Normally when we travel we don’t even consider going on guided tours, not too mention organised coach trips. However, in Iceland the weather was so unpredictable we were a bit reluctant to hire a car and explore on our own, but we still wanted to see some of the amazing landscapes the country has to offer. So we broke our unspoken rule and for the first time ever signed up for one of the ubiquitous Golden Circle tours, offered by dozens of tourism companies. Depending on the company, the tours involve several sites, with the backbone of most being Geysir geothermal area, the Gullfoss waterfall and Þingvallavatn (or Thingvallavatn) lake in southwestern Iceland. We chose to go for an 8-hr Grand Golden Circle tour with Bus Travel Iceland – in addition to the three sites above, they also offered a visit to Kerið crater and Faxi waterfall. The cost of the tour was 9500ISK (around €75) per person.
It was pitch-dark when we got picked up from just outside our accommodation, and when we arrived at Kerið crater (after around an hour drive and a short stop in the town of Hveragerði, where a rift between Eurasian and North American tectonic plates can be seen in a local shopping centre), the sky only just started to lighten up. The caldera of what was believed to be a cone volcano is around 50m deep and filled with water, which in summertime has a beautiful turquoise shade of blue. Unfortunately, but rather expectedly, in January the lake is completely icebound; not that we would see much in the darkness anyway. There is a path running along the rim of the crater, but we were only given 5 minutes on site and there was no time to walk around.
The next stop on our Golden Circle tour was Faxi waterfall on the river Tungufljót – much smaller and lesser known than the nearby Gullfoss, but quite beautiful, especially against the golden pre-sunrise sky. There is a small path leading to the base of the waterfall, which we were forbidden to take, but who would listen to a tour guide? To the left of the waterfall there’s a fish ladder, which allows migrating salmon to travel upstream.
Arguably the most beautiful, and definitely the most popular waterfall in Iceland, Gullfoss is located on Hvítá river, which has its source in Langjökull glacier in the highlands. Thousands of cubic meters of water crush from the height of 32m into a narrow gorge – it’s truly a sight to behold. We also loved the giant icicles covering the vertical walls of the gorge. In the summer there is a path leading down, very close to the waterfall; the path is closed in winter due to the safety reasons, so the best view of Gullfoss is from the viewing platform. It was enough to get soaked with the water spray.
The next stop on out tour, just five minutes down the road from Gullfoss, was Geysir geothermal area in Haukaladur valley. The first thing that hit us after leaving the coach was the strong smell of sulphur coming from the dozens of hot springs, geysers, mud pots and fumaroles. Steam rising from the hot earth looked unreal in the golden rays of the low-hanging sun and obscured the crowds waiting to see the eruption of Strokkur – the biggest active geyser in the area, which during our visit erupted every 3 minutes or so. The mighty Geysir itself (from which the name “geyser” is derived) is currently inactive, but it can change at any time due to the high volcanic activity in the area. The geothermal area is without a doubt interesting and beautiful, but the snow-capped mountains seen in the distance are also not too shabby; on a clear day you can see the Langjökull glacier.
The final stop on our tour was Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake located within the Þingvellir national park. Þingvallavatn is actually a rift lake, located between Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and during our visit we got a chance to walk along the part of the Almannagjá gorge, which marks the eastern boundary of the North American plate. Around 18 layers of volcanic rocks, originating from subsequent eruptions, are clearly seen on the vertical wall of the gorge. Once out of the gorge, the vast view of Þingvallavatn and the surrounding mountains open up in front of us, beautiful in the golden light of the setting sun. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to admire the spectacular views, it was about to get dark and it was time to go back to Reykjavik.
Just as we thought, guided coach trips are not really our thing. Fact, we got to see some great things, but we’d rather see them at our own pace and without the masses of tourists at each site. The sites on the Golden Circle route are undoubtedly beautiful, but a bit too civilised and commercial to our liking, with the omnipresent boardwalks, fences, gift shops and extremely overpriced toilets. Nowhere else we’d seen public toilets for which you can pay with card. Would we go for another coach trip? Probably not, unless we have no other choice. Next time we’re in Iceland, we’ll hire a car and go off the beaten path. Can we recommend Bus Travel Iceland? Yes, if you’re looking for a reliable tour company in Iceland. They offered good value for money and that little bit extra on the classic Golden Circle tour, they were punctual during the morning pick-up and the coach was comfortable. Our guide, Ásgeir, was knowledgeable and polite, but very strict with timing – something you learn to appreciate when there are a couple of dozens of people on the trip. They also seem to have started the tour a little bit earlier than other tour companies, which means that we were at each site a few minutes earlier than other coaches and managed to avoid the worst of the crowd.