Published May 10, 2021
Northern Iceland—where landscape, sea and sky converge just south of the Arctic Circle—is as far north as many of us will ever get to travel.
I recently based myself in the northern coastal town of Húsavík for a few days, exploring the surrounding area as winter gave way to summer. I found that the sparse local population—and Iceland’s current lack of tourists—have created the perfect conditions for a traveller seeking solitude.
Waiting for whales
On the day I joined Húsavík whale-watching company North Sailing, the massive mammals apparently had better things to do than come to greet us. But the puffins and northern gannets that also live in Skjálfandi Bay showed up, swooping around the boat and bobbing around in the ocean. And although North Sailing can’t be expected to make nature perform on cue, they kindly offered customers a free trip if they wanted to try their luck again.
Solitude score: Pretty good. The punters aboard the 90-capacity boat numbered no more than 15, so there was no fighting for elbow room among photographers seeking that perfect puffin shot.
Getting into hot water
A warmer way to view the bay is provided by GeoSea, a clifftop complex of outdoor pools just outside Húsavík. It boasts a choice of hot pots at different temperatures, with steaming brine drawn from nearby boreholes. However it’s the view of the mountains as you soak that raises GeoSea a notch above the average geothermal baths.
Solitude score: High, with only a handful of visitors in the water.
Game Of Thrones jiggy cave
There was more getting into hot water—or not—an hour’s drive south of Húsavík, near lake Mývatn. There, the gorgeous Grjótagjá cave nestles in a lava field, housing the warm pool used to film the love scene between Jon and Ygritte in “Game Of Thrones”.
On entering the cave, I found two Speedo-clad tourist boys noisily taking a dip in the hot water, despite the sign asking people not to do so. Thankfully I didn‘t walk in on a re-enactment of the Johnny and Yggy get jiggy scene, but nonetheless withdrew discreetly to grant my fellow visitors a little time to themselves. But Grjótagjá is so enchanting that I went back the next day to find myself the only soul in the cave.
Solitude score: First day not so good, (unless you’re one of the Speedo-clad tourist boys). Second day—perfect.
The power beneath
A short drive north from the Grjótagjá cave brought me to the geothermal power station and dormant volcano at Krafla. You can wander the station compound freely and marvel at the huge clouds of water vapour billowing from the plant at ground level and crossing the valley.
I took a hike up the snow-covered volcano, from where the valley views are spectacular. I recommend you leave your car at the plant and use a bit of leg power.
Solitude score: Very high. There was not a single soul to be seen anywhere at the power station, which made it a slightly eerie experience. And on the hike to the crater the only other humans were those two tourist boys from Grjótagjá, (this time wearing more than their Speedos).
Bubbling mud and steaming stones
A short distance south of Krafla I found Hverir, a stark volcanic plain where rock pyramids hiss over geothermal vents, and hot mud pools gloop lazily. It’s worth spending a while here just to soak up the lunar feel of the land and allow your inner geo-geek to wonder.
Solitude score: Pretty high. I was joined by a lorry driver taking a break in his journey and—yet again— the Legendary Speedo-clad Tourist Boys Of Grjótagjá.
Some falls to fall for
The well-known waterfalls of Goðafoss, Dettifoss and Selfoss are all within easy striking distance of Húsavík, and I spent time at all of them. Each one is stunning and unique and deserving of a visit. But the greatest recognition is due to Aldeyjarfoss, a waterfall hidden further into the highlands, which has a much lower public profile than its cousins elsewhere in the region.
Rather than a wide curtain of water—a common format for Icelandic falls—Aldeyjarfoss presents itself as a narrow powerful cascade, plunging into a deep pool at the bottom of a dramatic gorge. Basalt columns frame the falls and bank the Skjálfandafljót river, which carries the water onwards. When I visited, snow and ice clung to the columns, perfectly framing the tumbling torrent of water.
Solitude score: Top marks. For the hour or so spent at the falls, I was the only one there. On the 5km round-trip hike from road to gorge I encountered only two other people; quite possibly the Legendary Speedo-clad Tourist Boys Of Grjótagjá, but it was hard to tell underneath all those layers.
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