With DC currently getting wrecked by the Snowpocalypse/Snowzilla/Chersnowbyl disaster, and my right arm less-than-functional after I slipped spectacularly on some ice earlier this week, it feels like the right time to recap my quick trip to Iceland.
I didn’t really mean to go to Iceland. After cobbling together the cheapest possible flights—one of the very first WOW Air flights from BWI to Reykjavik, then EasyJet to Luton—I ended up with a day’s stopover there. A quick pit stop en route to the UK.
But ever since, I’ve been telling everyone who asks (and too many who don’t) that they need to visit this spectacular country. And I keep seeing BWI-KEF flights for less than $300 and getting impulsive ideas. What I saw in one day was breathtaking.
Tour organizers know that many visitors to Iceland are just there on a stopover, so there are loads of options to make the most of a single day (or even just a few hours). After lots of deliberation (and many hours consulting the internet), I went with a Gray Line tour of the standard Golden Circle sights, plus a couple of hours at Laugarvatn Fontana spa.
We set out from downtown Reykjavik through patches of boreal birch forest with our guide giving tons of amusing, insightful, and informative commentary on the way to Þingvellir National Park.
Upon arrival, we walked along the edge of the North American plate to the site where the Icelandic parliament first convened more than a thousand years ago. The history and the landscape were striking—there’s a reason it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Plus, Þingvellir is a Game of Thrones filming location, so there was the added thrill of knowing that we could’ve encountered a band of wildlings or whatever at any point.
After departing Þingvellir, we drove around Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake, before arriving at Laugarvatn Fontana. The choice between visiting Laugarvatn Fontana and the much better-known Blue Lagoon was tough, but I was definitely happy with my decision.
While I’d heard that the manmade Blue Lagoon can be very crowded and not terribly relaxing, Laugarvatn Fontana is small and quiet and fueled by natural hot springs. With three steam rooms, a sauna, and three outdoor mineral baths, there are plenty of options to explore, all with an incredible view of the facility’s namesake lake, Laugarvatn, and nearby mountains. You can even walk down to the lake itself to cool off—the spa’s website describes this experience as “a temperature shift that is both healthy and strengthening.” Or unbearably frigid. Semantics.
After a couple of blissful hours (and an accidental but pleasant nap in a mineral bath to make up for the sleep I didn’t get on the flight over), I rejoined the tour and we made our way to Gullfoss.
I can’t really describe Gullfoss. When I set eyes on it, I pulled out my journal and wrote: “Holy fuck. The most compelling case for the existence of God is, I think, quite possibly this waterfall.” It’s a masterpiece. It’s hard to believe that it’s a real thing that exists on earth and isn’t just borne of an artist’s imagination. When I looked at it, I felt grateful to be alive.
Gullfoss also very nearly became a premier example of humanity’s tendency to destroy irreplaceable natural wonders for the sake of industrialization, but thankfully a badass lady crusaded to save it and made it possible for me to go see it. You should go see it. Everyone should go see it.
After reluctantly departing Gullfoss, we proceeded to Geysir, which is, of course, a geyser. But, like, the geyser. The thing from which the word “geyser” is derived. It’s inactive now and just emits steam without any of the violence, but nearby Strokkur erupts spectacularly about every ten minutes, so it’s still very much worth a visit.
Our final stop wasn’t on the itinerary—we got a quick bonus visit to the waterfall Faxi, apparently thanks to the day’s perfect weather. It’s beautiful and impressive, but I think Gullfoss has ruined me for most other waterfalls.
So, to recap: In just about nine hours, I walked along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, went on a quick spa retreat, saw two gorgeous waterfalls, watched a geyser erupt a few times, and got to see some of Iceland’s mountains and glaciers and forests and lakes from the window of a comfortable (and wifi-equipped!!!) bus. It felt like the perfect use of my brief stopover. Of course there’s much more to Iceland than the Golden Circle—but if you only have a day to spare, you won’t be disappointed.