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The Stunningly Surreal Beauty of Southern Iceland

The idea of traveling to the island nation of Iceland for the first time conjures up a myriad of wonderful thoughts: rich Viking history, Northern Light viewing possibilities, and dramatically intense scenery replete with majestically massive waterfalls, active volcanos, and black sand beaches.  All of that’s true and made for a fantastic first trip to Iceland a few years ago en route to Greenland. It also confirmed the phrase that “Iceland is green and Greenland is icy.” However, that trip left me wanting to return to explore the southern part of this fascinating country.

With just over only 375,000 people, about 60% of Norse descent and over 30% percent Celtic, Iceland is the least populated European nation with most Icelanders residing in and around Reykjavik, its sparklingly clean, modern capital. This is also part of Iceland’s charm: the ease to quickly depart the city and get into nature. That Iceland is also known as the most literate and educated country in the world with Icelanders among the planet’s happiest people only adds to its panache.

Southward Bound

Following a 90-minute drive from Reykjavik on a pristine highway, I arrived at my base for the next five nights, the incredibly comfortable, 51-room Hotel Rangá. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it’s set along the meandering banks of the 16-mile Rangá River. In the distance, the snowcapped Eyjafjallajökull glacier-volcano that last erupted in June 2010 regally rests, like phoenix rising from a staged Hollywood set.

On arrival, Hrammur, the hairy, albino-looking, 13-foot "doorman" was the first to greet me. Icelandic for “paws,” Hrammur is a taxidermied polar bear that Rangá’s charming owner, Fri∂rik Palsson, rescued from a storage unit of a bankrupt Reykjavic sporting goods’ parent company. Then I was greeted by Palsson, a white-haired gentleman best described as a gracious, savvy, welcoming uncle one wishes one had.

At Rangá, Justin Bieber stayed for a spell in Room 10, the Kardashians slept in one of the lovely, themed suites after enjoying one of Ranga’s river-facing geothermal hot tubs long after the nightly closing time, and the Real Housewives of Orange County slept in a suite and did, well, whatever it is that Real Housewives do when not in their OC houses wiving – or was it whining?

After quickly unpacking in Room 4 – six doors down from Bieber’s lair – I had my first of many great meals at Rangá Restaurant where Chef Péter Jóni weds Nordic cuisine to fresh local ingredients. The creamy wild mushroom soup was a well-loved staple, while the Graflax cured salmon, reindeer carpaccio with parmesan and truffle oil, and pan-fried scallops with apples, baked garlic, and langoustine crumble, were favorites. Breakfasts were a joyous affair of great coffee, house-made breads and pastries, fruits, yogurts, charcuterie, and cheeses, with other made-to-order items available.

Passing reception about 9:00pm the first night, the clerk told me, “They are out now.” They were the often-illusive Northern Lights. Laying down outside on one of the recliner benches a light show of one’s psychedelic fantasies commenced. The sky was clear, shifting from twilight and dusk to night, with the moon simultaneously rising. Then several shades of neon green, trimmed by violet lit up the sky in stripes, then various abstract formations.

Regardless of how often one sees the Northern Lights, scientific explanations, and Jonathan Pollack emissions notwithstanding, they are remarkable, awe-inspiring, and life-affirming. At Rangá there’s also a small observatory with two high-powered telescopes, refractive and reflective, for stargazing. On clear nights a local astronomer plies guests with great lore, and that particular night, incredible views of Saturn and her rings were seen.

Horsing around with a side of coffee, caves, and an electric plane

Sixteen miles northeast of Rangá in Skei∂vellir is Icelandic Horse World  and a great spot to get acquainted with the unique, powerful Icelandic horses whose slightly smaller stature completely belies their strength. Coming in over 40 colors with thick, flowing, rockstar manes, these equine beauties, have Labrador Retriever temperaments and five distinct gaits resulting from gene mutation: walk, trot, canter, tölt – a smooth four-beat gait where walking strides are at different speeds – and flying pace – a high-speed, two-beat gait.

Isolated for over 1000 years, Icelanders exercise great lengths to maintain the breed, including disallowing their return to Iceland following participation in foreign competitions thereby avoiding potential disease. It’s difficult to overestimate the cultural importance of these gorgeous animals. However, our guide Stefán Arngrímmson of Southcoast Adventures summed it up well, saying, “They are the most valuable servant. It brought the midwife on the day we were born and carried the coffin on our last journey.” Horse World has 100 horses in a magical setting.

Needing a bit of sustenance we stopped at Hella’s Au∂kúla Café  for homemade waffles and whipped cream. Set in a verdant garden, the main structure is a geodesic dome originally built by Einar Þorsteinn Ásgeirsson, a Buckminster Fuller devotee. The kind owners’ two affectionate chocolate Labradors add even more charm along with their indoor garden. Nearby at Caves of Hella, four of 12 man-made Celtic sandstone caves are open to the public. Inside these archaeological remains, where until 1936 people still resided, are ancient wall carvings and other mysteries.

Rangá’s Palsson is an electric auto and plane aficionado and owns the world's first fully certified, all-electric aircraft. Manufactured in Slovenia, the two-seater plane has 22kw hours of juice within two batteries that can fly for 60-miles before recharging. As an aviation geek, flying jumpseat in a silent aircraft was bucket list worthy. Flights can be arranged in advance where, says Palsson, "You can fly into the future.”

Water and ice at every turn

Heading east in a ‘super jeep’ with 46-inch tires, Stefan drove us to the 185-foot high, 82-foot wide Skógafoss Waterfall. One of Iceland’s largest, rainbows are often visible from surrounding heavy mist. Climbing the 527 stairs to the top was well worth the view. Once atop, it leads into the Fimmvorduhals trailhead for a pleasant, mainly flat hike.

Continuing the watery quest, we drove to Reynisfjara Beach. Its black sand and basalt column formations result from cooling magna and are as dramatic as the waters are cold and rough. At the remote town of Vik, Iceland’s southernmost point, the red-roofed church is its most prominent feature. Until one steps into Smi∂jan Brugghús. Here, in addition to great burgers, mouth-watering ribs, and brew, Nutella-doused french fries are on the menu!

After 40-minutes driving on packed volcanic black ash deeply contrasting with moss-covered mountains and ice caps, we arrived to Katla Ice Caves. In the Kötlujökull glacier, Iceland’s fourth largest, while donning crampons and helmets, we crossed wood planks, held onto safety ropes then entered the caves facing what appeared a billion sparkling diamonds. Later, walking back to our jeep, the mirage came into focus: a tuxedoed man and bride in full regalia appeared. Exchanging stilettos, wingtips, and veils for crampons, helmets, and headlights, this Miami couple decided an icy wedding beat a humid one and just married in Katla.

The watery day ended at Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. Its impressive 200-foot drop made more so since the cliffs behind it have a wide cavernous pathway permitting walkers to completely encircle the waterfall. It was chilly and we got soaked, but enjoyed the serenade of the water’s thunderous sounds.

A buggy ride like no other

Joining Southcoast Adventure for a several hour ATV-resembling buggy adventure tour in the Thórsmörk nature reserve – a forested ridge flanked by two valleys – was thrilling. Dressed in waterproof suits and full-face helmets, we drove on tundra sand fields, crossed several streams, and stopped to hike waterfalls in Gígjökull and Stakkholtsgjá where some Game of Thrones winter scenes were filmed.

Later in Thórsmörk we had a “traditional” lunch of Icelandic hot dogs. Arriving in 1913, hot dogs soon became a national obsession. Locals routinely discuss the virtues of particular hot dog stands. Topped with raw and fried onions, ketchup, mustard, and an aioli-style mayonnaise, the order in which the condiments are placed is regionally dependant. Some secrets are hard to keep.

Here’s looking at ewe

In Southern Iceland sporadic tiny villages are separated by miles of pastures, cows, horses, and sheep, with mind-blowing natural wonders tossed in for good measure. Driving, one must remember sheep comprise more the twice the Icelandic population. So paying attention to wandering sheep is key as they have their own crossing rules. Best to think of sheep as landlords and drivers as tenants. You’ll want to yield. Nowhere is this truer than during a réttir – Iceland’s annual community sheep round-up.

Springtime sheep graze the highlands so during September’s réttir, they’re rounded up into circular pens, tag identified, then returned to each farmer/owner. At the community réttir we attended in Fljótshlíð, about 600 sheep were herded, while everyone tried their hand during the often-comical sorting process. As guide Stefán said, “We owe our lives to these sheep. They saved us.” Afterwards, locals often head home for “meat soup,” naturally made of lamb.

Back at Rangá, I tried a few Viking specialties: smoked lamb that tasted like Canadian bacon, several deliciously sauced herrings, and Iceland’s famous fermented shark.  Anthony Bourdain said it was “the most disgusting thing he ever tasted,” though personally, the intense ammonia aroma was far worse than the taste. Immediately downing Icelandic Brennevin schnapps, known as ‘Black Death,’ probably helped.

As guests depart Rangá, the sign onto Ring Road reads “Velkomin aftur,” meaning welcome again. Taking that literally, I’ll happily return, taking one of  Iceland Air's non-stop flights to Reykjavik while enjoying its excellent Saga business class service.

Julie L. Kessler

Written by Julie L. Kessler

Julie L. Kessler is Money Inc's Senior Travel & Luxury Editor and writes for several major media outlets in the U.S. and overseas. She is also an attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning book "Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight." She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler

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