The Best Stops on a Self-Drive Holiday around South Iceland
When you imagine Iceland, you think of crashing waterfalls and steaming geysers, thick snow that seeps over the tops of your boots to make your socks soggy and dark winter nights spent in search of the Northern Lights. Or I certainly did, anyway. And then someone far smarter than myself told me that ‘Actually, Iceland’s really rather good to visit in the summer months too'.
Because of course, when the sun’s out for longer, there’s more potential for cramming adventure into each day. For the most part, the snow has melted, leaving just an attractive white smattering atop each volcano, and Route 1, the road that maps the circumference of the island, thaws and reopens. As it turns out, with all of its epic scenery and endless empty roads, Iceland is quite the choice for a road trip. I needed no more convincing. I booked a campervan and set off to explore the south coast, leaving Reykjavik in the rear-view mirror.
I explored at my own pace, stopping at every waterfall that caught my eye and – spoiler alert – I loved it. Campervan or self-drive holidays are perfect for travellers who value their independence so, to help you plan yours, here are a few of my favourite stops along Iceland’s south coast.
The Golden Circle
This classic trio of natural wonders is a must-visit. Easily reached from Reykjavik, all three can be covered in a morning or stretched out to last the day – with your own set of wheels it’s entirely (and delightfully) up to you. Start at the powerful Gullfoss waterfall before standing at the base of the Strokkur geysir, desperately trying to predict when the steaming jets of water will erupt for the perfect photograph – which I swear you’ll never quite get.
Finally set off for Thingvellir National Park, where the fault line of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates slowly tear great rifts in the landscape. Hiking opportunities abound and Game of Thrones fans will recognise the scenery, but my motivation for visiting involved a very fetching dry suit. Here you’re able to dive or snorkel between the tectonic fissure, where crystal-clear glacier water has filled the void. The underwater world is cold, eerily serene and absurdly blue; a diving experience like no other.
The Secret Lagoon
I almost don’t want to tell people about the Secret Lagoon. ‘Go to the Blue Lagoon! Smear gloopy white mud on your face as Americans next to you sip beer and loudly FaceTime their friends, unafraid of dropping their phones in the cloudy water.’ Yes. That’s my advice. Whatever you do, certainly don’t set off to my favourite bathing spot. The soon-to-be-not-so-secret Secret Lagoon is smaller, quiet, crowd-free and set in the middle of a natural geyser field. The water is clear, the changing room is a wooden hut and while there are beers, it’s a much more relaxing environment. This is bathing like traditional Icelanders have done for centuries (maybe without the beer).
Black-sand beaches, Vik
In the case of the black sand beaches around Vik, surreal is synonymous with stunning. Surrounding volcanoes have produced a coarse, pebbly dark sand; it’s as if you’re exploring a distant planet where everything feels familiar and unusual in equal measure. I scrambled recklessly past a sign blaring a cautionary ‘Enter at your own risk’, informing me that if I didn’t know how to swim, I shouldn’t duck past the ropes trying (and failing) to keep tourists off the beach. I had no intention of going for a dip, even in May the wind was freezing, but I was absolutely going for a stroll along the shore.
Dyrholaey bird cliffs
Around the corner from Vik, the rain-battered cliffs of Dyrholaey are home to an unbelievable number of seabirds. Most people come for the views over the black beaches and to photograph the iconic arch that juts out into the sea. I did, of course, do the same, but I also listened to the guidebook and turned my gaze on the cliffs themselves. Teeming with nests (and smeared in bird poo), I didn’t spy any puffins but did feel the fixed gaze of hundreds of arctic tern, defending their cliff-side perches in the howling wind.
Jökulsárlón ice lagoon
Continue east and there’s no missing Iceland’s iconic glacial lagoon. With shores that almost touch the coastal road, the huge Jökulsárlón lagoon is fed with fresh water from the Vatnajökull Glacier. The surface is littered with spectacular giant icebergs of all shapes and sizes, cleaved from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacial tongue. The skies were achingly blue, reflected by the still waters, and in the ice blazed bright white in the sun. The winds were also bitingly cold even when wearing six layers, so when the man beside me stripped down to his boxers and waded out to climb atop the nearest ‘berg, I had to wonder what he’d been drinking and whether he had any to spare.
Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss
Despite their proximity, two of South Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls couldn’t be more different. Mega Skógafoss thunders, spraying everyone stood within a hundred feet as its wide flow surges into a deep pool and river. Skinny Seljalandsfoss almost manages elegance, spouting a slender arc of water as if Mother Nature had just turned on her kitchen tap. If the weather’s good, the best view is from a natural cave behind the water. Unfortunately, I once again found myself facing a roped-off path and warning sign. Having already slipped on the icy path and cracked my camera case, I didn’t feel quite so bold and opted to return to my trusty four wheels in one piece.