Outside the windows of the Pallett café in Hafnarfjörður, the harbour is cloaked in mist. The gales have been intensifying since daybreak, whipping the tops of the churning waves into a soaking haze that hangs over the town’s seafront. Ships pitch and tug at their moorings, flags strain wildly from their poles, and torrential rain pours down from the inky clouds. The roads are all but empty. We gaze out at the grey scene from the comfort of the indoors, sipping hot coffee and waiting for the fierce weather to break.
It’s not how the day was supposed to begin. Three hours ago, we set out to pick up a rental car, raring to begin a road trip to Borgarfjörður, a picturesque tract of land that lies in the shadow of the Langjökull glacier, 60 kilometres north of Reykjavík. Soon enough, texts started coming in—first, from the rental place, and then from concerned friends and colleagues. The Icelandic Weather Service had issued a travel warning due to the high winds, and the roads out of town were closed. Heeding the warning, we parked at the café to keep an eye on the weather report, and wait out the storm.
It’s almost midday when the sky starts to brighten. Finally able to get on the road, we pass quickly through the northern suburbs of Reykjavík, taking in the aftermath of the downpour. Several rivers have burst their banks, flooding the surrounding parks and fields, and the trucks and coaches ahead of us churn up a thick veil of rainwater. The winds are still strong enough to buffet the car, and it’s almost a relief when we plunge into the 6km Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel, soon emerging onto the mountain-sheltered northern side of the fjord.
The inland route to Húsafell begins just before the small town of Borgarnes. We peel away from Route One, and the sparse traffic peters out completely. The narrow road winds through a long valley flanked by flat-topped, snow-mottled mountains, passing swollen, wandering rivers and the occasional farm.
At the Fossatún hotel, by the Grímsá river, a horned stone heads juts up out of the ground in front of some tube-shaped camping pods. It’s a beautiful spot, with mountains in all directions. A nearby hiking path leads invitingly up into the hills, and the information sign promises viewpoints and troll-shaped rock formations, but the bitter winter wind chases us back to the car, and onwards.
A plume of steam pouring up from the roadside turns out to be Deildartunguhver—a small but fiercely bubbling geothermal spring, from which 96-degree water is piped all the way back to Borgarnes and Akranes. After cruising through the quiet hamlet of Reykholt—an improbable rural cultural centre that’s home to a library, a distinctive church, and the Snorrastofa saga research building—we arrive at Hraunfossar. This 900-metre series of waterfalls pours from the edge of the Hallmundarhraun lava field. Countless glacial meltwater rivulets plunge down from the gnarled rock formations, forming the fast-moving, ice-blue torrent of the Hvíta river. It’s a dramatic site that feels far from the bustle of the tourist trail.
The recently built Hotel Húsafell is barely visible from the road. Designed so as not to mar the wide open plains, the rooms are housed in a curved single-storey terrace, tucked behind a grove of trees. The lobby sits within a glass atrium that leads into a spacious restaurant with an open fire, where an impressive tasting menu is offered to guests nightly, with wine pairings and flawless service. After a day on the road, it’s a welcome taste of comfort and unexpected luxury, deep in the Icelandic countryside.
The next morning, we make use of the hotel’s geothermal spa then head out towards Langjökull. After passing through a forest of vivid red trees, the road deteriorates into a dirt trail down into some volcanic flatlands known simply as Sandar. We detour carefully towards the edge of the hulking glacier. The bumpy trail rises steadily, turning into a steep, slushy track, and the landscape evolves quickly from the black plains into a mountainous, snowy vista that stretches as far as the eye can see.
In the distance—still about 6km away—the glacier rises majestically against the horizon, blending with the low cloud ceiling. A huge all-terrain transport vehicle roars past us, but it’s the end of the road for anything less. Crunching up to a nearby vantage point, the sheer beauty of the monochrome wilderness nullifies the sub-zero cold, for a while. It’s a long time before we return to the warmth of the car, and the long descent back towards Reykjavík.