Iceland Day 2: The Golden Circle
While planning for our Iceland trip, one of the most important things to decide for us was if we wanted to rent a car and drive around ourselves or take a couple of tours instead. There are pros and cons to both, and it really depends on how long your trip is, how extensively you want to explore, and what you value more - flexibility and cost effectiveness or convenience and efficiency.
Considering we were going to be in Iceland for four days only we chose the latter and decided against renting a car. We had a fantastic experience with a small group tour company in Ireland and were hoping to find something similar in Iceland.
Group tours can be a real miss if you end up with a very commercial company that is all about volume, filling up big buses and increasing profit margins. We were able to find a tour company called GeoIceland that specializes in small group tours, with extremely knowledgeable drivers/guides and plenty of customers who vouch for them like we do now. They will not be the cheapest tour company you will find for Icelandic tours, but that's because they provide a wonderful service, and they know what they are doing. We found their tours to be well-planned, semi-flexible & semi-private (groups of upto 12 or 16 max), on time, friendly, and very thorough.
We had an early start to day two after breakfast at the apartment as our pick-up time was between 8:30 am and 9:00 am for the tour. The nice thing about these tours is that they pick you up right outside your accommodation, which is super convenient. It was a crisp morning and we were well prepared and all bundled up. Soon we were on our way to tour the Golden Circle, which is basically a 300 km loop route from Reykjavik to central Iceland and back with plenty to see in between. No trip to Iceland is complete really without visiting the three natural phenomena of the Golden Circle.
One of the first things you'll notice soon after leaving the city are the expansive moss covered lava fields (Spring & Summer only of course. All you will see in the Fall & Winter is snow most likely) It is amazing how lush the moss is and looks almost like a piece of art. It is nature at work and you get to see it in its raw and untouched form.
The Icelanders would like to keep this art like landscape so please do not try to touch or feel the moss even though you might be tempted to do so. It takes years and years to grow back. I am sure someday when the Icelanders get up to speed with their tourism industry's demands you will see signs that say so everywhere, but for now they are relying on people to not be idiots. :)
Our first stop came rather quickly at a town called Hveragardi. Maybe our driver figured everyone needed some caffeine to wake up. :P On a serious note, it was an interesting stop because the town has a small exhibition on the famous 2008 earthquake in Iceland that measured approx. 6 on the Richter scale. You can see videos from when the earthquake happened, and there is also a cool little simulator where you can experience what a magnitude 6 earthquake actually feels like. Scary, but pretty cool.
We then continued our journey along glacial rivers and gorgeous landscapes to our next stop, the Faxi (or Vatnsleysufoss, yeah try saying that :P) waterfall. This was the first and the smallest of many beautiful waterfalls we got to see in Iceland. No wonder it is one of the first ones they stop at, as you later realize this is their way of warming you up for what's to come. The nice thing about it being small is you can actually hike down all the way very close to it.
Our next stop and last one before lunch was in the Haukadalur valley, and one that I was personally super excited to see. Who does not know The Great Geysir?! The actual hot spring that gave the name to this amazing natural phenomenon as we know it today. Geysir can spout boiling water up to a height of 70 meters, but it does so once every 10 or 15 days and in the past has been known to be inactive for years at a time.
There is really no point of wasting time hoping that magical moment is going to happen right when you are visiting because the odds are seriously against you. However, thankfully there is another spring called Strokkur a few steps away, which is way more visitor friendly and puts up a show every 5 to 8 minutes by gushing boiling water up to approx. 30 meters high in the air, much to everybody's amazement. It's a really fascinating display of nature and the kids enjoyed it so much that we hung around to see it erupt three times :)
We had a reasonable lunch (Fish n chips, soups etc.) at a slightly unreasonable price at the cafe here. It was lunch time so it makes sense for them to make this a food stop. Also, central Iceland (like most of Iceland) is still pretty much untapped and undeveloped so you do not have much to choose from. It is a small price to pay for being this close to nature in my opinion.
Considering the boom in Iceland's tourism industry I expect them to cope with growing infrastructural demands really soon. It will be more convenient for people visiting Iceland in the future, but I am not sure if Iceland will be the same once they do. Like at almost all of the stops it was nice to be one of the first ones to get in and out of here before several 50-60 person buses started to pour in.
After lunch was the highlight of the tour, the Gullfoss or the Golden Waterfall (hence, the Golden Circle tour, I believe.) This is where the Hvita River falls into the canyon after flowing on a three step staircase. It is not the tallest or the largest waterfall in Iceland, but it is certainly one of the most impressive ones.
When we first walked up to it almost felt like the river was disappearing into the earth. It is only after we hiked down several steps to the edge of the canyon and then up to the point where it falls into it that we really got to see the depth and beauty of it. If you are lucky and it is sunny be sure to spot a rainbow or two as well, and based on the wind direction make sure you have waterproof jackets and protect your cameras because I bet you will be taking lots of pictures. :)
We rounded up the tour with a final stop at Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park. Þingvellir has immense historical and geological importance. It is the sight of Iceland's first parliament and more famously marks the crest of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is the only place where the North American and Euro-Asian tectonic plates appear above land before disappearing under the sea again.
It's not always that one gets to stand on the ocean floor and not be wet and then be literally between two continents, right? So cool! If you are brave enough you can actually swim between the plates in the Silfra fissure of the Thingvellir Lake in sub-zero waters. It is a top diving and snorkeling site because the amazing clarity of lava filtered water. Avoid if you have kids or a husband who cannot swim :P
We arrived back in Reykjavik around 5 pm and were dropped right in front of our apartment after a day full of unreal beauty and experiences. After a couple of hours of rest we went out and had a wonderful meal and evening at my favorite place in Reykjavik. Islenski Barinn (literally, Icelandic Bar) is a great introduction to local flavor with an amazing atmosphere. Make a reservation if you can or be prepared to wait like we did.
We loved the menu choices and totally recommend the Kjúklingur salad, Fiskur og franskar (deep fried cod & chips), and lots of fresh cold Icelandic water ( and/or cold Icelandic beer :P) We had an amazing conversation with two solo travelers at dinner, shared lots of travel stories, our Instagram accounts, and became friends, so a shout out to them :) A memorable evening to end a fabulous day!