(Skogafoss Waterfall on the southern coast)
I think I did Iceland the wrong way. Actually, scratch that—I know I did Iceland the wrong way.
Iceland is the hip blogger’s dream—espeically since Icelandair started a layover option on all their US-Europe routes, so many American bloggers and photographers have taken it upon themselves to drop by for a visit and fill the blogosphere with oodles of wind-swept fields and majestic glaciers, and weirdly stumpy, furry horses.
ONE. Don’t just stay for a few days! But don’t get carried away, either. It is absolutely a shame not to stay more than 6-7 days (the recommended time for doing the whole Ring Road around Iceland). However, I have friends coming to me, saying: “I’m going to do an entire month in Iceland!” That is way too much time, in my opinion, unless you are one of those people who like to sit in contemplation of a single landscape for hours (in which case—you fuckin’ hipster!) I think my next trip will be around 2 weeks, which will give me time to slowly drive the Ring Road, have time to deal with unexpected situations (read Rule Six, below) and leave a day to try all the cafes in Reykjavik.
TWO. Contrary to rumor, Iceland doesn’t have to be incredibly expensive—if you choose to stay in a place with a kitchen (see my hostel recommendations below) and buy your own food at their awesome budget grocery store BONUS (definitely a huge part of the “right way” to do Iceland). I mean, these people have a national food of “frozen shark”—you’re not missing anything by not deciding to eat their food. But I command you to go and try the famous Icelandic drunk food of…really awesome hot-dogs (fried onions, two sauces, mmmmMMMmm). At around $3, they’re the cheapest way to eat out in Iceland.
THREE. Don’t sign up for any sight-seeing tours! This is my biggest regret in Iceland. Due to the fact that none of the friends that I was travelling with had confidence in their driving (including me)—we thought that booking 3-4 days of tours would be the best option, although very expensive. The tours were by far the most stressful & lame experiences I had in Iceland. 2 stories that will make this all too clear:
First, we booked a horse-riding tour through a reputable tour company; a dreamy-sounding 4-5 hour ride to some natural hot springs in a lava rock valley. Sounds good, right? The “pick-up” for the tour (most companies will send drivers in vans around to each hostel) was at 8:15, so I hustled everyone up at 7:30 and we anxiously sat around in the hostel common room. 8:00am passes, 8:15, 8:30, 9am. I reject a piece of bread with Nutella and peanut butter, because the tour could come any minute. I regret rejecting it, because 5 minutes later, I was informed that the tour people weren’t coming. They’d already “checked” for us at our hostel, and since we weren’t standing at the front with “PIK US UP” written across our foreheads, they’d just gone on assuming that we were a no-show. It was too late for them to come back; and—couldn’t we just do something else?
In a way, I’m glad this happened, since I discovered the right way to do Iceland (solely by car), but get this—we rebook the tour for the third day of our trip. When we arrive, we’re told that the tour isn’t possible because of “weather conditions”. I’d like you to be aware that Iceland has been having the same weather (rainy, windy, super cold) the entire fucking summer. The fact that they couldn’t have been aware that the ground would be too muddy and slippery for the horses in the lava rocks valley at least 24 hours in advance is doubtful. Instead of the ride to the hot spring tour I had sacrificed a Nutella toast for, we were offered the option of two other tours: both incredibly shitty—for the same price that we’d paid for the original tour. Yeah…no. So I jumped on a horse, bumped up and down on the boring, ugly plains right outside the horse-riding center for 2 hours in the company of a even more boring tour guide, paid my dues for the time I had, and demanded a van back to Reykjavik ASAP. Hardly the dramatic, Lord of the Rings-esque adventure I’d been looking for.
Second, we booked a bus tour of the “Golden Circle” (encompassing three of Iceland’s ‘greatest sights’, which you can totally skip, except for Thingvellier National Park, which you would get to see if you do the snorkelling tour I talk about below). We each paid out around 75 bucks for this tour; which lasts only 4-5 hours, so imagine our surprise when the same exact bus that picked us up from the airport lumbers up to us, led by a tour-guide who can barely speak English. Not fun, especially when they hustle you around like cattle from sight to sight–sights you can only view from the confines of a big-ass bus barely making the hair-pin turns on the Ring Road. Such a rip-off.
FOUR. Okay, so I’ve been hating on tours. But if you really want to splurge on something, do a glacier-hiking tour or the Silfra snorkeling tour. I’ve heard great things about both of them; I actually did the Silfra snorkeling tour. The experience of swimming around in sub-zero water as clear as glass (the visibility was insane) and watching strands of insanely bright neon algae float by–incredible. And did I mention that it’s the gap between two continental plates? But at around $100 a pop, it’ll cost ya. Think of all the things you can buy with $100! (Like, two whole drinks in Reykjavik!) Oh, and the guide will take photos for you, and you and your group can buy them together and share the cost. Totally worth it.
Okay, so don’t do tours. Then how the hell should I see Iceland?
FIVE. Rent a car. Even if you are like me and have being Asian, female, and while in the driver’s seat suffers from a strange mixture of road-rage prone and perpetual panic, just do it anyway. At least you’ll have done Iceland the right way; right before your death.
(Iceland’s Ring Road, which will take you around the entire island)
SIX. Like road-trips. Oh, and really, really cold nature. I have to be honest with ya. I get that road-trips are cool. There’s this whole vibe of exploration and freedom and hippie-dippy Urban Outfitters indie feel about climbing in your car you’re your friends and seeing some amazing things. Someday, when I find the right people (super important in a road-trip, as you’re going to spend about a gazillion hours with these people in a small confined space), I want to do a road-trip from Seattle down into San Francisco, down the PCH and to San Diego. And that feeling of pulling on your jean cutoffs, pulling open your map, hitting the road and stopping to take a swim in the ocea—oh wait. You can’t actually do that in Iceland, because it’s a fucking land of ice! Even in the height of summer, it’s really cold! It was July, I wore cut-offs to go to the grocery store, and I came back with a mild case of hypothermia. As for that map thing—as I mentioned before, there’s only one road going all along Iceland, which is both a blessing and a curse. I like the idea of sitting in a car and sailing through mystical landscapes, but it’s literally hours and hours. And plus, sometimes sheep get in your way, and when you’re sleepy—yeah. Shit can happen. Plus, true story: since we rented with the shittiest (and cheapest, granted) car rental in Iceland, we had a majorly scary situation when our windshield wipers decided to give up & die halfway during our descent down a winding mountain road in pouring rain. We kept trying to pull over to the side of the road wipe off our window every 5 minutes, but we couldn’t, because there wasn’t any side of the road, just a vast wasteland of creepy moss-covered lava rocks. If you feel like any of these situations offend you on a personal level, don’t go to Iceland.
Seven. Do stay in one of Iceland’s “luxury hostels”. Hostels are usually associated with two kinds of décor: “college dorm hall common room tacky” and “lack of”. However, there are several (and by that I mean two, since it’s Iceland, population 250,000) options to experience a new breed of hostels catering to the aesthetically inclined. They’re filled with vintage furniture and enough hipster design-y knick-knacks to make an Urban Outfitters supervisor weep. They’re also not really that expensive in terms of lodging.
I recommend KEX HOSTEL (first three pictures)–a huge hostel with a large restaurant and bar downstairs; close to the city centre & the night-life/cafe/shopping scene, beautiful view of the harbor right in front, impeccably decorated. There’s a large BONUS grocery store a few minutes walk away, where you can pick up groceries to make meals in the well-equipped kitchens. The rooms are clean, the lobby is extremely chill nearly 24-7, so don’t expect to make a ton of friends here. But since there’s not really a huge ‘party hostel’ vibe in Iceland, you’re not missing out. They do host some special events from time to time that involve the whole community, so that’d be a great way to meet some local Icelandic hipsters. We paid around $40USD/night for a bed in a 16 room-er, which was actually a reasonable rate for Iceland at the time we were going.
We also stayed at BUS HOSTEL (3, 4 pictures) a fairly new place that’s still getting on its feet, especially in terms of the front desk. But it has cute vintage furniture and the most photogenic wall I’ve ever seen. That’s got to mean something. It’s currently the cheapest deal around (we paid around $30USD/night for a 16 bed-er) but it’s a bit further away from the city center (you’d definitely have to pay cab fees if you’re going out to the city centre, etc) and not as bustling as KEX. Overall, I’d go with KEX. For easy access to the city, to food, to grocery stores, cafes etc.
EIGHT. This is perhaps the most important rule of all. When you get off at the airport, head straight for the duty free and buy all the alcohol you think you will need for the duration for your trip. The alcohol prices are mindboggling outside of the airport (almost double!), so you’ll be doing yourself a favor by buying all your booze beforehand. (And plus, you’ll need it, because—I say again—it’ll be really fucking cold)
NINE. Since you saved so much money on alcohol, shell out the 40 USD for the Blue Lagoon. (A huge natural hot spring pool near the airport!) You will NOT regret it. Do it on the way to the airport and get there for you to have at least 3-4 good hours. Unforgettable.
That’s a wrap! Iceland. Unearthly, magical, where the plants are oh-so-green, the waterfalls epic, and where the people still genuinely believe in elves. Go, go, go.