Two days of hiking, pooling, horseback riding and more in Dalir
Every time I spend too long in Reykjavík – whether it’s just a few days or a month, I’m in awe when I finally leave the city. Half an hour north of 101, and I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I live here. Storm clouds loom on the horizon, with the wind bending the sparse trees. But if I wait a few minutes, a rainbow appears, overlooking the never-ending fjord. The view may always be the same, but it never fails to amaze me.
Accompanied by the Grapevine’s photographer, international man of mystery Art Bicnick, I’ve spent a good dozen hours along this highway over the past two years. And every time, I find myself thinking: “I should get out of town more.”
It’s the first weekend of September and we’re heading to Búðardalur, a village in the northwest of Iceland steeped in history. The first settlers lived here and built temporary camps on the way further north, but what about now? When I asked around about what to do in Búðardalur, I hit a wall. “Why would you go there?” “I only stopped there on the way to the Westfjords.” “I don’t even know where that is,” my Icelandic friends all say, until one colleague notices, “It looks like inverted Italy on the map,” he says. “I’d start from there.”
Settlers, crafts and views
Ironically, the first person we meet in Búðardalur is Italian. However, my quest to find Italy in Hvammsfjörður ends quickly because there’s so much else to do. We make a quick coffee stop at the Leif Eiriksson Center, dedicated to the first European to reach America long before Columbus, and peek through the exhibition without the audio guide (we arrived past the opening times). A local recommends checking out Bolli.
Bolli is a local knitting community that runs an Icelandic craft shop selling lopapeysa sweaters, wool socks, collars and mittens. Every member of the community has to volunteer at the shop. Melkorka, who’s working today, jokes that the setup is pretty comfortable and she only had to work for two days this summer. The prices for handmade pieces are much lower than in Reykjavík, and I wish I had more time to try on sweaters.
Based on another recommendation from locals, we decide to visit Dalahestar, a horse farm run by German transplant Carolin, who fell in love with Iceland over 20 years ago. As we drive to the farm, a storm rages over Búðardalur, with winds so strong that I’m scared to open the car door. The horses, however, stand completely unbothered by the wind – true Icelandic warriors that have survived hundreds of years of harsh weather conditions. To my surprise, Carolin says the weather is too bad for a horseback riding tour, as the wind can make horses aggressive. The forecast for the following morning seems more promising.
Dalahótel: a chest full of secrets
One of the things that immediately catches my attention upon arriving in Búðardalur is the absence of a swimming pool. The nearest one is in Sælingsdalur valley, right where our hotel is located.
Dalahótel is a family-owned hotel that has been transformed from a former school – and it’s enormous. Finding your way to the restaurant feels like walking through a maze, but there’s a certain charm to it. Why would such a sparsely populated area need such a big school? Is this place haunted? Visiting at the end of the tourist season, having the space all to yourself feels truly unique. A swimming pool just for you? A living room the size of three typical Reykjavík apartments where you can unwind with a book? A relaxation room with massage chairs? Or a game area with a ping pong table and darts? You name it.
The friendly staff is there to help you and recommend hikes in the area – that’s how we found out about the elf’s church of Tungustapi, the Ránargil canyon, which very few people know about and an unnamed waterfall with a dream picnic spot.
As the weather keeps changing, we only embark on two one-hour hikes, admiring the views. We’re just a few days into September, but autumn’s arrival was unmistakable – the once lush green grass had transitioned to a shade of golden yellow. For some, the view over the valley might be a bit desolate, but I try to focus on the little things. Here’s a narrow river winding like a snake; there is a lake with a little island and a bunch of trees that turns into an ice ring in the winter. The cotton grass, now in its waning days, stretches on for kilometres. A peculiar patch of forest catches my attention. In this otherworldly landscape, it feels oddly out of place. Is all of this real? Or is my imagination playing tricks? This place is nothing but a true oasis far from the city.
Aurora’s seasonal premiere
Once we’re back at the hotel, my shoes might be wet from jumping over the river, but my mind calls for more. It’s hard to focus on dinner while planning evening activities. The hotel’s restaurant staff manages to get my attention by offering ice cream with dandelion syrup from a nearby dairy farm. Yes, please!
Just an hour after dinner, nature puts on a show for us. It’s one of the first nights in months when I see a starry sky, but there’s more – the clouds clear up, and the aurora borealis takes the stage with its long green tongues dancing in the sky. I watch the show from Guðrúnarlaug, just a few steps from the hotel. Though this hot pool is a replica of the original one destroyed by a landslide, one can still feel its rich history. The pool is named after Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, one of the most well-known female characters in Laxdæla Saga, who is said to have enjoyed its hot waters. It was probably in this pool that her infamous love triangle meetings took place.
Galloping through nature
As I wake up the next morning, the sun is shining. We grab a quick bite before heading to Dalahestar for the second try. I haven’t been on a horse for at least 20 years, and as clumsy as I am, I’m a bit nervous. Carolin welcomes us at the stable as she finishes preparing the horses. Usually, on a tour, you’d have to saddle up your horse yourself, but the weather window is too short today – it’s better to hit the road as soon as we can. My horse’s name is Gátta, which means “riddle” in Icelandic – a beautiful female that is Carolin’s own breed. Gátta always seems hungry – she’s snacking on the grass while I listen to Carolin’s instructions.
Off we go! I hope I’m not too much of a burden for Gátta – who knows if a horse is bothered by a human sitting on her back? Carolin reassures me that we’re all good. The horses haven’t been running for the past two days because of the weather, so they seem as excited to be in nature as I am. In the summer, beach tours are one of the most popular activities Dalahestar operated, but the tide is too high today. Instead, we ride along the river Laxá, literally “a salmon river.”
Carolin talks about the region’s history and the horses chomp on some grass as we make stops. “Look, did you see a salmon jump up the river?” Carolin points toward the water, but unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything, just the sun’s reflection. We follow along a bridge, but on the way back, the time comes to cross the river. Gátta drinks some water and continues with confidence; she’s not afraid to lose her balance, which reassures me – so why should I be? Back on the land, Gátta changes her trot to a gallop – I’m a bit taken aback but also excited. The smile doesn’t leave my face for the duration of the tour. When Carolin talks about her plans to organise a multi-day horse riding trip connected to the Viking history of the region, I’m not thinking of the discomfort of such a tour for a city dweller – I just can’t wait to join.
We end the adventure with hot chocolate and pastries, talking about horses, the tourism industry and being an immigrant in the Icelandic countryside. I say a quick goodbye to my horse and leave for my next adventure – an interview with a raven!
Accommodation provided by Dalahótel
Horseriding tour provided by Dalahestar
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