Iceland 2013 – Arrival, The Golden Circle, & the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular

Iceland has long been on my wish list of places to visit and finally got the chance, together with my Mum and Sister (Katie), to visit for 10 days in May 2013.  Although rather than ticking it off the list the experience has left me wanting to return for more!

We arrived in Iceland on May 24th at the Keflavík international airport on a 2.5 hour flight from the UK with EasyJet.  From the airport it was very easy to take the FlyBus the 50km to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.  The took us along the Reykjanes peninsular, which has quite a barren landscape with pitted lava fields as far as the eye can see.  After checking into our basic but excellent value guesthouse near the city centre we had a walk through Reykjavik, which was quite lively as it was a Friday night.  Two thirds of Iceland’s population (circa. 300k) live in the capital, so this is unsurprisingly the busiest place in the country.  However, the world’s most northerly capital is a quaint place, set against a backdrop of snowy mountains it has colourful buildings and giving it something between a seaside town and a big city vibe.


Getting around Iceland is tricky without your own vehicle, so the following day we picked up a hire car from the ominously named, but recommended, SADCar Rentals.  Car hire is very expensive in Iceland but SADCars offer older cars to their customers for reasonable prices – we had a slightly battered Toyota Carolla that gave us no problems.


Despite having lived in Germany for a while this was my first time driving on the right, something that I was a little nervous about.  However, as Iceland’s roads and very quiet, with only Reykjavik having any sort of ‘traffic’, I found I soon picked it up and felt comfortable.  On our first full day in Iceland we drove around ‘The Golden Circle’, which is a popular tourist route looping around 300km from Reykjavik into the central highlands and back – taking in three of Iceland’s main sights along the way.

The first stop, only 30km from Reykjavik is Þingvellir, a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance.  The site marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  There are some good views, where the fault lines can clearly be seen, at the lookout point at the visitor centre on the shore of the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn.  It’s a special place and must have been for Iceland’s ancestors too, as they founded the world’s oldest Parliament (Alþingi) here in AD 930.  Though the site is no longer used for such purposes Þingvellir continues to play a central role in the history of the country today.  We had a little walk and came across a wooden house on the shores of the lake, which I later learned was the Prime Minister’s summer residence – I had just walked up to it and had a nose through the window!


Next stop was at the site of Geysir, which is a Geyser that has given its name (derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, “to gush”), to all others in the world as it was the first one known to modern Europeans.  It has been know to erupt up to 70 meters in the air, but sadly this has been infrequent since rocks were put into the blow hole in the 1950’s by some tourists looking to trigger an eruption.  Thankfully there is a geyser nearby, Strokkur, that erupts every 5 mins or so up to 15-20m high.  As you can imagine it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but the reliable Strokkur makes for impressive viewing.


The final stop on the Golden Circle was probably my favourite, the three-step waterfall ‘Gullfoss’ on the Hvítá river.  It is simple massive, with powerful flows of water pounding over it into a crevice below – on first approach it looks like it the water vanishes in into the depths of the earth!  There are easy walking trails that take you above and alongside the waterfall, although be careful of the spray blown up – we got absolutely soaked.  Nevertheless, it was an awe-inspiring view.


Traditionally people have visited Gullfoss for a coffee as there has been a café here since the 1920’s.  We’d had a coffee earlier though, and being hungry opted for some hearty Lamb Stew to warm us up after getting cold in the chilly winds outside.

On our second day we leisurely drove about 170km north west from Reykjavik to the Snaesfellsnes Peninsular, which is crowned by the  glistening ice cap of the Snæfellsjökull.  We
didn’t leave Reykjavik though until we had fully enjoyed its lovely café culture and some delicious Danish pastries at the fantastic Bakarí Sandholt. Soon after leaving the city we went through a 6km tunnel under Hvalfjörður (“Whale fjord”), which went under a mountain and an estuary – for a while it felt like we were descending into the depths of the earth, a fantastic feat of engineering!  Once on the other side of the tunnel the scenery changed to big volcanic peaks, with long fields of lava flows, we stopped regularly to take it all in.


We drove right around the peninsular and did a walk from the lighthouse at Malariff to some interesting lava formations.  Mum, as always, had her a binoculars out and spotted what we think was an Orca (Killer Whale) in the bay – we only saw the thin long fin but it certainly looked like an Orca to us.  Pretty cool to see 🙂


On the peninsular we encountered our first gravel roads (Iceland has many!) and one is particular was a mountain pass with stunning views, gushing waterfalls, and dramatic bends.  We stayed at the little fishing community of Grundarfjörður in an apartment ran by the local hostel, right on the idyllic bay surrounded by sugar-loaf peaks.  The sun didn’t really go down during our stay in Iceland, but we did have some nice sunsets whilst in Grundarfjörður.   NB:  There’s a really cool hotdog van in Grundarfjörður that is very worth trying!


It was pretty cold with some very strong icy winds whilst we were on the peninsula, but nevertheless we did several walks around it.  Including ascending the 73m holy peak of Helgafell, which, as legend has it, grants three wishes to those who reach the top.  The walk to the top starts at a small quaint church and in order for your wish to come true you must start at the grave of an ancient local heroine in its graveyard, then walk up to the top without muttering a single word or looking back along the way, at the chapel ruins at the top you must turn east while wishing and make your request with a pure heart.  This we all did, despite the strong wind making virtually impossible to stand up (the chapel made a good shelter, and the views were very impressive.


To escape the relentless cold winds we also visited the harbour town of Stykkishólmur for a warming cup of coffee and a look round the Volcano museum (Eldfjallasafn), which offered some interesting info on Iceland’s volcanic eruptions – including the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.    Down the road at Bjarnarhöfn, with a taste for adventure (literally), we visited the region’s leading producer of Hákarl (putrid Greenland shark meat, aka. rotting shark meat) – a traditional Icelandic dish.  There’s a small museum where the friendly owner showed us the process of catching the sharks and fermenting the meat – basically hanging it in the wind to dry for four to five months.  We saw a recently caught (dead) shark, and the drying house at the back, and of course had a little nibble on the delicacy(?) – rubbery and fishy – washed down with some Rye bread.  An interesting experience.


We stayed on the windswept peninsular for two nights before heading north on the windy gravel road along its northern shore.  I’ll cover the second half of our trip in Iceland in another post, but in the meantime you can view photos of our trip here.

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