue Lagoon: it may be a first stop for tourists, but it's well worth the trip. It's both relaxing and invigorating, the colours are incredibly photogenic and you can take advantage of the silica bins throughout the pool and have a free facial. Magnetic bracelets keep track of any refreshments you buy (warm coffee, cold ice cream) so you don’t have to carry money around—how orderly and Scandinavian. I only wish we’d gone more than once.
BEST BUY(S): Icelandic wool collar (looks like the top 1/3 of a sweater); Beautifully designed items like napkins printed with a sweater pattern; sweet portraits of sheep; delicate birds handcrafted by artist Hafþór Ragnar Þórhallsson. For more info see my guide: What to buy: Iceland
BIZARRO SIGHTING: Witchcraft Museum legends and exhibits: necro pants (yep dead man skin pants!), Tilberries (ribs of dead people that breast-feed and come to life!), witch-burnings and more. Make sure to get the audio guide, the narrator’s voice is straight out of Lord of the Rings.
• Incredibly large whale jaw in Husavik.
HOW COULD THERE POSSIBLY BE SO MANY: Mind-blowing natural wonders, at every turn + sheep and horses roaming free (three times as many as there are people, or so I hear).
FIRST TIME: Seeing the midnight sun. It never got completely dark—ideal for exploring.
WORST MOMENT: Being dehydrated. Bring lots of water on hikes even when it’s cool.
MUST-BRING ITEM OF CLOTHING: Hiking boots. Raincoat.
PIECE OF LOCAL WISDOM: “Car washes are free here. Just pull up to a house and use the first hose that you see. The water is hot from the thermal pools”. Thanks—Takk fyr.
EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS? Yes! I had really high expectations and Iceland blew me away.