True North: Akureyri

True North: Akureyri

Photos by
Henry von Ritter

On arriving in Iceland, it generally follows that tourists are bombarded with advertisements to experience either of two things. Firstly to spend time and money immersed in the cultural, culinary and creative honey-pot that is Reykjavík or secondly, to get away from everything and disappear into the country’s solitary landscapes and raw wilderness in a jeep. It strikes me that there’s not so much emphasis placed on promoting what lies between the two.

But on a recent trip to Akureyri and its surrounding countryside, I found a quiet, humbling and extremely sincere part of Iceland that lies somewhere between the rush and clamour of the capital and the intense postcard landscapes of glacial peaks and dramatic waterfalls.

No Security for this Glorified Tin Can

Arriving at Reykjavík Airport, the first thing that struck me was that there were no security checks to pass through. In fact Iceland is one of the few countries where security checks aren’t mandatory on domestic flights. The reason, I discovered from some friendly check-in staff, is that the planes are so small they probably wouldn’t make it far even if someone did ever try to hijack one. Well that’s comforting to know (I think?).

After a turbulent flight, which made me all too aware of the fact that I was hurtling though space in a glorified tin can, my companion and I landed in Akureyri Airport. Pulling into this tiny airport in the snow was charming enough, until the pilot got out and had a chat with us while he fiddled with something on the propeller. It took the meaning of personal service to a whole new level.

AKureyri Henry von Ritter

Visions of Eyjafjörður

Bearing a big sign and a bigger smile Ana Korbar, our tour guide from Nonni Travel, greeted us in arrivals and gathered us up into her cosy 4×4. The plan for our half-day trip was to head north around the sixty kilometres long valley that is Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in central northern Iceland. We would be stopping for a visit at a local farm, before moving on towards Grenivík, an isolated village in the north of Eyjafjörður. From there we would track back along the valley, to finish up in Akureyri later that evening.

With the snow having seriously set in visibility was low, but the clouds hung just high enough to make out the mountain peaks that lined the valley. As we drove out through the white countryside, a few hardy wild rabbits scurried across the frozen fields, and some solitary looking birds of prey swooped along the banks of the river Eyjafjarðará, hoping to catch a glimpse of dinner among the cracks in the forming ice.

Full of curiosity and questions we chatted about local geography, history, economics, philosophy, cooking… pretty much everything actually with our Slovakian guide Ana, who has lived in the region for over twenty years. There wasn’t really much that she couldn’t answer, or didn’t venture information on for that matter.

The valley is a surprisingly fertile part of the country, with dairy farming being the primary type of agriculture in the area. Fishing is also another major industry and a high sector of employment for those who choose not to work in Akureyri.

polar hestar Henry von Ritter

“The Locals Don’t Laugh at Us Anymore”

Our first pit stop was to call in on Juliane and Stéfan at their farm at Grýtubakki. Pulling off our boots, we were treated to hot coffee, home baked skúffukaka, kleinur and biscuits in the company of three Finnish riders and a handful of contented looking cats.

The couple have been running their sheep farm, which incidentally has the oldest sheep pens in the area, for twenty-five years. They also run a horse riding business, Polar Hestar, offering accommodation and trekking to people who come from all over the world every year to experience a little slice of this couples incredibly warm hospitality. After starting up in the mid eighties doing horse treks for one or two people, to much local snickering according to Stéfan, the pair have built their business to a stock of one hundred and twenty-five horses and are fully booked each summer. “The locals don’t laugh at us anymore,” Juliane proudly remarked.

Many of their guests are return customers (with one group having returned up to eighteen times) and the incredible artwork that they leave in the farms guestbook is a testament to the special mark that this place and this couple leave on all who meet them.

It was a chore to drag ourselves away from the cosy living room; the scrumptious home baked goods and the enlightening chats about life and love in the rural north. But there were some rams and chickens and goodness knows what else which were eager to meet us, so we didn’t want to disappoint.

Checking out the couple’s menagerie of sheep, cats, rabbits and chickens bought our visit to a very funny end, the horny old rams were particularly curious about the new female company and one the Icelandic horses was so cuddly looking he even enticed me enough to jump up on its back, which was pretty special considering I’m terrified of horses.

Grenivík, Hrísey and Snow Chickens

Travelling on, we came to the village of Grenivík. What I find so special about rural villages in Iceland is their relative self-sufficiency and the level of local services provided in comparison to many rural villages back home in Ireland. The fact that such a tiny settlement has a wonderful swimming pool, church, school, grocery store, a campsite and a café was really surprising. The fish processing plant provides employment for many of the locals, and our guide Ana mentioned that people often get their eggs, vegetables and meat from local producers too. Despite the dimming November light, the brewing storm and frozen fields, the place held a charm all of its own.

En route back along Eyjafjörður to Akureyri, the island of Hrísey, Iceland’s second largest island, lay just off shore but unfortunately wasn’t visible due to the fog. Hrísey has a population of around three hundred and is actually the only place where rjúpa (Ptarmigans, or Snow Chickens as Ana called them) are protected from game hunters.

Slice of Life

With only a short time to spend in Akureyri, we checked into the Nonni Travel offices for a quick warming coffee with owner Helena Dejak who has run the business for twenty years. We chatted about the differences in atmosphere between Reykjavík and Akureyri.

The slower pace of life is instantly palpable in this, Iceland’s second city. It has all the functionality of an urban centre, with two cinemas, a vibrant local art scene, local and international cuisine, but without the same rush that one often experiences in the capital, where so many people seem to be in a constant hurry to get ahead and experience everything so intensely. As we made our way to the airport I looked out over the quiet snowy harbour to where the mouth of the River Eyjafjarðará meets the ocean and I found myself in another world. A million miles from the internationalisation and hubbub of Reykjavík, and among the snowy, sheep pens of Eyjafjörður, I had found my very own authentic slice of life, Icelandic style.

Flight and daytour provided by Air Iceland in Collaboration with Nonni Travel