How to Have A Unique Trip to Iceland

And Avoiding the “Repeat Effect”

You’ve seen them in your news feed. A friend or acquaintance, standing at the foot of a waterfall, stoic as they face away from the camera. The caption reads something like “Iceland is beautiful”, or “chasing waterfalls” (I am guilty of using this phrase in my New Zealand post). You feel a twinge of anxiety.

Fast forward some amount of time, when you yourself have traveled to Iceland. You find yourself in front of that same waterfall. You feel a sense of accomplishment, like you’ve ticked off a box somewhere in your head. But then a tiny voice asks, “So what else? We’ve seen this before”. Suddenly you aren’t so sure why you had to see the same thing you’ve seen fifty times before in a picture.

This is one of the more unpleasant feelings of travel. I’m going to call it the “repeat effect”. It’s the feeling you get when you see the same travel pictures many times, and therefore when you see the thing yourself it’s maybe not as nice. It just feels “done”. Maybe it’s not sunset like how it was in that professional photo you saw, or maybe it’s raining. Either way, overexposure has given you a sense of disappointment.

“Move Out of My Picture”

Well, fear not! Although the “repeat effect” can be a downer, I’m here to tell you that it is very easy to avoid in Iceland. All it takes is a little effort on your part. Let me tell you about my recent trip as an example. I had a mix of both “repeat effect” and “unique” experiences.

Before my trip to Iceland, I had researched many options for what I should do with my time there. A lot of that information came from travel bloggers, some with an agenda to push, some not. I ended up constructing a trip itinerary with lots planned, but some wiggle room time-wise as well.

My “repeat effect” items included things like the Golden Circle, the black sand beaches of Vik, the Blue Lagoon, and snorkeling the Silfra fissure. These were things that I had seen pasted across any travel website I looked at for Iceland. A lot of these things were absolutely worth the time, even with the “repeat effect” sensation. After all, some things are popular for a reason; they are incredible no matter how many pictures you’ve seen.

Some things just felt lackluster to me, and given a second chance, I would have opted out (I’ll write a later post concerning which activities in particular). As an example, the black sand beach of Vik was beautiful. However, there were so many people there that it was hard to enjoy the crashing waves. I was standing there, looking out to sea, when a woman came up to me and told me I had to “get out of her picture”. Though I appreciated the experience, I probably would have enjoyed some isolated beach elsewhere much more. At another time, on a plane into Iceland from the east, I was able to see a large stretch of empty black sand beach. If only I’d figured out how to get there.

Branching Out

So now to get to the “unique” stuff. It is likely that there will never be a place in the world you can go that hasn’t been visited by someone before. That’s just the day and age we live in. But in Iceland, it’s very easy to get away from the summer crowds with just a little bit of effort.

My favorite experience in Iceland, hands down, was my time in the West Fjords. It’s an area of Iceland that very few tourists ever get to, though I’m not sure why. Alex and I stayed at a beautiful AirBnb that felt like it was on the edge of the world. We spend an entire day hiking the area, with breathtaking panoramic views, without seeing another person. All. Day. In order to accomplish this, all we had to do was rent a car. Not even a four wheel drive. And by booking it months in advance, we were able to save hundreds.

While the West Fjords are beautiful, I’m not suggesting you go there. In fact, I’m suggesting you do some research of your own. Don’t just take the word of bloggers like myself. Chances are, there is a beautiful spot in Iceland just waiting for you that no one has written about. Here are some tips for how Alex and I were able to find “unique” things to do:

A Vacation or An Adventure?

-We did a lot of research. Sure, I read a lot of blogging posts about main tourist things, but I also looked at the satellite view on Google Maps. I looked for extra green areas. I zoomed in on small towns, then looked at if they had any tourist shops. If they didn’t, that was a good sign. I looked at TripAdvisor for well-reviewed places without many reviews. I followed roads to see if they had anything I could click on at the end. You can even see waterfalls from satellite view.

-If you see something interesting, book it in advance. Not only are you assuring you won’t back out of the adventure, you can save a lot of money. Booking with smaller hotels or guesthouses also opens a line of communication. The owner may know of a lot of interesting things in the area that isn’t openly advertised. It’s no secret that Iceland is expensive. But a car rental is affordable if you search well in advance. Just be sure to check you won’t need F-roads before renting a 2-wheel vehicle.

-Be brave! It’s easy to look at a two hour drive over a rough road and get a little intimidated. But that’s the nature of exploration! It’s easy to stay in the tour groups heading around the Golden Circle, and you would probably have a nice time if you did that. But that is the difference between a vacation and an adventure. I guess you’ll have to decide which one you want.

Useful links to get you started:

Satellite View of Iceland

20 Hidden Gems in Iceland (some “unique”, some not)

Backpacking Tours: These small-group tours will get you deep into the wilds of Iceland. A nice balance between really getting into the wilderness while staying safe with a guide!