29 Aug Flatlanders In Iceland – Day 1 – Reykjavik And The Golden Circle
In case you haven’t been following us on Instagram, we returned from an amazing nine-day trip to Iceland and wanted to share our experiences with anyone who is thinking about making the trip to the amazing “land of fire and ice”.
To do that, though, it takes a lot more than just a single blog post so we broke down the trip into a series of posts. Today’s post is detailing the first day of our itinerary and the things we saw and did.
Below are the links to the individual articles in the series.
Flatlanders Guide To Iceland Blog Post Index
- The Family Guide To Planning A Trip To Iceland
- Our Iceland Itinerary As A Starting Point For Your Trip
- Day 1 – Reykjavik and the Golden Circle
- Day 2 – Hella to Höfn – Holy Cow!!
- Day 3 – Hofn to Neskaupstadur – Scenic cliff drives along Eastern Iceland
- Day 4 – Neskaupstadur to Akureryi via Husavik – Hikes, Hot Pots, and Harbors
- Day 5 – A day in Akureyri watching whales
- Day 6 – Akureyri to Stykkishólmur – Gravel roads, remote waterfalls, and an amazing hamburger
- Day 7 – Stykkishólmur to Reykjavik – Seal Beach, A stop in Bifrost, and exploring Reykjavik
- Day 8 – A day in Reykjavik exploring the food, culture, and shopping
- Day 9 – Spend the morning in Reykjavik and then head home to Kansas City
- Packing and Preparing For Your Iceland Trip
NOTE: To “watch” the visual story of our trip, you can review all 100 photos in our Iceland 2019 Instagram highlight. The story progresses in the order of the nine-day itinerary as listed above.
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Thoughts About The Overnight Flight On Iceland Air
It seems fitting to start the day 1 analysis with the impressions of Iceland Air and the choice to take an overnight flight.
As was mentioned in our planning post, it’s safe to say that Iceland Air is a higher-than-average quality airline that wants the flight to serve as your first experience with Iceland. The flight crew was very friendly and helpful. They offered a complimentary bottle of Icelandic water upon boarding and were very attentive on-board.
Flying in their economy class didn’t feel “economy” with entertainment systems built into the headrests, plenty of free in-flight entertainment, and sets that not only reclined, but slid forward as the reclined, giving a better sleeping position…an important feature for our overnight flight.
In hindsight, I think we all agree that flying overnight was a good choice. We departed from Kansas City International at 9:45pm and arrived at 9:40am in Keflavik. The 6.5 hour flight was smooth and relatively turbulence-free and meals were offered on-board for an extra charge.
No one really had a deep sleep on the flight, but it was quiet and comfortable enough that we all caught a cat-nap or two.
Upon arrival, we were all just ready to start our trip, so a bit of added excitement and adrenaline helped power us through the morning…along with a good pastry shop and some coffee (more on that later).
In planning our next Iceland trip, I would definitely see us doing the overnight flight again. It just makes sense to sleep on the flight and then “wake up” in Iceland and have it be morning.
It’s a shortcut to resetting your body clock since the first meal you eat is breakfast and coffee helps us keep going through the day.
NOTE: Customs in Keflavik is relatively simple and straight-forward. Just wait in line, present your passport, and then answer any questions. They do have the automated kiosks if you want to try to breeze through customs and hardly anyone was using them, so don’t be afraid to jump over to the kiosks to avoid the lines.
Customs Check-In At Keflavik Airport
Our customs check-in went relatively smoothly. We tried to use the kiosks, but because our passports were set to expire within 90 days, the kiosk told us we needed to report to a staffed station.
Bonus for us, though, the staff member who was helping with the kiosks simply directed us to a border agent booth and we got to skip the lines. Worked out nicely, even though we couldn’t fully take advantage of the kiosks.
NOTE: When you use the international kiosks, your fingerprints will be scanned. I know some people who have a hangup about this, so just be aware of that if you don’t want your fingerprints scanned. The staffed stations don’t do fingerprints, so if you don’t want your family to have their fingerprints scanned, skip the kiosk and wait in line for the staffed stations.
FYI…though, when we returned to the US the kiosks were the only option available. So, while you might skip having your fingerprints scanned in Iceland, you will likely have them scanned returning back to the US.
Also, Keflavik is a very nice and very clean airport. It’s fairly small and easy to navigate, but keep in mind that since it seems like a lot of the flights come in at the same time, the customs lines can get long when flights arrive.
There are several places to grab food at the airport, so I would highly recommend sitting down and getting a cup of coffee and a pastry and letting the eager-beavers get through customs and the rental car lines. That way, you have a little more energy and you won’t have to wait in lines as long.
Getting Our Rental Car Through Firefly Rentals
As I mentioned in our planning post, we rented our car through Firefly rentals. Quite a few folks had good experiences with them and their prices were about 15% cheaper than the alternatives, so we decided to give it a try. The experience was a good one, so I would definitely rent through them again.
Firefly is simply a small company owned by Hertz. While Hertz rents out the newest models of cars, Firefly rents out models that are 3-4 years old. Our Volkswagen Polo was a lovely little 2015 model that had about 97,000 km on it (around 60,000 miles). Since this car has been driven around the island and we put about 2,000 km on our trip…that means it has been around the island quite a few times.
Firefly communicated well throughout the process, emailing me the day before and texting me the day of arrival, letting me know to pick up my car at the Hertz desk.
The checkout was simply and the staff at the Hertz desk was helpful and not pushy about extra insurance. Be sure you take a number from the machine so you “get in line”. Quite a few people were standing around in line, but hadn’t taken a number, so they were queuing for absolutely no reason.
A Note About Car Insurance In Iceland: Do your research about car insurance in Iceland. There are all kinds of things that you need to be aware of about driving in Iceland that might not be factors in your home country. Some situations include:
- The wind is quite strong and can literally take your car door and force it open as you enter/exit the car. The force of the wind can push the door so hard that it bends the hinges and causes the door not to open or close properly. Icelandic wind is a force to be reckoned with.
- There are free-ranging sheep everywhere on the island. They are just wandering around, grazing, growing wool, and enjoying their lives. If something spooks them, though, they run…and sometimes they run into the roads. Sheep are about the same size as dogs (there are small ones and large ones) and the larger ones will do damage to your car.
- Gravel roads and roads under construction/repair do cause gravel chips. Trust me…I speak from experience. Rocks are flying everywhere on the roads in Iceland and the big ones will chip your windshield if you are moving above 60km.
The point is sharing these scenarios is to encourage you to make sure you have the proper insurance. Most US insurance companies will only cover you in the US and Canada. They won’t cover you in Iceland…I checked.
So be sure you have the right level of insurance and definitely buy the gravel insurance. I’ll cover quite a bit more about this in our post about driving in Iceland.
Getting On The Road For Our Adventure
With our trusty Volkswagen Polo as our ride for the next nine days, we were set to begin our adventure.
To be honest, we were all tired so we agreed that the first order of business was to head toward Reyjkavik and grab something to eat. Luckily, Icelandic people love their pastries, so you can’t hardly throw a rock and not find a nice bakery.
We were treated to pastries and coffee at the Bakarameistarinn just south of Reykjavik. The staff was friendly, the selection offered everything from doughnuts and coffee to a traditional Icelandic buffet of breads, meats, yogurt, oatmeal, and cheeses. They also had prepared sandwiches that would be good if you wanted to take something for later.
The biggest bonus was the unlimited coffee refills. This meant we could sit and review our travel plans for the day while enjoying a few cups of go-go juice and getting our shaking off the jet-lag.
Whether it was the doughnuts or the coffee, it doesn’t really matter…we had our mojo back.
The Day 1 Route – The Golden Circle, Waterfalls, and Geysers
As we mentioned in our itinerary post, our day one route was intended to be pretty light, so we could see a few sights around the Golden Circle and then head down to Hella for our first night’s rest in Iceland.
While our total route was a short one, we did plan on stopping to see a few sights along the way. If we had headed straight to Hella and avoided the Golden Circle altogether, we could have been at the hotel bout noon and been able to just relax and catch up on some sleep.
BUT WE WERE IN ICELAND!!
We could sleep when we got back to Kansas, so we decided that as long as we had some energy, we could see the sights.
That meant driving north-east toward from our lovely little bakery to stop #1 – Þingvellir National Park.
Day 1, Stop # 1 – Þingvellir National Park
Okay….before we get started on the park itself, Þingvellir is actually pronounced “Thingvellir”. The Þ is a “the” sound in Icelandic. Hopefully, this helps you not ask locals for directions to “Pingveller”.
To be honest, I think we didn’t give Þingvellir much of a chance, so we didn’t get much out of the destination. It’s entirely our fault and has little to do with the national park and the beauty if offers. We were fresh of the plane, the coffee hadn’t quite kicked in yet and the first thing we saw when we pulled up was a TON of giant tour buses. It was a bit of a turnoff.
Unfortunately, we arrived at the park at the same time as the tour buses coming from Reykjavik, so it was crowded. There were a million people taking photos everywhere, climbing on things, bumping into one another.
Thingvellir National Park is a beautiful way to start your Iceland vacation. We just didn’t feel like fighting the tour bus crowds.
To be honest, it felt like a tourist trap…which is the last place we wanted to be.
So, we walked around areas that were away from the crowds. We took some photos of the beautiful scenery, said “hi” to our first Icelandic sheep and then decided to move on.
When we return to Iceland, I would really like to spend an entire day (or more) exploring the park, hiking the trails, seeing the waterfalls, and just enjoying the scenery that is created by the vast lava fields nestled in the valley.
At Thingvellir, we were treated to our first encounter with Icelandic sheep
If you have a chance, explore the park. Take your time.
We, on the other hand, were tired and didn’t want to deal with crowds so we moved on to get ahead of the our buses.
For us, it was the right move. The rest of the day we stayed ahead of crowd and it made the other locations less crowded and more fun.
Day 1, Stop # 2 – Geysir – The Great Geysir of Iceland
If you have never experienced a geyser erupting up close…here’s your chance.
Any when I say “up close” I mean you’re going to get very, very wet if you want to see it up close.
Geysir is another of the Golden Circle’s touristy attraction, but it’s worth the trip and the crowds weren’t too bad. Everyone was respectful and patient as we waited for the Icelandic volcanoes to work their magic.
In case you aren’t familiar with geysers, they are the result of water seeping down through rock and then meeting up with magma. When the two meet up, the water that touches the magma is turned into steam, which push the cool water behind it back up the surface in an explosion.
The result, it a giant fountain of water being forced up in the air. Keep in mind that the water is HOT.
While Geysir is the grand-daddy of all geysers in Iceland, it doesn’t really erupt all that often…which is why you should drive right by the main parking lot for Geysir and then turn left at the signs that point to Strokkur.
Don’t worry, you can walk (or drive) back down to the gift shop and restaurant if you really want to.
Strokkur is a series of 5-6 different small ponds that absolutely stink like sulphuric gas. Yes, that means it smells like rotten eggs.
Wait 5 or 10 minutes, though, and you’ll see the main geyser at Strokkur erupt and get everyone wet. Don’t worry, you can stand way back and watch if you want to.
If you want to join in the fun and get a great photo, then don’t be afraid to get close.
NOTE: Be sure to protect your camera, phone, or any electronic equipment from the geyser. The water is filled with chemicals so you don’t want that getting into your camera body. For me, I just kept my camera underneath my rain jacket until I was ready to take a shot.
When it does erupt, it’s absolutely beautiful and everyone cheers for nature. It’s kind of fun and funny…and really smelly.
Strokkur is definitely worth the trip. I highly recommend making the trip and spending time wandering around all of the trails.
For the photographers out there, pay close attention to the pools of water. On sunny days, the reflections are amazing. Even on cloudy days, you can get photos down into the vent tubes.
Day 1, Stop # 3 – Gullfoss: The Golden Circle’s Most Majestic Waterfall
In Iceland, there are waterfalls…and then there are waterfalls.
Gullfoss is waterfalls on waterfalls on waterfalls. It breathtaking, it’s majestic, it’s overpowering, it’s beautiful.
It’s also a little touristy, since it has a gift shop and a restaurant.
But don’t let that stop you. It’s a great waterfall to start with in Iceland. The fact that tourists like to visit it, also means that it has well established walking paths and handrails for those who need them. It has multiple places to sit and marvel and plenty of places to take photos without feeling like you’re elbowing the visitor next to you.
Gullfoss is the perfect place to test all the different settings on your camera. You can’t take a bad photo of these falls 😉
Do yourself a favor and make sure you walk the entire path. Don’t just walk to the first observation deck and then stop. Head all the way down to the top of the falls and climb the rocks to the top.
Get wet. Have fun getting wet.
NOTE: You ARE going to get wet in Iceland if you are visiting during the Summer. Be sure to pack (and wear) your weather-proof hiking pants, waterproof hiking boots, and rain jacket.
Whether it’s walking under waterfalls, hiking up a foggy mountainside, or just heading from place to place on a rainy day…you are going to get wet. Be prepared for it.
Be sure to spend plenty of time viewing and photographing the falls, but also don’t forget to turn around and take in the amazing tundra and scenic mountain views that surround Gullfoss. While the falls demand your attention, the vistas surrounding the falls beckon…
The scenic grass tundras surrounding Gullfoss are just as beautiful as the falls themselves.
Day 1, Stop # 4 – The Hotel
Our final stop of day 1 in Iceland was at the Stracta hotel in Hella.
After not sleeping all that well on the flight the night before and then spending the entire day sight-seeing in Iceland, the Stracta was a welcome oasis for these weary travelers.
The Stracta isn’t one of those hotels that shows amazing photos in their listings and then disappoints. As I reviewed the photos that I took and compared them to the photos that were displayed on their listing, they were nearly identical.
Our suite had two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and its own private hot tub. Our hot tub wasn’t really hot, so we walked twenty feet to the two public hot tubs and soaked our sore and tired bodies. We followed by hanging out in one of the wet saunas available to guests.
EXACTLY what the doctor ordered after a long flight and a long day.
Here are some images from our actual stay at the Stracta. I dare you to compare them with their listing photos…exactly the same!
Some key things to note about the Stracta Hotel:
- Breakfast was included with the room and it was probably the best breakfast we had in Iceland. Rather than the traditional “Icelandic buffet” of meats, cheeses, sliced bread, and oatmeal the Stracta went full “American buffet” and added eggs, bacon, potatoes, oatmeal, fruit, and waffles. Juice and coffee were included, as well. It was a great start to the day and we took full advantage of it.
- The staff was extremely helpful in answering all of our questions
- There is a small cafe and they provide not only meals, but amazing desserts. Deb had apple pie and I had chocolate cake. Totally worth checking out.
- The beds were plenty comfortable and the rooms had blackout shades since the sun doesn’t go down until around 2am during the Summer.
We would definitely recommend the Stracta and will be staying there again when we are in South Iceland.
Reflections In Day 1 Of Our Nine-Day Icelandic Trip
So, that’s the summary of day one of our amazing nine-day family trip to Iceland. With regards to day 1 of the trip, the things we saw, and the hotel we chose, here are what Deb and I think:
From Deb – It was a fun first day in Iceland, although we were all really tired. I kinda regret not fully exploring Þingvellir, but I don’t know how we would have done it without adding hours on to the day and maybe skipping Geysir or Gullfoss…neither of which I would want to skip. All-in-all, it was a great day and I’m glad we ended up at the Stracta.
From Sean – Boy was I tired at the end of the day. It doesn’t seem like we did all that much, but the scenery in Iceland is just something to marvel at. It’s exhausting trying to drive AND see all the sights. The Stracta definitely was a smart reservation with the hot tubs and saunas providing the perfect level of relief at the end of our long first day. I actually fell asleep in the sauna after about 2 minutes, so I’m glad Deb was there to wake me up 🙂
There you have it…day 1 of our nine-day itinerary in Iceland. I hope this helps you in the planning of your trip and gives you some ideas as to what to explore.
See you on the road!