Icelandic ‘babymoon’ – VW style
I’ve always been a fan of camper vans. The idea that you’re still camping – still ‘roughing it’ – yet fully able to get out and about, choose to move on (or not), can be warm if you like; to me the vehicle has always seemed more than the sum of its parts. So for a long weekend in Iceland, possibly my favourite country on Earth, to celebrate our ‘imminent arrival’ with my wife Alexandra – it seemed like a no-brainer.
We had been to Iceland before, for our honeymoon (can you spot a pattern emerging?), albeit in December, so we already kind of knew what conditions we’d face in Autumn time. We’d have more daylight, higher temperatures (it still gets pretty wintry though), and it would be the off-season, tourist-wise. In a lot of ways, September is an excellent time to visit. The prices are lower (summer tourist season ends end of August/first week of September), the weather is good (or at least less unpredictable), and its dark enough to catch the Northern Lights. Spoiler alert – unfortunately we didn’t this time.
There are many companies offering Camper Van hire in Reykjavik and it’s pretty easy to arrange. It’s cheaper than hotels, but be warned – not by much. I had figured that the freedom to stay wherever, and not adhere to set times was worth the high hire price. Be prepared to receive a ‘similar’ vehicle not necessarily a VW – I thought we’d have a Peugeot equivalent until I turned up and was fortunately allocated a ‘proper’ camper van. There’s a wide range of specs, from the bare minimum all the way up to being kitted out with all the bells and whistles, and everything in between. We went for the basic folding bed, a kitchen sink attached to a small water tank, a gas stove, with some camping crockery and utensils stacked under the sink. On top we added an inverter to power our phones and a mini fridge/cool box – DO get the inverter as it could be a lifesaver – and that was about it. Bedding is often included too if you’re travelling without sleeping bags.
Wild camping is perfectly legal in Iceland meaning the less-trodden corners of the country really are accessible – but be aware of several caveats aimed at tourist safety; mainly that the interior of the island and it’s dirt-track roads will be out of bounds to you, even in some 4x4 vehicles at certain times of the year, and that it’s illegal to set up camp within 300m of a building (even if your tent is a VW van!).
Having prior knowledge of Reykjavik helped but is no means essential as the city is very easy to navigate. We picked up the van without fuss and headed north. The Route One is the one and only circular main road around the country: 1300 kilometres long, which if you drove non-stop you could do in a day. One day I want to do the whole of the country in one visit – probably in a camper van or 4x4 plus tent, taking a few weeks. But that was not our plan for this particular journey. We did want to circumnavigate Iceland, true – but savouring the good bits and dividing our time equally. We had already seen the south of the island, from Reykjavik through to Jökulsárlón on the southern tip, so this time we were going to go north. The east side of the island, and the north-west fjords (“Westfjords”), would have to wait, for now.
There’s lots to see and do in most towns and areas in Iceland – culturally the place truly is all things to all men – but we made sure to experience the hot baths you’ll find in every town. We stopped in the town of Borgarnes, about an hour north of Reykjavik, passing through a subterranean tunnel under the water to cross an inlet on the way. Approaching from the south you cross a bridge with amazing views before passing through the small town – we then stopped at a campsite just north of the main drag on the shores of the peninsula the town is situated on. The place was unmanned outside of tourist season, meaning the loos were shut up and locked(!) but otherwise it was fine to camp here. Nice and level for the van, good views, and amenities only a short hop away. Head south into the town and you will get to the main drag, and follow it all the way to the end of the peninsula and you will eventually get to an island connected to the town by a small bridge with views of the North Atlantic.
The hot baths, as previously mentioned, were fantastic. All over Iceland, the volcanic waters are used as the community’s first port of call to get washed – insanely clean – and also to socialise. They are naturally geo-thermally heated, and being so naturally pure, remain un-chlorinated. This means you must scrub thoroughly before entering, as the chlorine is not present in the water to kill any germs as it would in other western pools or baths.
The pleasant natural temperature and the fact they are in such abundance makes these pools a firm favourite in Icelandic routine. Children come for a dip before school, pensioners chat the day away, and some spas have swimming pools included so they’re ideal to get some exercise too. Saunas and steam rooms are more common than not too; and as camper-vanners, these pools were an absolute god-send for us without a bathroom. We would take a dip at first light, the freezing air and the naturally heated spa complimenting each other perfectly. Exercise, a spa, and a bracing breeze – what more could you want before breakfast?
From here, the Route One cuts inland for a while – wild moorland interspersed with the odd farm or rocky outcrop – before emerging along Iceland’s northern coast. We were a hair’s breadth away from the Arctic Circle, where there is a bit of a chill, even in September. We aimed to get to Akureyri, Iceland’s second city and a thriving northern sea port.
Akureyri doesn’t disappoint, both in terms of activity and scenery. The docklands, cranes, and clear industrial hubbub are complimented nicely by the lush hills above the town. The city centre is cosmopolitan enough to cater to most. Nowhere is better for sampling the national dish plokkfiskur, a hearty Icelandic fish broth served with thick black bread, and the town is easier to drive in than Reykjavik.
We had got into a campsite to the south of the town, looking north over its twinkling lights and into the Arctic Ocean beyond. The camper van bed was hard, and we were discovering it was not a great choice for someone who was quite far into her pregnancy. But the atmosphere more than made up for the lack of comfort – a cup of hot tea in a plastic camping cup, in what I can only describe as the crispest air I’d ever experienced, with views across tumbling valleys – the dramatic terrain only heightened by the grey clouds gathering and looming, threatening.
Moving east, Iceland just keeps giving. Passing Godafoss waterfall along the Route One, you must stop. Paths lead right up to the edge – take heed of the flimsy yellow barrier – and the views are spectacular.
Myvatn Lake (“Midge” in Icelandic) can be found heading further east from Godafoss, through the small town of Laugar, and is just south of the Route One. To see a better perspective of the lake, turn right onto the route 848 and go round the southern and eastern shores instead. The lake does live up to its name – the place is swarming with midges, be warned – but along the shores are paths that can be walked to get the best views of the lake. Some scenes from the latest Star Wars prequel were shot here too, for the spotters, just don’t ask me where!
When you reach the Route One again, the hamlet at the cross roads, Reykjahlíð, has a couple of small shops to re-stock but otherwise not much else, mainly supporting the tourist trade as people come to the lake and experience the hot baths about a mile or so east of the lake.
Myvatn Nature Baths are a naturally occurring hot spring, much like the more famous Blue Lagoon just outside Reykjavik, albeit not as well known. The rich mud and volcanic waters are supposed to do wonders for your skin and the lack of crowds makes this a much more pleasing experience than the Blue Lagoon. The baths reach a natural ‘lip’ at their edge before the terrain descends, meaning views of the bright blue sky and rugged horizon are guaranteed.
This trip really was just a toe in the water of Iceland, and so with a heavy heart we needed to return westwards. Passing a deserted campsite nestled in a valley just off the road between Laugar and Akureyri, we pulled in just as the sun was setting behind the hills, casting long shadows across the deep fields and troughs of the valley.
The rest of the route back to Reykjavik mirrored our way out on the Route One. Even if we’d had the time and inclination to go further into the interior, this wouldn’t have been the vehicle for the job. Rolling into the city the grey brooding views are presided over by the iconic Hallgrimskirkja (the capital’s Icelandic Lutheran church) with its architecture intended to resemble the Icelandic landscape, and the pastel hues of the painted residential areas as its backdrop. Even in Reykjavik the communal hot baths are easy to find in suburban areas and for the fourth morning in a row, I’d had the most refreshing swim and wash ever.
As the sun set over the city on my last night in Iceland, I strolled down by the harbour on the northern shore nearest the city centre. The Harpa Concert Hall stood impressive before me, a symbol of 21st Century Iceland if ever there was one. Modern in its tone, and made largely from glass and neon lighting, it is the home of the National Opera. With the cold dark waters of the harbour behind and rough cliffs subtle but also somehow fierce to the north-east, it really does stand as a modern icon in this eternally primal place.