Hey, let’s go to Iceland for a girl’s weekend! I first heard those words about five years ago when inexpensive flights started to depart Canada and fly into Reykjavik. All of a sudden Iceland was the “in” place and it soon made its way onto my radar.
As tempting as a girl’s get-a-way was, I did not make it to Iceland until recently and I did not fly in, I arrived by ship. My husband and I had booked a cruise departing Copenhagen and in addition to stops in Norway, we were going to spend three days in Iceland.
I looked forward to the trip with great anticipation and researched all things Iceland. Our ship was first docking in Reykjavik so I decided that we needed to do the tour commonly referred to as the Golden Circle. Prices for this tour seemed a bit high so I did a fair amount of research and eventually opted for a small, shared tour. Our mini bus group consisted of our travelling companions Monty and Annette, ourselves, and six strangers.
Having been assured that the Golden Circle was the thing to do, we enthusiastically boarded the mini bus on a windy, wet September’s day and set off for the Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant. I confess that a power plant tour was not high on my choices of places to visit but it was included in the day’s activities and we thought that at least we would get to see what geothermal energy was all about. Much to my surprise and enjoyment, it was a great place to stop and we came away better informed than when we entered. The tour was enlightening with an instructive guide, wall displays and interactive multimedia installations. We learned that 90% of Icelanders heat their homes by use of geothermal water and that 100% of their electricity comes from renewable sources. I could have stayed there a little longer but we were soon off to take in some of the natural wonders.
We were quickly treated to some spectacular views, rugged scenery and a chance to see a little live geothermal action. It is hard to describe everything we saw and do it all justice, but I will touch on a few highlights.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Thingvellir National Park (Þingvellir) is both an historical site and a national park which is located east of Reykjavik. From the 10th century to the 18th century, it was the site of Iceland’ s parliament. The name Thingvellir, means parliament plains and Iceland's first parliament met here in AD 930. Quite the democratic process as people were allowed to speak and be heard. Our guide pointed out locations where we could see the ruins of old stone shelters.
Our guide also told us about the various species of birds that live in the park and it seems that two of our fellow travellers were bird enthusiasts who kept their binoculars and birding notebooks at the ready in case they spotted anything of interest. I was of little help as I have limited knowledge of the various species so my contributions to their search was limited to pointing and announcing “red bird”, “big funny looking bird” etc.
We did hear the story of how minks were introduced to the area in the 1930s when a few being raised for fur, escaped their confines. Thanks to these "escapees" there is now a thriving mink population in the park. I did not actually see any but the purists in the group tut-tutted over the introduction of a foreign species into the environment.
The Geysir Geothermal Area was another stop and one I quite enjoyed. The time spent here was a little longer than in the other areas and we had the opportunity to take in the sights and have lunch. The restaurant area was very busy and featured long restroom line-ups but given that there were a huge number of tourists, it was not surprising. The food was fine and there was a variety on offer so it was not too difficult to find something to suit everyone’s taste. The big hit of the stop was the geothermal activity.
The geothermal field encompasses a surface area of approximately 3 km. We walked among the little pools of water, sand and volcanic rock as we made our way to the walkway which led us to the Strokkur geyser. The name Strokkur means “the churn”. Apparently it started to sprout around the late 1700s following an earthquake and is currently the most consistent spouting spring in Iceland. Try saying that three times quickly. It erupts every few minutes, and it did not disappoint when we were there. I took videos from various points around the geyser but nothing that really did it justice. The height of each burst varied but all were impressive. This is another spot where I could have spent more time however we had more area to cover and even greater sights to see.
Nature’s showpiece in the Golden Circle awaited us in the form of the Gullfoss waterfall. My notes show that we were told the Langjökull, glacier feeds the Hvítá river which then drops dramatically by way of the falls. The first view we enjoyed was at the top where the water falls with a tremendous roar and a massive show of power. From certain vantage points it looked like the water was disappearing into an abyss. The sight was mesmerizing and I vowed to go back in the winter sometime to see what it looks like with ice.
As we made our way down the walkway beside the river, we could clearly see the second stage of the waterfall and we had a better view of the Gullfossgjúfur canyon. This second area of the waterfall is also spectacular and said to be formed as a result of glacial activity during the last ice age. For those wanting to see this fabulous site, there are numerous viewing points. You can walk down the walkways but for those with mobility concerns, vehicles can drop you off at strategic viewing areas.
I have a brother who lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada and so I regularly visit that area. The Horseshoe falls, which are the Canadian side, is a true testament to the raw power of water. However the proliferation of buildings around the falls and the man made intrusions into the views from either the American or Canadian side, take away from the majestic beauty of this natural wonder. No such hindrances faced us at the Gullfoss waterfall. It is stark in it’s natural beauty and majestic presence. I believe it is a must see for those who visit Iceland.
Our tour stopped at a working farm but the most memorable parts of the Golden Circle was the land and nature's offerings. If you visit Iceland, this is well worth the money spent. For information on Reykjavik itself, read my blog entitled “Reykjavik the City”.