Newest Review: ... chief sights of the tour. The first place we stopped at was Gullfoss. Gullfoss (the name means golden falls) is a fall on the Hvita Ri... more
A gold star (no, five) for a golden tour!
Golden Circle (Iceland)
Member Name: AbsintheFairy
Golden Circle (Iceland)
Advantages: You get to see three of Iceland's major sites, efficient service and friendly drivers
Disadvantages: Slightly expensive (but worth it)
The Golden Circle Tour is a famous tour in Iceland, reported to be the most popular tour taken by visitors to the country. This is perhaps due to the fact that the landmarks you see on the tour are all in close proximity to one another, and they can all be visited on a day trip from Reykjavik. In addition the sights you see are incredibly impressive!
Several companies run the Golden Circle tour and it can be booked in several ways both before you go to Iceland and after you arrive. I booked mine online at www.icelandair.co.uk as part of a package including my flights and hotel, for a cost of around £55. The company that ran my tour was called Reykjavik Excursions. As part of the tour I was picked up and dropped off from my hotel so the whole procedure was very easy.
The three main sights you will see on the tour are the waterfall Gullfoss, the geyser area and the Thingvellir National Park. However, aside from this main itinerary each tour will differ slightly with the places visited.
My tour started off at a town, Hveragerši, known as the greenhouse village as geothermal energy is used to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers in greenhouses. This was billed as a toilet/coffee stop but I immediately recognised it as the obligatory gift shop visit you get on pretty much all organised tours anywhere abroad. To be fair to the organisers, this was the only gift shop stop of the day (I've been on tours that included more) and the prices there were no more expensive than anywhere else - I was happy to stock up on a couple of gifts there.
The second stop was a church at Skalholt, the site where the last Catholic bishop was beheaded after the adoption of Lutheran Christianity in the sixteenth century. The church itself is comparatively new but does hold a first edition of the Bible in Icelandic - in the Catholic Church the Bible must be in Latin so the translation of this work into the vernacular so that ordinary people had the chance to understand it was significant. The views here are pretty impressive I must say, and you can still see the outline of older buildings in the ground.
Next, we stopped off at a smaller waterfall billed as a 'warm up' to the larger Gullfoss. This was interesting enough although I was cold and ran back to the bus quickly! Annoyingly, some of the other people on the tour held us up for a few minutes by wandering right down to the waterfall to take pictures. However, they hurried back to the bus quickly enough when the driver started moving!
Finally, we moved on to the three chief sights of the tour. The first place we stopped at was Gullfoss. Gullfoss (the name means golden falls) is a fall on the Hvita River. In the 20th century there was some speculation that the waterfall might be used to generate electricity, but this was strongly opposed by Sigridur Tomasdottir, the daughter of one of the owners. Today, the waterfall remains preserved in its natural state.
The bus pulled up in a car park which also contained several other buses - clearly the place is popular. It was a cold and windy day, but dying to see the waterfall, everyone on the bus tumbled out and headed down to the viewing area. Gullfoss is an impressive two-tier waterfall, which isn't something I'd ever seen before. The water rushes over one tier and turns at an angle before tumbling down another and rushing down a gully. As you approach it you can't see the river - it looks like the waterfall is simply rushing into the earth.
This view was suitably awe-inspiring but I had an urge to get closer. I could see that there were several people standing on a stretch of rock right next to the waterfall so I headed back, down some wooden steps and along a rocky path right up to the waterfall. Luckily I was wearing my Dr Martens which enabled me to keep my footing despite the ice which was still on the path. I was able to climb onto the rock right beside the waterfall and it was amazing to see the power of the waterfall close up.
I really liked Gullfoss as it was really impressive and different. It's not supposed to be as good as Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe (in north east Iceland), but this one is much easier to reach from Reykjavik! Anyone can go to see the waterfall but if you're going to go close up you really need to be wearing suitable footwear and have no mobility problems. I did see several children by the waterfall, supervised closely by adults.
Our next stop on the tour was the geyser area. The bus pulled up at around lunchtime and we were given almost two hours to explore the area, visit the exhibition and have lunch. The weather was absolutely freezing, but I couldn't pass up the chance to see a geyser in action!
The spring named Geysir (the name comes from an Old Norse verb geysa, meaning "to gush") actually gave its name to geysers in general. Geysers are generally found near volcanic areas, and are formed when water near the surface of the ground works its way down and contacts hot rocks warmed by magma. The resultant pressure causes the water to intermittently erupt from the surface vent. Several geysers are found in this particular area in Iceland, but many are now extinct and others, including Geysir itself, erupt very rarely and unpredictably. However, one, Strokkur (Icelandic for "churn") erupts reliably and often and this is the one most tourists now flock to see.
Like all the other tourists from the bus, I crossed the road to the geysers. The air was rather misty and there was a distinct smell of sulphur in the air. I wandered over to Strokkur, the most active geyser, and waited like everyone else with an expectant air. Strokkur reliably erupts every eight or so minutes and it was rather funny standing around waiting with all the other tourists with cameras glued to the spot. Eventually, with a gurgle, it erupted quite spectacularly and there were several gasps! I waited around to watch the eruption a couple of times and it was pretty impressive and like nothing I'd ever seen before. Just before it erupts it starts to bubble so you have about half a second to prepare yourself before the explosion!
Afterwards I took the time to look at some of the other geysers and pools. Geysir itself doesn't erupt much these days. There is a pair of pools a little further up, one is bright blue owing to the mineral content and one is incredibly warm - I stood downwind and felt like I was next to a radiator, a relief in the freezing weather! You are advised not to go past the ropes as you run the risk of being burned.
I crossed the road to the building housing the exhibition. The exhibition room was dark and had some videos of volcanic eruptions and more information on the history and science of the hot springs. It doesn't take very long to look round.
The building also has a café selling sandwiches and hot food. Because of the cold I chose some mozzarella sticks and some fries which were bog standard fast food but tasted delicious as I was so hungry! There was also a reasonably large gift shop.
The final stop on the tour was the Thingvellir (or Žingvellir) National Park. The park has a long and distinguished history: the Icelandic Parliament was established there in AD 930, remaining there until 1789. The National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the remains of this site and also the natural aspects of the area. The Parliament helped to forge a common cultural heritage and national identity among Icelanders. The Althing (assembly) was held here, at which people could make speeches and present cases which were judged by the laws of the time. Thousands of people would flock here, setting up temporary houses and selling goods, watching entertainment and drinking ale.
The park is also significant for geographical reasons. It lies on the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which are drifting apart at the rate of 2.5 cm a year. The North American plate in particular is especially impressive, towering over the flagpole on the Althing site.
As we drove towards our stop the driver pointed out the edge of the Eurasian plate. Over the years the plates have moved apart leaving a kind of low plain in between. Our coach stopped next to the North American plate which looms like a cliff over the plain.
As a group we walked for a couple of minutes up towards the North American plate, crossing a bridge and walking slightly uphill in the process. There were a couple of wooden platforms where you could stop and take photos. We stopped just beneath the plate at the point where the Althing used to be held. On the ground it was still possible to see the outlines of some of the huts built to house people attending the parliament. Our guide also pointed out the bridge at which women and criminals were drowned!
While anyone who wished could go back to the bus, most of us chose to walk up to the top of the plate and meet the coach which was going to drive round. This involved walking up a gully next to the plate. At this point a snowstorm came on and I felt as though I was in The Lord of the Rings!
At the top, the views were very impressive. We could see the sea to our right and the plain spread out in front of us. It was strange to think we had crossed over a divide in the Earth's crust. After looking around for a while we all got back on the bus and were driven back to Reykjavik, arriving at around five. Everyone was dropped off at or near their respective hotels.
If you hire a car in Iceland it would be possible to drive to all of these landmarks and visit them yourself without the restrictions of the tour group. However, this would mean you had to find your own way around and you'd need to be a confident driver. For most people, booking onto a tour would be the easiest and most convenient way to see these major attractions.
Personally, I found the Golden Circle Tour to be one of the highlights of my trip and I'm extremely glad I decided to take it. Gullfoss was really impressive, watching Strokkur erupt was a unique experience, and visiting the Thingvellir National Park was unforgettable and significant. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and I saw, and learnt, a great deal. Five stars from me.
Summary: Pricey but worth every penny to see these unique sites