If the Snæfellsnes is Iceland in miniature, then the Golden Circle is a highlight reel of some of the island’s most famous features. Along this famous circuit are three of Iceland‘s most famous sites: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and the mighty Gullfoss, and most guidebooks and websites recommend prioritizing the Golden Circle if time is an issue. We woke up bright and early to get a head start on the day, and on the traffic as well, hoping to get ahead of the tour buses and vans that shuttle sightseers along the famous route. After checking the weather and the road conditions, we set off to complete the circuit in a day, driving through the mostly empty streets of Reykjavík to the outskirts of town, then through the snow-covered hills and valleys to the east of the capital. As the sun rose in the Arctic sky, warm shades of lavender and rose blanketed the hillsides, giving way to dusty oranges and yellows as the morning continued to unfold. The colours of the new day continued to deepen and intensify, until the sun burst forth over the frozen horizon, bathing the world in a marvelous golden hue. It wasn’t long before we began to approach the ancient plains and canyons of Þingvellir, one of the most significant historical and geological sites in all of Iceland.
For hundreds of years, starting in 930, the Alþingi assembled among the craggy gorges and wide river plains of Þingvellir, establishing one of the oldest national parliaments in the world. Chieftains and clan leaders would gather from all across the kingdom to discuss matters of law, commerce, trade, and justice, while the free men and their families would set up temporary settlements to exchange news, tell stories, play games, and hawk goods and services. It was the premier social event of the year, with attendance into the thousands, and, though the authority of the Alþingi was vastly reduced during the centuries of foreign rule, it persisted until 1800, when it was dissolved by the Kingdom of Denmark. It was re-established in 1844, though it would be based in Reykjavík from that point onwards, far from the dramatic landscapes of Þingvellir.
The dominant geological feature of Þingvellir is the series of rifts and faults that mark the eons-old continental drift between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. The largest of these faults are wide enough to walk through, some are veritable canyons in their own right, and it was a fantastically surreal experience to walk in between the two plates in the brisk morning air. We spent about an hour or so walking through Almannagjá, one of the more prominent gorges, looking out across the vast snow-covered plain to the east and south, until we reached the Lögberg, or Law Rock. It was on this rocky shelf (or one very much like it – the exact location is unknown) that the ancient Alþingi assemblies were called to order, and where speakers would stand to make their declarations and speeches. At this point, I began to feel a call of another sort, a gentle urging at first, but threatening to escalate should the situation remain unchanged, so we headed back to our rental vehicle and drove another 15 minutes down the road to the free washrooms at the Tourist Information Center.
After I’d successfully answered the call, we drove further into the park, along a road that roughly followed the contours of the Almannagjá. This particular gorge forms a natural boundary, through which the Öxará River must flow to reach Lake Þingvallavatn to the south. At the point where it intersects with the rocky walls of the Almannagjá, it forms the Öxarárfoss, a waterfall tucked away between two folds of the gorge. The path to the falls was treacherous that morning, the ground slick with ice and packed snow, but the reward for perseverance and proper footwear was a quiet oasis free of the crowds and noise of the distant parking lots. Öxarárfoss itself was hidden behind a frozen wall, the quiet rumble of the churning water growing until it emptied into a dark channel flowing deeper into the canyon beyond.
Our morning was spent by the time we left Þingvellir, but before we moved on to the next Golden Circle attraction, we made a small detour for lunch. Friðheimar is a family-run greenhouse in the village of Reykholt specializing in growing tomatoes year-round, and, from 12-4 daily, they have a restaurant that serves a tomato-based lunch for greenhouse guests. After petting some of the adorable Icelandic horses outside, we were given a brief tour and introduction to the facility by one of the staff members, emphasizing the sustainability of greenhouse farming in Iceland. As we walked past green curtains of ripening tomato vines, the guide explained how Friðheimar gathers water and heat from the vents and geothermal energy sources in the surrounding countryside, using local resources to provide fresh vegetables no matter the season. The lunch was the main attraction for us, though, to be honest, and it was exactly what the doctor ordered for a cold winter’s day: bottomless tomato soup and unlimited freshly-baked bread. So simple, and so delicious. We also tried one of the pastas, which was probably more food than we could handle, but it was fantastic as well, the flavours lighting up our palates and ringing our bells until we slumped dazedly into our seats. After what seemed like hours, we dragged ourselves out of this Icelandic vision of plenty, stepping through the glass doors, bellies first, into the harsh reality of winter, and, after saying goodbye to the horses, we continued on our Golden Circle circuit to see the granddaddy of all geysers.
We drove through the wide, flat plains to the east of Þingvellir, until we entered the Haukadalur Valley and its famous geothermal features. It is here that the original Geysir, from where we get the English word geyser, is found (though it now erupts with far less frequency than in previous centuries), along with dozens of other smaller geysers, hot springs, and mud pools. As we walked into the protected parkland, running water and patches of green dotted the landscape, the plumes of mist and fog rising from hidden vents hinting at the source of the land’s false spring. Up ahead, a small crowd was gathering around Strokkur, the most prominent resident of Haukadalur after Geysir, with eruptions happening every 5 to 10 minutes. We picked our way carefully through the steaming puddles and slippery, iced-over paths to join our fellow tourists, cameras at the ready. With a throb and a rumble, a jet of boiling water shot up 15 metres into the air, dazzling the crowd and leaving a pillar of condensation in its ghostly wake. After a few more eruptions, though, we turned around and headed back to the parking lot, the incredible in danger of becoming the mundane.
Gullfoss, the last of the big 3 attractions on the Golden Circle, is about a 10-minute drive from the geysers in the Haukadalur Valley. The famous waterfall is fed by the Hvítá River, carrying glacial runoff and sediment from the Lángjökull Glacier, and the presence of the sediment in the water is supposed to give the falls its golden hue. In the sharp blues and whites of the winter landscape, though, there was nothing golden but the view. The deep blue waters filtered through ice and snow and cascaded in a blue-grey torrent into the depths below, a stark contrast to the black hills on either side. It was a stunning sight, and we walked slowly along the western ridge, watching the Hvítá disappear into nothingness, until the dimming late afternoon sky gave us our cue to start heading back to Reykjavík.
Dinner that night was at Ostabúðin, a small shop on Skólavörðustígur Street specializing in fine cheeses and deli products, though their dinner fare is slightly more upscale. Ashley and I ordered the Arctic char and the lamb to share, which was great, but the Minke whale steak starter didn’t quite hit that same spot. As was quickly becoming our habit in Iceland, we called it a night soon afterwards, making our way straight home after dinner. We’d have another long day of driving the next day, though this time we’d be heading in a different direction, towards the balmy southern coastline of this very cold island.