Iceland doesn’t lend itself naturally to visions of beachside vacations and summer escapes. The Arctic Circle passes through its northernmost island community of Grimsey, and more than 10 percent of the Scandinavian country’s landmass is covered by glaciers. None of which would likely come as much of a surprise to visitors—it’s called Iceland, after all, and there’s nothing the slightest bit ironic or misleading about that. In fact, you’re probably going to want to bring a sweater and a raincoat, even if it is summertime.
Despite the persistent chill in the air, however, Iceland is an ideal spot to set your sights for summer travel, in large part because its temperate climate provides a refreshing alternative to more sweltering latitudes—no need for air conditioning here. Just as significant, though at first it might be somewhat disorienting, is Iceland’s perpetual daylight. During the summer months, sunset happens around midnight and sunrise around 3 a.m., though the sky never truly gets dark—just darker. So while that might present an issue for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, which is best experienced in winter, the continuous sunlight offers all the more motivation to take a long road trip up to one of Iceland’s natural parks or visit one of the many beaches on its 6,000 kilometers of coastline. When visiting Iceland this time of year, summer truly does feel endless.
What visitors might miss in terms of northern lights is more than made up for by Iceland’s natural beauty. Snaefellsnes National Park, on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula on the western coast, is a destination well worth the daytrip, some of which runs through some unpaved terrain—a vehicle with 4-wheel drive is recommended. At the top of the list to check out is Djúpalónssandur black sand beach, a natural landmark formed by lava that, upon arrival, looks like the surface of the moon. The descent down toward the beach, however, is like experiencing magic firsthand, its colorful and mossy rock walls like a secret druid’s seaside lair. Remnants of a shipwreck can also be seen on the beach sand, and though that part isn’t naturally formed, it’s pretty neat. Arctic foxes can sometimes be seen here as well, so be on the lookout for some fuzzy visitors.
A trip to the beach at Reynisfjara is also in order during a summer visit to Iceland. Though the water is likely to be far too chilly for a dip, even with sunlight all day, its gorgeous scenery is more than worth the drive southeast of Reykjavik. The beach is surrounded by massive geographic rock formations, the likes of which are awe-inspiring when seen up close. But take an even closer gander and you’re likely to see some of the more colorful feathered denizens of Iceland: Puffins.
Since a swim in the Atlantic (or Arctic—brrr) is probably not in the offing, there’s a more luxurious option at the Blue Lagoon, located just a short drive southwest of Reykjavik. A warm, outdoor geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon is literally blue, hence the name. It’s a soothing retreat, and bookings include a mud mask and a free first beverage of your choice. But because it tends to attract crowds, there’s also an alternative for a somewhat higher price tag. The adjacent Silica Hotel has its own private lagoon, as well as rooms with lagoon views, so you can enjoy a warm soak with a bit more seclusion.
There’s no shortage of warm springs worth submerging yourself into in Iceland, and while the water at the Sky Lagoon isn’t blue, the view more than makes up for it. An elevated lagoon just outside of Reykjavik, Sky Lagoon looks out over the ocean, offering the next best thing to actually swimming at the beach—or perhaps more accurately, a massive infinity pool. Among its amenities is a swim-up bar, so there’s no need to leave the warm water to get a refill of beer or rosé, though you should take a moment to experience its seven-step Ritual, which includes cold plunge, sauna, energizing mist, cleansing scrub, steam bath and shower. And afterward, head to the indoor Smakk Bar, which features drinks and platters of local delicacies like reindeer pate, pickled herring and “happy marriage bliss” rhubarb pie.
After a day of road tripping, hiking, soaking and indulging, head back to Reykjavik for a nightcap with a view, like at the marina-side Slippbarin, which serves up classic cocktails at the Islandair Hotel, or at the chic Mat Bar, which also has an excellent menu of Mediterranean inspired food offerings in addition to their craft beverages. Or perhaps just take a walk through the city and along the water before calling it a night. With so much daylight to go around, there’s no need to head back to the hotel so early.
Jeff Terich is a Richmond, Virginia-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in SPIN, Bandcamp Daily, uDiscover Music, Grammy.com and San Diego Magazine. His Twitter is @1000TimesJeff.