Upon my arrival in Reykjavik on a Sunday, I had virtually no plans for the middle portion of my trip to Iceland.
That lasted for about 5 minutes after boarding the Flybus from Keflavik International Airport.
The Flybus is operated by Reykjavik Excursions, one of the largest and most well-known tour operators in Iceland. And, tucked neatly into each seat back on the comfy Flybus was a Reykjavik Excursions brochure, chock full of dozens of exciting trips and tours that depart out of Reykjavik each day. It took me roughly 30 seconds to hone in on one that I knew I could not possibly pass up — the South Shore Adventure.
Described as a tour “ideal for nature lovers of all kinds,” I knew this was perfect for me. Even though it meant being packed into a large coach with dozens of other tourists from all over the world, I eagerly booked it for my second full-day in the country. I figured what I sacrificed in privacy, Iceland would make up for in awe-inspiring landscapes.
And I was not disappointed.
If it's dramatic scenery, brooding weather, and tongue-twisting place names you're searching for in Iceland, go to the South Shore. Seriously.
Here's a glimpse of everything I got to see within a span of just 10 hours in Iceland:
The volcano famous for snarling thousands of flights a couple years back really isn't all that much to look at (nearby snow-draped Hekla was much more impressive), but it was nevertheless interesting to drive alongside fields just now recovering from being buried under layers of ash. I was constantly amazed by just how unpredictable and moody the land under most Icelanders' feet can be.
Plus, I never tired of hearing Icelanders say “Eyjafjallajökull.” After years of wondering how the hell to pronounce this strange word with far too many consonants, finally hearing it roll easily off tongues was like magic.
On one of the flanks of Eyjafjallajökull, a giant glacier by the name of Mýrdalsjökull looms. I've been up close with glaciers before (in both Alaska and New Zealand), but I never tire of seeing them.
Getting to Mýrdalsjökull required a rumbling ride down a pothole-filled road. The glacier is sadly retreating at an alarming rate — an abandoned cafe marks the point where the glacier used to reach just a few decades ago. These days, you have to drive another few minutes to reach the face.
I figured we were just going to look at Mýrdalsjökull from across a valley, but was pleased to discover that our guide would actually be taking us right up to the face. We wouldn't be hiking on it (though you can, and some others did), but we got a lot closer than non-climbers are allowed to get at any other glacier I've been to.
The way to Mýrdalsjökull's face was all ash and snow. The glacier sits atop Katla, an active volcano, and near Eyjafjallajökull, which explains all the ash. The contrasts were striking.
We spent some time near the glacier's face, admiring blue caves and the wavy features caused by ice rapidly melting.
Part of me really wished I had booked a glacier trek.
But, if I had booked a glacier trek in conjunction with this South Shore trip, I would have missed our next stop — Reynishverfi Beach with its amazing sea stacks.
Wind-swept with huge Atlantic waves crashing a bit too close for comfort, Reynishverfi is the epitome of of what I picture when I think of an Icelandic Beach.
This is certainly not a place you go to sunbathe, but it's still beautiful in its own, wild way.
Our guide told us about the puffins who call the sea caves here home in the summer months, and also told us one of the local troll legends, which explains the Reynisdrangar sea stacks just off shore (according to him, they're really night trolls who were turned to stone in the sunlight).
Even though the wind was whistling and a cold rain was stinging our faces, everyone on the beach lingered, drinking it all in.
Vík í Mýrdal
After the chilly beach, it was time to warm up with lunch in Iceland's southernmost town. At least, we were told it was a town. With only a population of about 300, though, I'm not so sure if “town” is really accurate.
Regardless, I had some delicious fish and chips in Vik, and took a few photos of some more “trolls” off the coast.
From Vik, we headed back north towards the glaciers, making a stop at the fascinating Skógar Museum. This folk museum in the middle of nowhere began in 1949 as a collection of oddities belonging to Þórður Tómasson that represented everyday life in rural Iceland. Today, the museum includes everything from a driftwood boat, to one of the first editions of the Bible printed in Icelandic, to traditional mangles that were used to do laundry as recently as the 1970s.
Out back, traditional turf houses provide a glimpse into historic rural life in the area, and in the basement taxidermied birds and animals represent the area's most common species.
Right next door to the folk museum, one of Iceland's biggest waterfalls tumbles over a cliff that marks the country's former coastline.
Legend has it that a Viking settler in the area buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall, and people have been searching for such a treasure for centuries. It's told that someone found the chest at one point and grabbed one of the rings on the side, only to have the ring pop off and the chest to disappear agagin. The alleged ring can now be found on display at the Skógar Museum.
Legend or not, this is one impressive waterfall.
Our last stop of the day was at another nearby waterfall — this time a very unique one that you can actually walk all the way around because of the way it cascades over a hanging cliff.
Seljalandsfoss is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the country, and it's certainly not difficult to understand why.
Despite the chilly mist and the fact that going behind the falls would surely mean getting rather wet, most of us decided to do it anyway.
After all, it's not everyday you can walk behind a waterfall.
It's just another of the amazing things Iceland has to offer.
So, have I convinced you now that the South Shore of Iceland is full of stunning sites worth seeing? I'm still amazed at just how much was packed into a single day tour — glaciers, volcanoes, wild beaches, waterfalls…
I'm not sure I buy into the stories of elves and trolls that Icelanders love to tell… but I certainly can't deny that there's something magical about Iceland.
Out of these South Shore sites, which would YOU be most excited to visit?