The ultimate Roadtrip guide to western Iceland
Iceland has never been a more popular travel destination than it is today and the number of tourists passed ten million in 2017. If, for example, you want to visit the Blue Lagoon, you’re advised to book well in advance - and the place will still be crowded anyway. We got into the car with the aim of visiting some of the places where there’s still room to experience the Iceland we imagine from the photographs. What can we expect from a weekend?
It's bright sunshine when we get in the car and leave Reykjavik. Everyone we meet says the weather has never been as good at this time of year. After driving for an hour, we stop at Esjan where we’re met by people running and exercising. The volcanic mountain is 914m high and the oldest parts date back over three million years. Kerhólakambur (851m) and Þverfellshorn (780m) are the most popular destinations. They are at different levels, but allow a couple of hours for a good nature experience. But check the weather forecast first. Esjan holds the record for the number of accidents on Iceland, but that’s because people don’t respect ice, rain and fog.
Might be the best one-day hike on Iceland
Did you know that: Esjan is not actually a mountain, it’s a series of volcanic heights. Its closeness to the capital city has made it one of most accessible and popular day outings for both locals and tourists.
Kjalarnes, 10km from Reykjavik
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A blue sea of flowers decorates the sides of the road as we continue westwards. Just over an hour later, we reach Borgarfjörður, a fjord, a small area and the stuff of sagas. It’s a place where warriors, poets and historians such as Egill Skallagrímsson and Snorri Sturluson, are said to have lived. Fewer than 4,000 people live here, the majority in the villages of Reykholt and Borgarnes. If you’re interested in history, farming, classic cars, the coast and salmon fishing, we can happily recommend spending a few hours here.
The capital of puffins
Did you know that Iceland is home to over half the world’s population of puffins, and over 10,000 pairs nest in the fjord here every summer. Viewing platforms have been built to enable you to get a really close view of this rare species.
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Europe’s mightiest cave
Did you know that: Even though it is a lava cave, it can still get pretty chilly here, even in summer. Bring extra clothing so you can adapt to the temperatures.
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The terrain has become rougher and stony. We see fewer and fewer cars and feel we have the road and the landscape to ourselves along Route 523. An hour later, we reach the lava cave Víðgelmirthat’s simply called The Cave. We’re greeted by Hörður Míó Ólafsson. A family owned company bought the property in 2015 and opened for business the following year. Visitors come here from all round the world today.
“West Iceland is one of the places where you can come and experience Iceland as it’s portrayed in the media. There are fewer people here and we have managed to keep something of the mystic feeling as the media have never swamped the market,” says Ólafsson who has just returned from a guided tour of the cave. Now his son wants to sit on his lap and the dog wants to play.
The Cave is 1,585m long with archaeological finds dating back to 1000 CE. Víðgelmir extends over 150,000 square meters in total. A guided tour takes 90 minutes.
“We have built a walkway so most people are able to take the tour and it’s becoming increasingly popular destination,” says Ólafsson, who adds that this is the biggest cave on Iceland.
The caves were created by volcanic craters under Langjökull glacier. The colors and formations are incredible and hard to really appreciate from photographs, before you stand there and see them for yourself. You can borrow a helmet and headlight, and you’re advised to wear gloves, warm clothing and hiking boots or similar.
“We have the infrastructure, accessibility and information in place, but if you prefer, you can be a bit more free and explore the cave by yourself. It’s the best of both worlds,” says Ólafsson pouring a bit more coffee.
Comfort and elegance in the heart of nature
Having driven from green Esjan, via historic Borgarfjörður, to the natural barrenness around the cave, you might be ready to call it a day. Hótell Húsafell (four stars) is a designer delight that’s integrated into the Icelandic landscape. The hotel offers a luxury stay but uses 100 percent, locally produced clean energy. Mainly hydropower based on the crystal clear water that flows from the lava springs. The rooms are decorated with paintings by world famous artist Pall Gudmundsson. The restaurant features fresh Icelandic ingredients on the menu. A stone’s throw away is the 186kg rock, Húsafellsteinen, that strong men and women have tried to lift for hundreds of years. Here, you can relax in a bath or simply enjoy a glass of wine while gazing into the distance.
Húsafell 311, Borgarbyggð
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Shooting images at Hraunfossar
With renewed energy along Route 518, we don’t take long to reach Hraunfossar, that’s been a national monument since 1987. The name can be translated as lava waterfall. This is the place to bring out your camera. Countless springs and streams of clear water flow briskly through the landscape. The flows are so extensive, around about a kilometer, that it’s almost impossible to get them all in one shot. After a quick photo shoot, we let our thoughts and eyes flow with the water.
Rest at Háafell
The wind takes a firm grip on the car. The few trees you can see through the window look like they’ve had more than enough of trying to stay rooted. We’ve barely set off and the “road” has already turned into gravel. Dust and stone chips follow us as we head to the farm of Jóhanna B. Þorvaldsdóttir. She explains that she doesn’t want coach loads of tourists here. Nor does she want paying for coffee, and that it's all about the animals and finding peace.
“Most people who come to us are interested in animals and nature and want to go to smaller places that aren’t full of tourists. It’s very relaxing here, and we can offer good products that we make ourselves from both our goats and pastures,” says Þorvaldsdóttir, who has 420 goats, hens and other animals.
“I’ve got loads of children, both two-legged and four-legged,” she says.
They had around 7,000 visitors last year and this number is continuously rising. On the grass outside, an American girl is holding a goat for the very first time. She’s absolutely thrilled, like a child experiencing summer warmth for the first time.
“Have you heard of Game of Thrones? They came here and asked for twenty goats for the TV series. One of them still lives here,” says Edda, who works here. She came to the farm for the first time as a visitor last summer and fell in love with the place and the goats.
“They are so sweet, relaxed but smart and playful at the same time. The perfect animals for children as they are so funny,” she says, picking up a kid and giving it a kiss.
Our heart rate has really come down and it’s easy to forget the time, but we need to push on. The farmworkers tell us about several places where we can rent horses and go for a ride in the wild. And they say Krauma in particular is worth seeing.
Relaxing in Krauma
The worst of the wind has died down and we’re ready to visit Europe’s most powerful hot spring. The water comes from Deildartunguhver and arrives at 100°C before being cooled by spring water from Rauðsgil. We start by taking a dip in one of the five outdoor pools. After all the different impressions and hours in the car, it’s wonderful to have a soak in the hot water. It’s only day two, but I feel as though we’ve been here a month already. We discuss whether to try the cold pool but head to the steam bath instead. Here, water from the hot sources is sprayed under wooden benches. We only try one pool before going to the relax area. I feel an inner warmth, as the stove crackles, a stillness descends and the chair feels steadily softer.
“There are so many fantastic places you can visit in West Iceland, from glaciers and deep caves to mountains and hot springs. I think both travel agents and tourists value this, plus it’s only a short distance to travel from Reykjavik,” says Managing Director Jonas Gridrik Hjartarson, who expects around 42,000 visitors this year.
The day ends in a restaurant where Icelandic cuisine with local raw ingredients is on the menu. We chew on some bread with lava salt and a glass of malt beer, while wondering if we dare order goat. As, when all said and done, I was holding, petting and playing with the goats at Háafell not that many hours ago.
“Lamb for me,” says the photographer.
“Me, too,” I say.
Published: July 22, 2019