The best of southwest Iceland (self-drive)
1st November 2020
Thundering waves, jet black sand and rocky outcrops make the beaches of Iceland incredibly unique. Forget lounging around on pristine white sands, these rugged beaches instead showcase the immense power and beauty of Mother Nature. With a landscape of volcanoes, lava fields, glaciers and geysers, there are bountiful geological delights to behold in the Land of Fire and Ice. Iceland’s Arctic coastline is the jewel in the crown of this breathtaking country, and here are a few reasons why...
The vast majority of the beaches in Iceland are jet black. This eerie and otherworldly aesthetic is caused either as a result of lava that flowed into the ocean and cooled instantly, or created as the ocean eroded black volcanic rock (basalt) over time. Reynisfjara is one of the finest examples of Iceland’s stunning black beaches, with a shoreline littered with glistening black pebbles that shine like chunks of marble. An enormous basalt structure, Garda, is made up of perfectly formed hexagonal shapes. It towers upwards as far as the eye can see, resembling a staircase to heaven. A cave just next to this structure is similarly bordered by these symmetrical hexagonal forms, a product of a process known as columnar jointing.
In the sea opposite this impressive formation, loom two lava formations known as Reynisdrangar. Towering at 66 metres above the icy water, Icelandic folklore states how these figures were once malicious trolls who were attempting to pull in sailing ships. As the dawn broke, the pair were turned to stone. Nowadays they are home to a vast array of birdlife. A word of caution - the waves in Iceland can be extremely treacherous and locals urge visitors to keep a safe distance from the shoreline, as waves known as ‘sneakers’ can come crashing in unexpectedly.
Head to the quaint Vík í Mýrdal, the southernmost village in Iceland, for yet more blackened sand. It is in close proximity to Dyrholaey, which translates into English as ‘door hole island.’ This natural wonder is a 120 metre-high arch bridging over the water and was originally created by a volcanic explosion. Its arch has been gradually eroded by the water ever since, leaving a gap that boats can pass under - dependent on whether the Arctic sea is calm enough. It is reported that a dare-devil pilot once even flew his plane through the gap.
Upon this rocky headland live thousands of puffins, which are only found in the northern hemisphere. They use Dyrholaey as a base to nest in the summer, typically between mid May and early August. Our local experts in Iceland advise that Dyrholaey can be partially closed for the puffin’s nesting season in spring, which is between mid-May and June 23rd, so bear this in mind if factoring in an excursion to see these seabirds. The nearby Myrdalsjokull glacier and the eerie black beaches make it an ideal setting to view the spectacular northern lights. Your best chance at spotting the incredible phenomenon is on a cold, clear night between September and mid-April.
Rauðisandur or Red Sand beach is situated at the remote southern edge of the Westfjords. If the weather is clear you can spot Snæfellsjökull on the horizon, an imposing 700,000 year-old glacier capped stratovolcano (a conical volcano built up of layers of lava and volcanic ash). Its name Red Sand beach may be somewhat misleading, as the beach boasts a long swathe of golden sand. It is slightly harder to reach, involving a 1 kilometre walk over some mildly challenging terrain, passing through a shallow river. The tranquility is well worth the effort and the beach is often nearly empty, making it the perfect destination if you are seeking some solitude. As the sun rises and sets the sands turn an ochre red, making them feel a world away from their darker counterparts.
The 10 kilometre-long beach is bordered by verdant meadowland, which is home to both sheep and birds. Nestled in front of a striking mountainous backdrop, it is just a stone’s throw from Látrabjarg, one of the reputed best cliffs for bird watching in Europe. Soaring up to the dizzying heights of 441 metres, the panoramic views from this vantage point are unrivalled. As you perch on top of this cliff look out for puffins, northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills as they soar above you. There is no short supply of these spectacular birds - in the summer months puffin populations can swell to around 10 million, so make sure to have your binoculars and cameras at the ready.
Also known as Diamond Beach, it is easy to see how this nickname came about. Not strictly a beach per-se, it fringes a large glacial lake on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. The lake itself is Iceland’s deepest, reaching a staggering 248 metres deep. Chunks of ice break off from the large glacier and get carried along the lake, coming to rest on the blackened shores. The icebergs are an exquisite combination of icy white and turquoise blue, an illusion of the interplaying light and ice crystals.
Make it happen
If you would like to visit these jet blacks sands, the awe-inspiring glaciers, or any of Iceland’s many cascading waterfalls, our local experts are on hand to help. Simply send them a few details of what you would like to do and they can create a bespoke trip, tailor-made just for you. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.