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Iceland Required Viewing: The Golden Circle Tour

June 8th, 2019 · No Comments · tourism, Travel

Some tourists travel to Iceland planning a lengthy stay. A week, or more, which probably includes outdoorsy activities. Climbing mountains and such. Hiking up dormant volcanoes. Deep-sea fishing.

Or perhaps they want to take a leisurely drive around the edges of the world’s 13th-biggest island, spending nights in tiny hotels or under a tent. Waiting for the Northern Lights to make their ghostly appearance.

Without consulting with the Iceland chamber of commerce, I’m going to say that a significant majority of tourists here are thinking of a shorter stay. Three days, maybe four.

And for those people, it becomes clear they pretty much have to take a particular all-day trip — on the Golden Circle. A four- or five-stop bus trip to the best of Iceland’s scenery within a one-day drive of Reykjavik, the capital.

Today was the day we did it. Our group of six climbed aboard a small bus and turned our lot over to a young woman who didn’t cotton to tourists who didn’t make it back to the bus in the time she had allotted … and perhaps drove a bit faster than was needed.

But that is not germane to our job here. What matters is four fairly spectacular stops in what constitutes a loop of the southwest bit of the country.

Let’s take them in order.

–The tectonic clash of continents! Less than one hour from downtown Reykjavik! It pretty much is as advertised — the plate on which North America sits has collided with the Eurasian plate, and the result is the magma-spewing volcanoes that became Iceland.

The proof of this one is to be seen in a couple of ways: Looking out over the distance one can see the green of new rock being shoved up and out. Nearer the parking lot is another indication of the crushing pressure of moving continents — a gap of about 20 feet that has opened up, over millions of years, that represents a breaking point. The tourist can walk through this gap without fear of being smashed — the continents are pulling apart at the rate of about a centimeter per year, and most of us can out-run that pace.

The area also is where the ancient Icelanders met annually to talk about major issues in their thinly settled homeland. It represented the first parliament/legislative body in world history, the Althing. It lasted three centuries, from 930 to 1262, when it was usurped by the Danish kings. The annual gathering also was where justice was meted out for criminals, more than a few of whom could expect to be executed, generally by hanging or drowning. (The ancient Icelanders were not afraid of a little capital punishment. OK, a lot of it.)

–The Geysir … geyser. This is an area where underground water meets up with molten rock and, as one would imagine, the water soon turns to steam — and when a critical mass of pressure has been reached, the geyser erupts via a spout and into the air, sometimes up to 100 feet into the sky. Europeans had not seen a geyser until the Icelanders did, and the English word for the phenomena comes from the name Iceland’s natives gave to it: Geysir, or geyser. (Like Old Faithful at Yellowstone, which is a geyser, not the Geysir.)

It is worth watching a time or three; it gives tourists an idea of what sort of violence is going on beneath our feet. The tricky part is having the patience and discipline to get a video of the event, for your future viewing pleasure. Most of us settle for a half-second-late photo, which is mostly about the water falling back on itself.

The original Geysir is wearing out a bit, and erupts very rarely. But the Icelanders have thoughtfully put a restaurant and hotel near a very active geyser, nearby, that blows its top about once every five minutes. The tourists gather on the side of the site that happens to be upwind — no one wants to get burned by being in the path of the hot water.

–The Gullfoss water fall. Have you seen Niagara Falls? This is something like that, in that it is one big and wide body of water going over three precipices, known as a stair-step waterfall.

The energetic tourist can climb to the top of the first fall, via a set of steps in the mountainside. Or the less energetic can walk down along the side of the falls, and watch it from the bottom and really be able to appreciate how much water is going over the side every second. (Lots and lots.)

Waterfalls throw around so much H2O that you can be a hundred feet from the falls and still get drenched by the spray, especially when the wind is up, as it was today.

Another interesting aspect of a big waterfall is the noise it makes. Usually described as a “roar”. You and your fellow tourists could be standing within feet of each other and have your voices drowned out by the cascade.

Gullfoss was long considered the tallest waterfall in Iceland, but it has a rival that appears to make it second, Gullfoss, however, remains closer to where the tour begins, so there’s that.

–The fourth bit of the tour, and by now it is getting into the late afternoon, and the mini-bus is becoming a torture device, is a one-hour stop at a spa-like area where the tourists are invited to bask in the warm water.

Everyone has to take a thorough shower before entering the “Secret Lagoon”, as it prefers to be known, even though it’s right there in the open with 100 people in it. Our tour-bus driver called it a “tourist trap”. But some people enjoy it, and it’s a very Icelandic thing, after all. The country has so much hot water that it doesn’t have to heat any — it just runs the pre-heated water out the hot-water line in your home.

And then it is a one-hour drive back to the city, while studying the landforms.

Getting more toward the middle of the island, one can see agriculture going on, with the land plowed and barley (the only grain that can survive Iceland’s weather) on the way, and fodder being stored up for lots of horses (for riding) and sheep (for eating), and the occasional milk producing cows.

But even when farm houses appear every few hundred yards, the country still feels new and a bit wild.

Our guide predicted we would sleep like babies, after the nine hours of touring and busing, and she was right. It is a bit of a grind, perhaps too much in one day — but probably the best way to get a sense of what Iceland is about.

The cost? About $100 per person, and worth the expense.


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