The sea was very kind to us! Though the ship put out the barf bags again, there was no need for them.
We were in Reykjavik two years ago and had done the South Shore Tour. This time we were signed up for a Golden Circle tour which is the tour that most people take. There are three main sites that are included: Þhingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir – that weird p at the beginning of the word seems to be pronounced “th” in Icelandic), Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir, a site with lots of geothermal activity. We booked the tour with Iceland Guided Tours (IGT). The company has excellent reviews on Trip Advisor. We had booked with Iceland Horizons for our first trip to Iceland and so wanted to try a different company.
We arrived a little early to port and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was not rainy or windy; a miracle for this little part of the world. On our last stay, we experienced “horizontal rain” so were pretty delighted to be able to tour without getting drenched every time we got out of the van. Enough people showed up early that we were able to leave port before 8 am, which is when we were scheduled to arrive. Unfortunately, the couple behind us realized that they were on the wrong tour about 10 minutes into the trip, so we had to turn around and return to port to drop them off. By the time we were able to leave again, all of the major tour buses and vans were in front of us. Otherwise, we would have been ahead of everyone and been able to visit some of our sites crowd-free. Oh, well!
Our tour guide for the day did an adequate job; he gave us lots of facts and figures about Iceland. I won’t bore you with too many of them (If you are interested, read my blog posts from the fall of 2015 from our first trip here). According to our guide, golf is really popular here. For a population of 340,000, there are over 100 golf courses. Football (soccer) is the national sport. Obviously, skiing and ice skating are popular in the winter. It doesn’t snow as much here as you might expect since Reykjavik is in the path of the gulf stream. Tourism has taken over as the main industry; fishing used to be #1. The island is quite rocky and barren. It used to be forested, but the Vikings cut down most of the trees and what was left was wiped out by an ice age. There is plenty of geothermal activity here due to the two volcanoes. Both are expected to erupt sometime in the next few years.
You may notice that I don’t have any pictures for this post. As you may have read on my post from our visit to the Shetland Islands, my pictures were deleted when I attempted to transfer them to my laptop. I thought that I had fixed the problem, but I am very sad to say that I had exactly the same issue when I tried to transfer my pictures of the Golden Circle tour; as soon as the transfer started, every picture on my memory card deleted. So, not a single picture. I am so, so disappointed. I deleted the program that I had been using to transfer, process and convert my pictures and hope that the problem is fixed permanently. I tried to get help from the professional photographers on board the ship but they knew no more than I did and had no suggestions. So sad.
Anyhow, our first stop was for 30 minutes at a little shopping center that had a little museum related to the Skjaftinn earthquake located in the Hveragerdi area. Normally, 30 minutes would have been 28 minutes too long for this particular stop, but given the length of the line for the ladies’ room, 30 minutes was just about right. All of the restrooms that we stopped at charged 200 ISK for the use of their toilets (around $2/pee). Fortunately, there was no one manning this particular toilet so everyone “peed for free”, so to speak!
We loaded up the van and headed out. By now we were out in the country. We passed by grazing sheep, a few cattle and many Icelandic horses. I have incorrectly been calling them Icelandic ponies until now, but they are not ponies; they are compact horses. All of the animals here have to be very hardy to survive the difficult conditions that exist here.
Our next stop was the Keriđ (pronounced Kerith) crater. It reminded me of a miniature version of Crater Lake in southern Oregon. We were given 30 minutes here which was plenty of time to walk around the edge of the crater (and slip and fall on the rocks). It cost 400 ISK each to view the crater (around $4/person). There were quite a few tourists here that paid the fee to view the crater.
On to the bishop’s church (in Skáholt) of the church of Iceland. I asked our tour guide whether or not the bishop resided here, but he said not. I have to say that our guide wasn’t the more helpful we have ever had. I decided that he was either very new to being a tour guide or just didn’t have the right personality type for it. He didn’t seem too happy to answer any questions, nor did he give any but the most basic information about the places we visited. The church itself is very plain, as tends to be true of many Lutheran churches, but there was a small thatched roof ancient-looking chapel on the grounds that was very charming. There were also some older graves on the property. There is a restaurant on the property as well but it was closed.
Our next stop was at a scenic waterfall. It was a pretty little falls, but nothing spectacular. There was an interesting sheep pen next door to it. It was circular and had pie-shaped pens radiating out from the center. Apparently sheep farmers here let their sheep out to roam the countryside in the spring and then gather them back in the fall. Lamb is a popular food in Iceland. Locals claim that they can tell the difference between sheep that have grazed inland as opposed to those that grazed near the coastline; coastal lamb tastes saltier.
Finally we headed to one of the main “attractions” on the tour – Gullfoss. Gullfoss means golden waterfall in Icelandic and is the second largest waterfall in the country. Legend has it that a farmer threw a bag of gold into the falls and now the sun reflects back a golden color. I will have to take their word for that; no sun here today! We were given 45 minutes to explore the area. My husband says that it reminded him of a small version of Niagara Falls.
By now we were getting hungry; fortunately we would have 70 minutes at Geysir, so we would have time to grab a bite to eat. Geysir is obviously where we get the word geyser from, and there is a geyser that erupts every 5 to 8 minutes. Other than that, there are quite a few smaller geothermal pools where you can observe bubbling water or mud and smell the sulfurous smell that emanates from the openings in the earth. There is a large building across the street that houses several small cafes as well as a nice, big souvenir shop. We made the mistake of getting our lunch at the first place we saw (the Cantina) and lived to regret that choice. For $40 we had some really lousy food. I grabbed a hot ham and cheese sandwich. On our last trip we found that the breads in Iceland to be very delicious, so I mistakenly thought that this sandwich would be the same. Wrong! Two slices of cheap white bread with a slice of American cheese and a slice of processed ham. No veggies, no condiments. Nasty! Clayton’s chicken burger was much better. We also picked up some fries and a couple of soft drinks. I looked in at the menus for the other cafes after we ate. Their food looked better but their prices were more expensive. We would’ve paid $55-$60 for the same amount of food. Perhaps it would’ve been worth it!
Our final stop (theoretically) was Þingvellir (Thingvellir) whose original claim to fame was that it was where parliamentary procedures took place for the original settlers of Iceland. The settlers would bring their families to the area and decide legal matters together. It also happens to be the place where the tectonic plates for Europe and America meet. We were able to see this both from the van and when we were given time to explore the area. Its current claim to fame is that this is where parts of Game of Thrones were filmed (the trail of the Wildlings from North of the Wall). Thingvellir is a National Park. They got smart at the restrooms here; there is an attendant and if you don’t pay, you don’t use the facilities. They have a credit card reader for those of us that didn’t have any of the local currency. Those Icelanders think of everything!
At this point we were supposed to go back to the ship but our guide had asked earlier if anyone wanted to be let out in town. There were a few people that did, so he decided to stop at a couple of local landmarks. We were dropped off at Perlan (the Pearl) which is a large round building that has spectacular views of the town. We had 15 minutes here to climb the stairs to the observation level and take a few pictures. Lastly, we stopped at the famous church in town, Hallgrimskirkja. The architecture of the church is beautiful, but to me, the star attraction was the organ. It has 6250 pipes and is a thing of beauty. I took quite a few pictures of it (sigh…).
Finally, we were dropped off at the port (9 hour-long tour!). It was a long day and honestly, we enjoyed the South Shore Tour that we took on our first trip here much better. It really makes a huge difference who your tour guide is. All of the things we saw today (except, perhaps, the earthquake museum!) were spectacular, but the guide didn’t make any of them “come to life”. We learned at the end of the day that he was a university student, so perhaps he needs some more experience in order to understand what tourists want to learn when they visit. He was a nice young man, but this wasn’t really his forté. On the positive side, we only got rained on towards the end of the day!