Iceland is a world unto itself. From black beaches and glacial lagoons to Martian landscapes and science-fiction-worthy geothermal craters, it runs the gamut from the reassuringly familiar to the barely believable.
There are national parks, gushing waterfalls and snow-crested peaks, and yet it's as close to lunar topography as Europe gets. This is a frozen landscape with a midnight sun. A country that appears manageable on the map, but one that's home to a lifetime of out-your-comfort-zone adventures.
To make the most of your time, you'll need a car to see the best of what's on offer. Here are five road trip itineraries packed with once-in-a-lifetime wildlife and wonder.
1. For otherworldly landscapes
The proverbial craft beer bars and New Nordic restaurants of Reykjavík are quite at odds with the city's unnatural surroundings. Start on the tried-and-tested Golden Circle route through the southern uplands to Thingvellir National Park, known for its UNESCO-listed nexus of tectonic and volcanic rift valleys and lava fields. Here you can suit up and swim between continents, snorkelling or diving the aquavit-clear waters of Silfra Gorge, an otherworldly crag splitting Europe and America.
Cut farther east to Geysir, an extraordinary kettle rush of boiling water and vapour that often reaches 70m, then continue 10km along Route 35 to Gulfoss Falls. A three-tiered dogleg in the Hvítá river, it's an astonishing cascade in a country renowned for hyperreal waterfalls.
En route back to the capital, park-up at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal wonderland of bubbling pools located on a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Don't expect it to be quiet – it's only a 15-minute drive from Keflavik International Airport.
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2. For film and TV fans
Iceland is blanketed in a vast cloak of rock and ice, and while it's beautiful to admire the geological drama from the comfort of a car, it's even better to go and play in. On the southern coast, immerse yourself on an adrenaline-packed glacier walk with Icelandic Mountain Guides in Vatnajökull National Park, home to the largest ice sheet in Europe. If movie moments come to mind, you're on the money: it's got cinematic pedigree with Game of Thrones, Batman Begins, The Fantastic Four and Interstellar all filmed here.
Heading around the southeast coast, the IMAX-sized Svínafellsjökull glacier crowds out the windscreen before it leads to Jökulsárlón. A 300m-deep glacial lagoon met head-on by a snaking ice tongue, it dwarves imaginative winter fantasies: up against it, the ice palace from Frozen seems little more than a snow globe. Film fans may also recognise it from two James Bond films (both A View to a Kill and Die Another Day) and Tomb Raider. Finally, head back along the coast to the black sands and mossy green hills of Mýrdalssandur beach, east of Vík. It should feel familiar, too: it doubled as a galaxy far, far away at the dramatic start of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
3. For wildlife-spotting
It would be hard to think of a country more in tune with its environment than Iceland – and in the north certain experiences take some beating. Start your trip in Akureyri, embracing the town's rich marine history, before beelining to Húsavík to spot pods of orcas feeding along the shore. Skjálfandi Bay is one of the best places in the world to see humpbacks and minke in the wild, so a whale-watching trip is a must. As well as whales and bottle-nose dolphins, the bay shelters Puffin Island, home to one of the largest Atlantic seabird colonies.
Hop east from Húsavík along the coast to Langanes, past lighthouses, windswept farms and cliff stacks teeming with gannets. Finally, return to Akureyri via Lake Mývatn, where some 60-odd species of ducks congregate, including tufted and long-tailed ducks, harlequins and wigeons. Should it be midnight sun season, saddle up on your last evening with a shaggy but sturdy Icelandic horse. There are many stables and farms lining Eyjafjord, the longest sea inlet in Iceland, and dozens will take you on a ride through the fjord's history.
4. For art and folklore
The problem with Iceland's growing popularity is sharing it with others, but rarely is this ever the case in Borgarfjörður Eystri. The farthest northeast you can get on the mainland, the farming village (population 100) is off grid for most Icelanders. It's also the historic home of the huldufólk in Icelandic culture and the town's ring of ethereal mountaintops hide elves, trolls, demons and horse-headed sea monsters – creatures brought to life by stories shared by locals. Village life focuses on Álfaborg, a knobbily rock believed to be the home of the elf queen, while there are dozens of hiking trails to follow into this fairy-tale landscape.
Next head south, along a dirt mountain road, to Seyðisfjörður, a historic fishing village, now an unlikely hub for eastern Iceland's creative community. Swing by Skaftfell Center for Visual Art, then browse creative jumpers and scarves at knitwear startup Esualc. Finish your East Iceland tour in Egilsstaðir, on a monster hunt for the Lagarfljót worm, a cryptid who reportedly slithers around the lake on the outskirts of town.
5. For a wild west adventure
One truth about Western Iceland is you're almost certain to encounter cliffs, coasts and waterfalls you never thought possible. Begin north of Reykjavik in Borgarfjordur with a visit to Deildartunguhver, a natural hot water playground and Europe's most powerful hot spring. Push on past Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls, two impossibly pretty bridal veil cascades, before settling down for a couple of days in Patreksfjörður to discover the dreamy Westfjords.
Gawp at the puffin nested cliffs of Látrabjarg, the westernmost point of Europe, then puzzle over Rauðasandur, an unfathomable red-sand beach with magnificent views across to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This 90km-long headland is where Jules Verne set his classic adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth and you'll soon find out why after taking the ferry from Brjánslækur to Stykkishólmur. Iceland in a nutshell, the cape crams in a hotchpotch of black beaches, lava tube caves, volcanic craters, brain-bending rock formations and the remarkable Snæfellsjökull glacier. Don't leave without seeing it, preferably on the back of a snowmobile.
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Header image via pichetw/Shutterstock.