Take a road trip around the glacial island for a chance to see the Northern Lights, on a drive with a difference
Explore the world’s biggest geological playground with our guide to a self-drive trip to Iceland and the Golden Circle.
Our mission is simple: to see as much of Iceland as possible before our return flight to London in three days’ time. And as some of Iceland’s greatest sights are strung handily alongside the southern sweep of the Route 1 ring road, that’s where we’ll be heading. If our Suzuki Jimny can handle a 600-mile round-trip here, it can do it anywhere...
There are plenty of pleasing facts about Icelanders – according to some surveys, over half of them actually believe in elves – but one you don’t often read is that they write the world’s best warning signs. Take this one beside the excitable Strokkur geyser, just yards from the world-famous Great Geysir from which all others take their name (yet which hasn’t actually blown for years): “You are here at your own risk. Remember the water is 90°C. Don’t test the temperature with your hands. The nearest hospital is 62km away.”
Message received, we stand well back from the simmering cauldron, inhaling whiffs of eggy sulphur as we wait for the imminent eruption. After several minutes, the smouldering pool sucks in slightly, as if taking a breath, then shoots a fountain of superheated steam 20 metres into the sky, like a whale sneezing through its blowhole. People ooh and ahh and raise their cameras, then march back through the swirling mist to their cars and bus tours, on to the next natural wonder.
Anywhere else, you’d stick around to watch this spectacle over and over again. But this is Iceland, where the menu of geological miracles is more of an all-you-can-eat buffet. And unless you have weeks to spare and a small fortune to spend, seeing everything requires a certain amount of speedy sightseeing.
Some more breathtaking drives around the UK and Europe
From Keflavik airport it’s a 45-minute drive to Reykjavík, and another 45 minutes to Thingvellir National Park where the road runs through a shallow canyon, one widening by an inch per year thanks to a tug of war between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates that divide the island – the craggy valley walls either side are literally the faces of two opposing continents, and the only place you can see them above sea level. An hour further on we reach the Golden Circle’s biggest crowd-pullers, the geysers and giant foaming staircase of Gullfoss waterfall.
Witness the geology of Iceland
The rest of the day becomes a drive-by geology lesson, as the landscape flips from moss-topped lava fields to red-rock Mars-scapes, then wide-open prairies dotted with the world’s most weatherproof horses. To our left – just inland – the ice-capped highlands loom and glaciers sidle down the sky-high slopes, forming enormous tongues that almost lick the roadside. We pass Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano which caused air traffic chaos in 2010, and stop at Skógafoss where white water tumbles in vast sheets from 60 metres high and ice crystals sparkle in the air like fairy dust (it’s no wonder so many people here believe in elves).
The next morning the wind is even stronger, so we leave the main road and venture down to Reynisfjara with its black sand beach and basalt cliffs formed of huge columns, which tower over you like a giant church organ. Facing the rough waves, reclining full-weight against the wind, the black sand is blown into our pockets, each grain resembling a tiny peppercorn. Just off shore are a set of spiky sea stacks, home to thousands of nesting puffins, fulmars and guillemots
A lagoon like no other
We carry on eastwards, crossing almost endless tundra. Fine brown dust whips across the two-lane tarmac and hangs in translucent drapes across the land, and in the perma-twilight it’s hard to tell what’s what – colours and textures pair up in weird ways, playing tricks on your senses... like eating purple mashed potato or red bananas. Time for a rest stop.
We find a little fuel station – they’re all pay-at-the-pump in Iceland, and petrol is about £1.50 per litre – and top up the Jimny’s tiny tank. In the café beside the forecourt we recharge on homemade lamb broth, gooey brownies and Coca Cola (it’s been said that Icelanders drink more of the stuff per capita than any other people on earth).
Now almost 250 miles, plus a few detours, from Reykjavík, we approach our final waypoint: Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. Here, ice from the enormous Vatnajökull glacier – it covers nearly 10% of the country and is almost a kilometre thick in places – reaches the end of its ancient journey and calves off into the lake. The whole lagoon is full of icebergs, floating silently across the freezing water like electric blue galleons. Jagged fragments wash up onto the surrounding black shoreline, giving the nearby Diamond Beach its name. If it weren’t for the seals bobbing around the water, you’d think you’d been transported to some sub-zero proto-planet. Albeit one with a row of handy Portaloos in the car park...
Reluctantly we return to the Jimny, turning the heated seats up to 11, and begin the three-hour drive back to Vik. Our phones ping with weather alerts – expect blizzards in the north and even stronger gales in the south, they say – so we buckle up and prepare for some turbulence. Just after we reach the hotel, the police close a long stretch of Route 1 behind us as a precaution. Slightly weather-beaten, and after a quick dinner (expect to pay around £25 per person for a modest meal) we head to our rooms and collapse into bed.
The Northern Lights
But that’s not quite the end of the story. Iceland has one more trick up its sleeve, when sometime around midnight my phone lights up with a text from photographer Tom. “It’s happening,” he says. In the corridor there’s a commotion: people rush out of their rooms, zipping up jackets, pulling on hats, trailing scarves behind them. We join the rush down to the car park, jump in the Jimny and drive into the hills outside of town
With everything else we’ve packed into this trip, I’d forgotten all about the northern lights. But tonight the forecast is good, and sure enough, strange things are happening in the sky. Patches of it glow green, the luminous green you see on radar screens, before stretching into long vapour trails of light across the blackness. Some stripes begin to swirl before suddenly vanishing then popping up again somewhere else. At times the smudged green mixes with yellow and pink in shimmering curtains of light. All of it in complete, eerie silence.
For the last couple of days the earthly wind has dominated proceedings, but it’s that solar wind – magnetised into a heavenly light show – that we’ll remember. By the time we return the car, we’ve covered nearly 800 miles and ticked off an entire bucket list of sights. Admittedly we can’t claim to have discovered anything new, nor ventured far from the tourist trail. Sometimes though, you just want nature to play the hits, and you can rely on Iceland to do that all day long.
Iceland route highlights
Try to spend a night or two in the smart, tidy capital – all the main attractions are walkable.
2. Þingvellir National Park
Dive and snorkel through underwater tectonic fissures at the site of Iceland’s ancient parliament. The view from land is pretty impressive too.
Erupting every 6-10 minutes, it’s one of the world’s most dramatic and reliable geysers.
One of Iceland’s highest and most powerful waterfalls, just a few minutes from the Route 1 ring road.
A fairy tale canyon measuring 100 metres deep, 1.5 miles long, and coloured by magical greens and blues.
A glacial lagoon of fresh and sea water full of electric blue icebergs. Float among them on an amphibious boat tour.
How to plan your Iceland road trip
Getting around Iceland
It’s hard to know where to start with an Icelandic adventure. We called Discover the World, the world’s leading Iceland experts. For over 36 years it’s offered a comprehensive, year-round portfolio of holidays from self-drives and small-group escorted tours to northern lights breaks, hiking holidays and whale watching. It offers a tailor-made service, with expert local knowledge and journeys off the beaten track. Here are just a few of the things it can help with…
Flights to Iceland
Icelandair flies direct to Reykjavik from London, Manchester and Glasgow, and also provides a stopover service en route to Canada and America. At the time of writing, a return flight from Manchester (in March) costs from £160 per person.
Hire cars in Iceland
Whatever the season, it’s worth hiring a 4x4, especially on unsurfaced ‘F-roads’ where four-wheel-drive is actually a legal requirement. Discover the World can help you find the right model – as well as helping you plan a self-drive tour.
Where to stay in Iceland
Hótel Örk, Breiðumörk: A handy base for the Golden Circle, not far from Reykjavik and an excellent first night’s stop.
Hótel Kría, Vík: A modern hotel with a sleek exterior, cosy rooms and an excellent restaurant (pictured above).
Hótel Umi: Choose from ocean or mountain views in this smart low-rise, just off Route 1 near the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls.
Discover the World holidays to Iceland
Discover the World alone offers more than 25 different itineraries for Iceland – here are four of its bestselling holidays.
Golden Circle Self-drive: Running year-round, this drive – like ours – takes in the tectonic rift valley at Thingvellir National Park, as well as the Strokurr geyser and Gulfoss falls (includes car rental and accommodation).
Superjeep Weekend Safari: Iceland’s superjeeps – modified 4x4s with huge tyres and high ground clearance – can travel pretty much anywhere in the hands of expert drivers. The ultimate escape.
Aurora Nights Self-drive: A three-night trip through the Aurora hotspots of south-west Iceland, specially designed to maximise your chances of seeing the famous northern lights.
Whale watching: A trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without a whale-watching adventure. An ‘Into the Blue’ package includes five trips in three locations around the country.
Save 5% on Discover the World holidays
To find out more about Discover the World’s Iceland adventures, and enjoy a Boundless member discount on all its holidays*, call 01737 886 722 or visit Discover the World.
*Discount does not include flights, except on holidays to Sweden, Finland and Norway.