Unexpectedly Awestruck on the Golden Circle in Iceland

by Millie Rivero, Systems Architect, Information Technology

Stokkur geyser in Iceland
Stokkur geyser in Iceland

I was destined to work for a cruise line.  My whole life I’ve been fascinated with cruise ships, maritime history and geography.  I remember as a child looking at a world map and daydreaming of sailing on a Viking ship to exotic destinations like Iceland and Greenland.  There I was, on the bow of my wooden ship looking out for icebergs; on my face the cold winds of the North Atlantic, and under my feet the rolling and pitching of my vessel confronting the waves.

My dreams came true a few years ago (minus the Viking part) when I had the opportunity to sail on a transatlantic cruise from Southampton, England to New York City.  But instead of exploring the north Atlantic seas in the wooden long ship of a Viking, I traveled in style aboard a cruise ship named Sea Princess.

One thing I’ve learned throughout my years of travel is to expect the unexpected.  And on this trip, the unexpected surprise was Iceland.

I’ve traveled all over the world, and most places delight me, but in a way I expect.  In Iceland, I’m not sure exactly what I expected – probably ice.  What I discovered was a strikingly modern and culturally rich “Island” (the actual Icelandic spelling of the country, which is close to the ancient Norse language spoken by the Vikings) in a stunningly beautiful country.

When our ship anchored in Reykjavik’s harbor, the world’s northernmost capital city, the weather was misty and cloudy, but the temperature was mild and the winds calm.  Several family members had joined me on my Northern Europe cruise, including my best friend.  She and I jumped at the chance to tour Iceland’s interior, and we decided to take a route known as the Golden Circle, a 200-mile loop that passes through the island’s most interesting geological and cultural features.

Our drive took us through a landscape of rolling hills dotted with hundreds of lakes, and the tundra took our breath away.  A type of vegetation I’d never seen before carpeted the landscape — tiny flowers in a rainbow of colors covered shrubs and small trees. And everywhere we looked, herds of Icelandic horses with their characteristic short legs and long, thick manes and tails roamed the countryside.  This is the only breed of horse found in Iceland and, in fact, their history dates back to ninth century Viking settlers.

One of the first stops on our route was Thingvellir National Park, one of Iceland’s most important historical places and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s also the only spot in the world where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises out of the ocean. This ridge is a huge 207-mile-long underwater mountain range at the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, a place where the earth’s crust is spreading and sinking. The constant grinding of these plates caused volcanoes and earthquakes that, over thousands of years, have shaped the Icelandic landscape. We took a walk across a short section of the fault line that is easily accessible on foot. As we were traveling among the huge rock formations towering over our heads, all I could think was “Oh God, please, no earthquakes right now.”

But really, even for this California girl from earthquake country, the thrill of straddling the ridge – actually putting one foot on one tectonic plate and the other foot on another plate was something to remember.

Continuing along the Golden Circle, our stops included some impressive natural wonders, including Kerio, a deep volcanic crater formed in a huge explosion 3,000 years ago, and the impressive Gullfoss falls, a gigantic double waterfall that cascades down into an abysmal gorge.  But the highlight was a visit to an active geothermal area, home to a famed spouting hot spring known as Geysir, the original source of the English word geyser.  Great Geysir is no longer very active, however, a neighboring geyser, Stokkur, which in Icelandic means “The Churn,” shoots up a column of hot water and steam every five to 10 minutes. I amused myself watching dozens of visitors pose in front of the geyser, smiles frozen on their faces, while their companions kept their fingers ready on their camera’s shutter, just waiting for Strokkur to come alive. I, of course, had to do the same.  And about one thousand pictures later, I finally got a good one.

Our return to Reykjavik brought everything I’d seen full circle as we learned how the city is powered exclusively by geothermal energy.  After visiting these amazing natural resources – geysers and waterfalls among them – the environmentalist in me was delighted to see these same forces in use for a clean power source.   I was impressed by how this country was taking care of its natural bounty and it, in turn, was leading Iceland into the 21st century.

As our cruise ship departed this country that had surprised me so much, I returned to my earlier daydream that had inspired this visit.  But instead of a cruise to Iceland, I now focused on the land itself and its astonishing beauty.  It just goes to show that no matter how far and wide you travel, the unexpected will always find you.