Difference between revisions of "South Iceland"
Revision as of 12:42, 27 February 2013
South Iceland is the region of Iceland along the North Atlantic Ocean.
Towns are listed in a west-east order.
South Iceland's charm lies in its many large and impressive waterfalls and glaciers, unique geology and fascinating medieval history.
The area is the setting of of some of Iceland's most popular sagas and home to many of their heroes. Njáll's saga, one of the most famous sagas, is largely set in South Iceland with the title character Njáll living at Bergþórshvoll and the hero Gunnar hailing from Hlíðarendi in Fljótshlíð near Hvolsvöllur. These farms still exist today, but don't expect to see medieval ruins. Icelandic building materials were not made to last, and the farms you see today are twentieth century constructions. However, the nature and the scenery remain as impressive!
The region also contains two of the most important seats of power of medieval Iceland: Skálholt was the location of the bishop of Iceland from 1056 until 1106, when north Iceland received a bishop of its own but Skálholt remained the seat of a diocese covering east, south and west Iceland until 1801. Þingvellir was the meeting place of the Alþingi, the joint parliament and court founded in 930. Alþingi lost its legislative functions in 1662 but remained a court held at Þingvellir until 1800. Alþingi was later revived (in 1845) as advisory and later legislative assembly in Reykjavík. It was also at Þingvellir that, on the 17th of June 1944, Iceland was declared a republic.
The eastern part of South Iceland is dominated by the glacier Vatnajökull and the water systems linked to it. Big rivers flow from the glacier in all directions and have created large flood planes along the southern coast. The glacier itself as well as some of the surrounding areas form Vatnajökull National Park, the biggest national park in Iceland.
Uniquely for Iceland, the south is not a fishing area. This is because it has practically no natural harbours. In fact the southern coastline from Þorlákshöfn in the west to Höfn in the east contains an almost unbroken sand beach open directly to the treacherous Atlantic Ocean.
Taking the ring road east from Reykjavík will very quickly lead you into South Iceland. This is how by far most locals will choose to travel and as with the rest of Iceland, having a car of your own will give you a lot more options for exploring the region than relying on public transport. When entering from Reykjavík, you also have the alternative of taking the road through Þingvellir to enter South Iceland. Drive up on the ring road through Mosfellsbær (a town on the outskirts of Reykjavík), as if you were heading for West Iceland, and following the signs indicating Þingvellir (road nr. 36).
If you're entering the country by ferry and bringing your own car, you will drive off the ferry in Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. Once you get to the ring road, head southwards and you should be able to reach South Iceland in a few hours. It may be best, though, to stop somewhere around Höfn in the southeast before heading further, as the distances are big.
Mainland South Iceland itself is not served by any flights, domestic or international. On the western side, it's within reach of Reykjavík, which has a domestic airport that connects with some of the towns in different parts of the country. The eastern half of South Iceland can be reached by flying from Reykjavík to Höfn (a town in the southeast) with Eagle Air . This is close to Vatnajökull National Park, Jökulsárlón and other popular destinations.
Vestmannaeyjar have a domestic airport, with flights from Reykjavík with Eagle Air.
The south is well served by the ring road, which goes right through the region from west to east serving most of the population centres on the way. The western part of the south is one of few regions in Iceland where populated areas are found far inland, and this area has a good road system as well. Further east the interior turns into highlands and glaciers, and should only be reached by 4x4s.
As in the rest of Iceland, public transport can be quite difficult to navigate and cannot take you everywhere. However the bus system is slightly more developed in the south and there is a bus that travels daily along the entire southern section of the ring road. There are also buses that travel between the upcountry towns in the western part of the south. Most of these are operated by Sterna  or Reykjavík Excursions , but it may also be worth it to ask around locally as there may be different seasonal options.
A ferry called Herjólfur, operated by Eimskip , runs between the mainland and Vestmannaeyjar. Recently a new harbour was created in Landeyjar, shortening sailing times significantly, but as it frequently fills with sand the old harbour at Þorlákshöfn is also in use. Add to this the fact that high waves often occur on the route and you get very irregular travel times, so it's best to check the status of the ferry before showing up at the pier! If you're traveling by car, it can also be brought to the islands with the ferry.
A Golden Circle tour generally includes – at a minimum – Geysir, Gullfoss, and Þingvellir. Various companies offer day coach tours, or a better alternative is to rent a car for a day; this will let you see many more sights and often save money, especially if you have 2 or more people in your group. This also lets you vary the time you want at each attraction, linger at the geysers, or have a stop at Kerið.
The western part of South Iceland is in many ways Iceland's agricultural heartland, and hosts many traditional Icelandic farms with sheep, cattle, horses, and other animals. It's one of the main dairy producing regions of the country, producing most of the milk consumed in the capital region. Further east, aquaculture and fresh-water fishing plays an important role. Arctic char from Kirkjubæjarklaustur is known in Iceland as a delicacy. Also worth mentioning is the farm Þorvaldseyri , the only place where wheat is grown in Iceland. You can buy it straight from the farmer.
Awareness of the value of local produce is increasing, and farmers markets are becoming ever more common in South Iceland. You should also ask in restaurants whether they have some local specialties, chances are that they do.
There isn't much in the way of nightlife in South Iceland outside the main towns. Of the towns it should be no surprise that Selfoss, being the largest town in the region, has the most active nightlife.
South Iceland is home to one of Iceland's smaller breweries, called Ölvisholt Brugghús. It's located in a rural area about 10km outside Selfoss and their three main beers are called Skjálfti, Freyja and Móri.
The major concern for safety in South Iceland are the roads. The roads leading inland from Selfoss are very narrow and drivers should take special precaution. The national road from Reykjavík to Hveragerði, a mountain pass called Hellisheiði, can be particularly dangerous in winter, as blinding snow storms, icy roads and strong wind is common.
As the southern coast is open directly to the Atlantic Ocean, it's important to be very careful when on the beach. Appearances can be deceiving, and tides can be strong. Tourists have been killed when suddenly swept out to sea.
Continuing east out of South Iceland will bring you to East Iceland, with the stunning East Fjords. To the west is Southwest Iceland including the vibrant capital Reykjavík and the international airport in Keflavík. Alternatively you could choose to head towards the Interior, the expansive highland region which can only be accessed in 4x4s but offers some incredible rugged landscapes. You could cross via Kjölur or Sprengisandsleið and reach North Iceland on the other side of the island, but for this you need to be very well equipped and do good research on both road conditions and weather before setting off.