Our last fours days in Iceland have been spent in the area with the highest concentration of tourists. It’s the section at the front of every guidebook: Southwest Iceland & The Golden Circle. After all of our awesome glacier doin’s, we landed in Vik on the south coast. 177 miles away from Reykjavik, Vik is outside of the official Golden Circle, but well within the layover destination circle, and we found things to be more expensive and crowded.
It was also very wet. It rained, and rained, and then, on the third day for a change, it rained some more. This wasn’t the drizzle we have occasionally experienced, this was proper downpour with cold winds as an added bonus. For two days, every picture I took looked like this:
Yep, you are right…that picture is taken from the car. We got really rain lazy. After a while, it just gets in and sucks the will to be active out of you on a cold blast of Icelandic wind. By the third day, we were getting a bit cabin feverish, so we climbed into our rustling rainpants, donned the waterproof jackets, and decided to hike 2 miles uphill to see a waterfall because that’s just what you do here.
We were staying just south of Skaftafell National Park, which is the home of Iceland’s most emo waterfall: Svartifoss. Translated as Black Falls, Svartifoss tumbles down between two basalt column walls. The columns have a tendency to snap off and the remains lie around the base of the falls in a jumbled heap. This waterfall is very into the Cure.
Basalt columns are all over the place here, as they need lava to grow, or something like that. I am a bit hazy on the details, so I will let my new favorite person tell you about them:
Only the few and the proud had decided to trek to see the falls on this horrible day, and we all congratulated ourselves on being very wet, muddy and completely over the weather. The ‘easy’ trail was being repaired, so we had to take the 4×4 route through the mud and puddles. There was a lot of unspoken but obvious regret amongst the group regarding shoe and pant decisions. Fortunately, John and I were dressed head to toe in sexy rain gear, and while we couldn’t commit a crime that relied on sneaking up on anyone, we were as protected as you could be in sideways rain with an accompanying 15mph wind. Even then, we were fairly soaked around the edges when we got back to the welcome center.
At the welcome center, we joined the queue for the bathrooms and eventually got to change out of our wet clothes. I changed into my new snugly warm Icelandic sweater, which, other than the splat of cowshit on my raincoat, is my favorite souvenir from the trip. It’s thick, it’s very wooly, and it’s bloody warm. Carrying grocery bags full of dripping clothes, we left Skaftafell armed with delicious chocolate and pringles. These items, combined with chorizo, cheese, and crackers made for a lunch fit for royalty…although we could have found a more scenic spot for it.
When you are damp to the core, and there’s nothing but more rain in the future, what do you do? You find a geothermal pool and submerge until you can feel your toes again. Fortunately for us, the Secret Lagoon (they need to work a bit on the name because we found it, no probs) was just up the road from the farm we had booked for the night. I haven’t spent a lot of time in hot tubs; something about them just grosses me out…it could have been all the Real World I watched as a teenager: shit always went down in the hot tub. I do enjoy bubble baths, although I have never found one big enough to sink into like you see in the movies. Every bath I have taken as an adult ends up with me just sitting in water that comes halfway up my arms, and any effort to slide down and just stick out my head is thwarted by massive water displacement and a big mess on the floor. However, even if I had a bath tub big enough with an inflatable head pillow, a ton of candles and Enya on the stereo, the geothermal pools of Iceland would be a million times better. The water never gets cold: in fact, there are microspots of super hot water you can find and cook in. It’s absolute heaven, and reason alone to move to this incredible land.
We soaked until the tour buses were scheduled to arrive, and then backtracked to our farm stay for the night.
Yet another delightful fact about Iceland: When you leave the main road to visit anything more than 4 houses thrown together, you are always presented with an enormous sign detailing every road and house name. There’s always far too much information for me to absorb on these maps, but they never cease to amuse me. This one has a wonderful sneaky piece of pseudo-graffiti, which I will let you find on your own.
We were staying in a farm guesthouse for the night, and it couldn’t have been homier. We were greeted by some horses, a cat, our host Josephine, and steaming mugs of coffee.
It’s an utter joy to be warm and dry when the last three days you have been damp and cold. We settled into armchairs, slurped coffee and ate dinner that we didn’t have to cook. Marvelous.
That night, I spent a couple of hours waiting for the Northern Lights to make an appearance. It was the first semi-clear night we’d had in a while and I wasn’t left out in the metaphorical cold.
It’s completely impossible to describe watching the lights. All we did for 30 minutes was just say ‘wow’ on repeat. We’ve been very fortunate to see them twice during our trip. It was an uplifting end to three pretty miserable days of rain.
The next morning, we scratched the cat behind the ears, and set off to the Golden Circle with a small detour to Hjálparfoss.
On the recommendation of our host, Hjálparfoss is a pleasant waterfall with two chutes surrounded by more basalt columns, although these columns are very twisty.
We shared the view with a photography tour, which had zero regard for any other visitors, having set up a wall of tripods in a long semi-circle completely surrounding the falls. When it was apparent that they were not ever going to move, I trampled into their viewfinders and got a picture and walked back through a cloud of scowls. Seriously? Your shot is not going to change any time soon.
I did have a wander off to get a closer look at the basalt columns. With the two minutes of geology under my belt, I felt like quite the expert.
Detour complete, we headed to the Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is a collection of three popular sights within 100km of Reykjavik. It’s a completely made up name, the sights are not in a circle, there is no connecting topography, and is marketed as ‘Iceland in a day’ to the millions of tourists that come here. We decided to hop on the bandwagon and see two of the three: Gullfoss and Geysir.
Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is a double cascade fall that drops 32m before disappearing into a ravine. It was almost submerged by a hydroelectric dam in the 1920’s, but Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of the farmer that owned the land (which the developers effectively cut out of the deal) walked barefoot to the courts in Reykjavik and threatened to throw herself over the falls if the dam was built. The courts didn’t rule in her favor, but public pressure forced the developers to let the lease expire. Gullfoss is now the most visited waterfall in the country.
There are two paths at Gullfoss: One goes up and one goes down. We checked out both angles with what felt 10,000 other people.
As John has mentioned, watching a waterfall do its thing is much like watching a bonfire. You can’t look away. Just knowing it’s churning away every day, while you eat lunch, while you sleep…and it’s been doing so for decades, and will continue to crash way past the time you shuffle off this mortal coil. Hypnotizing.
We pondered this fact for a while until a new horde of tour groups descended on the lookout and pushed us out of the way. After John had a pee by the car (they charge for peeing at Gullfoss, which is a cruel joke as everyone wants to pee after seeing it) we got back on the road to see the Coke of natural wonders: Geysir.
Geysir (gay-zeer) is the spout that all other geysers are named after. It translates as ‘gusher’ and, although this particular geyser is no longer active, the tourist site has kept it’s name. There is an active hot-water spout to amuse the hordes called Strokkur, and it does it’s thing every 5 minutes to the oohs and aahs of the crowd (ourselves included). Strokkur has major blorp! action.
After we watched Strokkur blorp three times, we headed to the gift shop for a nose around. The Geysir people have a captive audience, and they take advantage of that by offering high-end clothes alongside plastic puffin trinkets. We found a $700 fur vest and a $20 viking hat. We bought neither, but couldn’t resist posing with one of them.
If there was evert a man born to wear a viking hat, that man is John Levy.
We were touristed out for the day, so we dropped off the Golden Circle and cut down to our last Iceland accommodation in Hveragerði. On the way, three truly monumental things happened.
1) John requested I take a picture of him in front of an enourmous vehicle. As I was crossing the street to do so, I dropped my phone, shattering the screen into many tiny pieces. I have owned an iphone for the last 8 years and had never cracked a screen, so I suppose I was due. The screen isn’t cracked, it’s obliterated.
When reviewing the shot, John said ‘we can’t use that, I look like a shrimp’ but the photo that killed my phone MUST BE SEEN!
2) Rainbow alert! – I know they happen every 15 minutes in Iceland, but we never get to see one in it’s entirety at home and they are just so effing magical.
3) This enormous bowl of french fries. This is the medium size.
For our last day, we decided to do something very ‘Icelandy’. For those of you that have been patiently waiting for a picture of us in our swimmies – this is for you.
We hiked up a mountain to a natural hot-spring and sat in it. Now that’s Icelandy.
Hveragerði sits in a highly active ego-thermal field which heat hundreds of greenhouses full of produce and flowers and lots of personal hot tubs. The landscape is peppered with steaming, suphury vents and flesh-eating bubbly streams. We hiked up to Reykjadular (Smokey Valley) and then through the valley to where a hot stream on the west joins a cold stream from the east to form a small river of juuuuust-right-for-sitting-in water.
We didn’t do a lot of talking, as there was a lot of up. Here is our hike in picture form:
When we arrived at the stream, we stripped down to the buff (I know! I KNOW!), shimmied into our bathing suits, with as much grace as possible considering we had towels the size of postage stamps and were ankle deep in a cold marsh, and carefully climbed into the river. Having tested the water downstream, we decided to move further along to find hotter water. The area we sat in ranged from hot to holy-crap hot. Little boiling streams trickle down into the spring, dumping very hot water into areas you could probably poach an egg in and then disperses into the larger waters.
We boiled in the spring for about a hour before heading back down the valley. It was a pretty glorious way to end the trip.
Tomorrow, we will get on a plane and head back to the land of NFL, normal plug sockets, commutes and deadlines. It’s been so wonderful to have this amount of time away from our normal life. If it wasn’t for the lack of our pups and the inability to watch NFL games, I don’t know if we would get on that plane tomorrow.