For most people, the window to Iceland opens when you land at Keflavik International Airport. In the southwestern part of the island, Keflavik is about 50km outside of Reykjavik and closest to one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions–the Blue Lagoon.
To go or not to go? That was our question. Not a big fan of tourist-laden attractions, Jeff and I had decided not to go but our friend and travel companion, Nathan, convinced us otherwise. I think the 3 of us came away with the same conclusion.
The Blue Lagoon is absolutely unique and beautiful – an opaque aquamarine lagoon full of geothermal seawater containing rejuvenating silica, algae, and minerals. The water itself is milky white; the blue is the sky’s reflection.
Sound decadent? It is. Aside from the hot pools, it houses a spa and health clinic and sells its own wellness products, etc. So you know what that means.
$ $ $.
For a mere 40 euro per person, we were welcomed in the door. And for a myriad of extra euro, we could purchase a bath towel, robe, drink, etc. For this reason, there are few Icelanders there, only tourists. Meh.
While I wasn’t impressed with the tourist-shticky commercial nature of it all, I’ll admit that the Blue Lagoon was a wonderful way to soothe tight muscles after an overnight flight. I give it props for that.
I also give props to the resourceful lads who built the place–for the Blue Lagoon was an accidental byproduct of the nearby geothermal power plant. Resourcefulness and tourism thrive here. It was the most touristy place we saw during our whole trip.
Maybe that’s why it left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a shame that the Blue Lagoon is the first impression many people get of Iceland. For most of the rest of the stunning natural beauty of Iceland was free to behold.
So, you decide. If you like spas, money, and people, definitely go there. It’s gorgeous. If you prefer to spend less money, see fewer people, and experience similar soothing blue hot pools, visit the Mývatn Nature Baths up north. Or one of the many geothermal pools around the country.
After our dip, it was off to Reykjavik to drop off our luggage and take on the town. Reykjavik, the capital city, is home to 120,000 people (200,000 in the greater capital area), accounting for about 60% of Iceland’s population.
An easily walkable city, we wandered the streets aimlessly drinking in all that we could in a single afternoon–the modern concert hall (Harpa) by the water, the Old Harbour, the oldest street (Aðalstræti; “Main street”) filled with people easily chatting at outdoor cafés, and of course, a couple of cold Icelandic beverages.
This scene by the Parliament building was representative of the feel–families picnicking, talking to friends, and savoring the summer heat.
After our walk and a ridiculously delicious dinner at a Nepalese restaurant (Kitchen Eldhus), we scurried home to get some rest, overcome jetlag, and prepare for the start of our Icelandic adventure. I donned my eye mask (to dampen the 22 hours of daylight) and awoke ready to take on the Golden Circle.
There are many people who come to Iceland and only see Reykjavik and the surrounding area. In addition to the Blue Lagoon, the other popular day trip is the Golden Circle, a circle of sights from Reykjavik including a historic site (Þingvellir), geothermal area (Geysir), and waterfall (Gulfoss). We made that our starting point, with the aim to get to Vellir (outside of Vik) by the end of the day.
On the drive out of Reykjavik, we followed the map towards Þingvellir but came upon this scene at Lake Þingvallavatn first and had to stop. I was intrigued not only by the beauty of the lake (the largest natural lake in Iceland) but also by the plethora of cairns scattered around.
Even after researching it, I’m still not entirely sure what these cairns historically represent. Some people say they mark(ed) trails through Iceland while others marked solemn places. Today, many of these represent the “we were here” calling card of visitors.
Regardless of their meaning, the beauty of the vistas was already starting to take my breath away. Hello Iceland.
After jumping back into the car (to avoid the swarming bugs!), we headed off in search of Þingvellir National Park (pronounced: Thingvellir).
Þingvellir is the site of most of Iceland’s historic events, the first being the formation of Icelandic Parliament in 930 AD. Every summer until 1798, Icelanders would make a pilgrimage to Þingvellir for a 2-week meeting where they made laws, settled disputes, traded and exchanged news from around the country. Þingvellir represents the center of Icelandic culture to this day.
Knowing that this was a huge attraction, we expected to see a large welcome sign or something indicating we’d entered the park. We were wrong.
[Mental note: Signs in Iceland are subtle and not in English. We should have learned this when we missed the sign to the Bláa Lónið (you know, the Blue Lagoon)!]
This sign led us to Lögberg (Law Rock). Excited to have solved the mystery, we jumped out of the car and started checking things out. In hindsight, we’re really glad we missed the first turnoff to the information center. From that vantage point, we would have seen the whole vista from the start. This route allowed for some delayed gratification, building up to the grand vista.
The first thing we saw was Öxaráfoss, the first waterfall of our trip. For that reason, it was special. Not to mention that it’s gorgeous. But by Day 8 of seeing waterfalls, even gorgeous was ordinary. So we spent some time here and soaked it in.
From Öxaráfoss, we walked up to Law Rock, a natural platform where the president of the Law Council would recite the laws to the audience below. We took that opportunity to enjoy some camembert and crackers at the amphiteatre on the rock, to soak in the view.
Oh, and did I forget to mention? One of the other attractions of Þingvellir is that it’s where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. They are separating at a rate of a couple of centimeters (~1inch) per year, literally tearing Iceland apart. The cliffs are impressive to walk among.
And after climbing past the rock, we reached the vantage point at the visitors center that overlooks the sweeping Þingvellir plains. This view took my breath away. From the rifts to the left, across the vast plains, ending in Þingvallavatn Lake on the right, this area was breathtaking. The iconic church and farm can be seen center left alongside the Öxará river.
Can you imagine Icelanders coming from all around to gather here each year? Setting up temporary turf houses (called “booths”) to get them through the 2-week session? As we were leaving we saw several Icelandic families who had set up camp in the very areas people would have camped in the past. It was refreshing to see such a modern connection to history.
From Þingvellir, it was a quick 45-minute drive to the next stop in the Golden Circle, Geysir.
Geysir, also known as the Great Geysir, is Icelandic for “to gush” and is the geysir that all other geysers got their name from. (So no, I haven’t just been misspelling it!) Geysir no longer erupts on a regular basis, but the geothermal area around it still attracts a multitude of visitors.
Geysir’s sister geyser, Strokkur, erupts on a much more frequent basis and is depicted below. It erupts about every 10 minutes, sometimes in bursts of 3, which is quite magnificent to watch.
From Geysir, we drove about 10 minutes to the iconic Gulfoss waterfall.
Gulfoss, which means Golden Falls, is a double-layered waterfall that plunges deep into a canyon. The mist from this enormous waterfall provides numerous opportunities for rainbows, which we were fortunate to witness.
In the picture below, if you look at the highest point of the rainbow, those are people standing on the rock near the upper set of falls. People are encouraged to don their rain gear and head on down! We took the wimpy route and stayed dry.
From Gulfoss, instead of completing the Golden “Circle” and heading back to Reykjavik, we took the back roads down through Flúðir to enjoy some of the rural scenery. This is where we got our first up close glimpse of the handsome Icelandic horses, and also the first time we filled up with gas.
I know this isn’t normally noteworthy, but it was this time! They had mislabeled our rental car as diesel (literally, diesel stickers everywhere) when in actuality it was unleaded. Thank goodness for the different nozzle sizes between the two! After straightening out that issue with Hertz, we hightailed it back to the Ring Road, thanking our lucky stars that we hadn’t just killed a brand new rental car. Bullet dodged.
Once back on the Ring Road, our next stop was the famed Seljalandsfoss falls. I know, you might be getting sick of waterfalls already. Too bad.
This one was my favorite. So sweet and idyllic. Smaller than the others, and falling gently into the pool below, this one spoke to me.
It is also unique in that you can walk behind it (with rain gear, of course).
Further along the Ring Road, we encountered what we thought was our first turf house, but was actually a cave. Apparently there are approximately 200 man-made caves in South Iceland. This one, Rútshellir, is actually 2 caves, the larger one (20 meters long) stored hay while the shorter one (8m) was likely a smithy.
This portion of the Ring Road was particularly scenic, including fields of purple lupines to the left and views of the Westman Islands to the right.
Down the Ring Road apiece was Skógafoss, an altogether different looking waterfall from the rest. Squint to see the photographer at the bottom right of the falls, or the person on the top viewing platform. Woah.
Skógafoss was our last stop for the night before resting our head at Guesthouse Vellir, a part of the Icelandic Farm Holidays establishment. A working horse farm, I was really hoping to take a horse ride on a black sand beach (priceless!!!), but unfortunately they hadn’t started the rides for the season. Bummer!
Regardless, we had a lovely place to sleep, in full view of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
Speaking of which–Nathan considered going on a glacier hike on Mýrdalsjökull to try to photograph blue ice caves similar to those we had seen when hiking the Franz Joseph glacier in New Zealand many years back. Upon calling the hiking company, they were wonderfully honest and told him this wasn’t the right time of year to see the blue ice (better in winter). Another bummer, but much better than taking a half-day hike only to be disappointed. Onward and upward!
In the absence of glacier hikes or horse rides, the next morning brought a trip to nearby Dyrhólaey, with the hope of seeing puffins nesting in the cliffs. Unfortunately, no puffins could be found, and a rainy day had moved in as well. Bummer. Strike three.
Nevertheless, it made for some spectacular viewing of the moody black beaches in Dyrhólaey and Vik.
And when visiting Dyrhólaey, take note that it’s not easy to see the famous rock arches from the point. The vantage point must have been earlier along the Ring Road. We missed it!
While our final morning in South Iceland left us wanting for a bit more, little did we know that East Iceland would shortly reveal some of the most spectacular sights we’ve ever seen…