First-time visitors to Iceland keen to see some countryside could do far worse than join an organised Golden Circle tour.
Iceland is such a magical country, there must be very few people who visit it just the once. Save more adventurous itineraries and activities for your second trip. If you’re only staying for a long weekend, enjoy the essentials now like the Blue Lagoon (which I blogged about here) and the “Golden Circle” – three of Iceland’s poster-boy attractions situated close together and easily seen on a day-trip from Reykjavik.
You could hire a car and see the Golden Circle by yourself, but the snowy March weather meant driving lost its appeal to us. There are a variety of tour companies who offer day-trips with guided commentary – we paid 9,500 ISK each (£48/$70) with www.grayline.is, and set off on our coach trip with around 60 other explorers.
En-route to the big three (Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir hot springs and Þingvellir National Park), we made two stops – the first at Hellisheiði power station. There is a geothermal energy museum here, but as we were told our coach would be leaving in half an hour, we thought we’d barely have time to have a drink at the café and take pictures of the snowy landscape outside.
Unfortunately, our 30 minute tea-break turned into a 2-hour delay, as the coach got stuck in the car-park’s deep snow. Attempts to dig the tyres out bore no fruit, so a snow-friendly bus was summoned to tow us out of trouble. The driver asked for volunteers to climb aboard to give the snow-bus more weight and pulling power – this would never have passed the UK’s health and safety. I was one of the volunteers, and the bruise on my coccyx has only just died down after I was thrown in the air and my bum landed on the seat belt’s push-button. Ouch! But at least it worked and the show could go on.
Stop number two was for an even briefer 15 minutes to see a church in the village of Skálholt. We were told the village was one of Iceland’s most important religious centres, and were encouraged to witness the Mass taking place in its church. But judging by the groans as our coach pulled up, I wasn’t alone in wishing we could just get to the main course of the Golden Circle.
We soon approached Gullfoss – Iceland’s very own Niagara Falls. Our tour guide advised us to spend time in the gift-shop and café before seeing the waterfalls, but as we were scheduled to move on in 45 minutes, we headed straight downhill.
There are viewing platforms on two levels to gape at this impressive sight, but the lower platform was deep in snow and cordoned off when we visited. I’ve seen photos of Gullfoss in summer, with lush green surroundings and rainbows created in the spray – it’s almost like a different country in winter. The tiered waterfalls are created as the River Hvítá carries water from its source, Langjökull glacier in the highlands, and gushes towards the south coast. I would have liked to have stayed here all day to watch and listen (it’s loud) to this force of nature, but:
a) at -3°C and with a bitter wind blowing, it was the coldest I’d been for a long time; and
b) we had a coach to catch.
Back on board, we headed for stop two – Geysir and the hot springs. The coach pulled into the visitor centre car-park, and we had 20 minutes to wander around the eggy-smelling geyser fields. The hot spring called Geysir gave its name to all other geysers in the world. Geysir no longer erupts, but its little brother Strokkur does. Our guide told us it went off every 3-5 minutes, but it seemed to happen more often than this while we were there.
We gathered around Strokkur’s rope-fence in anticipation of a big eruption. I was surprised at how loud and how high the water spurts, and even though I knew it was coming I jumped out of my skin and nearly fell over when it finally happened as my video below shows:
Our final calling point was Þingvellir National Park – one I knew nothing about before the trip, but like Gullfoss I could quite happily have spent the day there hiking around its massive lake.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for three reasons:
1) It’s bloody gorgeous;
2) Iceland’s Viking settlers formed the world’s first democratic parliament there; and
3) It’s where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet – you can see the gap between the two.
We had just 45 minutes (you might be picking up a theme here) to walk promptly with our tour guide from one car-park to another between the tectonic plates. We passed the arena where outdoor debates once took place, and our eccentric guide demonstrated its excellent acoustics by singing a folk song to us all. It’s not hard to see why Game of Thrones location scouts chose this area to be “north of The Wall”.
On the coach back, we thought how lucky Icelanders are to have these places on their doorstep, and entry is free at all three. An organised coach trip is a good way to see them all in a day if you don’t fancy getting to them independently, although it was frustrating at having so little time to enjoy them once there. Everyone on our coach was of the same opinion – we should have skipped the power station and Skálholt, proceeded straight to the big three and had at least an hour to enjoy each.
The Golden Circle is an essential tour for any first-time visitor to Iceland. Now I’ve been on it, like many before me, I’ve been bitten by the Iceland bug and have got a taste for more of this beautiful country’s natural gems.