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Off-the-Beaten Path Iceland: Insider’s Guide

by Mads Tange Christensen and Tina Thorman | June 19, 2019

The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Iceland, Denmark, Greenland, and Faroe Islands: Mads Tange Christensen and Tina Thorman

Trusted Travel Expert
Mads Tange Christensen and Tina Thorman

Scandinavia travel specialists who are based in Copenhagen, Mads and Tina travel frequently to Iceland to stay abreast of the rapidly evolving scene there. Demand far outstrips supply during Iceland’s high season (2 million people visited this nation of 350,000 last year), but Mads and Tina reserve allotments of their favorite rooms at the best hotels so that you don’t have to plan so far in advance; and while service at these properties isn’t quite up to international standards, their relationships spell extra perks for their clients. Adventure is Mads and Tina’s forte—from river rafting to horseback riding to glacier walking—but it can be made soft enough to please grandparents on a multigenerational trip. They work only with driver/guides who own vehicles that can venture off the main roads and into the rugged backcountry, where you might have a picnic and an ATV tour on a black-sand beach or hop into a helicopter for a quick ride to a secret lagoon to soak in solitary bliss. If you prefer to drive a rental car, they will sketch out a seamless, GPS-guided itinerary that gets you to the glaciers before the tour-bus crowds arrive and recommends atmospheric mom-and-pop restaurants along the route. They also know Denmark and its territories (e.g., Greenland and the Faroe Islands) intimately and have the contacts to make magic happen there—like a candlelit dinner inside the Stone Age collection at Copenhagen’s National Museum, or a private cruise aboard a former royal yacht.

In Iceland: Self-driving trips start at $1,200 per day for two travelers; trips with a private driver/guide and specialized vehicle start at $2,000 per day for two travelers. In Denmark: Trips start at $800 per day.

Where to Stay and Eat

Skogafoss waterfall in southern Iceland

Don’t miss the Skogafoss waterfall in southern Iceland. Photo: Tina Kristina Jiotsa Thorman

Best-value splurge hotel
Hotel rooms in Iceland tend to be shoeboxes, but even the smallest ones at The Black Pearl, in Reykjavik, have a separate bedroom, a full kitchen, and a balcony. The hotel is well located in the city center, not far from the water and not on one of the pedestrian streets (where it can get noisy).

Best restaurants
Eating out isn’t really part of Scandinavian culture (when they go out, Icelanders are more into clubbing than dining). But Dill, Kol, The Fish Market, and Grillmarket—all in Reykjavik—are very popular among visitors. They’re expensive but worth it for the amazingly fresh seafood and the creative new-Nordic cuisine.

Must-have dish
Lobster soup at Tryggvaskáli in Selfoss. Not only is the soup of outstanding quality, so rich in taste, but the restaurant has a homey feel and a friendly staff. It’s an easy place to make a stop while driving the Golden Circle.

What to See and Do

The Blue Lagoon iceland

The Blue Lagoon can be crowded, but there are ways to have a better experience. Photo: Kristina Jiotsa Thorman

Most overrated place
The main section of the Blue Lagoon is packed with busloads of tourists from morning to evening. (While there are many hot springs around Iceland, people come here because the silica-rich water is thought to be rejuvenating.) Instead, book a visit to the Blue Lagoon’s much more exclusive Retreat Spa and Lagoon, where you’ll have access to your own private changing rooms, pools, and comfy seating. It’s more expensive, but you get a much more pleasant experience without the lines, and you can stay for four hours rather than the standard two.

Most underrated place
Thorsmork Valley. It’s a different world, with an astounding variety of landscapes: crater lakes with crystal-clear water, hidden waterfalls, rocks blown out in the most recent volcano eruption, and fabulous hiking trails that offer a chance to see very different flora than in other parts of Iceland. The valley isn’t easy to access—you’ll need either a specially modified “super jeep” or a helicopter—so it sees considerably fewer tourists than other parts of the south.

A super jeep crosses a river in Thorsmork Valley.

Thorsmork Valley is an underrated part of Iceland with crater lakes and hidden waterfalls, best accessed via super jeep. Photo: Tina Kristina Jiotsa Thorman

Hidden gem
The Westman Islands are fantastic for birders; from May to August, it’s one of the best places in Iceland to see puffins. There are only a few hotels on the islands, so if you are one of the lucky few to spend the night, it feels extremely remote.

Cheap thrill
A “Viking Sushi” boat tour. You catch scallops, sea urchin, and fish, which the crew prepares as sashimi and sushi. It’s as fresh as food can get.

Iceland - Grábrók Volcano wooden walking path is place for all ages to stroll.

The Grábrók Volcano wooden walking path is place for all ages to stroll. Photo: Denisa Krume

How to spend a lazy Sunday
Watch local professional sports teams compete at the Laugadalshöllin in Reykjavik; the most popular events are handball, soccer, and swimming. Or hop on a bike or in a cab and head to a local hot spring; they’re all over the country, and the staff at your hotel can direct you.

Contact Mads and Tina

Not sure if this is the right person for you? Ask Wendy

Best Times to Go

October is our favorite time because it’s far less crowded than in the peak summer and winter months, and most roads and hotels stay open until the first snow late in the month. If you are lucky, you can even see the Northern Lights.

Worst Times to Go

Early November, when the Airwaves music festival causes hotel prices to skyrocket and Reykjavik gets very crowded and noisy.

The Christmas/New Year’s holiday. Iceland has a family-oriented culture, so you don’t get a great feel for local life at this time of year, and many businesses are closed; plus, rates go up 50%.

Can't-Miss Photo Op

The craggy Dimmuborgir lava formations. Their appearance changes depending on the light and season, so no two shots here will ever be the same.

The Souvenir

Fish oil tablets. These are said to make you strong and healthy—and are about the only thing in Iceland that can be considered a bargain.

Tipping Tip

Locals don’t tip, but it’s nice to leave 5% in a restaurant, or round up the bill in a taxi, if you got good service.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Your swimsuit, regardless of the time of year. You never know when you’ll pass a gorgeous hot spring and want to go for a dip.

Reviews

Our trip went off without a hitch

Carol Stopol | December 9, 2018

I can't say enough great things...

Noeleen Spies | October 30, 2018

It all came together very quickly

Melissa Hames | August 30, 2018
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