As Abbey mentioned in our previous post, our first adventure in Iceland was a tour of the Golden Circle. I originally found this tour while searching for aurora borealis experiences in Iceland. When I saw that this tour let you sleep in an inflated, transparent bubble in rural Iceland I was sold. It didn’t take much convincing to get Abbey on board as well. The tour is pricey, coming it at just over 1,100 USD for both of us to stay one night in the bubble, but we decided this would be our only expensive excursion while abroad and everything after that would be budget traveling. I mean, why not start out with a bang when you are spending almost a year in Europe?
As the days drew closer to the bubble experience I was obsessed with checking the forecast to see if we would actually have a chance to see the northern lights. I did some research and found out that you need four things in order to see the northern lights. Be in the far north; check. Have dark skies; check (Iceland only gets about four hours of sunlight in the winter). Have active aurora activity; check. Have minimal cloud coverage; uh-oh. The skies were predicted to be cloudy for the entire day and night of the tour with a high chance of rain. This was far from ideal and put a little bit of a damper on things leading up to the tour. So I’ll go ahead and tell you right now, we did not see any aurora activity while in Iceland. If I had been told this before booking the tour, I doubt I would have been willing to spend the money for it. However, I believe the prior to the tour I was too caught up in searching for the northern lights and didn’t pay attention to what the rest of the tour had to offer.
Our tour guide, Attila, arrived at BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik at noon (shortly after sunrise) on the same day we flew into Iceland. He picked us up in a Suburban along with a couple on their honeymoon who had also signed up for the tour. There was supposed to be another couple joining us, but one of them had fallen ill and they were unable to attend. Once we were settled into the vehicle, Attila took us away from urban Reykjavik and into the relatively untouched Icelandic wilderness. We hadn’t been driving for more than ten minutes when I looked out the window and was shocked by the beauty of the landscape. To my left was a large, dark mountain with streaks of snow and ice running down the side. It looked like something out of a Bob Ross painting (without the trees). I had been told that Iceland had beautiful landscapes, but I didn’t realize that as soon as you left Reykjavik there were snow covered mountains everywhere. Prior to this trip the only mountains I had seen were in Appalachia, where all of the land was hilly with taller mountains dispersed in between. The Icelandic landscape was totally different. The land was very flat until a large mountain arose from seemingly nowhere. In all honesty it looked like an alien landscape untouched by humans.
I spent the next 20 minutes or so in awe at Iceland’s natural beauty before we arrived at our first stop, Thingvellir National Park. Due to the icy conditions, we were provided with crampons upon exiting the vehicle to help our grip while walking. The weather was very windy but easily tolerable. We took a short walk to an overlook where you could see the partially frozen river and lake as well as many mountains in the background. The view was stunning and it was here I realized that I was actually on the border of the arctic circle. I had yearned to see the far north ever since watching the BBC’s Frozen Planet (available on Netflix and highly recommended), and the view I was experiencing was exactly why. The conditions in the crevasse were much less windy. It was here that I learned Thingvellir held the first parliament in Europe in 930 AD. After exiting the crevasse we went to one more overlook where we could see beautiful light blue glacier melt flowing unto and under the frozen river. Attila met us with the vehicle after this overlook and we piled in to head off to out next destination.
After a short journey on the small and sometimes frightening Icelandic roads we unloaded at the Geysir hot spring area. Upon exiting the car we were pounded with strong winds and icy rain. It was somewhat unpleasant to say the least, but conditions improved significantly after a few minutes. Abbey and I strolled around the area and watched some bubbling pools of hot water that were very interesting to watch. We missed the first geyser eruption and were greeted by the strong scent of sulfur when steam from the eruption blew passed us. Luckily the geyser erupts relatively consistently – about every five minutes – so we stayed around for a few more eruptions. We then walked down further and stopped for a few minutes to take in the stunning view of natural steam blowing over an arctic landscape. The cold and precipitation eventually forced us inside the main building area where we warmed up with some hot soup before departing for Gullfoss waterfall.
It was getting noticeably darker by the time we arrived at Gullfoss even though the local time was only about 16:00. I had never seen a major waterfall before, so, for me, Gullfoss was something enchanting to behold. Abbey and I took in the view of the waterfall and the mellow, yet gorgeous, sunset before heading inside the gift shop area for the remainder of our time there. We then headed to dinner and stopped to look at some small Icelandic horses along the way. Dinner was located at a restaurant near greenhouses that grew the produce for the food we ate. Abbey and I split a bowl soup as well as a delicious blue cheese pizza topped with a spicy raspberry sauce.
After leaving dinner it was completely dark outside and we headed to the Secret Lagoon. Upon arrival we showered off in the changing rooms and put on our swimwear. While exiting the changing room I felt a gust of wind that chilled me beyond belief. Standing outside during an Icelandic winter with nothing but swimming shorts on is not exactly the most cozy experience. Luckily the lagoon was only a few meters from the changing room exit and before I knew it I was enjoying a relaxing, natural, hot swim. Abbey and I waded around the lagoon, feeling the drastic changes in water temperature in different areas. I would have liked to have enjoyed a beer while in the lagoon, but I had left my wallet in the car. After an hour of warming up and watching the steam float over the lagoon, we changed back into our clothes and rode to the bubbles.
When we arrived at the location Attila dropped us off at the common area which was a small kitchen and dining area with two bathrooms. Abbey and I were then directed to our private bubble which was very cozy and warm. When we turned off all the lights it seemed like we were sleeping in the middle of Icelandic wilderness (minus the freezing temperatures), After getting settled in we headed back to the common area to get ready for bed. We stayed around the common area for while conversing with the others and drinking green tea. We then returned to the bubble where Abbey fell asleep very quickly. I tried to stay up in hopes of seeing a break in the clouds where the aurora borealis might peak through. However, in less than ten minutes of lying down I too succumbed to the jet-lag and passed out.
We awoke around 6:30 to shower and get ready to leave. Everyone met in the common area and Attila picked us up at 8:30. We were offered to stop for breakfast, but we all declined and opted to head straight to Reykjavik. We arrived back at the bus terminal around 10:00 just as twilight was beginning. This concluded our Golden circle experience. I am very glad Abbey and I splurged on this experience. Even though we didn’t get to see the northern lights, beholding the awesome views of rural Iceland was more than enough to make this an unforgettable experience.