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Iceland's South Coast Is Perfect for First-time Visitors — How to See the Blue Lagoon, Waterfalls, and More in 5 Days - Travel + Leisure

Author: time Visitors — How to See the Blue Lagoon, Waterfalls, and More in 5 Days

Source: https://www.travelandleisure.com/iceland-south-coast-road-trip-8382987

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I got the call at dusk — the one that some visitors to Iceland never get.The northern lights had been spotted in Hella’s sky, and Hotel Rangá had faithfully placed the wake-up call to the room to report it.I had no time for my coat; I forgot my gloves on the way out the door — and when I first clocked those green swirls across the sky, they were so vast, I couldn’t take them in all at once.It was only night two of my five-day road trip along Iceland’s South Coast, and I was already checking off once-in-a-lifetime experiences.This is exactly why I’d come.I’d heard that if you’re a traveler with limited time, this was the place to make it count. Kayla Becker/Travel + LeisureIt’s true that you can barely drive 30 minutes without seeing a natural wonder here.The mere 200-mile stretch is home to some of the country’s most famous sites, including Skógafoss waterfall, Víkurfjara black-sand beach, and Sólheimajökull glacier, among others, many accessible right off the highway and all within striking distance of Reykjavik.This, and the fact that it’s easily driven on Route 1, is perhaps what makes it so popular with first-time visitors.Driving it feels almost like exploring another planet, with vast, treeless fields of volcanic rock giving way to wild surf; other times, it’s like entering the pages of Tolkien fiction, where mossy mountains are punctuated with rainbow-wreathed waterfalls.Kayla Becker/Travel + LeisureLike many visitors to the South Coast, I started in Reykjavik. After flying into Keflavik Airport (KEF) and driving the 45 minutes to town, I was rewarded with a respite at The Reykjavik Edition.The sleek, unflashy embodiment of quiet luxury delivered contemporary Scandinavian hygge in heaps, from bathrooms stocked with Le Labo toiletries and heated tile floors to a stunning spa and a rooftop bar.In between visits to the capital’s treasures (an obligatory stroll down Rainbow Street to spaceship-like church Hallgrimskirkja; a deep dive into the Icelandic Punk Museum, housed in a graffitied former public restroom), I kept returning to its food.Whether it was a quick hot dog for lunch at iconic, no-frills stand Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a glass of natural wine at cozy local bar Vínstúkan Tíu Sopar, or a locally sourced tasting menu at Tides (helmed by Michelin-starred chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason), Iwas continually floored — all on day one.Kayla Becker/Travel + LeisureAs any first-time traveler to Iceland should, I dedicated my second day to the Blue Lagoon, a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik.I saw it far before the parking lot — steam rising from the geothermal baths thanks to water that’s naturally a toasty 98 degrees.I found it helpful to book an early arrival time to beat the heaviest traffic; upon sinking into the water, I applied my complimentary silica mud mask and felt entirely relaxed. Just a few hours were all I needed to feel rejuvenated.The verdict?It was well worth the 11,490 krona ($80), especially when paired with lunch at on-site restaurant Lava.It's one of the world’s 25 natural wonders, after all.Less than an hour after lunch, I’d reached pastoral land dotted with sheep and Icelandic ponies — and Hella’s Hotel Rangá.This property has a reputation that precedes it: Not only is it the most luxe hotel in the area, but it has also become something of a tourist destination for northern lights sightings, offering a 24/7 wake-up call and an on-site astronomer to assist with stargazing. With just a bit of luck, we saw the best display so far of the season (roughly September to April, and I’d come in September).Outside the hotel, my eyes followed the Ranga River to the east and spotted a snow-capped mountain, Hekla.There’s an old Icelandic myth that holds that this volcano, one of the country’s most active and destructive, is the gate of hell, and the hundreds of gulls circling it are condemned souls."It’s easy to see how that’s true," I thought, and fell asleep dreaming of fire and ice and lore.Needing to learn more about the 130 volcanoes that dot the island, I woke up early and drove to the Lava Centre in Hvolsvollur, just a five-minute drive from the hotel.The trip was starting to feel like a master class in the elements of wind, fire, and water. I continued down Route 1 to one of the most popular waterfalls in the area, Skógafoss.But like many times on this trip, I couldn’t seem to get far without passing another wonder from the road; this time, it was another waterfall: Seljalandsfoss.When I pulled up, I was pleasantly surprised to learn you can walk behind the 197-foot fall (I was glad I packed waterproof clothes).After the slight (life-changing) detour, I reached my second waterfall of the day, Skógafoss, which you can practically walk right up to — and hike 527 steps to the top.Had I planned an extended journey, I would’ve continued on one of the longer hikes at the top.Kayla Becker/Travel + LeisureInstead, I drove on to Dyrholaey, past caves fit for hobbits, to reach ocean-washed cliffs with black sand. By now, the puffins had vacated the area, and gulls swarmed the sea caves.Just miles past and minutes from the ocean was my final stop of the trip, Hotel Kría.The 73-room hotel has a stunning location just a 10-minute walk to Víkurfjara black-sand beach, where the shore could’ve been made of Oreo pie crust and jagged rock formations almost lure you out to the dangerous water.Just a few minutes from the wild surf, the town has a surprising amount of trendy eateries, including Skool Beans, a micro cafe on a renovated yellow school bus complete with string lights, cozy seating, excellent lattes, and a resident cat; plus, Smidjan Brugghus, where I bumped elbows with locals who came for burgers and craft beers with creative names like "Stuck at Home" and "Wet Spot."With one full day left, I’d made it more than 250 miles along the coast — the perfect spot for a grand finale: a glacier hike at Sólheimajökull with local outfitter Troll Expeditions.After gearing up in waterproof pants, a harness, and crampons, I realized I had passed this glacier on the way in — just another world wonder you can see from the road.Spotting its icy peaks, mesmerizing chasms and crevasses up close gave a face to the climate change the land is experiencing, a sobering reminder of the fleeting nature of these natural wonders.I drove back to Reykjavik fulfilled and snuck in one last lunch at Cafe Loki, where they serve traditional Icelandic fare like fermented shark. I cranked up Icelandic artists like Kaleo and The Sugarcubes on the way back, and just when I thought I couldn’t see anything more on this trip, a double rainbow shone the whole way to the airport, a send-off that seemed to invite me back again.

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