A Visit to Iceland: South Coast + Golden Circle
It’s Iceland week at Umami Girl! This is the first of three posts highlighting our visit to the southwestern part of this fascinating country. Today it’s the waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and glaciers of the south coast and “Golden Circle.” Later in the week we’ll tour Reykjavik and stop into Blue Lagoon, a hot-spring spa that’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
We loved Iceland, so these may seem like sponsored posts, but they aren’t. We traveled independently and received no payments or freebies of any kind. It’s a little embarrassing, really. I should maybe get on that for next time.
How we got there
We took advantage of Icelandair’s Stopover program, through which you can spend up to seven nights in Iceland on your way to any of 20-plus European destinations for no additional airfare. Stopover airfare is often less expensive than flying directly to Europe, though in our case it didn’t work out that way due to the strength of the dollar versus the euro at that time. Iceland itself is on the pricey side, so Icelandair has a good thing going with reasonable airfares, encouraging potential tourists to bite the bullet. They must be doing well, too, because Icelandic tourism is on a dramatic rise. The country’s population is around 300,000, and last year alone they hosted about 1.1 million tourists. It makes me wonder if there’s even anyone left to read this post.
We knew we wanted to spend some time in London early in the summer visiting friends and revisiting old haunts, and we wanted to explore Santorini as well — more on those weeks later this fall. We’d heard so much about Iceland in recent years, from friends both in England and the states, that we couldn’t resist taking a few days (four full days plus two travel days) to explore Iceland on the way.
How we rolled
If you’ve read any of the numerous travel posts on Umami Girl to date, you know we don’t normally hop on a tour bus and surrender our schedule to anyone. Iceland felt different, though. We didn’t think we could do justice to the combination of geology, history, language and culture on offer without some heavyweight local help.
We split the difference: we spent two nonconsecutive days with GeoIceland (touring the Golden Circle and Southern Coast), a great little company that takes small groups of people on tours around southwest Iceland; and we left the other two days to fend for ourselves.
Our tour guide on both GeoIceland days was an entertaining and knowledgable man named Sigurdur Albert, whose strengths include Icelandic pride, deadpan humor and the ability to drive a Mercedes Sprinter minibus very close to a receding glacier. In addition to seeing and learning about the strange, beautiful landscape and geology (most of which, let’s be honest, is already a bit of a blur), we learned some excellent trivia. I won’t spoil too much, because I want you to go on these tours too. But to name a few:
- Modern Icelandic people can read Old English without a problem because after thousands of years of divergent evolution, their language is way more similar to Old English than ours is.
- Fully 10 percent of adult Icelanders have published a book.
- Iceland has a 100 percent literacy rate.
- (Bonus unspoken — and, honestly, largely uncontested — fact from Sigurdur Albert: all of this means Icelandic culture is generally superior.)
How we rocked
(Get it? This is the geology section. Oh boy.) Now is when I limit myself to photos and anecdotes so as not to butcher too many verifiable facts. As you probably know, from, like, real life or TV or because you were trying to fly somewhere from Europe in 2010 or 2014, Iceland is volcano central. There are 30 active volcanic systems on an island approximately the size of Virginia. All this geologic tumult is due to the fact that Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge, which is where the North American tectonic plate meets the Eurasian tectonic plate. The plates are separating at about two centimeters per year, and although this activity occurs primarily underwater, there are spots on land where you can see the gap. I MEAN. Right?
Here are a couple of photos that make it look like things get a little intense when the plates separate. Which, let’s be honest, they prolly do.
But then, oh hey, here’s a photo that makes the earth prying itself apart seem positively majestic. Which I guess it also is. This is a little bit of the Silfra fissure in Thingvellir National Park, and I hear it’s the only place in the world where you can snorkel between tectonic plates.
We didn’t snorkel. Maybe next time, when all family members have graduated from Pollywog 1 at the Y. But just because we didn’t snorkel doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say about the creatures inhabiting the crevasse.
Because I do.
In our travels I’ve been noticing that hipsters have ruined my razor-sharp ability to tell Americans and Europeans apart from afar. Slight frames, waxed mustaches, statement glasses — who could know anymore? But at Thingvellir the situation came to a head in the best of all possible ways.
We watched a guy in skinny jeans, hood-up hoodie and berserk facial hair literally crawl into the crack in the earth between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It was like witnessing a hipster being born again. Half American, half European. What an apt ceremony.
He took a selfie. I took a moment to admire the beauty of my ironic worldview playing out in a literal way in front of my face.
Not that anything could compare with that, but here’s a little more of our experience at Thingvellir National Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and the home of Althing, the world’s oldest existing parliamentary institution, but mostly we just modeled hats and gave piggyback rides.
Iceland’s waterfall situation is out of control. There’s one you can walk behind and one you can drink from. Come ON.
The top photo in this post, in case you’ve been wondering, is Gulfoss. And here’s Skógafoss. Foss foss foss, am I right?
Here’s the waterfall at Faxi, which isn’t huge but has great lines, as nobody says about waterfalls.
And then, my favorite and everyone’s favorite, Seljalandsfoss. Look at us standing behind it like a bunch of wet little penguins.
Here’s what a waterfall looks like from behind (and what my family sounds like while they wait for me to show you).
Okay, let me just say right now that my photographic timing did not work out in the geyser department. This is Geysir, a spouting hot spring, and the reason we call all the rest of them geysers today. It erupts every few minutes, sometimes shooting steamy water 200 feet into the air. You’ll have to trust me. See all those people standing there? They know.
Flora + Fauna
These beautiful lupines abound in the Icelandic countryside. They look magical, but they’re contentious because they aren’t native. They’re from Alaska, and in the mid 20th century someone dumped a bunch of them here. People worry that they’re choking out biodiversity by killing native plants.
These guys, on the other hand, everyone is happy about. They’re wild horses, and if they happen to be hanging out when you drive by, Segurdur Albert will spot ya some bread to feed them.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
It wasn’t exactly bikini weather even in July, but we really enjoyed our stop at Reynisfjara beach. This iconic seaside spot has black pebbles on the ground and geometric basalt columns along its cliffs. Also, puffins! Legend has it the two basalt sea stacks a little ways from shore, called Reynisdrangar, were trolls who were trying to drag a ship to land but turned to stone at daylight. Icelanders seem to take their legends seriously, so I’ll leave it at that.
What would Iceland be without ice? Given how much Solheimajökull has receded in recent years, I’m afraid we might find out one day. But for now, you can hike along beautiful blue-tinged glacial landscapes to your heart’s content. GeoIceland offers a tour with several hours on the glacier, for which they recommend some light additional equipment (ice walkers and a bag lunch — let’s be honest, meals are key when you’re glacier walking). But the regular south coast tour for laypeople includes some time to get acquainted with Solheimajökull too.
Can you spot the polar bear?
And that, my friends, is how we do tour days in Iceland.
Bye for now! See you in Reykjavik.
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