Exploring the coast of Iceland

This was originally intended to be a “Christmas Special” but I didn’t get around to finishing it in time. Then given it was so cold over Easter I planned to make it an “Easter Special” instead. Easter has come and gone, so I’m a bit late for that too, but there we are, here it is, better late than never.

Much as I enjoy coastal walking I don’t like to use all of my annual leave on coastal walking. When I do make a trip abroad though, if I can, I do like to see some of that countries coastline (assuming I’m going to a country with a coastline, of course). I’ve seen so many different and spectacular coastal landscapes in Britain it can sometimes be a surprise to come across something new and different that we cannot see at home.

In September 2017 I took a trip to Iceland, my second visit to this remarkable country (the first a year earlier). Iceland is sometimes known as the land of Fire and Ice. Fire because of the numerous volcanoes and ice because around 10% of Iceland is covered with glaciers.

Iceland is on the gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It is a volcanic island with numerous active volcanoes, it commonly has earthquakes (mostly minor) and is full of geothermal areas, where you can see steam gushing out from the earth and boiling water on the surface. It was also famous for that volcano no one could pronounce that grounded flights across Europe a few years ago. If you want a week in the sun on a beach, this is not the place to come, but if you want the most amazing natural scenery, a sense of adventure and that you are in a true wilderness, it certainly is.

Iceland has a population of around 330,000 in a country around 80% the size of England What’s more more than 2/3 of the people live in and around the capital, Reykjavik meaning outside of this area the country is very sparsely populated (around 1 person per square km) and as such you see very little man-made activity, it is a true wilderness. In places it can feel like no one has ever been there before and really is nature at it’s rawest.

The downside of the low population density is that public transport is extremely limited. There are frequent buses between the main airport (Keflavik) and the capital, Reykjavik. Reykjavik also  has local buses connecting most parts of the city (though even these do not start until around 11am on Sundays) but away from these areas there are few buses and most that do run are only once or twice a day making planning a journey hard.

That really means you are either tied to taking excursions (there are a number of operators, Reykjavik Excursions and Greyline being the main companies), which fixes you to a specific time (and sometimes day) or hiring a car.

I hired a car on both visits, though also went on a couple of tours. It’s worth noting that driving in Iceland comes with it’s own challenges. Quite a lot of roads, even some main ones are gravel rather than tarmac (and can be quite rutted). Those prefixed with F (known as “F-roads”) are only legal to drive on with a 4×4 vehicle.  Roads in the centre of the island (generally referred to as the Highlands) are typically closed during the winter. You’ll also be offered (as I was) extra insurance to cover against the possibility of damage to the car as a result of volcanic ash, sand storms and gravel (I declined). Speed limits are very low too, a maximum of 90kmh anywhere, even dual carriageways (and on many of the sweeping and deserted roads you’ll struggle to keep to it!) and I was told fines for speeding are very high (thankfully, I didn’t get to find that out the hard way). However away from Reykjavik traffic is generally very light and in my experience a large percentage of the hotels in Reykjavik offer free parking so a car is a practical option here.

So lets get underway with a few photos I took on the coast around Iceland (and a fair few  inland). I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the coast, but what I have seen has whetted my appetite to return and see much more. All the photos are my own, it is a country it seems impossible to take bad photos in!

I’m going to start with perhaps the most impressive of the coastal locations I’ve been to – Jökulsárlón beach. This is located on the south east coast of Iceland, about a 5 hours drive from Reykjavik (hence having booked to spend all my nights in Reykjavik  I went here on a tour as I didn’t fancy 10 hours of driving).

What is unique about this beach is that icebergs break off from a nearby glacier and float across a lake (the deepest in Iceland) into a fast-flowing but very short river that carries the icebergs under the road bridge and out to sea. The waves then wash them a bit along the coast and back onto the black-sand beaches either side. You end up with small icebergs, looking a bit like crystal glass, washed onto the beach and battered by the waves. Large icebergs had a very distinct blue colour I believe because all the air has been crushed out of the water making the ice more dense.

Diamond Beach (Jökulsárlón beach)

Diamond Beach (Jökulsárlón beach)

As a result, it is often referred to as “Diamond Beach”. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I really hope to go back.

You can’t really visit here and not see the glacial lagoon (where the Icebergs come from) either. It is only a 10 minute or so walk away inland. Here you can see the icebergs drifting across the lake but also take a boat trip out onto the lake on an amphibious craft (as I did) to get closer to the icebergs.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

If you are lucky you’ll also be passed a small piece of an iceberg to hold by the guide, as I was!

Now I just need a drink big enough to fit this in

On a clear day you can also see the glacier but I got here just after a period of very heavy rain, so it was quite misty (there is a local saying that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 10 minutes – it seemed to hold true!).

The icebergs have been carved by nature into the most beautiful shapes and have a very bright blue colour.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

The coach tour I was on also stopped at Vik and a couple of waterfalls, which I had also visited independently the previous year, so these photos are a mixture of dates.

This is a village on the south coast. Here large waves come crashing into the black-sand beach and there are spectacular rocks around the bay and just off-shore.

Vik, Iceland

You can get up close and examine the cliffs formed of lava.

Vik, Iceland

It is quite a pretty village, too.

Vik, Iceland

Finally here is a shot of the famous rocks I took at sunset.

Vik at sunset

A couple of miles further east is another impressive beach, Reynisfjara. The main attraction here is the amazing geology.

Here there is a huge cave surrounded by Basalt columns like those found at the Giants Causeway.

Reynisfjara beach

It is worth taking a closer look at the cliffs, too, the columns are amazing.

Basalt columbs on Reynisfjara beach

The view inland is rather nice too, if a little bleak perhaps, as the beach turns to grassland and hills beyond.

Reynisfjara beach

The beach stretches east for many miles. I could spot an arch in the cliffs in the distance, but did not have time to walk further to investigate.

Reynisfjara beach

Near the shore the beach is made of these beautiful black pebbles.

Reynisfjara beach

Heading back on the main road (Road 1) towards Reykjavik you’ll past two spectacular waterfalls both of which I highly recommend stopping at, as the entrance to the car parks for both is right off the main road. The first is Skógafoss.

This an extremely impressive waterfall as a great wall of water plunges straight of the cliffs into a short river to the sea.

Skógafoss

In the UK of course this would be behind a rope or fence with approximately 7,000,000 health and safety notices everywhere. But this is Iceland, not the UK so you can go as close as you dare.

Skógafoss

It is incredibly impressive and the sound of course just has to be heard. Steps are provided here too so you can walk to the top, which I did, so here is the view from the top.

Skógafoss

Whilst you can also look upstream, which is a beautiful unspoilt river, though it was narrower than I expected.

Skógafoss

From the top, you also have views of the flat coastal planes. I’m not sure if that is an island or just tall cliffs that start suddenly in the distance.

Skógafoss

Continuing east, a short distance further along the road you’ll pass, that volcano whose name no one could pronounce (Eyjafjallajökull) that erupted a few years ago.  The farm in front is private so it’s best viewed from the road.

Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland

All is quiet now .. but for how long?

Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland

Continuing west the coast on my left was miles and miles of grey sand, sometimes with moss covered lava between the road and the beach. This sand is the reason car hire companies like to offer extra insurance as I believe when it’s very windy all this sand can blow up to the road and quite literally sandblasts the paint off cars. Thankfully that didn’t happen on my visit.

A few miles further west there is another impressive waterfall right next to the main road. This is Seljalandsfoss and it might look rather less impressive from the road.

Seljalandsfoss

However when you get closer, it is more impressive.

Seljalandsfoss

It has another trick though. The shape of the cliffs here mean you can walk behind the waterfall, something I’ve never done before.

Seljalandsfoss

That was a brilliant experience with all this water just falling off the cliffs in front of you.

Seljalandsfoss

Though you will get quite wet from the spray!

From here I didn’t make any further stop to Reykjavik, the capital city. Reykjavik is not as pretty as many capital cities, much of it is sprawling and not very pretty, but it does have it’s charms.

One of the famous sites is Hallgrímskirkja, a large church on the top of a hill, which I’m afraid I just called the Space Shuttle church, I hope you can see why.

Space Shuttle Church, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

Inside it is large, but quite plain.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

However I was more interested in the fact you could take a lift to the top of the tower, where there were stunning views.

Here you can look over the colourful roofs of Reykjavik and to the sea beyond.

Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja

Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja

From here I made my way down to the tempting shore ahead (I’m always drawn to the coast!), where there is a beautiful view over the bay to the mountains beyond, and this Sun Voyager art work in front.

The Sun Voyager sculpture, Reykjavík

Here I followed the waterfront to the harbour.

Reykjavík

Behind this is another unusual site, the Harpa concert hall. I can’t say I was taken with the outside at all.

Harpa

But they don’t seem to mind you wandering around inside and inside, it is quite something.

Harpa

Especially if you look up to the mirrors on the ceiling, too.

Harpa

The inside was stunning. Once I’d done that it was time to head back into the centre of Reykjavik for some dinner.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

I then headed up to Perlan. This is an unusual building, built around 4 water towers which store geo-thermally heated hot water to be pumped around the city, it has I think a large concert space, but also an outside upper deck you can (freely) walk around. It is a great place to get the sunset over the city.

Sunset over Reykjavik

Sunset over Reykjavik

Now it’s time to leave Reykjavik  and head south west to the Reykjanes Peninsula. This is a large thin peninsula that stretches for many miles (and also has the main airport, Keflavik near the end). I spent a day exploring this area and it’s coast.

The area is known for it’s geothermal areas and one of the main features that arises from this is the Blue Lagoon. Along with the Golden Circle (more on that one later) this is the most visited part of Iceland. Here a large outdoor swimming pool and “wellness centre” has been created out of the geo-thermal springs.

IMG_2400

I didn’t stop for a swim, but you can wander freely around some of the other lakes nearby.

P1020507

In the distance here you can see the steam rising from one of the Geothermal power stations that can be found across Iceland.

IMG_2418

Back to the coast now, which is what I was meant to be talking about! This is Brimketill where a sort of natural pool has been formed out of the lava cliffs.

Brimketill

I didn’t bother to go down to try to reach it, since the cliffs are slippery and the sea rough. However I’d never before seen cliffs formed of lava like this, they are like nothing we have in the UK!

Brimketill

At the very north western tip of this peninsula you can find Gardur, where there is a sand beach (this time not black) and an unusual lighthouse at the far end.

The beach at Garoskagi

Garoskagi

There is a more traditional lighthouse a little back from the coast now, perhaps the original.

Garoskagi

Another coastal area on this peninsula I enjoyed was Valahnúkur. Here again were impressive lava cliffs, which the sea pounds against.

Valahnúkur

Valahnúkur beach

Whilst there is an impressive beach of boulders really rather than pebbles alongside.

Valahnúkur beach

Inland there is much of interest, too. As I mentioned, Iceland is situated between two tectonic plates and where these are pulling apart, it creates a wide (and widening) chasm across the island. This crosses part of the Reykjanes peninsula where you can find the Bridge Between Continents.  Here there is a footbridge over the chasm, which you can cross and enjoy the view.

Bridge between continents

You can also head down into it and walk on the sand between the continents.

Bridge between continents

Finally you can climb the rocky cliffs around and look back to the bridge across the chasm, which you can now only just see.

Bridge between continents

The peninsula also has numerous geo-thermal areas. I stopped at Gunnuhver one such place which is also by the coast and has another lighthouse. However of more interest was the clouds of steam and sulphur coming out of the ground and the noise it makes (which was more what surprised me).

Gunnuhver

There is path where you can walk right through some of the clouds of steam and sulphur, too. Best not to step off the path though, it can melt your shoes!

Gunnuhver

Gunnuhver

Much of the peninsula too is lava fields, often covered in moss.

Lava field on the Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland

Much of the peninsula is bare barren land, rock and lava. As I mentioned this peninsula is where the airport can be found and if you are lucky to get the window seat and have a clear day when you arrive or depart Iceland you can see this peninsula from above.

Here you can see areas of new and old lava.

The Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland

Here is the coast once again and I noticed here how lava appeared to have poured down the ridge of hills slightly inland, near the bottom left.

The Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland

Another area of coast I explored is the Snæfellsnes which is north west of Reykjavik. On the way here you have to get past a large fjord, Borgarfjörður where I stopped for a brief photo stop. The main road goes under this in a tunnel (for which you have to pay a toll) or drive around (which takes about an hour, I opted for the tunnel).

Borgarfjörður at Borgarnes

Reaching the peninsula, right on the coast road around this peninsula you’ll pass Kirkjufell, a place you probably haven’t heard of but might recognise, it is much photographed!

Kirkjufell

The view in the other direction is not bad, either.

Kirkjufell

The road (road 54) around the peninsula is spectacular, I ended up stopping regularly, just to enjoy the views.

Road 54

I’m not sure what this place is called, but it is stunning.

Reflections on road 54

There are beautiful beaches, too (this one is near Ólafsvík).

The coast near Ólafsvík

Heading off the main road, along a gravel bumpy track I reached Skarðsvík where there is a sandy beach backed by lava cliffs.

Skarðsvík Beach

Skarðsvík Beach

Further around, I stopped at Djúpalónssandur. The view inland from the car park to the mountain of Snæfellsjökull is spectacular.

Snæfellsjökull from Djúpalónssandur

However it is the coast that drew me here. The short walk to the beach takes through the lava cliffs, which tower over either side.

The path to the beach at Djúpalónssandur

At the end of which you’ll emerge onto this spectacular beach.

The beach at Djúpalónssandur

You might spot some rusty metal remains on this part of the beach.

The beach at Djúpalónssandur

These are the wreck of a British fishing boat (I think originally from Hull) which ran aground here.

The beach at Djúpalónssandur

Djúpalónssandur

At the south western tip of the peninsula is Malariff lighthouse, which I thought looked a bit like a rocket poised to take off!

Malariff lighthouse

Alongside is another beach with lava cliffs.

Lava cliffs at Malariff

I continued around the south coast of the peninsula to Arnarstapi which has some amazing geology.

The coast at Arnarstapi

The coast at Arnarstapi

There is a nice walk around the coast from here to nearby Hellnar, around 3 miles away. This is another spectacular location, where there is a small harbour, I’m not sure if it’s still used.

Hellnar

Hellnar

Hellnar

My last stop along the coast was at Búðir.

Búðir

Here as you can see is a pretty church with the impressive mountains and cliffs that are just behind the coast (you can just see the coast near the right).

This is surrounded by lava fields, too.

Búðir

Moving on from the Snæfellsnes peninsula there is something that more or less every visitor to Iceland does. The Golden Circle tour. This is the only part of the country away from the capital that can feel busy, as it is very popular, though that is for a very good reason, because it’s stunning. I decided to follow a slightly longer route and in reverse with the aim of seeing a few of the slightly less visited sights and by going the other away avoiding much of the crowds.

First I stopped at the Kerið crater, where for a small fee you can walk around both the top and bottom (you can see the lower path below, too).

Kerið crater, Iceland

Next I stopped at the impressive Faxi waterfall.

Faxi Waterfall

Faxi Waterfall

You’ll find grass-roofed buildings in Iceland too, as here at Skálholt

Skálholt

Next stop for me was somewhere I had really looked forward to – the geothermal area at Strokkur. Here the Strokkur geyser erupts every few minutes. There are other geysers here too, though mostly they are dormant. I’d never seen a geyser before and it’s an experience I’ll not forget in a hury, as with a sudden (and loud whoosh), clouds of boiling water and steam erupt into the sky.

Strokkur Geyser erupting

Strokkur Geyser erupting

This is an interesting area to explore, heading up the hill not only could you get a good view back to the geyser, but to the valley beyond which looked a bit like the Peak District I thought.

Haukadalur, Iceland

Next I stopped at Gullfoss, a massive two-tiered waterfall.

Gullfoss Waterfall

Gullfoss Waterfall

Beyond the waterfall I stopped at Þingvellir National Park. Here once again is the chasm between the continents, which you can walk between.

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

It is an extraordinarily pretty place.

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

Þingvellir National Park

It is historic too, because it’s also the site of the first parliament of Iceland, and there is a visitor centre which tells you a bit more about it.

I did do some walking too, one I particularly enjoyed was to Glymur waterfall. This was thought to be the tallest waterfall in Iceland until a slightly taller one was found in 2011. Nevertheless it is very spectacular and unlike the other waterfalls I’ve seen cannot be reached by car, you have to walk to reach it.

Early on in the walk you’ll need to cross the river. The crossing of the river can be a little challenge, as there isn’t a bridge, you have to cross this log, with nothing but a wobbly rope to help, and step over wet rocks at the far end. (I gather the log is removed in winter).

Botnsá river crossing

However if you make it across that safely you are soon reward with spectacular views down to the steep valley the river has created.

The river Botnsá gorge

You can just see the first glimpse of the waterfall ahead.

Once you are closer it is even more impressive.

Glymur Waterfall

Glymur waterfall

All these photos were of course taken during the day. However there is plenty to experience at night too. Iceland is far enough north that unless you visit in high summer (when it does not get dark enough), you are likely to be able to see the Northern Lights. The trick is to head away from any artificial light to an area where the sky is clear and hope that you are lucky (there are also forecasts of the magnetic activity to give you an idea of the likelihood of the lights appearing). As I wasn’t confident of a good place to go I went on a tour for this, which was certainly worth it, as we were rewarded with a sighting. The guide was also instructing us on the best camera settings to use to capture the spectacle and I was quite pleased with my attempts.

The Northern Lights above Þingvellir National Park

The Northern Lights above Þingvellir National Park

The Northern Lights above Þingvellir National Park

As it was around 2:30am by the time the tour finished, I was glad that most of the tour companies will collect you and drop you back directly at your hotel, as I was. It’s certainly a sight I won’t forget, and I hope I’m lucky enough to see the Northern Lights again some day.

I was stunned by Iceland and it’s a country I plan to go back to and explore further, hopefully many more times and I hope this whistle-stop tour has shown a few of the highlights of the coast and beyond.

There are a few practicalities – it does get very cold in winter and day light hours are limited in winter (but it is not so far north that there isn’t any daylight in winter), but this makes it a good time to see the Northern Lights. There can be a lot of snow and ice in winter too. In summer it is light until after midnight and so does not get dark enough to see the northern lights, but allows more time for sight-seeing and the highland roads are open. I opted for autumn in the hope of combining both as a compromise which worked quite well.

Everyone I encountered spoke excellent English so you probably won’t have to try your hand at Icelandic (it’s hard!). The currency is the Icelandic Kroner (ISK) and at the time of writing you get around 140 ISK for £1. Credit cards are near enough universally accepted. You’ll probably have to order money from your currency exchange, as most don’t seem to have Icelandic Kroner by default. Iceland has a reputation for being expensive and it’s certainly true. Food and drinks I found to be around 2-3 times the price you’d pay in the UK, hotels are around twice the price.  However many of the attractions are natural so you’ll not be spending a lot on admission charges (though there are some mostly small parking charges to pay).

Iceland is in the same time zone as the UK in winter, and 1 hour behind in summer (unlike the UK, they don’t move the clocks forward and backwards in spring and autumn but stay on the same time all year). It takes around 3 hours to fly there from the UK. Several airlines fly there from several airports in the UK, including Icelandair, British Airway, Easyjet and WOW. I flew back with Icelandair both times and outward with British Airways the first time and Easyjet the second. Icelandair even have a special Northern Lights themed plane (complete with lighting effects) and another themed on the Vatnajökull glacier you might be lucky enough to fly on (sadly I wasn’t).

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7 Responses to Exploring the coast of Iceland

  1. Oh wow. Absolutely stunning photos. What an amazing place. One of my daughters went there on a school trip some years ago, and now I’m dying to go and see the place for myself. By the way, the day that unpronounceable volcano downed all our planes was the same day I started my coastal walk. 😄

    • jcombe says:

      Thank you Ruth I’m glad you liked it and my photos. That is an impressive destination for a school trip. I think France, Germany or Austria were the only possibilities when I was at school! I’m sure you will enjoy it if you go.

      Funny concidence about that volanco. I was glad I didn’t need to travel anywhere at the time!

  2. Anabel Marsh says:

    Your pictures are amazing! Iceland is somewhere which has been on my list for years but we haven’t got there yet. I‘ve seen a few other blogs, and we have one set of friends who have been there twice. I hope we can follow some day soon.

  3. Thank you for creating this post, Jon. I’m in awe of every image. Really hoping I get to visit and explore Iceland in the not-too-distant future.

    Are you prepared to give a rough breakdown of your expenditure for the trip? Car hire, food, accomodation; that kind of thing?

    • jcombe says:

      Yes for what I can remember (or have the emails for). For my last trip (September 2017) I hired a car from Avis which cost £115 for 4 days (I booked through the UK website), picked up from Keflavik airport, though I only booked it a week or so before I got there, the price was much higher at the time I booked the flights. It was the smallest car available (a Hyundai i10). I declined all the optional insurance, which means the excess was in the region of £1000, so I took out “Excess Insurance” separately before hand, which cost £3 a day (and is meant to pay you back the excess in the event you need to claim, though I didn’t have to find out). On the downside it seemed because Avis were by far the cheapest based at the airport, there was a long queue. Can’t remember how much petrol cost there now, but many petrol station are unstaffed especially in remoter areas (you pay by card directly at the pump).

      I stayed at the Reykjavik Lights Hotel (which is about a mile out of the centre) and this cost €465 for 4 nights. I don’t know why they charged me in Euro, given it is neither the currency of Iceland or the UK! So that was about £100 a night, but did include a buffet breakfast (I advise you to eat a lot at breakfast to avoid having to buy so much for lunch!). I usually bought a sandwich and pringles from the hotel reception for lunch, but can’t remember the cost. Food in the evening was about £20-£25 I think, but I can’t remember exactly and it varies.

      For flights my outward flight cost £72.99 with Easyjet from London Gatwick. The flight back cost £102 with Icelandair, to London Heathrow. The outward flight was very early (about 6am I think), which did at least maximise time there. However as you can see, it’s not cheap I’m afraid.

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