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Alda Sigmundsdottir

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The Magic of Iceland's Golden Circle

Posted: 05/16/11 03:27 PM ET

Summer in Iceland is a very special time -- in the season of the midnight sun, the light is both ethereal and intense, and touring the country is an absolute adventure. Those of us who live in Iceland sometimes need to be reminded that people come from far and wide to see the things that we take for granted.

That certainly goes for the tour that is one of the most popular -- and "touristy" -- in Iceland: the Golden Circle. To many of us, the sights it incorporates have become commonplace -- until we hop on with someone who is visiting from abroad and share in their enthusiasm about the incredible natural wonders we have on our doorstep. This time, my daughter and I decided to play tourist in our own backyard and hopped on the Golden Circle tour -- the first time either of us had taken it as a proper tour, with guide.

The Golden Circle is located in southwest Iceland and incorporates three main sights: Thingvellir National Park, a site of spectacular natural beauty where Iceland's ancient parliament convened and where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet; the high-temperature geothermal area that most people know as Geysir, on account of its best-known hot spring, from which the word "geyser" derives; and the beautiful Gullfoss waterfall. All are located a convenient distance from Reykjavík, and the whole tour takes around four or five hours.

Both Reykjavík Excursions and Iceland Excursions do several versions of the Golden Circle tour. The one we took had something extra special tacked onto the end: snorkeling in the crystal-clear ravine Silfra, at Thingvellir.

Silfra, incidentally, is a rift created by the pulling apart of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

The drive to the Geysir geothermal area took about an hour and a half, during which we were regaled with all kinds of trivia about the terrain we were driving through (and, indeed, Iceland in general). On arriving we got off the bus and walked the short distance to Strokkur, the only geyser currently active in the area. It erupts every five minutes or so. Geysir, meanwhile, is pretty much extinct by now -- it just sits there like a Grand Old Man, bestowing its name to the area like some honorary figurehead. It does erupt very occasionally -- although usually only if it has copious amounts of soap pumped into it, or if something happens to the ground nearby, such as an earthquake. And when it does, those eruptions are spectacular.

Strokkur, on the other hand, is a frisky young thing, and erupts every five minutes or so:

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The hole from which it blows

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Off she goes

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We were too close to get the full view ... however, here is a live version:

I've seen this happen countless times in my life and it just never gets old.

Having staked out the area for a while (and had a brief picnic lunch), we climbed back on the bus for the drive towards Gullfoss, which is only about ten minutes away. The literal translation of Gullfoss is "Golden Falls" and its name is derived from the rainbow that can be seen in the mist above the waterfall when the sun is shining (a bit of trivia I learned from our guide).

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In contrast to many places worldwide, you can actually get super-close to the waterfall, as you can see from the tiny people standing on the rocks in the above picture. It is really misty in there and you tend to get drenched, so I didn't want to risk taking a photo that close. Incidentally, as when viewing all the amazing natural phenomena in Iceland, caution is strongly advised. Tourists have perished in that waterfall, having gone too close to the edge.

Another perspective:

Gullfoss

We stayed at the waterfall for around half an hour and went right up to the rapids. After that, it was back on the bus with our all-knowing guide, towards the final site on our itinerary: Thingvellir.

As I mentioned, this is where Iceland's old parliamentary assembly had its seat in the past -- the Althing, which literally means "everyman's assembly". Our Icelandic parliament is still called that today, although it has long since been relocated to Reykjavík.

However, on this tour, the proper Thingvellir version was not included since my daughter and I were dropped off to go snorkeling in the gorgeous ravine Silfra. What an incredible adventure that was!! What we saw was pretty much the underwater version of what we saw above ground in this photoset from last year. However, that report deserves its very own post -- and so, will have to wait.

 

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