Wanderlust in Iceland
My husband and I both suffer from the dreaded disease of wanderlust. We met in college and bonded over our desire to travel the world. We made naive plans to quit our jobs after two years and buy one-way tickets to anywhere. Then, we graduated and went our separate ways. A year later, I happened to be in his hometown for work and called him up to get dinner. Dinner quickly turned to long-distance dating, and after two years—only one year later than we’d intended!—we bought one-way tickets to Thailand. After seven wonderful months of drinking wine on the beaches of Thailand, hiking volcanoes in New Zealand, and screaming ourselves hoarse at the World Cup in Brazil, we returned to the US so I could attend medical school. I obviously gave away the ending to the story with the first two words, but he got a job, we got two dogs, got married, and bought a house. And then we both started to get restless again.
Camper holiday in Iceland
The problem with wanderlust is it’s incurable. We’d managed to treat the worst of the symptoms with our seven-month grand tour, but the signs of a relapse were becoming apparent. So, despite having little money and even less free time, we set our sights on one of the most beautiful countries in the world: Iceland. During our extensive travels, we never reached Iceland, primarily because of the expense.
We certainly haven’t gotten rich in the meantime, but I only got two weeks off of school for the summer and we intended to make the most of it—especially since my school schedule meant we couldn’t take a honeymoon when we got married six months ago.
After minimal research (many people with wanderlust suffer from comorbid ITP, or Inability To Plan), we decided renting a campervan was our best bet. We didn’t want to be locked into a schedule, and having our own wheels and the freedom to go wherever we wanted opened up the door for unexpected adventures. There’s nothing worse than planning to spend three days somewhere, only to find you hate the place but are stuck at your hotel. So we bought our flights, booked a van, and committed to nothing else.
We were scheduled to arrive in Iceland on Sunday, July 17. We live in Florida, so we had to fly to JFK and then switch planes to get to Iceland. As luck would have it, our FLL-JFK flight was delayed three hours and we missed our Iceland flight. We got rebooked on the next one, which was nearly 24 hours later. We frantically emailed the campervan company to let them know we were delayed. We received a calm response telling us not to worry, the van would be there whenever we arrived.
Day 1, reprised – Blue Lagoon
We finally made it to Keflavik 36 hours after leaving our house. We quickly cleared customs, hopped on the shuttle bus, and wandered around the rental center until we found the right location. A few minutes later, we were the proud (temporary) owners of a Renault Kangoo camper.
Upon arrival at the Blue Lagoon, we quickly learned why planning ahead is recommended for vacations. The lagoon was completely booked for the day, and for most days during our trip. We decided to have a coffee in the cafe and re-strategize.
Thirty minutes later, we’d purchased Blue Lagoon tickets for July 27, the day we were returning our campervan, and were on our way to Þingvellir, site of the original Icelandic government. Something about the story of these democratic Vikings struck me as romantic, and I wanted to see where it all began. The day was beautiful: sunny with a slight breeze to keep us cool. We stopped along the way to admire the lake stretched before us. At Þingvellir, we hiked for about an hour before jet lag caught us. We moved to the campsite at Þingvellir and went to bed. It was 4 PM.
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Day 2 – Geysir – Gullfoss
Refreshed after a 16-hour nap, we set off for Geysir. We tried to drive straight there, but we couldn’t help but stop numerous times to take pictures and admire the lakes and hills. After a few stops and a few more wrong turns, we reached our destination. We fortified ourselves with bowls of lamb soup and coffees before striking out.
Strokkur geyser was surrounded by a crowd of tourists, but luckily, a crowd in Iceland means a one-person deep line around half the perimeter. We watched in awe as the water bubbled, churned, and finally, shot straight up into the air. And then we watched again, and again, until we decided to hike up the hill behind Strokkur and admire the view from the top.
The countryside sprawled beneath us, the view occasionally interrupted by the fountain of Strokkur’s water.
We’d intended to only spend a short time at Geysir, but the cool breeze, sprawling countryside, and perfect sitting stones tempted us into staying. Diego (the aforementioned husband) works in a field that involves frequent travel without any time to see the sights, so between his trips and my school schedule, we hadn’t gotten much chance to just talk in months. So rather than racing to the next place, we sat and talked about life: our dreams for the future, our mistakes in the past, and how much we’d missed exploring new places.
Rain finally drove us back to our car. We swung by Gullfoss, where the rain didn’t matter because the waterfall spray drenches you anyway, and Seljalandsfoss, where a waterfall into a tucked-away cavern seemed too magical to not house the hidden people. We camped in the open that night.
Day 3 – Skógafoss – Sólheimarjökull
Our third day found us at Skógafoss. Despite a threatening sky, we climbed to the top of the waterfall and hiked along the river. We stopped to take so many pictures that we nearly filled the memory card. When a mist rolled in, we reluctantly turned back, not wanting to be the foolish tourists who were unprepared and got lost in the mountains.
In some ways, the mist improved the hike, adding a mysterious air to the beauty. Still, we were grateful to be back at the campervan when the rain started. We headed to Sólheimajӧkull, snapped a few glacier pics, and then raced back to the heater. We stopped by Dýrhólaey to see if the wind was strong enough to blow us off the cliffs (pretty close, it turns out). That night, I was extremely grateful to not be tent camping.
Day 4 – Skaftafoss
I woke up on our fourth day and realized how slowly we were moving. This was exactly why we’d wanted the camper. I’d expected to be in the east by now, but we hadn’t left the first section of my guidebook. I told this to Diego, who told me he didn’t care because we were seeing lots of great sights and having a great time. He had a point.
When we left our campsite under Eyjafjallajӧkull and set out for Skaftafoss, I felt as though we’d left civilization. A massive, moss-covered lava plain stretches across the southern part of Iceland, and the drive is both bleak and stunning.
It was close to 5 PM when we reached Skaftafoss, but the beauty of the eternal daylight in Icelandic summers is your hiking time isn’t restricted. We set off on a loop to see Skaftafoss, then hiked across the mountains to look down on the glacier tongue extending from Vatnajӧkull. We circled back to the parking lot by 8 and took advantage of the light to drive to Jökulsárlón.
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Day 5 – East Iceland
Being able to sleep wherever you want means that you usually have the best location. When we woke on day 5, we were able to climb the hills and have the ethereal river to ourselves. When the crowds began to arrive, we made coffee in the parking lot and sipped it while watching the glacier chunks float out to sea. We even caught a glimpse of a seal.
Lunchtime found us in Hӧfn, where I have to confess we spent some time playing Pokemon Go before eating the most spectacular langoustine sandwich I’ve ever had. I’ve never actually had langoustine before, so I’m not sure how great of a compliment that is, but I imagine it’s the best I’ll ever have. Reenergized, we tackled the winding roads and one-way tunnels of the east fjords.
We were both shocked to find one of the main roads through the country was made of gravel, but we made it over the hills and passes with only minimal screaming and air-braking on my part (Diego was calming driving the van). We detoured to Seyᵭisfjӧrᵭur for the views and the best cod I’ve ever had—and this time I’ve actually eaten lots of cod, so it is saying something. If you find yourself in the area, stop by Kaffi Lara and order the catch of the day.
Despite the time, we headed on north and took in the power of Dettifoss before finally crashing around midnight.
Day 6 – Hverfell ctarer
Like so many days, this one dawned overcast and foggy. We were planning on spending the day exploring Mývatn, but the weather drove us to the nature baths instead. I’ve never been more grateful for bad weather. The baths were unbelievably relaxing, and after days of hiking, my stiff body needed warm water to help it untangle.
The weather cleared by noon, so we were able to climb the imposing Hverfell crater and stop by Grjótagjá to see where Jon Snow and Ygritte have their steamy moment in Game of Thrones.
That night, we camped under the hills at Akureyri and discussed how lucky we were to eat under the open sky.
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Day 7 – North Iceland
For the first time on the trip, we rose early, but for good reason. We were going whale watching! Rather than go to Húsavik, we’d opted to try a company that went into Eyjafjӧrður.
We spent the morning chasing a pair of humpback whales, and this time we did fill the camera’s memory card with photos and videos of their massive bodies.
The afternoon found us driving through Trӧllskagi, once again torn between admiration and fear as we drove along cliff edges and around sharp curves. Fog sat off the coast, blocking the view, but it lifted just as we reached Hófsós, and we were able to see islands in the distance. We stopped that night at a campsite off the beaten track, complete with hot-pots, and were able to spend the evening bathing in the warmth while watching birds fight the cold wind.
Day 8 – Snæfell peninsula
Our trip was nearing the end, but we still had two days before we needed to return the campervan. We debated trying the West fjords, but with limited time we set off instead for Snaefells peninsula. We hooked up Diego’s iPod for the first time on the trip and belted out our favorite tunes as we passed through rolling valleys and construction sites. Once again, the trip took far longer than our GPS anticipated because we stopped so many times to take pictures.
Early afternoon found us in Stykkishólmur, where we splurged at Sjávarpakkhúsið for blue mussels straight from the bay, another culinary highlight of the trip.
We checked out the Volcano museum and stood puzzled in the Library of Water, a modern art exhibit that we’re not ashamed to admit we just didn’t understand. Still, the view of the bay was nice. That evening, we headed west and were treated to colorful mountain views.
We camped at a stop on the edge of a cliff, where we were able to watch the sun set into the ocean from the front seat of our van.
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Day 9 – Glýmur
For our last full day campervanning, we decided to see the glacier than inspired Jules Verne to write Journey to the Center of the Earth. Snaefellsjӧkull National Park was beautiful, and the fish soup at the nearby Gimla Rif cafe in Rif was to die for. Yes, I’m obsessed with food. If you ate the food I did, you would be too. It was finally sunny, and we spent the day exploring the park and enjoying the sunburn I was inevitably getting.
Pleased with our day, we decided to throw in one more stop to Glýmur, the tallest (or possibly second-tallest) waterfall in Iceland. I sincerely regretted not bringing hiking boots as we balanced on a log across a river and used ropes to slide down a mountain, but the view was worth it.
We camped that night in Grindavik and returned our van to the airport early the next morning. Our last two days were spent at the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik, respectively, before we had to leave the wonders of Iceland to return to our ordinary lives. Our dogs were certainly happy to see us, at least. For us, though, the return was bittersweet.
Our wanderlust was only temporarily treated. More than anything, the joy of going where we wanted, sleeping when we wanted, and exploring a new place reminded us how exciting and rewarding travel can be. It gave us a chance to just be with each other without the demands of everyday life interfering. For now, work and school have us trapped, but at some point, we’ll have time again to travel. And then, Iceland, we’ll be back. I can promise that.
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