For many, Iceland is an absolute bucket-list destination. We were no different. After months of planning we finally made it to Iceland and started on the most amazing itinerary. Though we had countless incredible experiences planned, there was one that piqued our excitement (a bucket-list experience in a bucket-list location, if you will) – ice caving on the South-East coast. We could not have been more excited to explore these gorgeous blue caves but unfortunately for us, it wasn’t to be.
The combination of unseasonably warm weather in the months leading up to our visit and the incoming rains, left the ice caves flooded and too dangerous to enter, which unfortunately for us, meant our dreams of ice caving in Iceland had to be put on ice.
With accommodation booked and a rental car to hand, we made the decision to drive through the storm and see what this part of the island offers – after all, what did we have to lose?
As it turns out, the South-East coast is a veritable treasure-trove of delights and we left the area without an ounce of regret.
If you’re headed to Iceland, this guide will help you decide if you want to drive the Ring Road to the South-East Coast.
PS: You definitely want to!
If you’ve got extra time, why not use this itinerary to navigate all the way around the island? Once you’ve started on the Ring Road, you may not want to stop!
Must See Spots on Iceland’s South-East Coast
Only 10-15 minutes from our accommodation we found ourselves at Jökulsárlón, one of Iceland’s very best natural wonders. If you’re driving from Reykjavik, pull off the road directly after the suspension bridge crossing the Jökulsá River (left towards the glacier lagoon, right towards the beach) and if you’re making the easy drive from Hali Country Lodge, simply turn off right before the bridge. Both stops are walking distance from one another and equally worth your time.
Striking fine black sand, scattered with diamonds – when you walk onto this beach, you’ll know without a shadow of a doubt that you’re in Iceland. We spent a great deal of time at Diamond Beach, initially enjoying the cloudy sky but relatively mind weather, before the heavens opened and poured hail like we’ve never seen before. They say if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, to wait five minutes for it to change – truer words have not been spoken!
We had a great time taking in the gorgeous sites of Diamond Beach. Each chunk of ice had its own unique colour – some crystal clear, others cloudy and more still glowing with a beautiful blue hue. These sites are exactly what bring people to Iceland!
If you’re paying this beach a visit (or any of the Icelandic beaches, for that matter), do keep an eye out for the occasional large waves that wash up. We’d kept a good eye on the swell but still managed to get caught out with our backs to the water a fair way up the beach. Luckily I came away only with wet feet and a smile still on my face but I can imagine not everyone would be so fortunate.
Across the road from Diamond Beach, massive icebergs float just out of reach of the shore. Though the wind was wicked, we had a fantastic time wandering the shore, climbing the neighbouring stoney hill and checking out the beautiful colours of the icebergs. In breaks in the weather, the glacier at the mouth of the lagoon glanced out at us, its gorgeous blue shining through the last of the fog.
What a spot!
Located within the Vatnajökull National Park, Skaftafell has become one of the most popular natural destinations in Iceland. During the summer, there’s a cafeteria open to welcome guests but in the winter, that wasn’t the case. The information centre runs all year around, ready to give advice and selling some basic supplies and souvenirs.
Let’s face it though, you’re there to immerse yourself in the gorgeous natural beauty of Iceland and regardless of the time of year, you’ll have no problem doing that. The glacier is an easy 30 minute walk from the information centre (where you’ll find plenty of parking) and should you wish, glacier walks can also be arranged.
If you’re looking for waterfalls (and there’s no shortage of stunning ones!) check out this guide to the top 15 waterfalls in Iceland (many of which are on the South Coast).
Also, be sure to stop off at the abandoned DC-3 on your way back to Reykjavik – it was one of the highlights of our visit.
Do I Need a Car to Get to the South-East Coast of Iceland?
Though it’s possible to join private tours that will take you to the South-East Coast, we decided to hire our own 4WD through Geysir and drove ourselves (though we did head out on guided tours later in our trip which we very much enjoyed!)
Doing so allowed us maximum freedom at minimal cost and because we planned on spending our free day in Hali out in the ice caves, it was the only sensible choice – it wouldn’t have made sense to book in a tour just to spend our only free day doing something else.
The Ring Road around the island is kept in great condition and even during the winter’s first major storm (snow and hail far beyond anything these Kiwis had seen before) we felt relatively comfortable driving, even as we approached midnight.
The time of year you visit will of course have a large impact on your driving experience but even with our lack of experience driving in such wintery conditions, a bit of common sense (combined with studded tires) saw us right.
If you’re a reasonable driver, you should be able to handle the Icelandic driving conditions without concern.
Whatever you decide to do in regards to transport, you’ll be treated to the most spectacular views every step of the way.
Though the South-East Coast of Iceland is a comfortable drive from Reykjavík, it is a fairly big one, and with so much to do there, you’ll definitely want a few nights there. We spent two nights at the Hali Country Hotel but could have easily made it three or four.
The hotel is warm, cosy and on a good night, the perfect spot to see the Northern Lights. To spend time in the depths of the country with so few lights and such a peaceful calm was a real treat and the perfect way to chill out at the start of our holiday after a busy few months at work.
Whether lounging in the generously sized shared areas or relaxing in your room, Hali Country Hotel is the perfect spot to unwind after a day spent making the most of everything the area has to offer. The beds themselves are of course comfortable and the rooms generously sized – the hotel is unassuming and provides exactly what it says. We really couldn’t have wished for more.
Onsite you’ll find a restaurant that’s open to purchase meals from (and it serves the most fantastic cook breakfast which is included in the price of your room – bonus!) which is handy as the lodge itself is fairly remote.
Is it Really Worth Making the Trip to the South-Eastern Coast?
After questioning whether it was worth heading five hours out into the countryside knowing that our ice caving had been cancelled we were so incredibly pleased we forged ahead. Iceland offers the most spectacular and diverse landscapes imaginable and to bounce around from icebergs to glaciers, rugged black-sand beaches to mountain peaks, it just doesn’t get any better.
Absolutely – make the trip!
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland or want to help someone out that is, don’t forget to pin this post!
Thank you to the Hali Country Hotel for hosting whilst on the South-East Coast and to Geysir Car Rentals for subsidising our ride. As always, all thoughts are our own.