Iceland has gained a lot in popularity as a holiday destination over the last years. The recent volcanic activity, of course, has had a big influence on this, but also the crisis in the bank world has hit Iceland significantly which for us visitors means that prices over there are now in the “doable” category.
From Europe, a trip to Iceland is also feasible as a short holiday. Especially outside the summer season very attractive four- or five-day packages are offered to help boost tourism. The Golden Circle is a “must do” on such short trips as in a day or little more you can witness quite a lot of Icelandic nature, history, and geology – and take some great photos.
Our trip last summer was almost three weeks but obviously, we could not miss this part. Rather than staying in Reykjavik, the capital, from where many of the Golden Triangle excursions are organized, we decided to travel South-East from Keflavik airport, hereby already commencing our journey around Iceland’s 1300 km ring road.
Our hotel was in a place called Hveragerði, in the middle of an area with many hot sources. Steam was coming out of the ground all around the place.
The hotel was using the hot water for the pool and the sauna. In the morning, you could walk outside with an egg in a little net on a piece of rope and put it in the hotel’s own hot source to boil. Quite amazing if you’re not used to it.
In the village, there is tourist information center that, when being built, was hit by an earthquake (the epicenter was right under the construction). The architect decided not to change the design even if there was a big crack in the ground but just covered it with glass, which gives a bit of a funny feeling when walking over it.
This would be our base for our visit to The Golden Circle. Our first destination was þingvellir (pronounced “thingvellir”), a site with a lot of history as well geological features.
Þingvellir was the place where yearly the laws where declared until around 1118 from the Lögberg (the rock of laws). This is to be taken quite literally, as there were no written laws so the law speaker had to know them by heart and recite them. The Alþing, an assembly forming an early version of the Icelandic parliament, gathered here already in the year 930.
Þingvellir shows quite clearly the Mid-Atlantic divide: it is the geological border between the North American and European continent. Still, every year, both continents “float apart” another 1 or 2 centimeters more.
There is a lot to see in Þingvellir and the whole area has been a National Park since 1930. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site and has evolved to being kind of a National Symbol for the Icelanders.
Here they still celebrate historical events or even organize them, such as in 1944 when for the second time the Republic of Iceland was declared. It would lead too far here to go into the details of all things to know about Þingvellir but it is an excellent introduction to both history and geology of the country and a worthy part of the Golden Triangle!
From Þingvellir we drove to Gullfoss, a 32m high waterfall that plunges down in 2 stages. There is a story that a company wanted to use the waterfall for a hydroelectric power station. A local woman, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, daughter of one of the investors, threatened to throw herself in the waterfall if this would happen. It did not happen and eventually, Gullfoss was sold to the State of Iceland and was declared a protected area.
In reality, there weren’t enough funds for the power station but the romantic version of the story is so much more attractive. Another one tells about a big chest of gold being hidden in Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”).
Unfortunately, when we were at Gullfoss there was no sun and the so much hoped for rainbow created by the sunlight in the spray of the Falls did not materialize. Still, the size, power, and beauty of Gullfoss left us very impressed.
The last part of the Golden Circle brought us to Geysir. We had passed the place already on the road to Gulfoss but had prioritized the waterfall.
Geysir is famous obviously because it gave its name to all other geysers in the world. Geysir has been inactive for quite a while but after some recent earthquakes have started to erupt again once or twice per day.
More popular nowadays is Strokkur, another geyser only 30 meters away from Geysir. It does not go as high as the “original” but is still quite impressive and more importantly quite consistent with its eruptions, which happen every 4 to 8 minutes.
You can spend a really well filled day in The Golden Circle. In fact, more than a day as Þingvellir by itself deserves ample time and there are more things to see if you have the time, such as the Brùarfoss waterfall or Iceland’s biggest lake, Þingvallavatn. As an “introduction” to the country, it can certainly count!
Other places to visit in Iceland
There were many more things I wanted to see and do in Iceland, and many landscapes that were “competing” for the top of my list. One never left the top 5: the glacier lake Jökulsárlón. Practically speaking it is very near to the 1300+ km ring road and therefore not difficult at all to get to.
This lake is situated in the south of Iceland, very near to Vatnajökull glacier and National Park. This glacier, covering more than 8% of Iceland, and the National Park with its many volcanoes including the recently erupted Bardarbunga, is also a fascinating place to visit!
When researching the trip and more in particular Jökulsárlón, I found it strange how some of the information was different from one source to another. When talking to a guide locally during our little boat trip on the lake we understood why: also here, because of global warming, things are changing constantly. The surface of the lake, for instance, has increased in about 10 years from about 19 square km’s to over 25 square km’s due to further melting of the Breidamerkurjökull glacier.
Worrying, but still, it does not take away the magic when you first get to see this magnificent environment.
When we first arrived it was very grey and soon started to rain, but even then we were amazed by the collection of icebergs of all sizes floating towards the sea. Sometimes these get blocked as 90% of their mass is located underwater and may touch the bottom of the lake. At times, this causes an iceberg to tilt. It’s risky business for boats on the lake so a good reason to keep a safe distance.
With the lake being over 200 meters deep in some places one can start to imagine the size of some of the icebergs. As they get stuck, pieces break off until the iceberg is “small” enough to be carried by the current or the wind through the 1500 meter long Jökulsa à Breidamerkursandi river to the sea. Some of the large ones may take up to eight years to complete the trip.
Luckily I had decided to stick around for a few days so we were determined to return under better weather circumstances. The next day there was a lot of rain again. The 3rd day while underway and hiking to another glacier the sky cleared and we decide to head again to the glacier lake.
Before arriving at Jökulsárlón we made a quick but interesting stop at another, smaller, but also very beautiful glacier lake: Fjallsárlón. Much smaller in size but still very beautiful and offering a good overall view of the lake as well as the glacier “feeding” it with its ice. Soon we moved on to Jökulsárlón for the 2nd time.
This is such an amazing place that we spent the rest of the day on and around the lake. Very understandable that film directors have been inspired by the location and situated some spectacular scenes on and around the lake. James Bond even visited the location twice (“A View to a Kill”, 1985, with Roger Moore, and “Die Another Day”, 2002, with Pierce Brosnan).
Once we were done exploring and photographing the lake from all possible angles including an amphibian tour on the lake, we strolled along the jökulsá, with its 1500 meters one of the shortest rivers in the world, to look at the icebergs that were thrown back on the beach by the tide.
Once again the wow-feeling came up: what a contrast between the black lava beach and the white till blue icebergs of all sizes where the sea was carving out the strangest of shapes. We found some real “diamonds” along the shore.
Despite the grey weather, we had a gorgeous day and if you ever go to Iceland, don’t miss out on this one! You might even see some seals along the shoreline!
Hotels we stayed at while we were in Iceland
What to pack for a trip to Iceland in summer
- Hiking boots that are comfortable on any kind of terrain.
- Icebreaker hiking socks to keep your feet dry when you’re sweating and warm when you’re cold.
- A beanie, because summer’s in Iceland are still chilly.
- A bathing suit to enjoy the many hot springs and spas.
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