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Iceland is a bit of an enigma for us frequent flyers. It’s not that it’s hard to get to – it’s just a 4.5 hour flight from New York – but the only airlines that fly there are Icelandair, Wow Air, and seasonally… Delta. Flights are cheap enough. Wow had KEF on sale recently for about $200 R/T, and Icelandair/Delta are around $600 R/T, depending.
There are only a couple of chain hotels, and they’re all in the northernmost capital city in the world, which is Reykjavik. Club Carlson operates two properties – the Radisson Blu 1919 and the Radisson Blu Saga, 44,000 Gold Points per night and 38,000 Gold Points per night, respectively, and Hilton also has their Hilton Reykjavik Nordica property there.
Anyway, I’m hoping to kick off a little series about what to do in Iceland, and I’ll start with the South Coast. Originally, I was going to do a post called “What to Do in Iceland (Hint: Not Reykjavik)”, but then decided to expand and break down the individual sections, because they are all vastly different. So I hope you enjoy!
When you get to Iceland, you’ll find there is one road that is constantly referred to: The Ring Road, or Highway 1. It loops around the entire perimeter of the island. There is no way to go through Iceland, only around. The interior is uninhabited, and uninhabitable. The land in there has never been tamed, and is severe. Aside from glaciers, there are deep fissures and crevasses that are extremely dangerous.
Iceland has always had and still has deep roots to fishing. It is a huge source of export for them, and as such, most of the population has settled along the coast over the centuries (remind you of anywhere else?).
The South Coast of Iceland only has one major “town”, if you can even call it that: Vik. The town is tiny, really just a collection of hotels and a gas station, and a few restaurants.
After driving in from (most likely) Reykjavik, Vik, will be your next big stop more than likely. Side note: “vik” means “bay” in Icelandic. Reykjavik translates to “smoky bay” and the town of Vik is simply “bay.”
On the way from Reykjavik, you will have most likely stopped at the “Golden Circle” and maybe explored Reykjavik and the Reykjanes peninsula a little bit. You are most likely going to Jokulsarlon (“glacier lake”), Vatnajokull (“vatn” is “water” and “jokull” is “glacier” – this one is Europe’s largest and is about 11% of Iceland’s total surface area), and to see the astounding black sand beaches and huge columns of natural basalt, and maybe the simple, understated and completely elegant lighthouses.
You are not going for the weather. Vik is very rainy. They receive about 3 times the precipitation that Reykjavik does, and about 5 times what the North Coast receives. But it doesn’t matter. Iceland has its weather and it’s worth going anyway. You are bound to hit a good patch of weather at some point.
As mentioned, there are no chain hotels, but I found a few good recommendations at TripAdvisor, and found another that had a lot of information about the area. For whatever reason, I’ve always pressed beyond Vik like a psycho, but I’m dying to get back to this part of Iceland and spend some more time.
Here is Vik Tourism’s list of restaurants. There aren’t a lot, but that is typical is most Icelandic towns. I can’t recommend any of the list personally, but they look to be good options.
One I can recommend is one whose name I cannot remember; I don’t even know if it’s still around, actually. But there was a little restaurant set back from the main road in town, on the water. You had to follow a little foot path to get into it. They served simple sandwiches and coffees on a deck that looked out over the beach – it was one of those sublime experiences that you get from time to time while traveling.
Now that my memory is jogged, I will post the name of it if it comes to me.
See the black sand beaches. There are many small roads that lead directly to the ocean. You will see them in the area immediately surrounding Vik on both sides.
Make sure to go into the caves formed naturally by basalt. They are gorgeous.
See Vatnajokull. There is a proper national park, and you can hire a 4×4 and a guide to properly experience it. What I did was hike the main trail from the entrance to the park until the path got too treacherous – remember that it is washed away nearly every year during the spring thaw. But they do a good job of keeping it clear, and I’d recommend going in on it as far as you can. Being on the glacier is unreal. There is a snack bar right inside the park, too. You will most likely want to grab a kokomjolk (chocolate milk) and a kleina (a braided doughnut snack) before or after your hike. Give it at least 2 hours and wear comfy shoes. Definitely take a camera.
From there, keep driving until you get to Jokulsarlon – the iceberg lake.
Dear god, it is beautiful.
They have quite the tourism industry set up there: a gift shop, guides for hire, and boat rides that you can pay for. Take a boat ride. It’s cheap and worth it – you get to see some the icebergs up close, and they are beautiful. The lake is formed by the runoff from Vatnajokull, and the icebergs floating in it are actually massive pieces of ice that have drifted away from the glacier. Beyond the lake is the ocean – it all makes for a nearly unearthly experience – it is that level of beauty.
If you keep driving east… when you get to all the moss, you are turning north again, and you are on the East Coast. There isn’t a ton over there, but that’s for another post.
There is no bad time to visit the South Coast, but there are ways to optimize based on your interests.
If you want to see Jokulsarlon and Vatnajokull, go in summer. More time to explore in the daylight.
If you just want to see the black sand beaches, go any time but winter.
If you want to see the lighthouses, go any time. They are gorgeous in the winter, roads permitting. And the Northern Lights over the lighthouses… I’d imagine is wonderful.
I’ve only ever done the South Coast in summer but if you’re driving down from the Golden Circle, which I’d recommend for fall, that would also be a good time to explore the South Coast.
Here is a list of other attractions and things to do in the area. Among them are: snowmobiling, folk museums, horseback riding, hiking, birdwatching, and local arts & crafts. There are also many sites on the South Coast from the Sagas, Iceland’s stories of discovery and settlement passed down from the original colonists. Besides being fascinating, they reference real places on the island that you can still visit today. I love thinking of how the past has shaped a place.
Iceland’s South Coast gets driven through quite a bit, and the landscape changes from trees and actually kind of lush, to positively lunar, to glacial, then to moss-covered lava all in the space of a couple of hours. It’s unreal.
It’s not very populated, but then again neither is much of the country outside of Reykjavik. It is worth exploring to see the black sand beaches, waterfalls, glaciers, and Jokulsarlon – the famous iceberg lake.
For what it’s worth, I have a friend here in New York who specializes in private tours to Iceland. His company is called Icepedition and this is the company website. He would be happy to set up an itinerary for you if you’d like to focus on any particular part of Iceland.
Has anyone else been to the South Coast of Iceland? Is there anything that should be included here?
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