Traveling Iceland - Day 1 - The Golden Circle
Visiting Iceland has been something we have wanted to do for quite some time. We had originally wanted to go there for our honeymoon when we got married in 2016, but we were unable to do so due the amount of time required to visit properly, and the cost for visiting. Visiting Iceland like we did - by campervan for 10 days - is the ultimate way to explore this island country.
We have created this Traveling Iceland article series to help document how we approached tackling the island in 10 days. If you are considering a vacation to Iceland yourself, you may find this information to be quite useful in helping to prepare yourself for what to expect.
FLYING TO ICELAND
Shortly after returning home from Mexico last year, and probably high on the adrenaline rush of some of the things we had a chance to do down there, like exploring a cenote, we found airline tickets through Icelandair when booked a year in advance were very reasonable (about $400 per person round-trip). Buying these flights locked us into the trip, and we were so excited to start planning out this epic adventure.
Of course, this also meant accepting the simple reality about any trip to Iceland - it is going to cost a good chunk of money to do it. Just about everything in Iceland is expensive, from gasoline for the car (which is about the equivalent to $8/gallon in the US) to food (think 2-3x cost you would pay for things in the US).
I will spare you all the details here, but if you are interested in planning your own trip to Iceland, be sure to check out our more elaborate write up 10 Things to Know Before Traveling Iceland's Ring Road.
Getting back on track, we flew Icelandair from Newark to Keflavik. In the past, we have only really flown United or American Airlines, but our experience with Icelandair has far surpassed these airlines. The plane is more spacious, and the standout feature that made our flights easier was free (yes…free!) in-flight entertainment including movies, TV shows, music, and audio books. With this, we were finally able to finish the last episode of Westworld!
The actual flight was faster than projected, taking just 4.5 hours. Keflavik airport is quite small and easy to navigate, and there was no crazy customs paperwork like you fill out when entering the US.
After spending a little bit of time in the airport, already getting acquainted with some of the prices in Icelandic Krona (ISK) and how a donut from Dunkin Donuts costs about $6 dollars USD, we were picked up by some nice folks from Kuku Campers - our camper van rental company. Based on our intensive research beforehand, they seemed to be highly reputable, and their quirky advertising sort of sent us over the edge to want to rent with them. We are happy to say, the camper van turned out just fine, with no unforeseen problems!
Once we left the Kuku Camper’s hub, we took a quick shopping trip to the nearby Bonus grocery store, loaded up the car, and were on our way to start our adventure.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
For the year leading up to our vacation to Iceland, we spent a good deal of time researching locations and things we wanted to see. The Golden Circle is a small loop just outside of Reykjavik, and off the main road that runs around the entire country (the 1 or commonly referred to as the Ring Road) featuring a few stop-offs that most tourists in Iceland hit up for their convenience and diversity.
If you do a quick Google search for images of Iceland, some of these locations will likely be some of the first to show up.
We began at the southern portion of The Golden Circle, first visiting Kerid Crater. Entry is 400 ISK (about $4 USD) per person, and the time spent here was fairly minimal. It used to be free to visit, but the landowner recently started charging a fee (I don’t blame them given the number of people visiting these days). The actual crater is very unique, with rich red and green colors throughout. If you are unfamiliar with volcanic environments, this is a great introduction.
Our next stop was Geysir, which by the end of our time there we came to view as the Disney World of Iceland. As the name implies, you will have the opportunity to see a natural geyser that erupts every 5 - 10 minutes. It is cool to see, but definitely not the most exciting part of Iceland for us.
With that said, some of the surrounding landscape is stunning. A mountain that can be easily hiked gives a nice view of the geyser, and a low-lying valley filled with farmland and well-spaced out homes. It was during this hike that we decided that we like visiting popular locations, then looking off the beaten path for our own adventure to make it unique. Conveniently, there is a shop to buy gifts and food here as well, just get in line behind the rest of the tourists and you will be fine :)
From there, we visited Gullfoss Waterfall (“foss” in Icelandic means “water,” I say this because it is a recurring term you’ll hear throughout much of Iceland!). This is the first location that really brought the wow factor. We have generally heard that while The Golden Circle is cool, it is not the most exciting, but this waterfall both in it’s size and power really leave an imprint. A really cool aspect of it is how the spray from the falls appears to float upwards as a result of being pushed up against the side of a cliff face. Watching it in person is something else, and it almost appear to defy gravity.
Our last stop for the day was to Thingvellir National Park (stylized as Þingvellir). The nerds in us screamed for joy at visiting this location, given that it has been featured in Game of Thrones in quite a few scenes.
This area serves significant historical significance to Icelanders - the name itself translating to mean “Parliament Plains" - where the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 A.D. and other major events have taken place - this being the first formal parliament of the country. It is also of geological significance, lying in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
FIRST NIGHT CAMPING IN A VAN
We spent our first night in our camper van at the Thingvellir Camp site. It was our first time living in a van (‘down by the river’), and not too bad thanks to the built-in heater (that runs off a second battery so the camper van doesn’t die on us), and relatively comfortable sleeping bags and mattress pad. Click HERE for a more detailed review of this campsite.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF ICELAND
Iceland holds a lot of diversity in a relatively small space (the country is the size of Ohio).
When landing at Keflavik airport, it was a lot more barren than we originally had anticipated, but makes sense given it is a volcanic island.
After journeying out of the small town with our Kuku camper van, the natural beauty started to become more and more apparent, and Iceland does a good job of creating many pull off points so people can safely stop off the road and take in the sights.
We couldn’t have been driving more than 10 minutes before we found ourselves pulled off staring at some random, beautiful, luscious green mountain side with our cameras in hand. The Golden Circle was from there just a taste of what was to come, with some things living up to our expectations, and others (namely - Geysir) being somewhat overhyped and too touristy (you know…for us tourists ☺ ).
Be sure to check out the rest of our Traveling Iceland article series.