While looking at places that I’ll love in retirement, I like to reflect on places I already love. I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite travel destinations and one of the most beautiful places in the world: Iceland!
Here’s a list of my top things to see on Iceland’s Southern Ring Road.
Iceland’s Ring Road, also known as Route 1, circles the entire island of Iceland. The Southern half of Iceland’s Ring Road extends from Reykjavik on Iceland’s Southwest shore to Hofn on the far Southeast coast.
1. Reyjayvik’s Laugavegar and Phallus Museum
Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland and also the country’s capital city. It’s also a great starting point for all Iceland adventures since it’s the closest big city to the international airport. Laugavegar is the main street in Reykjavik and a place I recommend all tourists visit during their stay in the country’s capital city. We saw Elvis Costello strolling along Laugavegar in a trench coat when we visited. Laugavegar is home to the bars, fashion boutiques, souvenir shops, the most delicious ice cream shop in the city, Eldur & Is, and also home to the Iceland Phallus Museum.
The Iceland Phallus Museum is home to phalluses ranging from donated human phalluses to whale phalluses. The photo opportunities were endless. I saw phalluses taller and fatter than me, and it made me glad I wasn’t a sperm whale.
In all of Iceland, during summer, there’s 24 hours of sunlight so the city stays bright and lively all through the night which makes exploring Laugavegar an easy task. Imagine leaving a bar at 2am and still having the sun hanging in the sky. Or taking a midnight walk and shooting photos as if it was broad daylight. It was pretty amazing!
2. The Blue Lagoon
Twenty miles (32 kilometers) south of Reykjavik, the man-made geothermal spa of Blue Lagoon pops out of a lava field. An exit off Ring Road clearly labeled the way. One helpful hint: Exit signs are in Icelandic so look for the exit labeled Blaa Lonio. Blaa Lonio means Blue Lagoon in Icelandic.
Warm, bright blue, mineral-rich waters with healing properties made the Blue Lagoon famous. The water’s minerals and silica mud bottom posses healing properties and work together as an exfoliator and cure for skin ailments. Soft, silica rich white mud lined the bottom of the lagoon. The mud squished between our toes and felt like sand mixed with jelly. We took the white mud and slathered it on our faces to make mud masks, let it sit for a good ten minutes, and washed it off. The mud masks made us feel very clean and pretty, just like after a spa treatment.
Hvergardi is a small town directly off Ring Road. The town is small and quaint, but the real highlight is the heated river trail. Take the main (and only) road through Hvergardi, make a left at the end of the road, and head out past the golf course. At the far edge of the golf course, there’s a sign for a trailhead marking the start of a three (3) kilometer trail. The trail passes over rolling hills and leads to a naturally heated river, perfect for a warm dip on a cool afternoon. It’s all uphill for the 3 kilometers so be prepared to bring hiking shoes and a bathing suit (optional) for a dip in the river.
4. Lava Field Horse Rides
Icelandic Horse adventures are available for rides through the lava fields along Ring Road. We spent a morning riding horses when we visited. We rode horses through grey, rocky fields. Then after a good 30 minutes of riding and jumping, the horses posed for photos with us and ate carrots from our hands. When we weren’t riding them, the horses rolled on their backs in the dirt, like muddy pigs. So cute!
5. Hidden Caves
Caves hide in the lava fields, just out of view from the Ring Road. (I don’t recommend anyone exploring caves on their own). We hired a guide to lead us through some of these caves and show us the hidden, underground world of Iceland. It was a full afternoon of spelunking. As part of the tour, we crawled through the caves like villains in a James Bond movie and even found an old sheep skeleton inside the cave’s tunnels. It was awesome.
6. Dead Fish
One of the main foods served in Iceland is fish, which is prepared in a variety of fashions. After being plucked from the ocean and prior to being served on the dinner table, fish are dried on racks out in the lava fields. The visit to the fish hanging grounds was a surprise from our cave tour guide. Surprises of all types excite me, but other people on our tour found it gross. It’s all about perspective. Anything that I don’t see at home is pretty exciting to me. Surprisingly, the fish racks didn’t smell bad and there were no flies. Some of the fish heads were shipped to Nigeria, where fish head soup is delicacy. We did not get to eat any fish head soup in Iceland.
Waterfalls dotted Iceland’s Ring Road. Two of the most spectacular include Skogafoss and Sjlelandfsoss. Skogafoss has a winding trail alongside of it that leads to a lookout. The lookout sits at the top of the waterfall and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.
Sjlelandsfoss has a foot path that leads behind the waterfall and legend has it that pirate’s treasure was hidden here. We got soaked walking behind the waterfall so I recommend wearing a rain jacket. Standing behind the rain curtain of the waterfall was an amazing experience, just listening to the pounding force of the water. Sadly, we did not find the treasure but enjoyed the hike behind the waterfall all the same.
8. Black Cliffs of Dryholaey
Dryholaey juts out into the Atlantic Ocean from the South coast of Iceland. Dryholaey’s black cliffs, black sand beaches, and caverns are a stark contrast to the icy blue waters that pound against it. This makes for a fabulous stop-off point on the halfway point to Vik. A hike down Dryhoaley’s black sand beaches made for some amazing photo opportunities.
9. Fishing Villages like Vik
Vik is a small fishing village that serves as a midway point on the Southern Ring Road. Vik has one main road, a grocery store, and several small restaurants that serve fresh fish. Sheep dotted the fields around Vik and were very curious about visitors. They “baah-ed” at us endlessly. Icelandic residents have red hair and fair skin (like me) so I was confused with being a local while in Vik. This was very flattering to me, because I generally stand out as being foreign, but here I looked tan! The grocery store attendant in Vik spoke to me in Icelandic, but all I could say in return was “Tak” which means thank you.
10. One-Lane Bridges
Extremely rural and sparsely populated properly described the Eastern side of Iceland. Ring Road didn’t even connect the west and east sides of Iceland until the 1970s. An earthquake and flash floods in the 90s briefly disrupted this connection. Iceland rebuilt the bridge, and one of the key features on the rural, eastern side are one lane, steel bridges. Ring Road uses one-lane bridges to cross old riverbeds and some of the one-lane bridges are several kilometers long with only a few turn-outs to pull aside for passing cars. Luckily, there’s wasn’t much traffic out there when we visited besides the occasional tour bus.
11. National Parks
Glaciers lined the Southeast half of Ring Road. Vatnajokull National Park is home to one of Iceland’s many glaciers, which tourists are able to explore on foot. We hired a strapping, young guide to climb one of the glaciers inside Vatnajokull National Park. The guide smelled amazing, like a rugged, pine-covered lumberjack! We wore cramp-ons during our climb and hiked up the glacier a good half mile (0.8 kilometeres). With the cramp-ons we were able to walk close enough to the edge of crevices to see quite a ways down, which were creepy and deep. As part of our climb, we sampled some of the glacier’s melt water. The melt water tasted like some of the purest water in the world. We’ve been told the Canadian Rockies has the purest water in the world from an Aussie, but we would rank this pretty high! So much better than tap water!
12. Quaint Lodging
Lodging was limited on the Eastern side of Iceland. Don’t expect to find an abundance of hotels and motels on this side of the island. We stayed in one of three small log cabins, on a piece of privately owned farmland overlooking the ocean between Vatnajokull and Jokulsarlon. The owner was jolly and welcoming. He taught us that any native Icelander pronounced all “J’s” as a “Y.” Our host called me “Yodeen” the whole time we stayed there. I never corrected him because I thought it was pretty awesome and he was so sweet.
The cabins were furnished like mini Ikea show rooms and had kitchens, showers, and two sets of bunk beds. It was perfect for an overnight stay. We were able to watch the farm animals from our cabin and saw a border collie (like our Kiwi) jumping fences and chasing sheep. It was wonderful, cheap entertainment.
13. Glacial Lagoons and their Icebergs
Jokulsarlon is a picturesque glacier lagoon at the far southeast end of Ring Road. A hefty glacier calves off into this lagoon and creates large icebergs. We took a boat ride through the lake and got to eat samples of glacial ice. Yum yum!
Jokulsarlon empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The icebergs have two options when leaving Jokulsarlon. Either they float safely out to sea or wash up on the black sand beaches. The ones that wash up on the beaches make for great photo opportunities!
The Southern half of Ring Road was amazing and I’m sure there’s a million more things we could have seen and done. We plan to go back to Iceland in the near future and explore the Northern portion of Ring Road. Wherever we go or whatever we do, Iceland will always be one of my favorite places. I encourage everyone to go there and fall in love with it as well.