From hikes to hot springs, Iceland could be the destination of choice on this year’s ‘green list’
A country shaped and sculpted by the elements, Iceland deserves to be discovered on a road trip.
With a main ring road circling the island, it’s easy to traverse spectacular otherworldly landscapes, detouring over gravel roads to find hidden waterfalls and secret lagoons.
The sparsely populated Nordic nation allows visitors to be fully vaccinated and was recently announced as one of 12 destinations on the UK’s green list.
The timing couldn’t be better: the highland roads are accessible, migrating herds have landed and the days are long enough to combine two vacations into one.
Avoid the crowds by following this route through the west and north, traverse coasts clustered with colonies of birds, and venture inland for panoramic mountain views.
Lava tunnels and rock art
On leaving Reykjavik, head north along the ring road (or Route 1), turning west on Route 54 at Borgarnes. A two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital, a backbone of snow-capped peaks stretches the length of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, ending with the sugar-dusted dome of Snaefellsjökull, a dormant volcano and glacier.
It is tempting to start the hike, but the beaches bordering the coastline beg to be explored. The nearby black pebble beaches Dritvik and Djupalonssandur are strewn with bits of rusty metal, the strange remains of the trawler Epine, wrecked in 1948. Try to lift a collection of granite boulders, once carried by heavy fishermen to gauge their power.
Nearby, it’s possible to replicate Jules Verne’s journey to the center of the Earth, descending 200 meters into Vatnshellir Cave, an 8,000-year-old lava tunnel accessed by a spiral staircase (Summitguides.is). Two coiled towers created by an expulsion of gas are the highlights of the 45-minute tour.
For an original dose of local culture, visit the studio of pagan artist Liston in Grundafjordur (above, Sólvellir 6). Firmly believing that every stone has a soul, his rocky works of art take shape according to their inner spirit.
Next, head to the nearby slow-food restaurant Bjargarsteinn House Of Food (Sólvellir 15; bjargarsteinn.is), where chef Gunnar Gardarsson and his wife transported a 110-year-old wooden house for 140 km.
Stay: Perched at the end of the world, the Budir hotel frames the beach and the coast with its bay windows (double from € 258, room only; hotelbudir.is).
Hikes and hot pools
There are few forests in Iceland (the Vikings plundered most of the trees), but swathes of wind-stunted dwarf birch forest cover Husafell, an outdoor playground for hiking, biking, horseback riding and mountain biking. race through canyons and crystal clear rivers. The park is located inland; leave road 1 and take the 50 and 518.
There are many walking options. The self-guided trails – which all start at the visitor’s center – range from a brisk 45-minute walk through ancient settlements to a more challenging seven-hour glacial climb. Or take a trip to the Canyon Baths (husafell.com), where a two-hour guided stomp is rewarded with a dip in geothermal waters.
Built from slabs from the canyon floor, the eco-friendly site features three variable-temperature swimming pools, all fed by hot springs. Hang your towel on a recycled horseshoe hook from a nearby farm and enjoy great mountain and glacier views.
In the region, stop at Hraunfossar, a 1 km wall of waterfalls, and Barnafoss, where fierce streams carved a slalom of twists and tunnels. Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most productive hot spring, is also nearby, providing water to the elegant Krauma Spa (krauma.is), where there is also a restaurant to refuel.
Stay: Harnessing the power of the surrounding glaciers and hot springs, the modern Husafell eco-hotel is at the heart of the wild action (doubles from € 127, room only; husafell.com).
Viking battles and wild stunts
Much less touristy than the bustling South Tour, North Iceland is home to a secret reserve of wild, untied waterfalls and ancient trails that few people take. Turning off Route 1, head inland along Gravel Road 715 to find Kolufoss, an obstacle-free waterfall that cascades through a zigzag gorge, where it is possible to s sit right under the spray.
Further north, along the Vatnsnes peninsula, lies the mysterious Borgarvirki; fortified by basalt walls, the construction on top of a hill could have been a fortress. Its origins remain uncertain, but a breathtaking view of the ocher valleys and the ink lakes is guaranteed.
More information on the past can be found in 1238 The Battle of Iceland (1238.is), an interactive museum in Saudarkrokur on the nearby fjord. Telling one of the bloodiest battles in the country, it features a virtual reality room for an alarmingly realistic taste of these violent times.
Stay: One of the oldest wooden houses in Iceland, the Tindastoll hotel has its own thermal spring (double from € 127, B&B; arctichotels.is).
Beer baths and whale moats
A roller coaster ride of cliffs and craggy tunnels, this section of the Icelandic coast is a blast to drive. Taking the 76 towards Hofsos, head towards Siglufjordur, once the center of the country’s herring industry. The surprisingly excellent museum of the herring era (sild.is/en) traces the history of the once flourishing industry through an exhibition of objects, machinery and fishing boats displayed in a series of reclaimed wooden buildings. Touching details include the doodles of frustrated “ herring ladies ” scratched on the walls of their factory dormitories.
If the smell of fish scales is overwhelming, eliminate the unpleasant odors with a bath in the Bjorbodin Beer Spa (bjorbodin.is) in Arskogssandur, a 45-minute drive south along the 76 and 82. Undress and soak in a private bath of young beer, spring water, vitamin B-rich brewer’s yeast and hops filled with antioxidants for 25 minutes of happiness. An unlimited supply of locally brewed Baldi beer is also available on draft.
Stopping for a few shots at the two mighty Godafoss horseshoe cataracts, the ‘Waterfall of the Gods’, continue north on 845 and 85 to Husavik. Humpback whale sightings are very likely in this whale watching capital, especially during the peak months of May through September. Discover them on a silent and carbon neutral boat tour (northsailing.is). Or watch them sneak around and play haphazardly from the Geosea infinity pools at the top of the cliff (geosea.is), where seawater is heated by volcanic rocks.
Stay: The Fosshotel Husavik may be part of a chain, but it still has character (double from 90 €, room only; Islandshotel.is).