Magical Iceland Part I: Snaefellsnes Peninsula & West Iceland

Based on my experience, you’ve probably 1) been to Iceland already, or 2) have at least a handful (if not way more) friends who have traveled to Iceland. Many of you might even weary of hearing about how incredible Iceland is (like the dude in this snarky article about everyone in the world and their mom traveling to Iceland).

And it’s true, I get it. I literally counted 11 Facebook friends who traveled to Iceland in the two months leading up to our trip last April 2016. That doesn’t even include the countless other people I know who have traveled there in the last few years since it’s become the place to travel.

If you’re hesitant to travel to Iceland because you’re one of those off-the-beaten track, go-where-no-tourists-go kinda traveler, you should still consider Iceland. While it’s certainly a place that everyone seems to be visiting, it truly is incredible. And while it is touristy, it feels untouched and off-the-beaten track. At least that’s how we felt. It is truly a magical place. And it’s cheap to get to. So, just do it.

While there are a ton of options for what to do in Iceland, our trip covered but a sliver of the country. The best part is, we didn’t have to drive for days or even that many hours to get to the untouched, magical parts of the country. With only 300,000 people there, most of them living in Reykjavik (it’s second-largest city is Akureyri which has around 18,000), you quickly find yourself in an incredible rural landscape.

We spent five nights and six days in the country. I’d recommend at least that length of a stay. We could’ve stayed for two weeks, but we felt we got a lot out of that amount of time. It helped that in April the days are already starting to get quite long and we could take our time playing around the country.

To organize this post, I’m going to go both by location and day-by-day activities. Part I will be West Iceland (Days 1-4) and Part II will be Reykjavik (Days 4-6). We spent most of our time in West Iceland, specifically the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This was a great way to explore the untouched beauty of rural Iceland without having to drive for hours. And then a couple days in Reykjavik, because you can’t go to Iceland without doing that.

Note that there’s so much to Iceland. Based on our research, this itinerary seemed like the best way to spend a short amount of time but get to see what was so incredible about the place. We were also traveling with our friend Jill and Dave. These two are super travelers, so check out their travels at Do What You Want Trips. I also have to say that Jill has impeccable judgment on restaurants and other sites to check out. Most of what we did was from Lonely Planet Iceland, but Jill was able to distill from the descriptions what we’d all fancy and she was spot-on.

 

Day 1: Arriving to Iceland – Keflavik Airport -> Reykjavik -> Snaefellsnes Peninsula

We arrived at around 7:00am to the sun at full force to Keflavik airport. We had taken a red-eye direct flight from Baltimore on WOW Air (a new, super cheap, Icelandic airline that was pretty worth the 5-ish hour flight from Baltimore for the lack of additional comfort of other flights). Groggy, but excited, we rented a car (we weren’t going off-roading, so a traditional sedan was fine for us) and drove into Reykjavik (~45 minutes from the airport).

A little note to those who enjoy their alcohol, pick up some beverages in Duty-Free before leaving the airport. You’ll walk right through it on the way to baggage claim. Do this for a couple reasons: 1) it’s cheaper than what you’ll find in the liquor stores around the country, and 2) the rural liquor stores have the strangest hours – we never came upon one that was open when we were around. Also, while you’re there, grab a couple bottles of Björk Liqueur – it’s a birch liqueur that I still dream about. It’s a delicious treat! We also picked some up at Duty-Free on our way home.

First Stop: Reykjavik

Our first stop was, of course, coffee. So of course, we went to the local roaster, Reykjavik Roasters. It’s a tiny little place tucked off a side street from one of the main roads near Hallgrímskirkja church. It was cozy and warm and they have super delicious coffee. Of course we picked some up to take with us to our cabin. Because it was early, we had to chill for a bit (not hard to do with delicious coffee) and wander the cute and small downtown before the restaurants were open for breakfast. We chose the diner-y Prikiđ. It was pretty tasty and a cozy place to fuel up before we had to drive a couple of hours.

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula

After a quick stop at the grocery store to stock up for the cabin we rented, we set off towards the Snaefellsnes Peninsula where we were spending the next three days. I cannot recommend this more highly for a quick trip to Iceland. For shorter trips, many people tend to stay in Reykjavik and then go on excursions from there such as The Golden Circle, but we wanted to stay a little bit more rural. Because Snaefellsnes is only a couple hour drive from the capital, it’s really easy to do that.

I admit that this all came about through happenstance. When Cory and I were thinking about a trip to Iceland, we found this fantastic, austere cabin at the base of Mt. Kirkjufell (if you follow Nat Geo Travel or any Iceland tourism Instagram page, or have watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you’ve probably seen a picture of it with the northern lights undulating behind it). So we booked that at the same time as our flight and said we’ll figure out the two nights after that later. We figured – but didn’t honestly know for sure – that the peninsula had enough to keep us busy for a couple days. And it does! Read on for more of that!

Lava Fields and the Berserkers

Driving towards the cabin was pretty spectacular even in our groggy state. Once you reach the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the dried lava fields become center stage. There’s something lunar and otherworldly about them.

The lava fields we passed through on the peninsula also seemed to inspired the Eyrbyggia Saga – a story where a local farmer hired a couple of hefty Norwegians known as Berserkers to help with the farm work. One of them fell in love with his daughter. Not wanting to upset the guy, the farmer set them off on a task he thought they’d never been able to achieve – clearing a path through the lava fields between his farm and his brothers’. Once they were successful, he could have his daughter’s hand. Unfortunately for the farmer, the berserkers completed the task with ease. Instead of giving his daughter over to them, the farmer and his brother killed the berskerkers by trapping them in a sauna. While this saga could be myth, there were remains of two large men found nearby. So maybe these sagas are based in truth.

Our Cabin

Arriving at our cabin around 5/6-ish still gave us a few hours of daylight in early April. We settled in and toasted with Bjork to the incredible landscape just outside the large windows that overlooked a beautiful fjord and made dinner. After spending most of the day up and about with hardly any sleep, it took everything in our power to stay up before it got dark enough to potentially see the Northern Lights. Our host had come by to tell us that our spot on the peninsula happened to be the only one without clouds that evening. But it’s not dark enough to see anything until around 10:30pm at that point, so we took a little nap and then set our alarms for that time.

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I had prepared myself not to see the northern lights. My friends who had just been to Iceland a couple weeks before experienced overcast, rainy days the whole time and hadn’t seen them. So, I prepped myself for the same and to enjoy it nonetheless.

Groggy but determined, we hung outside for a good bit and even hiked down the road towards the waterfall where I’ve seen some pretty shots of the mountain with the aurora. And, well, it wasn’t an entire success. There were some faintly green-ish toned hues in the sky if we squinted. It was beautiful, but not life altering. So we packed it in and headed to bed thinking that might be the most of what we’ll see, but at least we had a few more days.

 

Day 2: Fjord Hikes and Stykkisholmer

The next morning, we woke up to a resplendent sky. The sun was already incredibly high in at around 7am. While still fatigued from a day of travel, we thought it wasn’t a bad view to spend a good part of the morning, so we hung out, drank coffee, and chatted until around 11am. Then we headed out for a short hike

Fjord Hike

Our host had given us a map of the area showing us some nice places nearby to hike. We started the day from the waterfall, this time in the daylight where we captured some great views of Mt. Kirkjufell.

Then we landed on a little hike along a fjord off a fire road. We weren’t terribly sure we were heading out on a proper hike spot, but it was still pretty incredible to walk towards a towering white peak along a freezing fjord. It was even better to sit by the water snack on some lunch and sip on the local lager, Gull, we had picked up at Duty Free.

Stykkisholmer

Next up, we were off to check out the most populace town (at 1,200 people) on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Stykkisholmer. It’s a cute little fishing town in the northeastern part of the peninsula. After checking out the spectacular views from the Sugandisey, a basalt island just across from the marina that looks out over the Bređafjörđur waterway. There are some incredible views from up there.

Because the restaurant we wanted to check out wasn’t yet open, we thought we’d head up to the local hot spring pool (Sundlaug Stykkishoms). Something to know about Iceland is that there are hot springs everywhere. (This website seems to have a list of all of them!) They’re mostly (although not all) like public pools. You’ve probably seen the popular Blue Lagoon. While that’s a nice spa-y experience (as far as I can tell because we didn’t end up there…more on that later), these public hot springs seem to be the lifeblood of Icelandic culture more or less. Dan Kois published a great piece about the Icelandic hot springs culture in the New York Times Magazine not long after we got back proposing that these hot springs (or regular “hot pot” sitting) is the key to Icelandic happiness. And after only an hour or so of chilling in some amazingly hot water (note: they call hot tubs, “hot pots” in Iceland), I can absolutely see why. So, wherever you go in Iceland, make sure you have your swimsuit handy. Also, keep in mind this protocol as there is a method to keeping these hot springs clean.

Once we had sufficiently soaked ourselves into utter relaxation, we fueled up on some mussels and Icelandic craft beer at Sjávarpakkhúsiđ – a harbor-front cafe bar with an awesome nautical them. It was the perfect place to cap off a slow-moving, but eventful day.

The Northern Lights

When we arrived home to make dinner, the sun was still on its way to setting. In fact, it seemed to be an hours-long sunset, but it was the perfect backdrop to a cozy evening at home. We had sufficiently rested off our jetlag and stayed up chatting for awhile when it struck me that it was about that time. I had been watching the clouds to see if they’d float off into the distance or cover up the night sky. But then it occurred to me I hadn’t looked out in awhile, I dashed outside. And there they were! There were undeniable green waves floating above our cabin.

I called everyone out and for the next hour we sat outside yelling with excitement and making attempts at capturing the site with our cameras. Then we just sat there watching them. It was otherworldly. It was one of the most amazing experiences. While the trip would’ve been incredible without the northern lights sighting, I couldn’t have been more grateful to be sitting there with my husband and two good friends to witness it.

They presumably went on for another few hours. We eventually had to go in and go to sleep (which was tough from all that adrenaline). But occasionally before I eventually dozed off, I’d peak out of our window and watch them again. Only halfway through our trip, I thought our trip was complete.

 

Day 3: Elf Churches and the Snaefellsjökull National Park

We woke up to another bright, sunny day (seriously, we were lucky with weather!) and a plan to drive around the western tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula through the Snaefellsjökull National Park and then pass through the southern part of the peninsula. Just like the day before, we took our time getting out of the house. Based on our experience the day before, we knew we didn’t have to race the sun as we still had a good 9-10 hours left of daylight.

The drive to the park is a stunning journey along the coastline and through three extremely small towns (Olafsvik, Rif, and Hellissandur). Our lazy trek allowed us to stop a couple times for some wandering and photo shots, especially of the lonely little church at the top of the hill somewhere between Rif and Hellissandur. Apparently lonely little churches are a thing in this part of the world.

Snaefellsjökull National Park

Once you arrive to Snaefellsjökull National Park, you’ll be driving in full view of Snaefellsjökull on your left which is the mountain that was the jumping off point of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. To us, it looked like a white-capped mountain peak that towered over us throughout the drive.

The next stop was Öndverđarnes where you can skip along the lava rocks overlooking a pristine beach. Apparently there are excellent whale-watching views, although none sighted on our visit.

I was particularly excited about our next stop, Djupalon Beach & Dtritvik, which are apparently the site of a troll church. The Icelandic belief (that seems to exist even today) in trolls and elves was something that fascinated me. I had read about a group of Icelanders from a town outside of Reykjavik that lobbied against a road construction project because of the elves that lived in the area. It was something in my mind as we traveled to Iceland and I wanted to know more about the modern-day belief in the huldufolk, or hidden people. The guidebook noted the belief, but suggested gently, and understandably, that Icelanders don’t love the question. So the elf church was one of the ways I could get some insight into this belief.

Once you arrive to the black pebble beach, you first see a scattering of rusting pieces of metal from a 1948 shipwreck (perhaps the trolls caused it?). After taking a moment in a little alcove to enjoy the lapping waves with a couple cans of Gull, we made the deceivingly long trek across the pebbles towards the sea stacks that were said to be the site of the troll church.

It was sunny and beautiful, so we quickly worked up a sweat as we plodded across the stones. Pebbles don’t provide for the most supportive walking platform, so it felt like we were getting sucked down into the beach as we walked. Eventually we made it and could hop along the base of the basalt rocks. The stacks towered over us majestically. As we walked around them, I could absolutely see how someone long ago would see these as made by intelligent hands rather than the pounding of the ocean. I can see how one might see it as an elf or troll church.

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Southern Snaefellsnes

While we had gotten our fix of beautiful scenery (I mean, that’s all you really see in Iceland anyway), we still wanted to get our legs moving a bit and stopped in Hellnar (where we found yet another lonely church) on the southern Snaefellsnes coast where we took a quick hike along the cliffs leading us to even more beautiful scenery. If you squint on a clear day, you can see Reykjavik across the waterway from there.

There’s really nothing like enjoying a cup of wine watching the seabirds dive bomb from the cliffs to the sea below while snowcapped peaks loom behind you in the distance. Also if you’re wondering why we end up with beer and wine on all our excursions, look no further than Jill and Dave. These two know how to hike. Seriously, there is nothing like a delicious baguette, cheese, and cured meat snack along with a decent wine or a refreshing lager in the middle of an incredible hike. We all should hike this way.

 

The sun still so high in the sky, we had plenty of time for another stop before we could make it back for dinner and a beautiful sunset. As Jill read the guidebook, she told us she wanted to check out what the guidebook says is the stylish Hótel Buđir because it apparently has incredible views. The coastline beyond certainly showed the views, but I was dubious coming upon the nondescript building standing by itself next to yet another lonely church. But when we entered into the cozy, window-walled lounge, I was immediately smitten with the place. We probably had the best light of the day (that of course lingered as the sun made its slow descent) and could have sat there for hours. (If you want to get married in Iceland, get married at Hotel Budir. Seriously).

Jill and I, now obsessed with the Bjork birch liqueur, took the bartender up on his specialty drink made with the delicious elixir. (Jill even got the cocktail recipe from him if you can track down some Bjork stateside…which I did from DrinkUpNY).

Dinner in Grundarfjörđur

Then we made our way back towards the cabin after a simultaneously lazy and active day.

I didn’t mention earlier, but our cabin was mere minutes from the tiny little town of Grundarfjörđur. We hadn’t spent a ton of time exploring it, as there’s not much to explore. But it is pretty cute and they also have a public pool and hot springs, so you need not go far for a soak. So on our last night, we figured instead of a homemade dinner at the cabin, we’d try out the restaurant recommended by our host, Bjargarsteinn Mathus.

This cozy little converted house on the harbor feels very cottagey and even a bit high-end. I had a moment where I felt a little underdressed in my hiking gear, but what the hell, it’s rural Iceland, you’re never underdressed. We were seated next to a window looking right out onto Mt. Kirkjufell across the water behind which the sun was setting slowly in the sky. This was a perfect celebratory meal to cap off our time on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Because the sky was clear, we thought we’d get another northern lights sighting, but I guess it just wasn’t the right conditions. While we could see the dark night sky quite clearly (and got some spectacular sunset shots even after lingering over our meal), the aurora never appeared. But we were satisfied with our incredible experience the night before.

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Day 4: West Iceland and the Road Back to Reykjavik

Our last two nights in Iceland were to be spent in Reykjavik. We figured one full day allotted to explore the city was enough, so Day 4 was spent making our way slowly back towards the city so we could explore the other parts of West Iceland, specifically Borgarnes and to hit up a hidden hot pot that Jill found.

Landbrotalaug: The Secret Hot Pot

Okay, so you’ve heard of the Blue Lagoon, I’m sure. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are hot springs (or hot pots) all over Iceland. While a day-spa kind of experience would be lovely, there’s something to be said about soaking in naturally heated water out in the middle of a lava field with nothing but mountains in the distance. Thanks to Jill’s sleuthing work, we found one such spot on our drive back to Reykjavik. You can find this particular hot pot on the map under Landrotalaug at Hot Pot Iceland (I couldn’t find a direct link from that site to hyperlink to other than finding it on the map and zooming in where it has specific directions and coordinates, but this Enjoy Iceland link should have the info).

Our spot wasn’t too far off the main road, but did require us to hike a few hundred feet in along a muddy path. It was sunny, but super windy, so it was an adventure getting in and out of our swimsuits and the hot pot, but it was oh so worth it. Once you’re in the water, you can barely feel the wind and you can only be grateful to be out in the otherworldly Icelandic paradise. In short: It. Was. Amazing.

Honestly, I think I’d make a whole trip out of trying to discover some of the secret hot pots around the country. You can start with these great hot springs suggested by Scandinavia Standard. Next time we visit, I want to make Myvatn Nature Bath a central point of our trip. That’s in northern Iceland near Akureyri. It’s a more low-key Blue Lagoon as suggested by Solveig, a new friend I met on the flight home.

Cory also found a cool abandoned house to photograph. After all those lonely churches, one cannot pass a good lonely building photoshoot when it’s right there.

Borgarnes and the Settlement Centre

The town of Borgarnes – about halfway between the cabin and Reykjavik – is apparently where some of the first Icelanders settled when they came over from Scandinavia. After hearing about the Icelandic Sagas and the Viking history kind of ad hoc through the guidebook, Jill and I were interested in learning more. So we stopped in for lunch at the Settlement Center for their lunch buffet (and ate some great regional food!) followed by a walk through of the museum next door (at least Jill and I checked out the museum as Dave and Cory checked out the liquor store to see if it was, in fact, open).

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While some of the displays were a little cheesy, it was a pretty cool exhibit to get some insight into Icelandic settlement history (in part one of the exhibit) and to be immersed in one particular saga (in part two of the exhibit where you’re walked through Egil’s Saga). The immersion into the saga made me feel like I was experiencing the original story telling of the classic Icelandic tales in the way they should be told. You can read them for sure, but to experience them, you almost need to be put in an environment like they were told from the very beginning. Sure, it wasn’t sitting next to an open fire within a small ancient Icelandic hut, but I could get a feel for that and the story through this exhibit.

To say the least, I thought it was pretty cool. It was an experience that gave me more insight into Iceland’s history and even some insight into how one might encounter the rough (albeit beautiful) landscape when the country was first settled.

Checking Out the Local Brewery

While we were sitting at lunch in Borgarnes, we were pondering over the beer we were drinking and realized it was brewed not too far from where we were. So mid-meal, I emailed the family-run Steđji Brugghús to see if we could stop by later that afternoon to check it out. Luckily they’re on top of their emails and that became our next stop.

I really wanted to check out the Reyka Vodka distillery as it is apparently volcano-powered and set in a stunning landscape, but it doesn’t seem like they offer tours anymore. I’m more of a beer than vodka fan anyway, so I suppose it was appropriate. It’s still fun to learn new things.

Steđji was a great, though. They’re run by a husband and wife team and are one of the smaller, newer craft breweries in the country (you’ll see Einstök more frequently in bars across the country – and it is delicious as well). They brew in more of a classic German style and have some flavored beers as well. They’re really worth a stopover if you’re there, or at the very least try their beer when you see it there.

Because Steđji isn’t far from Europe’s biggest hot spring, Deildartunguhver, we thought we’d stop by to check it out. This, my friends, is not a hot spring you’re going to want to get into, rather it’s scalding hot water that provides the central heating for the towns nearby. We couldn’t pass up checking out the amazing source of renewable energy.

And then of course, on our way back into town, we couldn’t help but make a stop at more abandoned buildings. This part of the trip was an incredible glance at the rural wonderland of Iceland. After that, we were ready for a day of wandering the city.

You can find details about our Reykjavik part of the trip in Part II of my Iceland posts

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