Reykjanes may be one of the most interesting, yet overlooked, regions in Iceland. There’s a lot more to the place than the international airport and the Blue Lagoon. If you’re flying to Iceland, you’ll pass through the former and you’ll feel a lot better having passed through the latter, but that’s only just the beginning.
The southwest peninsula of Reykjanes, or ‘smoky point’, is an utterly strange region of surreal landscapes and desolate volcanic fallout. There are only crumbled lava rocks carpeted in thick, grey-green moss as far as the eye can see. There is no soil – only shifting, metallic black sand. The low mountains on the horizon are sleeping volcanoes, their forms the crusted spouts from whence flowed all this lava.
As an active geothermal hotspot, the broken ground exhales the wispy puffs of steam that gave the peninsula its name. The wind blows without cease and the frontal gusts of the Gulf Stream shoot out from across the ocean. The land is forever streaked with drizzle or sleet.
Whether you’re on a quick stopover, exploring Iceland in depth, or if you’ve got a spare day at the end of your trip, Reykjanes is a surface worth scratching beneath. Nowhere else captures the same curious beauty and bleak mood of this peninsula’s empty places, made even more mysterious by the constant flux of weather. There is great hiking to be done, a magnificent coastline to explore, and pure heat bubbling up from the depths. Reykjanes is also ideal for winter travel – it’s close to the airport, convenient, and compact. It’s also warmer than the rest of Iceland and there’s rarely any snow because it all gets blown away by the fierce wind. In fact, Reykjanes is the windiest region in the whole south of Iceland.
What to see and do
Reykjanesbær is Iceland’s mini megalopolis that combines the towns of Keflavík, Hafnir and Njarðvík into one dynamic district of 16,000 people, many of whom are immigrants. That makes it the third-largest community in Iceland after the capital (not counting the suburbs) and Akureyri. At the heart of it all is Keflavík, a very functional town with row after row of perfect square blocks lined with two-storey concrete homes painted gaily in contrast to the lifeless lava mounds beyond. The harbour still serves as an active shipping and fishing port and continues to grow along the seashore.
Begin your explorations at the Duus Museum and Cultural Centre. It’s located above the peninsula’s visitor centre and inside you’ll find rotating displays at the Reykjanes Art Museum, information on the area’s history at the Reykjanes Museum of Heritage, and an exhibition on local handicrafts and design in the basement. There’s a lot going on here, so if it’s a rainy day you’re in luck.
The northwest tip of Reykjanes is pretty typical seashore with lots of screeching seagulls and fishing boats. The main highlight of Garður is the pair of lighthouses, the old traditional one (built 1847) and the new square one built in 1944.
Garðskagi is the northernmost point in Reykjanes, and given the right weather, you can capture Reykjavík in all its glory and see right across to the other side of Faxaflói. Heading down the coast brings you to the village of Sandgerði. If your idea of fun is barren isolation by the sea, there are cosy little summerhouses for rent.
Blue Lagoon is the most visited destination in Iceland, the proverbial ‘T-shirt’ proving you’ve been to the country. In the midst of the spooky black lavascape that is Reykjanes, the ethereal blue waters of this enormous manmade hot spring seem absolutely weird and strangely inviting. The minute you see a picture, you have to go, and once you’ve been, you have to go back. With every billboard, brochure, and tour guide pointing this way, it’s hard to avoid it.
Without a doubt, the Blue Lagoon is a gigantic tourist trap but my, what a lovely tourist trap to be trapped in. The lagoon is open year-round and the swimming is fine at any time. The lagoon is not deep (less than 5ft/150cm), but fluctuates based on the irregular shape. The bottom is covered with white silica mud, the result of a natural process of re-condensation. The silica does wonders for your skin, which is why everyone’s fighting over the little boxes and buckets to get a fistful of their own. Obviously, avoid your eyes when spreading it on your face. There’s also a dry sauna and two steam baths and a massage area, but none of that compares to a languorous soak.
Getting there and away
Route 41 connects Keflavík to Reykjavík with a smooth, four-lane highway that gives newcomers a false sense of confidence about driving in Iceland, and to further entice the ever- growing number of tourists that whiz through the region on their way to the capital, the entire main loop around the peninsula has been freshly paved. However, in order to explore some of the remoter corners, visitors will encounter a number of harrowing rock paths – drives that test one’s mettle and one’s axles.
Tiny Reykjanes also has more buses than any other region in Iceland, so it’s never too hard to get from A to B, when A is the airport and B the Blue Lagoon. The ubiquitous Flybus travels about 20 times each day to and from Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík’s BSÍ bus terminal (1hr). A public bus is run by Strætó, travelling between the airport and Reykjanesbær (Keflavík) before forging onwards to Reykjavík city centre (1hr 15mins). Strætó also run buses from Reykjanesbær to Grindavík, Sandgerði and Garður. The ‘Blue Lagoon Express’ travels between BSÍ and the Blue Lagoon and the airport.