Without fail, a drive across Iceland delivers a sharp shift in perspective from life in more populous places. In fact, one of the oft remarked-upon characteristics of a road trip through the Icelandic countryside is just how small it makes the visitor feel. Small, sparse roads weave through endless sweeping valleys, huge mountain ranges, mossy lava plains, lush fields, snowy wasteland and barren desert, changing regularly and without ceremony. Farms and houses are tiny specks of colour in vast tracts of virtually untouched nature. Far from the intensity of urban life, Iceland’s wilderness reaches a sensory crescendo that can be overwhelming.
One place to experience such remoteness is the Eastfjords. We start our eastern Iceland road trip after a one-hour plane hop from Reykjavík to the town of Egilsstaðir, which acts as a local transport hub. Heading south on the Route One ring road, we’re soon whizzing away from the airport through the verdant farmland that lies along the banks of the Lagarfljót river, set against a foggy backdrop of waterfall-strewn, snow-capped mountains.
Just 45 km south of Egilsstaðir is Öxi, a scenic pass that cuts over the mountains into Berufjörður. In the winter, this 20 km dirt track is often impassable under heavy snow, but during the summer months it’s a spectacular drive. As the road winds upwards, the character of the eastern mountains comes into sharper view—compared to the flat- topped plateaus of the west, the old east seems to be slumping seawards under its own weight. As Öxi descends into Berufjörður, the horizontal lines in the sedimentary rock turn into breathtaking diagonals as the mountains collapse slowly into the ocean.
Home away from home
Our destination for the night is Berunes, a family-run former farm on 100 hectares of coastal land that became a dedicated hostelry in 2008. Berunes often hits its sixty-guest maximum during the summer, housing visitors in several buildings, including the well preserved early-1900s “old house,” a recently completed barn conversion, and some small private cabins.
Þórir Ólafsson grew up on Berunes when it was a working farm. It’s still run by his parents, now in their 70s— in fact, his mother’s side of the family have lived there since the 1800s. “We are told Berunes was the first Icelandic farm to become a hostel, in 1973,” he says, between checking in new arrivals and helping guests with their travel plans. “The story my father Ólafur told me is that they were talking about building a new house for the family, and also thinking about preserving the old house, which is in great condition for its age. Around that time, a senator dropped by, and said: ‘In a few years, we’ll have a complete ring road around Iceland, so you’ll be getting backpackers in this area. Maybe you could use the old house for them to sleep.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”
The crystal maze
The following morning, we bid farewell to Þórir and rejoin Route One to continue up the coast. It’s a dramatic road, with clouds rolling down the mountains on one side and the blue sea crashing against the rocky shore on the other. Raindrops roll off the windscreen and visibility is low, but this coastline is breathtaking in any weather.
The next town is Stöðvarfjörður, huddled against the mountainside under the heavy rain. Populated by about 200 people, Stöðvarfjörður is famous as the site of Petra’s Stone Collection—a museum of minerals and crystals collected by the late Ljósberg Petra María Sveinsdóttir. Petra used to roam the surrounding hills looking for crystals, minerals and colourful rocks, bringing them back to arrange in her garden. Over the years, her hobby snowballed into a collection numbering in the thousands, attracting a flow of visitors in the process.
In the rain, the colours really come to life. The vast array of deep green and bright red jaspers, bulbous white chalcedonies and glittering quartz geodes is an intoxicating spectacle. Petra’s house has become a part of the museum, and also holds a shop for visitors to pick out a crystal as a memento of this one-off place.
A more recent fixture in Stöðvarfjörður is the HERE Creative Space, an ambitious redevelopment of a disused fish factory. By far the biggest building in the town, the factory is daubed in colourful murals, catching the eye even from across the fjord. Still under reconstruction, it’s already open, hosting the homely Pólar Festival, an artist residency, and a programme of art and music shows, as well as wood, metal and ceramics workshops and a craft shop to sell what they make.
Rather than being pulled down or left to rot, the various spaces of the factory are today a hive of activity. As well as revitalising the town with much-needed jobs, this hugely impressive project may well provide an alternative roadmap to prosperity for Iceland’s post-industrial towns by its projected 2017 completion date.
As we head back towards Egilsstaðir, I’m struck not only by east Iceland’s wilderness, but also by the resourcefulness and imagination of its people. From Petra’s Stone Collection, to the steady progress of Berunes, to the unbridled ambition of the HERE project, these rocky fjords have proven over the years to be a surprising cradle of adaptive, creative enterprise. As well as photos, souvenirs and postcards, perhaps that spirit is the most valuable thing of all for passing visitors to take back home.
Distance from Reykjavík: 650 km
How to get to the Eastfjords: Fly to Egilsstaðir, find a car and explore