Every place I’ve traveled is different than the last, but that seems especially true in Iceland. For us, Iceland was more about appreciating the island’s natural beauty than visiting places of historical or cultural significance. Like always, we tried to make the most of our short trip; and like always, things didn’t always go according to plan.
IcelandAir’s marketing team are geniuses – travelers flying across the Atlantic are allowed to lay over in Iceland for up to 7 days for no additional cost. You can bet we wanted to take advantage of that!
We arrived in Iceland late in the afternoon on our way back from our Scandinavian cruise. We had three-ish days (one afternoon, two days, and a morning) and wanted to make the most of them. First, we had to find the rental car…
All of the rental car agencies have shuttles that will transport you to their offices about 5 minutes away from the airport – but only the driver is allowed to ride on the shuttle. I waited with the bags while my husband went to get the car. About half an hour later, I started to get worried. Laden down with two huge bags and my backpack, I wasn’t very mobile – and we didn’t have a working cell phone, so there was no way to contact him. I walked around for awhile trying to figure out where he’d be able to pick me up, then finally followed the age-old advice of “if you’re lost, just stay in one location”. It turns out that they wait until the shuttle is full before heading to the offices, which also means there are a lot of people showing up at the offices at once. It’s an exercise in patience.
Armed with our GPS and pre-printed Google Maps, we headed for Reykjavik. About 30 minutes later, we checked into our hotel. The rooms at Hotel Holt were pretty middle of the road, but we were more interested in the proximity to downtown than luxury. After checking in, we donned our coats, gloves, and hats, grabbed a map from the hotel, and were downtown in less than ten minutes.
The downtown area is filled with cute shops, a beautiful church, and great restaurants. We ate dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips, inside the Volcano House at Tryggvagata 11. Their fish and chips are made with tempura batter and are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. We spent the rest of the evening walking around the town, popping into the shops, and trying to sound out words in the native language. It’s tougher than you think!
Day 1 – The Golden Circle Tour
If you’re only in Iceland for a short time, the Golden Circle Tour is a must-do. We had the option of booking a bus tour, but we wanted to experience the sites on our own – not surrounded by masses of tourists. Our stay included a typical European breakfast, so we ate early, grabbed our pre-printed maps and our gps, and got on the road.
The Golden Circle Tour includes five stops – Pingvellir (a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can see the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates), Geysir (a geyser that goes off every 10 minutes), Gullfoss (a huge waterfall), and Kerio (a volcanic crater).
The route is pretty popular, so the entire path is well-marked. The 300km drive takes about 5 hours (without stopping), but in reality this drive takes the better part of a day to complete. The sites are beautiful and we had a difficult time tearing ourselves away from each one.
We made our way around the loop clockwise, stopping at Pingvellir first. A quick note – Pingvellir is actually an incorrect spelling. It’s pronounced Thingvellir, but the first character looks like a “P” in Icelandic, so it’s often written in English with a ‘P’. We were a little confused about where we should pull in, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure that none of the choices would have been wrong. We ended up on the opposite end of where most of the tour buses stopped, but that was fine with us!
The skies had been mostly gray during the journey, but once we arrived, the clouds parted and the blue skies appeared. It was breathtaking.
We walked up toward the tour buses (and crowds) and marveled at the gigantic tectonic plates surrounding us. The crowds quickly got heavy and we made the decision to continue along our journey in hopes of keeping ahead of the buses.
Next, we headed toward Geysir, stopping several times to take pictures along the way.
We kept seeing stacked stones everywhere along the drive – and finally came up to a huge field filled with them, but couldn’t figure out what the deal was. We later discovered that some claim it’s the work of elves, but in reality, it’s the work of tourists. Stacking stones is discouraged because it messes with the natural environment, but tourists continue to do it anyway.
We smelled the geyser before we saw it; we followed the sulfur smell from our car to the geyser and during our short walk, we saw water shooting up from the ground. The Geysir erupts about every 10 minutes, so we waited around for the next eruption. It’s an incredible site to experience.
After seeing the geyser erupt and walking around for a bit, we headed for the Visitor’s Center. It was still early, but we decided to grab a bite to eat since we didn’t know when we’d have another chance. The Visitor’s Center had a pretty large selection; it wasn’t anything to write home about and like everything else in Iceland, it’s more expensive than we’re used to, but it was filling and warm, so we were happy. We also had fun visiting the large gift shop, trying on the fluffy hats and picking out souvenirs. Our best purchase by far though was the sea salt caramel chocolate bars we bought as an impulse while checking out. I only wish we’d bought more – they were delicious!
Our next stop was Gullfoss, considered one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls. There are a couple of different viewpoints – one at the same level as the gift shop, another down several flights of sometimes slippery stairs. The view from both is worth it.
Our last stop along the Golden Circle was Kerio, a volcanic crater surrounded by red volcanic rock. Don’t get duped like we did – just by the entrance, there’s a booth with a person collecting an “entrance fee”. It’s not a large fee (about $3), but it’s not actually required in order to get access to the crater. We didn’t feel bad about paying – especially if the money is going to protect the site – but I wish we’d known it wasn’t required.
But… our day wasn’t over yet! While doing research for our trip, I heard of a new attraction called “Into the Glacier” that offers trips into a man-made ice cave. It was opening just a few days before we arrived. After much hemming and hawing at the expense, we made reservations and couldn’t wait!
So we set out on the road headed toward Husafell – or so we thought. So, a note of caution… it’s not wise to rely on GoogleMaps when trying to find a place whose native language uses a non-English character set and letters with accents. We ended up driving down a dirt path, over a large hill while natives stared (and probably laughed) at the obviously-lost tourists. We finally stopped at a gas station to ask for directions only to discover that Húsafell was several hours from where we were.
There was no way we were going to make it there before the last tour the day. We were bummed that we missed it and upset that we were out the money, but we didn’t let it get us down for long.
Some good news after we got back home – Since the tour had just opened, I emailed the company to suggest they add directions onto their website so that others didn’t run into the same issue we did. The company thanked me for my suggestion and actually refunded our money – something I wasn’t expecting, but was VERY grateful for. If we ever go back to Iceland (when we go back to Iceland), we’ll definitely put this tour on our list again.
Day Two: Tour with Always Iceland
For our second day in Iceland, we’d arranged a tour with Always Iceland. Our tour guide, Oli, picked us up bright and early in his modified super jeep and we headed out of town. In our initial conversations, we’d told Oli that we were planning to do the Golden Circle Tour on our own, but were flexible with whatever he wanted to show us. He didn’t disappoint! The tours with Always Iceland aren’t cheap, but are definitely worth the expense. We’d booked a tour, thinking that other people would fill the empty slots, but it turned out we were the only ones on a tour that day. Oli drove us around the southern part of the island for about 8 hours – he was a wonderful guide, answering all of our questions (about elves and stacked stones), and showed us some magnificent sites.
After a lot of off-road driving and forging through rivers (no, not streams… rivers), our first stop was the base of a glacier. Apparently they filmed part of the new Star Wars movie there! We spent a lot of time wandering around (and freezing) before heading back out to tour more of Iceland.
Oli took us to see the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, several waterfalls, an abandoned Navy plane that crashed, a black sand beach (where they filmed the moon landing, according to some), the ocean, a lighthouse… a little bit of everything it seemed! Oli was a fantastic tour guide.
Day 3: Blue Lagoon and the Airport
Before our flight home, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon for a soak in the natural hot spring. The day before, Oli had told us that there are better (and cheaper) springs we could visit, but it was one of those things we wanted to check off the list. I’m glad we went, but I wouldn’t return. It’s expensive and crowded. Since we didn’t have reservations, we had to wait awhile before we were able to get in. It was freezing outside, but nice and warm in the lagoon.
And then suddenly, it was time to head home. We were sad to leave, although the nice spring weather waiting for us made it a little easier to say good bye. We’ll be back!