Arriving in Iceland we decided to start with the country’s most iconic trip – the Golden Circle.
This can be done by public bus, coach tour or in a rental car. We opted for the latter so we could set off early and beat the crowds. The bus is cheapest, but as long as there’s 2 or more of you in the hire car it’s cheaper than some of the coach tours.
Hiring a car in Reykjavik
There are many hire car companies in Reykjavik, but the two closest to the Icelandair Natura Hotel were SAD and Hertz. Given the number of tourists there are a surprising lack of places offering automatic transmission cars, so we went with Hertz who had the best selection.
Generally cars in Iceland can be divided into two categories. 2WD compact cars and 4-wheel-drive off-road cars. We didn’t see many 2WD, full size cars. The roads are labelled so that some of the more remote roads are only allowed to be used by the 4WD, and anyone in a 2WD can be fined, especially if they get stuck.
The tourist area around the Golden Circle is entirely on paved roads, so we only needed a compact 2WD car.
Picking up our rental car was a smooth experience, especially as they’d run out of the smallest automatics so we got a free upgrade to the next class.
Thingvellir National Park rift valley
On the way to Thingvellir we stopped at a view point over the Thingvallavatn lake, at which there were piles and piles of stacked stones. The stones are just stacked for fun it seems.
The next stop was the Thingvellir information centre with a viewpoint over the historic parliament buildings. Thingvellir means Assembly Fields – it was here that the Icelandic General Assembly met around a symbolic rock to create laws between 930 and 1798. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a National Park.
The new visitor centre sits atop a large rift valley, which visitors can walk down between the tectonic plates to reach the lower area with the lakes.
Tip: the toilets at the new visitor centre are 2 euros, which is a bit much! There’s a second information centre next to the campsite on the lower plain, with free toilets and outside seating.
Official site: http://www.thingvellir.is/english.aspx
Game of Thrones
Give the barren nature of the landscape it lends itself well as a backdrop for fanstasy and historical movies. This area was used a couple of times in Game of Thrones:
The next stop on the Golden Circle route is Geysir, home to a collection of hot pools and erupting geysers.
As the first recorded geyser in Europe, the word geyser derives from the name of this area, Geysir, which in turn is derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, “to gush”.
The most powerful geyser, known as the Great Geysir, has been muted somewhat by earthquakes. It has been there for 10,000 years but reached its peak in 1845 when the water spout is said to have reached 170m. Now it only erupts about 3 times a day, so most people look at the more predictable second largest geyser known as Strokkur.
Strokkur erupts every 4-8 minutes, sending water anywhere from 15-40m into the air.
Tip: After watching Strokkur for a few eruptions it got easier to predict for a photograph. When the pool of water recedes into the earth get ready. A blue dome will rapidly form and grow for a few seconds, then the eruption occurs.
A sudden downpour sent everyone scurrying into the gift shop. It has one of the widest selections of gifts outside Reykjavik so if you’re on a short trip it’s a good place to do your shopping. It also has two restaurants – we chose the canteen style one as it had more hot food, all of which was unfortunately pretty dull, but welcome on a cold day.
The final stop on most coach tours of the Golden Circle is Gullfoss (or Golden Falls). Last time I was here (10 years ago) it was winter and the falls were disappointingly small. In the middle of summer they were far more impressive.
The water falls down three steps in rapid succession, 11m, 21m then 32m into a long, narrow crevice.
The benefit of having a hire car was the ability to add more stops along the route. One of these was Kerid, a volcanic crater lake made up of attractive red rock. It’s about 55m deep and has three steep sides and one shallower one.
I’m told it’s occasionally used for outdoor concerts which must be great. The crowd sitg on the shallow slope and the performers are on a pontoon in the shallow water.
We didn’t rush, but there was enough time at the end of the day to drive out to the other Icelandic classic tour, the Blue Lagoon, especially at the sun doesn’t set in summer until past midnight.