Iceland’s famous “Golden Circle” features three of the countries most famous natural wonders – Gollfoss, Geysir and Pingvellir. You can easily rent a car armed with a handy tourist map as the roads are simple rural highways. Or if you are more keen on sitting back and enjoying the view (like I was) you can hop on a bus with Iceland Excursions.
Sarah and I woke up early in the morning and had a shuttle pick us up to drop us off at the Iceland Excursions office located right at Reykjavik city square. We quickly grabbed a cup of coffee and croissant and soon found ourselves zooming outside of the city. Urban quickly meets rural when you leave the capital. We spent the majority of our nine hour day tour zipping around on simple one lane highways. The views were stunning, filled with quaint farms, rivers, waterfalls and jagged mountain peaks.
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park, where the Vikings established the worlds first democratic parliament, the Alþing, in AD 930. While being Iceland’s most important historical site it also has a superb natural setting, on the edge of an immense rift caused by the separating North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We started with a visit to the Visitors Centre which has a stunning view of the National Park below (as it is up on a cliff). We then drove down and had an opportunity to spend an hour visiting the early settlement which included a quaint church and cemetery. There is a an excellent hiking path which leads to stunning cliff formations and raging waterfalls. Most interesting was a little pond called Drekkingarhylur, where adulterous women were drowned (all I want to know is where they drowned the men, those scoundrels!)
Our next stop was at the beautiful waterfall Gullfoss (Golden Falls), a spectacular rainbow-tinged double cascade, falling 32m before thundering down a narrow ravine. After taking a few snap shots we walked back up to the Gullfoss Cafe for lunch where we enjoyed smoked salmon bagel, roast beef sandwich with fried onions, salad and slice of berry and chocolate cream cake.
All spouting hot springs are named after Geysir, 10 km away from the mighty Gullfoss. Tourists clogged the Great Geysir in the 1950’s with rocks and rubbish, thrown in an attempt to set it off. Since earthquakes in 2000, it has begun erupting again a few times daily. Nearby (and where we visited), the worlds most reliable geysir, Strokkur, spouts about every six minutes into an impressive 15m to 30m plume. When we first arrived Sarah and I walked around the parks loop and gazed at indigo blue steaming vats of boiling thermal water. The air smelled like spoiled eggs from the sulfur which formed clouds after escaping from the earths core. Tourists stood around Strokkur with fingers trigger happy on their cameras in hopes of getting the perfect shot of thermal plume. I fortunately got a decent video of a plume but waited long and hard in the cold and wet without much photo love to show for it. You can see in the image gallery below that the best I could do was capture a wee fountain burp.
There is an excellent gift shop (the best we saw on our Iceland trip in fact) right outside the park. At the entrance it has a wee cafe and shop which features giant stuffed animals along with the other tourist brick and brack. The back of the shop features a sizable Geysir boutique (yes their is an Icelandic fashion house named Geysir located at a geysir). The shop had a powerful Icelandic vibe with taxidermied animals (polar bear, goat, crows) fur garments, boots, cashmere, jackets and scarves. The price tags were steep (I remember one plaid dress shirt was over 300 USD) but a boy can dream can’t he?
Our final stop was to Skalholt church, the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops. From 1056 to 1785, it was one of Iceland’s two episcopal sees, along with Holar, making it a cultural and political center. The current cathedral at Skálholt is relatively large in comparison to most Icelandic churches; its span from door to apse is approximately 30 meters. The interior of the cathedral is relatively simple with colourful stained glass to the left and right while a grandiose image of Christ takes centre stage.
I highly suggest The Golden Circle tour for anyone who only has a few days in Iceland with a home base in Reykjavik. It offers stunning views and allows you to visit some of Iceland’s most memorable natural wonders. A great way to get outside of the city and see a different side of Europe’s little island in the Arctic.