Iceland is approximately the size of West Virginia. For the non-Americans, West Virginia is that eastern state you hear all the nasty rumors about; yes, worse than Texas. My point, which I’ve already distracted myself from, is that it’s very small.
Route 1, or Ring Road, is the main road in Iceland that circles the island. When I decided I was going to rent a car for the ultimate Icelandic road trip alone, I naturally thought, “I’ll just drive around the whole country and see everything in one week!”
This is a bad idea. You probably didn’t need some woman at the tourist office to tell you that. But for me, it took a sideways glance that said something like, “You’re an idiot” before I decided I should consider my other options.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula was one of my other options. It has earned its reputation as “Iceland in Miniature” by providing a glimpse of all the country has to offer in one 90 km (55 mile) Peninsula. It can also be done without a 4x4. I did it in my rental car, a 1995 Toyota Yaris in October.
I also took a day to drive The Golden Circle in Iceland's interior and also drove Hvalfjörð, which is a small detour that can be done on the way to or from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
The peninsula can be driven in one day from Reykjavik but I recommend taking at least two depending on what you hope to experience.
From Reykjavik, Rt. 1 takes you north to 54 which almost covers the whole peninsula but crosses inland before reaching the tip, so to see the whole thing, jump on 574. It’s not rocket science. Just stay along the coast and you’ll be fine.
The magnificent landscape of the Snæfellsness Peninsula includes the Snaefellsjokull volcano and glacier, endless lava fields, geothermal hotsprings, waterfalls, and powerful waves crashing against black sand beaches.
It's truly a spectacular drive the whole way.
The harsh yet beautiful landscape is perfectly juxtaposed with quaint yet reclusive fishing villages: Hellissandur, Rif, Ólafsvík, Grundarfjörður, and Stykisshólmur to name some of the larger ones. All offer accommodations, activities (especially in the summer months), and restaurants. The land is astonishing and magical, however I can’t imagine how life here could ever be easily lived.
I spent the night in Stykisshólmur. My best advice to those traveling in the off-season is to bring a working phone or plan your accommodation in advance. Every hotel and bed & breakfast was closed with a sign indicating for me to call for a room.
I managed to find a bed after driving around for a bit and finally making a call, but if you're traveling with small children (or a grumpy spouse) I could see where this would be an unpleasant hassle. These villages are very quiet in the off-season. Very few people are out-and-about, and I assure you, they’re not exactly looking for tourists to chat with.
Through the centuries, and still today, this land belongs to fisherman and farmers and with such an unforgiving climate, the land yields very little. Learn more about the culture and character of the peninsula from museums in the villages.
Along the drive, remnants of the past sit as if they’ve been untouched for centuries. Find tiny, old churches at the end of long narrow roads dating back to Iceland’s almost abrupt conversion to Christianity from the founding Norsemen's pagan ways. See remnants of an old ship wreck and even gaze across a beach where two viking skulls have recently been excavated.
Simply driving the peninsula is an adventure in and of itself but staying an extra day or so provides the opportunity to take advantage of the activities in nature. Go for a hike, camp (permitted areas), tour the glacier, ride an Icelandic horse, go whale watching, or sail on Breidafjordur and see the islands of Breiðafjörður. The lucky ones may even see whales just off the shore but you've got to put the breaks on for long enough to look.
Driving the Snæfellsnes Peninsula was the highlight of my Iceland trip.
Taking to the road alone and experiencing such a mystical place at my own pace was a freedom I, or we, seldom offer ourselves. Whether alone, with a friend, or family of four, take the time to get out of the car and breath the fresh air, go for a hike, stop in a village for a bowl of Icelandic lamb soup, drive the extra mile to see another lighthouse, or just watch the horses stand gracefully in the cold and indifferent wind.
A magical past still lives here.
Travel diary shared by Beth Yost