Road 1; Advice on Exploring Iceland
Looking at a map of Iceland, the logical thing to do if you want to see many of the numerous sights in a relatively short period of time is to rent a car and explore at your own pace. Not only does that give you the freedom needed to truly appreciate all of what Iceland has to offer but it also means you won’t have to worry about the reduced schedules and limited departure times of several guided tours outside of the summer months. Guided tours are great but they aren’t the best way to really enjoy the untouched nature of Iceland. For the most part, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking but the distance is definitely a factor that needs to be taken into consideration when planning to drive from one place to the next.
Here’s a quick summary of what I managed to fit in the 5 days I had a rental car;
Day 1: Reykjavík – Þingvellir – Geysir/Gulfoss – Vík í Mýrdal – Hvoll
(Daily distance : 392 kilometers / 294 miles)
Day 2 : Hvoll – Jökulsárlón – Þorlákshöfn – Heimaey Island, Vestmannaeyjar
(Daily distance : 472 kilometers / 293 miles & 2h45 ferry ride)
Day 3: Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar – Þorlákshöfn – Akureyri
(Daily distance : 424 kilometers / 263 miles & 2h45 ferry ride)
Day 4 : Akureyri – Dalvík – Grimsey island – Dalvík – Akureyri
(Daily distance : 88 kilometers / 55 miles & 2 3h ferry rides)
Day 5 : Akureyri – Reykjavík
(Daily distance : 386 kilometers / 240 miles)
Total distance: 1762 kilometers / 1095 miles
Obviously you can cover more distance each day, especially if there is more than one driver but here are some things to be taken into consideration before planning to cover unrealistic distances and either running out of time or missing out on unique sights because of delusive planning.
Outside of towns, the speed limit is generally 90 kilometers per hour (roughly 56 mph) but drops to 70 km/h (43 mph) from time to time. Moreover, even though the speed limit is 90, there are times when the road conditions and visibility make it very hard to maintain that speed and you will find yourself forced to slow down considerably. When you pass through towns and their roundabouts, the limit drops to 50 km/h (31 mph), no matter how small the town/village/group of 2 barns and a gas station is.
That alone will impact the distance covered considerably as it quickly adds up and eats away at your day if you haven’t planned a realistic distance in your day. This became particularly obvious to me on the day I drove to Akureyri; planning for about 4 hours of driving which gave me just enough time to be checking into the hostel before the reception closed. The drive ended up taking about an hour and a half longer than expected and definitely threw a wrench in my plans for the night.
Bear with me on this; I know concentration is always important when it comes to driving but driving in Iceland requires all of your attention because of the constant changes in road conditions. The road will go from paved to unpaved with little warning and if you aren’t careful, the frequent curves and occasional blind bends will leave you swerving.
What’s great about Iceland is that traffic is next to non-existant traffic except if you’re driving in downtown Reykjavík. You can drive for hours without seeing another car and an entire day of driving could translate into seeing maybe a dozen cars. While that stress free setting is perfect for long drives, the lack of traffic means that you often need to concentrate on “nothing” instead of instinctively concentrating because you’re stuck in traffic during rush hour.
Odds are the beauty of the landscape is one of the things that led you here in the first place and the road will provide numerous outlandish scenes that are too mesmerizing to simply drive by. There are many places along the way that are designed especially for cars to stop and the urge to capture the surrounding beauty will lead to frequent stops. While those moments often won’t last more than a couple of minutes for most drivers, they too will add up. I would even go as far as to say there should be time in your schedule strictly for that because even if you don’t plan to stop at all, it becomes very difficult not to and while you might resist a few times, you are bound to give in at some point and since the landscape changes so much, 1 stop will simply not suffice if you wish to capture all of which Iceland as to offer.
If you plan to cross the Arctic Circle on Grimsey Island or explore the Westman Islands, the ferries definitely come into play as they both take roughly 3 hours to reach their destinations. While there is no actual driving involved, obviously, they take a good chunk of your day and since the schedules run on a very limited timetable during the winter season (which is usually October 1st to May 1st), sacrificing a whole day to get to Grimsey and return is often the only possible solution if you don’t want to have to spend 2 full days there before the ferry comes back. The ferry to the Westman islands offers a little more freedom but with only a couple of departures each day, it’s hard not to be forced to modify your schedule in order to make sure the ferry rides fit in there.
In the end, the best advice I can possibly give is to plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss out on some of the sights that are truly unique but make sure that your schedule remains slightly flexible as driving in Iceland will make you forget everything that you know about driving; you will love spending hours on the road and getting to your destination as fast as possible will simply not even cross your mind. Don’t wait to drive at night to avoid traffic hours that don’t even exist; you’ll end up losing out on the sights along the way and you’ll give yourself a headache driving unknown sinuous roads in the dark. After all, no traffic means the roads aren’t overly well lit and since you drive by such amazing landscapes, losing them to the pitch black obscurity of the night after spending so much time on the road would just be a shame.