Published April 19, 2011
With a couple friends coming for a very short visit to Iceland, I was faced with that classic travel dilemma: how to get the most out of a trip with limited time and limited money. There was one obvious choice. We rented a car and hit up the sights on the Golden Circle. With just one day, it was always clear that we weren’t going to get the full experience, but just hit up the touristy sights. But there’s a reason why Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gulfoss are so popular. They’re amazing. No matter how much time you get to spend in the Golden Circle, you can’t be disappointed.
The Golden Circle is conveniently located only a quick car ride from Reykjavík, so getting there was a snap. All we really needed were the clothes on our backs and a well-charged camera. This was a day for photos.
THE ÞINGVELLIR EXPRESS
In less than an hour, we were driving through Þingvellir, awe-struck by the beauty. Call me cliché, but it really was like driving through a painting. We found an information centre, grabbed a map, and went to the site of the first Alþingi. Everywhere I looked was something else I wanted to photograph. There were high cliffs, open plains divided by streams, rushing waterfalls. Had I made a wrong turn and driven to Middle Earth?
After we pulled ourselves away from the beauty of the old Alþingi, we continued to drive around the majestic lake Þingvallavatn. I couldn’t help but turn at every detour and stop at every turn-off point to take more photos. We saw a few other tourists here and there, but for the most part it was just us and the landscape.
After four hours of taking in the sheer splendour of Þingvellir, we headed to Geysir. We passed a few petrol stations along the way in search of some cheap food. After finding only some sketchy-looking sandwiches kept on a semi-chilled shelf, we came upon a small diner called Bláskógar, where we got some reasonably priced burgers and a mountain of fries that we all shared.
THE CAULDRON OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The drive from Þingvellir to Geysir took an hour, and we could smell the sulphur as we got close. It was delightfully odd going from the stoic slumber of a frozen Þingvellir to the churning, bubbling, warm life of Geysir. We walked along the clearly marked trails past pools of boiling water and random plumes of steam venting straight out of the ground. We came to Strokkur, which at first glance was simply a slightly churning pool. Within a few minutes and without any warning, a surge of water and steam burst straight up about 30 metres. I was too surprised to even think about taking a photo. Not to worry though. Strokkur erupts every five minutes or so, so we just waited for the next one. And sure enough, like clockwork, it shot up right on time and we all snapped some great shots.
We stood and watched Geysir, the largest geyser, for any signs of life. But unlike its hyperactive neighbour Strokkur, Geysir is unpredictable and has even stopped for years at a time. With the instant satisfaction we got from Strokkur, we decided to let the sleeping giant lie, and headed out. If you’ve seen one geyser, you’ve seen them all.
Our next stop was the main event: the crown jewel of the Golden Circle, the subject of countless postcards, one of the most incredible waterfalls in the world, Gullfoss. Oh, how the anticipation built as we passed signs and drew nearer. How could it ever live up to the hype? Well… it did. I can probably count on one hand the number of times in my life that my jaw dropped involuntarily, and this was one of them. We walked down a short trail from the parking lot and then suddenly came to a cliff, where we all stood starry-eyed looking out on the magnificent Gullfoss. Strangely, I found myself only taking a few photos. It was like I had to take a few obligatory shots, but I knew that the photos wouldn’t really do it justice.
On the way back, I spotted a sign for Kerið. It was something I had only read a small blurb about in my guidebook, and had never seen a picture, but it was supposedly a pretty cool volcanic crater, so we stopped and checked it out. I was surprised that it wasn’t more hyped when I saw it. I was amazed at the crater’s symmetry, and the frozen blue pool at the heart of the pit was so charming. As far as giant holes in the ground go, this one is worth a shout-out.
So in eight hours, I managed to wring every bit of water out of what seemed to be a pretty dry towel. We had so little time, and yet managed to have a memorable and satisfying trip. Of course one day isn’t ideal, but if that’s all you got, take it and make it your own. The Golden Circle has so much to offer, even the tip of the iceberg is enough.
Car provided by Hertz car rental. Book special offer at www.hertz.is or 552 44 00.
Discount code: GRAPEV