Iceland uncovered: An interview with local Ólafur Ólafsson

Winter is a magical time to explore Iceland, a country with incredible landscapes and ice formations, as well as the world’s most beautiful natural light display. Guide to Iceland expert, Ólafur Ólafsson, talks through his ultimate winter road trip.

By Guide to Iceland
Published 3 Nov 2019, 15:00 GMT, Updated 30 Dec 2021, 17:05 GMT
The Northern Lights over Thingvellir National Park, one of the best palces to spot them in ...
The Northern Lights over Thingvellir National Park, one of the best palces to spot them in Iceland.
Photograph by Guide to Iceland

Iceland dazzles. It is land of contrasts, where mountains of ice meet lava fields and where ever changing landscapes woo more and more travellers every year. We talk to local expert, Ólafur, about what makes Iceland so special, and how to make the most of a trip to this snowy northerly country:

Why should travellers come to Iceland?
It’s an island of striking landscapes, where rivers run through deserts and molten lava erupts from ice. It’s also steeped in history and is rich in folklore. So, whether you’re after culture or spectacular, other-worldly landscapes, Iceland is the place.

When travellers arrive, what’s the first thing they should do?
I’d recommend heading straight for one of our famous geothermal spas. You’ll want to unwind after your flight, and these pools have natural healing qualities that will get your trip off on the right note. The most famous is The Blue Lagoon, but you may wish to by-pass the crowds and try either The Secret Lagoon or Fontana Spa. If you arrive later in the day, you may even be able to watch the Northern Lights from the spa pool, but failing that there are plenty of Northern Lights tours to choose from.

What is your ultimate winter road trip around the country?
Iceland only has one main road, which allows you to travel around the whole country, and there many epic places to stop off at all the way around.

The best variety of Icelandic landscapes is on Snæfellsness peninsula (described as ‘Iceland in miniature’). Head to Lake Myvatn to experience geothermal heaven, try Seljalandsfoss to watch the sun set from behind a waterfall, or walk through ice caves at Vatnajökull Glacier. Of course, winter is peak Northern Lights season, so watching the sky come alight is the icing on the cake.

Guide to Iceland offers loads of options for self-drive tours around the country, with accommodation, vehicle rentals and activities available to book in advance, These tours give you the freedom to organise your trip to suit yourself but without any of the stress.

The crystal ice cave in Vatnajokull is in the depths of Europe's largest glacier.
Photograph by Guide to Iceland

What’s your favourite stop and why?
My favourite stop has got to be the blue ice cave at Vatnajökull, where you can spend a good couple of hours hiking through huge ice formations. They change year on year, too, so even for a local like me, they never get old. I love marvelling at the colours and shapes the ice makes — it’s such a peaceful experience.

Where should people stay along the route?
There are lots of cosy places to stay in Iceland. Five-star hotels aren’t very common. Instead, we love to invite you into our home, so I’d really recommend embracing this guesthouse culture. On a self-drive tour you need only select your budget and we’ll choose from the best reviewed places for you. Wherever you stay, you’ll always find hot coffee, comfy beds and good company.

And where should they eat?
Icelanders love to eat kjötsúpa (traditional Icelandic lamb soup) and fish also features strongly on menus. In fact, fisheries are one of our main industries so you’ll find places serving it all year round. In Reykjavík, try eating by the harbour for some super fresh seafood. If you’re feeling fancy, the southeastern town of Höfn is famous for lobster, but if you’re travelling on a budget, try the hot dogs in our petrol stations or join some locals on an ‘ice cream drive’ (ísbíltúr). It’s also pretty fashionable to eat in food courts in Iceland — relaxed dining is what we do best. Just be aware that restaurants in the countryside could close as early as 9pm, and supermarkets close around 6pm, so late night food is hard to find.

What unexpected things are likely to happen to travellers in Iceland?
The weather is a fickle thing. This can be good in that it gifts us 24-hour sun in summer and the Northern Lights in winter. But on the flip-side, it can be windy, wet or snowy. For travellers, you can be sure of full support from Guide to Iceland in rearranging plans if the weather proves disruptive. We’ll always say: þetta reddast (‘it’ll all work out’).

What’s the best thing about a road trip around the country?
It’s the trip of a lifetime. The roads are quiet, and the landscapes are amazingly diverse; around every bend in the road there is something new to take. It’s unique — that’s why it’s got to be Iceland.

If you had to sum up Iceland in one sentence, what would you say?
It’s nature on steroids: volcanoes, ice caves, craters, geothermal pools, all while the sky is alight with the aurora borealis.

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