Three girls, one car and over 3000 kilometers of open road. In March of 2017, I hit the Iceland Ring Road with two of my best girl friends for the road trip of a lifetime. Along the way, Camilla, Misha and I went inside one of Europe’s oldest glaciers, got misty-eyed at some of Iceland’s most powerful waterfalls and soaked our bodies in geothermally heated water while snow froze the tips of our ponytails. Iceland is known as one of the most feminist nations in the world, so it’s the ideal destination for adventurous women to explore. If you’ve got a taste for adventure and you’re not afraid to drive in some slippery conditions, this trip will blow your mind! Here’s the ultimate girl’s guide to 10 days in Iceland.
The Ultimate Girl’s Guide to 10 Days in Iceland
When to go
As snow-deprived South Africans, we booked at the end of winter (March) and were rewarded with fresh powdery snow almost daily and the spectacular Northern Lights (which aren’t visible at all during summer’s 24/7 daylight). While it’s technically the end of winter, we still had the opportunity to wake up to the snowy mornings we’d been dreaming of. We also wanted to see as much of Iceland as possible, so we rented a car (as opposed to joining a tour) and hit the ring road, heading in a counter-clockwise direction at our own pace. This meant that we had the opportunity to stop for pictures and to cuddle fluffy horses as often as we liked.
We decided not to take the casual approach to this particular road trip and created a mega spreadsheet of routes and budget and booked our accommodation in advance This turned out to be a good decision. Iceland is on everyone’s bucket-list and accommodation gets booked up fast. We didn’t encounter any issues on the road or with accommodation at all along the way, and the most trying experience of the trip was finding where to open the petrol tank and pumping our own petrol (embarrassing).
What to expect
More beauty than you can imagine. Even on day 10, we were still gasping at the beauty all around us. We were waking up in a little wooden cabin to snow falling outside the window, driving through scenery where you can’t tell the sky from the snow, stopping to touch waterfalls that are frozen mid-cascade. Most of the fun is in the driving, so don’t feel pressured to arrive at every new destination in a hurry. Pack loads of snacks like nuts, biltong and breakfast bars for the road and fill up every morning on your hotel breakfast to save cash on lunch.
People are friendly and helpful and pretty much everyone speaks English. March temperatures are still very cold, dipping below freezing, so check out my Iceland packing guide to see what you’ll need. The currency is the Icelandic Krona and we hardly ever used cash, mostly swiping our credit cards or drawing from ATMs when we needed it. You can buy a local SIM card loaded with 10GB of data for around R400 at Duty Free, where I suggest you stock up on liquor too, since it’s unaffordable otherwise.
What to budget
Iceland is expensive. I can’t overstate that enough. It’s expensive for Europeans and it’s very expensive for South Africans. The currency is the Euro, and if you’re looking for painful details, imagine spending R500 on a pizza and R100 on a petrol station coffee. We spent around R35 000 to R40 000 each on this once in a lifetime trip, sharing the costs of the car, accommodation (split three ways even if we had to book two rooms) and fuel. We also put a couple of thousand Rand into a kitty at the beginning of the trip and used this to cover dinners and lunches.
Here’s what we each spent:
Flights: R13 000
Schengen Visa: R1800
Accommodation: R9000 (sleeping 3 to a room some nights)
Food and other costs: R8000
From South Africa, you have the option to fly through many major European cities. I’d recommend signing up to a few European airlines newsletters, so you can keep an eye on flight specials. We found a good deal flying through Amsterdam, on board KLM. From Amsterdam, we flew to Reykjavik on board Icelandair. South Africans need a Schengen visa, and apply through the Embassy of Denmark. We booked our car through www.geysir.is and took out all the insurance policies on offer, along with additional travel insurance.
Planning your route
We absolutely loved the look of this photographer’s trip, so we planned our route based on his recommendations, combined with the availability of accommodation along the way. We drove around 200-300 km’s per day, which took longer than expected because we weren’t used to driving in snow – or on the wrong side of the road. My biggest tip would be to check the location tag of your next destination on Instagram every night – we found some amazing spots that we would have driven right past this way.
Here’s the route we drove:
Day 1: Keflavik to Vik – 226 km
Day 2: Vik to Brunnholl – 242 km
Day 3: Brunholl (Hofn) to Egilstaddir – 187km
Day 4: Egilstaddir to Myvatn – 175 km
Day 5: Myvatn to Hvammstangi – 291 km
Day 6: Hvammstangi to Heydalur (Látur) – 250 km
Day 7: Heydalur to Búðardalur – 193 km
Day 8: Búðardalur to Reykjavik – 147 km
Day 9 – 10: Read my guide to 48 hours in Reykjavik
Where to stay
While we all normally like using Airbnb, we quickly found that centrally-located accommodation in Iceland consists mostly of hotels. We used Booking.com to find the hotels with the highest ratings within our budget and then booked what was available (often our first choice was full). As I’ve said, Iceland is not cheap. One way to save on cash is to book breakfast included – we assumed that there would be cute little coffee shops where we could have breakfast but most mornings our only option was the hotel and because we hadn’t booked inclusive, we were spending up to R400 per day on a breakfast buffet. We also booked 3 to a room wherever we could to save cash.
Here’s where we stayed:
Day 1, Vik: Icelandair Hotel
Day 2, Brunholl: Brunholl Country Guesthouse
Day 3, Egilstaddir: Icelandair Hotel Herad
Day 4, Myvatn: Vogafjós Guesthouse
Day 5, Hvammstangi: Hvammstangi Cottages
Day 6, Heydalur: Heydalur Country House
Day 7, Búðardalur: Dalakot Búðardalur
Day 8 – 10, Reykjavik: Airbnb
What to do and see on the Iceland Ring Road
Don’t expect much nightlife in the towns we visited. Especially in winter. Most often we were so tired from white-knuckling it through the snow that we pretty much passed out as soon as the sun set anyway. We all really loved the driving parts, and we listened to podcasts, chatted and reassured each other that we were “doing great” in the blizzards and on the ice.
Here are the highlights from each town along our route:
Day 1: Vik
There is loads to see in the Southern part of Iceland. Make sure you visit the black sand beach and stunning basalt rocks at Hálsanefshellir. And don’t miss the famous rock formation at Dyrhólaey. We arrived from Reykjavik airport in the evening, so missed some of the sights along the way to Vik, but we woke up to a landscape covered in fresh snow which was so exciting! We stayed in the Icelandair Hotel, which was great and I can definitely recommend staying with them. Remember to book breakfast included!
Day 2: The road to Brunnholl
This day was jam-packed with amazing sights! We set off straight after breakfast, which is always a good idea since you can never be sure how long your journey will take in the weather. Make sure to always check the road conditions and weather before setting off. You can find up-to-the-minute info on the safetravel.is website. When you stop at Skógafoss, make sure to wear a waterproof jacket as the wind can whip some of that icy water pretty far. Also, make sure to stop at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Instagram-famous Diamond Beach.
We’d booked dinner at the delightful Humarhofnin at the Hofn Harbour, which you must do. As our first dinner in Iceland, we were shaken by the prices, but the food was unbelievable. They specialise in langoustine and we had the langoustine bisque with a side of crusty baguette w/garlic butter grilled langoustine tails, salad, tomatoes, basil and pink langoustine sauce.We stayed at Brunnholl Country Guesthouse, which was clean and warm and perfect for a night.
Day 3: The road to Egilstaddir
We hadn’t booked a glacier cave experience, but we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore a crystal blue cave in the middle of a glacier! So we ended up having rush through to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon after breakfast and hope we could find someone who could take us. Misha found a guy in an Icelandic sweater with a truck that had wheels the size of my VW Polo and off we went. It’s best to go as early as possible, since the cave gets pretty full. Once you’re inside, it’s like being inside a precious gem. At some spots, you’re under more than 1km of ice!
The journey along the East Fjords provided some of my favourite sights of the whole trip. By this point, we were feeling more confident on the roads and the endless windy road, with the endless views, made for some really special memories. We stayed at Icelandair Hotel Herad, which is in a dreamy town that seems to have Christmas lights up all year! We walked to one of the only open restaurants in town and had more langoustine bisque and a couple of giant beers. This is where we learned that you don’t really tip in Iceland, when a confused waitress couldn’t figure out why we were asking her to put more than the total of our bill on the credit card.
Day 4: The road to Myvatn
This was one of the most amazing days of my life. After stopping at the Hverarönd geyser (very briefly because it smells terrible) we checked into our adorable wooden cabin at Vogafjoss Guesthouse and tucked into a R450 bowl of (delicious) soup and bread that’s baked underground using the heat from the core of the earth. After lunch, we set off to the Myvatn Nature Baths. Entrance costs R525, but you can spend ages there, soaking in the milky blue 40° water. It was snowing while we were in the water and as you can imagine, we were well pleased. We had dinner at the only open restaurant in the area and woke up to find our car under a pile of snow so big we couldn’t even see it. So annoying for Europeans but literally a dream for us tourists.
Day 5: The road to Hvammstangi
We drove for aaaages on this day and ended up finding the cutest town of the whole trip where, unfortunately, we hadn’t booked a night. Akureyri was my favourite town we visited and honestly, if Wes Anderson didn’t art direct the whole place I’ll eat my beanie. We stopped for coffee in a cozy book store in town and took a little walk around the harbour while kicking ourselves for not knowing sooner what a gem it was. So yes, I’d recommend stopping here for a night, for sure.
We spent the night in Hvammstangi, where there was not very much going on. Our cottage was super cute though, and we cuddled up with some gas station treats (Icelandic hotdogs are so good!) had an afternoon nap and went for dinner at the only restaurant around.
Day 6: The road to Heydalur
There was some mild panic in the morning when we discovered that the only coffee shop in town (I sense a theme here) was closed for winter. Misha is a bonafide caffeine addict, and three girls in a car can go from hungry to hangry in seconds, so time was of the essence. We waved goodbye to this cute no-horse town and set off in search of smoked salmon (of which there is an abundance at every breakfast buffet) and coffee. We found Laugarbakki Hotel not far away (phew!) and although it looks like an abandoned mental institution from the outside, it’s a great spot to break your fast. By this point, we’d learned to eat as much breakfast as we could fit into our bellies. Not only because we could never be sure where our next meal would come from, but also because we were spending like R450 on this buffet and we were going to eat every last waffle on offer.
Our accommodation was remarkably out of the way, but don’t let that put you off, because Heydalur Country House is a mega-gem. After a bowl of hot soup, we checked into our room and changed into our swimsuits because – wait for it – there are geothermal pools on the property! Not only are the rooms heated by underfloor-geothermal water, but the guesthouse is home a couple of hot pots (as they’re called) as well as an indoor jacuzzi and somewhat heated pool. Since we were the only ones around, we did what was only natural and wallowed in our birthday suits as the fluffy Icelandic horses took no notice.
Day 7: The road to Búðardalur
After doubling back along the way we came and winding along the West Fjords, we arrived in Burdalur. It was totally empty to the point of feeling abandoned and although our accommodation was perfectly adequate, we couldn’t figure out what we were meant to do with the rest of our day. This is where Instagram location-scouting comes in handy. I checked the area and found that we were only a few minutes drive from the Guðrúnarlaug hot-pot, one of the oldest hot pots in Iceland. We immediately made a juice bottle (code name for whiskey and water) and made a beeline for the pool. The pool is free to use and there is a fairytale-perfect little hut for you to change.
We were, at first, disappointed to find two people already submerged in “our” hot pot. But after offering them some of our juice, we made fast friends. This is the best part of travelling, of course, and our chance encounter with Ivan and Barb from the Czech Republic would lead to one of the highlights of the trip.
By 9pm, we were dressed in thermals, multiple jackets, scarves, a beanie and gloves. Our new friend Ivan was the designated driver, and he kept a close eye on the forecast using vedur.is. He seemed to know what he was doing, and explained that we needed to drive to this spot 20 minutes away, where the conditions looked set to be ideal in exactly twenty minutes time.
Misha and I were literally clinging to each other in the back seat of Ivan’s rental as we hurtled down the highway at speeds I’m sure are not legal. And then, like magic, as we hit the 20 minute mark, a faint green tinge appeared in the dark sky. Ivan skidded to a stop and as we piled out of the car, cameras at the ready, the sky suddenly break into what seemed like a silent song of light and colour. Shards of green shone down on me and it felt like they were dancing to music just out of my earshot. It’s like Iceland knew we were leaving and was saying farewell with a dazzling display.
My top 5 tips for booking your Iceland adventure
1. I found Dohop to be the best site in terms of booking car hire. I was super easy and much cheaper than other sites. We decided to splurge on the car, since we would be spending half our time inside it. Our Subaru Forester came with snow tires, heated seat, Bluetooth, and 4×4. We drove past a few smaller cars on the side of the road and we were very happy to be inside our mom car.
2. Booking.com is a good site for finding accommodation – I normally trust the rating. If you’re travelling in a group of 3, you can also try for a triple room at most places. Remeber to book your breakfast included and check online to see if there are any restaurants in the area worth trying for dinner. It’s also worth checking the location tag on Instagram before you book to see what other people have posted from the property and surrounding area.
3. There is lots and lots to see for free. Every day on the road provided us with some incredible views and access to waterfalls, beaches, hot pots and other marvels. The only things you really need to book and pay for ahead of time are the dangerous activities like glacier walking or glacier caving and the Blue Lagoon.
4. It’s well worth spending a couple of nights in Reykjavik on the way home. Don’t worry about including the famous Golden Circle in your itinerary – you’ll see all the highlights on your Ring Road adventure. Read my guide to 48 hours in Reykjavik for inspiration.
5. Remember to take out extra travel insurance. Especially for the car. Be careful when you open the car doors, because the wind can be insanely strong and has been known to bend doors in the wrong direction – costing drivers a small fortune. We partnered with Europe Assist for this trip – read my guide to staying safe in Iceland to find out more.
The top 5 reasons to travel with girl friends
The benefits of travelling with girlfriends are innumerable, but here are 5 that really stand out for me:
1. Everyone agreeing that it’s best to stop and ask for directions
2. No one rushing your morning routine, or telling you that “you’re beautiful just the way you are” when you’re trying to apply the perfect cat-eye
3. Never having to explain that not angry, you’re just hangry because the girls just know
4. Having at least one person on hand to blow-dry your hair for you
5. Having someone who truly respects your need for a great Instagram picture, without feeling like their being relegated to “Instagram husband”
My top 5 tips for travelling with girlfriends:
1. At times it can be an exercise in diplomacy, so make sure you’re all clear on expectations up front. Camilla knew that Misha and I were going to be taking thousands upon thousands of photos and expecting her to pose for them, while Misha and I knew that Camilla was going to expect us to pull over to hug every Icelandic horse within arm’s length of the side of the road.
2. Don’t allow your friendship to end because one of you is hangry. Travel with nuts, breakfast bars and other snacks at all times to avoid blood sugar lows and the resulting fallout.
3. Time your showers and the use of the hotel hairdryer. At least one of you should shower and dry your hair the night before, so you can leave before lunch time the next day.
4. To aid with cost-splitting, we set up a group cash kitty at the beginning of the trip and used this to cover hotel breakfasts, fuel, and group activities along the way.
5. Take some fun stuff for hotel-room parties, like sheet masks and extra hair treatments for post-Blue Lagoon.
I hope you enjoyed my ultimate girl’s guide to 10 days in Iceland. If you have any questions or tips of your own, feel free to drop them in the comments section below. And please let me know if this guide has inspired you to travel to Iceland yourself – I’d love to follow your trip!