Are you looking for a travel adventure with your kids that is outside the box, but not WAY outside the box? Something memorable but safe, fun, and will give you a photo album full of memories? Then you should put RV'ing through Iceland on your list for your next family vacation.
When we decided to go RV'ing through Iceland with our 3 boys (ages 10, 12, and 14) I can assure you we had zero prior knowledge about driving an RV, driving Iceland's Ring Road, and about the rules and guidelines when camping with an RV in Iceland. But we rationalized that we could figure everything out while having a great deal of fun and adventure in the process. Even though Rob may have been a bit more apprehensive than me about this idea, I did a great sell job. Before he knew it, Rob (not me :-) was trying to figure out how to back our 5 sleeper RV out of the rental agency in Kelvik. (Tip #1- the RV rental agencies are not in Reykjavik. They are located 45 mins away closer to the airport. Keep this in mind if incorporating Reykjavik into your Ring Road trip. The cost of taxies in and out of Reykjavik are extremely expensive.)
Before picking up the RV, we spent 24 hours in Reykjavik. If your itinerary includes time in the Icelandic capital, you really only need 24 hours to experience this peaceful city. After one solid day, you will be ready to spend the majority of your time experiencing the rest of the country.
On our first day in Iceland, the weather had been lovely in Reykjavik but how quickly things can change! The following day, as we were preparing to start our 5-day tour of the Southern Ring Road, the skies opened up and cursed us with day after day of torrential downpours. I'm not kidding, torrential. And on top of rain, there were high, cold winds right where we were planning to travel causing official weather warnings. (Tip #2- be prepared for all weather. Bring rain suits, light winter hats, lightweight gloves, quick dry clothes, and shoes that can dry quickly and that's for the summer months.)
In addition, I somehow thought we would be able to just pull over to the side of the road and sleep in the RV at whim. Why did I even think this was possible? Obviously, due to the health and safety of water and sewage disposal, among other things, this was not the case. We found out as we were leaving the rental agency that you must book at authorized campsites equipped for RV's. Did I mention we did not have one booking or even have a clue where the campsites were? I told you we had no idea what we were doing. As apprehensive as Rob and I were becoming as we pulled out of the rental agency, three excited boys sat happily in the back, thrilled by our home-on-wheels for the week. For them, renting the RV was the absolute best thing about our trip to Iceland. They may have been be right. (Tip #3- Based on our experience, you did not need to book campsites in advance. We had no problems showing up and finding spots available.)
Thankfully in Reykjavik, I picked up a tourist booklet that had a list of all campgrounds in Iceland. Keep this link on your mobile phone as it will become your bible at the end of each day guiding you to the next campsite. The information is so well laid out making it very easy to see addresses and to know what facilities are available at each site. Our first night was a crash course in learning how to run everything in the RV from the electrical to the toilet, but from there onwards we were pros. (Tip #4- If you think renting an RV is going to be a big cost cutter while traveling in Iceland, it is not. The RV rental is quite expensive and the petrol price is very high. We rented the RV for the experience, not to save money.)
The Golden Circle
Thingvellir National Park
Finally, we were off from the rental agency. The Golden Circle was an obvious starting point for our 5-day road trip. Here you will find three famous Icelandic landmarks - Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall, and the Geysir - within a short drive from Reykjavik. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park home of the Mid-Atlantic Rift and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once there, you can take beautiful strolls between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate.
Unfortunately, we arrived at the height of the downpour and suffering some jetlag. The good news was that we could park in the parking lot and sleep in our RV to recover somewhat before enjoying the park while the rain hopefully disappeared. This is the beauty of traveling in your own hotel room. After a few hours, we came to terms with the fact the rain was not letting up and we put on our rain gear to go explore. We tried. We tried to embrace it. We really did. But the cold rain was coming down so hard combined with high gales of wind that there was not much that was going to make this a fun afternoon hike. We made our way through the rift, took some rain splattered photos, and then aborted our mission and ran for cover in our beloved RV.
Gullfoss is a beautiful 32 m high "pie shaped" waterfall that is a must-see on any trip to Iceland. A trail wraps around the edge of the waterfall giving you a beautiful view from many angles. The landscape and the sound of the water crashing were both stunning. Although it was still raining, quite heavily at times, the winds had died down allowing it to be quite enjoyable. Because I am an amateur photographer, the rain did play havoc with our photographs. While I was able to take some, our photos do not capture the full beauty of this site. You need to go and see for yourself ;-)
Finally, when visiting Strokkur, we had a bit of a reprieve from the rain! Strokkur is one of Iceland's most famous geysers, erupting every 5-10 minutes. Each blast of water left us wanting to stay 10 more minutes to see it happen again! While waiting for the next eruption, you can walk around the muddy boardwalks peering in at ice blue pools of bubbling water. The kids really enjoyed the freedom of being able to run around and explore this (muddy) area. The best, of course, was waiting in anticipation for that blast of water.
Keldur Turf Houses
While driving around Iceland I fell in love with the turf houses. There weren't many, so it was a real highlight whenever we would see one. I'm not sure anyone else in our vehicle was as intrigued by them as I was but that didn't stop me from shouting "look, another turf house!" at every sighting. If you pass by close to Keldur, make an effort to stop and look at their beautifully restored, grass- topped, tiny, turf houses. A guide will take you through the houses and give you insights into the history of how the houses were constructed and what life was like living in them. You will quickly become aware of the size of the people who once lived here (think miniature size) and also learn how harsh their living environment was. A very interesting stop.
Inside a Turf House
Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss (foss=waterfall)
The really unique part of Seljalandsfoss is the path that leads you up and behind the waterfalls. Have you ever stood behind a waterfall? The perspective of looking out from behind is something to remember. Regardless of the weather (although for us it was raining) you will need your raincoat as the mist from the falls will most likely soak you. I loved watching our boys stare out from behind the waterfall trying to capture the image with their camera (see below).
Skogafoss is another waterfall listed as a must stop on the Southern Ring Road. For me, it was my least favourite stop on the trip. Seljalandsfoss was far more fun because you are able to walk behind the falls. Here, you are able to get super close to the falls giving you a great view as the water crashes at the river bottom. Keep in mind this view comes at a price, you will once again get soaked from the spray (and rain.) Skógafoss was definitely beautiful to look at but I think we might have had it by that point. The boys don't even remember this stop.
So Thankful for the RV
Each night as we pulled into a different campground, I voiced my appreciation for our RV. I had once thought that we should try tent camping our way through Iceland. Thankfully, that idea quickly turned into the RV! It had continued to rain for 3 straight days which transformed the ground of the campsites into a pond of cold mud. I honestly think if I had to camp for a week in those conditions we might have had to sacrifice one family member. It really would have been ugly. Anyone thinking of tent camping in Iceland with their family, you have been warned.
Eldhraun Lava Fields
The Eldhraun Lava Fields are a truly fascinating place. You will find yourself standing in hundred's of square kilometres of lava rocks (boulders.) They are the result of huge volcanic eruptions hundreds of years ago. The rocks have been covered over with lime green moss making this a truly unique sight. You will not find many places like this on earth.
Jokularson Glacier Lagoon
Jokularson Glacier Lagoon was our furthest point on the Southern Ring Road. Written up as a must see in this part of Iceland, I was pretty pumped to go. Maybe because we went in summer (no snow), maybe because we are from Canada and big piles of snow and mounds of ice are common, or maybe because it was raining again, but I wasn't as overwhelmed by the glacier lagoon as I thought I would be. I think my expectations were too high. The kids however really enjoyed it, naming it one of their top picks on the trip. They loved the quietness of the surroundings, the ice blue colour of floating snow and ice, and mostly for two seals frolicking in the water in front of them. After listening to their description of Jokularson, it made me reconsider my opinion of the place. The ice blue colour in the lagoon was phenomenal and will give you breathtaking photo opportunities. There are very expensive zodiac rides available to have a closer look at the floating ice but I really don't know why you would pay for this. You can have a very good, close up view from the shore and it's free!
The Icelandic Landscape
Driving along the quiet Ring Road, taking in the landscapes that surrounded us, was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. A country virtually uninhabited (approx. population of 335,000 people with 217,000 living in the Greater Reykjavik area) you can drive for hundreds of kilometres engulfed in neon green mountains, lush fields, mossy lime covered lava rocks, frequent waterfalls, turf houses, the occasional glacier, and incredible skies with next to no traffic. Plus, the kids can happily play cards in the back while looking at the sights out the window. Even though it was raining, it was pretty perfect in those moments giving everyone an opportunity to reflect on what we were seeing.
Quiet Roads and Beautiful Skies
If you have kids who like to climb then a visit to Reynisdrangar is for your family. Standing on a black sand beach you can watch impressive waves crash against the basalt pillars that shoot out from the water. More basalt (dark fine-grained volcanic rock) formations line the mountain and form caves making this an ideal, nature made, stairway for the kids to climb. We were warned AFTER we had visited that you must be extremely careful by the shore in this area. Waves build speed as they come across the ocean and can take you by surprise with their size and force sometimes sweeping people out. We were not aware of this when we visited. And why is it not a surprise that by the shore, chasing the waves, is exactly where our kids had the most fun? Life with boys.
Fun in the RV
When we ask our kids "what did you like best about Iceland" they unanimously answer "the RV!" We spent a week driving, living, eating, and sleeping, ALL TOGETHER in the same small space. Was it difficult? No, not really at all. The boys thought it was the coolest to be able to play games at the table, grab food from the fridge, stare out the window, all while we cruised down the road. Night time activities were the most fun as we learned how to cook in the tiniest of kitchens, had never-ending card tournaments, and caught up on all the stories throughout the year we might have missed. Sleeping was less comfortable for the kids as the "double" bed was more of a "single" which two boys needed to share. But they made it through. I would highly recommend an RV vacation with your family. It created so many memories! (Tip #5- Stock up on groceries as soon as you pick up your RV. You will not find many grocery store options along the ring road.)
Puffins and Icelandic Horses
The image of the Icelandic horse standing in a field with its thick mane blowing or the small, fat puffin with its vibrant red beak perched on a cliff's ledge are iconic images of Iceland. I couldn't wait to take beautiful photos of these unique animals in their natural environments. However, the opportunity didn't arise as much as I thought it would have. The many days of harsh rain may have been a factor or maybe we were in the wrong areas. However, when we did finally see them along with the sun, I was over the moon. Often pulling the RV to the side of the road, I would leave Rob and the boys in the vehicle (for some reason they were less excited about these beautiful creatures than I was) and run through the field for a closer look. My advice to you is that if you see a horse or puffin along your way, stop, get out, and take a closer look. The perfect opportunity may not come along as often as you think.
Secret Lagoon in Fludir
While the Blue Lagoon is arguably the most famous attraction in Iceland, there are other less popular and less expensive geothermal spas to visit. One of them is the Secret Lagoon in Fludir. The spa in Fudir is set completely in its natural environment giving people the true Icelandic spa experience. Your entrance fee to the Secret Lagoon allows you unlimited time in the hot spring as well a small boardwalk to follow showing different bubbling springs and temperature indicators. You will quickly realize how insanely hot this water can be!
The boys were not sure what to make of their experience at the Secret Lagoon. They found it very odd to be standing with strangers in a steaming pond, with extremely hot currents running past them all while quietly looking out onto countryside. They didn't really see the point of such a luxuriously warm pool that you weren't allowed to do cannonballs into or at the very least splash about. The health benefits of the water and the zen-like atmosphere were irrelevant to them. They quietly commented, "we just sort of stand here...and that's it?" The serenity of the moment was definitely lost on them.
One Last Great Meal
Dining out while in Iceland was an infrequent experience for us. We relied heavily on making our own food in the trusty RV. However, there were a few exceptions when we headed to a restaurant. While the price tag for each meal eaten out was extremely high (seriously high), the food was exceptional. We really did not have a bad food experience the entire time. Our last great meal was at Fluda Sveprir Farmer's Bistro. The restaurant is situated on an organic pepper and mushroom farm a few minutes from the Secret Lagoon. The restaurant offers a small but absolutely delicious menu of mushroom soup, homemade bread, and homemade butters & tapenades. Beverages included water, beautiful freshly pressed juices, and coffee. The more popular choice of organic farm restaurant near the Secret Lagoon is Fridheimar but a local staff worker gave us the tip of Fuda Sveprir and we were so happy she did. Our kids devoured everything on their plate and even sampled the mushroom ice cream. If you like mushroom soup this is a definite stop well worth taking.
Our last day in Iceland came to an end in Keflavik (airport location) as it was time to return our beloved RV. The original plan was to return the RV in Keflavik and then spend our last night in Reykjavik but things changed. When booking our trip we did not appreciate the distance from the airport to the city centre of Reykjavik. It is quite far. Nor did we realize how expensive the commute back and forth would be. It is quite expensive. Upon returning the vehicle we decided that a night back in Reykjavik, although nice, was not worth the next morning's early departure (4am) to catch our flight. We opted for a less hectic option and decided to book a hotel in Keflavik for the evening making the early morning transfer to the airport more tolerable.
We had a quiet evening walking along the seaside, chatting at length with a few local shop owners (Icelandic people are very friendly) and, after five days in the RV, having a proper warm shower. Our mini family adventure RV'ing through Iceland had come to an end. The time in the RV, the vibrant green landscapes, the cascading waterfalls, and the turf houses are all memories that we will lock away in the memory vault. If you want a fun travel adventure doing something a little out of the ordinary then an RV road trip through peaceful and picturesque Iceland is a must. Enjoy!