Going north in Iceland

Northern Iceland used to play second fiddle to the Golden Circle around Reykjavík – but not any more. After Lonely Planet named the northern town of Akureyri as the best spot in Europe, we went to see if it lived up to the hype. It didn’t disappoint

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2015. Photography by River Thompson)

When Neil Armstrong came to Mývatn in 1967, he wasn’t here for the sightseeing. He came to this small settlement in north-east Iceland with a group of fellow US astronauts for a week to head south and camp around the Askja volcanic caldera. It was this geologically diverse but brutally remote region that geologists concluded was the closest thing on Earth to the Moon.

The group, who followed an earlier crew of astronauts in 1965, played what’s become known as “the Moon Game”, competing to collect and analyse geological samples from the lava-covered landscape and the nearby glacier. Kári Jónasson, a former journalist who’s now a tour guide, covered the trip. “You could tell there was something about Armstrong,” he says.

“He was quite aloof, quite separate from the group, but you felt like he was the one – in his cap and his aviators, he just looked like the leader.”

Things have changed since the Apollo team came, when Iceland was barely on the tourist map and the north barely had more visitors than the Moon. Tourism-related activities across Iceland have grown by 54 per cent since 2009’s crippling financial crash, with the number of foreign visitors doubling between 2010 and 2014.

Thanks in part to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and perhaps the least likely tourism marketing campaign of all time, last year tourism overtook fishing as Iceland’s main industry.

The north, in particular, is booming. Mývatn, with its beautiful lake and evocative geothermal steam rising across the bleakly beautiful landscape, has welcomed 40 per cent more visitors than in 2014. It’s been helped on its way by HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones, parts of which were filmed around the area (the Free Folk scenes are filmed around Mývatn).

Then there’s Akureyri, Iceland’s second city and the unofficial capital of the north, which was named the best destination in Europe by guide company Lonely Planet earlier this year. The judges praised its “urban buzz”, activities and “awe-inspiring glaciers, volcanoes and lava fields”.

There’s also been a concerted marketing push for the north, in conjunction with a plan to get international flights coming directly to Akureyri (from next spring, there will be a shuttle bus that will take you on the six-hour journey from Keflavík airport in the south-west). While many visitors to Iceland have traditionally focused on the so-called Golden Circle around Reykjavík, more and more people are taking on the Diamond Circle, the 260km circular trail from the pretty fishing town of Húsavík, the whale-watching capital of Iceland, which takes in epic waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, swimming caves and spluttering mud pools.

According to Halldór Óli Kjartansson, project manager for Visit North Iceland, winter tourism has propelled the change. “We used to get tourists in the summer, but then it died in the winter, when people were less keen to leave the Reykjavík area,” he says. “Now, people are starting to realise that you can come up here for skiing and snowmobiling, as well as the incredible landscape. In some ways, winter’s the best time to be up here – you can go on all these adventures, and then end the day in a hot pool looking up at the Northern Lights.”

The offerings for tourists in the north are growing all the time, and it’s not just Game of Thrones tours. Örlygur Hnefill Örlygsson, who recently opened the Exploration Museum in Húsavík after rediscovering the story of the Apollo astronauts, plans to start running trips replicating the astronauts’ training from next summer. “It’s about combining an amazing experience with telling an amazing story,” he says.

On our visit in late September, we go on another new and innovative tour that goes past the Askja caldera where Armstrong and co trained, to bathe in the “the world’s largest hot tub”. The warm volcanic baths are totally natural, created by the Holuhraun volcano, which exploded spectacularly from August 2014 until February this year, leaving an 85km2 lava field. It was only in August that locals noticed that the river baths running through the northern end of the lava field had been heated to up to 40oC, creating little pockets of warm, shallow baths.

The four-hour drive to Holuhraun, in a specially designed four-wheel-drive super-jeep owned by the Fjallasýn tour company, is spectacular. From the small settlement of Mývatn, you pass the stunning lake where the Free Folk live, and the hissing steam vents and boiling mud pots of the mysterious Hverir, a cratered geothermal field and magnet for passers-by.

From there, the drive only gets more otherworldly. Coming off the main A1 that runs in a circle round Iceland, the road turns into a dirt track and the bleak vistas open up. Around Askja, where the volcanic ash becomes a fine black sand, you pass Nautagil (Bull Canyon), an eerie cave beside the spot where Armstrong and co camped and made trips to the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Iceland (Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar, was filmed here).

Then, finally, you strip off in the frigid Arctic air, and collapse into the all-natural warm bath, overlooked by the dramatic, still-steaming lava fields, with the smell of sulphurous steam in your nostrils, half expecting Gollum to appear from behind the jagged black lava.

Bathing in Holuhraun’s hot water is a classic north Iceland experience, but it’s far from the only such time we strip off, get goosebumps and then get gloriously warm. Near Sauðárkrókur, a small town on the Skagafjörður to the west of Akureyri, we jump in the frigid grey sea for a gasping, profanity-filled swim, before clambering across the rocks to the Grettislaug baths – basically a few holes in the ground created by local fisherman Viggo Jónsson, who serves up fermented shark (an acquired taste) and Brennivín schnapps while you’re relaxing in the steamy water.

It happens again across the bay at Hofsós – sitting in hot water, looking out over a breathtaking fjord – though while the Grettislaug baths are all DIY charm, the Hofsós baths are slick, with a Wallpaper-worthy minimalist wood aesthetic. They were opened in 2008 by Steinunn Jónsdóttir and Lilja Pálmadóttir, wife of Everest director Baltasar Kormákur.

What you do before slumping into the hot baths is almost unlimited. We ride Icelandic horses in Gauksmýri, catch cod off Sauðárkrókur, watch humpback whales frolicking in Skjálfandi bay, and take countless selfies in front of waterfalls. The natural advantages of this part of the world are almost unfair. The stark glacial landscapes and coastlines would be enough, but the heaving, steaming, boiling earth and the waterfalls splashing down glacial valleys add a whole extra dimension.

Add in a dose chunk of Viking folklore and the slightly odd idea that trolls oversee the whole thing, and you have a unique destination, made better by charming locals with their bone-dry humour and Viking language.

On the final night, we head out from Akureyri at 3am for a final chance to see the Northern Lights. After a fair bit of shivering and some underwhelming iPhone photos, a green celestial light starts to appear behind the mountains, slowly stretching across the sky and becoming more luminous. At the same time, the Moon starts to disappear. We haven’t realised it’s a lunar eclipse, and after disappearing, the moon reappears red, looking more like Mars.

We’ll probably never make it to the Moon, unlike some previous visitors to Iceland – but with a shimmering green on one side of the vast sky, and a bright red supermoon in the other, this will do just fine for now.

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