A social distancing-proof alternative to the traditional winter holiday: Route 1, the ring road around Iceland. Heaven for those who love empty, endless icy landscapes.
Forget Route 66. Go for Route 1, known in Iceland as ‘The One’ and also called the most beautiful ‘highway’ in the world. The ring road meanders 1,332 kilometers around the island and more or less follows the coastline around Iceland’s untamed and mountainous interior. ‘Be sure to take your time,’ emphasizes the man who hands us the keys to the rental car.
This is a different, slower world, just a three-hour flight from Belgium.
And indeed, we are short of eyes. The vistas change every five minutes along the way: from the almost poisonous green, mossy lava plains in the south and the pitch-black beaches where the raging Atlantic shows its strength, to the thundering waterfalls and green pastures where Icelandic horses graze peacefully. This is another slow world, just a three-hour flight from Belgium.
Iconic south coast
We keep our stop in the south short. The south coast looks great, but is also the busiest and most touristic region in Iceland. The black beaches at the coastal town of Vik are iconic, as is the crashed plane that has been there since 1973 and is perhaps the most intragrambed wreck ever.
We quickly drive further east, past black lava sand and unearthly landscapes. At Raufarfell we head inland, past farms with immense sheep herds and along a narrow valley at the bottom of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
Our next stop is Seljavallalaug Pool, not only one of the most beautiful natural outdoor pools in Iceland, but also one of the oldest. It was built among the rocks in 1923 to teach Icelanders to swim. The architecture looks distinctly minimalist: the contrast with the explosive green nature around it could not be greater. Today Seljavallalaug mainly serves as a natural spa. The warm water comes straight from the mountains.
Fjords in the East
A little further away, to the east, the ring road winds past misty fjords and small villages, such as Seydisfjordur. If you travel by car from the European mainland to Iceland, you will arrive here by ferry from the Faroe Islands. The old wooden houses from the early 20th century have been restored and are still inhabited. They give the city a colorful boho-chic touch.
We sleep in The Old Apothecary Hotel, as the name suggests, a former pharmacy that has been turned into a hotel. The blue, wooden house is right next to the babbling river. The restaurant in Hotel Aldan, across the road, serves real Icelandic cuisine – hearty dishes with lots of lamb, salmon and fish from the cold Atlantic – on a bed of tourist info.
“Do you know that the road to Seydisfjordur, which runs along the river, can be seen in the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?’, The waiter explains as he puts our lunch on the table. In that 2013 comedy about the potential that lies within each of us, Walter Mitty (role by Ben Stiller) skates his way down, zooming through this sensational Icelandic landscape.
The pristine north
A little further north, the landscape becomes bare, as if stripped down to the essence of Iceland: a black volcanic Arctic desert with the snowy peaks of the highlands in the distance. We do not stay on ‘The One’, but venture on a number of gravel roads. Just before dusk we arrive at Fjalladyrd, a simple hotel with restaurant and bar in Modrudalur.
To the north, the landscape becomes bare, as if stripped down to the essence of Iceland.
This used to be a farm, until the Icelander Villi and his wife, a pilot, successively turned it into a guest house with a dormitory and a real hotel. In addition to a hotel, Fjalladyrd also functions as a last stop and refueling point for anyone taking the old road inland. The gas station is nothing more than a pump in a wooden hut with mud walls and a green roof. As a hotel guest in Fjalladyrd you have the choice between a comfortable hotel room or one of the simple, wooden houses with a green roof and a wood-burning stove inside.
If you want, you can join Villi on 4×4 tours to spectacular places. In the winter he organizes hikes to remote mountain huts where the extreme weather sometimes leaves you stuck for days. Or you can go on your own to a smaller, less crowded alternative to the well-known Blue Lagoon.
The Mývatn Nature Baths are near Lake Mývatn, a geothermal zone of steaming sulfur fields, bubbling mud pools, ominous volcano craters and hidden caves with deep blue, warm water. Lake Mývatn is formed from pseudocraters or false volcanoes that were formed thousands of years ago.
Winter sports near the Arctic Circle
The north of Iceland is a beautiful place to do winter sports in perhaps the most beautiful, most remote lodge in Europe. We are close to the Arctic Circle, park the Range Rover and decide to rest here for a few days and above all enjoy the extreme nature.
Outside it is quiet and the landscape looks surreal.
Deplar Farm, a former sheep farm in a valley in Ólafsfjörður, off Route 1, offers two helipads. Because this is the best place in Iceland for (heli) skiing: one hundred percent off-piste and therefore for advanced skiers only. But you can also watch whales here. Or do ‘fat biking’ or ‘astro touring’.
For those who opt for the less adventurous, there is a spa, a geothermal indoor and outdoor pool and of course a sauna. You will stay in one of the thirteen suites, which all have a view of the immense landscape, often snowy or enchanted by the northern lights. The matt black wooden houses with their green roofs whisper tradition, while the wide, high windows command a contemporary, expansive view over the valley.
Rested we continue our road trip through Iceland in a westerly direction. We stop for a moment in Akureyri, the second largest city on the island and the capital of the north. Via a desolate road at the edge of the ocean and through narrow tunnels and a virgin fjord – uninhabited and, until recently, completely inaccessible by land – we arrive in Siglufjörður.
The cold waters of northern Iceland were perfect for herring fishing.
At the beginning of the 20th century, this was the herring capital of the North Atlantic Ocean. The cold waters of northern Iceland were perfect for herring fishing. Although the glory days of the herring industry are over today, the smoked herring here is still legendary.
A nice surprise is Hotel Siglunes, tucked away in an inconspicuous building, but with a ‘retro chic’ vibe. In the cozy bar we toast with a local beer to the fact that we are barely 40 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. And just hours from the magical west, which is incredibly beautiful – think lava plains, fjords, beaches with gigantic boulders – but usually overlooked by the Iceland traveler.
For those looking for empty, endless winter landscapes, this is heaven. Take the Snaefellsnes peninsula and the small settlement of Budir, a rustic idyll with just a few farms, a handful of churches and black-painted houses. Next to a lava field, with a view over the Snaefellsnes glacier, Hotel Budir, perhaps the only real beach hotel in Iceland, is a place with the Atlantic Ocean literally a few meters away. Our favorite.
We drive back to the capital, through charming Borgarnes and the 6 kilometer long Hvalfjörður tunnel. On the other side is Reykjavik, mini-cosmopolitan between America and Europe, but fortunately still oh so Icelandic. We eat something at Dill, the best restaurant in the country, and end our stay in the most beautiful suite on the island: that of the Blue Lagoon Resort & Spa, which overlooks the waters of the lagoon of the same name. Outside it is quiet and the landscape looks surreal. And that in a sigh and only a few Björk songs away from Belgium.
Route 1 Iceland
A 4×4 is ideal for this trip. But a normal car is also possible: in Iceland it can be fitted with studded tires in winter. Nordic Luxury can arrange 4x4s, guides, helis and luxury hotels.
A beautiful, secluded holiday home is The Black House in Borgarnes.
Icelandair, SAS and Easyjet fly from Amsterdam and Paris to Reykjavik (from Brussels with stopover, about 5 hours on the way). The direct flight takes about 3 hours.
To Iceland you can also take the ferry from the European mainland (Hirtshals in Denmark) by car. Count on more than two days, with a stopover in the Faroe Islands.
All about covid and traveling to Iceland with the latest restrictions: covid.is/categories/tourists-travelling-to-iceland