Day 189: circle in the snow

My friend Kevin was stationed in Iceland a long time ago, at an American air base in the southeastern part of the country not far from Höfn (pronounced, more or less, “Hup”), a small harbor town adjacent to the Hornafjörður fjord.  Unfortunately, his year here was largely limited to the main airport in Keflavik, the road into the capital to the domestic airport, and (after flying to the Hornafjörður airport), the base itself.

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That meant he never got to see the classic Icelandic tourist sights: in particular, the Golden Circle route that almost all visitors here wind up taking.  It was a deficiency we had to remedy.

I may have mentioned this before, but it never ceases to surprise me how different every part of Iceland can be depending on the season.  Between winter and summer it’s like living in two distinct countries.  There’s plenty of space already, but it seems even more spacious given the variations in the seasons.

Iceland isn’t a crowded country: about 330,000 people live here, slightly less than the population of Anaheim, California.  The vast majority live within about a 30-mile radius of Reykjavik, meaning that huge swaths of countryside are uninhabited, or very nearly so.

The roads outside the capital area tend to be two lanes wide, one in each direction.  Some bridges (and there are a lot of bridges, because the runoff from the glaciers produces a lot of rivers) are just one lane in total, and there’s an etiquette for who goes first that’s simplicity in itself: if you get to the bridge first, you get to go across first.

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The roads are in good shape, but you need to adjust your travel plans to match conditions.

In the winter, the roads are cleared periodically; the ones that can’t be kept clear, or are particularly treacherous when they become icy, wind up being closed.  But the roads that remain open get a fair amount of snow and ice between clearings, and that can make for some real adventures.  It’s always best to check the weather report before heading out on a sightseeing trip in Iceland, and that’s especially true in the winter.  Fortunately, we had good weather.

This was my seventh trip around the Golden Circle: I’ve done it twice as a tourist and five times as a semi-local tour guide since moving here.  There are some photos of the Golden Circle in other seasons posted elsewhere, but I wanted to put these pictures up so you can see what it’s like in the winter:

If you come to Iceland in the winter for New Year’s Eve, as Kevin did, or to hunt for the Northern Lights, the other tourist sights are still there for you – you just need to plan ahead and take what the weather will give you.  Even if you’ve been here before, the scenery is very different once it’s draped in white.

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