Iceland – not to be mistaken for the northernmost island blanketed by ice and snow (that’s Greenland, by the way), but it’s widely considered as planet Earth’s utopia. If an alien were to ask me which place best represents the Third Rock, my answer would be Iceland.
Iceland is a small nordic country with a population of 330,000, and is an envy to many nations. Surrounded by mother nature’s finest creation, it’s also one of the happiest nations in the world. By looking at its breathtaking surroundings, you can see why famous singers such as Jonsi of Sigur Ros and Bjork can produce mesmerising music that tug the heartstrings. It’s also one of many popular tourist destinations, one that helped Iceland recover from the 2008 economic crisis.
Iceland and Malaysia are two drastically different countries, but they share one obvious trait: they have one of the highest levels of car ownership in the world. The entire island is home to innumerable valleys, waterfalls, volcanic zones, and snowy mountain passes, all of which are connected by Route 1, also known as the Ring Road. I was told that one of the best ways to experience Iceland is by going on a road trip on the Ring Road, to which I did on my honeymoon with the missus.
Together, our journey spanned over eight days and by the end of it, we had clocked over 2,000km on a rented car. The journey began from the capital city of Reykjavik in the South West of Iceland and traversed on a counter-clockwise direction of the Ring Road. Before turning the ignition key, here’s a little tip about driving in Iceland:
- The island has 13,034 km of roads, but only 4,617 km of them are paved. The rest are highland and dirt roads.
- Driving is on the right side of the road, which means all cars are left-hand drive.
- The speed limit is capped to 90km/h on paved roads and 80 km/h on gravel roads. Urban areas are restricted to 50km/h.
- Icelandic traffic laws requires the front headlights to be turned on at all times while on the road.
- Single lane bridges exist especially in rural areas. Whichever car nearest to the bridge has the right to cross the bridge while the opposing side waits. This idea will never work in Malaysia.
- Driving offroad is illegal in Iceland, in order to preserve domestic vegetation.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol is illegal in Iceland as well.
- Parking is free in most areas except along certain city streets.
- Renting a car is the most effective way to travel around the island. Rental car companies are everywhere near the airport and Reykjavik.
- Despite the high ownership of cars, fatalities from road accidents are tremendously low. Last year was the country’s worst record with 16 deaths. A year before, only four fatalities were recorded.
Our weapon of choice during the road trip was a Dacia Duster crossover. Yes. Jokes aside, I initially opted for a C-segment hatchback for four (two humans, two oversized luggage). But fortunately, the friendly staff at the car rental upgraded my ride to this relatively strange-looking SUV, and I couldn’t be happier.
|Name||Dacia Duster dCi|
|Segment||B-Segment Compact Crossover|
|Engine||1,461cc; inline 4-cylinder SOHC Turbodiesel|
|Max Power||109 hp|
|Max Torque||240 Nm|
|Price (OTR with insurance)||Not Available in Malaysia|
The Dacia brand is not available in Malaysia, probably because us brand-conscious Malaysians wouldn’t be attracted to a brand that’s the equivalent to some hypermarket Colas, as opposed to the Coca-Cola. That’s a shame, because the Duster grew on me more than I thought it would. The cabin is largely basic but functional, but that’s fine considering the amount of space it has.
For a long road trip on the unpredictable roads of Iceland, a sturdy SUV with excellent fuel economy is highly recommended, and the Renault-sourced 1.5-litre dCi oil burner was all I needed. Since speed traps are common around the island, a slow but safe drive is all that’s needed.
Here are some short takes called “Pitstops” where I’ll explain the important things and tips during a road trip in Iceland.
PITSTOP 1: Rental Cars
Rental cars are aplenty in Iceland, ranging from big companies such as Hertz, Avis to local companies such as Blue Car and more. They offer a variety of cars ranging from city cars, superminis, wagons, SUVs and even campervans.
My recommendation is to get at least a supermini (Hyundai i20, Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta) for a road trip of two, with no more than two luggages. Also, request for a diesel variant because you’ll get better mileage. We’d recommend a manual transmission, but that’s entirely up to you to decide. Also, if you’re driving during the non-winter months, a two-wheel drive car will suffice. If driving through the valleys (also known as F-roads) is on your itinerary, you’ll surely be needing a four-wheel drive SUV.
If there’s one negative aspect about Iceland, it’ll be the car rental companies, so be sure to read the reviews of these companies online before signing the agreement. As a heads up, collision damage waiver (CDW) is usually offered by default. However, gravel protection is a must, because once you get stone chips, you’re going to pay for it (this goes up to the thousands of Ringgit). My recommendation is to pick all insurance offered, because the last thing you want to ruin your vacation with is the hefty bills from these companies.
According to a car rental company, a normal national driving license with English wordings will do, but it a better idea to make a trip down to your preferred JPJ (Road Transport Department) branch and apply for an International Driving Permit (IDP), just to be safe.
I got my car and accommodation from self-drive tour companies, and the one I engaged with was Iceland Road Trip. They planned the route and accommodation according to my needs. This is one of the many tour companies to offer self-drive tours. Otherwise, you can even plan one on your own!
EIGHT DAYS ON THE RING ROAD…
After a night in the capital city of Reykjavik, day one brought us to the South. Driving was immensely tricky at first. It was my first time driving on the right side of a two-lane road, and also we met with strong winds while leaving the city. Eventually, we left the mountains and came across a few picturesque waterfalls – Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. The waterfall currents in Iceland are vicious, so be sure to wear sufficient waterproofing gears if you wish to go nearer.
Driving further down south led us to Dyrhólaey, where we were greeted with the majestic view of black sands and strong waves. Day one of the drive ends with a night’s stay at a countryside guesthouse in Skógafoss. It’s hard to believe that in just one day, we saw the city, waterfalls and scenic roads, but that’s just a preview of what’s to come in the subsequent days.
PITSTOP 2 – Hotels and seasons in Iceland
In Iceland, a place to put up a night can be either standard hotels or countryside guesthouses. My recommendation would be the latter, because the cosy settings of a proper home makes us feel more, well, at home. A peek behind the curtains would reward you with scenic vistas that’s the equivalent of the wallpapers from Windows OS.
One point to take note is the bathroom, as some low-cost guesthouses have shared bathrooms. Rooms with private bathrooms are also available, but this of course comes with additional costs.
Hotel rates are expensive during the summer (mid June to mid August). The best time is to travel during shoulder season (May and September) where the rates are cheaper and with fewer tourists around. Obviously, travelling during winter is cheapest, but be prepared for more unscheduled pitstops. If there’s one good thing about travelling during the winter is you get to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights, for your viewing pleasure.
Day two took us to the Reynisfjara beach, or also known as the black sand beach, rated as one of the 10 most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. A few towns afterwards, we reached Skaftafell national park and trailed a mountain pass to see the Svartifoss waterfall. The highlight of the day goes to the Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon. A gathering of floating ice camps combined with the sunset as a backdrop proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it was nothing short of breathtaking.
The following day after a night at Höfn town, we headed towards the east of Iceland. Day three was mostly driving from South to East, and personally, it was my favourite as we travelled through a variety of interesting landscapes. From black volcanic ash fields to bright coastal roads before arriving in a long undergrown tunnel, our journey to the east was spectacular.
Also for the first time, we drove on Iceland’s notorious gravel roads which made us feel like driving on a cross country trail. After passing Egilsstaðir, we took the snowy mountainous of Route 93 before putting the night at a wonderful small town of Seydisfjordur. That’s right, this is the exact town where the volcanic eruption scene from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed. The fictitious eruption aside, this small town with colourful buildings and serene ambience was our favourite town in all of Iceland. In short, if I’m looking for a place to retire, this will be my sanctuary.
PITSTOP 3 – Towns in Iceland
Speaking about towns in Iceland, there are mostly small but self-sustaining community, be it in coastal areas, highlands or in the valleys. Population in such towns range from a few hundred to a mere thousand. To give you some perspective, Reykjavik is the most populous city in Iceland with 110,000 residents, followed by Akureyri with 18,000 residents.
The next day, we drove across the snowy mountain passes and headed straight to another popular Icelandic attraction – nature baths in the district of Mývatn. Any place with volcanic activities usually means you can find natural geothermal baths, and apart from the world famous Blue Lagoon bath, Mývatn Nature Baths offers clean and warm geothermal water, and it’s a waste not to go for a dip in such pools. The day ends in Husavik, a place where you can go whale watching,
In case you’re wondering where we stopped for fuel and food, here it is:
PITSTOP 4 – Petrol Stations
Some of the more prominent petrol stations in Iceland include N1, Olis, Orkan, and a handful of Shell stations. N1 stations are the most common petrol stations in Iceland and consist of either full-size, independently run or remote stations.
The stations near the towns or main roads have convenience shops that sell a variety of items and food, so we took the chance to stock up on sandwiches and salads in between drives. Some stations have restaurants and fast food chains, including a local delicacy called the Icelandic Meat Soup. Trust me, the burgers and hotdogs served in N1 stations are far superior than many of the fast food chains we’re all familiar with. And oh, don’t forget to grab a cup of hot coffee to go too!
The following day, we left Husavik for Goðafoss to see the “waterfall of the Gods”. This stop is a must before making our way to Akureyri, the capital city of the north. After a night’s rest at Skagafjörður, we moved westbound to the Þingvellir National Park. However, there were two things that were best remembered during the day.
One, we passed the Hvalfjörður tunnel, the one and only place in Iceland where the road is tolled. A drive on the 5.7km tunnel costs 1,000 ISK (roughly RM33). Certainly isn’t cheap.
Also, remember the Papa John’s scene in the Walter Mitty movie? The picture above, located in the small town of Borgarnes, is exactly where the scene was shot, but there’s not a single Papa John’s Pizza chain in all of Iceland! Funnily enough, the scene was criticised for bad product placement.
The final day of our road trip brought us to the Golden Circle. Here, we were treated to a few magnificent spectacles – a Geysir Geothermal Area, Gullfoss waterfall and the Kerið Crater. These locations are popular among bus tours and foreign tourist as it’s near to Reykjavik. Once at Geysir, look out for the geyser called Strokkur, where it spurts boiling hot water once every few minutes. By the end of the day, we went back to Reykjavik to return the car and put two more nights at the Laugavegur street before returning back home.
Speaking about Reykjavik, Laugavegur is an ideal place to stay if you’re into shopping. You can also find many restaurants along the street, as well as cafes and souvenir shops. Also, the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, the tallest and perhaps the most beautiful church in Iceland, is located near the area, and it’s a must-see.
To sum it all up, let me pose a question: Is this road trip for you? While my answer is a definite yes, even if you don’t fancy long distance driving, the whole experience of immersing yourself with some of Mother Earth’s finest creations can be encapsulated in just a week of driving around the incredible country of Iceland. It’s certainly a once in a lifetime experience. Allow me to end this story with a quote from Walter Mitty which aptly describes this road trip:
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.
IS THIS CAR FOR YOU?
Being a car portal, I have the obligation to answer this, and I have to admit that the Dacia Duster is an amazing car for such road trips. The car handles pretty well for most of the time and the suspension is able to absorb many of the imperfect roads, bet it gravel or tarmac.
The engine works like a charm and despite being a diesel, we didn’t feel like driving a truck on the inside. The manual gearbox is lovely and easy to shift. Speaking of fuel consumption, it didn’t disappoint, as we managed an average of 6 litres per 100km. I personally think Renault should bring the Duster to Malaysia, and perhaps our friends in East Malaysia will develop a new liking for such a Romainan.
Special thanks to Road Trip Iceland and Procar Iceland for allowing this amazing road trip to happen for both myself and my missus!