Eventually we reached Gullfoss, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. The wide river Hvítá rushes southward and about a kilometre above the falls it turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide curved three step staircase and then abruptly plunges in two stages into a crevice thirty-two metres deep. The crevice is about twenty metres wide, and is at right angles to the flow of the river which results in a dramatic water plunge and an atmosphere full of hanging water mist.
Tag Archives: Golden Circle
Eventually we reached Geysir in the Haukadalur valley, which is the oldest known geyser and one of the world’s most impressive examples of the natural phenomenon. I had seen geysers before at Yellowstone National Park in the USA but these here were even more impressive. We followed the path past the bubbling mud pots and the belching steam vents and joined a bus tour party who had an entertaining and informative guide.
There were about thirty other mud pots and water pools and it was a good job that we had the benefit of the tour guide because he was giving sound advice on temperatures and what you could comfortably touch and what you couldn’t because some of the pools contained boiling water that would strip flesh from fingers and would have involved an unplanned trip to the infirmary.
I have been posting here since 2009 and for the first time in six years I have had a request. My blogging friend Sue from Travel Tales of Life has asked me to put together of top ten things to do in Iceland and I am therefore delighted to offer these suggestions.
This may seem rather too obvious to mention but I do so because some friends of mine recently visited Iceland and stayed in Kevlavik. The man at the hotel gave then some useful travel tips but bizarrely suggested that it wasn’t really worth going to Reykjavik because it is just a city. Now, I would guess that unless all you want to see are whales and puffins then a visit to the capital of the country is on everyone’s itinerary. If you ever stay in that particular hotel then I urge you to ignore the ‘don’t bother with Reykjavik’ advice!
So, some top things to do in Reykjavik:
On the seafront along a granite boulder promenade you will find the Sólfar Suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side.
Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the story goes that the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the comforting plumes of hot steam that were escaping from the nearby hot springs.
Hallgrímskirkja is the Lutheran Cathedral and the tallest building in the city which took nearly forty years to build and was consecrated in 1986. The design is said to be based on a geyser plume or a lava flow but if you ask me it looks more like a space shuttle about to blast off.
The main purpose for visiting the cathedral is to take the lift to the observation tower at the top of the seventy-three metre tall tower. It cost 700 krona (about £3) and it was worth every one because from the top there are glorious uninterrupted views in all directions, to the sea in the west, the glaciers in the north, the islands in the south and the ragged coastline to the east.
I am confident to declare the Penis Museum the oddest in the World, even more bizarre (although I haven’t been there) than the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in the USA, the Dog Collar Museum in the UK or the Toilet Museum in New Delhi, India. If anyone has any alternative suggestions by-the-way then I am happy to consider them for inclusion in this list!
“…collecting penises is like collecting anything. You can never stop, you can never catch up, you can always get a new one, a better one a bigger size or better shape…” Museum owner, Sigurður Hjartarson
The hidden people are called Huldufólk and are special here and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders. What makes seeing them difficult is that they are invisible and Icelanders prefer big people to be careful in case you accidentally step on one and they even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible people.
These are said to be thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the Icelandic people and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist and if you only need one reason to visit Iceland then that must surely be it!
Unfortunately the sighting of this natural phenomena cannot be guaranteed, it is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is assured to see them (unless you happen to be Joanna Lumley making a television programme that is) and many people leave disappointed.
“Always travel in hope, rather than expectation, of seeing the Northern Lights. For the best chances of seeing the lights, head north – but not too far. ” Alistair McLean, Founder of The Aurora Zone.
“No waterfall in Europe can match Gullfoss. In wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagra Falls in the United States” From the Travel Diary of two Danes in the retinue of Frederick VII of Denmark (1907).
The falls are where the wide Hvítá river, swollen with melt waters from the nearby glacier rush southward and about a kilometre above the falls turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide curved three step staircase before abruptly plunging in two stages into a crevice thirty-two metres deep with a thunderous roar and unstoppable force.
The river is wild and untamed dashing madly over rocks and advancing like a cavalry charge racing to the precipice and the final crevice which is about twenty metres wide, and is at right angles to the flow of the river which results in a dramatic water plunge and an atmosphere full of hanging mist which leaves no one in any doubt about the wonderful power of nature.
The original great Geyser erupts only infrequently now so you could be a long time hanging around waiting for a show. Apparently people used to encourage it to blow by pouring soap powder into the borehole as this was a generally reliable way of encouraging it to perform but eventually this stopped working because the residue of the soap clogged up the underground vents and geologists now believe that it requires a dramatic event such as an earthquake to set it off again.
Luckily the nearby geyser Strokkur erupts much more regularly every five minutes or so to heights of up to twenty metres (that’s the equivalent of about five London double decker buses). Crowds of people gather expectantly around the glassy pool waiting for the translucent blue water bubble to foam and then dramatically break through the surface forcing many gallons of boiling water and hissing steam into the air.
This is the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly. This was called the Althing and was an open-air assembly that represented the whole of Iceland that was established in the year 930 and continued to meet for eight hundred and fifty years or so after that.
This history and the powerful natural setting of the assembly grounds has given the site iconic status as a national shrine and on 17th June 1944 thousands of Icelanders flocked to this place for the historic foundation of the modern independent republic of Iceland.
This is also a place where the land is literally tearing itself apart in a sort of messy divorce settlement as the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet and are in continual conflict with each other as they are drifting slowly apart at a rate of 3mm per year, which may not sound a lot but in geological terms is almost as fast as Usain Bolt!
This place is horribly commercialised and wickedly expensive but having travelled all this way it is stubbornly on most people’s ‘to do’ list.
The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The steamy waters are part of a landscape constructed by lava formation with warm waters that are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and are used as a skin exfoliant. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages a very comfortable 40° centigrade all year round.
If anyone is put off by the absurd €40 basic admission price (a premium spa and treatments package costs a wallet busting €430) there are a number of alternative geothermal heated pools in Reykjavik without the marketing hype for only a fraction of the price (but also without the location).
So, that is my top ten Iceland suggestions. There are other things to do of course like whale watching, pony trekking, hiking and land rover safaris to the glaciers but I haven’t done any of those. Yet!
Sue also suggested a list of things not to do in Iceland and I can only think of one – Don’t get too close to an active volcano especially if you haven’t taken out the additional volcano damage insurance on the hire car!
This was a second visit to Iceland and the first since the crash of 2008 so there were some significant changes – mostly financial.
In 2008 the economy bombed, the krona has lost more than half its value. GDP dropped by 10% in under a year and unemployment hit a forty year high. Following negotiations with the IMF a massive rescue package of $4.6bn was agreed by a combination of loans and currency swaps from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In addition the little Faroe Islands offered 300m Danish kroner, which was roughly the equivalent of the United Kingdom lending 300 billion Danish krona or 35 billion pounds! How generous was that.
Six years previously I had found the country horrendously expensive but immediately after the crash the krona lost fifty percent of its value against the euro and even taking into account six years of relatively high inflation, which even now remains high at over 5%, I was rather hoping for cheaper prices this time and I was not disappointed because I estimate that the tourist cost of living was only about 65% of the costs of 2007.
The smugness of 2007 had been completely wiped away and coffee shops, bars and restaurants were now all eager for business and visitors’ money, beer was cheaper, wine was cheaper and food was cheaper. Hotels were no more expensive than anywhere else in Europe and local businesses were keen to accommodate visitors.
One place that wasn’t cheaper was the ludicrously overpriced ‘Blue Lagoon’ and I would recommend visitors to Iceland to definitely give this overrated attraction a miss. Since our last visit to Iceland in 2007 the cost of everything seemed to have become more reasonable but the entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon had rocketed from €20 to €34 and that was only for the standard winter entrance which rises to €40 in the summer and which includes no more than an hour or so in the water. At the premium end of the scale of charges is the luxury experience which costs a whopping €430 – EACH! The Blue Lagoon boasts about four hundred thousand visitors a year so this place is making serious money.
And talking of rip-offs visitors should also beware of car hire scams. Unfortunately hiring a car on line is as big a financial minefield as booking a low cost flight with a range of confusing add ons and exclusions all designed to generate additional revenue. Sixt have come up with a brilliant wheeze. I thought that I had purchased fully comprehensive insurance but the desk clerk told me that the cars suffered so many stone chips because of the gravel roads in Iceland that this had now been excluded and could be purchased at an additional cost of €9 a day under the description ‘gravel damage’.
Then it became almost surreal when he explained that further cover was available at €10 a day for volcano damage. Volcano damage – WTF? Upon enquiry he told me that if a volcano explodes it can generate enough heat to strip the paint off the car and that this was not covered either. Well, I considered this for a moment and came to the conclusion that if I was close enough to an exploding volcano for it to strip the paint off the car that I was likely to be in a lot of trouble and great personal danger and the last thing that I was going to be worried about as I was surely burnt to a cinder and my flesh was stripped from my blackened bones was the condition of the paintwork on the hire car, so I declined the offer to purchase the additional cover.
As a postscript to this point I would like to point out to Sixt car hire that as we drove around over the next few days I didn’t see a single car stripped down to bare metal so I have come to the inescapable conclusion that volcano damage insurance is a complete con.
But I/we did enjoy Iceland, we had a nice hotel, found an excellent restaurant (Harry’s Bar), drove the Golden Circle and on the final night got to see the Northern Lights just as we had given up all hope of seeing the spectacular light show.
I am tempted now to return to Iceland, maybe in June and experience the midnight sun but this time I would miss Reykjavik because I have been there twice now and seen all that there is to see but I think I would hire a car (perhaps not from Sixt) and circumnavigate the island, that would be about one thousand, five hundred kilometres but I am guessing that this would be a wonderful experience.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery…
“Since its first known eruption 16.5 million years ago, it (Yellowstone) has blown up about a hundred times….The last eruption was a thousand times as that of Mount St. Helens (in 1980), the one before that was 280 times as big and the one before that was so big that no one knows how big it was” Bill Bryson – ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’
My previous post about the Icelandic Geysers reminded me of my visit to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming USA in 1995 and the spectacle of an ever higher tower of boiling water and steam than the one that we had seen today.
Yellowstone was designated as a National Park in 1872 when President Ulysses S Grant signed a new law ordering ‘the tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to be set apart as a public park’ and in so doing it became the first National Park in the USA and indeed the world.
The park is sensationally beautiful with stately snow capped peaks, lush meadows with lazy herds of grazing bison, meandering rivers like sapphire ribbons amidst the yellow-green prairie and tumbling streams, a magnificent sky blue lake and bounteous wildlife.
But there is danger too because Yellowstone is what is called a caldera (from a Latin word for cauldron) which is a volcano that collapses rather than builds a mountain and it sits precariously on top of a reservoir of restless molten rock about two hundred kilometres below the surface of the earth that rises here close to the fractured surface and is the reason for all of the geysers, bubbling mud pots and hot springs that are scattered liberally around the park and belch and spit continuously.
At least 22 people are known to have died from hot spring-related injuries in and around Yellowstone since 1890. Most of the deaths have been accidents, although at least two people had been trying to swim in a hot spring, park historian Lee Whittlesey, author of the book “Death in Yellowstone“.
In 2016 a man wandered off the boardwalks walked over the fragile crust and slipped into an acidic hot spring. His body was boiled and dissolved leaving no trace except for a few personal belongings.
People do other dumb things in Yellowstone. Also in 2016 Canadian man loaded a bison calf into his SUV because he thought it was cold. The calf later had to be destroyed because it could not be reunited with its herd.
The magma chamber is about sixty- five kilometres across and about twelve kilometres thick so that is something to bear in mind when wandering about leisurely admiring the scenery because if (when) it goes off again it is going to be rather uncomfortable for anyone standing nearby.
There are more geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone than in all of the rest of the World put together and whilst we were there we obviously stopped off to see the most well-known and reliable geyser in the park. Old Faithful is a popular tourist spot where the geyser erupts promptly every seventy minutes or so and there are grandstands arranged an appropriate distance away from the boiling steam for the visitors to sit and admire the spectacle. An eruption can shoot anything from 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of boiling water to a height of fifty five metres and can last from one to five minutes. The average height of an eruption is forty four metres and that’s about the equivalent of about ten London double decker buses.
Previously the most famous geyser in the park was Excelsior, which used to erupt regularly to a height of a hundred metres but, as with the Great Geysir in Iceland, in 1888 it just stopped and didn’t erupt again for a hundred years. One day Old Faithful will no doubt just stop in exactly the same way.
The biggest geyser in the park and indeed the world is the Steamboat geyser which blows to a height of one hundred and twenty metres but this spectacle is most infrequent and inconveniently unpredictable and you really wouldn’t want to sit waiting for it because that could waste more than half of your life away.
Now we began to appreciate fully the landscape and as the sun began to appear through broken clouds we stopped for a while to enjoy the spaciousness of the countryside. First we found some Icelandic ponies that are unique to this country and then stopped for magnificent views of the River Sog with the sun hugging the horizon and shooting shafts of brightness through the heavy clouds.
The landscape was more mountainous now with deep black fissures and verdant green moss and litchen, which was a sure sign that the air was clean and free of industrial pollutants. The black granite mountains were capped with generous amounts of snow and below the frost line the ice was dripping down the side like gloss paint dribbling messily down the side of a pot.
The weather was a bit of a surprise because we had interpreted ‘Ice land’ rather more literally than we should have and were expecting sub zero temperatures, mountainous snow and lots of ice. What we hadn’t taken fully into consideration was the effect of the gulf stream that delivers warm water from the Caribbean directly to the south of Iceland and thereby keeps the temperature unexpectedly mild