Reenergized by the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon and coursing with adrenaline after nearly being run down by a bus in the parking lot while taking a photo, it was time to hop in the Auris and head for the Golden Circle. While the most popular sites in Iceland can be seen on or near Route 1 (the Ring Road, named for the way it circles the perimeter of the country), the Golden Circle is a smaller loop east of Reykjavik that includes four of the country’s most well-known attractions: Kerid Crater (a crater), Geysir (a, erm, geyser), Gullfoss (a waterfall), and the minor miracle that is Pingvillir National Park. We were staying near Gullfoss that night and were due to snorkel in Pingvillir the next day, so we resolved to catch the first two attractions, see the third after dinner, and then call it an early night.
A word on driving in Iceland: It’s easy. Knowing the Ring Road was the only major thoroughfare in the country and that it was the height of tourist season, I was expecting, if not bumper-to-bumper traffic, then at least some minor inconvenience that would make me glad I’d been tempered by the congestion of the freeways of Los Angeles and Atlanta. As it turned out, traffic was almost nonexistent. We could go ten minutes or more without seeing another car, and once we got to the northern part of the country and into the Westfjords we were more likely to see sheep on the road than other tourists. If you’re expecting hair-raising tales of vehicular adventure, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Driving in Iceland was no worse (and usually a hell of a lot better) than driving in the States.
Kerid Crater, the 3,000-year-old remnant of a volcanic eruption, is pretty impressive. Like most of the sights in Iceland (and unlike virtually anything comparable in the U.S.), it just sort of sits out in the open. No gates, no fences, no guards. There was a kiosk at the parking area that said we’d have to pay ISK3,000 to enter, but the friendly-looking kid in the booth just waved us through. We hiked up a short hill which suddenly opened out onto the crater itself.
In this photo you can see the parking area at the top of the lefthand slope. An unprotected trail leads all the way around the crater, and if we’d been so inclined we could’ve strolled down the gentle grassy slope on the right side of the photo to the water’s edge. But because we’d only been in the country about four hours at this point and weren’t exactly sure what we could get away with, we stayed at the top to take in the scale of it all.
Back in the car and on to Geysir. Okay, look: nothing against Geysir. It’s perfectly lovely. It was very popular. Amanda bought a troll at the gift shop.
But heated water spewing from the ground looks in Iceland exactly like it does anywhere else in the world. I don’t regret the stop (I mean, look at that troll!), but it really was the one truly underwhelming thing we saw on our entire trip.
Gullfoss, on the other hand, was our first brush with majesty.
Located a short two minute drive from our guesthouse, Gullfoss (“foss,” just so’s you know, is Icelandic for “waterfall”) was our introduction to the phenomenon we like to call, “What the Hell Can We Possibly Say About This?” At some point you’re faced with such beauty that words fail and all you can do is grin goofily. That’s how we spent much of this trip: in a near-constant state of wonder.
How beautiful was it? Even though our reaction to people taking selfies is usually to want to run by and knock them over, we suddenly found ourselves taking some of our own. Iceland is so beautiful it will make you compromise your core values.
At this point we’d been going virtually non-stop for 24 hours. I don’t often sleep on planes, although it’s not for lack of trying. I can squeeze in thirty minutes here and there between the person behind me kicking my seat or the drink cart obliterating my shoulder, but managing some sustained period of slumber rarely happens. Amanda had slept more than me, but not by much. All of which is to say at this point we were nearing a state of exhaustion.
And here’s where things got tricky. You’ve heard of the land of the midnight sun? That’s Iceland in the summer. At the time we were there (early July), the sun literally never sets. It’s not full daylight, but it’s bright enough. Imagine dusk lasting for eight hours. We got back to our guesthouse and, through an elaborate system of pillows, hair ties, and elbow grease, were able to MacGyver the blinds so they let in as little light as possible. It wasn’t perfect sleep that first night, and it was really, really bizarre to wake at 2:00 a.m. and see 4:00 p.m. light coming through the windows, but things would get better.
We rose early, got acquainted with Icelandic breakfasts (lots of bread and cheese, also lots of lunch meat and cold fish), and hit the road for Pingvillir National Park.
The park’s big historic claim to fame is that it was the seat of the Icelandic government from AD 930 to 1798. Its geographic claim to fame is that it’s where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (and are currently spreading apart). I’ll illustrate in the next two photos. In the first one, the tall wall on the far side of the parking lot is the edge of the Eurasian plate. In the second photo, taken from the top of the Eurasian plate, the distant snowline at the base of the mountains is the edge of the North American plate.
In the middle of the area between the two plates is Silfra, the tectonic boundary that forms the fissure in which we’d be snorkeling. After struggling into our drysuits and waddling across the road to the edge of the water, we slowly descended into the frigid water (roughly 34 degrees Fahrenheit year-round).
Once again, what can I possibly say? The water was shockingly clear, and as I paddled along the fissure it was breathtaking (and, yes, okay, sort of creepy) to watch the rocks fall away to reveal the fissure’s full 60-meter (200-foot) depth.
I’m not a water guy. Give me rocks I can climb, and I’m a happy dude. I’ve never been drawn to beaches or lakes, and I find the immensity and power of the ocean to be fairly intimidating. So there was a brief moment of panic as I learned to work my arms in tandem with my flippers and an additional moment of discomfort as I waited for my exposed skin to finally numb the hell up in the cold water. But once I figured all that out and told my brain to take some time off I could sit back (metaphorically) and enjoy what I was seeing. Maybe this is paradoxical (and I’m probably going to do a crap job of describing it), but the best way I can explain it is in terms of flight. Silfra was so deep that being able to float along the surface and peer straight down into the belly of this underground cave was (at first) disorienting and then sort of exhilarating. It’s not often you’re given the chance of capturing a bird’s eye view of something a couple hundred feet underwater.
Also, we got hot chocolate afterward.
There were other things to see in Pingvillir, like – hey! – this church…
… but after Silfra it was tricky to come back to solid ground.
Up next: The road to Vik…
Pale Saints – The Comforts of Madness (1990)