Our trip to Iceland was split into two parts: Our five days based in Reykjavík, which you’ve been reading about thus far, and our three days road-tripping around The Golden Circle and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. For us, this was the perfect combination of urban exploring and hitting the open road! Those three days in our little rental car would bring us from wild adventures like snowmobiling on a glacier to poignant ones like standing in front of the most dramatic vistas these eyes have ever seen.
After completing the Golden Circle route, on day one, we set off north of Reykjavík through the scenic Hvalfjörður Fjord. It was the perfect introduction to what would become a theme of the trip — staring silently, jaws slacked and slightly drooling at the views through the windshield until one of us would invariably state that it was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen.
I was most interested in this area because it is home to Iceland’s largest whaling station – a site of great controversy — but security is apparently extremely tight because we couldn’t even find the place. Our consolation prize was this bizarre tiny “Whale Museum” attached to the side of a petrol station.
We were passing many charming little towns and hike-able mounts, but it was for good reason. Don’t let the light in the photos below deceive you, it was nearly 9pm when they were taken! The twenty-four hour summer sun did benefit us in that we never had to worry about driving in the dark in an unfamiliar country.
Our destination for the night was the waterside town of Borgarnes, a convenient stopping point en route to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
While we were overwhelmed with options for luxury accommodation in Reykjavík, finding hotels of the same standard outside the capital was more of a challenge. In Borgarnes we stayed at the Hotel Hamar, a very efficient and Scandinavian-feeling golf hotel. Golfers we are not but we did enjoy the lush views and the hot tubs — features ubiquitous at many Iceland hotels.
In the morning, we set off for the Settlement Center — a museum so raved about that it convinced us to make Borgarnes our stopping point for the night. We donned headsets that walked us through both of the center’s fantastic interactive exhibitions while obviously violating the no camera rule.
The Settlement Center lived up to the hype. I left with both a better understanding of the history of Iceland and its Sagas as well as a major respect for whoever put together such a fantastic museum in a little town in West Iceland. Also, the restaurant served us one of the best meals we had in all of Iceland. Get thee to the Settlement Center!
From Borgarnes we drove straight through to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We had chosen this area for our mini road-trip because it was small and close to Reykjavík, meaning we could spend just as much time out of the car as in it. With only a few days we did not have time to circle The Ring Road, one of the most famous road trips in the world. However, Lonely Planet Iceland assured us that Snæfellsnes would offer “a cross section of the best Iceland has to offer in a very compact region.”
And so our first stop was quaint Stykkishólmur, the largest town on the peninsula with a population of 1,100 residents. The hamlet was a charming combination of colorful maritime houses, a harbor surrounded by basalt islands, and a peculiar futuristic church.
This was certainly a different side of Iceland to the cosmopolitan lifestyle we had encountered in Reykjavík. Walking through this somewhat isolated and provincial town, we speculated what life was like for its residents.
One thing I was delighted to finally spot was a nod to Iceland’s elf culture. Polls of Icelanders are consistent in showing that the majority of citizens do in fact believe in the existence of elves, and roads and building projects are often adjusted so as not to disturb the supernatural beings. It’s a fascinating yet touchy subject that The New York Times did a fantastic job of writing about.
Eventually we wandered off the streets and into The Library of Water, a permanent exhibition by American artist Roni Horn. Housed in what was once the town’s actual library is an installation of 24 floor-t0-ceiling columns, each filled with water from 24 unique glaciers. Today the space is used not only as an exhibition space but also for small concerts, gatherings and even yoga classes.
The small room is filled with thousands of different viewpoints as the water reflects and refracts whatever is on the other side — people, views out the window, other columns. Each column is dedicated to a single glacial source, and a chart allowed us to find which columns held parts of glaciers we had seen or were going to see on our trip. Despite having a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, I’m often unimpressed by installation and conceptual art. But I felt the artist’s deep love for Iceland, and being here amongst parts of glaciers from all around the country was a truly unique experience.
Our next stop in Stykkishólmur was Noska Húsið, the oldest building in the area and home to the municipal museum. Built by local merchant Arni Thorlacius in 1832, this was the first two-story house in Iceland and for many decades it was the largest.
Because Iceland has almost no sources of natural timber, Arni personally traveled to Norway to fetch the building materials and also hired an architect from Copenhagen, both facts contributing to the nickname “The Nordic House”. Today, the building has been restored to show a typical upper-class home in 19th century Iceland.
I was eager to hop on one of Seatours‘ wildlife-spotting boat trips around the bay and its many islands. However my mom and sis were a bit boated out, so in the spirit of compromise we instead hiked up to Sugandisey, a basalt island that is home to the town’s lighthouse and great views of the by.
Sometimes compromise works out pretty well.
Eventually we tore ourselves away from Stykkishólmur, as we still had another drive before reaching our hotel for the night. In Iceland, even the shortest stretches of road are guaranteed to hold some sort of curiosity or adventure. Not ten minutes after getting back in the car I called for a photo-op when we passed some particularly punky-looking Icelandic horses, resulting in some of my favorite images from all of Iceland.
Also along this route we drove through Bersekjahraunsvegur (not a typo), a moon-like landscape created by eerie lava fields.
At the far end of the Bersekjahraunsvegur we ran into the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum. This smelly attraction is where tourists go to learn more about the Icelandic tradition of consuming rotting shark flesh. Sorry, does that not sound appetizing to you? The museum owners would be happy to change your mind with a free sampling of hákarl!
The Icelandic delicacy of hákarl is Greenland shark, a species so inedible that is must rot underground for six months before it can be digested by humans. My mom, extremely sensitive to smell, wouldn’t even get out of the car. Olivia and I paid the entrance fee and wandered around inside, but there wasn’t really much to see. I think the real draw here is the free tasting — and for once I felt totally comfortable not getting my money’s worth.
As we pulled away from the smelly sharks and towards our destination of Grundarfjörður, I was again quieted by Iceland’s immense beauty.
In one day we had explored Iceland’s history, delved into its modern art scene, sighed at its natural beauty and learned about its elf-and-shark-loving quirks. I could only imagine what tomorrow would bring.