By Melissa and Scott Singer
We are an active and adventurous family who love to travel, but this August we found ourselves with only 5 full days to travel between the end of sleepaway camp and the start of high school soccer tryouts. Southwest Iceland turned out to be the perfect choice. There are multiple regions of Iceland with spectacular sites, but it would take weeks and multiple trips to see it all so we decided to immerse ourselves in this particular area that is most easily accessed, and super-interesting, exciting, friendly and fun.
We spent the first two nights at the Hilton Canopy in Reykjavik, which was clean and modern with a delicious breakfast that was included in the room rate. They were also extremely accommodating of our 11 and 14-year-old daughters’ food allergies.
On our first day we drove the Golden Circle on our own. While most websites/guide books will tell you that 6-8 hours is sufficient, that really depends on how much you want to explore at each place. We allotted 7 hours but wished we had more time! Our first stop was Pingvellir, a beautiful National Park where the first Parliament was established. We spent a lot of time taking a relaxing walk on a path between the tectonic plates that Aria Stark traversed with the Hound (for GoT fans) and through beautiful hills and streams. We then stopped to see the Geysir Hot Springs, which spouts every few minutes. This is a good place to stop for lunch on the Golden Circle, especially if you are trying to save some time.
Our next stop was the incredibly powerful and impressive Gulfoss waterfall. After that we only had a few minutes to check out the red and green Kerid Crater, which we found so intriguing that we returned the next day when we had more time to walk around the rim on top and also walk down to the water at the bottom.
That evening we had a 6PM reservation for dinner at the Lava restaurant at the Blue Lagoon. After an enjoyable dinner we changed and went into the lagoon, which was a memorable experience! Going in the evening made for a less crowded experience, and since it is light until 11PM in August it didn’t impact our enjoyment of the visit.
The next morning we packed up and after breakfast we left the Hilton Canopy and drove approximately 30 minutes to the Inside the Volcano tour which was an incredible experience. It’s a 2 mile (mostly flat) hike across lava fields to get to their base camp, after which you walk up a volcano cone to an incredible view all the way back to Reykjavik, and then you get strapped into a window-washing rig and lowered down 400+ feet into the only accessible magma chamber in the world. It was just unreal. In addition, they provided us with a delicious lunch of traditional Icelandic lamb soup which the entire family devoured! If you are afraid of heights you might not want to do this and instead look into another place where you can explore lava tubes from ground level. We then drove to Hotel Ranga from here, stopping again to walk around Kerid Crater since we ran out of time the day before.
On our third day we had a private tour with Midgard Adventures, a company referred to us by friends. There are many benefits to hiring a tour guide in Iceland – aside from their knowledge and expertise, they also have SuperJeeps (large SUVs with oversized tires) that allow you drive the “F-roads” to explore rocky landscapes and drive through rivers and access many areas that rental cars cannot navigate. We drove through Fiallabak Nature Reserve and Raudufossafjoll, stopping at the Hekla volcano and Raudaskal “Red Bowl” Crater. As we drove we were awed by the ever-changing landscapes and lava fields, as well as the number of Icelandic horses and sheep grazing in the fields. After a picnic lunch in the Domadalur area we arrived in Landmannalaugar and took the Laugahringur hike which afforded us spectacular views of the lava fields and smoking hills. On the way back to Hotel Ranga we made a quick stop at the Ytri Rangá river. Our guide recommended the Gamla Fjosid (“Old Barn”) restaurant as we all wanted a more casual meal than the hotel restaurant. Here we had a hearty dinner of steak sandwiches and “volcano soup” in a renovated barn on an active farm. The date cake was as delicious as advertised.
On the way back to the hotel we were treated to an incredible sunset at 10PM! We stopped at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and walked behind the water, where we were able to see the sunset through the falling water. Magical!
The next day we had another private tour with Midgard around Porsmork (the “Valley of Thor”). We started at the Landeyjarfjara beach which was a completely deserted black sand beach with a view of the Westman Islands in one direction – and seals popping up to check us out – and 3 volcanos in the other. Then we ventured into Nautúsagil canyon where we carefully made our way down a slippery running stream and climbed a small waterfall to reach a majestic larger waterfall. We took a short hike in the Bása area and walked around an otherworldly canyon called Stakkholtsgjà where part of this season’s Game of Thrones was filmed. We also stopped at Gljúfrabúi (a little waterfall) on the way back to the hotel.
Although we had to be at the airport by mid-afternoon on our last day, our family was inspired to make the most of the short time we had so we woke up early and drove to hike to the Reykjadalur Hot Springs. The hike is steep in places, with bubbling/boiling mud pots, but safe if you stay on the gravel path. Note that they do allow horses on much of the path so watch your step! Unfortunately, since we were under a little time pressure we didn’t have time to change into bathing suits and enjoy the hot springs like the many people bathing there, but on our next visit we definitely will! On our way back to the airport we finally stopped at an N1 petrol station for the ubiquitous road-side hot dogs with multiple sauces and chocolate with licorice, two snacks the locals enjoy.
While our short visit was enough to get a sense of the magnificent landscapes of the Southwest portion of this beautiful island, we hope to return to continue exploring!
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