The majestic Route One ring road threads down through the mountains from Reykjavík to Iceland’s southern coastline, passing an endless trove of natural wonders along the way. From the famous “Golden Circle”, to the various vast lava fields, tumbling glacier tongues, tiny picturesque towns, craggy gullies and canyons, endless black beaches and beautiful iceberg lagoons, it’s an unforgettable experience, and one that bears repeating. Our Mini South Iceland travel guide aims to point out a few tucked away treasures you can find along the way—places to eat, sleep, or catch some local culture, for example—and a few lesser-known spots, off the beaten track. In this first of two installments, we venture from Reykjavík to Sólheimajökull—part two will see us traversing from Vík to Kirkjubæjarklaustur—exciting stuff, so look out for that in a future issue.
Remember to be safe, respect the nature, check the weather, dress well, and hire a 4×4 if you’re thinking of taking any of the many side-roads.
Most of all: have fun enjoying one of the most beautiful places in Europe and, perhaps, the world.
Rauðhólar & Heiðmörk: wild tracks and (just about) unspoiled beauty
One of the first sights to greet the hungry eyes of most southbound travellers is Rauðhólar, a series of red rocky outcrops at the outer edge of the capital area. These naturally formed volcanic craters were mined for construction materials during the 1900s, but what remains is still impressive, jutting up out of the ground dramatically. The rocks now lie inside the protected area of the Heiðmörk nature reserve, acting both as a landmark and as a cautionary tale to those who’d “develop” Iceland’s wild places. If you’re looking for a short afternoon drive to make the most of the winter light, or have the time to spare on your trip south, Heiðmörk also contains forest walks, pools and lakes, and heathland criss-crossed with wild dirt roads.
Hveragerði: Art, Food & Nature
The first town you’ll encounter if you take the southern ring road is Hveragerði. Like many Icelandic towns, this unassuming place contains many secrets for those who know where to look. The town is most tourist-famous for a mountain trail that leads to Reykjadalur, a naturally hot stream that’s fit for bathing. However, seeing as it’s winter, the track is probably waist deep in snow right now, so perhaps it’s better to visit the airy Listasafn Árnesinga, which hosts a year-round programme of visual arts, or to have a snack at the town’s well-regarded bakery or ice-cream parlour.
Flúðir: the unlikely oasis
The sleepy agricultural town of Flúðir has some unexpected highlights, including one of the most unlikely Ethiopian restaurants you’re likely to find. It also has an IcelandAir hotel, with a good restaurant, and hot pots that are open all hours to guests and perfect for aurora-spotting. On top of that, there’s Gamla Laugin, or ‘The Secret Lagoon’—a century-old outdoor swimming place that lay in disrepair for years until it was reopened in 2013, with water piped in from a nearby hot spring. Despite a modern changing room building, it’s still pleasingly rough around the edges, with a tumbledown shack on the far shore and walls made from roughly-hewn stone.
These places are both farms that grow vegetables in greenhouses, but each has a unique and distinctive culture surrounding it. Sólheimar is a certified ecovillage and a community that teaches skills to residents that include the disabled, the infirm, former prisoners and the long-term unemployed. The fruits of the residents’ labour are for sale in the shop, from arts and crafts to freshly grown produce, and there’s a cafe where you’ll get a warm welcome and a warm meal. Friðheimar is a different kind of farm, which also runs a stable, and grows famously sweet tomatoes resulting in a super-fresh vine-to-table tomato soup, served right there in the greenhouse.
Þjóðveldisbærinn: Recreated Vikingism
This recreated Viking settlement includes a turfed hall and a small church in a jaw-dropping picturesque location. In the summer, it’s a popular tourist stop, with a programme of Viking-themed events. When we visited, it was closed for the winter, but we wandered around the buildings taking in the vastness of the surrounding plains and mountains. If the roads are open—and be sure to check in advance—it’s worth the drive just to feel some off-the-beaten-track remoteness.
Laugarvatn Fontana: the power of the elements will balance your energy
Laugarvatn Fontana is a place where you come to relax and experience authentic Icelandic nature while relaxing in the warm geothermal pools and natural steam rooms. Hot, healing steam simmers directly from the ground at Fontana through grids in the cabin floors of this newly decorated wellness center where nature meets tradition.
The baths vary in depth, size and temperature and the steam rooms that have been built over natural hot springs that has been used in this purpose since 1929. Fontana is situated by the beautiful lake Laugarvatn and you can enjoy the spectacular views from the sauna or the pools.