Iceland is a remote country.
With a population of 321,857 and a total area of 103,000 square kilometres, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe.
This is largely due to the fact that it is both volcanically and geologically active, and also because the interior of the country is characterised by lava fields, and glacier-covered mountains.
Subsequently, a huge percentage of Iceland is inhabitable, which also explains why two thirds of the country’s population live in its capital city, Reykjavik.
As a direct result of its isolated roads and inaccessible terrain, it’s difficult to explore the country without hiring a car or booking a tour. Due to the short amount of time we had available to us, we chose the latter option. The Golden Circle Tour seemed like a good way to see some of Iceland’s most spectacular (and therefore, most popular) sights, all fitted nicely into an easily manageable 8.5 hour day.
The Golden Circle Tour (which we’d booked for the last full day we had in the country) almost didn’t happen.
At least, not for us.
On the itinerary guidelines, we were instructed to be ready an hour before the tour was due to begin, as that’s when the company would begin picking up its customers from their respective hotels or hostels. So at 7:30am we were stood inside our hostel lobby. From 8am – when the reception opened – we took up residency on a couple of the comfy chairs by the window, and watched tour buses drive past, and a couple of them stop outside, and the drivers come in to pick up other guests from our hostel. At 8:10am I’d even telephoned the company we were booked with, just to double check that the bus was on its way and that the driver knew to pick us up from Reykjavik Hostel Village.
Yep, all ok there.
But at 8:40am, there was still no sign of our driver, and all the other guests had been collected for their respective tours. So I rang Reyjkjavik Excursions to enquire the whereabouts of our bus, only to be informed that the driver had apparently pulled up outside at 8:28am (yes, all very precise), but had promptly left again because no-one was there.
We’d missed our tour – through no fault of our own.
Firstly the driver (or at least Reykjavik Excursions) knew we were there because we’d telephoned less than 20 minutes beforehand to check that the bus was on its way, and that the driver was definitely picking us up from our hostel.
Secondly, we’d been sat by the window the whole time, and the only buses that had stopped, had been the ones belonging to the other tour companies, whose drivers had subsequently walked into the hostel reception to collect their guests.
Thirdly, the other drivers had actually entered the hostel reception to collect their guests; they had not expected said guests to stand outside in freezing temperatures (or more accurately, temperatures lower than zero celcius) for up to an hour.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, our driver had not wanted to pick us up, and had just driven straight on past when he saw no-one waiting outside.
To be fair to Reykjavik Excursions, the Icelandic lady was very apologetic when she realised that we did actually have a genuine complaint, and offered not only to refund the money we’d paid for the trip, but also to place us on a complimentary afternoon Golden Circle Tour. Yes, even accounting for the fact that the afternoon tour did not include lunch, it was still a little shorter than the full day, but it was immediately a better outcome than I’d hoped for when I initially realised that the bus wasn’t coming back for us. Furthermore, Viator had no qualms about processing the refund that Reykjavik Excursions had promised me.
That said, we did decide to wait outside our hostel from 12:30 (for our 1pm pick-up) – just in case.
The afternoon tour – despite feeling a little rushed – was packed full of historical, geographical, geological, cultural, political, and mythological facts and information, about a country that, until then, I knew very little about. Our guide clearly loved his job, was passionate about his country, and keen to impart his knowledge and enthusiasm to those who were interested to learn and discover. As were driven through landscapes covered in a blanket of thick white snow, interspersed with lava fields, smoking geysers, and the smell of sulphur wafting through the air, we learned about Vikings, the first settlers in Iceland, about the geography and geology that have both created and destroyed the country as it once existed, about genealogy, and language, about geothermal heat and glaciers, about political and cultural development of Icelandic society, and about trolls, and elves, and the beliefs that over 50% of Icelandic people hold about them.
The Golden Circle covers approximately 300km, looping from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back. We stopped at three major geological sights within this remote and alluring country:
Thingvellir National Park
This area is not only significant for being the place where Icelandic Parliament, Althingi, was founded in 930AD, but also for being the location where the slowly diverging tectonic plates of North America America and Eurasia meet.
A divergent boundary occurs when two tectonic plates move away from each other, and this is what has been happening in Iceland for millions of years. Along these boundaries, lava spews from long fissures and geysers spout water heated to incredibly high temperatures from beneath the ground.
Frequent earthquakes stirke along the ridge (Iceland suffers 200-300 tiny earthquakes per day) and molten rock rises from beneath the rift, oozing up into the gap and hardening to form new crusts on the torn edges of the plates.
Gullfoss, meaning “Golden Falls” is a waterfall located in the canyon of the river Hvita in south-west Iceland. By the time we’d arrived at our second port of call for the day, the clouds had dispersed to reveal an inviting blue sky, and the sun was shining brighter than ever. This was starting to look incredibly hopeful for our prospective Northern Lights sighting later that day.
Gullfoss is indeed a spectacular sight to behold. Water tumbles down 32 metres in two steps, into a deep, dramatic crevasse. Whilst it remains one of Iceland’s most popular attractions regardless of the time of year, I’m glad that I chose to visit in winter.
The contrast of the deep blue waters against the virgin white snow made for some spectacular photographs, and I loved noticing the detail of the way in which the layers of snow and ice formed on the rocks, and the patterns that created.
Located in the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, Strokkur is the most active geyser is Iceland. Several others bubble away, but Strokkur continues to erupt every 5-10 minutes, and can reach heights of 20-30 metres when it does.
The Icelandic people do not believe in charging tourists to view their natural wonders, so the majority of the country’s attractions do not carry an entry fee. However, Strokkur is an exception at the moment, due to a bunch of profiteering locals who own the land that provides access to the geyser. Our guide explained that the case is currently being investigated in the courts, however until such a time that a decision is passed and a law is put into place, if you want to get up close to Strokkur, you will need to hand over 600ISK.
I did – reluctantly. I don’t believe in the principal behind what these people are doing, which in my mind is essentially greed. Such greed often ruins the charm and authenticity of a place, and I’ve seen evidence of it on so many occasions. Greed for money often wins out over integrity and the observation of beliefs, and it’s a shame. However, on the other hand, I desperately wanted to get up close to Strokkur; I wanted the experience, the photographs, and the video footage.
On the route home we made a brief stop at Faxifoss (the English translation of which is “Horse’s Mane”), a smaller waterfall than Gulfoss, which, although it’s not far from the main road, is far enough away for it to be undiscoverable to passersby. It’s in a beautifully secluded little spot with few tourists, and I managed to capture it just as a tiny section of rainbow appeared on the surface of its deep blue waters.
We also drove past Hveragerdi, a charming (so I’ve heard, as we didn’t actually stop here to enable me to impart any first-hand knowledge) village that is famous for its geothermal park.
Our guide recounted how people began to settle in the village of Hveragerdi in the early 1900’s, as they started to learn that the natural hot water could be used for heating, laundry, and cooking. This lead to the development of a market garden in 1929, and shorty after the first greenhouse was built, marking the beginning of greenhouse horticulture in this region. Recognising the appeal for visiting locals, a souvenir shop and cafe were incorporated into this network of greenhouses, which was simply named “Eden.” It is believed that the inspiration for the Eden Project in St. Austell, Cornwall, stemmed from a visit here.
Unfortunately Eden burnt down in July 2011, but judging by the number of greenhouses that can still be seen spreading across the countryside as you drive past, I imagine that the area is still being utilised in much the same way.
So, honestly, was it worth it?
Absolutely, yes – as much for the fantastic guide and the interesting and invaluable information he gave us about his country, as for the unique and incredible sights. Obviously I do wish we’d have been able to experience the full day tour, as it would have given us more time to explore each individual attraction. However, we still got to see all the sights we’d planned to, and didn’t pay a penny for it, so I don’t really have a lot to grumble about 🙂
- We booked our tour through Viator (get £5 off your first booking here!), however the local tour operator they use is Iceland Excursions. The full day tour is 8:30-5pm with a break for lunch. Any dietary requirements can be catered for but you must specify when you book. Lunch is included in the 53.43GBP price. The afternoon tour runs from 1-7pm but with no break for lunch. Having read both itineraries, they appear to be identical, however we did not stop at the village of Hveragerdi to “see how geothermal energy has been harnessed for the unique greenhouse cultvation of all kinds of vegetables, exotic fruit and flowers”, as specified in the itinerary description on Viator’s website. I can only assume this was due to time constraints, but considering the tour already felt rushed, I’m not entirely sure how it would be possible to build a stop here into the schedule.
- Bearing in mind the trouble we had with the Iceland Excursuions driver, my advice would be to wait outside your hotel or hostel in order to guarantee that you’ll get on the trip you booked. There seem to be enormous inconsistencies regarding the collection of guests. Like I said earlier on, all other drivers actually stopped, came into reception and called out the names of the guests they’d been instructed to collect, and even the driver who collected us for the afternoon tour, did the same with the guests he picked up after us, but clearly they don’t all do this. I have made a suggestion through Viator’s website that it needs to be made clear to guests exactly where they are expected to wait.
- Make sure you wear some good walking shoes or boots, as the ground can be icy and uneven. Moreover, the weather can be so changeable, and even when the sun is out and there’s not a cloud in the sky, it can be cold, so take some warm clothes with you as well.
Is Iceland somewhere you’d like to go? Or have you been? Share your thoughts and experiences below, I’d love to hear them!