So many visitors to Iceland only travel Iceland’s Golden Circle. But Iceland has so many additional places to explore. The south shore, for example. We drove the eastern part of the south shore from Landayjahofn to Vik and the western part from Porlakshofn to Grindavik.
Landayjahofn to Vik
Driving the eastern part of the south shore was one of the most diverse, jaw-dropping, and awesome stretches of scenery we have seen in quite a while. Within the roughly 70 kilometers between the south-central coastal towns of Landayjahofn and Vik the inland view is studded with dramatic, emerald green cliffs dozens of waterfalls, two glaciers, and several volcanos.
The roughly 10 kilometers shoreline between Dyrholaey and Vik presents a different view. The volcanic tuff coastline alternates between long, beautiful black sand beaches, to ruggedly perpendicular 400-foot headlands and weirdly shaped seastacks.
Among the many highlights are:
- Seljalandsfoss. This narrow, 60-meter (200-foot) cataract falls from a cliff pocked with a deep cavern that allows the falls to plunge far from the cliff face.A trail allows you to see it from multiple angles, making it all the more dramatic and photogenic.
- Skogafoss. The wide, 62-meter falls is particularly scenic due to its verdant mountain surroundings.
- Eyjafjallajokul, a south-coast volcano. While active for centuries, it became world famous in 2010 when the ash cloud from a one-month eruption blanketed much of Europe and closed much of its airspace.
- Ejafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull (which is much larger) glaciers. The glaciers overlook the towns, feed the waterfalls and help (along with the island’s greatest rainfalls) keep the area beautifully green.
- Dyrholaey, on the island’s central south coast. The virtually perpendicular, 120-meter tall promontory with a lighthouse provides a commanding view of the sea, a stone sea arch, black basalt beaches and sea stacks. The stacks, and promontory also serve as nesting grounds for thousands of puffins and terns.
- Vik. The roughly 300-person town was founded in 1876 as a fishing center. It grew into a trading center. By the early 30th-century it became a sheep raising and slaughter area. The entire area was once destroyed and is still actually threatened by the Katla volcano, which is now, buried beneath the Myrdalsjoskull glacier. The town, with its pretty hillside church is the site of the area’s longest black sand beach which lies beneath the Dyrholaey headland. Just offshore are the area’s most unusual and scenic seastacks.
Porlakshofn to Grindavik
Driving 50 to 100 kilometers west of the south shore is almost like arriving on a new continent. The soil is blacker and lava strewn, the vegetation is shorter and is yellow grass and sage-like. Some areas are virtually all jagged lava rock covered in green moss. The tallus-strewn mountains, which had been well inland, approach the coast here. It provides a more varied, if still black, even more volcanic scenery.
As rugged as the area is, the bright green moss spread across a landscape of jagged black lava rocks has a certain beauty. Some rocks look like bright green brain coral. It is even prettier when occasional plants, with brightly colored autumn leaves, grow among the moss rocks.
The coastline is generally rocky and relatively nondescript. It is studded with occasional peninsulas that pierce the sea.
Grindavik has its own areas of interest. It was and appears to remain primarily a fishing and fish processing town, with fishing boats and fish processing plants and offices concentrated around the harbor. One company, helpfully, has a multi-window display explaining (albeit in Icelandic) the history of the salt cod industry, showing the evolution from individual fishermen to trawlers and from hand cutting and salting of the fish, to automated equipment. The town, however, has moved beyond salt cod. It is home to a large geothermal power plant that was the first in the world to combine electric and hot water production from a clean, renewable source. It also has a renewable methane plant that makes wood alcohol (for blending with gasoline and diesel fuel) from carbon dioxide and water.
Since Blue Lagoon is not too far from the Reykjavik airport, many people make this their first stop after an 8 hour flight from the United States. We chose to make this our last stop. As we were there in the morning, it was no surprise that the visitors primarily seemed to be English speaking. We suspect that people from other countries visit later in the day.
Blue Lagoon is an upscale day spa located in the midst of a huge lava field. The primary attraction is a huge pool of silica-rich geothermal water—a mix of ocean water that is continually pumped into the pool at 102 degrees F, and fresh water from the aquifer that is actually the effluent of a neighboring geothermal plant.
The incredibly popular pool is lovely: hundreds of acres of steaming, translucent, 100-degree, turquoise-colored water bordered by black lava rocks. The water ranges from very shallow to roughly four-feet in depth. It is ideal for walking or floating with a drink of your choice (from an in-pool bar, of course).
While people can swim, all advise against swimming since the high silica content can make your hair stiff. The location provides hair conditioner which apparently can counter-act this. You can get and apply silica and lava masks at a stand in the pool or step directly out of the pool into a massage parlor. The resort also has three restaurants.
While the time in the pool is a piece of cake, the process for entering it can be challenging for the uninitiated. First you have to choose which items you want to buy. After paying, you receive a colored wristband that identifies what you have paid for. Make sure you latch it firmly to your wrist (an attendant can help you). Scan your wristband at the entrance gate. You are then guided to a locker (men or woman), where your wristband will open and lock your locker. Your wristband is also used for anything else you wish to purchase such as food, drinks, or spa treatments.
Once in the locker rooms, you strip, take a shower (using plenty of conditioner), put on your bathing suit and follow the line down to the pool.
While minimally-priced, public thermal pools are available across the island, you pay handsomely for the privilege of using the Blue Lagoon. Pricing begins at E50 for single-day entry, a towel, and a drink, and reaches up to 567 euros for a package that includes a private changing suite, four hours at the spa, the “Blue Lagoon Ritual” and other amenities.
Is it worth the steep premium over a public pool? Depends on what you’re looking for. The setting is beautiful, the facilities are very nice, the pool is so large that it is easy to find space to yourself, and the amenities—should you choose to pay for them, can be quite luxurious. As for us: we did enjoy our visit and are glad to have experienced what is for many people, a primary motivation for visiting the island. However, once is sufficient for us.
South Shore Restaurants
- Sudur-Vik (Vik). Since we had been “char-ed” out over our last few fish dinners, we searched for some alternatives. Tom was reasonably pleased with his Thai Tom Yum, (a coconut milk, red curry and lemongrass-based seafood soup), although he would have preferred that the shrimp, clams and mussels were served whole, rather than minced. Joyce reverted to pizza (with pepperoni and mushrooms).
- Max’s (Grindavik). MAx’s was the restaurant in our hotel, Northern Lights Inn. We began with delicate lightly cured langoustine with cabbage puree, pickled cucumber, smoked cheese, crumble, dill, saffron and citrus gel. We then enjoyed a rich, wonderful seafood soup with cod, langoustine, shrimp and salmon roe and an equally delicious charred citrus salmon with marinated rutabaga, fava beans, broccolini, ricotta cheese, potato pave and lemongrass sauce. And to finish off, a traditional “dose” of fermented shark with a shot of Brennivin (a form of schnapps made with potato mash and caraway seeds). Our wine was a 2017 Pietra Kinnaldi Arneis.
- Lava Restaurant (Blue Lagoon, Grindavik) is the Blue Lagoon’s mid-tier restaurant. We shared three dishes, all of which were generally quite good (smoked haddock with rutabaga, potatoes, dill and rye bread; pan-fried cod with barley, avocado, almonds, broccolini and a mussel sauce that was too salty for our tastes; and on our server’s strong suggestion, a very good mango chocolate mousse with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel sauce.
The Northern Light Inn in Grindavik, like many hotels in the area, will wake you for the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, they didn’t happen while we were there. The hotel looks fairly new. It is located by one of the power plants and minutes away from the Blue Lagoon. They have a shuttle bus that will take you to the Lagoon if you do not have a car. The room is very nicely done. It has a refrigerator and hot pot. The windows opened wide for air. As with other hotels in Iceland, it did not have washcloths or soap, and shampoo, etc. were from big refillable bottles