Hooves thundered along the beach, kicking up a storm of black sand. Clinging tightly to the reins, I looked up as a squadron of pink-footed geese flew over northern Iceland’s Skagafjörður Bay. Across the ocean, breaks in the cloud threw patches of sunlight onto the long, curved back of Tindastóll mountain in the distance.
“Icelanders are very proud of their horses,” my guide, Johanna Dirks, interjected as we slowed the pace of our horses. “When the Vikings came from Norway, they could only conquer Iceland because they brought their strongest horses. There are only these horses in Iceland and they’re very strong.”
Riding an Icelandic horse along a black sand beach is about as Icelandic an experience as you can get, short of the Northern Lights appearing and Björk providing a live soundtrack.
But this was also – one hairy moment aside – one of the most peaceful and memorable experiences I’ve had on a horse, not least because of the wild setting and the absence of any other people.
I’d come to Iceland to drive the new Arctic Coast Way and find the north’s remote landscapes. The route, which launched in June last year, runs between Hvammstangi on the north-west coast to Bakkafjörður in the even quieter, sparsely populated north-east.
Like Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way and Scotland’s North Coast 500, it was created to shine a light on lesser known, less-visited parts of the country.
Iceland has around 350,000 inhabitants (and 460,000 sheep), but receives over two million tourists each year. Most of that’s concentrated around Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the south-west, which can mean overcrowding and heavy traffic.
But there’s plenty of space to explore along the Arctic Coast Way’s 900km of coastal roads, as you loop around rugged peninsulas close to the Arctic Circle, taking in fishing villages, farmland, mountains, bizarre rock formations, quirky lighthouses and colourful churches.
For me, it was a chance to get far away from crowds, to experience some of Iceland’s timeless, otherworldly locations that I’d never visited before and hopefully to see the Northern Lights and a few whales along the Way, nature allowing.
I’d picked up a car from Keflavík International Airport, near Reykjavík, and headed three hours north to the fjord side town of Hvammstangi, the gateway to the Arctic Coast Way.
The next morning, I started the jagged route eastwards by heading up the Vatnsnes peninsula, stopping to photograph Skarðsviti lighthouse and to hike along the coast at Svalbard beach and Illugastaðir, where harbour seals peered back at me from the waves. The gravel road cut through ragged, weather-beaten landscapes, marsh and moorland littered with craggy volcanic rocks.
“Iceland’s not just about the sights. It’s about the elements,” guesthouse owner Gisli Egill Hrafnsson told me in Blönduós.
I felt the full force of these elements driving around Skagi peninsula the next day. Horses braced against the wind and lashing rain. Tractors sat idle on secluded farms. Thick cloud engulfed the island of Drangey out at sea and hid 989m-high Tindastóll, sinking my plans to hike up it.
From the town of Sauðárkrókur, I drove out the next day to hillside stables in Helluland that are home to 100 horses.
“Technically, they’re ponies,” Johanna whispered. “But Icelanders have no word for ‘pony’, just ‘hestar’ for ‘horse’. Icelanders are very proud, so we say it’s a horse.” We trotted along a quiet road with views over the sand banks in the fjord, myself astride the light brown horse Bylur.
“Icelandic horses are very calm and sure-footed,” Johanna told me. Bylur took the cue perfectly and decided to be anything but calm, bolting along the road, ignoring my attempts to bring him under control. Racing over uneven grass banks, I struggled for balance, one foot coming loose from the stirrup. I just managed to stay on, Bylur slowing as we reached a barbed wire face.
That heart-quickener out of the way, we lumbered calmly down to the black sand of Borgarsandur, waves breaking softly on the shore. I followed Johanna’s lead and we sped along the coast, more in control this time, an exhilarating ride towards Tindastóll and the town.
Veering into grassy dunes, we saw a group of horses running from one meadow to another outside Sauðárkrókur. “Many Icelanders own horses here, either for their farm, to get around, or just for fun,” Johanna told me. “This area of north Iceland is known as the ‘horse valley’.”
I continued north-east by car up into mountainous Tröllaskagi (Troll Peninsula). With Skagafjörður on my side, the coasthugging road dipped, rolled and climbed high over the ocean. So desolate in bad weather, north Iceland’s green fields, hills and mountains came alive under the sun.
I saw neat red and white churches and a farm’s silo tower, half-white, half-orange, like a giant cigarette stubbed into the ground. Elegant horses grazed in fields by the road, foals lazing in warm long grass.
After a night in the fjord-side fishing town of Siglufjörður at the northern end of the peninsula, I reached the old herring factories further south-east at Hjalteyri, now a base for Strýtan Dive Centre.
“Iceland’s surrounded by ocean,” instructor Erlendur Bogason said. “It’s almost like we’re meant to be afraid. We’re only just starting to learn what’s beneath the water.”
Geared up in neoprene dry suits, we motored into the fjord in an orange RIB boat. The water didn’t look inviting, a hard rain and a coating of snow on the mountains adding to the wintry feel. North Atlantic Ocean waters here can be 5°C beneath the surface. But the diving at the Arnarnesstrýtan site is unique, with hydrothermal chimneys that pump out jets of hot water that’s travelled from the Icelandic Highlands.
“I’ll show you my friends,” Erlendur promised with a proud smile, as we jumped off the boat. We descended, following a line into the depths. Erlendur’s ‘friends’ came to greet us, a gang of cod expecting a feed. Taking a few large mussels from his waist bag, he smashed the shells and dished out brunch.