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Driving in Iceland – the land of fire and ice

If you want to make the most of a holiday in Iceland you need a car. The only way you can take your own vehicle is to catch the ferry that runs from Hirthals on the northern tip of Denmark to Seyðisfjørður, a remote location in eastern Iceland. The trip involves a stop at the Faroe Islands on the way. We bumped into a party of UK motorhomers who had made the journey. If you can afford a few weeks for a leisurely trip, then maybe check it out.

Everything in Iceland is expensive and that includes car hire. As we were looking to accommodate five adults plus luggage we needed something bigger this year. After much online research, we found a car hire company which included some older models in its fleet, for a slightly less eye watering cost. So, we drove round Iceland in a 2011 Ford Expedition. A full-size SUV with seven seats and a 5.4 litre V8 engine with 300 horse power and 500 Nm of torque. If you think that sounds unnecessarily powerful, think again. This is a heavy car at about 3.5 tonnes.

This would feel like a monster on British roads, but in Iceland where the roads are wide and the landscape even wider, it felt just right. Driving the Expedition felt a bit like it was a cross between a sofa and a magic carpet. You feel comfortably detached from the mechanical elements and calmly waft along the sometimes-challenging Icelandic roads. The creamy V8 had already powered this monster through 100,000 miles and felt like it could easily tick off another 100,000 no trouble. Idling speed was around 500rpm. The engine was so quiet (and the air conditioning so loud) that I tried to move off from one petrol stop with no power, much to my passengers’ amusement. Petrol costs more in Iceland too and our little hefty SUV was pretty thirsty, so a lot of the money we saved on the cheap hire ended up in the pockets of the Icelandic oil companies, but it was worth it.

It is possible to fly into Keflavik and hire a car for just three days. In that time you can visit the small city of Reykjavik (where three quarters of the population lives) and some of the major attractions of the “Golden Circle” including the, Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir. These are all must-sees if you have not been before. I would also recommend a visit to the hot springs at the Blue Lagoon, although there are many others throughout Iceland.

The roads around Reykjavik and the Golden Circle have become much busier in recent years. It is an irony that the wild peace of this place is being slightly undermined by its attractiveness to us tourists. My advice is to venture further afield. We prefer to visit the north in and around the second city (small town really) of Akureyri.

For the Golden Circle option, you do not need a 4×4 vehicle, as you can get everywhere you need on metalled roads. To venture further into the wilder countryside, which I very much recommend, a 4×4 is better for the gravel roads. To try the summer-only F-roads, a 4×4 is essential.

If you visit Iceland in the summer you will never see darkness. This is a good thing. There are some hairy drops of the side of many mountain roads, many of which have no crash barriers to stop you, so driving with care is advised.

The relative lack of traffic is a delight, especially away from the main tourist traps. An hour can easily pass in some areas without you ever seeing another vehicle. Also, be prepared for it to take a little longer to get to your destination than you might expect. The maximum speed limit in Iceland is 90 km/h – the speed HGVs are limited to on our motorways. And yes, there are a few speed cameras. As a country riven by many fjords and ice melt rivers, you can spend many hours driving up and down valleys along the coast without making much progress on the map. This situation is improving with more bridges and tunnels, but this is not a place to hurry. Relax and enjoy your driving through this magical landscape.

This summer was my seventh visit to Iceland and I recommend everyone to visit at least once. This land has a beauty and sometimes savage ruggedness at the same time. It is not like anywhere else in the world.


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