Encouraged by our Golden Circle trip and improved road conditions, we decided to rent a car for the last two days of our stay and explore Iceland from the roadside. There is no shortage of car rental companies in Iceland, from the big international names to small, independent ones; you can rent anything from a compact car to a ginormous 4×4. After a bit of research we decided to go with SADcars, an independent company specialised in older but reliable cars. They offered 25% discount for a pre-paid rental, no fuel policy and possibility to drop the car off at their Keflavik office for €25, which is less than two tickets for the airport bus. In total, rental of a tiny Hyundai i10 (equipped with studded tyres) for two days set us back €85.
Located on the Reykjanes peninsula, the Krýsuvík-Seltún geothermal area was admittedly one of the reasons why we decided to hire a car. It is located off the road 42, around 40 minutes drive from Reykjavik and there’s no public transport to the site. You can smell it long before you can see it. There’s a large car park and well-maintained boardwalks amongst boiling mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and colourful crater lakes. Wandering around you can almost feel the Earth rumbling and hissing below your feet. Mineral deposits give the soil and water all sorts of hues – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, grey… feels almost like you’re on a different planet, even though the weather is foul and it rains like hell. We can only imagine how amazing it must look in the sunshine.
From Krýsuvík we headed south towards the coast, through the extensive lava fields that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. Closer to the coast the black lava is covered with contrasting bright-green moss, further inland it’s mostly black and the landscape looks like a surface of the moon. It’s really quite an unusual view, definitely not something we’ve seen before.
Simply driving ahead, without a plan, we got to the very tip of the peninsula. Here we came across the Gunnuhver geosite, with even more boiling mud pools (including the biggest mud pool in Iceland) and hot springs. The biggest of the hot springs spews out thick steam; there used to be a boardwalk leading up to the very edge, but this was destroyed, probably due to the tectonic activity. Just a couple of minutes drive from Gunnhuver, on the top of the hill, lies Reykjanesviti, the oldest functioning lighthouse in Iceland. Another couple of minutes later we reached the coast, with dramatic black cliffs and a view of oddly shaped Eldey Island, a home to one of the world’s largest gannet colonies. Set against the horizon stands a memorial to Great Auk – bird driven to extinction in 19th century.
The next morning was extremely cold and windy, with snowstorms interspersed with bursts of sunshine, but it didn’t discourage us from exploring. First of all we wanted to see the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, just 6km from the centre of Reykjavik but a completely different world, with lovely views over the Faxafloi bay and back over the city. In the northwestern part of the peninsula we stop by the Grótta lighthouse; it’s actually located on an island that can be reached through a sandbank when the tide is out, but only a crazy person would attempt it in this weather. The southwestern part of the peninsula is taken up by a golf course, with some nice views of Grótta and a small pond full of ducks and Whooper swans.
Hvalfjörður lies to the north of Reykjavik, around 45 minutes drive along the scenic coast. Initially we only planned to drive for a little bit and turn around – the weather was wild and we had a flight to catch – but the views (between the snowstorms) were so captivating that we just couldn’t stop and ended up driving all the way around. Hills, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, turquoise waters of the fjord, lonely farms and herds of the famous Icelandic ponies – all these elements make up for a truly scenic drive. As an added bonus, the road was virtually empty so we could drive slowly and stop whenever we felt like it, soaking up the views. To speed up the return journey (trust us, we really didn’t want to do it…) we took the 6km tunnel running under the fjord (1000ISK).
Iceland is one of these countries where driving is a pure pleasure. The roads are well laid out and well-maintained (at least the ones that we had the opportunity of driving), the drivers courteous and the roadside views simply magnificent. There are however some things to keep in mind, particularly in winter. Most of the rental cars are equipped with studded tyres, and snow shovels can be hired for a couple of euros extra. Roads in the interior are mostly closed for winter and out of bounds, but even on the ring road circling the country, and on the roads around major cities, conditions can change very rapidly. Before setting off for a road trip, check weather forecast at Icelandic Met Office website (also useful when planning aurora-hunting). Detailed information on the road conditions, including web cams, can be found on Icelandic Road Administration website – it’s a must for anyone driving in wintertime. Petrol stations can be scarce in the countryside, so make sure to fill up whenever you have a chance. In the car, make sure to have a fully charged mobile phone (note down emergency numbers), some snacks and water, and warm clothing or blankets.