Sunday, October 19, 2014

Iceland pt. 1/The Golden Circle

Even though TLC specifically told us not to, J and I spent a large portion of our Iceland vacation driving around in search of waterfalls. And I'm sorry, T-Boz, but we had a TON of fun doing so. We had a total of five full days in the country (arriving very late on a Monday and leaving early the following Sunday), and opted to rent a car for the last three days. We originally went back and forth about renting a car (would it be worth it, a good use of our time and money, etc.), but in the end decided to go for it. Renting a car was a fantastic decision. It gave us the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted without the stress of having to keep up with a tour group, it allowed us to see all the top sights of western and southern Iceland on our own time and schedule, and it was really just a ton of fun to drive around a foreign country. Overnight parking was not a problem (there were metered spots right in front of our flat, and because we were gone for most of the daytimes we ended up spending about $2 USD - total - in parking), and navigating our way through the country was a cinch (note: we did opt for the GPS, which might have not been an absolute necessity as the signs on Icelandic roads are large and clear, but it did give us a sense of security that was most welcome). While there are a handful of different car rental companies in Iceland, we went with Route 1 Car Rental - and I cannot recommend them enough. The car was clean and well-kept, they drove the car directly to our door and spent about a half an hour instructing us on road rules and laws (be sure to factor that into your itinerary if you do chose to rent a car), and when we decided that we wanted to switch vehicles after the first day (we started with a Jeep that was really fun to drive but had an uncomfortably shaky steering wheel) they arrived at our door with a new car the next morning, for no extra charge.

Stop #1 - Geysir
The three stops on what is commonly called the Golden Circle are admittedly touristy - but since we had come to Iceland to see the sights, there was no chance we were going to miss anything on this popular route. We had herd that most tour companies start out by driving north on the circle (to Thingvellir first), so in an attempt to miss the crowds, we headed south on Route 1, straight for Geysir. About an hour and a half from downtown Reykjavik and well-marked with signage almost the entire way, the area of Geysir is exactly what it's name promises - a good, old-fashioned, sulfur-smelling, hot-water-spouting, hole in the ground geyser. Honestly, it was ultimately a bit underwhelming. Maybe the geyser was having an off-day, but when it did blow it's top about 10 minutes after we'd arrived, it was a little anti-climactic. But it was cool to wander around the grounds while steam billowed out from random points, and hey, all the attractions on the Golden Circle are free. Parking is free. Admittance is free. There are no road tolls. There are no "maintenance" fees. So stopping at Geysir was kind of a no-brainer.

Stop #2 - Gullfoss Waterfall
Just down the road from Geysir is the Gullfoss Waterfall. You guys - this one's awesome. Granted, I don't have a lot of waterfall experience to compare it to - I've never seen another major waterfall other than Niagara Falls, so maybe a more seasoned "falls" viewer wouldn't be so in awe, but I practically had to be dragged away from this site. Photographers, take note: it is misty out there. I luckily had the foresight to put my DSLR in a plastic baggie (with a hole cut out for the lens), but what I should have done was get a hood in addition to the baggie. I had to trash a lot of photos due to water droplets on the lens, and then eventually just started leaving the big camera in the car and using my iPhone to take waterfall pictures. You can get a cheap hood for under $10, and I'm kicking myself that I didn't get one for the trip. It was a rookie mistake - don't make the same one!

It was in the early afternoon when we arrived at Gullfoss, and by this point in our journey the bread, cheese, and granola bars we'd packed in the car just weren't cutting it anymore, so we stopped for a quick bite at the cafeteria attached to the Gullfoss Visitor's Center. Cold and wet from wandering around the waterfall, we each ordered a bowl of the lamb soup. It. Was. Wonderful. And there were free refills. I repeat: free refills on the warm and nourishing lamb soup at the Gullfoss Visitor's Center cafeteria. Get thee there.

Stop #3 - Thingvellir National Park
After the wow-factor of Gullfoss, the quiet beauty of Thinvellir was the perfect final stop of our Golden Circle tour. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and an area of historical Icelandic significance, this park has beautiful sweeping vistas that for the first time, gave me a true sense of the diverse (and frankly, almost bi-polar) landscape that Iceland has to offer. I have this personal joke that no matter where I go, the landscape remind me of Wisconsin. But the midwest was the farthest thing from my mind on this trip - the geography of Iceland was unlike any other place I've ever visited, and I had to pull myself away from every lookout and hilltop we set foot on.

If you go:
The Golden Circle is an easy one day's drive to/from downtown Reykjavik. We got on the road around 10:30am and headed south on Route 1, first hitting Geysir, then Gullfoss, and finally Thingvellir National Park before arriving back in Reykjavik around 6:00pm. There aren't many rest stops on the road other than the gift shops and cafeterias at each of the tourist destinations, so we made sure to pack the car with some snacks and plenty of water purchased at a Reykjavik grocery store the day before. Since gas stations are equally as sparse we made extra sure to leave Reykjavik with a full tank of gas; the whole trip used up less than the full tank.

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