Fact: in a recent study about Icelandic peoples' belief in huldufólk ("hidden people" or elves), only 13% of the population thought that their existence was impossible. Though that statistic sounded a little crazy to us at first, after a week and a half driving the ring road we could relate.
Between the endless glimmering waterfalls, the inviting natural hot spring pools, the biting glacial winds riding down like Valkyries, and the scarred stretches of volcanic landscape, it all adds up to a feeling that there's definitely something magic afoot in Iceland.
We started out with a few days recuperating in Iceland's biggest city, Reykjavik, after flying 11,000 miles from Sydney in one go.
We needed a little break before we hit the road, so we slept in as much as our blackout curtains would allow, then did some light exploring in the buzzing city center with a walking tour.
The next day, we took our tired bones over to the Blue Lagoon for a soak in its warm silica waters. After Nick rubbed his silica mask into his beard and struck a few poses, he was promptly swarmed with offers to model in Blue Lagoon advertisements.
Our last night of relaxation before we started driving took us slightly north of the city to a small horse farm on Hvalfjordur (Whale Fjord). Here, we got our first glimpses of the almost-too-beautiful-to-be-real Icelandic horse.
We also soon learned that it was the season for baby Icelandic horses. Swoon!
We picked up the car and headed south to start our counter-clockwise journey around the island on the ring road. We'd follow it, with the exception of a few gravelly detours, for almost 1400 km over the next week.
Beating the crowds
We kicked things off with a busy day along the Golden Circle, a famous tour that gives you "Iceland's Best" in a single day from Reykjavik. For our first stop we hiked up a steep hillside, hanging on to ropes and rocks for a better view of Glymur waterfall.
We bundled back into the car and headed off to Þingvellir (pronounced "Thingvellir") National Park, Golfoss, and Geysir, which is where the word we have for these geothermal spouts, geyser, was born.
While everything we saw on our first day was beautiful and impressive, we were definitely fighting against the crowds. We longed for a little one-on-one time with nature and worried about the next few days.
Fortunately, while some of the sights that are more well-known to the tour companies get a little bit of traffic, the epic views pretty much never end in Iceland. Practically everywhere we went felt like we were driving around on another planet.
Apparently, Hollywood gets this feeling too, often using Iceland to stand in for another world in sci-fi flicks. We targeted a lot of the places on this movie map for some fantastic vistas:
We continued south and east from Selfoss, traveling the entire bottom portion of the ring in a single sunny day. Our first stop of the morning took us off the beaten path to take part in an iconic Icelandic experience: having a warm soak in the middle of nowhere.
After our fingers turned pruny, we toweled off and hiked back to the car, making our way to the black sand beaches and puffin rookeries near Vik. We walked along the beach as the birds dived from the cliffs above our heads into the ocean below, then struggled to flap their way back to the nest with their heavy catch of herring.
Once we'd passed Vik, we started to see glimpses of Vatnajökull, Europe's largest glacier, peeking down over the mountaintops. We kept driving for hours, every now and then looking up to note that yes, we were still looking at the same glacier.
Finally, about 3/4 of the way around its southern portion, the glacier tumbles down to meet the sea and creates a lagoon loaded with massive blue icebergs.
After a very full day of driving and exploring, we picked up the ingredients for some grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, then settled in for a relaxing dinner at home in the tiny fishing village of Djupivogur.
To the east, to the north
We hit the road early the next day, skirting along the eastern fjords on our way to Egilsstadir. The entire drive featured some of the most stunning landscapes we'd ever seen, but we especially loved the impossibly thick fog that would completely envelop one mountain or another along the way.
On our way to the artists' enclave of Seydisfjordur, we were wrapped up in this same fog. It made for some exciting driving, with visibility lowered to 5-10 feet in front of our car, and free-ranging sheep dashing out across the road every few miles. While we'd recommend a stop in the fun, artsy town, we soon lost any hope of taking good photos, settling in for an Icelandic beer instead.
The next morning we made our way past numerous reindeer crossing signs, across lonely volcanic fields that feel truly otherworldly, to the roaring Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall.
Prometheus fans: you may recognize it from the movie's opening scenes, although we viewed it from the opposite side of where the film was shot.
We wound our way back down through Akureyri, a busy university town, ending our day just north of the city at a local farm with great views and very unique accommodations.
The next stop was a horse farm near Hólar, one of Iceland's oldest towns (founded 1106) and the site of the world's only university of horsemanship. Our host attended the university and, along with some very impressive horses, had the ultimate trophy room of eventing wins to prove it.
Our last day on the road took us down the Snæfellsnes peninsula toward Snæfellsjökull National Park. The site was made famous in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the characters find a route to the center of the earth through an opening in the park's glacier.
While we're always up for a good adventure, we decided this time that we'd stick to the windswept shores in our tiny purple car. We cruised around the tip of the peninsula, visiting some mysterious and ancient rock cairns and trying to avoid the clouds of arctic terns swooping around their nesting sites.
We closed the blackout curtains for one last time on a quiet farm near Stykkishólmur. It was hard to believe our time in Iceland was coming to an end, but after a week of almost countless natural wonders, incredible creatures big and small, and plenty of kilometers clocked on our little chariot's odometer, we were proud of all we'd managed to pack into our first bit of Europe. Though there's no way to do it all in Iceland, we left feeling like we'd at least gotten a good taste of the magic in this place.
We're not quite done Norse-in' around, so after a pit stop with relatives in London we're headed to Oslo!