The new Arctic Coast Way is the perfect antidote to Iceland’s overcrowded south
It was the height of summer, yet Iceland’s far north seemed ensnared in autumn’s grip. Herds of heavy clouds cantered over the high hills, rain ran down my cheeks, and as the mist crept in it melded sea and sky seamlessly. But this half-light and merging of worlds brings magic.
For up here, islands appear to float, old ladies sell knitted jumpers in the middle of nowhere like fairy godmothers, seals are mistaken for mermen, and frozen in the rocks are dragons and the faces of trolls.
The coastline appears to have been scratched at by a sea monster – a claw mark of jagged peninsulas and fjords, just shy of the Arctic Circle, steeped in sagas and myth, scattered with fishing towns, and ruled by nature.
With its gates set to open to visitors from June 15, Iceland is likely to be a popular spot with travellers as off-the-beaten track options become more important than ever. Roads built from the 1940s onwards have been connected to create the Arctic Coast Way – a 500-mile road trip that traces every nook and cranny of the coast to the farthest reaches of the island.
The route begins in Hvammstangi, a middling town huddled around a small harbour, where drying fish dangle like chimes in the wind. It is home to Iceland’s only seal centre. Captain Edvald Danielsson and his son Solvi ushered a handful of us on to their refitted fishing boat and chugged out into the fjord, the wind snatching Solvi’s Viking-blond hair from its bun.
Harp seals, their fur golden as the kelp lapping around them, fidgeted on the toothy rocks. Icelanders call them saefolkid, or sea folk. Similar to the silkies of Scottish and Irish folklore, they are sea-dwelling elves that, each midsummer’s eve, shed their skins and walk on land. There was certainly an impish air to them as they balanced on the boulders; curled in the middle like crisps, whiskers splayed like smiles.
Back at the seal centre, Sigurdur Lindal Porisson, who sits on the board of the Arctic Coast Way, explained the allure of the North. “In the South, all the main attractions are beside the road. In the North, you leave traffic and mass tourism behind. Instead of going from one site to another, it’s about exploring.” He tore off two museum tickets for a couple and continued.
“The area north of Skagastrond is my favourite. There are no restaurants, no public toilets and about 50 people; the route itself is the highlight.”
Prior to the pandemic, Iceland had been battling over-tourism in the South, and the opening of the Arctic Coast Way was a strategic move to distribute visitors to more peripheral areas and implement some sustainability. But it also gives travellers the chance to spend time in coastal villages, meet the people, and listen to local stories that have been shaped by a life lived on the edge.
And the legends of these raw lands are starting to garner attention. Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence is lined up to star in the film adaptation of Hannah Kent’s award-winning 2013 novel Burial Rites, based on the story of Agnes Magnusdottir – a farm worker who murdered two men and in 1830 became the last woman in Iceland to be executed.
“She murdered my great, great, great, great, grandfather,” said Sigurdur, drawing an exaggerated breath, “so I think I should play opposite Jennifer in the film.” He laughed. “Remember to keep the sea on your left,” he teased as we exited.
As we drove, the camera-film road unspooled on to brown gravel, passing fields of trembling purple lupins and hardy Icelandic horses, their punk-rock fringes obscuring their eyes. On a comfort break, I foraged crowberries growing by the roadside.
A signpost dressed in a jumper caught my eye. I swerved the four-wheel drive to the side of the road, strolled towards a farm bungalow surrounded by more of these headless woolly scarecrows, and knocked on the door. A grey-haired lady opened it to reveal a hallway dressed floor-to-ceiling in jumpers. “I make them with my daughters Thortis and Agga,” she explained in broken English, standing beside wooden shelves clothed with mittens, tea cosies, socks and hats.
I rejoined the road, passing Hvitserkur – a dragon-shaped sea cliff just off a black-sand beach – down the Vatnsnes peninsula to Saudarkrokur, the site of Iceland’s only civil war. The recently opened 1238: Battle of Iceland museum explains the medieval conflicts played out between members of the Sturlung clan to bring Iceland under Norway’s rule.
It culminates in a thrilling VR experience that transports visitors into the thick of the pivotal Battle of Orlygsstadir, allowing you to throw digital spears and rocks. “Local kids have bought a year’s membership so they can practise spear-throwing every weekend,” said museum service manager Freyja Emilsdottir.
We rolled through Hofsos, home of the most scenic swimming pool in Iceland; past the black mass of puffin haven Drangey Island, rising like the back of a whale offshore. We paused in the herring hub of Siglufjordur then it was on to Olafsfjordur, a town of 800 hidden between the folds of a wide valley that opens on to a whale-visited bay.
It still has a blacksmith, it didn’t get hot water until 1945, and it used to be cut off by snow for days at a time before tunnels were burrowed through the mountain in 2011.
We met Halletor Gudmundsson and his artist wife Gudrun Porisdottir in the café of the local guesthouse, which occupies the old 1950s Post Office. They drove us across the bay to Kleifar, a picture-perfect hamlet, home to 20 people.
“I don’t understand why there’s always the decision to build a new museum – you have the biggest museum of all here: nature, and she never shows the same exhibition,” said Gudrun, with a defiant flick of her hair, as she pointed to a cluster of rainbow-roof houses framed by a wall of mist-ringed mountains backing on to Trollaskagi, the Cape of Trolls.
Here, stories abound of farmers’ wives being kidnapped and taken to caves to await their pimply transformation. Visiting American artists Jeanne and Jim Morrison celebrated that mythology by painting the residents – in troll form – on the outsides of their homes.
Ida Semey, owner of the guesthouse, strolled around town with us, pointing out the pointy-eared headmistress with two lions on the side of the secondary school, Mnnur the local circus performer balancing on cats, and even a money-grabbing troll on the side of the bank. “It started with us outside the café and others said they wanted one too,” she said.
The next day broke bright and blue and we were bound for Iceland’s whale-watching capital, Husavik. But first we visited Vellir, an organic farm shop owned by restaurateur Bjarni Oskarsson, where travellers can stock up on picnic supplies from its Willy Wonka-esque larder of edibles including fermented shark, guillemot eggs, bacon jam, dragon sauce and ice cream topped with green-chilli jam.
But Bjarni’s real passion is smoking. Cheese, goose, puffin, trout – he has smoked them all. “Anything you can’t smoke?” I joked, as we shared a bowl of lamb soup at his wooden kitchen table. “I once tried it with lambs’ testicles,” he said, deadpan. “That didn’t work.”
Husavik lays claim to being the country’s first settlement. Swedish Viking explorer Gardar Svavarsson landed here around 870, but it was another thousand years before it became a proper town, fired up by the export of sulphur to make gunpowder for Europe’s armies.
Today, it is a charming café-packed town, and whales are what everyone makes a splash about. Hunting them is still legal in Iceland, but it’s forbidden in Husavik Bay. The two rivers that run into it bring great blooms of zooplankton, and in turn humpback and occasionally even blue whales. Both researchers and visitors board the boats rocking and rolling into the deepest parts of the bay, scanning the surface for that first geyser-like spurt.
By the time we reached the penultimate Melrakkasletta peninsula, Nature was firmly in the drivers’ seat. The hamlet of Kopasker – so small that the local supermarket doubles as the restaurant/bar – is literally being torn apart. It straddles the Eurasian fault line, and its trio of lakes are sinking into a depression as the plates separate. Instead of a community hall, there’s an earthquake museum in the centre of the village.
And then we reached Raufarhofn – the northernmost village in Iceland and the furthest point from Reykjavik. It has the brightest northern lights and the darkest winters and is surrounded by marshes. Rain lashes my face and legs as I stride up the hill to Arctic Henge, a replica of an ancient sundial whose mighty stone arches act as a Bifrost bridge connecting the realm of gods and men. Unlike at Stonehenge, there wasn’t a single soul in sight.
At Bakkafjordur, the trail ends. The four-street settlement is one of Iceland’s smallest villages. Empty washing lines hung in the yards of ramshackle bungalows and an elderly man shuffled down the road, ignoring us. Here, life and windows seemed shuttered. Then, carving through the surface of the steely sea, we saw the dorsal fins of a school of porpoises feeding just offshore.
The North can’t compete with the drama of the South; so first-time visitors to Iceland should forget it. There is no high-octane sightseeing here, no highlights to tick off, and Instagrammers will curse the mostly misty moors. The big draw, though, is the lack of crowds.
This is a raw region for those who prefer to go where others do not. It’s a road trip for those who seek wildness, isolation and the chance to meet locals on their own terms and in their own homes. It’s a place for those who can see the magic even when summer appears like autumn.
Emma Thomson travelled with Discover the World (01737 886 131; discover-the-world.com) on its 11-night Arctic Coast Way self-drive, which runs from May to September. It costs from £1,604 per person based on two sharing, including hotel accommodation with breakfast, one-way car hire and the iDiscover App.
Trips booked before July 31 2020 require no deposit until September. Domestic flights from Egilsstadir to Reykjavik cost from £80 per person and return international flights with Icelandair (icelandair.com) from £120 per person.
Further reading: Iceland: The Bradt Travel Guide (£15.99; bradtguides.com)