The hidden landscapes of North Iceland receive fewer visitors than most, but the stark beauty of nature here is far more striking the deeper one looks. So get your walking shoes ready, because adventure begins where the road ends.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Legend has it that a salmon-loving troll called Kola made a home here, hence the name, 'Kola's Canyon.' In the dark of the night, she would sit on a ledge by the river Víðidalsá, snatch fish with her hands, and eat them raw. Sometimes, she would cook them in the nearby hot spring (her 'cauldron,' Koluketill), and sleep on her stony bed (Kolurúm).
It is not difficult to imagine why she stayed: gorgeous waterfalls (including the namesake, Kolufoss) cascade down this enchanting area, and given that it is smaller in size than, say, Gullfoss, poetic solitude can be had by any that take the time. Gaze into these icy cold streams, and you can almost taste winter.
Photo by Jón Hilmarsson
These skeletons of a ship become visible only at low tide: a real hidden treasure. Look for it at Borgarsandur, near the small town of Sauðárkrókur.
Step inside any one of the turf houses at Glaumbær, and step back in time; the year is 1010, give or take, and Snorri Þorfinnsson--the first European born in North America--lives on the farm with his explorer parents, Þorfinnur and Guðríður.
The dense, cold walls and carefully laid stones whisper of simpler days when you had to weave your woollen yarn and wake up at the crack of dawn to work the land. What stories did they tell each other, huddled together for warmth while the arctic wind swept through the grass and rattled the door?
These homes housed people until the early 1940s, when it became for us a permanent window into another era. The air here is thick with the earthy scent of Icelandic history. Likely, their forefathers were here long before; actual Viking ruins have been discovered nearby, some 150 meters away.
The next stop on this journey is Áskaffi Tea Room, for delicious Icelandic crepes and homemade hot chocolate. Although called 'pancakes,' these are wafer-thin and rolled like a sugar-filled straw--or stuffed with dollops of fresh cream and folded into quarters. Hot chocolate is made from scratch using blocks of rich bittersweet chocolate and thick cream.
The wooden house is from the turn of the century, and the charming decor evokes that era. Sitting at one of the small, intimate tables, one fully expects an old Icelandic grandmother to come out with a plate of Icelandic doughnuts and a greeting.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Hansueli Krapf. No edits made.
Perhaps in recent years better known for being the idyllic yet secretive setting for Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland detective series, Siglufjörður is a tiny, colourful fishing village that once generated as much as one-third of the nation's export income.
Walk five minutes outside of town, however, and feel the isolation; before the tunnels were built, the only road into Siglufjörður was over the mountains. This high road still provides a spectacular vista of what lies ahead, below, and above.
While the silver rush is now long gone, the Herring Era Museum still stands to embody the spirit of those exciting times when the place crackled with dreams of vast wealth. It houses the most significant maritime collection in Iceland and is the only Icelandic museum awarded the European Museum Award.
Through pictures, texts, and countless artefacts, the Herring Era Museum recollects, preserves and celebrates Siglufjörður's glorious fishing heritage. Here, you can touch and smell just how vital the seas were to the desperate survival and independence of Icelanders.
There is the salting-house, where visitors may catch a glimpse of the salting process and wonder about the girls to whom the personal effects still remaining belonged.
Then there is the factory, where much of the original equipment for turning the fish into meal and precious oil is still in place; and finally, there is the red boathouse, where a herring era boat can be boarded for the full herring experience.
There is good trout fishing to be had in the Héðinsfjarðarvatn lake, also. Siglufjörður, however, offers more than just seafood: the annual Folk Music Festival happens in early July, showcasing exciting Icelandic folk talent, handicraft, and lively dance.
The 'tröll peninsula' is not far from the town of Siglufjörður, but it still conjures the eerie quiet beauty of a place much more remote. Any one of the surreal songs from the Icelandic artist, aYia, can--and should be--played while here.
This bit of land is really a maze of grand valleys, fjörds, lakes, and peaks deeply carved by centuries of wind and water, as well as the ancient glaciers of the last Ice Age moving to sea--or, as folklore would have you believe, by massive trolls that turned to stone in the light of day while trying to pluck ships from the ocean.
From the iconic orange lighthouse (Sauðanesviti) to the ethereal mountains and babbling waters, Tröllaskagi is a visual delight.
Small berries pepper the peninsula, and picking season starts in September. And, later in the year, spectacular Northern Lights paint the skies.
Photo by Asgeir Pall Juliusson
Dalvík is another small fishing town that rose and fell with the herring craze. What remains of its heyday is the Great Fish Day (Fiskidagurinn mikli), when local producers provide a generous and free seafood buffet lunch in early August.
Japanese shrimp, homemade bread with delicious Icelandic butter, fish & chips, and fresh sushi showcase the fruits of the Northern sea. Grilled fish burgers of haddock, cod, salmon, redfish, catfish and, of course, herring are served with a side of theatre, art, local hospitality and music.
Dalvík has had four contestants at Eurovision, despite its small size. Surely, there is something magical in the water! Rub elbows with locals and visitors alike. Some drive for over five hours to sing, eat and revel in the day. Whale watching, skiing, and swimming are all pre-or post--food options.
An unexpected treat if you find yourself in this region is the recent salvo of craft breweries. The year 2006 saw Iceland's first microbrewery: Kaldi Microbrewery. They even have a beer spa: Bjórböðin offers warm, frothy non-alcoholic beer baths for the weary traveller, purported to be good for the skin and assorted ailments.
The tubs are shaped with smooth Kambala wood, which lives for hundreds of years, and are themselves revered for their durability and longevity. They are then filled with beer, water, yeast and hops. Outdoor tubs sit in clear view of Eyjafjörður Fjord and the high surrounding mountains, which is a clear invitation for a cold celebration drink or two.
Segull 67 is another such brewery, run out of a converted old herring factory with three generations of trickled down knowledge. The grassy, almost herbal smell of hops stirs the air and the soul. A motley collection of decorations including a large, rusted anchor and various ship's wheels only add to the old world charm.
Take a three-hour ferry from Dalvik, and you have somehow reached the Arctic Circle. Grímsey is enveloped in what seems like endless darkness in the winter; in the summer, the sun stretches for days. We know the science behind this, but it is nevertheless spellbinding when the sunlight crumbles on your skin at three in the morning.
This is truly the place for long walks at night: scurvy-grass carpets much of the ground, and birdsong rises and falls like the tide of the ocean until suddenly, an absolute quiet envelops you like a thick blanket. Such heartachingly beautiful moments define Iceland.
The basalt columns by the sea make for a stunning picture, and the Northernmost geocache of Iceland is hidden in the vicinity. A huge puffin colony and skilled chess players also call it home.
'Pearl of Eyjafjörður,' as this island is known, Hrísey is often spoken about with awe. A pilgrimage to Hrísey and back entails a lot of introspection. From the moment you step onto the ferry, time seemingly expands and melts away, leaving just the crisp mountains and sky mirrored in the glassy waters and the serenity of those who fall silent at nature's feet.
Whales swim here. Being a haven for birds, different birds are always tweeting and fleeting about in the oceanic breeze. Hrísey is a picture of calm, even with the not uncommon visits from Polar bears!
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
This was, at one time, a very wealthy farm. In some contrast to the turf houses at Glaumbær, those at Laufás stand wider, taller, and more stately. You could stand up inside. Clustered together for heat, however, these houses still portray life on the Icelandic farms of old: haymaking, fishing, and collecting eiderdown along the coastline took up most of the day for these folk.
Greenery abounds in this vicinity, as a small echo back to a time when much of Iceland was covered with luscious trees. Centuries of wind has since sculpted gullies throughout the region, revealing stripes of prehistoric volcanic ash.
Fnjóskadalur is a narrow valley, sheltered from the cool winds and knitted with the river Fjónská. The birch leaves dotting the land tremble to scent the air lightly. Vaglaskógur makes up one of the most extensive forests in the country, and the birch here feature taller and straighter trunks that are light in colour.
Camping is the logical conclusion to a visit, and the acclaimed Icelandic band, Kaleo, sings about doing just that in 'Vor í Vaglaskógi.'
Due to the popularity of whale watching, few know that Húsavík is actually the oldest settlement in Iceland.
Authenticity is important to this grassy town. Many world-renowned museums display models or copies of bones, but the Whale Museum prides itself in the collection of real whale skeletons.
Aside from the plentiful sailing and cultural activities, travellers can make their way to the old-school yellow lighthouse sitting among the blue and purple bloom of Lupine for a striking photograph. The light from this lamp illuminates the water when the sun starts to dip behind the mountains and stain the surroundings a subdued crimson orange.
Close-by, a grass-roofed grey structure that may or may not be a post-apocalyptic bunker houses a brand new geothermal sea bath. Slide into the edge of the new infinity pool there and be prepared to admire the stunning panorama of the snowy mountains ahead. The view over the Bay at sunset--or as the northern lights dance across the night sky--is definitely not to be missed.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Get ready to be scared. Dimmuborgir means 'Dark Castles,' and Grýla, the spooky half-troll, half-ogre, is said to live here. Children who did not get clothes for Christmas get eaten by her great black cat. Even better, Grýla's 13 children hunt down naughty kids around that time, kidnapping and cooking them.
These dramatic volcanic shapes could easily be from another planet--or a fantastical movie. They actually appear in Game of Thrones, and the nearby lovely hot spring hidden inside a cave (Grjótagjá) is where Jon and Ygritte made love.
Óðinn's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, supposedly trod here, carving out a giant canyon, shaped much like a hoof print. As part of the Vatnajökull National Park, there are countless hiking trails to choose from, all varying in difficulty.
Basalt rocks are everywhere, and some are even believed to be mysterious elven cities. Sigur Ros chose to perform here, so you know this place is enchanted.
Otherwise known as the Arctic Circle Village owing to its closeness to the Circle, Raufarhöfn is a worthy stop for its modern Arctic Henge (Heimskautsgerðið) in the making. Like Stonehenge, this man-made basalt structure plays with natural light to act as a giant sundial.
What makes this one unique, though, is the distinctly Icelandic lore behind it. The four triangular 'gates' are named after the dwarves from the epic poem (Völuspá) about all Creation and the coming End: Austri (east), Vestri (west), Norðri (north) and Suðri (south). An astonishing amount of the poem simply lists over 70 names of dwarves, and they each have a place in this Henge.