There are two reasons why I wanted to visit Iceland: spectacular scenery and the Aurora Borealis, so when I found cheap flights to Reykjavik I didn’t hesitate to book them.
Initially, I wanted to hire a car and drive around Iceland in the same way that my friend and I visited Skye in February this year. But with Iceland’s winter rapidly closing in, I was afraid of icy roads and short daylight hours—we didn’t want to be left stranded on bleak roads alone and in the dark.
Thankfully, Iceland is a country that thrives on tourism, and you are never far away from a tour booking office to help you out. I don’t particularly like scheduled tours, as I don’t like the short time limits you are given in each place. As a practising photographer, I like to walk around and have time to set up the right pictures (usually waiting until large tour groups have left the area). But with only five days to spare, we took the plunge and booked ourselves on a few tours.
The Golden Circle scenery tour was one of the first and we opted for the afternoon tour, which seemed to take in the main sights: Gulfoss falls, the geyser and Þingvellir; a stunning National Park where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.
Our first stop was Gullfoss falls. Gullfoss translates from Icelandic as ‘golden fall’, and our tour guide offered some explanations for the name, but my favourite was that the waterfall is the gold found at the end of the rainbow—referring to the rainbows that frequently dance over the falls when the sun shines through the spray. Sadly, the day of my visit was overcast and gray, so there were no rainbows. Nevertheless the pounding glacial water cascading through the chasm was absolutely spectacular. And the leaden sky overhead emphasised the beautiful turquoise colour of the water. Even though it was only October, the spray on the walkways had turned to ice, so be careful if you visit in the winter.
As we only had 50 minutes to enjoy the waterfall, and to eat lunch, my time photographing the falls was cut very short. If you do go on one of these tours then it might be a good idea to take a picnic lunch with you so you don’t waste time in restaurant queues. Having said that, the Icelandic lamb stew served in the restaurant was truly delicious and well worth the few moments it took to eat it.
In the Icelandic Autumn daylight hours are pretty short, with sunrise happening at 9.30 and the sun setting by 5.30. The afternoon tour began at 12.30, giving us only 5 hours of useable light. By the time we reached the geysers, the light was fading fast. We had 45 minutes at the geysers. Only one of the hot springs, Strokkur, is active, erupting at 5 minute intervals, giving you plenty of opportunity to watch and film it.
Waiting for the geyser to erupt is truly fascinating. The water in the spring is in a constant state of flux, but the motion becomes more agitated just before the explosion. Firstly all the water is sucked back inside the spring, and then a bubble arises from the pool. Suddenly the water gushes out in a violent burst of water and hot steam. Seconds later, it has gone and the cycle begins again.
Iceland fully utilises volcanic activity to produce electricity and heating, using geothermal energy. Most houses are heated by the hot water from the ground. It is easy to see, standing by the magnificent Strokkur geyser, where all this energy comes from.
We went with Grayline, an experienced tour company in Iceland. The tour was interesting and informative, and was the quickest way to see some of Iceland’s most spectacular features. But, as with most things in Iceland, the tour comes at a price – costing 9000 kronor (£47/$75) for the afternoon tour that we took. Given that we only spent 1 hour and a half of that outside of the bus, this is pretty steep. The full day tour is only $4 extra, so it is probably worth taking the longer trip and having more time at each site. The tour group was large, consisting of a full size coach of passengers. You can book online, or at the bus station near the harbour in Reykjavik. Smaller group tours are available with other operators.
Is Iceland on your list or have you already been? What is your view of organised tours? Let me know in the comments below.