Strong tailwinds have landed me in Keflavik an hour earlier than expected. While grateful for the gift of an extra hour in Iceland, in this case I’ve only been granted an hour more to wait for Jen whose flight arrives two hours (make that three hours) later than mine. I’ve booked the rental car for a 9:00am pickup, the earliest I could get it, and at 5:30am I’m sitting in the duty free area already excited to get started. And yet, I’m exhausted. I usually try to follow the unwritten travelers tip of sleeping east and waking west…but couldn’t sleep on this eastbound flight, too excited for what the new day would bring.
Hours of surfing Pinterest, another night watching the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and reading blogs have resulted in my having an enormous wish list of places to visit on this North Atlantic island. There are only so many days, so many hours of daylight, and so many experiences we will squeeze into this trip. Time to start checking them off the list or crossing them out. Hurry, Jen, I’m excited to see you!
The plan is to hit the road right away, aiming for the Snaefellsness Peninsula the day we land. We hope to either make a loop around the peninsula this afternoon or tomorrow morning before we start moving clockwise around Iceland. I’ve booked us a room for the night in Stykkishólmur. 135 miles and 16 hours before I can go to bed. This is going to be a wonderfully long day.
I peruse the duty free shop and pick up a couple of bottle of wine and a six pack of glacier lager, having heard that alcohol is very expensive and that the best place to buy it is in the airport when you arrive. I see lots of outgoing passengers stocking up on rhubarb liquor and Brennivin, the local specialities.I clear customs and immigration and go get a bank card which I will use for buying fuel. I make a lap or two around the airport. It’s an incredibly busy place for so early in the morning, not unusual for an overseas flight destination. But within an hour the crowd starts to thin and the airport quiets down. Another 30 minutes later and I need to find a place to sit. I’m getting sleepy.
Jen arrives just in time, a little earlier than scheduled, and after a giddy greeting we bump and drag our dolly bags to the rental car shuttle stop. A bone chilling gust of wind hits us just before we seek sanctuary on the bus.
30 minutes later we load our bags into a studded-tire fitted car with a heated windshield. Although I don’t usually buy the rental car insurance, the agent at the desk has convinced me that Icelandic roads are hard on cars and windshields, and the high deductible doesn’t sound like something I want to pay.
Keflavík, the small town near the airport, is 45 minutes west of Reykjavík. I use the time to get my bearings and try to wake up for the traffic and road ahead and stop at a roadside gas station for some caffeine.
After an hour of merging I. And out of traffic, a dozen or two roundabouts and expressing gratitude for English words on signs on the main highway we come out the northeast side of the city and head out on the Ring Road, Highway 1, starting a weeklong journey around Iceland.
We cross under an inlet of the Greenland Sea via a tunnel and emerge on the other side to golden grasslands, green paddocks, and fields dotted with grazing sheep.
We turn off the ring road and drive west on the 54 toward snow capped mountains and low slung clouds. I stop to admire a small herd of Icelandic ponies who come over to the fence to see if I’ve brought something worth their while. They don’t stay long.
It’s not even noon and I’m exhausted, ready for bed. But it’s not hard to stay awake when around every turn and over every hill is another beautiful view. We don’t pass many towns along the way, only small farms. We cross over a mountain highland and stop to stretch our legs at an overlook.
At Stykkishólmur we are too early to check into the Air BnB, so we drive down to the small port and stop at a local restaurant for a late lunch of seafood stew and steamed salmon with roasted potatoes. It’s cozy and warm inside the restaurant, and sheep skins cover the wooden banquettes.
We wander through a local grocery store and stop by a sporting goods store to pass the time. At 4pm, the earliest we are allowed to check into our room, I ring the buzzer to our host’s home. I can’t take much more. I need sleep.
We try to politely converse with Monika (and she really is interesting and kind), but it’s all I can do to carry my bag to my room and slip off my shoes before falling into bed. The sun hasn’t even begun to set.
In the morning I’m surprised and happy to find I’ve slept all the way through the night. Monika opens the door to the breakfast room and Jen and I make our way inside, anxious to get an early start since we didn’t make much use of our time the day before.
Monika has prepared a lovely breakfast, traditional Euro fare of muesli and canned fruit, sliced deli meats and cheese, fresh baked breads and tea and coffee. Jen tries a small bowl of isey skyr and tells me I shouldn’t miss it. I had assumed it was yogurt, because it looks like it to me, but Monika says it’s actually not yogurt. Icelanders have been making and eating it for many generations. Monika has mixed hers with a little vanilla, and it’s delicious.
We finish and pack up, and head back up the road and turn west toward Grundarfjordur. Just pass the town I recognize Kirkjufell from all the photos I’ve seen. It’s even more beautiful in person.
It’s just the beginning. For the next 40 miles we are treated to a spectacular coastal drive.
The road enters Snæfellsjokull National Park and the landscapes changes by the mile. The road leads inland and changes from lush rolling hills to flat barren plains, and later to jagged lava fields, before morphing into rugged mountains.
We turn off the highway at a place Monika suggested and walk to a black sand beach famous for birdwatching. There may even be puffins in the area, but it’s getting late in the year. I start to notice more and more slender waterfalls running down the steep mountainsides. Nearly every small farm has its own waterfall.
The wind is strong again today, and all the driving and jet lag are making me sleepy again, so we keep moving. We have a long way to go before we can stop for the night. We turn east and aim for Akureyri.
Along the road we see a sign advertising ice cream and recognize it as a place that Monika has suggested. The small dairy store sells yogurt and skyr, ice cream and cheeses. What makes it unique (at least to us) is that the back wall of the shop is a glass wall that looks out into the dairy barn where the cows are being milked. Talk about farm to table. It’s as fresh as it gets.
The road takes us along the coast and then darts inland as it reach for the next I let from the sea. It’s a beautiful day.
Randomly, a sheep steps out onto the road somewhere along the way reminding me that I need caffeine.
Not far past Hvammstangi the highway starts to climb up into a high valley between two parallel ridge lines of mounts, each dusted with snow. For a moment it feels like we’ve climbed much higher. I check my watch and see we have reached the surprising altitude of just over 300 feet.
After more than 350 miles we pull over to check the map and discover we are less than five minutes from our next home for the night. I’ve booked a room at a local dairy farm that we can almost see from where we are.
What a lovely day.