It was already dark when I reached the top of the mountain for one last ride. The weather was calm. Only a gentle breeze on my face. Alone, with white slopes in every direction, I turned off the i-pod, my companion for the day, and took pleasure in the quietness. It had been a fantastic day of riding down the slopes of Mt. Hlíðarfjall and now it was time to rest. Although it was minus nine degrees, I was not cold. The starlit sky and the incredible panoramic view over the Eyjafjörður fjord and the town of Akureyri, which looked to be only metres away, generated a warm and peaceful feeling of satisfaction. I couldn’t help but lie there in the snow for a little while longer. If not for a noisy group of skiers ruining my alone-time, I easily could have fallen asleep right there on the spot. But the ski area was closing, so off I went again. One last ride.
Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, is a friendly community nestling at the base of Eyjafjörður fjord in the north of Iceland. To call Akureyri a city is a stretch as it’s home to approximately 17,000 people, but Akureyrians are proud of their hometown and sport a metropolitan attitude. The town has all the amenities you’ll find in Reykjavík: movie theatres and fashion shops, museums and art galleries, first-class restaurants, nice cafés and some lively bars.
Akureyri’s greatest gem has nothing to do with hip clothing or beverages though. The town’s pride and joy is the adventurous playground that draws snow-sports enthusiasts from all across the country each winter. For decades, adrenalinthirsty Reykjavíkians have envied their friends up north for the winter paradise situated right at their doorstep. Akureyri’s ski resort, the Hlíðarfjall mountain, is one of the top areas on the island and usually provides a longer season and much more snow than Reykjavík’s home grounds Bláfjöll and Skálafell.
The Hlíðarfjall ski area has been open for more than 45 years. It’s less than a 10-minute drive from the town’s centre up to the slopes, so the tradition to go skiing and snowboarding is rich among townspeople. The pisted slopes cater to all levels, from beginners to advanced. Children who have just learnt how to walk have skis attached to their feet and families in super-jeeps rush to the mountain when the clock strikes five. Thanks to the snow blowers that the ‘Friends of Hlíðarfjall’ recently invested in, the slopes are now covered in even more white beauty than usual, which makes a trip to Akureyri the ultimate Icelandic winter-sports journey.
This winter is no exception, so on a clear day in January The Grapevine decided to flee the capital and fly straight to Akureyri. The 50-minute flight provided a stunning view over the snow-covered mountains on both sides of the Glerárdalur valley (which seemed a little too close to the plane’s wings at times) and the untouched white landscape below filled us with enthusiasm. It was a little past three in the afternoon when we reached the mountain and the area was almost empty. The weather was a dream for outdoor activities, with not a cloud in the sky. The guy working in the cafeteria told us that Hlíðarfjall had been open almost daily since December 6 (those lucky bastards). He then charged me 1,300 ISK for the four-hour lift pass. Snowboarding in Iceland, like most other fun things to do in this country, isn’t cheap, but some things in life are worth the extra spending, right?
I hadn’t been to Hlíðarfjall for years and have to say that the mountain was much bigger in my memory. For riders used to top ski resorts across the globe, Iceland’s pisted slopes could seem a bit dull at first glance and the Hlíðarfjall area is very basic. There are a couple of tow-lifts and one new chair-lift that climbs up a 1000 metre hill, so if you’re looking for vertical drops or large terrain parks, go somewhere else. The lifts will not lead you to steep hills and the runs are short. I actually timed it. It took 6 minutes 23 seconds to reach the top and 1 minute 18 to ride down.
This doesn’t mean that skiing and boarding in Iceland can’t be good fun. In Hlíðarfjall, there are plenty of fun canyons offering some nice cascades and when special snowboarding sessions take place, a snow park with rails, big-jumps and half-pipes adds to the pleasure. If you put in some extra hiking-effort, the surrounding area also offers plenty of cliffs and fun off-piste action where you will find fresh pow.
When experiencing Iceland’s ski areas, what you can expect instead of huge slopes is the fact that they are almost never overcrowded and if you show up early, you can almost have the whole mountain to yourself, which is a huge rush and a unique experience. When the sun sets, the illuminated mountains offer perfect night-skiing, something not common in most places. Add to this the fact that you will have the chance to ride untouched slopes numerous times and feel the new snow break underneath your feet. If that doesn’t get your blood pumping, I don’t know what will.
Damn Destructive Weather
Sharing the hills with a group of teenage boarders and a couple of skiers, I cruised down with my i-pod in my ears. Caught up in my own thoughts, it was already dark when the lifts closed. After a few attempts to hitchhike back to town, a girl was finally nice enough to give me a ride in her jeep. The course was set to the Akureyri swimming pool which, hot-tub wise, is among the country’s best pools. It was freezing outside and the hot steam from the tubs created a cosy fog. Incredibly relaxing. When my finger tips started to look like ten tiny raisins it was time to leave.
For me, few things in life are greater than snowboarding, soaking in hot water and relaxing with a cold beer in my hand afterwards. Since the first two missions were accomplished, there was nothing left but to head straight to the bar. It was a Monday evening so nothing much was happening in town. Among the few souls inside Café Amor, we enjoyed our drafts and watched the traffic outside. The same cars passed our window over and over and we realised this was the famous Akureyri “rúntur”, which basically means driving in circles and waving to passing cruisers. I could only think: what a weird way to pass the time. We took one last round at Café Karólína, a venue frequented by beer-thirsty students, before heading back to our guesthouse.
We had hoped to make a second trip to the mountains the next day but unfortunately, as is more of a rule than an exception in Iceland, the weather was the total opposite of the weather the previous day. Due to a powerful windstorm, all flights back to Reykjavík were cancelled, the slopes were closed and the only thing to do was to find some indoor activities.
Among other things, we checked out an exhibition at the Akureyri Art Museum where the spirit of Buddha had settled inside the museum’s premises. After viewing various art pieces we paused in front of a pillow on the floor, which, as the sign read, was a spot for Zen meditation. Together with the soothing sounds in the room, the atmosphere was calming, almost dozy, something that was totally shattered after we witnessed the Germans defeat the Icelandic national handball team in the European Cup shortly afterwards. I should have kept the pillow to cry in.
We had just recovered from the incredible handball humiliation when a text message informed us that the airline had started flying again so it was time to head to the airport. Our packed plane flew over the same gloomy mountains as the day before, which was not a very cosy feeling this time, considering that huge trucks had overturned and ships had flooded in the violent storm only hours before. But the plane landed in one piece, we lived to tell the story and will return defiantly at the first chance offered.
TRIP PROVIDED BY:
Air Iceland: www.airiceland.is
ACCOMMODATION PROVIDED BY:
Gula Villan Guesthouse
Þingvallastræti 14, Akureyri
Tel: 8968464, www.gulavillan.is
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