A Last-Minute, 4-Day Trip To Iceland
Our family of five had an upcoming four day weekend, with no plans in mind. Wow Airlines were offering $89 airfare, each way, to Iceland. With that in mind, we booked five tickets, a month before our long weekend. It’s not often you get the chance to fly round trip, internationally, for less than $200. Seats bought, flight booked. Wow charges for carry-ons, so we each packed individual backpack in order to avoid additional baggage fees.
Iceland intimidated me. I don’t know if it was the fact that I couldn’t pronounce any of the names of places or, that once you get outside of Reykjavik, the country is desolate. A few smaller towns here and there, but not much more. We scoured guide, books, read numerous blogs, and studied National Geographic’s adventure map. We emailed many tour companies, some of whom took a week or more to get back to us, and worked on a plan. We opted for accommodations in an Airbnb and in a cottage on a horse farm so we could cut costs by preparing meals instead of eating out. We rented a car in order to avoid the mass tourist buses that dot the south and the Golden Circle.
We did splurge on one tour excursion as we would never have been able to get to the destination on our own. Each of us packed for the 4 days in a small backpacks, in order to avoid baggage fees, strategizing by layering clothing and carrying our jackets on the plane.
The Path to Vik: Day One
While we really wanted to go to the western fjords of Iceland, our short trip meant time was issue. We decided to start our vacation on the southern section of the Ring Road, staying in Vik for our first two nights. The drive is easy from Keflavik International Airport, with lots to see along the way.
We rented a car prior to leaving for Iceland and the picked up the car upon arrival. We used the GPS on our iPhones and took off.
We headed to our first stop, The Blue Lagoon. Prior to arriving, I had made reservations for an 8AM visit. Kids 2-13 are free, so we only paid for 2 adults and booked the comfort package which includes a towel and drink. Read more about the Blue Lagoon, and the other hot springs of Iceland.
The visit was a great kick-off for the trip: relaxing and fun after a night flying in economy. Luckily it wasn’t too crowded, perhaps because we were the first visit or maybe because high tourist season was coming to an end. After about an hour in the hot lagoon, we showered dressed and headed out.
Driving in Iceland is easy. The paved roads are in great condition, with plenty of signage. Our first glimpse of the country side was unforgettable: Rolling hills, vast meadows dotted with fat sheep grazing happily on grass, and small cottages. As we continued down the road toward Vik, we became aware of just how little traffic there was. Things become sparse as you leave the area of Reykjavik. Every few miles were dotted with small wooden churches that looked like doll houses with their perfect wood buildings,triangle roofs, painted red and white stuck out against the green hilly backdrops.
Quick stop in Selfoss
Our drive along the south coast continued, with a couple of stops for taking pictures. In and out of the car made us all hungry. We pulled into Selfoss, a larger town in the south coast right off the Route 1, the south coast highway. As we pulled into the town, a hot dog stand popped up on our radar, so we headed there for a quick bite.
The Pylsuvagninn hot dog stand has a drive through and a small area to order and stand and eat. As we entered, two local men told us what was the best to order before they walked out: try the deep fried hot dogs. We’d recalled reading about Iceland’s famous hot dogs (several US presidents have eaten them at the Baejerin stand in Reykjavik). We ordered two different types of deep-fried hot dogs: one with fries and a sweet/savory paprika sauce, and one with Doritos and sauce, served in a bun. It was a surprisingly great hot dog. I don’t think it was just because I was hungry. Savory, a bit of sweet and mine had fries. It was a perfect combination in a bite. Iceland may be known for their hot dogs, but they offer a much more unique and sophisticated cuisine including fermented shark.
A drive down the south coast highway in Iceland will bring you to many natural sights to see, one being a magnificent waterfall, Seljalandsfoss. What makes this fall unique is you can walk all the way around, including behind it.
We walked straight down a path, taking pictures as we went. The sound of thousands of gallons of water splashing down became deafening. Kids were excited to walk behind the falls. They didn’t mind getting wet from the waterfall spray and quickly scrambled up the trail that led to the back of the fall. It was slippery, muddy and without any type of guard rails to hold onto. I walked slowly taking in the beauty of such a powerful waterfall. The kids were gone and on to a path that lead down to some smaller falls, still just as magnificent. Overall we spent a good hour visiting Seljalandsfoss.
As we continued the drive to Vik, we came across another magnificent waterfall, Skogafoss. As we walked up to this massive fall, the sun came out behind the clouds and produced the most magnificent full rainbow that arched right in front of the waterfall. We walked as close as possible along a black pebble beach. As we did the water coming off the falls, filled our hair and soaked our jackets.
Skogafoss has a set of stairs to the side of the fall allowing visitors to view the waterfall from the top. However, be aware that it’s a set of 527 stairs, steep in some areas. We climbed and rested, climbed and rested until we reached the top. For our kids, this was great for them to see all of the water flowing together to then spill over in a massive waterfall.
Before entering the town of Vik, we pulled off the Route 1 to Dyrhólavegur to view the black sand beaches from a cliff. The vantage point was great and watching the waves crash against the rocks was incredible. The wind was blowing and the smell of salt air filled our senses.
We pulled into Vik and went to the grocery store, Kronan, to stock up for our our next two nights. It wasn’t a big shop and the prices were still high, but we bought enough for breakfast and dinners and bought some items to make lunch with. Supermarkets in Iceland are well stocked despite their small size. You can buy peanut butter and jam, but you can also buy hardfiskur, dried fish that you can eat on bread with butter. We bought noodles, bread, PB&J, Nutella, cheese, and frozen pizza. We also stocked up on Icelandic specialties like smoked lamb, skyr, and caviar in a tube (really delicious on hard boiled eggs and on bread with butter).
Landmannalaugar: Day Two
We hired a guide through North Ice Expeditions to take us to the highlands of Southern Iceland. This area is hard to reach with a standard car, as the roads are dirt and can be difficult to navigate. There are also three rivers that must be crossed to get to Landmannalaugar. Pergud, our guide, showed up in a jacked-up Sprinter van. It was on truck chassis, with massive tires that could inflate and deflate depending on the condition of the road.
Along our drive we were fortunate enough to take a stop at Thjofafoss, a waterfall surrounded by moon-like landscape. This lesser-known and lesser-visited waterfall in Iceland, although not as tall, is just as beautiful as the others. The water is an aqua blue, milky with glacial sediment. The powerful, thundering falls are just as mesmerizing as the other better known falls of Iceland. Visiting Thjofafoss will be less touristy and more of a visit to yourselves.
Along our drive we stopped at a couple of craters. One filled with dirt and one with water boasting the name “Ugly Puddle” or Ljotpollus. This was far from the truth. There was nothing ugly about this crater. It is filled with bright blue water and surrounded by snow capped mountain tops and steep slopes.
Arrival to Landmannalaugar
After many stops and a couple of river crossings, traversing through dirt roads, and deflating massive tires, we arrived at our destination, Landmannalaugar. We were one of two cars there. We parked, stretched, put on our gear and readied for a two hour hike.
Immediately our hike, started up hill in snow and through rocks, mostly lava rocks. Along our start, we came across lava glass, also now known as “Dragon Stone” from Game of Thrones. We came across some birds, the Rock Ptarmigan. According to tour guide, they are stupid but tasty.
Our two-hour hike took us up snowy mountains, through lava fields and eventually to a canyon. We walked in between sulfur-spewing hot springs. Sadly, because of the snow, we were not able to fully appreciate the colors of the rhyolite mountainsides. While snow blanketed most of them, we could still see the green, bronze, and yellow rock poking through. This is one of the main draws to Landmannalaugar.
After the hike, we changed into bathing suits in the 35 degree air and ran into the natural hot springs there. It was a treat to slide into the hot water and relax our tired muscles. Including our family of five, nine people soaked in the springs. We relaxed for a good hour before heading out and heading back to our apartment in Vik. We were tired and satisfied; it was a magnificent day.
Leaving the Ring Road, Headed to the Golden Circle: Day 3
With our backpacks packed, our Airbnb tidied up, we packed our car and said goodbye to Vik. However, before we left for good we made one stop at the famous black sand beach in Vik.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
We drove into the lot of one of the most famous beaches of Iceland, Reynisfjara a black sand beach. The winds picked up as well as the rains. Two out of five of us made it out of the car to venture to the beach. Keeping a cautionary eye on the sneaker waves (rogue waves that have pulled visitors out to sea), the two adventures tried their best in the rain to capture their moments. Watching the rough sea admiring the large, black Basalt columns. The rains and winds proved to be too much and they were back in the car within a matter of minutes.
We continued driving through the countryside admiring the beauty of the hills, pastures and mountains. I watched as many visitors stopped along the road to take the perfect Icelandic horse selfie. It seemed the horses didn’t mind and some enjoyed the attention.
Our drive took about two hours from Vik to Fludir and along the way we chose to make reservations at the Secret Lagoon. Read more about the Secret Lagoon here. We spent about an hour in the pool. While it rained a bit, we didn’t mind as we were submerged in hot water up to our chins.
Fludir utilizes geothermal energy for its horticulture industry. It also is home to the only mushroom farm in Iceland. So after a long visit in the Secret Lagoon, it was time for lunch. The man working at the lagoon recommended Farmers Bistro, located 5 minutes from the lagoon and home to the mushroom farm. We went for the buffet, consisting of hot, rich mushroom soup, some homemade breads with mushroom butter and plain butter, cold mushroom salad, and a mushroom tapanade. It was all you could eat plus a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. The kids loved the soup, had seconds and about 4ths of the bread. It is a filling, satisfying meal. They also offer a la carte items such as salads and sandwiches for those that may not want a mushroom buffet (be aware that the Bistro is sparsely staffed and these orders seemed to take a while).
Our journey continued along the golden circle towards Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s largest and heavily visited waterfalls. As we arrived, the skies started to clear a bit and the rain stopped. However, we still wore our rain jackets because it was cold and the spray from Gullfoss soaked us. We were immediately blown away by the size of waterfall. It was loud and impressive, and every view was better than the next. It was worth getting wet for such an impressive waterfall. Gulfoss is one of the most visited attractions on the Golden Circle. You will encounter throngs of visitors and many tour buses, but this shouldn’t deter you from visiting as the waterfall is impressive and massive, surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Geysir Hestar: A Horse Farm And Our Home For The Next Two Nights
Kids were tired from a whirlwind first two days and then venturing out on our third. We called it a day and headed to our home for the next two days. Geysir Herstar, a horse farm as well as a place to stay. They offer standard rooms with shared bathroom or small cottages with a bedroom, loft with beds, small kitchenette, place to sit, table and a tiny bathroom. It was ideal and I got to live my tiny house dream for the next two nights. We checked in and got the key to our cottage. As we opened the door, there was a small welcome sign with my name. A very personable and warm touch to start our stay.
The kids scurried up the ladder to the loft to stake out their beds. I put away our food and sat down. Within a second they were back down asking to visit the horses and any other animals on the farm. We did and just like the other tourists we saw taking selfies with the horses, our kids went right to it, getting their insta-Icelandic-horse selfie.
The closest market is about a 30 minute drive from the horse farm. So if you are planning to prepare meals in one of the cottages come prepared. There is a hostel that shares the same driveway as the horse farm. They do have a pizza restaurant where you can eat in or order out. They also sell beer at a small fortune.
A Horse Ride and A Finish Of The Golden Circle: Day 4
When we arrived to Geysir Hestar horse farm, we did inquire about doing a morning ride. There are a number of options for the horse rides. A one hour ride, two hour, three hour and a full day horse ride tour. Although pricey, especially when paying for five, we decided to book as it is an adventure we won’t find in too many other places. We booked for a two hour river ride for the morning.
We saddled up, hopped on the horses and got our start. We were required to fill out a waiver, and we then tried on riding helmets until we found our respective sizes. We bundled up, as it is cold in Iceland and we were going to be out in the elements for two hours. Our kids were under the impression that someone would walk next to their horses and hold their reins throughout the tour. They quickly learned that they were in full control of the horses.
We rode through fields, trotted, and at times even cantered during our tour. The horse’s strides were choppy–not what I was used to growing up riding. We bounced, I tried posting (rising and sitting with each stride), but failed miserably. We came to a river edge and walked straight into the river. Deep at some points, we lifted our feet to not get wet. My husband was too tall and his feet got soaked. Our ride continued through various fields, some with sheep, and some wet and muddy from the rains. As we neared the end of the ride we speed up the horses’ stride–a canter and, at times a gallop–through the fields until we finally came to an end.
Although cold, we were very satisfied with our experience and happy we chose to do it. Kids felt accomplished with their rides as it was a moment of control for them and they succeeded. After a ride in Iceland, it is tradition to have a coffee or hot chocolate with your host. We did just that along with delicious homemade waffles served with homemade jam.
Our day continued driving down the Golden Circle, stopping at the famous Geysir. We watched as the geysir shot up in the sky enjoying seeing the natural phenomenon. However, there was a professional drone company with a very loud, large drone flying above, completely distracting us from what we came to see. We did our best to enjoy the steaming mud pits and the surrounding area.
Geysir is another main attraction along the Golden Circle. Be prepared to encounter many visitors as well as many tour buses. Prepare also to be somewhat underwhelmed, especially if you’ve visited Old Faithful previously.
Pingvellir National Park
The journey took us further on to towards Pingvellir National Park. We stopped for a quick burger, not a very good one, but we were all starving. Pingvellir is where the North American and Euroasian tectonic plates meet. The park offers visitors a chance to walk on the actual rock wall formations of the tectonic plates.
The area is where the island tribes used to meet once a year, starting over a thousand years ago, to discuss laws and rules for the island of Iceland. Later it became the area in which the Parliament was officially established for Iceland.
You can snorkel or scuba in the area over the plates where the water is clear to up to 100 meters, yet cold. We chose not to do this as our youngest wasn’t old enough.
This waterfall, in Pingvellir, was manmade in the 9th century to fill a ravine for drinking water during the district chiefs’ annual meeting. The waterfall is a short walk from a parking lot and worth a visit, as it is hard to believe it was created by humans.
The last night we were in Iceland, we chose to go out to dinner. Our hosts at Geysir Hetsat recommended a wonderful farm to table restaurant about 15 minutes away. The restaurant is located on a farm that produces their own dairy products and meats. They get their vegetables from nearby local farms. It was not your typical sit down and order restaurant. Upon entering you order at a bar from a menu listed on a large chalkboard, grab your own water and utensils and then sit.
We all ordered some form of beef from the farm, in the forms of steak and tartare, and found it tasty and surprisingly tender for grass-fed beef. We enjoyed local beer and the kids were treated to soda. The meat was cooked to our order specifications and the staff were very attentive.
ÍSHLAÐAN ICE CREAM BARN
After our meal we walked down stairs to the homemade, organic, ice cream bar. There was a great variation of flavors. The ice cream was rich, creamy and worth the stop. The ice cream barn was a room built into the cow barn. There were glass windows all around that gave visitors a look into the barn with all of the cows and calves.
Our last night our last adventure was at a hot spring. After our meal we went to Laugarvatn Fontana for a last dip in a hot spring. The sun was setting as we waded into the hot pools overlooking a beautiful lake. The pools were warm in the cold, darkening air. We spent our time speaking about our four days in Iceland and our favorite adventures we had. After talking and laughing, the boys decided to hit the sauna, heat up, and then jump into the freezing lake. Read more about Laugarvatn Fontana here.
We went back to our cottage for the night, packed up in the morning and drove to the airport. Our stay in Iceland was a great time to bond as a family and learn about a new country. We loved the touring the natural wonders of Iceland and getting to venture off road to hard to reach places as well as trying out a ride in the country on Icelandic horses. Iceland is expensive, but if you plan accordingly, buying food, staying in apartments with kitchens and renting a car and doing some of the Island yourself, you can figure ways to budget properly.
A Quick Stop in Reykjavik
Before heading to the airport, we made a quick stop in Reykjavik. We wanted the kids to see the city. We also had to try the famous hot dog stand as a last meal in Iceland. Our GPS took us close, but the roads were closed due to construction. So we parked a couple blocks away, put on all of our cold weather gear and walked over. It was nice to see the downtown and let the kids explore.
We reached Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, famous Reykjavik hot dog stand. It was a small free-standing shack, with a couple of tables outside, on a small square. We all ordered our hot dogs with different toppings. Some ordered with ketchup, others with sweet mustard, and one ordered the works. The works includes ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, cooked and raw onions, and relish.
We gobbled them up, but decided that the hot dog stand in Selfoss was much better. Fortunately, there was not a line, as during high season, the stand can get a bit busy. We walked a bit more taking in the city, watching bundled kids on a school field trip, then said our goodbyes.
We loved Iceland, for its natural beauty and the ease of exploration. It is an easy destination for a long weekend from the mid-atlantic USA and I would highly recommend as an alternative destination to a long weekend at a beach.
If we had time, we would have added a whale watch. Curious and Geeks were cool enough to get to do it and even got an awesome video. Read all about their adventure here.
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