Iceland’s Golden Circle: Tour Bus or Self Drive?

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After a long night of chasing the Northern Lights to no avail, we wake up the following morning for breakfast around 9:00 am to darkness. Winter nights in Iceland are long. The sun does not rise until about 10:00 am and sets around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. There’s no time to waste.

So, we get ready for our day’s activities ~ The Golden Circle tour. Self drive edition.

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Armed with only two maps (the first one we bought at a local grocery store was useless according to a guy at this gas station, so he gave us a free map), a tankful of gas, some snacks and a sense of adventure, we set forth in our trusty little rental car.

The Golden Circle is another “must-do” when in Iceland, especially when you only have two days! It is a looped route that you take from Reykjavik to Central Iceland and back, hence, the term “circle”. The tour involves getting into a UNESCO world heritage site, the Thingvellir National Park, a geothermal active valley where you see a geyser erupt every 4-8 or 5-10 minutes (depending on your source of information) and Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfalls.

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Gas prices in Reykjavik
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A full service gas station
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Highway going to Thingvellir National Park
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We’ve seen a few houses/establishments along the way. Most of it is open space.

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After a few missed turns and long stretches of white nothingness, we get to this look-out. We don’t know exactly where the entrance to the park is as it has no grand signs signifying that you have reached the park, very much like our Blue Lagoon spa experience the previous day. All you see are regular road signs and then before you know it, there is this beautiful lake stretched across a white snowy landscape. We are now at Thingvellir National Park.

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Lake Thingvallavatn

Of course, we had to stop for pictures! We got lucky there were people around (that red car in the first photo) who we kindly asked to take our group snapshot. Lake Thingvallavatn is Iceland’s largest lake.

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We were also amazed at the numerous little rock piles, called cairns, scattered around this area.

So, we drive a little bit further some more until we get to the tiny visitor center. No bus loads of tourists, yay! Just a few people loafing around, keeping warm. We get a general overview of the park and head out to the rift valley. Thingvellir National Park is the site of the oldest parliament in Europe, which was established in the year 930. It is also located in the Mid-Atlantic ridge where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia are colliding and separating.

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At the end of this icy wooden pathway, there appeared to be a “secret” trail in between the ridges. Secret, because no one was there but us and four other people. I love off-season sometimes.

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We finally make it to the top of the ridge, after carefully walking on rocks and packed snow. As always, I get left behind because I take too many pictures!

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That’s me, overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. This is the top of the continental fault. The crack you see behind me was the trail we took. My plan was to stand in both continents at the same time but the crack was just too wide. But, hey, this is close enough. Isn’t it cool to be actually in THIS place where you ARE in both continents?

Never mind that I slipped on the ice as I was trying to walk across a small gap in the rocks. There is no glamorous way of falling on ice I tell you. I got no broken bones at least.

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Not as majestic as the Grand Canyon but beautiful nonetheless. The Grand Canyon is only in America while this one spans two continents!
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Tiny people down below!
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Warning: do not do this at home

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We were actually looking for this waterfalls that we saw as we drove down the road. It led us to that hiking trail and up here to a breathtaking surprise.

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Oxararfoss (Oxara waterfalls)
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The frozen Oxara river
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The waterfall’s edge partly frozen

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After staying on the top of the ridge for a few minutes, we hike down and look for the waterfalls (again). A different view this time.

Then we decided it was time to go, having spent too much time in the Park. We still had two more stops in the Golden Circle. Along the way, snow gave way to open grass fields with lots of farming communities.

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The Icelandic Horse, small, furry and pony-sized. They have very few diseases due to strict importation and exportation laws. We saw lots of them on the way.
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Aww, aren’t these sheep the cutest? Wish we had more time so we could pet these animals.

Next stop, the geysers. Did you know that the word geyser is actually derived from the Icelandic verb, geysa, which means “to gush?”

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The geothermally active Haukadalur valley

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The original grand daddy of all geysers here, called Geyser, is now dormant. It would take an earthquake to wake him up. It is now Strokkur who shows off every 8 or so minutes throwing a column of hot water and steam.

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First, the water starts to boil..
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And then the eruption.

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That was a quick stop. We continue on our tour as the sun was getting low on the horizon.

Gullfoss (The Golden Waterfalls) is named as such because on a sunny day, the water looks almost golden as it tumbles down different steps and into a deep crevice. It was VERY windy and cold here, which translates to LESS photos. But, the views were spectacular!

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The walkway leading to the falls
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There are several trails around the waterfalls but because it was too cold, we just stayed at the first overlook.

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Just freezing and chilling here

This concludes our Golden Circle tour, self drive edition. We did it in about six hours round trip, with much time to stop and explore the places we wanted to check out. No rushing to get back into the bus, no obligatory souvenir store stops, no obnoxious annoying tourists. You can do it on your own. Make sure you know how to read a map though to save you from headaches. Lesson learned: get a GPS next time.

Body Temperatures: In the Land of Fire and Ice

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Did you know that the human body is better at adapting to heat than to cold? Eventually, the body does make adjustments though. Coming from a temperate warm climate certainly does not help, but layers and layers of winter clothing does!

I traveled to Iceland recently without any fear of the cold, the numerous active volcanoes that make up the entire country nor of the unpronounceable string of letters that make up an Icelandic word. I knew nothing about Iceland prior to this trip (except maybe Bjork in all her quirkiness) but left with this insatiable desire to come back for more and explore this tiny nation with only 320,000 people.

Contrary to what most people think, Iceland is not THAT cold. In fact, New York and Toronto were much, much colder with temperatures in the teens whereas Iceland stayed in the high to mid 30s.

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Reykjavik (pronounced Reyk-yavik), the capital and largest city of Iceland is also the world’s northernmost capital. This colorful little city has everything you want and yet retains its small town charm.

It even has the world’s largest phallological museum! This blog is rated G so no photos of this one. Just google it.

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Hallgrimskirkja Church is the tallest and largest structure in Reykjavik. You pay $7.00 to go up the  top where you get panoramic views of the entire city and the surrounding mountains. Inside, there is a beautiful pipe organ where we were lucky enough to hear someone play it.

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Street art and graffiti make their colorful presence here on this gray and gloomy day.

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Walking around can certainly make you hungry. So my husband and I and another couple were in search of the perfect local restaurant. Cafe Loki was one of those serving traditional local dishes. Fermented shark, sheep’s head, puffin anyone? Nah, we’ll take a rain check. But if you are brave enough to try them, please let me know. I may be an adventurous nurse but I am not quite an adventurous eater. The most we tried was eating the minke whale. It looked and tasted like beef.

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For the life of me, I really do not understand why you have to use all the letters of the alphabet to name something ~ add a few other extra unknown letters to boot!

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A city with a beautiful view of the mountains and the ocean.

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Driving to the outskirts of the city, the landscape changes to otherworldly. This was a random stop along the road leading to Keflavik Airport. Stretching for miles and miles, you see nothing but fields of lava rocks and mossy looking stones with the occasional farm house/factory.

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The Blue Lagoon, or Blaa Lonio (my keyboard does not have the special Icelandic letters or I probably just don’t know how to do it) is one of Iceland’s main tourist attractions. It is a geothermal spa located in a lava field approximately 20 minutes away from the airport and 45 minutes away from Reykjavik, that does not include getting lost though. Apart from trying to read a map with Icelandic street names, we were looking for the words “Blue Lagoon” only to pass by the sign Blaa Lonio. You would think it being a major tourist attraction, there would be huge billboards advertising its location. No, you have to do it the Icelandic way. Asking for directions from locals and a couple of turns later, we get there.

It was a chilly 30s that day. I made a mad dash outside from the indoor shower facility in my bathing suit to hang my towel, leave my flip-flops and then jump-splash into its waters before I froze to death. It was the best feeling ever!

The Blue Lagoon’s waters are around 98-102 degrees Fahrenheit. You never feel the cold once you are in, even with a cold beer in your hand. The mineral-rich waters are reportedly good for your skin but bad for your hair.

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Post spa-therapy, we all get bundled up again and get ready for the Northern Lights Tour.

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No, these aren’t the Northern Lights. I was just getting my cam settings ready while we were in a busload of tourists. We stayed up for five hours waiting for the Aurora Borealis, trying to catch it in at least two other locations but we failed to see it because of the cloud cover. Same thing happened the next night when the tour company offered us another chance. Thank God for the warm buses otherwise it would be too cold to stay outdoors for a long time.

Because of this missed opportunity, my husband and I have decided to chase the Northern Lights, wherever and whenever, and will not stop until we see this elusive natural phenomenon.

Stay tuned for The Golden Circle in my next blog!

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