Hrísey is Iceland’s second largest island. It is located in Eyjafjörður, around 30 kilometres from the north’s capital, Akureyri. It used to be a prosperous fishing village with a lot of action all year round, but the small village lost its fishing “quota” to the nearby village of Dalvík a few years back, and now most of the houses are only in use during summer. This is exactly why us Grapeviners wanted to visit the island during high winter and experience its extremely isolating surroundings. The only way to get to the island is to take the small but cosy ferry Sævar from Árskógssandur. A return ticket will put you back 1000 ISK and the sailing experience alone is very well worth it. The ferry departs every two hours during winter and crosses the sea, even though no passengers are aboard.
Hrísey is often jokingly referred to as “Akureyri’s Manhattan” by locals, since it couldn’t be further from the truth. The population counts around three hundred, of which we met only five during our short stop. This number must therefore be fixed. The day before it had snowed cats and dogs and the five villagers had been keeping themselves busy by battling the average two metres of snow, trying to get in or out of their houses. According to Sigurður Högnason – a retired electrician and self-taught painter who lives in a small house called Njálshús – it hasn’t snowed like this in the north for over seven years. We ourselves had not seen so much snow since viewing Ice Age and kind of felt like we were stuck in a winter wonderland. It was good.
Hrísey has been a home to many eccentric establishments throughout the years. It used to be the breeding ground for the Galloway-Bull, a very special breed of bull with an unusually big head, almost similar to the North-American buffalo. They are now being bred on the opposite coast, in the Árskógssandur area. The island’s only restaurant/hotel is called Brekka. It’s mostly open during the summer and serves the most delicious Galloway steak you’ll ever get your teeth on. Not to be confused with the more famous Japanese Kobe steak, whose bulls are fed beer and massaged to death, the Galloways are more used to fighting snowstorms and sharks, which gives their meat a distinct flavour.
Hrísey was also for many years the place all dogs had to go to for isolation when being imported to Iceland. After their three month stint they could finally meet their impatient owners, all germ free, pure and slightly insane (Iceland is notorious for its strict animal importing restrictions; for instance, Icelandic horses who leave the country are never allowed to return. This is why in you can find an annual Icelandic Horse World Championship on Europe’s mainland, featuring only expat stallions).
Hrísey used to be the shark-fishing capital of the north, and the most notorious sharksman (that’s a word) was Hákarla-Jörundur (“Shark-Jörundur”). He begat thirteen children and built his first family mansion, Syðsti-Bær, out of Norwegian wood from a brutally stranded ship out of Norway. Later he built a bigger mansion out of more solid material than driftwood, but the old one now houses an interesting museum about the island’s history and its inhabitants. It’s also the island’s only museum. Unfortunately, we failed to see any sharks during our stay, but we’re told we might get lucky next time. And there will be a next time.
Hrísey is also the only place where the Icelandic ptarmigans (“rjúpa”), an extremely clumsy looking, unflappable bird, is protected. Everywhere else those guys are hunted down and shot like clay pigeons, mostly due to their popularity as a main Christmas dish. It’s therefore an extremely amusing sight to witness a group of dozen ptarmigans walk around oblivious in the middle of the street, like football hooligans in Manchester or something. The law protects ‘em here, and they won’t be shot. That’s a nice thought.
The townspeople are proud of their recently renovated swimming pool, which is located on a hill with a great view over the rustling ocean. It also houses a brand new sports hall that has come to house the annual Þorrablót festivities, where the five locals get together and eat the most repulsive, old, improperly stored but delicious food available.
In Hrísey, they’re used to driving around in massive Massey-Ferguson tractors. During summer, people can take an enlightening tour around the island in a small carriage carried by such a machine, narrated by an actor said to be living in the island.
Hrísey has only a single shop, aptly named Verslun (“shop”), where you can only buy bare necessities, like bread, butter and toy guns. They also give away free coffee, which astounded us greatly. The Grapevine has been to Hrísey a couple of times before, mostly during summer, when it could easily be mistaken for the most wonderful island in the world. But then again, we were astonished that anyone could possibly take the hassle of living in such isolation and darkness for the rest of the year. These three hundred (or five) people must know something we don’t. When we find out, you will be the first to know.
- Trip provided by: Air Iceland
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