The country of Iceland sits on an active plate boundary in the Atlantic Ocean called the Mid-Atlantic ridge and geographically is positioned between the East coast of the USA and Western Europe. As such it is now rapidly becoming a gateway between the two continents comprising a collective population of over 1 billion. Since the Icelandic banking crisis of 2008 – 2011 the main industry has significantly shifted towards embracing tourists to visit the natural wonders of the Nordic country with a population of just 330,000. Many air operators, such as Jet Star and Iceland Air are now offering short stop offs in Iceland on a transatlantic flight.
With a unique environment in the Northern hemisphere the country is welcoming over 1.7 million visitors each year. If you’re planning a stop off during a transatlantic flight or a short hop over from Europe then these top 5 things to do in the Golden Circle are a must. The Golden Circle refers to a well-travelled route in Southern Iceland that ensure visitors capture a deep sense of time that has created and continues to create the youngest country in the world that will one day, in many millions of years, will be as wide as the USA.
They have a saying in Iceland, “Take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints”. With the following top spots you will start to understand why!
5. Reynishverfi – Black Beaches
With dangerously high waves, a wonderful cave surrounded by large basalt columns that resemble the Giant’s Causeway, puffins and a stretch of beach that has been suffocated by years and years of volcanic eruptions that all the sand is black. This is a truly majestic place to stand and observe nature in action and has been the back drop for numerous music videos and film locations.
In a world with every changing temperatures and a future of global warming tightening a grasp on the environment it is truly amazing to stand on a glacier. To negate the advanced melting of the Solheimajokull glacier visitors are expected to traverse a walk (approximately 35 minutes) from the car park to an entrance point through a hanging valley onto the glacier itself. Although any member of the public can walk onto the glacier we have to recognise that they are “living” beasts and will move and shift everyday and therefore do pose an element of risk. Many tour operators will be able to lead you through a tour on the glacier safely.
3. Gulfoss – The Double Waterfall
Very few places in the world can instil a thought similar to the rock formations that first inspired James Hutton to devise his “Deep Time Theory”. These double falls drop around 33m then plunge into a mile-long gorge showing the recession of these falls over millions of years. A truly special site and a rare example of a double water fall. Make sure you do walk along the entireity of the path so to see the wonderful falls from a range of viewpoints.
You will have most certainly heard the word Geysir and know that it is a spouting spring. Here you can visit the site of Geysir, a spouting hot spring that gave its name to all the world’s geysers. Although it doesn’t often spout nowadays, its neighbour ‘Strokkur’ erupts every 10-15 minutes reaching a height of around 30m. Make sure you stand upwind of the geyser though so you don’t get soaked! Walk through a geothermally heated field and visit the tourist centre opposite for souvenirs and a café stop.
1. Blue Lagoon
A geo-thermally heated lagoon awaits the weary traveller and is a welcome relief after a flight and at just approximately 20 minute car drive away from the Keflavik International airport. Entrance fees have increased in recent years and a basic entrance without any of the specialist spa treatments is the equivalent of £45 but as one of the most upmarket and unique spas in the world it is a must see and do. The water is warmed naturally by the heat of the earth and is pumped in the lagoon. The chemical reaction of the warm water and landscape creates wonderful silicate deposits which have excellent properties for skin care. Make your way over to the far end of the lagoon and find vats full of silicate cream to give yourself a free face mask.
Bonus #6 – The Northern Lights (Time of Year Dependent)
For many the opportunity to see nature’s fireworks, in the northern hemisphere, is a must whilst visiting Iceland. The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights as they are known colloquially appear due to solar wind particles colliding with air molecules in the atmosphere and transfer the energy into light. I would say firstly, do not go with the expectations of seeing the Google images results of the Northern Lights. They are very unpredictable and will take time to appear and can be difficult to spot and will often look better through the eye of a camera lens that the human eye. Be patient, be resilient and don’t go home too early. Seeing a northern lights event is a magical moment and they don’t come easy.
The best time to attempt to see the Northern Lights is from the months of September – April and you have to drive well out of the way of city lights into the rural. Professional lights weather forecasters make predictions about where and how strong the lights may be and the best time for activity can often be between 2 – 5am. So make sure you pack some coffee.
There are many professional tours that will chase the lights around Iceland and at 4am in the morning you may be pleased that you aren’t doing all the driving. You may wish to consider joining up with one of these professional tours as they will often tell you folk tales or ghost stories from within Icelandic culture.
Thanks to Mike Simmons, a teacher of Geography, for this brilliant post.
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