The greatest luxury in Icelandic travel: turning off the Ring Road, pausing that inexorable vacation countdown timer, and burning one of your precious days discovering the answer to the question that forever haunts memories of every once-in-a-lifetime trip abroad: “I wonder what’s down that way?”
Akureyri, the northern anchor point of most Icelandic road trips, sits at the mouth of Eyjafjörður, Iceland’s longest fjord. If you head east along the Ring Road to Mývatn, you cross Eyjafjörður and continue partway up the eastern side before breaking inland, and you may well feel, looking out at the farms dotting both its banks, that the deep blue finger of the fjord is beckoning you. In fact, the western side of Eyjafjörður, and the jagged northern-exposed coast of the Tröllskagi peninsula, is home to a promising tourism infrastructure spread out across the hour-and-a-bit it takes to drive up from Akureyri to Siglufjörður.
Basalt shards & sea stacks
First is Hjalteyri, a charming miniature fishing village whose skyline is dominated by an old fish factory—even seen from above, as you coast down the hill towards the water, it looms like a leviathan in weather-scarred concrete. In summer, part of the factory is the Verksmiðjan art space, which hosts photo exhibitions and more in a practically post-human hall. From the same complex, a local tour operator, Strytan, leads experienced divers on scuba trips to the fjord’s underwater sea stacks. A well-maintained hot pot rests amid the tumble of basalt shards on the quay next to the factory, offering views of the largely uninhabited eastern bank, which extends onwards, high and indifferent, up towards the horizon, its high rocky cliff sides partially covered with snow and looking like a burnt meringue.
There’s a small whale-watching company in Hauganes, and a catch-of-the-day restaurant, open in summer, with a deck in the shape of a Viking longboat. From the slightly more built-up harbour of Árskógssandur, the island of Hrísey is almost close enough that you can imagine neighbors peeping through each other’s windows from opposite sides of the water. Árskógssandur’s main claim to fame is the Kaldi brewery, Iceland’s first independently owned brewery—you can’t miss it, it’s the biggest building in town, the one with the big Kaldi bottle wallbangers on the side. Their tour involves a brief circuit around the copse of silver vats—suitable for tapping—and, on a recent day this not-quite-spring, the preparations for a shareholder’s meeting, seemingly to be held on card tables and folding chairs atop the recently mopped factory floor.
Aside from the samples at the brewery itself, you can’t get Kaldi in Árskógssandur, but you can in Dalvík, at Kaffihús Bakkabræðra. Named for three bumbling brothers of local folklore, this two-story bar and café is finished, seemingly, entirely in unvarnished wood; aromatic soup and fresh bread is served on mismatched summer-cottage crockery, and vintage cross-country skis lean in every corner. The nearby folk museum spotlights one of the town’s most famous sons, Johann Svarfdaeling, who was really very tall. (At seven feet, seven inches, he may have been the tallest man alive in the mid-twentieth century.)
Outside of Dalvík the road rises above the fjord, up the slope of the cliffs that line it; the view across the water is vast, the vista crisp and almost Arctic in its emptiness. Ólafsfjörður comes next, after a long one-way tunnel, with plenty of pull-outs for when you see headlamps emerging from the murk. The town boasts a substantial outdoor swimming pool, with waterslide; next to it, a ramp juts down, and ultimately up again. Is that… a ski jump? Reader, I’m pretty sure it’s a ski jump.
Next comes Héðinsfjörður: uninhabited, but easily accessible via the tunnel. In bygone days, farmers visited their neighbors by boat, or a hard day’s journey over the mountains, or worse, along the wind-battered coastline. Today, it’s profoundly still—the domain of birds and the occasional walker, ambling along lightly used paths.
The climax of all this is Siglufjörður, home to the world’s greatest herring museum (see issue 5, 2017), a ski slope in winter, and a golf course in the summer. The centre of town is the small “marina village,” like a very, very miniature version of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn, with brightly colored restaurants, and outdoor seating facing a decorative array of small craft at anchor. Continue west and south down the other side of the Tröllskagi and eventually you’ll find the historic trade and religious centres of Hofsos and Hólar before you hit Skagafjörður and, eventually, rejoin the Ring Road. But I’m afraid I can’t say any more than that—I’ve never been there. And yes, I do wonder what’s down that way.