5 mins

Adventures in East Iceland – is this the new Golden Circle?

Accessing Iceland’s wild Eastern Fjords has always required a long drive, internal flight or long sea voyage. But this wild realm will soon be within easy reach...

Black Wooden House at coastline in East Iceland (Shutterstock)

“Being a waterfall today is not easy...” The words were whipped from the mouth of my hiking guide, Arngrimur Vidar, as we skirted a wind-flayed cascade in the Dyrfjöll mountains. Each gust tore at the falls, flinging it against our hunched backs. Clouds smudged out the ice-spattered peaks above, while a few sheep, their fleeces quivering like sea spume on a storm-wracked beach, stood and stared as we lurched past.

A week earlier it couldn’t have been more different. Arriving in East Iceland under clear blue skies, I drove south from – gateway town to the little-visited Eastern Fjords – passing birch forests gilded in sunshine before scaling the pass that leads to Breiðdalur. A river glistened far below, like quicksilver drizzled through the valley. Further still, the sea was a puddle of molten orange snagged between the craggy pincers of basalt headlands.

Waterfalls near Breiðdalsvík
Waterfalls near Breiðdalsvík

This was my sixth visit to Iceland. I arrived seriously doubting whether anything in the Eastern Fjords could trump what I’d seen on previous trips: lava flows steaming at Mývatn, orcas hunting off the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, frothing Dettifoss, half-baked Askja… And then, of course, there was the Golden Circle trio of Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir – Iceland’s celebrated round-up of natural wonders, all within easy reach of the country’s main international gateway at western Keflavík.

But I was intrigued nevertheless. With a new direct flight due to launch from the UK to an obscure town in the remote east in May, I figured there must be something worth flying to. So I drove on down into sunny Breiðdalur valley with an open mind, wondering whether East Iceland might be hiding a Golden Circle of its own.

Saddling up

“You won’t be needing that,” said Maria Pálsdottir of Odin Tours, nodding at my watch while heaping long johns, jodhpurs, jacket and other horseriding clobber into my outstretched arms. Perhaps it was a mistake to mention that I had nothing else planned for the day.

I mumbled something about being a complete novice, but Maria seemed to relish this. “Good,” she said, with an enigmatic smile. “Then I am really going to blow your mind.” Having cajoled myself into multiple layers of clothing, including one of 43 pairs of Icelandic woollen socks that Maria had knitted the previous winter, I walked stiffly towards the training paddock where two mares – a red called Gola and a black called Koltinna – were tossing their manes impatiently.

“I’m not letting you out of this paddock until you can walk, tolt and trot,” explained Maria. I later discovered that ‘tolt’ was a quickstep gait unique to Icelandic ponies that triggers frantic pelvic-thrusting of a kind you never knew your body was capable of. But first I had to mount Gola.

Maria, it transpired, was a consummate horseriding instructor. She took me right back to basics and avoided equine jargon. “You are a sack of potatoes,” she told me once I’d squirmed into the saddle.

“Sorry,” I replied, sitting bolt upright. “No, sack of potatoes is good.” She proceeded to fine-tune my anatomy – heels down, feet forwards, toes in stirrups, thighs grasping saddle. “Relax, we’re riding mountain-style.” Several hours later, we were not just riding mountain-style, we were galloping mountain-style!

I was a sack of potatoes with an idiotic grin on its face as we spurred Gola and Koltinna along gravel bars, steered them through belly-deep trout streams and tolted across tundra speckled with blueberries.

I love Iceland at this time – when autumn ignites the hillsides, smouldering orange and yellow as if they still had fire within them. Somehow, being on horseback made it seem all the more vivid. The sun was in our eyes when we rode through a cleft in the mountainside. I could hear the waterfall, but it wasn’t until the sun had dipped behind a ridge that I saw the 60m-tall plume, a perfect rock arch across its lip and a jagged rock fortress beyond.

“There’s good energy here,” Maria said, twisting in her saddle, but I was too breathless from the ride, too dumbstruck by the scenery, to reply. She must have thought all the tolting had taken its toll.

Back at her farm, Maria plied me with bowls of yoghurt and smoked lamb. And when I finally made my excuses to leave, she gave me a fierce hug and pressed three ibuprofen tablets into my hand. “You’ll be needing these in the morning for your inner thighs.”

Elf Church
Elf Church

I spent the night in the fishing village of Breiðdalsvík, the only settlement in the valley. Fridrik Arnason not only owns the very comfortable Hotel Bláfell, but also a 4WD vehicle with superb suspension and luxurious leather upholstery.

I gingerly eased myself onboard the following morning – the ibuprofen yet to take effect – before Fridrik showed me the local sites. Half a dozen small fishing boats nuzzled their reflections in the harbour and I counted 15 children in the school playground.

The village shop was a retro mishmash of grocery, café and cultural centre, while the geology museum contained zeolite crystals, basalt and a passionate Swiss geologist. Each one of the distinctive layers of strata in the mountains of the Eastern Fjords, he told me, was an individual, ancient lava flow.

Land of elves and eiders

This part of Iceland is actually one of the oldest and least active regions in the country, but signs of its volcanic heritage are everywhere. Following the coastal road south from Breiðdalsvík, I skirted a wide beach of black sand, gleaming in the sun like a scimitar of burnished graphite. The road cowered beneath ramparts of basalt, dipping in and out of fjords peppered with eider ducks before reaching Djúpivogur.

Local guide, historian and author, Hrønn Jönsdöttir, was waiting for me in her beaten-up Subaru. “This is Iceland as it used to be,” she said, fighting the gear stick with one hand and waving out the window with the other.


She drove me past Djúpivogur’s perfect little harbour – colourful boats scattered like confetti beneath old wooden buildings. During summer, Hrønn told me, you could take boat trips to the island of Papey – occupied by Celts prior to the Norse settlement of Iceland, but now a refuge for seabirds.

One of Djúpivogur’s quirkier attractions is a line of 34 giant granite eggs carved by Icelandic artist Sigurður Guðmundsson. Each one represents a different local bird, but Hrønn seemed unimpressed. “I don’t know why they chose the red-throated diver as our official bird,” she said. “The eider gives us feathers for warmth, eggs for food.”

Weaving out of the village, Hrønn took me to bird-rich wetlands and black-sand beaches before rounding off her tour at the Elf Church – a huge triangular cliff of basalt rising above golden grasses and reindeer moss. “Do you believe in elves?” I asked her. “I don’t like to say yes or no,” she replied.

I’m yet to meet an Icelander who dares deny the existence of the ‘hidden folk’. As for visitors, someone once told me there are four categories: nonbelievers who laugh at elf stories; noncommittal types happy to listen; half-believers who sense there’s ‘something out there’; and, finally, the full-blown fairy hunters who turn up and say, “Can we see the elves now or do we have to check in first?”

Energy and life

Djúpivogur lies near the southern end of the Eastern Fjords, so the following morning I backtracked north. It’s never a bad thing to retrace your steps along a coastal road – particularly one as spectacular as the route that hugs the crinkle-cut shore of the Eastern Fjords.

Seyðisfjörður (Dreamstime)

If anything, the views were even better. Thin wisps of sea fog formed a strange filling in a sandwich of mountain and sea. The further north I drove, the more the fog flirted with the coast, tickling one fjord with thin translucent tendrils, slumping against another like a sodden grey mattress.

It wasn’t hiking or boat trip weather, so I spent the day trawling the fjords for indoor attractions. At Fáskrúðsfjörður, I stumbled upon an excellent and emotive museum dedicated to the harrowing tales of French cod fishermen based there in the late 19th century.

In nearby Eskifjörður, the delightfully dingy time capsule of Randulff’s Seahouse recounted the herring boom years of a similar period, while the War Time Museum at Reyðarfjörður shed light on the British troops stationed there during the Second World War.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the Eastern Fjords’ towns, though, is Seyðisfjörður, whose elegant clapboard houses are tucked into the crook of a 17km-long fjord. This 700-strong community swarms with newcomers every Thursday in summer when the ferry from Denmark and the Faroe Islands arrives, with visitors enjoying the bohemian vibes emanating from cultural heart of the region.

“The place is full of energy and life,” enthused local entrepreneur Davíð Kristinsson as he showed me around the Skaftfell Centre for Visual Arts. “Many artists work here.” Seyðisfjörður even has its own mountainside sound sculpture – five interconnected concrete domes that resonate with a range of tones that are similar to the Icelandic musical tradition of a five-tone harmony.

However, call me a philistine, but my favourite sound in Iceland is either the cooing of eider ducks in a deserted bay or the sound of silence when you’re deep in the interior. I decided to give the sound sculpture a miss and head back inland to Egilsstaðir – not only is this the gateway to the Eastern Fjords, but it also opens a backdoor to Iceland’s central Highlands.

A land apart

A journey into Iceland’s interior is one of life’s ‘Interstellar moments’ – though it wasn’t a wormhole that transported me to this alien world the next day, but a superjeep. Travelling south in a kind of Land Cruiser-on-steroids, we skirted Lagarfljót (lair of the local lake monster) and gazed briefly at 128m-tall Hengifoss, Iceland’s thirdhighest waterfall.

The road then clawed its way onto a barren plateau strewn with the weathered aftermath of volcanic bedlam. The 1,833m hulk of the Snæfell volcano squatted to our left, while vast swathes of black sand, pumice and lava stretched away to our right. After crossing the Kárahnjúkar Dam, tarmac gave way to gravel and we began the dusty, bone-shaking, grit-between-your-teeth drive towards Vatnajökull.

Vatnajökull icecap
Vatnajökull icecap

The icecap crouched low on the horizon, like a snow leopard in ambush, ghostly grey and brooding. We slalomed across volcano-pimpled plains to within a few hundred metres of the 8,100 sq km expanse of ice. Rucked up against the icecap, the mountainous spur of Kverkfjöll rose black and jagged, its geothermal heart fuelling hot springs that have melted caves along the glacier’s edge.

Setting off on foot, we forded milky streams to peer cautiously inside the frigid caverns of chiselled cerulean blue. But soon after leaving the sanctuary of the superjeep, Vatnajökull drew a grey veil across us. An hour earlier we had been squinting across a sunbaked volcanic desert; now we cowered at the foot of a sleet-smeared icecap. We beat a hasty retreat. My encounter with Vatnajökull had been brief but bewitching.

Hiking with the hidden folk

The following day, the weather continued to gyrate between balmy sunshine and Arctic-driven howler – perfect conditions for an invigorating hike at Borgarfjörður Eystri, the most northerly of the Eastern Fjords. Following sheep trails deep into the mountains of Dyrfjöll, walking guide Arngrimur Vidar led me to a valley jumbled with boulders and laced with jade-coloured pools.

“Welcome to the trolls’ kindergarten,” he said. “This is where they throw around their megablocks.” We slid down scree and edged across scraps of icy snow before entering the surreal labyrinth, known as Stórurð. If ever there was a candidate to make it onto East Iceland’s alternative Golden Circle, this was it.

Stórurð had all the hallmarks of an Icelandic icon – rugged and spectacular, yet enigmatic and otherworldly. As I scrambled among the lichen-fuzzed boulders, leaping streams rimmed with emerald-coloured moss, I wondered what other highlights might make it onto a must-see circuit of the east.

From puffin islands, basalt mountains and black-sand beaches to waterfalls, fishing villages and the Eastern Fjords themselves, this part of Iceland promises rich rewards for travellers. There’s a Golden Circle in East Iceland for anyone that wants to explore.

The author travelled with Discover the World on a seven-night tailormade trip exploring the East Fjords, including opportunities for bird watching, hiking, horseriding and Superjeep tours.

All images (unless otherwise stated) by William Gray
Main image: Black Wooden House at coastline in East Iceland (Shutterstock)

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