AVOIDING CROWDS IN ICELAND

Everyone goes to Iceland. At least that what it seems like the past few years. Iceland has become very popular, especially with Americans, thanks to cheap flights on Icelandair and discount carrier Wow. The number of visitors has exploded. Take a look. The natural beauty is absolutely stunning. But waterfalls with 100 others? Geysers two-deep with tour bus throngs? Not really my scene.

Crowds at Strokkur geysir, Geysir, Iceland

Um, no thanks. Photo credit to George Atanassov.

I’m obsessed with travel, so the planning never really stops. While heading around Myanmar earlier this year another great airfare deal popped up; Icelandair was starting a new seasonal route from Philadelphia and tickets for June travel were going for $400. So I bought one.

ICELAND — LET’S DO IT!

I looked forward to getting outdoors — hiking, camping, whale watching, snowmobiling. But I was concerned with avoiding the biggest crowds at all the nature spots.

An interesting plan was hatched — I would sleep during the day and visit the sights at night.

Iceland is on par with central Alaska in terms of latitude (about 65 degrees north), so complete darkness doesn’t really exist at the height of summer. Sunrise in the tourist-heavy south occurs at 2:55am, sunset 12:03am. The main northern city, Akureyri, only 61 miles below the Arctic Circle, technically experiences just 31 minutes of actual darkness on the longest day of the year. And that darkness, if you can even call it that, is more like twilight.

Touring in the off-hours wasn’t as crazy as my friends initially thought.

Like a good outdoor adventure? Check out my hike with armed guards in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

My overnight flight landed at 6:10am, so the nighttime touring would require a bit of first day adjusting. I sorted out a SIM card, picked up my rental car, organized the inside and grabbed breakfast. That occupied a couple hours. I figured a large dose of fresh air and outdoor activity would tire me out. Add in the short night of economy class sleep and I would be well positioned for an evening nap before flipping my schedule.

REYKJADALUR

After a 90-minute drive I pulled in to a rather busy gravel parking lot at Hveragerdi, home to the Reykjadalur Hot Springs. I geared up — pants over bathing suit, boots, down jacket — and packed my towel. After a rather pleasant 45-minute walk I saw the first of the bubbling vents.

Reykjadalur Hot River, Iceland

Not the spot for a dip!

Portions of the river (it’s more like a stream) are boiling hot, so hopping in anywhere is asking for trouble. Basic privacy screens where visitors can change dot the wooden boardwalk at the upper end of the valley.

I scouted out the area and tested the water temperature with my hands. Large sections of the stream flowed with tepid water while others boiled away, too hot to tolerate. I found a comfortable nook and let the natural spa go to town.

Bathing spot, Reykjadalur Hot River, Iceland

The perfect jet lag cure

I took an obscenely long soak, fully embraced vacation mode and had a relaxing stroll around the valley. Groups of fluffy off-white sheep munched grass from the deep green hills as I detoured to a small waterfall. The scenery was so beautiful, everything I had hoped Iceland would be. I almost didn’t want to leave.

Reykjadalur Hot River, Iceland

Strolling around the valley

Back at the parking lot, I packed up and said goodbye to the first of what I hoped would be many spectacular sights. Selfoss, the main town in the area, was my next destination. Bonus is known as a discount grocer (for Iceland!) and became my go-to for supplies. I shopped for provisions for the upcoming 15-day road trip and tested out my cooking gear with a camp dinner.

My road trip continues in Iceland’s far north, on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula

I drove around for a bit, found a quiet spot overlooking a hydroelectric plant and managed about three hours sleep before the alarm went off at 11:30pm.

THINGVELLIR

My first destination was the location of Europe’s oldest parliament at Thingvellir National Park. When America declared independence the locals had been meeting here for 846 years.

Daybreak at Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

2:22am and all is quiet

I fully expected to be alone, but between 1:00am and 2:30am I saw seven other visitors. I checked out the site of 16th and 17th century executions; beheading for men, drowning in a sack for the ladies. Lovely.

Thingvellir National Park waterfall, Iceland

About as dark as it gets in mid-June

GEYSIR

Ninety minutes later I pulled into Geysir, a naturally bubbling geothermal field with one spectacular geyser (named Strokkur) going off reliably every eight minutes. At 4:13am there were no crowds to indicate interest in a scene or event, no heads up about, well, anything really.

Bubbling water and steam vents, Geysir, Iceland

So where is this geyser??

I was about to take a seat on a bench and enjoy the early morning steam show when all of a sudden — WHOOOSH! — the main attraction popped off in dramatic fashion. My heart raced after the unexpected explosion. I laughed at the awesome scene and quickly noted the time; I had about eight minutes until it happened again. After six more bursts from various viewpoints I returned to the car, loving life. Who said Iceland was crowded?? I hadn’t seen another person in 2.5 hours.

Strokkur geyser erupting, Geysir, Iceland

4:13am

GULLFOSS

Finally I went to the most popular of the Golden Circle spots, Gullfoss waterfall. By my 5am arrival the double-falls were peacefully quiet. I spent an hour scrambling across slippery rocks, snapping photos and taking in the scene.

Panorama of Gullfoss waterfall, Iceland

Worth staying up all night

The thundering falls exited in the form of a river via a narrow chasm and produced all sorts of mist. The natural breeze combined with fresh waterfall spray was invigorating. Down-wind photo-taking was not the easiest task, but that hardly mattered.

I shared Gullfoss with a couple of photographers and one lone backpacker at 6:30am.

Gullfoss waterfall, Iceland

Not a bad way to wrap the day.

At 8am I was asleep in the back of my rather toasty VW Caddy Camper.

VW Caddy Camper, Iceland

Goodnight!

DO IT YOURSELF

There is no sugarcoating it — Iceland is an expensive destination, period. But there are ways you can minimize expenses and save a few krona.

Getting There

Icelandair and Wow have some pretty good deals throughout the year, but for the absolute best prices (if you live in America) keep a regular eye on The Flight Deal. As always, being flexible with your dates is key to taking advantage of the best deals.

Icelandair and Wow each offer stopovers and vacation packages which can be a very cost effective way of seeing Iceland. Don’t rule them out, especially if planning a winter visit to catch the northern lights.

Getting Around

A special note regarding winter trips; hope for blue skies, but prepare for extremely dangerous conditions. Winter road tripping is, well, watch the video and decide for yourself.

Most independent visitors rent a vehicle and drive some portion of the Ring Road. Camper vans are a popular option. Happy CampersGo Campers and KuKu Campers are all reputable agencies with a variety of vehicles. Advance bookings — up to a year in advance (don’t laugh) — are absolutely necessary. If you can’t operate a manual transmission, your options will be even fewer. Don’t leave it late!

I rented the Volkswagen Caddy Camper in the photo above from Rent.is. The parent company, Go Iceland, rents cars as well, but camper rates are cheaper through Rent.is.

I absolutely loved my camper experience and recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure. The functionality was amazing; from the auxiliary battery which operated a cooler to the magnetic window shades which kept out the midnight sun, I had zero vehicle complaints. A portable wifi device was even included — and it worked well! Their low-quality synthetic sleeping bag could have been a drag, but I brought my own down bag and used theirs as a sleeping pad. Summer low temperatures can dip within a few degrees of freezing.

Sleeping

November of 2015 saw a change in Iceland’s camping law. It is now against the law to pull a camper over wherever you please and bed down for the night. The good news? Campgrounds are everywhere, but not everyone bothers. And that annoys the locals.

A fairly standard mix of hostels, hotels and Airbnb accommodation are available for anyone not keen on camping. Or maybe a bubble in the middle of the forest is more your scene.

Eating

Buying groceries and cooking your own meals is a huge money saver. Virtually everyone with a camper does it. Restaurant meals in Iceland are expensive — US$10 for a very average pre-made petrol station sandwich, US$20-30 for a middle of the road meal, US$15 for a mixed drink in Reykjavik. Prepare yourself. Bonus is your best friend.

Seeing the Sights

The good news — most of Iceland’s appeal lies in its natural beauty. Waterfallsglacier lagoons and national parks are cheap, if not entirely free.

Iceland tours are dizzying in scope and too numerous to mention, but the Super Jeep to Askja trip with Geo Travel deserves special mention. Highly recommended and subject of a future post.

I knew Iceland’s number one tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon, was not going to be my kind of place. Instead I opted for the quieter, more relaxed Myvatn Nature Baths. Myvatn is on the opposite side of the country, so unless you’re moving around a good deal, it isn’t really an either or choice.

It is easy to blow through a lot of money in Iceland, but proper planning and thoughtful research will ensure your krona are put to good use!

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