Settle in with your choice of beverage, because this is going to be a long one! To set the scene, in late April of 2017 I found out that I hadn't won a National Geographic photo contest I'd been a strong contender in. The prize was a trip to the Galapagos Islands and I was pretty bummed about it until two days later when I found out I was pregnant! Thanks to the Zika virus, I wouldn't have been able to go on the trip anyways! Right around that time, we received an invitation to a wedding in Iceland at the end of August. That invite planted the seed for a great adventure before our little one made his appearance.
So just as Hurricane Harvey hit the coast, we changed our flight and boarded a plane 29 hours early (hello last minute packing) and escaped before the storm got to Austin. The trip started more quickly than expected and we didn't slow down from the moment our feet touched the ground in Iceland. In fact, I got to check off one of my two bucket list items before we even landed. As we flew over the dark ocean somewhere near Greenland, Brad notice that the lights in the window were more than just reflection- they were dancing green streaks of the Aurora Borealis lighting up the sky. I dove across Brad's lap to plaster my face against the window and soak up the magic.
Pro-tip: When flying to Iceland, sit on the left side. If it's night, maybe you'll see the Northern Lights, and if it's day, you'll get to see Greenland!
Day 1: Like I said, we hit the ground running and after picking up our car, immediately started north on the drive to Akureyri. It was the least dramatic part of our journey, but you can see it was still stunning! The weather changed minute by minute and we saw so many rainbows in the first hour!
Pro-tip: Jet lag SUCKS on that first day, so be prepared to pull over and take a nap if you feel like driving isn't safe. Aka we definitely took several car naps.
Day 2: The next morning, we woke up early to drive to Husavik, where we boarded a sailboat for whale watching! I've never been sea sick in my life, but it turns out being 5 months pregnant on a boat is pretty tough to deal with, so I spent part of the trip huddled up against the mast, but being so close to a humpback whale was amazing!
Pro-tip: North Sailing was a great company to do the tour with! There was something so timeless about that big sail boat in the middle of a foggy bay, plus they were very kind to this seasick pregnant lady and gave us hot chocolate.
As we drove away from the fjords of northern Iceland, the landscape changed dramatically and we quickly felt like we were on Mars. The stop at Grjotagja Cave was probably my favorite experience of the trip. There's nothing like descending into a small rocky hole in the ground to discover a turquoise pool almost bubbling with sulphurous heat.
Pro-tip: A little further down from the main cave is a second, smaller cave that's much less busy! P.S. Yes, I did ask a random couple if I could take their photo. We met lots of cool people that way and it makes me less of a stalker since I sent them the photos later, right?
Iceland has a million waterfalls, and about 50 of them are famous, so you kind of have to pick and choose which ones you want to see since most of them are spread out across the country. We decided to make sure to see Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The whole area sat immersed in a cloud, but the oppressive mist couldn't hide the thundering torrent of water before us. Dettifoss was our last major stop that day, so the rest of the day was spent making our way to our Airbnb in Eskifjorthur in the east fjords.
Pro-tip: there are very few public bathrooms in Iceland in general and even less in the more remote northern areas of the Ring Road. If there is a bathroom, use it, because otherwise you might be trying to find a place to pee on the side of the road where there are zero trees to hide behind. I've never been more thankful to see a portapotty than when we pulled up to the Dettifoss parking lot.
Day 3: First of all, note that it's only our 3rd day in Iceland and we already drove half of the Ring Road! Honestly, I don't recommend doing it quite as fast. I wish we had more time to stop and explore random places because Iceland has so much to offer and it always felt like we were rushing to get to our next destination. Eastern Iceland had some of my favorite terrain- the dark mountains sank into fjords that glittered with small towns, each valley dripped with waterfalls, and the ocean was always just around the corner. Glaciers suddenly appeared when we left the fjords and made our way down the southern coast, and that's nothing to be mad about either!
Pro-tip: We loved staying in Airbnbs all along the Ring Road! They're pretty prevalent and we usually paid around $100 a night for a private room in a house with other travelers. While sharing a house with strangers seemed daunting at first, we loved meeting people from all around the world. I even still keep up with some of them on social media!
Southern Iceland has so many amazing destinations that we definitely had to pick and choose. We skipped the famous black sand beach at Vik to spend lots of time at Jokulsarlon, an iceberg-filled glacial lagoon. The pontoon boat tour was 100% worth it to get up close and personal with some icebergs. We also had a ridiculously good time watching them play bumper cars, break apart, spin around, and eventually make their way to the Diamond Beach and the ocean.
Pro-tip: If it looks like we're wearing the same clothes the whole trip, it's because we're big believers in packing light and bringing layers. Obviously we needed those layers because it was pretty nice weather for late August in Iceland, but still a little chilly. Most of our Airbnbs had laundry machines and we used them!
One of Brad's impulse life long dreams was to stand on a glacier, so after getting some tips from the couple pictured above, we decided to go for it! Unfortunately, we ended up on the wrong glacier road and did something stupid. The glacier we drove up to looked so close, so we kept following the trail until we realized that we were no longer on safe terrain, but on a precarious slope above glacial water. Once we realized how precarious our situation was, we meticulously retread our path. We made it back safely and checked out the stunning (and much safer) canyon of Fjadrargljufur instead. Glacial dreams: to be continued.
Pro-tip: Don't get so caught up in the scenery that you're not safe!
As the last light faded from the sky, we pulled up to Skogafoss, one of the more famous waterfalls and the most fun place we stayed for the trip: a tent in front of the waterfall! Of course, there were also 50 other tents and the people next to us stayed up late watching a movie. Do you know how little sound a tent blocks? Let's just say that I didn't feel very bad about making noise when we woke up in the middle of the night to find the northern lights gracing the sky!
Pro-tip: Bring a wide angle lens when traveling! In my attempts to travel light, I only brought a 50mm and seriously regretted not having something wider to capture the amazing displays of color in the sky.
Day 4: Finally, a sunny day! But we still had to wear our rain jackets since we hung out with waterfalls all day. After enjoying the rainbows around Skogafoss, we found the correct road for Brad to anticlimactically stand on a glacier, stopped by Seljalandfoss (more waterfalls!), and got to our Airbnb in Selfoss in time to make more international friends.
Pro-tip: The closer you get the the Golden Circle, the more tour buses you'll run into. Early in the day and later in the evening are definitely the best times to visit popular destinations, since the middle of the day sees them overrun with people. Otherwise, use your subject to conceal oblivious frame intruders (see Shelley's extra limbs). Plus, the light is better for photos (#photographerproblems).
Day 5&6: Our last two days weren't as photo-worthy (also my pregnant self was tired and I didn't want to lug the camera around anymore). However, they were steeped in history since we toured Thingvellir, the site of the world's first parliament AND the intersection of two tectonic plates. While it may not have been as visually spectacular as other parts of Iceland, the collision of history and geology made it 100% worth the visit. The Geyser (from which all other geyser's derive their name) counted as our only Golden Circle stop, and as you can see the crowds were crazy. We also went to The Settlement Museum and the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik because Brad and I love learning about the places we visit. Also, remember that friend getting married in Iceland who inspired us to go on the trip in the first place? We had a great time attending their rehearsal dinner, but ended up having to fly out the day of the wedding!
Pro-tip: The rehearsal dinner was by far the best food we had in Iceland because we mostly ate sandwiches and fruits/veggies. Eating out is ridiculously expensive, like $20 for a burger and fries expensive. I highly recommend packing snacks from the states and/or shopping at grocery stores to save money, plus, if you drive the Ring Road, there aren't many opportunities for eating out anyways.
Overall, it was an amazing trip as a final adventure with just the two of us. Looking back a year later, as our 8 month-old little boy crawls around my feet, I'm thankful to have experienced a country with some of the most stunning sights in the world. Knowing how awe-inspiring Iceland is, now I'm even more excited to show Theo glaciers and waterfalls, rainbows and fjords, places steeped in history and all the beauties of this world.