Travel

Iceland’s Lesser-Known Route Is Bursting with Waterfalls, Fjords, and Hot Springs

Fantastic drives await beyond the Golden Circle.

Oleh_Slobodeniuk/E+/Getty Images
Oleh_Slobodeniuk/E+/Getty Images
Oleh_Slobodeniuk/E+/Getty Images

My fingers were prunes. It was a small price to pay for a leisurely soak in steamy thermal pools, while swooning over the snow-capped mountains in the distance. There are few places in the world where you can find yourself unwinding in a natural hot spring, surrounded by otherworldly scenery within hours of landing, and Iceland is one of them. And if you rent yourself a car, an abundance of steamy options unfurl across the roads of this hot and cold land.

Iceland is certainly no secret, but getting off-the-beaten-path is still possible, if you know where to go. That’s where the Westfjords region comes in. West Iceland and the Westfjords have a Viking-steeped treasure trove of adventurous excursions. The ‘Westfjords Way’ is a 590-mile loop through one of the more remote areas of Iceland. Driving it in its entirety would require about a week, but this particular curated route can be done in three or four days. This stretch features the southern portion, as well as a lesser-traversed course to get you there.

This road will take you to four natural hot springs, all wildly different but big on scenery, as well as accommodations nestled into nature, waterfalls, stunning fjords, and an unassuming eatery with the best fish and chips in the country. You’ll have the chance to wave at Icelandic horses and stop for random picnics, all just another casual day on the road in Iceland. Prepare to stop every five minutes; the views are stupidly pretty and the photos aren’t going to take themselves.

Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Moment/Getty Images
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Moment/Getty Images
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Moment/Getty Images

Best time to road trip in Iceland

Iceland is one of those destinations that’s great year-round. You’ll need warm layers regardless, so it all depends if you’d rather see the northern lights or the midnight sun

This western-centric route is best explored between May and September, when the weather is typically more favorable… emphasis on typically. Winter isn’t as feasible in this area, since a cocktail of paved and gravel roads means that impromptu snowstorms and icy conditions can make driving treacherous, especially on the unplowed roads that are closed during harsh weather. And yes, it can even snow in May. Plus, many businesses are also closed in the coldest months, making it harder for eating and drinking during your trip, aside from gas station hot dogs. Consider the sweet spot towards the end of May or beginning of June, or the first couple weeks of September in order to avoid peak season and steep prices.

Arctic-Images/Stone/Getty Images
Arctic-Images/Stone/Getty Images
Arctic-Images/Stone/Getty Images

How to drive in Iceland

If there were ever a place to rent a 4×4 vehicle, it’s Iceland. Not all roads are paved, in fact, many are gravel or dirt, particularly in the more rural areas. To get really off the beaten path, you may decide to venture on some of the F roads, which are unpaved dirt and gravel tracks that require 4×4 strength. They’re generally only open during the summer months as well. Certain F roads are so hairy that they’re deemed forbidden by some car rental companies, so it’s wise to check on this beforehand.

Renting a vehicle in Iceland isn’t cheap and it’s not the type of place where you want to skimp on the insurance, either. In addition to regular coverage for collision, additional coverage options for things like sand, ash, gravel, and water damage provide peace of mind while exploring Iceland’s unpredictable and sometimes unreasonable weather conditions. A hefty gust of wind could whip up out of nowhere and send gravel right into your windshield, leaving a burden of repairs up to you. Both automatic and manual transmission cars are available through many companies, but booking an automatic will be pricier.

The main highway is the Ring Road (Route 1) which is paved and circles the entire country. Thankfully, driving is on the right side, same as the US, and everything is very well marked. Keep an eye out for signs that show a square with 4 loops, which indicates a point of interest. Following one of these signs on the fly is part of the spontaneous fun an Icelandic self-drive tour offers. You can expect winding roads, random sheep, and ever-changing weather conditions when road tripping in Iceland.

Gabriela Le/Shutterstock
Gabriela Le/Shutterstock
Gabriela Le/Shutterstock

Keflavik to Dalir

Once you’ve landed at the Keflavik International Airport and picked up your snazzy rental car, you’ll want to hit the road north towards the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The first stop is a hot spring, at Landbrotalaug Hot Pot. Situated on the southern edge of the peninsula off of Route 54, this itty-bitty natural thermal pool has a very secluded, intimate feel. All of which is ideal after a two hour drive fueled by jet lag and the promise of soothing waters. How romantic of you, Iceland.

Post soak, you’ll start to get a real taste of the striking landscape where each bend in the road reveals a new mountain or gorge, and there are so many waterfalls that it’s difficult to keep count. The three or more hours will fly by in a whir of extreme beauty as you cut across the peninsula via Route 56. This is a great time to spot Icelandic horses and walk behind the relatively unknown Selvallafoss waterfall.

Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Never heard of Dalir? Perfect.

This region sits where the more popular Snaefellsnes Peninsula meets the Westfjords region, right in the armpit of the little-known peninsula of Fellsströnd and Skarðsströnd. Driving the gravel Route 590 that skirts the coast will be bumpy, but look at you, getting very much off-the-beaten-path on your first day.

You’ll end up at the Vogur Country Lodge, an ideal spot to rest up with its own waterfall and a friendly dog. Here, views of the bay and the nearby islands are mesmerizing. Do yourself a favor and reserve a table for dinner, where you can tuck into local fare like freshly caught trout, homemade rye bread, lamb, and more. Relax in the onsite hot tub and don’t miss the quick 15-minute hike to the “backyard” cascades.

This is where you pinch yourself and realize this was well worth the detour.

franckreporter/E+/Getty Images
franckreporter/E+/Getty Images
franckreporter/E+/Getty Images

Dalir to Hagi

It’s time for the main event: a meandering drive along the fjord-ridden southern coast of the Westfjords that will repeatedly take your breath away. But first, you’ll get to drive through Klofningur, a natural split where the road travels between two rocks.

Stop at the Staðarhólskirkja church, one of the oldest manors in the country as you make your way along the last 30 miles of Route 590. Your introduction to the Westfjords begins as soon as you make that left turn onto Route 60 and cross the bridge. Prep your drool-bucket for the next 80 miles as you navigate the southern portion of the Westfjords Way-it’s just that gorgeous.

Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Stretch your legs with an easy five minute walk to the Þingmannaá waterfall, a stunner that’s been featured in several Icelandic films yet remains relatively unknown to tourists. Then, drive a bit further to the other side of the fjord to warm up, hot spring style. Hellulaug is a little more well-known, so you might encounter fellow hot spring enthusiasts, but once you see it, you won’t care. The geothermal pool sits oceanside in the Vatnsfjörður nature reserve, with plenty of room to accommodate a group, and there’s even a small area where you can set your belongings.

Once you’ve had your fill, hop in the car for another 15-minute drive up the Westfjords Way to check into Móra Guesthouse, an apartment-style accommodation right off the road with the absolute best feature across from it. The Krosslaug hot spring and pool is so close that you can essentially dart across the street in your bathing suit and towel. Staying here gives you the best chance of snagging a soak all to yourself if you watch the parking area like a hawk from the window of your stay. The seaside concrete hot pool flaunts epic mountain views, as it should.

Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Hagi to Dynjandi

Set your alarm for early, cause there’s a lot of ground to cover on this stretch. After your morning soak (you know you will), it’s time to be dazzled by more Westfjords magic. This leg covers 105 miles and lands you centerstage in front of the region’s biggest waterfall as the grand finale. From the guesthouse, a 15-minute drive along the coast brings you to the scenic Kleifaheidi Pass, a section of mountain road that might make you grip the steering wheel a little tighter. Make sure to get your waving arm ready as you pass the Kleifabui Statue, a 16 and a half foot stone man with his own Facebook page. He’s said to watch over travelers on the route, and it’s customary to wave to him.

Ten more minutes up the road and onto Route 612, Garðar BA 64, the oldest steel ship in Iceland sits beached, tired from its whaling days. This unique site in Patreksfjörðurmakes for great photo opportunities and is en route to your next stop, Rauðisandur Beach. This red sand beach is accessible via half an hour’s drive along a winding gravel road, where the secluded shoreline awaits, and most likely some vocal seabirds and unbothered seals.

Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

After your sandy stroll, you’ll have to backtrack to reach the main drag again, but don’t fret, because there’s food in your imminent future. In the next hour or so on the road, your task is to work up an appetite, if you haven’t already.

You can’t go to Iceland without eating some fish and chips. Lucky for you, this portion of your trip includes a stop at Vegamot Bildudal, a grocery store with a small restaurant in the back that dishes up what is said to be “the best fish and chips in Iceland.” Paired with a Gull beer, it’s an icy paradise.

Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock
Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock
Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock

Refueled and ready to tackle the last hour, Dynjandi Waterfall is a little over an hour away. Admittedly not a hidden gem, the famous cascade is still worth a gander-there’s a reason it’s so well-known. Crowned the “Jewel of the Westfjords,” this cascade is almost 330 feet tall with six smaller falls that flow beneath the main thundering behemoth. Hike the rocky path to get up close and personal. After a 15-minute jaunt, relish in the Icelandic mist.

Pop back on Route 60 to cut back down to the southern coastline in about 40-minutes. This will put you in a solid position for your trek back towards Reykjavik or Keflavik the following day. You’ll sleep well tonight; post up at Hótel Flókalundur, which, by chance, positions you practically next to Hellulaug, so you should probably enjoy a repeat oceanside soak.

Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Dynjandi to Reykjavik

There are a couple of fun surprises saved for the route back south, including one more hot spring and some historical turf houses. Take in the Westfjords scenery for the last time along Route 60 as you head south for about two hours.

Less than a couple miles off the main road, in the Sælingsdalur Valley, is the Guðrúnarlaug hot pool. A dip in the thermal waters here feels like a portal back in time-Viking-time, to be exact. A waterfall and small hut for changing add to the allure of the natural hot tub, with a water temperature as close to perfect as you can get. This hot pool comes with a side of folklore, tied to the famous Laxdæla Saga and its tragic love story, detailed on the informational sign.
 

Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove
Photo by Lauren Breedlove

Half an hour’s drive to Stora Vatnshorn brings you to the Eiriksstadir Viking Longhouse, a living museum with a replica turfhouse. Tours are available in the peak season or you can walk around the area and see the exterior of the turfhouse on your own. If you have time, it’s worth the short detour.

From here, spend a night in the capital city of Reykjavik before heading back to the airport. Once out of the car, you can start to wrap your head around the utter beauty you’ve just witnessed while exploring some of Iceland’s unheard-of nooks and crannies. You’ll quickly realize the detour is always worth it in Iceland.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Lauren Breedlove is a freelance writer, travel photographer, and the girl behind girlwanderlist.com, a list-based travel blog where she keeps it real on the regular. She thrives on random adventures, offbeat destinations, and grilled cheese. Follow all her travel exploits on Instagram, @girlwanderlist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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