What is Iceland’s Golden Circle and why is it so popular?
Talk to anyone about their visit to Iceland and chances are they will tell you about their Golden Circle tour.
The region is by far the most visited area of Iceland, accounting for the vast majority of the 2.2 million tourists who visit the northern country each year.
But what exactly is the Golden Circle, and why is it so popular with tourists? The Week Portfolio took a trip with local experts from Activity Iceland, staying at the Raddison Blu Saga Hotel, to find out more about the iconic route.
What is the Golden Circle?
The Golden Circle is a 190-mile tourist route that begins and ends just outside of the nation's capital, Reykjavik. If you were to drive it on a fine day without pausing, the entire trip would take around three hours.
The main stops are along the way are: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and the Gullfoss waterfall. Each site offers a different kind of spectacle, and – for the geological enthusiast – a different insight into the shifting, steaming, boiling earth that makes Iceland such an astonishing place to visit. Also, conveniently, the three sites are all within a two hour's drive from Reykjavík, so all can be visited within a day.
Self-drive or tour?
For the more intrepid visitor, it will be tempting to hire a car and experience the Golden Circle unaided. And there are obvious advantages to visiting like this: with your own car, you can do the trip at your own pace, stop along the path if you see something that looks interesting, and travel with your own friends and family, rather than a gaggle of strangers.
But there are disadvantages as well. In winter, which technically runs from December to March, but can often extend out in both directions, the roads are often hazardous and visibility can drop quite quickly when a storm comes in. Also, roads are often closed at short notice, and you will need to listen for reports of black ice, which can lead to accidents. Winter storms can occur as late as May, so keep an eye on the weather forecast before you head out.
For our visit, we opted for a tour with Activity Iceland, one of the country’s premier tour operators, which can arrange private trips or tours either completely privately or with just a handful of other people.
Our Super Jeep Tour, which included an optional snowmobile ride across the Langjokull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, began with a pre-dawn pickup from our hotel.
As we introduced ourselves to the two other couples who had joined the tour – a newly engaged couple, high on the excitement of proposal, and two Korean classical musicians - we made our way to the first stop on the trip: Strokkur, the most active geyser in Iceland which erupts naturally every four to 10 minutes.
The wait for our first eruption didn't last long – around 30 seconds after we arrived at the site, the geyser burst open sending a 65-foot plume of boiling water high up into the air, which grew thicker still with the smell of sulphur, an unfortunate egg smell that becomes a semi-regular companion on most visits to Iceland.
Next up, we board our Super Jeep (a giant sleek black beast which is a head-turner in itself), and head for Gullfoss, a vast waterfall, which plunges down a three-step “staircase” and then abruptly falls into the Hvítá river below. The whipping winds make this the coldest stop on our tour, but the nearby cafe offers respite from the bitter winds (as well as scarves, gloves and hats for those who have come underprepared).
After a reviving coffee, our Super Jeep proves its worth as we head up into the deep snow surrounding the Langjökull Glacier, where we have an appointment at the snowmobile base camp. Our certified glacier guide, who looks suspiciously like a hipster snowboarder, gets us kitted out with helmets, gloves, massive snowsuits, in preparation for our trip out across the second-largest glacier in Iceland.
The trip out is spectacular, though bitterly cold. An adrenaline-fuelled half-hour ride across the gleaming plains that ends in an ice cave, where frozen stalactites cling to millennia-old ice, streaked with layers of volcanic ash. Back across the glacier, our super steed awaits, whisking us to the final stop on our tour, Þingvellir National Park.
This Unesco world heritage site is said to be the location of the world's first parliament, established in 930 AD, where sessions continued to be held until the late 18th century. The beautiful parkland can be hiked, or even dived – Silfra Lake has become a popular spot for divers due to the crystal clear waters that opened up, as continental drift pushed apart the tectonic plates on which the park sits, wide enough for divers to swim through.
Where to stay
Our tour ends back at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel, where we arrive with an appetite ready for dinner in the recently opened restaurant, Mímir.
The new restaurant, the brainchild of the hotel’s award-winning chefs, is frankly excellent. Unexpectedly so, considering its slightly unprepossessing setting next door to the hotel's front desk.
The restaurant's focus on local ingredients which have been sourced in cooperation with local Icelandic producers. Offering seasonal ingredients which have come from nearby is hardly revolutionary in contemporary dining, but the execution here is exceptional.
For starters, cured local char is matched perfectly with apples and dill and that most Icelandic of ingredients, Skyr – a thick yoghurt-like dairy product with a slightly sour flavour.
Another fish dish, the cod, which comes with spring onions, mushrooms and a soy butter foam, is an equally excellent place to start, though both dishes are also available as mains if you fancy a slightly more substantial dose of the sea.
For mains, the rib-eye steak is cooked perfectly, with a crystalline salt surface licked by flame, but rare meat to be found just millimetres beneath. My wife's farmer's burger is done simply and well, but lifted into something more indulgent with the addition of foie gras.
Dinner done we retire to our room – a simple, but comfortable room on the second floor of this unusual hotel, which was built in the 1960s by Icelandic farmers, who, curiously, had a strong affection for modern architecture.
The building has been owned by The Farmers Association ever since, and in its prime was home to a stream of celebrity guests, including Mia Farrow, Neil Armstrong and Led Zeppelin. The connection to the country's farmers explains why both restaurants, Mimir and Grillið, pay homage to the best of the nation's produce.
Radisson Blu Saga Hotel is currently undertaking a massive renovation, which – ambitiously – aims to maintain the hotel's heritage while also giving the interior a facelift. But located just a 15-minute walk from the city centre, Radisson Blu Saga Hotel is the perfect spot for exploring Reykjavik... and the glories of the Golden Circle just beyond.
Rooms at Radisson Blu Saga Hotel start from £160 per night. For more, visit radissonblu.com
Golden Circle Super Jeep tours with Activity Iceland costs 29,900 ISK (£192) per person. The snowmobile add-on costs 19,900 ISK (£128) per person. For more, visit activityiceland.is