Caroline MillsSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Caroline Mills
The family and I have recently returned from a short visit to Iceland. It's very rare that we travel without our trusty 'van, but I did have an ulterior motive for visiting – to check out the island as a destination for motorhomes. And, wow, what a find. If you’re armchair travelling and planning a great adventure for 2016, Iceland should definitely be on your list of potential places to visit.
Tourism has grown dramatically since I was last there in 2000 and, indeed, since the monumental financial crash that the country suffered in 2008. On my last visit, I could barely afford to feed my two-year-old daughter. Here in 2015, as a family of five, we could eat comfortably if not cheaper than in Britain. The financial crash – not to mention ‘that’ volcano, which grounded flights the world over in 2010/11 – generated massive free publicity for the country. The result is a booming tourist industry.
Understandably so. For the island, sitting just beneath the Arctic Circle and a mere 2.5-hour flight from the UK, is a magnificent destination for a fly-drive visit, with numerous motorhome hire companies operating around the island.
With long days giving not far off 24-hour light, summer is arguably the best time to go on holidays to Iceland. That’s when you’ll find the many campsites open, between the months of May and September. That said, there really is no need to be constricted by these times. For pulling up and stopping overnight in a campervan is allowed pretty much anywhere – and we saw several doing just that while we were there. With a population of just 320,000 on an island that’s larger than Ireland, and as one of the safest countries in the world, you’ll easily find a quiet place to pull up for the night and enjoy the view.
Of course, should you choose to hire a motorhome during the autumn or winter months (when you will have to wild camp as the campsites are closed), there’s a good chance that you’ll see the magnificent aurora borealis (Northern Lights) as Iceland, with such low-levels of light pollution, is considered one of the best places from which to see them. We loved our late-autumn visit, when the land turns into an array of precious metals.
Our three days were filled to the brim with sights as we toured around, and we could have quite happily stayed for a fortnight to tour the island in full. We flew into the main international airport at Keflavik, a 40-minute journey from the capital, Reykjavik. Happy Campers, one of the main campervan hire companies on the island, is based in the diminutive-sized Keflavik and can meet you at the airport with your hire ‘van.
Our first day was spent touring the Reykjanes Peninsula in the far south west of the island, passing through the occasional inhabited fishing town but otherwise gazing out over the surreal landscape of lava fields to the foaming Atlantic Ocean. As an opening introduction to the island, this peninsula prepares you for ever-greater geological wonders. Here you can see the physical scars of the American and European tectonic plates drifting apart, of the earth splitting, buckling and folding. Of particular note for a spectacular drive is from the tiny town of Krýsuvík, noted for its bubbling cauldron of hot springs that bulge from the sulphurous-scented ground, north past Lake Kleifarvatn to Hafnarfjörður. The spectacle comes in the form of black-sand beaches, craggy volcanic mountains and lumps of once-molten rock twisted and shaped like haggard figures.
And no holiday to Iceland is complete without a trip to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa amid the lava rocks, made extra-blue by its silica deposits. Pre-booking is recommended (it’s a popular place); we arrived late afternoon as the outside temperature dropped below 4˚C and the light began to fade. Steam rose from the luxuriously warm water and lying back to watch the stars appear and the moon shine, there’s a magical aura about the place.
Our second day was spent exploring the ‘Golden Circle’, a circular route that’s a popular day trip among coach parties, but also a superb tour for motorhomes. It incorporates the Thingvellir National Park, the birthplace of the nation, and a spectacular place for a walk. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs right through the park providing further examples of the earth’s crust splitting apart, while giant salmon thrash in the waters of Lake Thingvallavatn. Then it’s on to Geysir to see simmering water from the bowels of the earth forcibly ejected into the air. Great Geysir, the birthplace of all geysers, no longer performs but neighbouring Strokkur demonstrates its force every five minutes – you can watch it from your pitch at the campsite just yards from the spectacle.
As if these geological wonders were not enough, the Golden Circle then incorporates Gullfoss, a waterfall of monumental proportions that frequently wears a rainbow overhead and regularly freezes in winter – hard to imagine when you see the power of the water hurtle over the ravine and the accompanying spray that douses every onlooker.
While the Golden Circle provides the most-frequented tourist attractions that Iceland offers, our final day incorporated solitary touring that really takes motorhome tours to another world, one where habitation is limited and the scenery is on a grand scale. We followed the road around the vast Hvalfjörður, which the British and American Navy occupied during the Second World War. The silent and secretive fjord is picturesque enough, the water slicing through numerous mountain ridges with the Langjökull glacier regularly in view. But we turned inland to discover the magic of the Hraunfossar waterfalls, where water seeps beneath the lava fields and gushes into the valley below. A walk onto the volcanic plateau above is surreal; the patterns of liquid rock clearly visible like interlaced strands of wool.
But of the tiny part of Iceland we managed to see, we perhaps saved the best until last – a circular trip around the Snæfellsnes peninsula. With views dominated by the sea, the road from Borgarnes along the southern shores of the peninsula passes volcanoes whose ‘recent’ lava spillage is clearly evident on one side and impressive mountains that run along the core of this protruding landscape on the other. Climbing up and over the mountain chain to the northern coast road, the landscape becomes another world, rugged and barren – and then another world from another planet once past the little fishing village of Grundarfjörður (also with an attractively-located campsite). These views are the stuff of science fiction, and truly outstanding as a motorhome tour.
We shall definitely be returning to Iceland, but next time it will be with a motorhome!
Touring Iceland – the knowledge
So, what do you need to know? We took flights with Easyjet from Luton Airport, though Icelandair; British Airways and WOW Air also operate from various UK airports.
There are several motorhome hire companies within Iceland including Happy Campers as mentioned above, Campervan Iceland and Motorhome Iceland. If you fancy something a little bit wacky, you can also hire from KuKu Campers, whose campervans provide basic internal facilities but offer uniquely individual painted designs on the outside – you’ll always find your ‘van in the car park! They’re based in Reykjavik so you’ll need to take the regular bus service from the airport to the capital.
If you want to take your own ‘van, it’s possible but lengthy (Practical Motorhome’s Sarah Wakely embarked on the mammoth trip back in 2007). It requires taking a boat using Smyril Line from Denmark (Hirtshals) to Iceland (Seyðisfjörður, on the east of the island), with most departures requiring a stopover in the Faroe Islands.
The A1 ring road circumnavigates the island and provides spectacular views, though it really is worth heading off the beaten track – road surfaces are superb, though you may find a few gravel roads, particularly within the interior of the island. Diesel in Iceland is comparable in price (if not a little cheaper) to the UK.
And we are sure you'll be pleased to know that everyone we encountered spoke fluent English!
Whether you take your own 'van or go for the fly-drive option, motorhome holidays to Iceland present a world of new and exciting touring opportunities. What are you waiting for?