In August we spent 16 days travelling around Iceland by bus. We had always wanted to visit a country close to the Arctic Circle.
We chose not to go on a tour but travel around Iceland by bus. You can get a ticket to use buses, getting on and off as you please, to go clockwise or counter-clockwise around the island. We chose an additional ticket which includes buses in the Westfjords area.
I would recommend this as a great way to travel around Iceland!
We arrived in Reykjavik and had three days exploring the town. Two of the things we wanted to do in Iceland were to go whale watching and see the puffins. On one day in Reykjavik we took an afternoon whale watching tour with Elding Whale Watching Tours. We were very impressed with this company because they have an anti-whaling policy and promote restaurants that do not sell whale meat.
Winds were too high to allow whale watching out of Reykjavik, so they took the trip out of a port on the south coast. We saw only Orca but we saw lots of them, up close, swimming under the boat, even mating.
The next day we embarked on a puffin tour by boat to some islands in the bay. This was really disappointing as the weather was very bad. We saw puffins in the distance as, due to the rough sea, we couldn't approach the close to the rocky islands on which the puffins were nesting.
The rest of our time in Reykjavík was spent wandering around the town....photographing birds. Even though it was in summer, the weather was very cold.
We stayed at Guesthouse Odin. It was very close to the centre of town and I would recommend staying there. It was clean and comfortable.
We purchased a Full Circle and Westfjords Passport. This gave us flexibility and allowed us to spend as long as we wanted to in each place.
One of our problems was that we had been told that because it was summer and the peak tourist season in Iceland we needed to book accommodation in advance. We had booked our accommodation and in some places found it very difficult to get reasonably priced accommodation. Unfortunately because visiting Iceland was a last minute decision, we didn't adequately prepare and limited ourselves to accommodation in major towns. Only after we had started our bus travels did we find out that the bus would stop virtually anywhere on the route and there were many more options for accommodation than we had originally thought.
The first day we travelled to Stykkisholmer, a very small village on a fjord. We stayed the night there in a guesthouse. Most of the other people on the bus were backpackers but it was very comfortable.
In beautiful, clear calm weather Stykkisholmer was almost other-worldly in its beauty. We spent a day just wandering, dozing on rocks, chatting in a tiny craft shop - buying some souvenirs from among the exquisite glassware and woollen, locally -made, crafts.
After an afternoon and night in Stykkisholmer, we caught the car ferry the next morning to Brjanslaekur where we caught a very small bus for a day trip to Latrabjarg.
Latrabjarg is the extreme western point of Iceland - 400 metre sea cliffs fall to the North Atlantic. The trip out to the cliffs was what you might call exciting - or terrifying: two hours on dirt roads with precipitous drops to fjords - up, over and down from high bare ridges. Latrabjarg is probably the best place in Iceland to closely observe puffins. We were lucky that we saw them only two or three weeks before they would have left Iceland after the breeding season. We were able to approach dozens and dozens of puffins to within a metre or two. They sat outside their flower-fringed burrows on the cliff edges, walking in their bobbing way back and forth, coming and going from the sea, bringing back beakfulls of little eels to feed to their young. It was magical. it was a bird photographer's heaven!
From Latrabjarg we returned to Brjanslaekur and then undertook an even more spectacular (and perhaps more terrifying!) journey over high, bare ridges to Isafjordur, a small port town on one of the fjords of north-west Iceland.
We ended up staying in Isafjordur for four nights because of our lack of planning and misreading the bus timetable. Buses did not run every day from Isafjordur to Akureyri....but we had a very interesting, relaxing time there. It was a very pretty village on a fjord with snow/ice still on the mountains even though it was summer, totally bare mountains devoid of any trees, sheep farms on the small areas between the water and the mountains.
We stayed at the Hotel Edda....a great place to stay. It is a boarding school that is converted into a hotel for the summer. There is a chain of them around Iceland. It was comfortable and relaxing. There was a communal bathroom but we didn't find this a problem. Breakfast was provided each day and it was very substantial. There was also the option for cheaper camping accommodation and dorm accommodation.
One day we took a boat trip to the island of Vigur where once again if you are interested in birds there were hundreds of Arctic Terns and other birds including some puffins. It is interesting to note that here the puffins are hunted for restaurants and they were very shy and not so easy to see whereas at Latrabjarg they are not hunted and had virtually no fear of us.
We wandered around Isafjordur, talked to locals and people from the tour ships that came every day, visited an Arctic Fox Centre about 15 km around the fjord and learnt a lot about life in that area.
From Isafjordur we took a long bus trip to Akureyri on a fjord on the mid-north coast. The trip necessitated travelling a long way south before changing to a bus going from Reykjavik to Akureyri. A pleasant aspect of the second leg of this journey was the company of a young Icelandic man who entertained and informed almost continuously for most of the journey. At one point, as the bus started a descent from high country down the head of a widening valley, he pointed out where there had been trouble when one group of people attacked another and burned their houses. From the animated manner he described it, we imagined it had happened in his lifetime, or perhaps his father's. When we asked when it had happened he asked the bus driver and another local passenger. They replied that it had happened, perhaps, about 1300. But that is Iceland: history is real and it is important, even if it occurred a thousand years before.
Though it was late summer the high country had large areas of remnant snow and ice and, the further north we went, the lower, virtually to sea level, the ice extended.
Upon arriving quite late in Akureyri, our young Icelandic friend conducted us around town, finding how to get keys for the hostel which had closed for the night. We found nothing but quiet friendliness and helpfulness in all our contacts with Icelandic people.
We hired a car the next day so we could go inland to the large lake, Myvatn. On a perfect day of cloudless sky, still air and (relative) warmth, Myvatn and its surrounds were unearthily beautiful. The pale aqua lake is surrounded by small woods and heathlands. Tiny lava islets jut out of the clear water. Snow lay in swaths across the background hills. Beautiful honking swans - white with bright yellow beaks- kept company with a variety of ducks and other waterbirds. Late in the day we hired a bird hide on the lake's shore: we saw, sadly, less birds there than we'd seen casually throughout the day.
Contrasting with Myvatn's lakeside tranquillity are the outbreaks of thermal activity nearby: boiling mud pools, hissing steam vents, bare grounds stained from the volcanic and thermal outpourings. Though this was fascinating and compelling, we were taken more by the calm, pristine beauty of the lake. The memories of Myvatn, though they come from only one long day, are indelible and seem as if they must have come from a much longer stay there. We returned to Akureyi by early evening.
We would have liked to spend longer in Akureyri and explore more around the area but unfortunately we were running out of time.
We embarked on the next stage of our journey to Hofn.....a full day trip; south-east from Akureyri took us back past Myvatn, past the waterfalls and the steam from the thermal areas and across the northern interior. For many kilometres we passed through desert uplands totally devoid of vegetation but for the occasional scattered short grasses and mosses. Small cairns of stones evidenced old routes across what, until recent times, must have been intimidating country to cross. One imagines the dangers in the days before motor vehicles of travelling the barren landscape in fog, rain or blizzard.
The road eventually made its way from the high country, through narrow valleys to gentler, greener country and, in Icelandic terms, fairly extensive farming areas - much of it, in late summer, dotted with hundreds of large cylindrical bales of hay wrapped in white plastic. Past jagged, ice-spattered ranges we descended to Egilsstadir and then to the eastern coast. The road thence to Hofn skirts the eastern and southern bays and fjords: a seemingly never-ending journey around the shores of deep inlets, climbing, dropping, the gravel road hugging precipitous edges, tunnelling through a mountain, crossing braided glacier rivers. We reached Hofn, on the south-east coast, late in the afternoon.
Our accommodation in Hofn was very expensive and unfortunately the weather had turned bad so visibility was very low. Perhaps it was the weather - drizzly rain, low cloud and cold - but Hofn, to us, seemed unattractive and unwelcoming. It was, anyway, just an overnight stop; the next morning we continued south-west on the coast road. In this area massive glaciers descend from the ice sheet towards the sea. We'd not planned to take trips up to the glaciers but were looking forward to seeing them from the road. The low cloud and rain, becoming quite solid now, meant we could see no more than the very lower reaches of the glaciers through the misty haze.
At Jokulsarlon the bus stopped to allow us to observe the large lagoon filled with icebergs breaking off a glacier and floating towards the sea. We chose to take a boat tour of the lagoon. The fog and mist meant the view was limited to 100 meters or so. We had to take on trust that there was a glacier face towering above us but, nevertheless, drifting among hundreds of icebergs in this mystical atmosphere was hardly a disappointment.
We were fortunate, that day, that a small tour group that had flown out from Reykjavik was on our bus, journeying back along the southern coast to the capital. The group was led by a guide, a 60ish woman of great knowledge and enthusiasm. The few hours we spent with her on the bus (we probably taking more interest and discussing things more with her than did her tour group) provided us with fascinating information about the country through which we were travelling and about Iceland's history and culture.
We left the bus at Vik having crossed numerous glacier rivers, vast plains of black outwash sand and what the tour guide said was the largest lava field in the world - a landscape of crumpled basalt covered in deep green moss.
The weather had not improved when we reached Vik; it was still wind, rain and low foggy cloud.
Vik is a small town, its main industries it would seem being fishing, servicing the local famers and the production of high-quality woollen goods which are sold through a large two-storey shop in the centre of town.
Green hills slope down to the town which sits on a narrow plain of tussocky grass. The wide, wild beach is black volcanic sand. On its western end the beach meets precipitous hills which, at that time of year, were the haunt of innumerable puffins and herring gulls. Just off shore at this western end stand huge and dark, sharp pyramidal rocks: a family of trolls who, long ago, unwisely ventured out to sea during daylight and were frozen there forever.
Then it was back to Reykjavík for a few days before travelling home. We again went on a whale-watching trip, this time seeing minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, areas of ocean convulsed by millions of mackerel and, to our amazement, a huge basking shark which swam along the side of the ship with its huge mouth wide open.
Iceland was an amazing experience and we want to go back again and visit the places we didn't see. Next time we would use the buses, but more to our advantage, stopping off where it suited us rather than only at the major, designated stops. Though Reykjavik is an interesting town and a useful base, we'd spend less time there and more in the more remote areas of the island.