Tour Iceland's Golden Circle Like a Local

I knew when our host in Reykjavik introduced himself as “Eaglewolf” I was going to love Iceland. A modern-day Viking, Eaglewolf is pale as snow, 6’6, and has a giant ginger-colored beard and shoulder-length hair sun-kissed with the kind of highlights I’ve spent countless dollars and years trying to achieve. His thick, wooly sweater and cap were knitted by his mother, and his fantastical name is actually the one he was given at birth 20 years ago.

He was accompanied by his perfect foil: Yann. A jovial, middle-aged hypnotist who describes himself as “hobbit-sized,”  and would be otherwise completely ordinary in his appearance if it weren’t for his perfectly waxed handlebar mustache. His knowledge of Icelandic history is unmatched and desire to share it insatiable. 

As other travelers around us boarded large tour buses and vans, I was so thankful that this dynamic duo had offered to show us their country first-hand. Since it was my first time in Iceland, our plan for the day was a modified Golden Circle tour; the standard stops plussed with additional stops at some places only known to locals, where Yann promised we wouldn’t be surrounded my motor coaches. 

The 3 main attractions of the circle are Þingvellir, Gullfoss, & Geysir. We made these obligatory stops, but our friends included secret waterfalls, an extended hike behind Þingvellir, a look at an authentic geothermal spa, a visit to see volcanic bread being geothermally cooked underground, and a stop at Bobby Fisher’s grave for Josh - who has a strange, inexplicable obsession of getting photographs at graves of minorly important historical figures. 

Our first secret stop on our Golden Circle Tour

Our first secret stop on our Golden Circle Tour

 Just behind Þingvellir there's a secret little waterfall and a beautiful stream

 Just behind Þingvellir there's a secret little waterfall and a beautiful stream

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Life in Manhattan has made me appreciate nature more than you can imagine. When we travel, I’m immune to gleaming skyscrapers and used to shop-filled streets - however quaint they may be. But stick me in the countryside of Iceland with as little as a grassy hill and red barn in my panorama, and be prepared to catch me when I swoon. Throughout our drive I continuously ooh-d and ahh-d from the backseat window. I fawned over every puffy sheep we passed, and I found my spirit animal in the white, Icelandic horses that might as well be unicorns. 

As our thoughts turned to lunch, I casually brought up a working dairy farm just near Efstidalur Mountain to the group, pretending like I didn’t have my traveling-heart set on it.  The place serves beef from the farm, trout from the lake, and homemade ice cream. Yann said he’d call information to get the scoop - and phoned his mother. 

Iceland is a small country, and it only took us about 2 hours to realize just how small. Everyone knows everyone, and is somehow related to or acquainted with everyone. Anyone born there can trace their family history back at least 1100 years. They were horrified at our inept knowledge of our own family trees, me recounting that my mother always told me her father’s side was from Bohemia - a country that does not exist. 

Yann’s mother knew the farm and the woman who runs it, and gave it her stamp of approval. The only people inside when we arrived were a Icelandic couple with their white-haired little girl. Success! The interior is a beautifully restored farmhouse with cozy little tables, thin vases of yellow wildflowers, and a shop selling knitted sweaters. Windows on the far inside overlook the hills, and on the opposite offer views into the barn, where you actually see the cows and look into their sweet, unknowing eyes - making ordering one of their many burgers impossible for anyone with a heart. 

But why I really came was the fresh-churned, farm-to-cone ice cream. Enjoyed overlooking the scenery on an usually warm and sunny Icelandic afternoon. 

Perhaps the best benefit of our local friends was just hearing them talk about Iceland and learning about their lives. Like the absence of surnames. No one has a last name in Iceland, it’s simply “son of/daughter of (your father’s first name). So Eaglewolf’s full name is Eaglewolf, son of Toframaour. As if he could get any more Viking-like. Dress him in pelts and you can just imagine him burning and pillaging villages. If I were Icelandic I would be Anna, daughter of Freddy. Not nearly as threatening. 

We all traded travel notes, Eaglewolf and I talked hair care, and Yann told us stories of Iceland’s history, most of which end with “we don’t really know for certain but….” One of the things I find most wonderful about magic is that it brings together the most unlikely of friends. Yann, Josh, Eaglewolf & I were perhaps the strangest looking quartet navigating the Golden Circle, but perhaps the happiest one. And as I looked around at our new Icelandic friends and thought about our exceptional day and the fact that we were in the middle of our month-long trip to Scandinavia, I was reminded of something Josh says to me often: “This is all because of card tricks”. 

A moment alone at Glufoss

A moment alone at Glufoss

Geysir 

Geysir 


Top Tips:

Do not book a Golden Circle Tour on a motor coach. The sites are beautiful, but you will be surrounded by thousands every stop of the way - and will never be able to have a moment alone to soak up where you are. I had to sneak through the barriers clearly marked DANGER and sit on the edge of a cliff in order to get a photo alone at Gullfoss.

I recommend finding a local guide to take you around and ask for some outside the box spots, where you will be the only people there. I also stress that you’ll want to move at your own pace at each stop, not that of your tour guide. If you'd like to get in touch with Eaglewolf, he is now offering private tours. Drop me an email or DM on Instagram for this info! 

If you’re not tied to seeing the actual 3 Golden Circle spots - you can skip it all together and just seek out some lesser-known spots in the area to enjoy the beauty of Iceland without the crowds.