A Winter Drive in Iceland
“Get out of the city and just drive,” is what everybody tells you when you go to Iceland.
When I lived there, back in 2006, I didn’t have a driver’s license and so had to rely on new-found friends to drive me around, which often meant spending more time than I wanted taking detours to their friends’ houses, getting suckered in to plans largely revolving around bars, and often not quite making it to my intended destination. “Everyone knows everyone,” is another thing everyone tells you when you go to Iceland. There’s at least a kernel of truth in the cliché.
“Just drive!” It sounds so simple, but I’m not a confident driver — I got my license at the age of 31, only because living in Ohio left me with no choice if I ever wanted to work or, indeed, to go anywhere.
I hate driving, I actually fear it, but I had a reservation at the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, which is not on any bus route and the hotel’s car service would have cost me $300 round-trip (although my stay was generously comped by Design Hotels, transportation was on me) .
The Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel lies on the slopes of the still-active volcano Mount Hengill, on the edge of Thingvellir National Park, around an hour outside of Reykjavík. It opened its doors in spring 2013 and combines a unique take on the high-design properties that are the Design Hotels signature with a rural retreat that blends harmoniously with its surroundings: energy and hot water is provided by the nearby Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station and surrounding hot springs, and furniture is made out of driftwood and recycled materials. Giant horsehead (black or white) murals decorate the walls of each, minimalist, monochrome, room.
Even though I have never driven in the United Kingdom, the country and its rules are in my blood so I pulled out of the parking lot in my newly acquired rental car and straight into the left-hand lane. Shortly later, having adjusted myself, I was heading out towards Þjóðvegur 1, overly cautiously far enough below the speed limit to piss everyone around me off, armed with a a pre-programmed map on my out-of-network mobile phone and hand-scrawled instructions.
Confidence growing, I slowly settled into a more acceptable speed and was looking forward to arriving at the hotel when it occurred to me that my phone had lost signal and the map wasn’t updating. I looked at my notes and it also occurred to me that I should have turned onto Hafravatnsvegur by now. Finally finding my way back, I was met with the road, unmistakably closed for the winter. To be fair to the hotel, they warn guests about this on their website; I just hadn’t looked at that part.
I found my way there eventually, thanks to the help of a flagged-down driver. The final part of the route (road 360 from Nesjavellir) took me past scenes like this:
There’s a conclusion to be drawn here about getting out of my comfort zone and ‘just’ doing it, but to those people who comfortably rent a car and drive on strange roads wherever they go, it probably seems like too much fuss. Still, I arrived at the hotel as giddy with excitement at getting to this architectural wonder set on snow-covered lava fields as I was about the small achievement of my first out-of-country driving experience.
For more on this trip to Iceland: