The black sand beaches of Vík, with their alien, looming structures of basalt facing the uncompromising, raw North Sea, are understandably popular with those looking for a uniquely Icelandic experience. They are, however, only the last of several, equally remarkable places which it would not be so understandable to skip, if you are going to Vik by car.
Heading south out of Reykjavik along the Ring Road (a.k.a. the N1), the landscape changes dramatically as it rises into the mountains encircling the city. Trees, and even grass, give way to a lush tapestry of green and gold moss laid over dark volcanic peaks and lava fields. In the distance, you may catch a glimpse of towering plumes of white mist, belying the source of Reykjavik’s renewable energy: steam heated by red-hot magma that pulses just below the silent rocks and moss.
40km further on, the road descends steeply as the land drops in steep cliffs onto a broad, flat plain. The village of Hveragerði, whose volcanic surroundings make it home to Iceland’s commercial greenhouses and the starting point of a remarkable hike along the smoking river of Reykjadalur, is nestled into the base of these cliffs.
Past Hveragerði, the little town of Selfoss is a good place to stop, stretch your legs, and have a mid-morning coffeebreak. There’s a bakery or two whose buns, according to my boyfriend, are quite good, even given the already high standards set by Icelandic bakeries in general. I always insist on stopping at the used bookstore-turned-coffeeshop on Austurvegur road. It looks like a tumbledown shack from the outside, but inside you will find comfortable couches, wood-panelled walls, waffles made to order, and damn fine espresso.
Cloud-bound, grey and green mountains on your left hand, and flat fields bounded by sparkling ocean on your right: the South Coast’s landscape is distinct, but never monotonous. It’s fun to spot the farms tucked away, almost out of sight, and the fluffy horses, sheep, cows, and even wild swans that nap and eat in the wide open spaces. Keep an eye on the sky. You may see puffins, eagles, or rainbows.
Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall about 70km from Selfoss which falls off a velvety soft, grassy overhang. It’s famous because you can walk right around it- 360 degrees! A slightly slippery path leads to the waterfall, then right beside…then behind it. It’s surreal, looking out across the landscape from behind Seljalandfoss’ curtain of water.
Skógafoss is another worthwhile waterfall, about 30km further on, tucked away between two vividly green, lush cliffs. I like it better than Seljalandsfoss, possibly because it is partly hidden from the main road and feels secret. Within encircling rocky walls, water crashes onto a broad circle of stones and turns into soft clouds of mist. A clear and fast-flowing stream snakes away towards the sea and in summer, the air is perfumed with crushed grass, wet moss, and delicate angelica flowers.
There’s one other thing about Skógafoss: look beyond the waterfall and you will see a mountain rising behind it. That mountain is Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and caused all the flight delays!
Beside Skógafoss looms the exquisite black-veined bulk of Sólheimajökull Glacier. Its unique, Icelandic pattern and coloration is due to the combined effect of volcanoes and snow. More about that here
Vík is only another 30km from Sólheimajökull. You’ve made it. Congratulations! But your journey has not just been a means to this end. I hope you took the chance along the way to smell the angelica flowers, spot the lambs and foals, and feel refreshed by the mists of Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Sólheimajökull.