Whatever else you can say about Iceland, there is this: they are brilliant marketers.
Slogans such as “the land of fire and ice” and “Icelandic Lamb: Roaming Free Since 874” do a great job of stimulating demand. So it is with “The Golden Circle,” a tourist route that encompasses three major attractions north of Reykjavik. I drove it. Here’s my report… but first, a digression.
Because I was in Iceland for such a short time, I had to be very picky about what to do. There are zillions of guided tours to various attractions, but all of them have high latency: you have to wait, board a bus, wait some more, and generally spend a lot of time buffering instead of doing stuff. Even though I would have loved to see a glacier, or visit a lava cave, etc etc, I had to find something to do that I could shoehorn in between about 7am and 33opm or so– at that time, I’d need to be at KEF getting ready for my return flight. I also wanted to find something affordable. Some attractions, such as Inside the Volcano, can be $400 or more, and I didn’t want to pay that much if I could help it.
My original plan was to rent a small plane at the Reykjavik airport (which was right near my Airbnb), fly up to Akureyri, and see the sights up north. Unfortunately, this plan had two major problems. First was the weather. The bigger one was cost: the airplane was $275/hour, plus I’d need at least one hour with an instructor (another $75), so it would have been $350 or more just to get checked out– then another 4 hours or so of flight time to get to/from Akureyri. Hard pass on that one.
Plan B was to do a bus tour of some kind, but there were none that would fit into the time I had available. That’s when I decided (as mentioned in day 1’s writeup) to rent a car instead. I figured that would give me maximum flexibility and make it easy to ensure that I was at the airport on time. Saturday morning, I got up about 7am, took a quick shower, and finished the last little bit of packing– I had packed about 90% of my stuff Friday before leaving for the race. With the bags in my car, I stopped at the corner bakery and had what was labeled as a cheese pastry. Imagine a pastry filled with scrambled egg and bacon bits, with some cheese.. but served at room temperature. Didn’t expect that. It was still pretty decent.
So, back to the Golden Circle. The three attractions on the circle are Thingvelli( (site of the first-ever democratic parliament), Geysir (from which we get the English word “geyser”), and Gullfoss, a giant waterfall. (Check the links if you want to learn waaaaay more about any of them.) I didn’t want to take the time to tour Thingvellir and see all the historical stuff there, so I modified my route slightly. Here’s more or less what I ended up with. Because I had to go back to Keflavik, I decided to take the longer southern route, along the coast, instead of heading back to Reykjavik directly. This meant I didn’t have time to go to Hafnarfjörður, where I’d hoped to hike Helgafell, but I decided the tradeoff was worth it.
North from Reykjavik
After breakfast, I cracked open my diet Coke, put the new 311 album on repeat, and set out on the route using the free Maps.me app. It is a battery hog, and it has an annoying bug where it permanently lowers your audio volume when it gives directions, but it allows you to download maps and keep them locally cached so you get navigation even when there’s no cell service. Heading north, the first thing I noticed is the mountains to the west. The second thing I noticed was that the road is a very narrow ribbon of asphalt, with no shoulders or guardrails and a fairly steady flow of traffic. Every so often, there would be a spot to pull over for photos, which is fortunate, because you absolutely can’t pull over to the side of the road.
The route is surprisingly green, green enough to support grazing animals. Along the route, the horses I saw were all fenced in– horse farms in Iceland look quite a bit different from their Kentucky counterparts though.
Sheep are essentially free-range animals here, and they will get quite close to the road in some cases. Interestingly, many sheep have a brand spray-painted on their wool in fluorescent paint! I imagine there must be some way for Snorri to tell Bjorn that some of his sheep have wandered next door.
There’s an amazing variety of landscape to see along this part of the route; the road gradually climbs as you head north, then once you’re south of Thingvellir it descends.
Not shown are all the other vehicles on road– everything from small cars (probably rented, as mine was) to 4x4s to large passenger vans to tour buses. I would imagine that almost all of the traffic was composed of tourists. There wasn’t a lot of traffic by US standards, but there was a fairly steady volume.
When I arrived at Geysir, the only way I knew I was there was because there’s a gift shop/gas station complex on the right-hand side of the road. There’s not a lot of signage to indicate that you’re there. Oh, the cluster of tour buses was a good hint as well. The site at Geysir actually contains two geysers: Strokkur (live webcam here) and Geysir itself. They are a few hundred yards apart, and there’s a gravel path you take to walk from one to the other. Strokkur erupts pretty regularly; I saw it twice while I was there. Geysir, alas, does not. It used to, but apparently some bright stars decided they could make it more regular and, in the process, basically broke it. Because I was pressed for time, I didn’t stick around. However, I did rep the Cycle Club colors:
This picture doesn’t capture the strong wind, nor the unique smell– just a bit of sulfur, plus some heat. You can see steam coming off the pool behind me, as it was from other places on the ground. The eruptions themselves were interesting but not as dramatic as I’d expected. Overall this was an interesting stop but I’m not sure I’d go again. (I did buy a diet coke at the gas station there, so there’s that.)
Gullfoss is billed as one of the world’s wildest waterfalls, and it lives up to that billing. It’s not a long drive from Geysir; there’s good signage and a cluster of buildings (including a small hotel and a restaurant/gift shop) to show that you’re in the right spot. In case you’re in doubt, as soon as you dismount your vehicle you’ll hear the falls rumbling. I needed to offload some diet Coke, so I made a beeline for the “bathroom” sign only to be confronted with this:
I’m not sure which amused me more: having to pay ISK 200 to use the bathroom or having the credit card machines (which worked with Apple Pay) there. Iceland really is a nearly cashless society. Anyway,with that stop made, I walked around the back of the compound towards the falls. There’s a nice-sized observation terrace with a path leading towards five or six flights of steps that descend towards the middle of the falls. At that level, you’re more or less level with the midpoint of the falls, and this is what you’ll see:
You can’t see it from this picture, but behind me is a rocky trail that leads up to a plateau that’s roughly level with the big part of the falls.
The falls themselves are wild and noisy. There’s a large spray curtain whipped off the edge of the falls, so between the noise, the wind, and the spray, you get the full Gullfoss experience. I loved it; it reminded me of visiting Snoqualmie Falls with Julie and Tim on a windy day a few years ago.
I lingered for half an hour or so, just walking around and enjoying the view. However, it was windy and cold, so pretty soon I decided that some shelter might be in order. I decided to wander through the gift shop and see if there was anything interesting (there was, but everything I liked was so expensive that I couldn’t make myself buy anything). The restaurant looked interesting– the only thing on their menu was “meat soup” for (I think) 1500 ISK. For that price, you get unlimited bread and soup. Important tip: Icelanders refer to “meat soup” when we would say “lamb soup.” That’s because they don’t really have any other kinds of meat easily available. Here’s what my 1500 ISK bought:
Now. Let me say without reservation that this was the best soup I ever tasted. Flavorful and rich, with plenty of vegetables; hot but not enough to burn, and very filling. I ate two bowls and several rolls and then made myself push away from the table… that’s how good it was. Best meal I had in Iceland.
Suitably refueled, I headed back towards the parking lot. On my way I discovered that there are free bathrooms inside the restaurant. Well played, gift shop folks; you got my ISK 200.
The drive south
The first part of the route I had chosen took me back past Geysir and then south through very similar terrain– hills, some grassy areas, and a few horse farms. As I got further south, though, there were more (and bigger) rocks and the familiar black lava landscape started to draw closer. By this point the weather had improved quite a bit; it was about 55° and mostly sunny, with a stiff breeze from the south. I drove with the windows rolled down, blasting 311 out over the countryside. As I headed further south, I started to get glimpses of ocean, then the full view as I turned west to the coastal ring road. I had a hard time splitting my attention between the views of the water and the views of the inland landscape. Here’s just one example:
This was taken near Sveitarfélagið Ölfus, along highway 427. The road parallels the coast, and it descends a fair bit as you get closer to Grindavík. A few more examples of the landscape:
Oh, why not. One more.
When I passed through Grindavík, and made the turn towards Keflavík, I could see more and more signs of civilization. One such sign: a nicely paved bike path running alongside the highway for several miles, with a fair number of cyclists on it. I was surprised by how many cycle campers I saw– people with large panniers slung fore and aft on their bikes, fighting the wind and staying vigilant for traffic. It’s not really a bike-friendly environment. Props to them.
Just short of Keflavík, I stopped to gas up the car. Most Icelandic gas stations are completely automated, so you can still buy gas when they’re closed. That means you need a credit card that can use chip + PIN. Some US cards can, and some can’t. Because I was close to the airport, I decided to forego a snack stop; I headed straight to the rental car place and caught the shuttle back to the airport, with more than a little reluctance.
The trip home
Checkin and security at KEF were quick and efficient. I made a huge run through the duty-free to buy souvenirs, grabbed a hot dog from the restaurant, and headed to my gate, where I found that literally the entire flight was in line to board– I think I was the 4th or 5th to last person to board. Icelandair doesn’t do zones or any of that stuff. They announce boarding, everyone gets in line, and off you go. I settled in to my window seat and looked out the window as much as possible during our taxi and takeoff.
The flight was completely uneventful, except for when we flew across the southern end of Greenland. I’d never had a daytime window seat for that before, so I might have left a few nose prints against the window as I surveyed the beautiful landscape below. This is one of my favorite pictures; you have to see it full size to appreciate the range of colors and textures of the land.
We arrived in Boston on time, where (thanks to Global Entry) I quickly cleared customs. The only snag in my travel was that my flight back to Atlanta wasn’t until the next morning! JetBlue and Icelandair have a code-sharing relationship but that doesn’t extend to coordinating their flight times, so there was no flight back to Atlanta that night. I knew that ahead of time, so I’d packed my overnight needs into my laptop bag and reserved a room at a hotel near the airport. I went straight there, had a quesadilla and some clam chowder for dinner, and was asleep within 90 minutes. The next morning, I came home.
It was a marvelous trip. I wouldn’t change anything about it, given how little time I had on the ground. For the next trip, a few things I will be keeping in mind:
- Bring better clothing. A hat and gloves would have been nice. Layering is a must.
- Plan ahead to see more remote areas, including at least one glacier
- Save enough money to be able to rent that airplane and fly to Akureyri
- Eat at the waffle wagon as often as possible
- Try a little harder to pronounce things properly. Icelandic students study English from 2nd grade onwards, so I never had any trouble talking to people, but it was comical to see their facial expressions when I tried to say place names and so on.
I can’t wait to go back!