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Coast near Vik, Iceland

south coast

Iceland's

Iceland's south coast offers spectacular scenery and a wealth of natural wonders – from waterfalls and glaciers to trolls turned to stone

Many visitors to Iceland take the famous Golden Circle route – a tour that takes in some of the country's most spectacular sights, from steam-spouting hot springs to cascading waterfalls.


The popularity of this route is understandable. It's easily accessible from the country's capital, Reykjavik, and the key sights can even be seen in a daytrip from the city – although it's highly recommended to take your time and spend a few days exploring the Golden Circle. See 11 stops you shouldn't miss.


But there's another easily accessible route that packs in just as many amazing sights as the Golden Circle.


A trip along the south coast, from Selfoss to Vik, offers the opportunity to marvel at natural wonders and enjoy some world-class scenery.

View of the Westman Islands from Route 1, Iceland

Top: approaching Dyrhólaey; Above: view of the Westman Islands from Route 1

Selfoss is a 60km drive from Reykjavik. It's then a further 130km or so along Route 1 to Vik – with lots to see along the way. Here are a few of the highlights.


Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng

Þjóðveldisbærinn Stöng is a reconstructed Viking farm, situated in a stunning, picturesque valley against the backdrop of a tumbling waterfall.


The original farm buildings were abandoned after the eruption of the volcano Hekla in 1104. The farm's reconstruction was carried out in 1974 – 1,100 years after the disaster.

Pjodveldisbaer farm

The original farm buildings were abandoned after the eruption of the volcano Hekla in 1104. The farm's reconstruction was carried out in 1974 – 1,100 years after the disaster.


The replica is an accurate representation of the original buildings – giving an excellent idea of what it might have been like to live here. The construction of the building is fascinating, with a grassy roof and intricately designed turf brick walls.

It's a bit of a detour to get here from Selfoss, along Routes 30 and 32 – but it's a highly atmospheric spot.


The building is only open during the summer months (June to August), but you can look around outside for free at other times of the year, getting right up to admire the buildings and taking a stroll to the river to get a great view of the waterfall.


Seljalandsfoss

Around an hour's drive southeast from Selfoss along Route 1, this famous waterfall is unusual in that you can walk behind it. It's an awe-inspiring experience – as you stand behind the curtain of water, you're just a few feet from the falls. The noise is deafening, and you can feel the force of the water – and it's quite likely you'll get a little bit wet!

Pjodveldisbaer in the valley
Pjodveldisbaer waterfall
Seljalandsfoss

Be sure to wear warm, waterproof clothes and sturdy shoes – the path is wet and can get very slippery.


Seljavallalaug

Just beyond Seljalandsfoss, heading west towards Vik, there's a parking area at the start of the short hike to Seljavallalaug swimming pool.


This is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland, built in 1923 by a local man so that children could be taught to swim.


The pool can be reached by following a path through the valley, alongside the river. It's not a difficult hike, taking around 30 minutes – and it's unlikely you'll get lost, as there are usually plenty of other people around.


Before you set off, it's a good idea to manage your expectations. If you have seen pictures of Seljavallalaug – such as the one below – you may be expecting an idyllic spot where you can soak in a hot pool that's naturally heated by geothermal energy.

Seljavallalaug

However, Seljavallalaug is a popular spot and often gets quite crowded. There is a very basic changing room, with no other facilities (so no showers or toilets).


This changing room was pretty filthy when we visited – unfortunately people had left behind rubbish and abandoned clothing – so we chose to get changed behind the building instead, and left our belongings on a nearby rock where we could keep an eye on them while we swam.


The pool itself may be a disappointment too. It's tepid, not hot, so is better for a proper swim – which is of course what it was originally designed for – rather than for soaking and relaxing. And the bottom of the pool can get covered with algae, so it can be unpleasantly slippery and slimy.


So, bearing all this in mind, is it worth visiting Seljavallalaug? The answer is a resounding yes. Despite the negatives, the experience of swimming in such a remote and beautiful location is truly memorable. The valley is spectacular, with a glacial-fed blue-tinged river and steaming, geothermal waterfalls tumbling over rocks.

Seljavallalaug valley

If you do decide to visit the swimming pool, be sure to bring home all your belongings – including any rubbish – so that you don't add to the problems at Seljavallalaug.


Skógafoss

In Iceland there are more spectacular waterfalls than you can shake a stick at – and Skógafoss is one of the most spectacular.


This is one of the country's highest waterfalls, plunging more than 60 meters over a cliff edge into a semi-circular ravine below.

Skogafoss

You can walk right up to Skógafoss (you will get wet) and this is the best way to fully appreciate the force of the falls. On a sunny day the spray produced by the falls forms rainbows – a beautiful sight.


Sólheimajökull Glacier

Sólheimajökull is one of Iceland's most accessible glaciers – it's just a 20-minute walk from the car park to the foot of the towering wall of ice. There are two paths to choose from: one hugs the shoreline of a small lake, the other is higher up and offers great views on the approach to the glacier's edge.


If you've never seen a glacier before, this is a mesmerizing sight, with fascinating ice formations in shades of white, grey, blue and black – the darker streaks being ash from volcanic eruptions.

Solheimajokull Glacier close up
Solheimajokull Glacier

In winter, you can see icebergs floating in the lake – and chunks of ice may well fall away from the glacier and crash into the lake while you're there. This is a spectacular sight but take care if you're standing close to the water. Both paths can be slippery too, so wear sturdy shoes.


If you want to walk on the glacier itself, book onto a tour with an experienced guide. Heading onto the ice without a guide is extremely dangerous – the surface may look solid, but it's riddled with sinkholes and hidden crevices.

You also shouldn't venture into ice tunnels or caves at the edge of the glacier, as these could collapse. Instead admire this magnificent geological feature from a safe distance.


As with glaciers across the world, Sólheimajökull Glacier is shrinking and retreating rapidly because of climate change. Glaciers have always released ice into the ocean, but now this is happening nearly twice as fast as 10 years ago. It was a sobering thought, as we gazed in awe at Sólheimajökull, that it could disappear altogether if urgent action to halt climate change isn't taken.


Vik

The coastal landscape around Iceland's southernmost town is otherworldly. Vik is surrounded by sublime scenery: white churches with red roofs nestle under grassy green hills, black sand is washed by white foamy waves, and the sea is punctuated by towering, black sea stacks.

Black sand beach at Vik
Church near Vik

For some of the best views, head for Dyrhólaey – a nature reserve that's home to some remarkable bird life, including puffins. There are splendid views from here, including a dramatic stone arch. To the east you can see the cluster of basalt sea stacks at Reynisdrangar – legend has it that these are a group of trolls, turned to stone by the sunrise.

View of sea stacks from Dyrholaey
Stracta Hotel

Where to stay

Stracta Hotel is a modern, stylish hotel in a rural region, just outside the village of Hella in south Iceland. Rooms are decorated in classic Nordic style, and are spotlessly clean. A range of accommodation options is available, including wonderful suites with private hot tubs. There are communal barrel saunas and hot tubs in the hotel grounds. The hotel has a number of green policies – including reducing waste and energy consumption, and use of local products and services.

Green Adventures May 2019