Golden Circle Tour of Iceland
Gill Haynes explores Reykjavik, Isafjordur, Akureyri and Seydisfjordur on a Golden Circle Tour of Iceland.
With the news full of wild fires this summer, seeing smoke billowing from the horizon had us worried – but this was Iceland and it was steam, not smoke, leaking from the landscape, and we were about to see an extraordinary outburst of geo-thermal bad-temper.
We were on a tour through Iceland’s southern volcanic zone with its freakshows of bubbling mud pools, hot springs and, best of all, geysers. There’s one here called Geysir that lent its name to the phenomenon. But it was its near neighbour, Strokkur geyser, that was doing the business today, exploding into super-heated life like an apoplectic adolescent. Every 10 minutes or so, it shot a scalding spout of water and steam 30 metres into the air which then splattered down beside those visitors who had perhaps been a bit too keen to get a selfie.
Strokkur seemed to embody what Iceland was really about – splintering tectonic plates, molten lava, geothermal tricks, plus an awful lot of water.
Iceland Golden Circle Route
As well as geysers, our route from Reykjavik showed us where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates were dramatically parting company in the cliff-faces at Thingvellir.
We were treated to a beauty parade of waterfalls, including Faxafoss, a picturesque stage-curtain of water, and Gullfoss, where the river powered into a chasm with such force it created a second waterfall of mist. In days to come, we would explore Isafjordur on the peninsular that sits like speech bubble to Iceland’s north-west.
Then, continuing clockwise, we would see more geothermal action from Akureyri in the north and get a feel for life on the remoter eastern coast at Seydisfjordur.
Golden Circle Tour of Iceland : Reykjavik (West and South)
In Reykjavik, we stayed at a conveniently central AirBnB property near to the City Hall (a handy pick-up spot for day tours), the pretty lake (nice place for your first Viking beer) and the main downtown area with its artisanal shops, restaurants and cafés.
At the top of the hill, the vast Hallgrimskirkja church shoots skyward, a concrete geyser of a building rivalled only by the Harpa Concert Hall that sprawls across the waterfront like an architectural glacier, its myriad shard-like windows glinting in the sunshine. Impressive as these were, the price of just about everything in Iceland is more striking still.
For dinner, we most enjoyed the hubbub and choice of genres at the Posthus Foodhall & Bar, tucking into roast cod which at least didn’t require a bank loan.
Golden Circle Tour of Iceland : Isafjordur (North-west)
Isafjordur showed us a less-visited side of Iceland in the rough-hewn Westfjord region of inlets and fjords.
Our day-trip from the port took us first through tunnels just one-car wide, with a little local difficulty when two needed to pass, before introducing another strong contender for our favourite Icelandic waterfall – Dynjandi (it means ‘Thundering’). A good 45-minute walk refreshed our lungs with the keenest and clearest air, rewarding us with picture postcard view of the waterfall splayed across the rocks near the top and tumbling into cascades below.
A stop at a sheep farm for tea and ‘good marriage’ cake (good baking makes for strong partnerships in these parts) gave us food for thought as we gazed across the fjord, and more when we saw its four-horned ram.
Icelandic Horse Sense
And it’s not just the sheep. Iceland’s horses are a law unto themselves too. Although small in stature, these free-roaming animals are not to be called ponies, and all derive from the steeds brought over by the Vikings.
No other breed could survive an Icelandic winter as they do and to keep this bloodline strong, no other horses are allowed into the country, and if one is exported, it is not allowed back in.
About 80,000 in number, Icelandic horses can be seen all over the island, and while they may look wild, are actually all accounted for. With their noted sure-footedness and five gaits (they offer the smooth-riding tölt and flying paced skeið as well as the usual walk, trot and canter/gallop), the horses make excellent mounts, with day rides and longer tours on offer, with companies such as arctic adventures.
Golden Circle Tour of Iceland : Akureyri (North)
Akureyri is the gateway to the geothermal playgrounds of the north. Our full-day tour here was like GCSE geography come to much more enjoyable life. But first, Godafoss laid its claim to the title of Best Waterfall with its 40-foot high, 100-foot wide triple-cascade supported by the legend of an 11th century chieftain who converted to Christianity and cast his statues of pagan Gods into its waters – hence its translation as ‘Waterfall of the Gods’.
More than religion, it’s the power of nature that seems most apparent in the extraordinary volcanic region of Lake Myvatn (be warned – ‘Myvatn’ means midges, though we were beset by black flies rather than biters).
The lake’s mirrored waters are pockmarked with small pseudo-crater islands that ‘popped’ on its surface a couple of millennia ago. Nearby there’s Dimmuborgir’s field of crazy lava formations – matt black pillars, ridges and columns rising above the prevailing greenery. Then suddenly there’s no greenery (or flies) at all, just a scalded Martian landscape of Hvervir’s red rock, broken boulders and steaming mud pools. Small wonder that NASA astronauts trained here – or that it’s been the backdrop for Games of Thrones filming.
The Myvatn Nature Baths lie close by, offering a hot springs lagoon experience (c£40 adult entry) where the silicates and minerals of the waters are said to improve both skin and spirit. With its glistening milky-blue waters and promise of steam rising from a fissure deep beneath the earth’s surface, it certainly sounded tempting, but this volcanic region comes with a sulphurous tang in the air and we couldn’t make the loveliness of the situation gel with the smell, though others enjoyed the bathing. Instead, we headed for the small but hauntingly beautiful Grjotagja Cave, with water as clear as glass – another tick as a backdrop for Games of Thrones fans.
Golden Circle Tour of Iceland : Seydisfjordur (East)
Seydisfjordur, a fishing town of just 700 people tucked into the tip of an eastern fjord was to wrap up our Iceland adventure.
The waterfront tourist office was manned by a high cheek-boned local who couldn’t have looked more Icelandic if he had worn a Viking helmet. Armed with a free map of well-marked two-to-five hour hiking trails, we headed up above the town, enjoying not only the waterfalls (of course) but wild lupins still in bloom, curlews calling around us and arctic skuas teaching their chicks to fly.
Nature can be cruel as well as kind however, and back in the town we discovered that just three years ago, landslides had surged down the mountainsides after days of rain, demolishing homes, historic buildings and even the local museum. Incredibly, no-one was killed or injured, but the trauma visited on such a small and tightly-knit community was movingly told in a series of outdoor displays down by the harbour.
Iceland has many faces – we had been lucky to see its wild beauty and geothermal wonders at their best, but nature in the raw was, we realised, never very far away. Even in the summer sunshine, you could feel the power.