In 2019 I decided that as part of my photography education endeavors, I would lead a photography tour in Iceland. I was very up front with everyone that I had not actually been to Iceland before, but I have taught photography for many years, and I was excited to explore this amazing country, teaching photography along the way. I was completely delighted when rather quickly I found 8 really cool people who wanted to take me up on the opportunity!
We all know what was in store in early 2020. As it became apparent that Covid was going to prevent us from traveling on our assigned dates, we decided as a group to postpone to 2021. That was also not to be, and so we decided to try 2022. As we approached the time to make that decision, half of the group wanted to push forward in 2022 while the other half decided to postpone one more year, to travel in 2023. So, I now have the amazing opportunity to re-plan this adventure for my 2023 crew, based on the experiences of the group that just returned a couple of weeks ago. I thought it might be helpful if I share a few of my observations. If someone is planning their first trip over, you might glean something useful from things I have decided to change. Or, if you were thinking that you would plan a trip yourself, I would also offer to add you to my mailing list. I’m in love with Iceland, and fully intend to return there many times, and to offer a wide range of various opportunities based on my growing experience there.
What is it like to drive in Iceland?
One of my biggest concerns going into the first trip was being responsible for everyone as I was driving the group. I was at ease instantly in Iceland. I have driven a number of fairly large vehicles throughout my life, so I was completely at home with the 15-passenger van I had rented for the group. My rental was from Europcar, but Iceland is an economy that relies VERY heavily on tourism. You will have no difficulty finding car rentals (or camper rentals, which were clearly very popular).
Iceland drives on the same side of the road as America/Canada. Many of the traffic laws are similar, but there are a couple of differences. I think the biggest one for any urban US drivers, is the right-of-way in roundabouts. In Iceland, if there is a 2-lane roundabout (and there are HUNDREDS of them), you have to yield right-of-way to the inner lane, if they want to exit. It takes a bit of getting used to, but really it’s just a matter of being completely courteous, and taking your time, rather than trying to “outsmart” and “outrace” the other guy in America.
Drivers in Iceland tend to be extremely courteous and mindful of others. That isn’t to say that you won’t run into a jerk now and then. As I mentioned above, it’s a nation of tourists, and so there are driving habits from all across the planet on display. But, in 10 days of driving, I only really found a couple of folks who were driving horrifically, and in Philly you can’t drive a mile to a Wawa without encountering far worse.
Iceland also has a standardized speed limit, which is a beautiful thing! Good roads out in the countryside are all 90km/hr. Gravel or rough roads drop to 80. Roads that have any turn-offs or many drive-ways, etc., drop to 70. If there are a few buildings in a hamlet, it will drop to at least 50, and towns/villages are generally 30. They have speed monitors posted in many spots to tell you how you are doing, and you get a friendly green “happy face” if you are within the posted limits.
I can’t leave the topic of driving before I mention the sheep. The sheep in Iceland are largely free range. They just meander through the countryside, nibbling on the flora. They seem to really appreciate all of the paved walkways that men have built for them… they will walk down the road and stare you down for being on their pathway. They will dart out in front of you, and they will do random, unexpected things. Be wary of the sheep along the road and be VERY careful. They are cute, but they are dumb as can be.
Was gas expensive?
God yes. It was at least twice as much as gas in the US. When we were there the average price of gas in the US was $5.00 a gallon. Gas ran anywhere from $10 to $12 a gallon as we filled up there. Our van had a diesel engine, and I did notice that diesel is actually slightly less expensive than regular gas in Iceland. That’s basically the reverse of what things are here, so you might want to factor that into your rental decisions.
Were the hotels nice?
I used a travel agent in Iceland to book my hotels for the group. They had 4 tiers available, and I chose the second highest. That particular tier had private water closets in each room, as opposed to communal facilities. The hotels on that tier also all included breakfast. We stayed in 8 different facilities over 9 nights. They were all save, clean, functional and decent. While planning my return, I’m actively trying to return to 6 of those 8. The 7th one would be just fine, if we need to, but I wouldn’t mind finding a better option. One hotel really did have some struggles. It was not part of any of the chains, and it was quite obviously built by someone who was sort of “doing it themselves”. There were just little things that didn’t quite work well. The doors didn’t hang quite right, and were very hard to lock. The bathroom floor angled away from the drain, instead of towards it, so water ran out into your bedroom, instead of down the drain). That particular facility was more of a super-cheap hostel vibe. I’m not really looking to bash anyone online, so I’ll going to add their name to this post, but if you know me in person, feel free to drop me a message and I’ll share privately.
Was breakfast adequate?
The breakfasts were superb! The first morning of the trip we were all very excited at a nice breakfast buffet in Reykjavik. I know one of my big concerns was getting a horrible cookie and a cup of coffee, and have that called “breakfast”. I couldn’t have been happier with the options provided. In most places they had things sort of compartmentalized based upon various nationalities’ habits. There was usually an “American breakfast” area that had bacon, eggs, sausage, usually baked beans and some sort of hashbrown/potato. Everyplace also had a more European spread of cold cuts, both meats and cheeses along with many different bread choices. Additionally, everyplace had an Icelandic section that had skyr (lovely yogurt) along with some various granola or cereal options to put with it, a fruit tray and almost always pickled herring and a fish in a mustard sauce. Important: TRY THAT FISH! I am a big seafood fan, but even the travelers that weren’t eating seafood every meal really enjoyed that fish in mustard sauce.
What was weather like in July?
We had somewhat atypical weather while we were there. It was colder than normal. We reached 53 degrees one or two times, in the blazing sun of midday. Many days we never left the mid 40’s. From a photography standpoint, I have to say, it was VERY rainy and drab about 80% of the time. We did get a few moments where things cleared up, but we spent a huge portion of the time in rain. I intend this post to be useful for anyone and everyone, but a photography-specific suggestion: bring a lot of microfiber towels and lens cloths. I was drying my cameras basically nonstop.
A whale & puffin tour you say?
We all wanted to photograph whales and puffins. I think just about everyone who’s into photography would have that on their list for Iceland, right? Well… this was one of the two experiences that I cut out of the itinerary for 2023. Here are a few thoughts behind why:
1) There was an arctic storm causing very rough seas and constant rain on the day we were scheduled to sail. I had used a travel agent to book that excursion, and when the sailing company canceled the 9:00 am boat, the email for that went to my travel agent, and not to me. I dragged my entire tour group out at 7:30 am (we were staying about an hour away), to get to a boat tour that had been canceled. That was VERY frustrating.
2) The boat company themselves were wonderful. They offered us the option of whale watching out of a different port (on a different fjord), or the option to cancel completely, or we could wait and see if an afternoon boat from Husavik was able to sail. We opted to travel to that other fjord, which essentially took the entire day.
3) We went out on the whale watching excursion. We successfully found two different humpback whales, and watched them feed for a couple of hours. Whales in July have just returned from breeding down south, so they are famished, and they apparently ONLY feed, non-stop. They come up for air, and drop back down, trolling for food. They don’t breech, they are very low energy because they just went without food forever, so their tails didn’t even come out of the water much. I’ll share a couple of photos, and those would be the extent of what you would expect to get in July.
After we finished the trip, I asked my 2022 group about things they loved, things they didn’t, etc., and universally we all agreed that we would have preferred to have spent that day some other way in Iceland. It wasn’t that it totally sucked, but it was far less exciting and rewarding that our other days.
Into the Glacier Tour
The other thing that we all universally agreed that we would not repeat is a tour called “Into the Glacier”. Let me be really clear; this is ONLY from a photography standpoint. From an ecology, glaciology, geology standpoint, it was pretty cool. But, from a time management standpoint for a photography group, we had to travel 2.5 hours to the town where the tour started. From there, a large bus picked us up to take us to the glacier base camp. Then we boarded a converted NATO missile launcher, to be hauled about 45 minutes out onto the glacier. From there we went through a series of manmade tunnels, and learned quite a bit about glacier formation, glacial ice, the type of scientific study that goes on with glaciers right now, and the notion that these age-old glaciers will soon be gone. If you are on an ecology tour, yes. Photography tour: no.
Again, I don’t want to really ‘bash’ anyone in a blog post, so a special shout-out to the two guides on that tour: they were absolutely phenomenal.
Should I do the Entire Ring Road, or concentrate time in one or two areas?
We circled the entire country in a counterclockwise circle. We started in Reykjavik and crossed the south of the country, then up the east edge, across the north, and back down along the west. The first few days were absolutely PACKED with amazing things to photograph. If you are planning to go for less than 10 days, I would recommend sticking to the south. The golden circle attractions are very cool (Gullfoss, Geysir, Þingvellir National Park are all phenomenal). Along the south there are a ton of really amazing things to see. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon was probably our favorite spot, and Diamond Beach. The east has a few really charming little towns, but there are also VERY long stretches of driving. If you are looking to maximize time on a fast tour, the eastern side could get a bit frustrating. My travel agent booked one hotel down in the southeast corner, near Vestrahorn. (Photographers will all probably know about Vestrahorn already – it’s one of the major landscape photography destinations. I’ll write more about that in a separate photographers’ blog). From that hotel, they had us take a 6-hour drive the next day to the Lake Mývatn area. Many of the days our hotels were basically 2.5 or 3 hours down the road, and we spent the day covering that distance with photography/sightseeing along the drive. That particular day was a LONG drive.
So… if you ARE going to be spending 10 days or more, I would definitely invest the day to get around that “hump”. Once you get to Lake Mývatn there are some absolutely spectacular geothermal features. It’s an incredible area! We spent two nights there. This worked well for two reasons:
1) There is a campground in that area that has laundry service. You can drop your dirty laundry in the morning, and pick it up all washed and folded at the end of the day. It’s a GREAT spot to know about in the middle of a longer tour.
2) We were leaving from a town an hour or two north of Mývatn for our whale/puffin tour, so we need to be there basically to be available for the port town.
Frankly, I would have gladly taken the day we spent driving to whale watching ports to photograph this area one day longer.
How was communication?
Almost everyone speaks functional English. Folks working in hotels and restaurants are almost always able to communicate quite fluently. We did have one big exception to that, and it was at the hotel I mentioned previously as one we would not be returning to. The waiter there didn’t have much practice. He was a nice young guy, and was earnest and trying hard, but the fundamental knowledge wasn’t there. Gas station/convenience store attendants were also generally very capable of helping out with questions asked in English.
What changes will you make for 2023?
Our itinerary didn’t include an excursion into the Westerfjord region. There are some cliffs there that are extremely good for puffin watching. I’m taking my 2023 group there, instead of doing a boat. There is also an arctic fox refuge that we’ll be visiting. The areas that we DID explore in the northwestern region had some lovely and magnificent things to see, but it felt like they were a bit farther apart. It may have just been that we were getting tired on day 8 and 9 of the trip, but we spent a LONG time getting from one thing to the next. For 2023, I’m actually going to reverse direction, and circle clockwise. We’re going to go up to the Westerfjords and check that out early, then make our way around clockwise, and end the tour with the amazing southern sights, the golden circle, and all of that.
As I already mentioned above, we will not be doing the Into the Glacier tour, nor will we be spending time out on a boat for whale/puffin excursions. This almost ensures that we will not see whales, but by going to the Westerfjords and the Látrabjarg Cliffs, we should have a rather solid opportunity to find puffins to photograph on land.
My original plan was to have 8 folks in the 15-passenger van. That is also off the table. By the time we have all of our photography gear, luggage for 10 days, etc., it would have been a complete pain to fit 8 or 9 people in that van. We had 5, which worked perfectly. I think 6 or 7 would be doable, but beyond that, I really wouldn’t want to try it.
This all sounds amazing, will you just take me on a tour of Iceland?
Yes. I will be taking my 2023 group from July 3 through July 15. I would absolutely love to add a second vehicle with 4-5 photographers. I’m also going to be heading over for a shorter Northern Lights excursion in the winter. The plan for that would be to travel just after Christmas Day, and stay through New Years Day. We’ll have a heck of a New Years Party in Reykjavik to wrap that trip up right before we head back to the US.
I have been absolutely captivated by the people, culture and scenery of Iceland, and I’m extremely excited to share it with anyone who would like to go! If you are wary of driving, planning it all, and figuring everything out… let’s talk!!!