Iceland is unique and intense in many ways. The volcanic landscape, full of rock formations, petrified lava fields and hot springs, is interspersed with majestic waterfalls, deep gorges, glaciers, rolling hills and imposing fjords with a rich marine life. And in the far north of Iceland you still have all that beauty to yourself, driving along the Arctic Coast.
Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Henk Bothof
The change is already noticeable from the airport near the Icelandic capital Reykjavik: there is more traffic, the motorways have been widened, and there are more petrol stations. Full buses also regularly pass by. The Iceland I got to know ten years ago was quiet and desolate, except for the lively capital. Iceland is just as colorful, rugged and vast, but visitors have increased by hordes. Fortunately, this does not apply to the north and northwest of Iceland. These are raw arctic pearls and since June 2019 Transavia has been flying weekly to Akureyri, the fourth largest city in Iceland (approximately 19,000 inhabitants).
However, we first drive a van to the far north of Iceland, so that we see the landscape change along the way. Our cheerful guide Hjalti Páll Pórarinsson, who works for Visit North Iceland, takes part of route 1 via the west coast. The inhabited world is decreasing, rolling hills and mountains are increasing. About 50,000 people live in the north, while the size is comparable to the Netherlands. Sheep and Icelandic horses dominate the extensive pastures, complemented by a ‘stray’ farm.
The further north we get, the greener it gets. We even see low shrubs and here and there a planted bush. Due to the special geological ecosystem, there are naturally no forests to be found anywhere. It is glaciers and volcanoes, or the traces thereof, that dominate the landscape. “We have the most hours of sunshine in Iceland and due to the combination with wetlands, the landscape is greener than elsewhere in the country,” explains Hjalti.
We are lucky, because five of the six days of our trip the weather is good. And that while Iceland is known for its changeable, turbulent weather. Four seasons in one day are more the rule than the exception. A wind and waterproof jacket is therefore a must, as well as gloves and good hiking boots.
To understand something about the lifestyle of the Icelanders, it is good to take the time. To travel slowly through that landscape of contrasts. This is best done with a 4×4 land cruiser or a sturdy station wagon. It is the rugged nature that reigns here. Time doesn’t matter and you can tell by the friendly and relaxed Icelanders. Certainly not in the summer, when it stays light for 24 hours.
Road trip Arctic Coast Way
The north of Iceland mainly has small fishing villages, often located on idyllic bays. Hjalti leaves the usual route 1 and takes the more adventurous Arctic Coast Way. This 900-kilometer route has been open since 2019. At the height of the Arctic Circle, the road winds along remote wild coastlines, past rugged fjords and crosses six peninsulas. The Arctic Coast Way was ranked number 3 on the Best in Europe 2019 list Lonely Planet. “This is Iceland’s first paved route that goes off the beaten track. We want to introduce people to the pure wilderness of this area, the marine life and the small communities that live there,” said Hjalti.
Icelandic fishing villages
Although we only visit a few of the 21 fishing villages in a few days, it soon becomes clear that the offer is quite varied per place. There are restaurants, small-scale hotels, geothermal baths, museums and a rich marine life.
Starting point of the Arctic Coast Way route for us is Hvammstangi. This village is a good example where several activities can be undertaken and where the organizations work closely together. We first visit Kidka , Iceland’s most famous wool manufacturer. We get a short tour of the small factory, where only ten people annually knit thousands of sweaters, blankets and accessories from high-quality Icelandic wool.
In the same village in the small harbor is the seal center, The Icelandic Seal Center. This is also a small-scale, but very active company. On the one hand, the center consists of a research team that carries out a lot of fieldwork, and on the other hand of a small-scale museum, a gift shop, coffee bar and travel agent. A friendly, passionate employee tells about the history between the fishermen and the seals, about the years of hunting that raged in this region. That his grandfather killed many seals to survive or to export the meat. With slight horror I look at the stuffed animals, the skeletons and fishing equipment. Fortunately, times have changed and the animals are better protected.
After the tour we go out on the water ourselves to spot seals. Once I change into a waterproof suit, I pull my new wool hat over my ears and board a Seal Travel fishing boat. This organization provides seal tours in collaboration with the Seal Center.
Many seals live around the bay of Hvammstangi. There is a fierce wind and it starts to drip. After sailing for less than fifteen minutes, we see the first curious snouts protruding above the water in the distance. Unfortunately it is a small group, the rest may have gone hunting. The animals that are there circle around the boat at a distance. The weather is getting worse, so we turn around. And on to the next stop.
Robust rock formations
Our stomachs are well filled after a hearty lunch at the hip Sjávarborg, where various local dishes are on the menu. Hjalti resumes the Arctic Coast Way, stopping at two rugged rock formations: Ánastaðastapi and the more famous Hvitsekur, named after the nearby village. To reach both, we clamber down from the higher road through a deserted meadow towards the black volcanic beach. “According to legend, Hvitsekur was a troll turned to stone by the sun. We Icelanders are fond of folklore, myths and sagas and we believe in them,” says Hjalti, almost ironically.
The next day we go out on the water again; this time looking for the whale. Because the bays around Grenivik and Husavik are known as one of the best places in Iceland to spot the world’s largest mammal. We go to the small town of Hauganes, which has been offering whale watching tours since 1993. In two and a half hours we glide towards the sea, along the beautiful Ólafsfjord. We see seals, birds and yes, after half an hour we see a dark figure looming just fifteen meters from the boat. The skipper tells us that it is a large adult humpback whale. This is the second largest whale species after the Sei whale and the Blue whale.
The boat approaches and the engine shuts off. Hauganes Whale Watching runs on biodiesel, so they compensate their CO2 emissions by planting a tree after every trip. In addition, they sail with only two oak boats suitable for small groups, so there are also limited trips in high season to disturb the animals as little as possible.
Back to the humpback whale. The animal surfaces for half a minute every four times, making it clearly visible how imposing the beast is. Then it disappears into the depths for four to eight minutes, only to repeat the pattern. It is fascinating to watch and you have to pay close attention to where it swims and pops up. After more than half an hour we return to the harbor and leave the still water behind us.
We continue along the winding black coastline. Here, vast, rolling grasslands, rocky outcrops and fjords alternate. We make a pit stop at Öxarjörður, a beautiful vantage point to look for puffins. The timid birds swim far below us, but their funny ‘clown faces’ are immediately recognisable. We don’t meet anyone.
Ásbyrgi, infinite landscape
It is also quiet later at the gorge of Ásbyrgi, which is part of the Vatnajökull National Park . The end of the cliff offers a beautiful view of the endless landscape. It’s a great place for a picnic or conversation with the gods, as this hoof-shaped four-kilometer canyon is said to have been created by the hooves of the god Ódin’s eight-legged stallion. However, the information center tells a different story: Ásbyrgi was created thousands of years ago as a result of a devastating flood after the volcano erupted under the Vatnajökull ice cap. The geological traces of the land of fire are clearly visible in this area.
Iceland is one of the most active volcanic areas on earth, with volcanic activity occurring once every five years. It is therefore part of everyday life on the island. All this movement is due to Iceland’s location on the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where a 40,000 km long crack in the floor has been caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Where the plates meet, Iceland widens itself by 2.5 cm annually and that can cause the necessary eruptions.
The nearby basalts of Hljóðaklettar were also formed long ago after a volcanic eruption. These so-called ‘Echo rocks’, which lie on both sides of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, were only discovered in 2009. Surrounded by the special hexagonal rocks and spirals, I almost feel like I’ve landed on another planet.
This also applies to the busier Dimmuborgir, near Lake Mývatn. This place is nicknamed ‘dark castles’, because of the gray, capricious petrified lava fields that were created three thousand years ago. It was not for nothing that it was the dramatic backdrop where the wildlings of the popular Game of Thrones series temporarily settled. And Hjalti starts smiling again, because this is also a place where Icelandic folklore lives: trolls and the Yule Lads (thirteen Santa Clauses) are said to live here.
Another special natural phenomenon is Hverir . These ‘hot springs’ just outside Mývatn consist of churning, bubbling mud pits and fumaroles (openings in the earth’s crust). They loom at the foot of the Námafjall mountain. The sulfur stench is unbearable, but what a beautiful sight, all those plumes of smoke over that sandy rock.
The north is also rich in those other eye-catchers: imposing waterfalls. The Mýtvan region is therefore a good base for various activities. For example, Dettifoss is the largest and most powerful waterfall in Europe, where 200 m3 of water crashes down per second. Getting close to the core means getting soaked. Not seen me, I prefer to observe from a distance. But how insignificant I feel at the 44 meter high and 100 meter wide water cannon. It is clearly a bit busier here, than for example with the ‘little’ brother, Goðafoss . This is partly due to the somewhat more hidden location (it is a side road at the beginning of the Sprengisandur route, a branch of route 1).
Nevertheless, the turquoise water of the ‘gods’ here thunders down 12 meters from a plateau of 30 meters wide and merges into the Skjalfandafljót river. The lava field appears to be 7,000 years old and originates from the shield volcano Trollandungja. And if you listen carefully, you might hear an elf whispering, because according to Hjelti, they also live here.
The climax is yet to come though, as Hjelti takes us off-road to Aldeyjarfoss. We drive from Lake Mýtvan for at least half an hour on bumpy gravel roads, deeper into the Bárðardalur valley. This road ends in the highlands of Iceland. From a hill it is a ten minute walk to the lower waterfall. It is the dark, rust-brown basalts that make Aldeyjarfoss even more imposing. What a powerful, intense nature. What pure pristine. I can watch it for hours. Here in the north, Iceland is at its best.
How to get there
Iceland has become a popular travel destination in less than fifteen years. Especially in the summer months, the now famous southern route, the Golden Circle , transforms into a tourist attraction. This is partly because many airlines offer Iceland as a stopover to the United States. The chance that you can still visit beautiful waterfalls Selfoss and Skógaoss in peace is small.
Transport & Icelanders
Traveling in Iceland is best done with a 4×4 land cruiser or a solid station wagon. There is no train track on the island and buses mainly run in the south. Those who want to travel even more slowly can take multi-day horse trekking or hiking trips. I myself made an alternating trip on an Icelander from the sympathetic family business Skjaldarvik Ferdapjónusta , just outside Akureyri. They also offer multi-day treks and are accessible to beginners and advanced. You can also spend the night there.
Voigt Travel , together with Transavia, offers direct flights from Rotterdam The Hague Airport to the northern city of Akureyri from June to September. In addition, in the winter from February 10 to March 13, flights are available twice a week from Schiphol to Akureryri. It is also possible to fly to the capital Reykjavik and travel north by car. There is a two-hour time difference and it is about a three-hour flight to Akureyri.
Voigt is a travel specialist within Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The organization provides tailor-made (fly & drive) trips in collaboration with local partners such as Visit North Iceland .
This chic hotel is now known thanks to the Icelandic NETFLIX series Trapped , in which various scenes take place in the hotel and in the port town of Siglufjöður, which is closed off from the outside world. The accommodation has spacious, attractive rooms with comfortable beds. In addition, the lounge corner and the warm outdoor pool are highly recommended. Siglohotel.is
The location of this luxurious modern hotel is truly beautiful, with a view over Lake Mývatn. The glass wall of the trendy restaurant and lounge bar overlooks the breathtaking surroundings, making it almost as if you are absorbed in it. The rooms are also pleasant and sustainable wood has been used everywhere.
Thanks to Voigt Travel, Transavia and Visit North Iceland.