Surrounded by North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean, Iceland is the
largest part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that rises above sea level, and its
central volcanic plateau is erupting almost constantly. Lying on the
active geologic border between North America and Europe, Iceland is a land
of vivid contrasts of climate, geography, and culture. Sparkling glaciers
lie across its ruggedly beautiful mountain ranges; abundant hot geysers
provide heat for many of the country’s homes and buildings and allow for
hothouse agriculture year-round; and the offshore Gulf Stream provides a
surprisingly mild climate for what is one of the northernmost inhabited
places on the planet. Iceland is the most sparsely populated
country in Europe (with a population less than 400,000 and population
density less than 4/km^2). Until the 20th century, Iceland
relied largely on subsistence fishing and agriculture. Industrialization of
the fisheries and Marshall Plan aid following World War II brought
prosperity, and Iceland became one of the wealthiest and most developed
nations in the world.
Getting there ...
We had a full travel day on 3/15 (an early flight to Newark and a red-eye
flight arriving in Reykjavik in the early morning on 3/16). The main
part of this trip was to join a
photo workshop by Casey
to chase the Northern Lights in a campervan. We arrived 2 days before
the workshop tour so we could have some time to explore the capital city
Reykjavik by ourselves, and we will have one more day after the workshop to
stay at the hotel at the Blue Lagoon to make Woanyu happy :-)
I was hoping to get to the city for the sunrise (7:45AM) since our flight
landed at 6AM. However, we were stuck in a long queue for immigration
and also a long wait for the rental car...
3/16 (Day 2) ...
- Sun Voyager
We drove to Sun Voyager directly and got there at around 8:45AM before
any tourists showed up. Sun Voyager (Sólfar), a gleaming steel
sculpture on Reykjavik’s splendid waterfront by Jon Gunnar Arnason, is
described as a dreamboat, or an ode to the Sun, intending to convey the
promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.
After dropped off the luggage at our hotel and had a simple breakfast,
we walked to Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland's tallest and
largest church and Reykjavík's main landmark. Named after 17th-century
hymn writer and church scholar Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson, the church
design was inspired by the basalt lava columns that line many areas
along Iceland’s coast and the shape of the futuristic structure is a
cross between a glacier and a rocket ship. We went up the
73-meter high tower, which provided fantastic 360-degree views of
After lunch on the
Skólavörðustígur street, our hotel room was ready to check in and we took a
very needed break after a long day of traveling.
- Parliament House & City Hall
After the break, we walked to
the Parliament House (Alþingishúsið) and the City
Hall. The lake Tjörnin behind the City Hall was all frozen and it
was fun to walk and slide across the lake.
- Icelandic Phallological Museum
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is a very unique museum which houses
the world's largest display of penises and penile parts with the
collection holds well over 300 penises from more than 100 species of
mammal. It's quite an interesting experience to look at so many
different species in all various sizes and shapes. Just don't feel
- Rainbow Street
The rainbow street is located at the far end of
the Skólavörðustígur street in the heart of Reykjavik. The
rainbow street is a sign of joy and support for diversity. The
initiative is organized by the city of Reykjavík in cooperation with
Reykjavík Pride since 1999. As a part of this celebration,
Skólavörðustígur Street was painted in rainbow colors, but only
recently, in 2019, this rainbow street became permanent.
Harpa Reykjavik Concert
Hall and Conference Centre is a cultural and social center in the heart
of the city and features stunning views of the surrounding mountains and
the North Atlantic Ocean. Harpa is an enchanting destination for
intrigued travellers and its grand-scale award-winning architecture has
attracted 10 million guests since its opening, May 4, 2011.
concert tonight: The Marriage of Figaro (overture) by W.A. Mozart,
Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms, The Iceland Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
3/17 (Day 3) ...
Perlan resembles a
pearl sitting on top of Reykjavík. It is surrounded by the charming
woodland of Öskjuhlíð hill, with 360° views all over the capital area.
Perlan houses a modern nature exhibition (Wonders of Iceland is an
exhibition that shows of Icelandic nature, glaciers, geysers, and
volcanoes), a real indoor ice cave (100 meters long built with over 350
tons of snow), a 4K planetarium (showing an amazing aurora film), a 360°
viewing platform, and a lovely cafe (perfect for lunch).
- Sky Lagoon
Sky Lagoon is
a newly opened geothermal spa located approximately only 7 kilometres
(4.3 mi) south of downtown Reykjavík. Construction of Sky
Lagoon began in early 2020 and was completed in 2021. We took the
7-step Ritual and
really enjoyed our first hot spring experience in Iceland.
3/18 (Day 4) ...
- Happy Camper
started today with the pick up of our campervan at the Happy Camper (and
returned our rental car to the airport). We have not done any
camping for almost 20 years, and we have never had a campervan before,
so we were actually quite nervous when we decided to do this
At about noon we had all the group
members (total 4 campervans including the guide Casey) gathered and
ready to go. After a quick grocery shopping, we were heading
toward our first day's destination: Kirkjufellsfoss
at the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. When we crossed the mountains to the
north side of the peninsula, the weather had changed dramatically and
snow began to fall...
Kirkjufellsfoss (“Church Mountain Falls”) was a
short but very well-situated waterfall near the distinctive Kirkjufell
mountain on the north side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is one
of Iceland's most visited and most iconic sites. It's a short
5-min walk to the classic view point for the mountain and waterfalls.
It was too cloudy to have any chance to see aurora tonight.
We had a late dinner at a very nice local restaurant
in the nearby town Grundarfjörður. It was one of the best meals we
have ever had (lamb and cod, even I started to love Icelandic cod!).
We booked a
Happy 2 - 3pax
(configuration) as our
home for the next 7 days. It was actually quite cozy and
comfortable to sleep in a campervan. The heater was capable of
maintaining good temperature for the entire night. We both felt we
had better sleep in the campervan than in the hotel room :-)
3/19 (Day 5) ...
- Budakirkja (Black Church)
Búðakirkja is a small wooden church
located on the south side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is a
local parish church that was first established in 1703 but the current
church was built in1848. The church is known for its beauty, both the
building itself and in contact with the surrounding area.
After lunch at a small cafe in the
Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we drove to Öxarárfoss in Þingvellir
(Thingvellir) National Park. The historical reason that makes
Þingvellir so famous is that it was the original site of Alþingi
(Assembly), the Icelandic parliament founded in 930 AD. Icelanders
would meet annually to pass laws, settle disputes, and share news.
According to the Sturlunga Saga, the Öxará River (Ax River) had been
diverted to the plains of what would become Þingvellir to ensure there
was adequate water for the assembly’s attendees, and created the
13-meter tall, 6-meter wide Öxarárfoss flowing into the Almannagjá
gorge. In winter, the waterfall is entirely frozen over.
Our destination today is a campground in Selfoss, the
gateway to the South Coast of Iceland. The campground has a good
facility including showers and kitchen, and we enjoyed our
first cooked meal
for our campervan trip.
3/20 (Day 6) ...
Due to the bad weather and coming storm, instead of
continuing going east to the South Coast, we decided to turn west to the
Reykjanes Peninsula and hoped we could have a clear sky later tonight.
The church is a landmark for travellers at sea. It
has more supporters all over the world than any other church in Iceland.
The story is one night when a group of sailors tried to navigate back to
Iceland in a storm. The distressed sailors prayed to God for a safe
return and vowed to build a church wherever they landed. When they ended
their prayer an angel, seemingly made of light, appeared before their
bow. The angel guided them through the rough surfs and led the crew into
a bay for safe landing. The sailors kept their promise, and built a
wooden church at the site and named it Strandarkirkja.
- Gígvatnsvatn & Seltun Geothermal Area
We continued our drive
to a geothermal area called Seltúnshverir (or Krýsuvíkurhverir).
The hot springs and mud pools are right by the road with a short wooden
path to several platforms. You could see vivid yellow and orange
colors of sulphur, and could also smell the stink immediately after you
got off the car.
Selatangar was a big fishing outfit and was abolished
after 1880. A short unpaved road leads to the coast with rugged
terrain, jagged rocks, and crumbled ruins. It was so windy that it
was a spectacular view to see waves crash at the rocky shore.
- Gunnuhver Hot Springs & Valahnúkamöl
Gunnuhver is a highly
active geothermal area of mud pools and steam vents on the southwest
part of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Iceland’s largest mud pool
resides at Gunnuhver; it is 20 meters (65 ft) wide of violently boiling
earth. A unique characteristic of the Gunnuhver hot springs is that the
groundwater here is 100% seawater,
Valahnúkamöl, is the most south-western tip of
Reykjanes peninsula and is considered to be the most scenic landscapes in
the area. It is essentially a group of beautiful and unique rock formations
and cliffs standing tall in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean near the shore.
The statue of the Great Auk is
also located on these cliffs close to the area where the last mating pair
was killed in 1844.
- Icelandic Horses
We had our first encounter of Icelandic horses on our way to Garður.
Developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and
10th centuries, selective breeding over the centuries has developed the
breed into its current form. Icelandic horses weigh between 330 and 380
kilograms (730 and 840 lb) and stand an average of 13 and 14 hands (52
and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) high, which is often
considered pony size. Today, Icelandic law prevents horses
from being imported into the country and exported animals are not
allowed to return.
The Garðskagaviti lighthouse,
located on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland, is a historic and
picturesque lighthouse that offers stunning views of the surrounding
area. The lighthouse was built in 1897 and stands at a height of
11.4 meters (37 ft). The lighthouse is painted in traditional red and
white stripes, making it a striking and recognizable landmark. The
old lighthouse remained in operation until 1944, when a new, larger
lighthouse was constructed. The new Garðskagaviti is significantly
taller, standing 28.6 m (94 ft).
We stayed at the campground at the lighthouse for
tonight hoping to get some northern lights. Although the sky remained
mostly clear till mid-night, there was no sign/color of aurora in the sky
3/21 (Day 7) ...
- Snow Storm
When we woke up in the morning, we were surprised to see
a totally different world. Everything was covered in a thick white
coat. With heavy snow and poor visibility, we decided to wait it out
and stayed at the campground until noon when the snow finally stopped.
We moved to Selfoss in the afternoon although the weather
was still bad. The Route 1 (Ring Road) was still closed between
Skógar and Vik. We did a little bit grocery shopping and relaxed
at the campground, and hoped we could make the trip toward the South
3/22 (Day 8) ...
- Although the weather had improved, the forecast still showed snow
and cloud along the South Coast. Instead of going east, we turned
back again to west and headed to the Snæfellsnes
Peninsula where the forecast showed a clear sky tonight. It's about
300km drive to where we were on the 1st day of the tour.
- Icelandic Horses
We had another close encounter with a herd of
Icelandic horses. They were really cute and friendly!
- Lóndrangar & Arnarstapi
Lóndrangar basalt cliffs are amongst the many geological wonders of the
Snæfellnes Peninsula. Once a volcanic crater, all that remains after
aeons of ocean battering are two great pillars upon a cliff, one 75
metres (246 ft) high and the other 61 metres (200 ft). Their dramatic
scale has earned this incredible formation the nickname ‘the rocky
Arnarstapi was an important trading post in the
past and had a much bigger population than it has now. A walk
along the coastline is good to watch the birds and the magnificent lava
formations. The seaside and the cliffs between Arnastapi and Hellnar have
been made a Natural Reserve in 1979.
- Driving to Kirkjufellsfoss
The sky started to clear up after sunset.
We went back to the parking lot of Kirkjufellsfoss
after a nice dinner and began the wait for aurora to show.
Fortunately, our strategy (driving 300km from Selfoss to the west)
worked and the northern lights started to glow before mid-night.
We quickly walked to the viewpoint to capture the iconic views of Kirkjufellsfoss
with colorful aurora sky.
3/23 (Day 9) ...
It's a beautiful day when we woke up with amazing
- We began our long drive back to the east toward the South Coast
(another 300+ km).
Seljalandsfoss is located in the South Region
right by Route 1. Due to the waterfall’s close proximity to the Ring
Road and impressive natural features (with a drop of 60 meters (200
ft)), it is one of the country's most famous and visited falls. There is
a trail which can go behind the waterfall, but it is too icy to open to
public in winter.
- Reynisfjara Beach
With its enormous basalt stacks, roaring
Atlantic waves, and stunning panoramas, Reynisfjara is widely considered
to be the most beautiful example of Iceland’s black sand beaches. Rising
up out of the sand are amazing cliffs formed of basalt columns in
hexagonal shape. The most recognizable feature of Reynisfjara are
the huge basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar. According to legend these
stacks were formed by two trolls who attempted to drag a three-masted
ship to their cave ashore. Unfortunately for them day break caught them
out and they were turned into the needles of rock.
After visiting the beach (with my boots all wet...),
we went the town of Vik to have an early dinner and discussed about what we
should do next at night (it's still too cloudy in Vik to have a good view of
- Chasing Northern Lights
After dinner, we decided to continue to
go east because the weather forecast the sky will start to clear up from
the east in a couple of hours. We drove from Vik to the east
on the Ring Road for about an hour and we started to see the aurora in
the sky even when it was not very dark yet. When we finally found
a good spot to stop at ~9:40PM, the aurora was dancing in the sky
At about 10:20PM, we started driving back toward west
(we planned to camp at Skógar tonight) when the
clear sky had also moved west. We found another place to stop for more
aurora shooting, and this time the aurora was like a curtain hanging from
the sky. We later learned that
strong solar winds hit the Earth today and created a strongest geomagnetic
storm (G4-class) in 6 years! We continued to shoot and enjoy the
northern lights way passed mid-night, and we did not get to our campground
in Skógar until almost 2AM.
Some technical info about aurora: the most
common aurora color is green, which happens when oxygen atoms are excited at
altitude of 100-250km. When solar winds are stronger with more energy,
they can penetrate the further down into the atmosphere (~80km of altitude)
to collide and ionize nitrogen molecules, which can emit blue/purple color.
During the exceptional intense geomagnetic storms, the oxygen atoms at
higher altitude (~200-300km) will be excited at a different state, which
will emit bright red color.
3/24 (Day 10) ...
We walked to the
Skógafoss in the early morning since we just camped in the parking lot
Skógafoss is one of Iceland’s biggest and most
beautiful waterfalls with an astounding width of 25 meters (82 feet) and
a drop of 60 meters (197 feet). Skógafoss is located near the
small village of Skógar, south of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier volcano.
The land underneath the waterfall is very flat, allowing visitors to
walk right up to the wall of water although the path was blocked by
lumps of snow and ice in the winter.
Skógafoss can also be viewed from the top as a
steep staircase leads to an observational platform above the cascade. Many
nesting seabirds can be found on the route up.
Our photo workshop tour officially ended here when
our guide Casey said good-bye and drove back to Happy Camper to
return/exchange his campervan. It's really a fantastic experience
for us and we really appreciated Casey's effort and knowledge to guide us
chasing northern lights in Iceland.
Kvernufoss waterfall is a beautiful 30-meters high (98
ft) waterfall that is half-hidden away in a gorge in South Iceland.
It is in a small canyon only 1.5km to the east of the popular Skógafoss
waterfall and is often overlooked by travellers. It was an easy
20-min walk and it was possible to walk behind the waterfalls in the
cave although it's a little bit icy and slippery. We had the
entire waterfalls and cave to ourselves when we spent about an hour
exploring and photographing here.
- Driving to Blue Lagoon
After our last camp lunch in the campervan, we started our drive along
the Ring Road to the Reykjanes Peninsula for our
final destination: Blue Lagoon.
- Retreat Hotel,
in 1992 to unlock the benefits of geothermal seawater, Blue Lagoon
Iceland has evolved into a company encompassing transformative spa
experiences, research and development, sustainability, culinary
enjoyment, a renowned line of skin care, and the convergence of
hospitality and wellness. In 2012, the Blue Lagoon was named one
of 25 wonders of the world by National Geographic, propelling the
majestic, healing waters into the upper echelons of global travel
We booked a room at the Retreat Hotel which has a
private lagoon sourced from the same healing waters as the Blue Lagoon.
As hotel guests, we have unlimited access to the Retreat Spa and the
Retreat Lagoon, as well as the main Blue Lagoon via a private secret
entrance into the lagoon directly.
The Retreat Lagoon is a secluded way to enjoy the
hot springs in the lava canyons and hidden corridors. Since privacy
is one of the keys for hotel guests, no cell phone/photos are allowed in
the Retreat Lagoon. However, they do have an onsite photographer in
the lagoon to take pictures for you!
- Blue Lagoon
After dinner, we went to the main Blue Lagoon where
we could have free 3 different silica/mud face masks. Although
there were more people in the main lagoon, I did feel it was more fun to
enjoy the vibe and the larger pool in the main lagoon. Since our
secret entrance will be closed at 8PM, we had to find our back after
only applied 2 face masks. We will try the 3rd mask tomorrow.
Another good night for strong aurora (although it was only
green color tonight)!
3/25 (Day 11) ...
- Blue Lagoon
We went to the main lagoon at 8AM when it was just
open and we found nobody else for the first 10-15 minutes.
We returned to the Retreat Spa to have
Ritual: starting with the 15-min sauna, and followed by cycles
of different treatments: Silica (the Blue Lagoon’s iconic white mineral,
cleanses and strengthens your skin), Algae (renews, nourishes, and
moisturizes your skin), and Minerals (the Blue Lagoon’s uniquely potent
array of minerals have energizing effects on your mind and body).
Since we were able to have a late check-out, we had a relaxed
breakfast in our bathrobes after the spa ritual.
Planning an extra day to stay at the Blue Lagoon
was probably the best touch to this Iceland trip considering we only
showered twice during our 7-day/6-night campervan journey :-)
Going Home ...
After checked out of the Retreat Hotel, we drove back to Happy Camper to
return the campervan and took the shuttle to the airport. Iceland is
truly an amazing place with very unique landscape/seascape (mountains,
waterfalls, small churches, and combinations of ice and fire, etc.).
Although we did not have enough time (or not allowed by the weather
conditions) to explore many special places around Iceland, we have learned
quite a few new experiences in this trip: campervan is really a nice
and cozy way to travel; seeing aurora dance in the sky is as magical as it
could be; hot springs in Iceland is really an enjoyable way to relax;
Icelandic horses are more like pets than farm animals; Icelandic cods have
become one of my favorite foods...
In fact, we were not going home yet.
We had a flight to Newark and would take the chance to
visit Linus and Miriam in New York
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