A winter break in Iceland: traversing Southern Iceland

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Visiting Southern Iceland is a must when you’re in Iceland, with plenty to see from black sand beaches to glacial lakes. Here’s what we saw when we visited.

Our second and third days in Iceland saw us venturing outside of Reykjavík to drive the famous golden circle! We wanted the freedom to explore some of Iceland’s top sights at our own pace during our holiday so we chose to rent a car with Lotus Car Rental.

We debated about this decision for a long time, having read warnings about Iceland weather changing so drastically during winter that driving at this time of year was not for the faint-hearted. But when I started pricing up tours individually – plus transport to and from the airport – it worked out a lot cheaper to rent a car. Besides – we’re pretty confident drivers and love adventure!

I’ve split this post into two, as it’s just too much to share in just one blog post, so here’s what we got up to when driving beyond the Golden Circle.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Visiting Seljalandsfoss waterfall

Our first full day in Iceland didn’t quite go to plan. We overslept a little and enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, meaning we headed out later in the day than expected, once the sun was up. Because Iceland has so few daylight hours in winter, it’s hard to make the most of them and really, we should have set off as the sun was rising as it was already light enough to drive at that point.

So we set off pretty late with the main aim to drive directly to the famous black sand beach – Reynisfjara – and make our way back along the coast to visit other stops on the way back. This was our first proper experience of driving in Iceland and within 45 minutes of leaving the capital, we were driving through high and snowy winding roads through the mountains – often with no barriers on the roadside!

My amazing boyfriend tackled it pretty well, despite the fact that he’s scared of heights. On the way home, we left later than expected, which meant he was then driving those tough roads as it was getting dark – all in an unfamiliar car on the opposite side of the road! We made it back safely but bless him, he did so well.

On the way, we spotted and stopped at Seljalandsfoss – one of the biggest waterfalls in the country. You can actually walk behind it too. This was our first view of just how breathtaking Iceland is, with such wonderful views.

Posing behind Seljalandsfoss
Beside Seljalandsfoss
Behind Seljalandsfoss
Standing in front of Seljalandsfoss
Credit: Shaun James Carr

During our drive, we also experienced an ever-changing landscape around us. One moment we were driving through vast farmland and saw horses run across the road in front of us, and seemingly in just a few minutes later, we passed through a valley, and then we were up high again with snowy mountains surrounding us everywhere.

Even just driving through the country was stunning – particularly when the sun was setting on the way home.

Read more: A winter break in Iceland: exploring Reykjavík

Iceland's ever changing landscape
Iceland's snowy roads
The sunset's of Iceland

Driving to Reynisfjara – Iceland’s famous black sand beach

Reynisfjara is a beach that is out of this world. So much so that we honestly felt like we were on another planet when exploring. The beach is made up of violent crashing waves, jet black sand and jagged rocks creating hexagonal-shaped basalt columns. The black sand is such a colour because of a nearby dormant volcano! The colour is caused by the way lava has floated down the beach, cooled and then solidified when hitting the cold water.

It’s a truly beautiful place that takes your breath away – but as usual, my photos don’t do it justice.

The beach itself has also been used for many filming locations, most notably Star Trek: Into Darkness, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Game of Thrones!

Reynisfjara beach

Spotting various huge signs warning us about ‘sneaker waves’ (basically violent waves that cannot be seen/can catch you off guard and are incredibly dangerous), we headed down to the beach and walked along the coastline, even heading into a large cave at one point. We tried to keep our distance as much as we could from the water but there were even moments where I think we got a tad too relaxed – for example, we never ventured too close but one instance we turned our back to the sea to get a selfie, and got caught off guard by a big wave that covered our feet in the foam (and went into my boots/socks) and we had to quickly run to get out of. Of course in this case it wasn’t a big deal – it was simply like when the foam from the sea catches your feet off guard at any beach in the UK – but it could have been a lot worse.

The black sand of Reynisfjara beach
Iceland's black beach

When heading back around to the main part of the beach, we saw two girls stumble in the sea, having been caught off guard with one of the sneaker waves. We watched in shock as one managed to get back to the sand/safety, but the other simply couldn’t. We rushed around the corner where a crowd was forming, a few people panicked and tried to get help, and sadly, the waves took the girl out further and further.

Eventually, a couple of people came down with a ring, but she was far too swept out for it to reach her. It sounds really sad to say but I think many of us knew there wasn’t anything could do – the sneaker waves were so violent that if anyone had gone in after her, they would have put their own lives at risk. Upon leaving, we heard a coast guard say that a helicopter and boat were on their way but would be a minimum of half an hour. At that point, we couldn’t even see the girl in the water anymore.

We left feeling pretty unsettled and I continued to try and find news stories on our way back to our hotel, hoping for good news but unfortunately, there was none – her body was found a few hours later.

I’ve since read a little more about the beach and this is an occurrence that has happened quite a few times – many tourists get far too close to the sea/waves and end up becoming hit and overwhelmed by the sneaker waves, unable to get back up again once they’re knocked down. It was so, so sad and really jarring. There were many tour groups there, wearing beautiful flowing dresses underneath parker jackets and getting really close to the waves to get that perfect photo and I think this may have been what happened there, which makes it all that sadder.

Many locals in Iceland feel that tourists don’t respect the weather enough and I can see why. I certainly feel like we were not as cautious as we could have been when exploring the beach ourselves and seeing someone lose their life because of it was just really sad.

We also wish we’d had more time to explore this day – we had a few stops we wanted to visit along the coast of southern Iceland but simply didn’t have enough time due to the shorter days in November. But it’s an excuse to return one day at least!

Upon finally arriving back to our hotel, after nearly an entire day of driving, we had a nap, headed out for a quick dinner and then walked down to the harbour for the second night of our Northern Lights Luxury Yacht Tour. As explained in the last post, this time we were a bit luckier and had the opportunity to see the lights in the distance.

Although it was freezing cold and the lights had been fading for a while, I’ll never forget seeing them. After everyone had headed back inside the warmth, my boyfriend and I sat at the very top of the boat with a hot chocolate each and a blanket and sat in a comfortable silence just watching them. It was quite surreal and romantic – and a memory I’ll never forget!

Look out for my next post sharing photos from our drive around Iceland’s famous Golden Circle.

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? Would you one day want to visit Iceland’s black beach? Let me know your thoughts below.

A winter break in Iceland: traversing Southern Iceland
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