Seen from Iceland’s Ring Road, the Eastfjords seem like a sparsely occupied stretch of undulating fjords and mountainous wilderness, punctuated by small towns, farms and patches of reforested woodland. But Route One turns inland one fjord before Reyðarfjörður—the long, tendril-like inlet that leads to the coastal towns of Reyðarfjörður and Eskifjörður and, across the Oddskarð mountain range, Iceland’s easternmost town of Neskaupstaður.
We set out for Neskaupstaður at 7pm, an hour after the sun has left the sky. The glow of Egilsstaðir soon fades into the distance, plunging us into darkness on the unlit road. Soon, my eyes adjust, and the bright, almost-full moon—closer to the earth than any time this millennium—casts a ghostly glow over the scenery around us, hinting at the scale of the mountains that flank the Route 92. To the west, the bright moonlight glistens on the high, snowy slopes and peaks. To the east, it haloes the jagged mountaintops.
It comes as a surprise to round a long bend and suddenly see the lights of Reyðarfjörður spread out in the fjord below. By Icelandic standards, it looks like a hidden metropolis. We cruise through the town slowly, past big seaside factories, a large harbour area, and ranks of apartment buildings, their lights glimpsed through heavy mist. Twenty minutes of snowy mountain road later comes Eskifjörður. It looks like a tiny village on the map, but it actually coats the fjord’s far coastline with glittering lights.
After driving a treacherous mountain road and passing through the gated single-lane tunnel of Oddskarðsgöng, we arrive at Hotel Hildibrand in Neskaupstaður. The tourist season has come to a close, and there’s only one other guest in the hotel. We’re alone in the restaurant, where the dual receptionist and waiter serves up hot seafood soup and local lamb shanks, before showing us into a large, luxurious apartment for the night. I look out the window at the vague mountainous shapes across the fjord, and go to sleep eager to see the morning view.
The good life
It’s snowing heavily come daybreak, and the high peaks appear only intermittently through the thick flurries. I go for a morning dip in the local pool, which has perfect outdoor hot pots, a slide for kids, and a view out across the snowy fjord. A wall of steam rises into the dark morning sky as locals sit soaking and chatting, preparing for their day. Life in Neskaupstaður seems calm and gently paced.
Back at the Hildibrand, the hotel’s owner—the locally born and raised Guðröður Hákonarsson—offers to show us around town. He moves aside a tray of fresh eggs—”we have chickens to supply the hotel,” he smiles—and we climb into his jeep to cruise past the town’s harbour, hospital and old town. We also pass a snowed in golf course and a local history museum that’s closed for the winter.
“1200 people live here,” says Guðröður. “It’s a big city, for Iceland. We have the biggest fish factory in the country, and 24% of all Iceland’s aluminium and fish exports leave from Eskifjörður, Reyðarfjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður and Neskaupstaður.”
Guðröður is a farmer by trade—his lamb and potatoes are on the menu in the Hildibrand—but as we bounce along the track to the mouth of a new, almost-complete tunnel to Eskifjörður, he explains that the hotel increasingly monopolises his time. He hopes that, in the long term, tourism will create jobs to keep the town’s young people from migrating to Reykjavík, and further afield.
“I love the tunnel,” he enthuses, as we climb out of the car and tread around the tunnel’s dripping black mouth. “It’s good for the hospital, the fishing industry, the hotel, the Eistnaflug music festival—it’s good for everything here. It helps mobility. People will be able to move around and work. The hospital employs 50 people, and we have the aluminium smelter, so there are jobs here. Many of our young people go to Reykjavík to school, and we want them to come back with what they have learned.”
“It’s a good life here,” finishes Guðröður. “The countryside is great for hiking. Kids can go to the harbour, pull out a fish, and walk home safely. If there’s any problem, the parents just talk to each other. I love this simple small-town life.”
Back in town, the snowstorm is worsening. We check the weather report, and notice an imminent dip in the snowfall and wind speed. It’s the only chance we’ll have to head back inland and beat the coming blizzard.
On the road, it quickly becomes apparent quickly that we’ll see even less of the fjord on our return journey than we did the night before. The snowstorm is heavier than anticipated, and we crawl along the road at speeds of 20kmph with the hazard lights on, often losing sight of another car just ahead and using the yellow roadside posts as a guide. Visibility is close to zero. It’s a harrowing drive, and I’m relieved when the weather clears around Egilsstaðir. The road is closed not long after.
As we take off into the storm after a short and teasing glimpse of life in the Eastfjords, I’m left with a heightened rather than sated curiosity about the twists and turns of this remote and secretive part of Iceland.