Back in 2004, as I was finishing my final months at the University of Virginia, I had a once-in-a-lifetime moment of Halloween costume inspiration. Having already spent 22 years with black hair and bangs (and the last several being told that I resembled a certain Icelandic singer), I set off for the local Michaels craft store. A few feather boas, stuffed-and-stitched tube socks, and scraps of felt later—I was Björk herself, in all of her swan dress glory at the 2001 Oscars.
So with Halloween fast approaching, it seems fitting to pay tribute to my best costume ever by recounting the time I spent in Björk’s homeland this summer. With 10 days at our disposal, my two friends and I drove a loop around Iceland’s Ring Road, stopping to marvel at (almost) every waterfall, gorge, glacier, and moonscape along the way.
Have a few questions about where to begin? I did too. This isn’t your standard three-day itinerary, but it’s a good place to start if you’re dreaming of driving the Ring Road in Iceland.
1. When Is the Best Time to Go? Having touched down in Iceland in the waning days of August, I can attest that summer provides long days, open roads, and (relatively) mild temperatures. But with the good inevitably comes the bad, in the form of shockingly high prices, a frenzied demand for lodging, and more of my fellow Americans than I’d care to run into. In the end, the timing all depends on what you’re looking for—an almost-midnight sun (June), accessible hiking trails (July and August), a winter wonderland (December), or the northern lights (March, September, and October). As for driving the Ring Road? A trip in September sounds just about perfect.
2. How Do You Get Around? There’s no driving the Ring Road without first renting a car, and there are a few factors to keep in mind when doing so. Do yourself a favor and book far in advance, spring for four-wheel drive, and add on the full insurance no matter how invincible you feel. Just be sure that you’re clear on the terms of coverage, aware of the deductible, and renting from a company that seems honest and established. (We had a stress-free experience with the Reykjavík outpost of Blue Car Rental.)
3. Where Should You Stay? Accommodations on the Ring Road range from campsites to guesthouses to secluded country cabins, and each offers its own unique allure. Homes and apartments booked through Airbnb provide a welcome degree of autonomy and immersion, but the included breakfasts at hotels and guesthouses are a godsend in the land of $50 dinner entrées. So mix it up, try it all, and remember to book as early as humanly possible.
4. What Is the Best Ring Road Itinerary? We drove the Ring Road in a counterclockwise loop, beginning and ending in Reykjavík. But there’s no harm in taking the opposite route instead—just be prepared for countless unscheduled photo-ops along the way.
Day 1: Reykjavík
Two-thirds of the Icelandic population lives in and around Reykjavík, so it’s little wonder that the world’s northernmost capital is a hub of creative energy. You’ll see it in the innovative design, taste it in the Nordic cuisine, and feel it in every corner of this port on Faxa Bay. Easily wandered on foot (and without the car you’ll pick up tomorrow), Reykjavík is best experienced atop the tower of Hallgrímskirkja, with a ticket to a performance at Harpa, and with a beer in hand at KEX Hostel’s impossibly cool bar.
Where to Eat: Sandholt for breakfast and pastries, Reykjavík Roasters for coffee, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for a hot dog or several, Dill Restaurant or Grillmarkaðurinn for a special dinner, and Valdís for ice cream afterward
Where to Sleep: A comfortable, light-filled suite at REY Apartments
Day 2: The Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle
In 1976, operations at the Svartsengi geothermal power plant outside Reykjavík created an ethereal blue lagoon with deposits of silica that worked wonders on the skin of those who bathed in it. The Blue Lagoon has developed dramatically since then, with sleek changing rooms, a bar, and a café, but it has also retained its magical allure. The trick is to pre-book your ticket online (essential), time your visit for early morning or late evening (a must), and lather your hair with conditioner to prevent it from turning into hay.
As for the rest of the day? You’ll gawk at the immensity of Gulfoss, catch an eruption at Geysir, and wander the rocky expanse of Þingvellir National Park (the site of the world’s first democratic parliament in 930) on the famed tourist circuit known as the Golden Circle.
Where to Eat: Friðheimar, where the tomato soup at lunch is served amongst the plants it came from
Where to Sleep: An impossibly charming Airbnb summerhouse near Selfoss
Day 3: The Southwest Coast and Vík
The earlier the start you get today, the better—especially if you want to see the cascades of Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss unspoiled by swarming crowds. The morning is also a wonderful time (as is the early evening) to visit one of Iceland’s most curious sights—the wreck of a U.S. Navy plane that crash landed at Sólheimasandur in 1973. By day’s end, you’ll be watching the sunset on the black sand beach at Reynisfjara and retiring for the evening in Iceland’s southernmost (and rainiest) town, Vík.
Where to Eat: Suður-Vík for seafood stew in a cozy, loft-like dining room
Where to Sleep: A simple, spotless room at Guesthouse Carina (complete with homemade bread at breakfast)
Day 4: The Southeast Coast and Skaftafell
It has taken the River Fjaðrá a mere two million years to carve the canyon at Fjaðrárgljúfur, a minor detour off the Ring Road with a short trail that traces the rim of the gorge. Just be sure to preserve your hiking legs for the Skaftafell area of Vatnajökull National Park, where the S3 and S5 trails offer majestic views overlooking the great ice river of the Skaftafellsjökull glacial tongue.
Where to Sleep: A no-nonsense room at the roadside Hali Country Hotel
Day 5: Jökulsárlón and Höfn
When icebergs calve from the glacial walls of Breiðamerkurjökull, they embark upon a great journey to the wild North Atlantic Ocean. For up to five years, they are set adrift in the deep waters of Jökulsárlón, a sparkling glacial bay best traversed by zodiac (in the early morning) with Ice Lagoon Adventure Boat Tours. But first, make a sunrise visit to Diamond Beach—the strip of black sand at the mouth of the Jökulsá River where ocean-beaten icebergs tumble back upon the shore.
Where to Eat: Pakkhús for a harborside meal of anything and everything langoustine
Where to Sleep: Amidst the exposed wood and open plains at Arnanes Country Lodge
But this Icelandic adventure doesn’t conclude just yet. Stay tuned for part two, as the road turns northward and the volcanic landscapes become all the more unusual…
TITLE: An iceberg drifting in Jökulsárlón | INTRODUCTION: A car driving on the Ring Road in Hali | DAY 1: The view from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja; the port in Reykjavík | DAY 2: The Blue Lagoon; golden hour at Öxarárfoss in Þingvellir National Park; a sheep on the side of the road | DAY 3: Skógafoss; the wreck at Sólheimasandur; the black sand beach at Reynisfjara; the bluffs that surround Reynisfjara; scenes from Vík; a campsite in Vík | DAY 4: The gorge at Fjaðrárgljúfur; Fjaðrárgljúfur; Fjaðrárgljúfur; the cliffs of Lómagnúpur; hiking above the Skaftafellsjökull glacial tongue | DAY 5: Icebergs in Jökulsárlón; Jökulsárlón; Jökulsárlón; Jökulsárlón; Jökulsárlón; Jökulsárlón; Diamond Beach.