Tucked away in a lake-strewn tract of land between Route One South and the Golden Circle lies a rural municipality known as Grímsnes og Grafningshreppur. In the summer, it’s easily accessible from Reykjavík by a network of little-used back roads that pass Iceland’s largest lake of Þingvallavatn, or the Þingvellir National Park. But after checking online on a freezing November morning, it turns out many of these roads are marked as unsafe, already covered in ice as the winter closes in. The only route that’s open for a basic road car like ours is the southern road, via Selfoss.
After leaving Reykjavík and crossing the blinding white plains of the Hellisheiði mountain pass, we take the turn inland from Route One at around 2pm. A flipped-over 4×4 sits on the roadside like a cautionary tale, cordoned off by flapping police tape. Tendrils of dusty snowflakes dance over the icy asphalt, and the sun hangs low and pale at its winter zenith, casting long shadows over the sculpted snowdrifts. We’re just a few kilometres from the Ring Road, and it already feels like we’re entering the Icelandic outback.
The narrow Route 36 wends its way up the eastern bank of lake Álftavatn, and the river Sog. Cabins peek out from amongst snow-laden pine forests, and distant mountains turn pink as the long evening approaches. We crawl along the road slowly, mindful of treacherous patches of ice and snowy slush, taking in the beautiful, desolate views on all sides.
As we cross a ridge and cruise down to the small lake of Úlfljótsvatn, a tempting looking road heads westwards towards the lakeside church of Úlfljótsvatnskirkja. Keenly aware that the combination of the icy, gradually ascending road and our somewhat feeble car isn’t ideal, we turn left nonetheless, determined to explore the lake’s shoreline.
Despite a couple of instances of wheel-spinning in the frozen slush, we make it as far as the vantage point that overlooks the church. To the left, a large crucifix stands on a nearby mountain. It was a gift from pope Jean Paul II, who visited Iceland in 1989 and gave the monument to Iceland’s Scouts Association, which keeps an activities centre nearby. As we watch, the sky blossoms into a luminous pink-purple gradient that’s reflected in the lake, and the snowy hills and mountains.
On the other side of Úlfljótsvatn, the landscape is criss-crossed by electricity wires hanging between sturdy pylons. There are several power stations in the area, including Ljósafossstöð, the oldest hydroelectric plant in the country, which started producing way back in 1937.
Today, the power plant holds a free interactive exhibition on Iceland’s geothermal, wind and hydroelectric power industry. It’s a jarring contrast to step from the raw outdoors into a pristine white corridor that’s like a set from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Amidst gleaming displays where you can pump enough energy to boil a kettle or charge your phone for a few seconds, a window looks down into the power station’s main hall—a clean, quiet, automated hangar that’s a million miles from the grimy machine room one might imagine.
The exhibition is fun enough, but ends with a somewhat leading visitor questionnaire. Questions like “Should Iceland create more hydroelectricity?” fail to acknowledge the ongoing debate on the overexploitation of Iceland’s natural resources, and there’s no mention of the mooted developments in the Highlands, designed to attract heavy industry with cut-price electricity. The environmental downsides of Iceland’s power debate are ignored or whitewashed, making this charm offensive feel disingenuous.
Christmas comes early
Back out on the road, we head for the nearby Hotel Borealis. It’s set back from the road, and we’re shown to a cosy two-room bungalow that’ll be our home for the night, complete with a kitchenette, a seating area, and large windows with unimpeded views of the rolling landscape.
As luck would have it, it’s also the opening night of the hotel’s Christmas buffet. Close to the main building sits a barn that’s been refurbished into a warm and airy dining room, complete with glittering decorations, rafters strung with fairy lights, and ‘Winter Wonderland’ seeping from the speakers. We sit down, glancing around curiously at our fellow diners. There are a couple of tipsy work groups, several family parties, and a smattering of couples, all smiling and clinking glasses. It’s like Christmas has come early—and also a bit like being at a wedding reception where nobody knows each other.
The buffet itself is nothing short of a feast, with huge serving plates of sliced meats and fruity sauces, laufabrauð and hangikjöt, vegetables in creamy dressings, and decadent garnishes. The staff pours wine and carves joints of meat and poultry into generous servings. We take a long break before dessert, afterwards zipping up our coats and carefully stepping back out into the frozen night. Our faces glow from the wine, and our eyes search the wide, starry sky for the telltale green glow of the aurora on the short walk home.