Return to Iceland

An Introduction

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Iceland’s appeal – and notoriety – as a travel destination has been entering the mainstream, whether it’s news about inconsiderate tourists, indications that Katla might be awakening from its volcanic slumber, or breathtaking photography and video. Sometimes it seems like the country has emerged into popular awareness on a wave of Instagram posts and vacation videos with twee soundtracks (cue handclaps and twinkly bells). It can be easy to overlook the island’s fascinating history (with human settlement beginning in the 9th century); its great artistic contributions to music, literature and more; or the simple fact that it’s a place like any other, where people live and deal with problems both pedestrian and provocative.

One thing is clear: people are being drawn to Iceland in record numbers; among them, several of our own friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who were visiting for the first time. As for us, the moment we left in September 2015, we knew we’d be back – it was just a matter of when.

For me, wanting to return to Iceland was like having an itch I couldn’t scratch. Katelyn and I had fond memories of our experiences yet I was acutely aware of how much we hadn’t seen. We weren’t ready to leave at the end of our first trip! I saw landscapes I couldn’t have imagined, fueling a renewed interest in photography. It also revived my fascination in the sagas (which started years ago with my trusty copy of Sagas of Icelanders and was later supplemented by Saga Thing podcast). Now I wanted to see the country anew, knowing more of its stories, bringing to bear all I had learned about photography. I experimented with multiple trip itineraries, hoping we could visit soon.

Iceland saw about 1.8 million foreign visitors in 2016. source

Yet I often wondered if it was responsible to return. I had read more than enough stories about tourists destroying sensitive flora, irreparably marking the landscape, and generally being awful. Would Icelanders think us just another couple of privileged outsiders come to run roughshod in their environment to get the perfect selfie? Wouldn’t my very presence as a tourist have real and tangible impacts?

Of course, questions like these aren’t unique to Iceland; our own national parks reflect the same tourism dilemma. The more I learned about these stories, and the more time I spent outdoors hiking and doing photography, the more I became sensitive to the issues. Besides, I was raised on many camping and fishing trips to enjoy being in nature, carry out trash, and respect local rules. I don’t have a perfect record, but any time I’ve ever bent the rules, it was never worth it. Rationally, I knew we would be respectful visitors.

Then there was the tremendous guilt I felt over spending time and money on a big trip as I watched the latest news reports: police brutality, natural disasters, the state of politics. I also noted the contradiction of caring about the environment but flying to Iceland on a jet and driving 200km every day while there. Should we spend the money on charities or non-profits, I wondered? Or should we instead go someplace new to us – and closer to home?

There’s just something about Iceland that draws people to it.

And yet, we were ready for a break, a change of scenery (both in our surroundings and mentally). Iceland was in our hearts, and when we shared our plans with those close to us, we received a lot of encouragement. And, as many others were discovering, there’s just something (or many somethings) about Iceland: it is (in my mind) beautiful, quietly proud and practical, remote; a volcanic outpost in the ocean that, first against reason and later against the odds, people discovered and settled. It’s a place well worth visiting and learning about.

In the end it came down to a simple fact: The jets would continue flying to Iceland no matter what. The only question was whether we were going to be on one of them. We decided we would be!

Preparation

The first order of business was to choose the time of year. We took our first trip – for our honeymoon – from August 31 to September 9. That was a windy, cloudy visit, and we didn’t have any chances to see the northern lights. On the other hand, we didn’t feel overwhelmed by the number of tourists and it’s not like we were going to Iceland for fun in the sun. And we had a great time!

Traveling even further into the off-season seemed appealing, though I wasn’t interested in driving through very wintry conditions. I also thought I’d be more comfortable planning for a standard amount of daylight as opposed to the short days of winter. That basically narrowed it down to October or May/June. Because we hoped to increase our chances of seeing the aurora, we were able to rule out the spring option.

The selection of October influenced our itinerary. I considered driving through the rugged Westfjords, but we would have needed about four days for it, and I wanted to avoid getting caught in rough weather there. I decided it was best to leave it for some other time. The rest was fair game.

The itinerary went through many, many iterations. The only constraints were the length of our trip – we decided on two weeks – and that we wouldn’t be driving counter-clockwise along the south coast into the Eastern Region. We had already had an amazing drive through the south coast in 2015. Though I wasn’t at all opposed to revisiting places, I wanted to focus on new sights as much as possible.

Only after many months of tinkering was I able to finalize our route. It gave me a manageable balance of driving and sightseeing each day. I was terribly tempted to add the Snæfellsnes peninsula – central to the rising action in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth – but ultimately convinced myself we would be too rushed. I hope maybe someday we can return to see Snæfellsnes and the Westfjords. Anyway, click here for a full map with points of interest. A gray diamond on the map means it was something we had to cut, due to time, weather, fatigue, or closures; or it was an “optional but would be nice” item from the start.

Rental Car

The main criteria for the rental car were that it should have AWD and be comfortable to drive for long distances. We ended up in a Ford Kuga through Thrifty that met these requirements and was fitted out with studded winter tires. It was in excellent condition. Despite having refused the GPS add-on, we found that the built-in GPS for the Kuga worked normally, and we made liberal use of it.

Many credit cards offer car insurance coverage if you decline the basic coverages offered by the rental agency. This is the way I went, initially, with a reservation through EuropCar.

Eventually I became somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of paying the up-front cost for damages if something were to go wrong, then going through a claim process with my credit card, in a situation where they’d have to deal with a company in a foreign country. It was also hard to get a straight answer on whether my card offered any protection against gravel damage. If something did happen with the car, I wanted to be able to go home without worry.

This train of thought led me to cancel (at no cost, fortunately), then book a new reservation through northbound.is. They had the best rate for the car I wanted with the included coverage. It was a peace-of-mind decision. The fact that Northbound was a third-party booking agency gave me pause – my reservation was actually with Thrifty – but everything went smoothly. Both Northbound and Thrifty were communicative.

I did receive an exciting e-mail from Thrifty when we reached Reykjavik; they claimed the car had not been returned on the agreed-upon date. I assured them we left the car at the Akureyri airport, and its key in the designated box. It turned out someone had simply forgotten to mark the car as “returned” in their system.

Driving Tips

  • Drive on the right side of the road
  • Familiarize yourself with traffic circle ettiquette
  • No right turns on red
  • Speed limits: 50kph in cities, 80kph on dirt roads, 90kph on paved highways

Accommodations

We relied on Booking.com and AirBnB to reserve places to stay along our route. There were no problems with our reservations. Booking.com allowed me to cancel reservations up until a few days before the stay, which came in handy when I wanted to swap a hotel for an AirBnB whenever hotel prices became unpalatable.

Resources

No resource was more useful to us than the Visiting Iceland subreddit. Typically, users post travel news, questions about their upcoming visits, or post-trip reports. I never posted a question – almost everything I needed to know could be found by searching the subreddit. Being able to read the opinions of experienced locals and travelers was invaluable.

The Reykjavík Grapevine provided the latest news, interesting pieces on people and culture, and the occasional travel guide. The Iceland Monitor has a more polished journalistic voice.

More:

  • vedur.is – weather, cloud cover and aurora intensity reports
  • belgingur.is – detailed weather information
  • road.is – road conditions and weather
  • map.is – detailed map with place names
  • Vegasjá – road surface types, webcams, and wind speed/direction

Useful Tips

SIM card – If your phone supports swapping out the SIM card, consider buying one on arrival at the airport. I snagged a 10gb NOVA card and had good coverage just about everywhere. I brought an ejector pin, but the NOVA packaging also came with one. This allowed us to call places in Iceland without worrying about our own phone plans, and unshackled my phone from wi-fi.

GPS – We downloaded offline Google Maps to save on data. I had an app called Maps.ME on my phone – with all my pins from Google Maps imported – as an additional offline backup.

File backups – I had a few redundancies in place to make sure I wouldn’t lose my photos.

  1. At the end of every day, I copied photos to my Surface Pro (which also allowed me to do some light culling and editing).
  2. Everything was then copied to a 64gb microSD card in the Surface’s expansion slot. At times I’d put this tiny card in an SD adaptor with a case, and carry it with me in an inside pocket of my jacket.
  3. All files also got copied to an old slim 320gb Seagate hard drive.
  4. Photos taken on my Android phone were uploaded to Google Photos automatically.

Important Gear

  • Osprey DayLite backpacks with rain cover
  • Hiking boots with ankle support
  • Wool socks
  • Merino wool base layers
  • Hiking Pants (breathable, water resistant)
  • Neck gaiters and warm hats
  • Fleece and Icelandic Sweaters
  • Rain Jackets
  • Rain Trousers
  • Gloves with waterproof shells
  • Quick-drying Towels
  • Sunglasses
  • Car power outlet phone charger
  • Car vent mount for smartphones
  • EmergenC and Nuun tablets
  • Dayquil/Nyquil pills (just in case!), sleep aids, Ibuprofen

Camera Equipment

  • GoPro Hero 4
  • LG G6 and Google Pixel
  • Pentax K-70 DSLR
  • Pentax 20-40mm f2.8-f4.0 with hood
  • Pentax 55-300mm f4.0-f5.6 with hood
  • Rokinon 16mm f2.0 with hood
  • Benro A0690 Travel Angel Tripod with IB0 Ball Head and Peak Design Swiss-ARCA quick-release plate
  • Circular Polarizer, Variable ND, 10-stop ND
  • 64GB SD card x3
  • DSLR batteries x3
  • Rocket blower
  • Microfiber cloth
  • DSLR rain bag
  • Peak Design Capture Clip
  • Peak Design Slide strap
  • Tenba BYOB 9 insert

Playlist

  • Bonobo – Black Sands
  • Dan Deacon – Gliss Riffer
  • Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
  • Dengue Fever – The Deepest Lake
  • Eagles of Death Metal – Death by Sexy, Zipper Down and Heart On
  • Gil Mantera’s Party Dream – Bloodsongs and Dreamscape
  • Grizzly Bear – Friend, Veckatimest, Shields, and Painted Ruins
  • Interpol – Precipitate and Turn on the Bright Lights
  • LAKE – Forever or Never
  • Neon Indian – Vega Intl. Night School
  • Phantogram – Eyelid Movies and Nightlife
  • Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
  • Screaming Females – Rose Mountain
  • The Sea and Cake – Runner
  • Tame Impala – Currents
  • Temples – Volcano
  • Tennis – Ritual in Repeat
  • Toro y Moi – Causers of This

Trip Overview

Here are some fun stats from our trip:

  • 850 miles driven
  • 20+ traffic circles orbited
  • 10 Icelandic hot dogs eaten
  • 7 museums closed out of 11 visited
  • 3 AirBnBs, 3 hotels stayed in
  • 4 dogs and 3 cats greeted (and upon whom attention was lavished)
  • 1,500 photos taken

The trip went mostly according to plan, though of course we had to amend the itinerary on the fly. We had fantastic weather almost every day. I admit that in trying to be a “good tourist,” I didn’t stop the car as often as I could have, nor was I as adventurous as I could have been, resulting in some missed photo opportunities; but I think we acquitted ourselves well.

While there were, perhaps, more tourists than I expected in the north during October, there were many instances where we had a place completely to ourselves. The autumn colors we saw, especially at Hraunfossar, were a delight. We did end up seeing the northern lights (after I’d given up, no less) and we saw many whales on our whale-watching tour (one of which came quite close to the boat).

Two full weeks was the longest vacation either of us had taken in a very long time. I’d say it was an appropriate amount of time for our trip, allowing us to cover a lot of ground without feeling too rushed. Even so, there were many points of interest we skipped due to the realities of traveling every day. When we left Iceland in 2015, it had felt like we were just getting started; the return trip definitely helped us feel like we were finishing it up – closing the circle, so to speak.

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll share each day of our trip in more detail. Click here, or click “next post” to continue!

 
 

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