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5 Must-Do’s in Iceland

Author: Shannon Colman
Date of Trip: August 2013

1. The Golden Circle

As the bus from Keflavík airport drives you to Reykjavík, there is little to see but the sight of empty, untouched lands, and one half expects a medieval battle-scene to occur at any moment. I’d booked a tour of the famous Golden Circle on my first afternoon, led by the country’s main tour operator, ‘Reykjavik Excursions’. A man with a soft, soothing voice was our tour guide. He calmly told us stories about Icelandic culture and mythology as we drove past green lands, desolate apart from the occasional herd of Icelandic horses roaming freely over their kingdom. Our first stop was Geysir, home of many hot springs. The strong smell of sulphur was quite surprising at first, and I felt like I was walking into a laboratory of natural chemicals, fizzing away cunningly. The ‘Strokkur’ spurts out a huge column of water every 6/7 minutes, leaving the audience gasping in surprise. We next drove onto Gulfoss, meaning ‘Golden Falls’, and I could see why there were so-named. Torrents of water gushed continuously over a vast area with an eagerness that suggested it was on some sort of journey. The fact that the falls were in such a random location made them seem even more special – I really appreciated how untouched and un-commercialised the area was. It didn’t matter that the sun wasn’t shining; the falls brightened up the day, flowing like a surge of electrical power, recharging the batteries of those who looked. The final stop of the tour was Pingvellir National Park, which will fascinate you with its geographical significance. Here the Eurasian-North American tectonic plates split apart, causing a rift in the land. As you walk through the gap, it’s pretty bewildering to imagine the activity that must have occurred underneath the earth’s surface at the time. Lake Þingvallavatn shines like silver, with steam rising hazily from the hills on the other side. This tour brought the modest landscape of Iceland alive, highlighting its medieval features as well as its youthful energy.

2. Whale Watching in Reykjavík

I booked a whale watching tour with Elding for the morning of my second day, costing 8500ISK. Again, the sky was filled with rain clouds, and the prospect of three hours in this cold weather at sea didn’t seem too appealing. I’d told myself before the boat set off from the harbour that I probably wouldn’t see a Minke whale, not wanting to get my hopes up. The captain explained the procedure for seeing a whale – if anyone saw one, they should call out the location based on a clock-structure. I sat on a seat looking at the hills in the distance, only to leap up eagerly at the sound of someone shrieking “Whale! Two o’clock!” I caught sight of a fin soaring over the water’s surface and a rush of excitement shot through me. Everyone dashed to the relevant side of the boat, cameras in hand, pointing at their friends in amazement. And then someone called out “I see one! Nine o’clock!” and the mad dash to the other side of the boat commenced. There was something so mesmerising about seeing one of these animals that I’d previously only seen on television documentaries, or in an outdoor aquarium. It’s very different when you see them in their natural environment – every time the whales’ fins rose out of the water everything seemed to turn into slow motion, and my mouth fell open in awe. Taking part in such a tour was also really nice because strangers were ‘helping’ each other, in the sense that everyone was informing one another by sightings and thus really sharing the experience. You can’t guarantee seeing a whale every time you go on one of these tours, but if you do it will be a fantastic feeling. The tour was worth every penny.

3. Skaftafell National Park

Finding budget sleeping-bag accommodation in close proximity to Skaftafell National Park can be difficult, especially for a sole traveller like myself. The offer of a day tour there by Reykjavik Excursions was therefore really convenient. It cost 15,000ISK, but the experience was priceless. Luckily for this tour, the sun had decided to come out, and I woke up knowing it was going to be a good day. On the way to Skaftafell, the bus stopped at Skógar, letting tourists admire the 62m Skógafoss with its rainbow-enshrined falls. We also stopped on some lava fields on the way. When one looks at these acres of bubbly rock, it seems incomprehensible that hot lava could have smothered it previously. I had three hours to myself in Skaftafell National Park. First I ventured to the famous Svartifoss. It’s about 2km from the tourist centre, but the walk is simple and pleasant, taking you past a long-flowing river with rustic signs pointing in all directions. Once the ‘Black Falls’ come into sight, they dominate the surrounding area – the whiteness of the water clashing with the surrounding blanket of green. The most spectacular thing about Svartifoss is the structure of the basalt columns behind the water – their rigidness evokes a sense of formality and order – I described them as resembling the pipes on an organ at a funeral, sitting in position, ready to release their morbid tones. And what’s so amazing is that their structure is natural. Skaftafellsjökull was where I spent my remaining hour and a half, and yet I could have happily stayed there for a full day, admiring the view in front of me. A glacier lightly dusted with volcanic ash, this place was where I really fell for Iceland. The air was so fresh and I felt like I was in the real midst of nature at its best. The view in front of me was so placid – nothing was moving – but that made it so special. I was free to sit in the peace and quiet and just be at one with the landscape. The glacier fed into a pool home to a collection of ice-gargoyles, standing silently, unfazed by anything. On the way back the tour stopped in the charming little town of Vík, the most southern part of Iceland. With dusk approaching, the three ‘troll’ rock formations in the water stood silhouetted against a beautiful blue sky.

4. Vestmannaeyjar

It costs 2520ISK for a return ticket to Heimaey – the only inhabited island of the Westmann Islands, former home of Keiko from ‘Free Willy’, and site of a hugely destructive volcanic eruption in 1973 which led to 1/3 of the town being smothered in lava. You can experience the unimaginable effect of this yourself by visiting the House Graveyard, where rustic posts with the names of deceased buildings stand above what any visitor would just presume was the soil of the earth, with no remains below. The quietness of the area creates a supernatural atmosphere. Eldfell is the volcano that resulted from the 1973 eruption, its name appropriately translating as ‘Mountain of Fire’. Bring your walking boots and give your thighs a work-out as you hike to the top. With 360 degree ocean views, you’ll feel like the King of an undiscovered island. It really is incredible to think that just over 40 years ago, one would have been inside a boiling pot of natural volcanic activity. This life experience definitely ranked as one my most amazing so far. If you like wildlife, you’ll love Heimaey for its puffins, further south of the coast. Icelandic horses will also say hello to you on the way. For accommodation, I recommend Guesthouse Heidrid. For a highly reasonable price, you’ll receive a comfortable room with great kitchen and bathroom facilities (and lots of pictures of puffins!) The friendly owner also has a lovely dog!

5. Landmannalaugar

Constant squeaks and rattles will accompany your bus journey to this area of Iceland, where the famous 55km Laugavegur hiking trail to Pórsmörk begins. But once you come across the sight of Lake Frostastaðavatn, the seemingly never-ending journey becomes worth it. The shiny blue surprises the visitor, as if they’ve just discovered a rare jewel. Landmannalaugar is worth a visit because it offers a change of landscape – the pastel-coloured mountains evoke softness and warmth, in comparison to the wild and cold conditions one will often see around Iceland. Bláhnúkur Mountain is good hiking opportunity, but prepare to get dust in your eyes! The gentle beige tones that flow over the landscape are the kind of colours you’d expect to see on another planet. After you’ve descended the mountain, you can also relax in one the hot springs on site, as sheep graze lazily nearby.

Don’t bother:

Blue Lagoon – Expensive and full of rich and pretentious tourists, the Blue Lagoon does not show you the real Icelandic culture, which is maybe why the natives themselves aren’t a big fan of it. Whilst the scenery is of course impressive, you will see sights that are even more enthralling for even less. There are plenty of geothermal beaches in Iceland for you to relax in, where you can actually mingle with native Icelanders.


• If you’re on a budget, stock up from supermarkets such as Bonus or 10/11 for snacks before heading on a tour.
• Bus passports are likely to work out cheaper than buying separate journeys. They also allow a bit more spontaneity in your travel.
• The weather can change unpredictably, so make sure you always have a waterproof with you!

More stories from the trip on my blog:

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