Iceland, known as the land of fire and ice, is an island formed from molten lava and shaped by massive, grinding glaciers since it erupted out of the ocean a geological blink of an eye ago. It has been inhabited by trolls, elves, puffins, seals and regular old vikings.
What is the Ring Road?
Around the edges of the island, in the parts that are generally hospitable, runs Iceland’s iconic Ring Road. The Ring Road is highway 1, or Þjóðvegur 1. It has become one of the world’s most well-loved road trips. You could conceivably drive the entire thing in under a day as the drive time is a little over 16 hours.
The south western part of the Ring Road is generally the most popular as there are a number of well known sites within a couple of hours of Reykjavik, however if you have time, I definitely recommend driving the entire thing. There is a lot more to discover around Iceland.
How can you get there?
As Iceland is an island at the northern part of the North Atanic ocean, you will need to find some way to cross the water. The water is cold and it is a really long way from anywhere, so swimming is probably not an option. Flying to Keflavik airport is the easiest. There are a number of airlines that fly through Keflavik, including Iceland’s own IcelandAir, who offer a no cost stopover of up to seven days if you’re flying across the Atlantic. Keflavik is a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland.
If you are extremely scared of flying and you absolutely must go to Iceland, there are ferries operating from Denmark. The only issue, of course, is getting to Denmark.
Icelanders speak Icelandic and I sincerely recommend learning some before you go, as it is the polite thing to do. However, if you’re unwilling to master an entire language for a few short weeks of your vacation, you’re in luck. Like many people in Europe, Icelanders usually learn a few other languages, including English. You will have no problems conversing with the Icelandic people.
Be aware though, English will be a second language to most, so they may not understand jokes and may take everything you say literally. Sarcasm may be lost on Icelanders and you could end up sounding like a bit of a jerk.
What should you drive?
This depends largely on when you visit and where you’re going. While driving around Iceland you can see all kinds of cars, driven by locals and tourists. Generally, 4WDs are the majority, though there are high numbers of vans, campers and some crazy people braving the wind in tiny cars.
Unless you’re travelling through the summer months, I would recommend getting a 4WD. There are a number of side roads and parks that are gravel or mud. During the winter months there will be frequent snow and ice.
I have used Iceland 4x4 and had no issues with either the vehicle or the company, Green Motion. I would recommend taking the Premium Insurance. Though we never had to use it, I could see where people might need it.
There are some things to be aware of though. The most common damage to vehicles is wind blown doors, folding them backwards. Be extremely careful as this generally isn’t covered by rental insurance. Neither is damage to the chassis from driving off-road or driving through rivers. No surprises really. The wind in Iceland can be strong and there is a lot of volcanic grit, which can strip car paint. Be warned and check your travel insurance.
How long does it take?
In theory, if you drove it non-stop without issue, you could complete the ring road in around 16 hours. If you wanted to stop for things like food, petrol and sleep, you could do it in three or four long days, however you wouldn’t get to see very much. I would recommend seven days, to see most of the highlights and more if you wanted to chill out or go on any of the hikes.
Like most places, I met people who had gone to Iceland for a holiday and were still exploring several years later. You can take as long as you want.
When can you do it?
Any time, depending on what you want to do.
The peak tourist season is during the summer months, from May to September. The population swells, accommodation books out, and the roads are full of inconsiderate assholes who pull over anywhere they feel like it to pat horses, look at whatever has caught their fancy, and do any other shit they think is worth blocking the road for.
During the peak fringe months of April and October, the weather is fairly mild, however it is more likely to snow in the lower regions. During these months, the night and day feel quite normal. Sunrise and sunset are around 7am and 7pm, but the weather can be unpredictable, with blue sky in the morning, wind folding car doors backwards in the afternoon and a gentle snow in the evening.
Over winter the snow and ice are heavier and driving can be hazardous if you are not used to those conditions. So can the wind.
If you want to go on pleasant hikes, sleep in tents and see the midnight sun, summer is your best bet, but you’ll have to contend with others doing the same thing. To see the Northern Lights, you need darkness so the best time is during winter, from September to April. If you want a bit of everything, then the peak fringes are for you, keeping in mind, some things may not be available.
What is the weather like?
The temperature in Iceland is relatively mind considering its location. The North Atlantic gulf stream brings warmth to the island. By warmth, I mean it is warmer than you would expect for a country in the subarctic. However that warm air clashes with the Arctic air, causing rapid weather changes and words like “volatile’ come to mind. The winds can be punishing, and the wind chill can be brutal. It also kicks up volcanic grit and sand, blasting anything stupid enough to be walking around in it.
No matter what time of year you go, take warm clothing and wet weather gear. Even snow gear if you have it.
Where can you stay?
There are hotels and guesthouses along the Ring Road, and a fair number of AirBnB places available, depending on your criteria. If you are travelling over summer, book in early. Mapping out an itinerary can be tricky, depending on how long you have, but places do fill up fast, so it is worth having a plan. This includes campsites.
A lot of people choose campers, which is an excellent option and Iceland is set up for them. Just be aware of the weather. Iceland has unpredictable winds, snow and ice, so take your time when you’re driving. There are rules around where you can pitch a tent or park your camper, so make sure you understand them before you decide what to do. You cannot park your camper anywhere you feel like it.
What is there to eat?
Food in restaurants is expensive. Ridiculously expensive. Coming from Australia, food in supermarkets isn’t too expensive, however people from other countries may cringe a little. Fairly understandable considering they have to import so many of the items on the shelves. There are Bónus supermarkets in most of the small towns around Iceland, who seemed to be fairly priced.
If you want to eat out, then there are a lot of food places around, though be aware that smaller towns may not have the population to support restaurants during the off peak season. Reykjavik has excellent restaurants to dine in.
Be aware there are dishes that many people may find...detestable. Whale, puffin and horse are found on a lot of restaurant menus. If you want my advice, try the horse at least once. It was excellent. I tried many different things while I was in Iceland, some I am not proud of, but only one thing I wouldn’t try again.
Alcohol in Iceland will crush your travel budget. Even duty free in Reykjavik isn’t great. If you want to drink, I recommend buying alcohol at duty free in another country before landing. No surprises that Australia was cheaper than Iceland.
Mobile coverage and internet
Other than driving through a tunnel and over a couple of mountain passes, there was mobile coverage all along the Ring Road. All the places we stayed at had wifi and solid internet. In most places, it was better than my home in Australia.
I was travelling with friends from the UK and the US who had mobile coverage on their existing plans for a small roaming charge per day.
What is there to do?
There are a huge number of sights and activities on or close to the Ring Road, including landscapes, beautiful waterfalls, wildlife spotting and hiking. There are small museums dotted around Iceland, showcasing the history of this unique culture.
For me, the best part was being in Iceland. The landscape changes almost constantly and abruptly. One moment you are driving through a large volcanic field, the next you are in snowcovered fields, then weaving along a shoreline next to massive mountains.