I lived in Alaska for almost 2 decades. Winters there are fierce, and I like to think I know all about winter driving, slipping, sliding and the dangers of black ice. But, as my auto body shop will confirm, things happen even to good drivers! So, for my Golden Circle adventure in Iceland’s wintery February, I decided to avoid the risk, stress and potential travel delays of an accident. On a modest stopover, why not sit back in a tour bus, watch the scenery and listen to a most excellent tour guide? Sorry, body shop!
Several companies offer tours and shuttle services, but Reykjavik Excursions is the Big Boy here. I used them for my airport transfers and several tours. But be aware: even in bleak February, things are hopping in Iceland! I found this out the hard way wanting to book the Blue Lagoon a few weeks in advance. That was way too late! All I could get was a 9pm Sunday slot the night before flying out… More on that in a next blog.
Reykjavik Excursions operates out of the big “BSI” Bus Terminal on the south edge of Reykjavik. They run a large fleet of vans throughout the town to pick you up for full-size motor coach tours starting at the Terminal. For some tours, they do pickups with the big bus at several locations in town, which saves time and hassle e.g. on the Airport transfers.
Golden Circles fill your eyes
If you only had one day in Iceland, tired or not, the Golden Circle is the must-do. Gorgeous sights will fill your eyes, if you don’t slumber, despite jetlag. I had 2 days and got lucky: ALL tours got canceled the day before, due to vicious winter weather! On my day, the weather was still challenging but manageable – at least, with a quality warm and rainproof winter jacket, hat and gloves. Dinnae bring that? Buy them here! See my upcoming Reykjavik town blog for some shopping advice. Rain pants? I’d say, nah, not necessary: legs dry fast.
The Golden Circle tour delivered a busload of spectacular sites and memorable moments. Stormy winds tried to knock us into geyser steam, a hot water creek and off a waterfall cliff path, but all passengers made it back… Our guide was educational and entertaining, and the lunch stop offered yummy food options!
Sure beats driving a rental car, with white-knuckle careening over ice- and snow-covered roads, rain and hail lashing the windscreen….
Here are my highlights of the three main stops.
Thingvellir: Iceland’s Original Parliament
The Althingi, Iceland’s first parliament, gathered at Thingvellir from 930AD until the 1200s. After the end of this Commonwealth phase, Thingvellir became a Court of Law. Christianity was officially adopted here as the State Religion in the year 1000, and the Court of Law phase lasted until 1798. Thingvellir remains a valued historic location though, as proven when in 1944, the modern Republic of Iceland was established on this spot. In 2004, Thingvellir was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But: where are we? America or Europe? How about right in between! Thingvellir is smack dab on the junction of the American and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. Here is the best and perhaps only place in the world to experience those plates bumping and grinding for dominance. The rift spot at Thingvellir was used in filming Game of Thrones.
The river here is the Axe River, named after an early settler who broke the river ice and lost his axe for his troubles.
Fun fact: restrooms! Yes they are available here, none on the bus, but: they require 200 krona ($2) to access! Either take change or, buy a lovely hot cocoa in the gift shop and get change that way!
Icelandic horses: gaitway to export success
What’s with all the – no! Don’t call them ponies! Icelanders are fiercely proud of their horses! They may be small and look like Shetland ponies to the layman’s eye, but they are horses for sure. Icelandic horses feature a unique 5-gaited way of moving that is apparently unknown in any other breed. Iceland has like 100,000 of them – and today, there are even more overseas, bred or exported, as far away as Hawai’i.
Spouting synonym: Geysir
Geysir is a geothermal area where boiling water and steam explode high into the skies, making for dramatic and somewhat dangerous displays. These days, Geysir itself ain’t spoutin’ no more. Apparently, water levels have dropped too low. Luckily, there’s a sibling going strong still right next to Geysir itself.
Just up the path, “Strokkur” spouts irregularly but on average about every 12 or so minutes. I walked up with my camera at the ready and managed to get one good spouting shot by accident right on my approach. That was it!
Fun fact: ever heard an on-demand water heater called a geyser? It’s common in Europe. I grew up calling it that. They were usually installed in the kitchen – where it was easy to switch them off when a sibling was in the shower. The suddenly cold water caused the most satisfying screams. Typical sibling rivalry stuff, despite Mum admonishing us to be nice to each other! What I did not know then is the origin of the word “geyser”: it was just what we called them, unaware of Iceland’s original “Geysir”, pronounced more like “gay-sihr” with a sharp S, not “guy-zer”.
The scenery surrounding Geysir is spectacular. Steam comes out of the ground, hot water flows through the creeks. Seriously hot! Check out the warning signs: this water is heated up to boiling, for the non-Celsius crowd!
There are snow-covered mountains, red rock, and, another welcome sight: Geysir Lodge, with restaurants and shops.
The Lodge was our lunch break (not included) and I picked “Supa”, as trooping through this weather calls for soup! Abba song in your head yet? I had a most excellent Malaysian spiced soup with a delicious slice of fresh-baked bread.
Fun fact: returning to your bus early and finding it locked with no driver or guide? I did, and figured I had to hang back in the rain and wind. Then, someone else arrived – and promptly opened the door! Guess what, there are tiny electric open and close buttons buried under the big black main handle! Who knew! Not me; I’m not normally a tour bus guy!
The final stop on the Golden Circle tour was at Gullfoss Waterfall. This was also where the weather decided to turn on us again. The bus was buffeted by heavy winds when pulling into the lot, and once on foot we were blown all over the place!
Railing against the wind
Fortunately, much of the path and all of the stairways had handrails. Hat and one glove on, leaving one hand in the pocket ready to take pictures, I did the old sailor’s bowlegged walk for safety and stability – I have been known to wander off a designated path – and was suitably impressed by the power and size of the Falls.
Sigridur should be Sainted!
If you do drive on own, perhaps in summer and have the time: walk the Sigridur Trail here. It is named in honor of Sigridur Tomasdottir, who fought industry barons and hydro-electric plans high and low to conserve this site for generations to come, like ours!
Sigridur managed to get full ownership, winning all battles and at the end of her life left Gullfoss to the State. Per 1979, the Gullfoss Waterfall and public access is permanently protected by Iceland’s Environment Agency. How awesome is that! No further comment…
A dottir by any other name…
Fun fact: what’s with those Icelandic names? I wrote on this in a previous blog but it’s long ago. In Iceland, there are no fixed generational surnames. They’re patronymic or occasionally matronymic. Example: Gunnar and Edda have a son Leif: he’s Leif Gunnarson. They have a daughter Freyja, she’s Freyja Gunnardottir. This is the patronymic (father-based) way but in some circumstances, they can go matronymic (mother-based): Leif would be Leif Eddason and Freyja would be Freyja Eddadottir. And before you get funky inventing your own LeBron-type first names: Iceland has a State Commission approving -or rejecting- new first names!
The circle is round again
The end of the Golden Circle tour is upon us and it’s getting dark. Short days in winter! We arrive back around 4:30pm, pretty much as scheduled. Let your driver know your lodgings or nearest bus stop on the return, as the bus will drop you near your lodgings or closest bus stop. By the way, practical note: tipping is not done on these tours or Iceland in general! And do avoid those slumbers on the return too: the weather cleared, allowing for pretty views.
Iceland nice land, a totally awesome day, a Golden experience indeed. Must circle back here one of these years, perhaps in summer! Although, I was stoked with this brief winter visit. I do miss adventurous Alaska – but not shoveling my driveway six months out of the year!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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