Iceland's Windswept West and a Circle of Gold
Updated: Jul 26, 2022
After a busy but relatively low-key day in Reykjavík, it was time to explore the "real" Iceland. The 99% of the country that only contains 1/3 of the population. Massive, open areas that appeared all the more intergalactic given the lack of trees. But first, we had to figure out which direction to go.
We had three days to play with until the final chapter of our journey that would take place on the island of Heimaey, off Iceland's south coast. But first things first. One option was the famous (read: crowded) Golden Circle, which included Þingvellir National Park, Geysir (the geyser after which all others are named), and Gullfoss, a thunderous double set of waterfalls.
Since the weather was looking better on Monday, we decided to do the other, longer day trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Researched beforehand, this dramatic western arm of the country is home to more stunning landscapes and waterfalls, and the teeny fishing village of Stykkishólmur, which was one of the filming locations in the 2013 Ben Stiller flic The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
The drive was every bit as magical as I had hoped, constantly making jaws drop with landscapes of barren, mountainous majesty. At one moment you're driving on the surface of Mars, with rocks thrown up about you as if some force had punched through the earth violently from below. Another, you're circling a jumbo bay, rays reflecting on placid, boatless waters. A few other cars dot the ribbon of roadway, laughably insignificant in the land forged by titans. Upheaval and peace. Right next to each other in the land, and in the mind.
There is little fanfare when one arrives at Stykkishólmur. Considering that a village of 1,200 people even exists in these parts elicits more relief than excitement. Especially if you're in need of a bathroom or a souvenir. What did we do in the town, you might be wondering? Well, not much. Mostly, we just moseyed a bit. The air was clean, cool, and bright. Scents of coffee and baked goods gently made themselves known in the souvenir shop.
Being a big Mitty fan - if you haven't seen the movie, I'd highly recommend it - I had to find the exact spot where a certain scene was filmed. Remarkably, I had enough of a signal to find the clip on YouTube despite our perceived isolation.
Then, it was a mini hike on the harbor-protecting island of Súgandisey, connected by a causeway. Views at the top were simply stunning, possibly even ranking in my top 10 of all time.
The outlook was 360 degrees of pure Icelandic power. Undisturbed ocean to the north, lovely picturesque harbor and village on the other side, backed by a serrated horizon of snow-splattered peaks.
There was even a tiny orange lighthouse, which looked more like a tollbooth from The Jetsons.
Wind up here was pretty intense, foreshadowing perhaps the wildest experience of the trip that I will describe in greater detail later. Julia flitted around in the grassy areas while Alyse and I snapped away on our camera phones.
Before turning around and heading back to our lodging, we continued west to the oddly-shaped Kirkjufell mountain and its sister waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss. This had been a more recent addition to the itinerary, when I noticed that this recognizable landscape feature (I actually had a jigsaw puzzle with the image on my Amazon wish list before knowing we'd be visiting!) was within reach of our day trip destination.
As we pulled into a gravel parking lot - more crowded than many of our activities but still not that bad - and hiked up to the falls, the interplanetary vibe reasserted itself. Were we still earthbound? It was like walking into some sci-fi fantasy interpretation of a planet.
These falls were the first of four we'd visit over the course of the week; they were somehow both magnificent and down-to-earth simultaneously. We walked down to the bottom for more photo ops, and I told Julia to stand on the bridge for a better sense of scale.
The day wasn't quite done yet, however. We looped back to the south and east, coming upon a exquisite viewpoint that made us WOL (wow out loud - yes, I just made that up).
A final stop at a lonely historical church and dinner at an informal buffet in Borgarnes rounded out our longest day of driving all week. We were exhausted, but it had been worth every minute.
Day 3 dawned, grey and gloomy. We thought perhaps the Golden Circle would illuminate the doldrums, but it was one of those mornings where it just takes a while to work the kinks out. Alyse didn't feel well. Julia was in some kind of mood. Both these facts made Þingvellir National Park a hard sell after the brilliance of the previous day. To top it off, the bugs were something fierce.
We walked, painfully slowly and surrounded by the human contents of so many tour buses, up toward the visitor center that felt like it was miles away. The significance of this National Park is that it was the site of the Alþingi, the original parliament of Iceland that met here starting in 930 AD. No, I didn't forget a "1" in front of the "9". It also happens to be where the European and North American continental plates meet, a must-see for any geographer.
The idea of being here was cool, but bugs, crowds, and moods ensured that this was not our favorite stop. On paper its significance made it worth a visit, but life isn't lived on paper, is it?
Thankfully, the day improved from there as we proceeded east toward Geysir along with the dozens of Golden Circle tour buses. At one point I quipped to the girls that the "Golden Circle" marketing term is the worst thing that could have happened to these amazing sites. Obviously tourism isn't inherently bad, but when this collection of sites is advertised ad nauseam, sometimes enough is enough.
In any case, the "things are more complex than they seem" theme had continued. At Geysir there was a roadside restaurant/gift shop combo that was incredibly crowded. It literally reminded me of a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop that happened to be across the street from a field of geysers. However, the food was incredibly fresh - the best meal I'd had to this point on the trip.
Then, the geysers. Geysir itself is like a grandfather who sleeps 99% of the time but is still due reverence and respect. It hasn't erupted regularly since 1916. Strokkur, right nearby, however, was the star of the show. It erupted so regularly that I gently rubbed my chin and wondered whether there was someone underground - elves, perhaps - simply pushing a button to keep the crowds happy.
In our hour or so on site, I think we saw it go off four or five times. This was my first time seeing (and smelling) a geyser and the sizzling, sulfurous towers of water did not disappoint!
We weren't quite through yet - it was time for Gullfoss, one of the most famous waterfalls among many. Perhaps it was only because they had space to spread out, but crowds here seemed less cumbersome. We reveled in the thunder and distant mist. Admiration and respect for nature surely permeated the beings of anyone visiting this transcendent locale.
That evening, we had one of our most authentic meals of the trip. At Domino's Pizza. Arriving back after another long day and wanting a quick, drama-free meal, we opted for the American pizza joint (don't judge!). Feeling somewhat ashamed of ourselves for taking the easy way out, imagine our surprise upon entering the joint and not seeing or hearing any English for one of the first times on the trip.
In a perplexing instance of the unexpected, we were surrounded by real Icelanders picking up dinner for their families, friends, or partners. Dads in dress shirts, moms in sneakers with little ones in tow. While the food was not Icelandic in any way, the atmosphere here in the suburbs was just far enough distant from tourists that I really felt like an outsider for the first time. Who'da thunk it?!
We were now halfway through our time in Iceland - little did we know, however, that some of our favorite memories were still to come...