When I told everyone that I’d be going back to Iceland in March, so soon after my trip last December, everyone was a little surprised. I love exploring new places and ticking new countries off my bucket list, so having been to Iceland just 111 days before, going back to the same place twice wasn’t really expected. But after I’d explained why I love Iceland so much (rotten egg smell and all), and mentioned my road trip plans to see even more of the amazing island, they seemed a little more understanding.
Last year when I visited, I met Björn in a bar. An Icelandic guy from Reykjavík, he became my knight in woolly bobble hat after saving me from an awful hostel experience, letting me crash in his Airbnb spare room. We’d stayed in touch since then – and when I messaged at the end of January to say I was thinking of returning to Iceland over the long Easter bank holiday weekend in March, he said his Airbnb room was free if I wanted to kip at his. Result.
I mentioned my plans of hiring a car and taking a road trip; Björn thought it sounded like a great idea, and there was no need to hire a car, because he’d drive us… and so Becca and Björn’s mini adventure was borne.
Driving to the Westfjords.
I left all the itinerary and planning to Björn, though did drop hints of the kind of places I wanted to visit by tagging him in numerous Instagram posts.
The day before embarking on our mini adventure, we’d been full of good intentions, planning to leave Reykjavík at a sensible time. But we ended up having a lazy morning (mostly because of the preceding boozy night), and set-off from Björn’s around midday. After a quick stop to fill up on petrol and check the oil in the car, we were off, heading north on the Ring Road, AKA the 1.
Icelandic radio shows were our backing track for the trip, with lots of Icelandic talking interspersed with the odd song (some Icelandic, some English). Björn explained that because it was the Easter bank holiday and many people would be driving out of town, there were loads of special shows on the radio, guest interviews and quizzes. Every time he began to chuckle he would translate the jokes for me, and when the quizzes started, he translated the questions. I surprised myself (and perhaps Björn) by even getting one right. After about 45 minutes we reached Hvalfjarðargöng, a road tunnel under the Hvalfjörður fjord.
As we entered Björn explained that the tunnel was built to make the route to the north quicker – prior to the tunnel being built in 1998 it would take about an hour to pass the fjord, whereas now it would take around seven minutes. I was beginning to like travelling with Björn, it was educational and fun.
Icelandic pony encounter.
After we emerged from the tunnel, blinking like new-born chicks when the sunlight hit our eyes, I noticed a field of horses in the distance. “Ah look, horses,” I said pointing, “I haven’t seen any Icelandic horses yet, but I’ve read all about them”. Björn and I then had a long chat about the ponies on the island, who much like country itself, are small and hardy, ready for all kinds of weather.
The Icelandic breed of horses are about as pure as you can get in equine realms, with any horse leaving the country unable to return, and no new horses able to enter. This limits crossbreeding and diseases, meaning Icelandic farmers will only ever have the very best horses. Any riders heading to the island take note, the rules are so strict that there are even regulations about bringing saddles or riding boots into the country.
After about an hours drive, spotting a herd of horses near a fence along the road, Björn pulled over and we got out to meet the ponies. I’ve never been much of a fan of horses (perhaps due to childhood memories of having my foot bitten by one when visiting Finkley Down Farm), but the little dumpy Icelandic ponies that ran over to greet us were just too cute to dislike. I particularly liked the tan and blonde one, whose tufty hair was blowing in the breeze.
Learning about Leif the Lucky.
For the last 25 years of so, the British education system had me believing that Christopher Columbus discovered North America. That’s what all our school history books said anyway. So when Björn (who by now, was in full tour guide mode) said we were going to take a little detour to Eiriksstadir to see the birthplace of Leif Erikson, he didn’t look impressed when I replied “Leaf who?”, giggling at the thought of someone being called “Leaf”.
“Uh, the person who found the USA – don’t you know about Leif?” No, no I don’t, mate – my school taught me about Columbus… Cue a mini dispute about who actually founded North America, with me not wanting to believe Björn’s story about an Icelandic guy who was supposedly “Lucky” and discovered the continent. But hey, I’ve got back to Reykjavík, and look, a whole article on the BBC about Leif Erikson, an Icelandic explorer and probably the first European visitor to North America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
Maybe Björn was right… Either way, I’ve been to Leif’s birthplace now:
And if you’re really into your history, you can learn all about the Vikings in a Viking longhouse experience. The Vikings started coming over to Iceland from Norway in around 874AD, and settled in many areas around the island. The longhouse was all shut up for the season when we arrived, but I still managed to get a few pics from the road:
A quick pit stop in Búðardalur.
Our next stop was about 30 minutes later, in the town of Búðardalur, where we got some petrol and some sustenance for the rest of the journey. There wasn’t much to see or do in the area, with all the restaurants and guesthouses being shut for the season – but there was a beautiful harbour with some amazing views across the fjord.
Checking in at Hotel Ljósaland.
Just a few days before my flight to Iceland, I found what I thought was a cracking deal on Booking.com for a hotel in the Westfjords called Hotel Ljósaland. After confirming with Björn that it actually was a cracking deal, I booked us two nights, excited for the upcoming trip.
The hotel – which has just four rooms – wasn’t hard to find, as it’s straight off the main road (though the stretch before is currently being resurfaced, so while not a problem for 4x4s, it was a bit of a bumpy ride for Björn’s Ford Focus). We checked in around 5pm, unloaded the car and freshened up.
I’ll post a full review of the hotel soon, so you can get a real feel for the place. But until then, I should point out that this hotel is very, very remote. Once ready to go out and explore, we browsed Google Maps looking for nearby attractions and places to eat, but were met with limited options (also due to the fact that the Thursday before Easter, Maundy Thursday or Skírdagur in Icelandic, being a bank holiday).
We decided to head to the nearest swimming pool, about 15 minutes away in Reykhólar – though like most of our trip, the journey took a little longer because of a detour and me asking Björn to stop every 5 minutes so I could take pics…
A detour to Hótel Bjarkalundur.
The next stop was actually so Björn could take a picture, however.
En route to Reykhólar we pulled in at Hótel Bjarkalundur. This hotel might not look like much from the outside – and to non-Icelanders like myself, it appears to be like any other motel. But chauffeur-cum-tour guide Björn revealed it was actually the setting for a popular Icelandic sitcom in 2008. The show, Dagvaktin, was the second part in a three part series, and starred Jón Gnarr, the ex-mayor of Reykjavík. An interesting fact I doubt I’d have found out if I’d been travelling solo, so thanks Björn. Later back at the hotel we watched some YouTube clips of the show, including this one, which features a cameo of one of Iceland’s biggest stars, Björk.
We had intended to eat at Hótel Bjarkalundur on the way back to our hotel from Reykhólar, but it was all shut up unfortunately (possibly the reason why it made the news this morning with the headline “Bjarkalundur advertised for sale“?). Björn did snap this picture of the show’s notorious Læðan (roughly translating to “Pussy Wagon”) before we drove on:
A drive through Reykhólar “town”.
This charming little town in the Westfjords has about 120 residents, apparently. Though as we pulled off the main road into Reykhólar we could only see about 10 houses, a church, a swimming pool and a cafe. There’s a camp site, hostel and a tourist office too, though these are only open during the summer months. And we also found some “Seaweed Baths”, however I’m not sure I fancy one of those (assuming that it’s even more primitive than my Hammam experience in Jordan).
Swimming at Grettislaug, Reykhólar.
Iceland is famous for its geothermal pools – the most well-known being the Blue Lagoon. Björn and I actually visited the Blue Lagoon last time I was in Iceland, though if I’m totally honest, I found it a bit gimmicky, very touristy and way overpriced. But you don’t have to go to the Blue Lagoon to experience the mineral-rich Icelandic water – almost all swimming pools on the island are geothermally heated, so warm and cosy all year round. Which is why we headed to the outdoor pool at Reykhólar when it was 6pm and the temperature had dropped to about 2c.
There are two hot tubs and a swimming pool for lengths – as well as a big basket of pool toys and floats for the kiddies. Of which there were quite a few splashing around, surprisingly. With a whole family occupying one of the hot tubs, Björn and I climbed into the other, for a chance to relax and unwind (and wear my new swimming costume from Hunkemoller*) after the long day of driving. Bliss.
The pool is named after Grettis, the longest surviving outlaw in Icelandic history. There’s a whole story around why he was on the run, and what eventually became of him, so if you’re interested in finding out more, read the story of Grettis (which, again, I wouldn’t have known about if it wasn’t for Björn). Apparently the notorious outlaw used to spend the winter with his cousins in Reykhólar – though if the pool wasn’t built then, I’m not too sure how he’d have passed the time, as there’s not much else in the town.
Dinner at Hotel Ljósaland.
After our soak in the hot tub and a leisurely drive back to at our hotel, we decided to check out the food offering in the Ljósaland restaurant. The reviews we’d read on TripAdvisor and Booking.com had said it wasn’t up to much, but as it was the only place in the area that was open, and we were famished, we gave it a whirl.
I don’t think it was as bad as the reviews made out – it wasn’t too pricey, it was fresh and mine was quite tasty. As I mentioned before, a full review of the hotel will be coming soon. But for now, here’s the Club sandwich I plumped for (unfortunately I didn’t manage to snap a pic of Björn’s burger, I knew better than to delay a hungry man from his food):
After dinner, at about 10pm we retired to our room, where we had a glass of wine, logged on to the hotel’s free wifi and began planning the next day’s adventure. Or rather Björn did. I started writing this blog post, then passed out. Apparently I snore.
* Swimming costume gifted by Hunkemoller