If you go to Iceland, you have to traverse the Golden Circle. It is one of those tourist routes that, while busy, is a must-do. It is around 300kms and takes a day to drive, if you don’t spend too long at each site. You could easily take longer, particularly if you wanted to fit some day hikes in.
As with the Northern Lights tour, there are lots of options. I imagine most people assume that the stress-free way to experience the route is with a tour guide. If you can’t – or don’t want to – drive, it is. However, most companies operate large buses. You will probably get stuck with a big group, half of which will take too long, and the other half will just want to hang out on the bus because it’s cold. Not super ideal.
You can opt for a small group tour, and if you have the money to do so, this is probably a great option. However, renting a car in Iceland is cheap. If you are going to stick to the main roads, you don’t need anything fancy. Petrol is expensive in Iceland – you don’t want to be the person in an unnecessarily huge car. We rented a Hyundai i20 from Reykjavik Rent a Car , and it suited us fine. My suggestion would be to drive. You’ll have more time to view everything you want to, plus you can skip any sites that are absolutely over-run with tourists.
We set out early, knowing it would be a long day. I think everyone else had the same idea, because the car parking at Þingvellir National Park – our first stop – was pretty darn busy by the time we got there. No worries – we found a park, and a parking meter. There are actually three car parks, so make sure you investigate which sites you want to see. One interesting thing about Iceland is that nearly all the parking meters are credit card only. It is very much a cashless society. If you need to pay cash, you need to walk over to the visitors centre and buy a ticket there. Apparently, the toilets took credit cards too. So now you know!
Þingvellir is both an Icelandic National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is about 40 km northeast of Reykjavík, and as well as having a beautiful landscape, it is a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance. Silfa, within the park, is the place where you can famously snorkel at the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, swimming between the North American and Eurasian plates. Due to my general aversion to being cold and a desire to maintain the feeling in my face, I declined the snorkelling. Regardless, in a few hours, you can go for a leisurely wander throughout the park and see some pretty cool sites.
We dressed warmly – and sensibly – unlike many of the other tourists at Þingvellir that day. We saw all sorts of interesting states of dress, my favourite being a tu-tu. There was also a girl not wearing any pants. Awkward. I can’t begin to imagine how cold she was. I think New Zealander’s are well prepared for the changeable weather of Iceland. I’ll follow-up later with a blog on what I recommend you take to Iceland, in terms of clothing, but having layers is the key point. Always make sure you rug up, but can take some clothes off if needed. A good rain jacket it a must!
Our first stop was the original outdoor site of the Alpingi, the oldest Parliament in the world. Þingvellir actually means “parliament plains” in English. It is the place where representatives from all over Iceland met annually during summertime in an assembly like that of a modern parliament, except that it was held outside. I imagine it was rather cold. We saw the Lögberg (Law Rock), where anyone wishing to discuss matters would stand and speak to the assembly below. Some pretty important business was decided here, such as the decision to adopt Christianity. The last original ‘outdoor Parliament’ was held in 1798, but it continues to be the site of historical events. It was at Þingvellir in 1944 that Iceland declared its indepdence from Denmark. Outdoors, and in the rain, no less.
This all sounds very civilised, until we head around the corner and found a small waterfall where a number of people that had angered the Vikings were drowned. Ouch. A little further on through the Almannagjá canyon and we came across Öxarárfoss waterfall, which was just beautiful. It’s not particularly big by Icelandic standards, but for those who are less mobile, it’s super easy to get to and still very pretty.
Þingvellir is also very popular with tourists for being a filming location for Game of Thrones. I managed to find what I believed was the site where Brienne of Tarth and the Hound had their epic showdown. Sadly, neither were lurking in the vicinity when I visited. I think that we also found the site of one of the Wildling camps, but I was too busy scrambling up rocks to think about it until after we left.
We spent about an hour and a half in the park, which was, to be honest, busy. We had a lot of other sites to get to, so continued on our way towards the next site of the circle – the Haukadalur thermal area.
The funny thing about this part of the trip was that it felt like we were in New Zealand. Actually, Iceland very much felt like New Zealand. That is probably one of the reasons we enjoyed it so much. When visiting Haukadalur, I felt like we were in Rotorua. It is a geothermal area, where the famous Geysir and Strokkur geysers are located. While Geysir has generally been quiet for many years – gone are the days of shoving soap in the water to try and activate it – Strokkur puts on a show every five to ten minutes. We were unaware of this while visiting, but figured everyone was standing around waiting for something to happen, and poof, off it went. Strokkur erupts to around 15-20M in height, which is fairly impressive to see, until you find out that Geysir used to reach 70M. Cripes. That’s one heck of a blow-hole.
After spending a bit of time in the area, and hearing the American tourists complain about the funky smell, we went to the Visitor’s Centre. This is a good stop for some food and the bathrooms are pretty reasonable – and free. We took our own food with us for the day, which turned out to be a smart move – we could stop and eat when we wanted, and not have to wait in huge lines at the tourist stops.
Next up was the gorgeous Gulfoss waterfall. One of those ‘take your breath away’ kind of sites, Gullfoss (meaning ‘Golden Falls’) is one of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls, found on the Hvítá river canyon in south Iceland. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, travelling 32m down Gullfoss’ two stages.
Before we continue, can I just add another comment that it is really important to dress appropriately when visiting Iceland? And also, don’t be an idiot? The number of people we saw falling over at Gulfoss due to wearing inappropriate sneakers (or worse, ballet flats – really?) was crazy. A Japanese woman instinctively grabbed Matt as she fell, who luckily helped her, otherwise she would have split her head open. I’m just glad he didn’t get hurt. If you fly IcelandAir, the inflight magazine actually states that Iceland is a country that doesn’t fence you in – but that you need to be sensible and look after yourself out in the wilderness. There are still way too many people that insist on having their photos taken standing huge, slippery rocks, or bits of land precarously hanging over canyons. Someone tried to take such a photo earlier this year at Gulfoss. It didn’t end well.
The power from the waterfall is very impressive, and you can see exactly why you wouldn’t survive a fall in. Most people only visited the lower route, but we went up the top, quieter route, and got some great photographs. Gulfoss is quite famous for a slightly different reason too, that it was originally to be harnessed for electrical power, but was eventually gifted to the Government for all the people of Iceland. Weirdly enough, there is also a really good gift shop at the site, where I bought – of all things – an Ilse Jacobsen Hornbæk rainjacket. Which I have yet to wear, living in Dubai.
Our last stop for the day was Kerið Crater Lake. This is one epic coloured lake, and the quietest stop on the Golden Circle. It is believed that Kerið was originally a cone volcano that erupted and and emptied its magma reserve. Once the magma was depleted, the weight of the cone collapsed into an empty magma chamber, later to be filled with water. While its a bit steep, it is a pretty easy walk around the top of the cone – with great photo opportunities – and the walk down to the lake is pretty easy, with stairs built into the site. Again, you pay by credit card here – which is kind of random, given the ticket seller is basically in a box in the middle of nowhere.
It took us about eight or so hours to drive the Golden Circle, going at a leisurely pace and stopping for photos when we felt like it. If, like us, you didn’t have time to drive the entire ring route, make sure you at least do the Golden Circle – you won’t regret it!
The Golden Circle, Iceland
Where: The most popular route to drive is described here.
Cost: Budget around 50AED for parking for the day, and a tank of petrol. Take your own food, or be ready to fight for an overpriced sandwich with a gaggle of other tourists. Cars can be rented from 150AED upwards from Reykjavik Rent a Car.
Tips: Dress appropriately. I’ll write a separate post on this. Hold on to your door when you open it… Iceland is a windy place, and apparently the most common type of damage to rental cars is doors being bent back from the wind!