Best things to do in Iceland
Taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon of Instagram fame is one of the best ways to beat jet lag after a six-hour flight plus four-hour delay at the airport. There are steam rooms and a café, but the main attraction is the turquoise geothermal pools. Even when it’s raining, you can float from the face mask station to the submerged bar to the heat-emitting buoys, pampering yourself and admiring the alien nature of your surroundings. 240, Grindavik 420-8800 (354-420-8800, bluelagoon.com)
The No. 1 thing you need on a trip to Iceland is a kickass road trip playlist. Public transportation is nonexistent in Iceland, but the good news is that driving there is the opposite of driving in a crowded U.S. city: To get to Reykjavík, all you have to do is follow a straight line with no other cars in sight. Once you hit the capital city, swing by Hallgrímskirkja church, fail at pronouncing its name, take a selfie with the statue of Leif Eriksson and then move on. Because the best part of Iceland is out in the wilderness.
Traveling on the southern coast of Iceland, you’ll find Hotel Rangá precisely in the middle of nowhere. The rustic lodge has reindeer on its restaurant’s menu and a chandelier made from antlers. There are no neighboring buildings in sight. See? Rustic. The hotel has standard bedrooms along with themed suites, but no matter where you stay it’ll feel more like a family vacation in an upstate New York cabin than like a hotel (that’s a good thing). Sudurlandsvegur, Hella 851 (354-487-5700, hotelranga.is)
The standout of Rangá’s amenities is its stargazing observatory, a separate lodge specifically constructed to view the Northern Lights. The hotel even provides middle-of-the-night wake-up calls to make sure you don’t miss them. In spring and summer, when the chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis decreases and it remains a dusky light for 24 hours a day, the astrologer on duty will still bring out a group of hotel guests, beers in hand, to spy on the moon and Jupiter. Sudurlandsvegur, Hella 851 (354-487-5700, hotelranga.is)
An important lesson: The adorable equines in the multiple fields you pass while driving along the coast are Icelandic horses, not ponies. Meet some of the domesticated beasts at Icelandic HorseWorld, a Skeiðvellir farm that trains horses and trains you to ride horses. The superb instructors there offer private or group tours with a maximum of six guests, and they’ll chat about Icelandic culture and share stories that you won’t find on Wikipedia. Skeiðvellir, 851 Hella (354-899-5619, iceworld.is)
Here’s where the road trip playlist really comes in handy: It’s a three-hour drive down to Vik, but it’s easily the most breathtaking sight on Iceland’s southern coast. Grab a bite to eat at one of the town’s restaurants named after The Prose Edda's Nordic gods, then go walk along the black-sand beach. With Iceland’s bright black sand, sheer cliffs on the outskirts and rolls of fog softening the volcanic lava columns rising from the water, it’s like visiting the plains of Mordor or Planet Lah'mu in the Raioballo sector.
Yes, this is another black-sand beach. They’re so amazing that you need to visit two. There's also a bonus hidden cave carved into the cliff that you can step inside.
You’ll see this peninsula from the beaches, but it’s worth a stop to see the beaches from the peninsula. Climb the cliff for a higher view of the coastline, and in the summer, try to spot the puffins nesting below.
Sure, the beaches’ black sand could be from this volcanic ice cap, which last erupted in 2010. But it could also be a result of Ragnarök and the battles of Thor and Surtr in ancient Nordic mythology. You can take a guided hike up the volcano or visit the small volcano museum at Thorvaldseyri and decide for yourself. 861 Hvolsvöllur (354-487-5757, icelanderupts.is)
Last but not least—seriously, visit this waterfall last because you will emerge soaking wet. The hillside falls are gorgeous from afar, even more gorgeous when you get close enough to see the absurdly perfect rainbow beaming across it and yet another level of stunning when you hike behind it for an inside-out view. It takes just 10 minutes to climb the stairs and walk the cliff behind the falls, and you’ll risk the life of your iPhone in the haphazard gushes of water blowing about. But it’s worth it.