My fantastic mate Charlie is one of my adventure inspirations – she’s always just back from amazing places (Ethiopia’s up next) and she’s super travel savvy. She recently set out to prove that you can explore some of the most incredible parts of Iceland’s surreal glacial landscape in just three days. On a budget. With your mum.
‘Oh, wasn’t it really expensive?’
‘Did you see the Northern Lights?’
Answer to both of these – NO! My mum and I escaped to the ‘land that time forgot’ for four days this winter and were keen to explore more than just the Golden Circle without having to splash too much cash. We spent an incredible three nights based in the the small town of Hafnarfjörður – this cute harbour town sits just outside Reykjavík and we had everything we needed a stone’s throw from the hotel.
What did we get up to? Our experience of ‘the land that time forgot’ completely exhausted us, but only because we were having so much fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Iceland is home to some truly spectacular sights and the most famous are easily seen on a day tour. As an easy introduction to the island look no further than a no-frills Golden Circle Tour – it does exactly what is says on the tin. The roar of Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir hot springs and Þingvellir National Park and you can save money with a budget bus tour – you honestly won’t care about travelling in style when the sights look like this. We avoided tourist favourite the Blue Lagoon and headed to the Fontana Spa instead for a soak in the geothermal hot springs – perfect after a day of sightseeing.
As easy as a tour might be, Iceland is definitely best explored at your own pace. We picked up our car hire at the crack of dawn (seriously! The sun peeks out at 9.30am during January) on our second day and took our own adventure along the south coast. We begin our road trip with a search for the mystical Vestermanjar Islands. This small pod of islands is pretty new in geological terms and looks spooky as hell, partly due to the volcanic black sand beaches that you stand upon to sight them.
Next on our home-made to-do list was serious dose of waterfalls. Some we found completely by accident. Some are clearly marked on regular routes. All of them are spectacular cascades of ice in winter, so be careful not to stand downwind of the spray – it will freeze your face off! Skogafoss quite rightly trumps the rest at a height of 213 feet – an incredible vision.
Along our mini road trip we barely saw another soul. The whole of Iceland is populated by only 323,000 people, the majority of them residing in Reykjavik and the surrounding areas. You don’t need to allow time for traffic or expect to see the commuter stress of a bustling UK city here. Driving is definitely a pleasure along Iceland’s single lane highways, especially when you get panoramas like this…
The highlight for mum and I was our search for the famous ruin of an aircraft which crashed on the black sand of Sólheimasandur beach. Driving to the crash site felt like being on the surface of the moon – as we weaved through massive rocks in our little hire car and a chased an ever-distant horizon line we felt like proper intrepid travellers.
We still had a few more stops to make before we left this magical land, and we were aiming for Vik and yet another sight that was slightly off the beaten track. There’s a tiny outcrop of land with a steep ol’ drive to the top where the cute but sturdy lighthouse of Dyrholaey keeps watch. It was completely deserted, which made seeking it out that bit more special.
Now – about the Northern Lights. As mum quite rightly stated at the beginning of the trip – “I thought I was going to Iceland for the Northern Lights. Now I realise that everything else we saw were the real highlights”. I couldn’t agree with her more. We had fun chasing the lights but after a few nights decided it wasn’t our time to catch a sight of the longed-for Aurora Borealis. And it paled into insignificance compared to the wonderful landscape we were exploring.
We don’t have a flight until the afternoon of our last day so we headed to Reykjavík and once again got more bang for our buck with a delightful free tour with Citywalk. Reykjavík is tiny so only takes a couple of hours to see the whole city – but make sure you grab yourself one of the insanely good hot dogs they cook up here.
My taste of Iceland makes me long to come back for amazing geology, long weekends of exploring, breathtaking landscapes and the sense of escape, of running away from over-populated city life to somewhere more pure. Exploring Iceland doesn’t have to cost a bomb, and the Northern Lights definitely shouldn’t define a visit – this is the perfect place for anyone with a spirit of adventure.”
EXPLORE ICELAND ON CHARLIE’S BUDGET
Travel and accommodation: £189
Charlie and her mum travelled with Fleetway Travel for £189 each, which includes Easyjet flights, transfers, B&B accommodation at the Hafnarfjörður Hotel and a cheeky Northern Lights tour.
Fontana Spa: £20
Golden Circle bus tour: £39
Car hire and fuel: £60
Food and sundries: £75
Tour of Reyjkavik: free with Citywalk