So you want to drive Iceland’s Golden Circle and you want to do it right? You’ve come to the perfect place. We started our journey around the Golden Circle by leaving the Blue Lagoon and going down Route 36, stopping first at Thingvellir National Park. It was dark and we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us for most of the journey.
Lesson #1: During Icelandic winters, everything closes before 9pm. We wound up stopping for dinner not too far from Reykjavik at a sticky-tabled American-style diner, plastered with pinup girls, and wedged between a Domino’s and a KFC. Toto, are we still in Kansas?
Trying to “eat like the locals”, we ordered off the Value Menu and spent about $20 each on under seasoned burgers. If you’re making this same journey, you should certainly splurge at the Blue Lagoon or stock up the van earlier at one of those Bonus markets with the Pig as their logo.
Anyways, I digress.
The Northern Lights
We made our way towards Thingvellir National Park. While we were driving we saw a flickering green light in the distance. Neither of us had ever seen the Northern Lights before and we weren’t too sure what to expect. In my mind, I pictured it like a movie screen. All of a sudden the sky would go from pitch black to technicolor, like magic. Though this did not happen, we did get front row seats to the show. The flickering green light got stronger and stronger until eventually we just had to pull over. We watched the lights dance across the sky for 45 minutes or so like holograms. I was so amazed, I forgot to take out my camera. Guess that tripod was a really great investment, huh?
Thingvellir National Park
That same spot we pulled over at wound up being our campsite for the night. In Iceland you can pretty much pull over anywhere, park your car and go to sleep – no questions asked. Ain’t that amazing?
Thingvellir is famous because this is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Each year they slowly drift further and further apart from one another creating fissures in the earth. The most well known of these is the Silfra fissure. That’s what we came for! Yup, sounds crazy but we drove out here so that we would be ready for a chilly morning of snorkeling.
Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure
Iceland is the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two continents, so that was first on the agenda. Suiting up for the dive took more time than the actual dive, but it was totally worth the effort. I can’t recommend this experience enough! Just make sure you get your fair share of hot chocolate and cookies afterwards and you’re set.
The Strokkur Geyser
After some hysterically awkward undressing, we made our way back to the camper van and onto the Strokkur geyser. For some reason I have a lot of trouble saying this word and repeatedly called it a geisha. Just in case you’re on my level a geyser is not a Japanese girl with awesome makeup, a geyser is actually a hot spring that erupts like a volcano every once in a while. The water has the unfortunate smell of rotten eggs, but if you can get past that, it’s pretty incredible. This particular geyser is the only active one in the area. It erupts every 8-10 minutes. Luckily, we got there just as it went off. We’ve got skills.
Strokkur is a major tourist attraction, but like anywhere in Iceland it’s not too crowded. Strokkur also has some great soup, a good local beer selection and an impressive gift shop. We warmed up and had a delicious, yet expensive, lunch here before continuing our Golden Circle adventure.
En route to our next stop, we met some feisty Icelandic horses. One fellah was biting my zipper. I don’t think he wanted me to leave – or maybe he was just hungry? They won’t be hard to find, but be sure you stop to say hello. Icelandic horses are one of Iceland’s most sacred treasures. They were brought to the island over 1000 years ago by the first Norwegian settlers. Today there are over 100 names, colors, varieties and patterns. To keep the breed true, any horse that leave the island, is not allowed back. Talk about Mean Girls.
The Gullfoss Waterfall
The Gullfoss Waterfall, or the Golden Waterfall, is one of the Golden Circle’s coveted hotspots. It’s located just off the main route so there’s a bit of backtracking involved to get there. Once you arrive you have to park in a large surface lot and make your way down a long wooden staircase. This leads you to the edge where you can get a great view of the water falling from the sky.
The Secret Lagoon
Just as we were leaving Gullfoss, the sun started setting and snow started falling. We drove a short distance to the Secret Lagoon. Since we were living in a camper van our strategy was rather simple: Go to as many lagoons as possible to stay clean. Clever, no?
This was the simplest of all the lagoons we visited. It had a more local vibe and the water was exceptionally hot due to a small active geyser just feet away from the main pool. They say you can see the Northern Lights from here, but with the snow that wasn’t possible.
All that pampering worked up a huge appetite. Hoping to skip the Value Meal dinner from the night before, we made a smart move and asked the man working at the Secret Lagoon if he had any recommendations. He chose Mika – a family owned joint not too far away.
Expecting something similar to the night before, we had very low expectations for this meal. Mika was a pleasant surprise. Actually, this was some of the best food we ate in Iceland. Sure, everything was expensive – like holy crap expensive, but a girl’s gotta eat!
The family supports local farmers and uses the freshest ingredients in Iceland. This is certainly one of the Golden Circle’s hidden gems.
Oh and did I mention they make homemade chocolates too? Yeah. Just go.
After our Golden Circle drive we didn’t head back to Reykjavik. Instead, we spent a few more days driving Iceland’s famous Ring Road. On our way back to the city the last day, we made one last Golden Circle stop: Laugarvatn Fontana.
Laugarvatn Fontana is another of Iceland’s world renowned geothermal spas. It is the ultimate place to relax after a week on the road. Laugarvatn Fontana also has its own restaurant with a healthy and local lunch and dinner buffet daily. One of the highlights is the homemade rye bread they bake on site. I definitely recommend hanging around after you get out the pools.
Some final thoughts on the Golden Circle…
Driving the Golden Circle without stopping, takes about three hours. You’re certainly going to want to stop over and over again, so be sure to give yourself at least a day, or better yet, rent a camper van and continue on the Ring Road!