Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis
Getting off the beaten path in Iceland certainly isn’t difficult. With a population of just over 300,000 inhabitants, a third of whom live in Reykjavik, it’s pretty easy to lose the crowds and get lost amidst the sheep, volcanic fumaroles, and the world’s most staggering array of waterfalls. Yet summertime does bring hordes of tourists to the country, especially since the economic crisis of some years ago, which at least made Iceland only expensive rather than jaw dropping expensive.
Due to expense, it seems that outside of mad long distance bicyclists, most visitors to Iceland make their stay a short one, and due to the sheer size of the country, those on tours of less than a week only have time to see the best sights along the south coast like the Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon, the famed Blue Lagoon hot spring, and the Gulfoss waterfall. Yet for those seeking a bit more magic with a few less visitors to share it with, try heading north, up to the Arctic side of the country, and perhaps dipping into the remote central highlands along the Kjölur high route.
The area of Myvatn in the northeast is home to the Krafla volcano and the surroundings combine water, smoking craters, and an extremely surreal landscape with endless possibilities for exploration. One can spend the day here exploring lava islands, colorful caves, and hiking through a volcanic landscape right out of a science fiction movie. At the end of it all, you can rest your weary muscles at the north’s own version of the Blue Lagoon, the Myvatn Nature Baths (http://www.jardbodin.is/en/), which are every bit as beautiful and have a fraction of the tourists. The water here is pure turquoise, full of geothermal enriched minerals and a blissful 38-40 degrees, best appreciated on cold northern mornings.
From here, it is a short drive to the astounding Detifoss waterfall, the largest in Europe, and an amazing show of natural force. The mist coming off the falls often makes for double rainbows spanning the churning water below. Also not far from here is the charming harbor town of Husavik, which is famed for its whale watching. During the summer months, many different species of whales, from humpback to giant blue whales, enter the Husavik Bay, and are extremely easy to locate for the several outfitters that take visitors out for excursions daily. Sightings and good photo ops are just about guaranteed. There is also an excellent whale museum located in the quaint town harbor.
From Husavik, one can head west and stop for the night in Saudarkrokur, site of Iceland’s oldest hotel, the charming Hotel Tindastoll (http://www.hoteltindastoll.com/), which dates from 1884 and is full of nostalgia, antiques, and an excellent stopping point before heading into the highlands. Nearby is the Glaumbaer Farm, which has some of Iceland’s oldest traditional turf houses, now preserved as an excellent museum. A good local microbrewery lies just up the road, and of course like any good Icelandic establishment, back at the Tindastoll there is a natural hot spring in the backyard to warm up in before calling it a night.
From Saudakrokur, one can take the shortest route from the north of the country to the south, but it certainly isn’t the fastest. The Kjölur Highland Route is a gravel road through the high mountain desert part of the country, passable only in summer. Even then, snow may block the route and services are few and far in-between. However, the rewards for travel to this remote region are many. There are views of some of the country’s major glaciers, hot springs to soak in along the way, and perhaps the most wildly beautiful spot in all Iceland, Kerlingafjöll, a mountain area covered with smoking fumaroles and hot pots, colored an unworldly burnt orange by the surrounding rhyolite stone the mountains here are made of. There is a highland resort and camping area here to break up the journey before continuing through the Kjölur.
Once back in the south, of course it is worth it to visit the mighty Gulfoss waterfall, and a sunrise or sunset at the Jökulsárlón lagoon is worth a lifetime of memories. And no trip to Iceland is complete without a visit to the capital Reykjavik, with its charming architecture, laid back vibe, and thriving arts scene. The best way to appreciate the city is to go on a bicycle tour run by the immensely knowledgeable folks at Iceland Bike Tours (http://www.icelandbike.com/). Not only do they know all of the city’s best hidden spots and most of its history, they also run a variety of different tours, from northern lights sightings to night tours to satisfy everyone’s niche.
One thing is for sure, a single visit to Iceland will convince you of the need to come back. It may not be the cheapest spot on the planet, it may be cold and wet, but it is truly magnificent.