Iceland's new road trip: How to drive the Arctic Coast Way

Journey into Iceland's remote north to discover volcanoes, whales, the Northern Lights and very few tourists. An ideal alternative to the country's busy south, says Graeme Green...

9 mins

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.”

A horse and its rider on a black sand beach near Sauðarkrokur (Graeme Green)

A horse and its rider on a black sand beach near Sauðarkrokur (Graeme Green)

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.

Heading north

The Arctic Coast Way road between Skagafjörður (Graeme Green)

The Arctic Coast Way road between Skagafjörður (Graeme Green)

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.

The Skarðsviti Lighthouse on the Vatnsnes peninsula (Graeme Green)

The Skarðsviti Lighthouse on the Vatnsnes peninsula (Graeme Green)

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.

Horse valley

Icelanders are extremely proud of their horses (Graeme Green)

Icelanders are extremely proud of their horses (Graeme Green)

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.

A cigarette-esque silo on farmland between Skagafjorður and Siglufjorður (Graeme Green)

A cigarette-esque silo on farmland between Skagafjorður and Siglufjorður (Graeme Green)

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.

A boat on Siglufjorður (Graeme Green)

A boat on Siglufjorður (Graeme Green)

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.

An Atlantic wolffish (Shutterstock)

An Atlantic wolffish (Shutterstock)

A far odder fish arrived, a giant wolffish with a grey-blue appearance and a strangely expressive, alien-like face. It was as obedient and docile as a dog welcoming her owner.

Erlendur cracked open a mussel and fed her, batting off the more aggressive cod. A familiar friend, Erlendur calls this wolffish Stone Age Stefanie.

“She’s lost her teeth, so I have to feed the shellfish to her. She can’t bite the shell,” he later explained. We saw more wolffish swimming, others guarding eggs in dark nooks beneath rocks.

Atlantic wolffish numbers are declining, though. I was told the causes were still uncertain, but climate change and overfishing could be factors.

Erlendur pointed ahead to where hot water was leaking out of a rock chimney. I took off my glove, the cold ocean biting, and put my hand cautiously into the heart of the stream, which alternated between pleasantly warm and close-to-scalding; the thermals can hit 82°C.

I could’ve happily stayed there all day, the underwater equivalent of sitting by a fire.

The striking church on Hrisey Island (Graeme Green)

The striking church on Hrisey Island (Graeme Green)

From nearby Árskógssandur harbour, I took a detour from the Way and made the evening ferry crossing north again to Hrisey, the second largest island in Iceland, out in Eyjafjörður fjord.

In early morning light, I walked past the village’s striking protestant church and met a few of the island’s resident ptarmigans, hurrying across lawns in white furry boots. Fishermen out in their boats were being mobbed by seagulls as I made my way to a duck pond at the tip of the island.

I picked up a hiking trail and crossed through mossy moorland from one side of the island to the other side, finding great, silent expanses devoid of other people.

A bit of a fluke

Humpback whale in Skjálfandi Bay, Húsavík (Graeme Green)

Humpback whale in Skjálfandi Bay, Húsavík (Graeme Green)

Back on the mainland, I reached Akureyri, the capital of the north and a popular base for whale-watching and Northern Light tours.

After dark, I set out in a cramped little mini bus with a group of tourists and local guide Thor Hjálmarsson. We drove north, hoping to see the Aurora Borealis, though a low activity rating of two and solid cloud cover made that prospect unlikely.

Thor’s ‘bright side’ outlook that “the worst that can happen will be some fresh air and hot chocolate” was how the night panned out. A week into my trip, the Northern Lights had resolutely failed to make themselves known.

Nature put on more of a show along the coast at the fishing village of Húsavík, the north coast’s whale-watching epicentre. On a warm clear afternoon, we chugged out into Skjálfandi Bay in a traditional oak fishing boat.

The bay’s a prime feeding ground for whales, a combination of Arctic and Atlantic currents and freshwater from two rivers creating a nutrient-rich area with high volumes of krill. Humpback, blue and minke whales, harbour porpoise and white-beaked dolphins all feed here.

Humpback whale in Skjálfandi Bay, Húsavík (Graeme Green)

Humpback whale in Skjálfandi Bay, Húsavík (Graeme Green)

An hour out from the harbour, we spotted the first spout, as a humpback broke the surface, huffing. After a few breaths, the long black back curved through the water and the fluke rose as it took a deep dive.

“They spend 90 per cent of their lives underwater,” Mike Smith, the British onboard whale expert, explained. “A dive can be anything up to 10 minutes. But they always have to come up to the surface to take a breath.”

There was another humpback in the area. We watched as the pair alternately surfaced, breathed and displayed their flukes before dives.

“Fluke markings are as distinctive as our fingerprints,” Mike said. “These ones are adults. The biggest one would be around 15m and would weigh around 30,000- 35,000kg. The largest humpbacks can be around 18m and weigh 40,000kg, as much as eight African elephants.”

The captain turned the boat and started back towards Húsavík. From nowhere, another humpback leapt out of the water a couple of hundred metres away and flopped noisily. We saw it breach a few more times, leaping and splashing, before this one too showed us its flukes and went below.

“The humpback’s the most acrobatic of all whale species,” Smith said. “The most common theory is that breaching’s for communication.”

Northern Lights, near Húsavík (Graeme Green)

Northern Lights, near Húsavík (Graeme Green)

That night, I drove into the dark hills around Húsavík. After striking out every night when hunting for Northern Lights, I stood on the hillside in bracing wind. With a full moon, the clouds had a ghostly feel.

Then, something started to happen. Stars became visible through breaks in the cloud and shapes began to form. Waves of silvery dust were cast across the night sky. The display didn’t last long.

I set my cameras to a low shutter speed and captured green and purple smears above the ocean and hills around Húsavík. Then, they were gone. Whales by day, Northern Lights by night. Not a bad day in north Iceland.

Lighting my way home

The gannet colony at Stóri Karl (Graeme Green)

The gannet colony at Stóri Karl (Graeme Green)

Beginning the final leg, the Way continued into the Tjörnes peninsula and Ásbyrgi, a horseshoe-shaped canyon known as the Shelter of the Gods. Here I hiked up Eyjan hill to look out over an ocean of autumnal yellow birch woodland.

“Not many people go where you’re going,” guesthouse owner Salbjörg Matthíasdóttir told me as I studied maps the next morning. The area’s waterfalls, especially powerful Dettifoss, receive plenty of tourists doing the ‘Diamond Circle’ loop, but few go further into the north-east.

At the tip of the austere Melrakkaslétta peninsula, I lurched along a track of moving stones and abandoned fishing nets to the lighthouse at Hraunhafnartangi, which locals say is the northernmost point on mainland Iceland (though Rifstangi, nearby on the peninsula, is also mentioned).

Waves collapsed onto dark rocks as I looked ocean-wards and wondered how far from where I was standing the Arctic began. Iceland’s Grímsey island is within the Arctic Circle, but on the mainland this is as close as you can get: around 3km.

Driving down the peninsula’s east coast, I stopped at Raufarhöfn, Iceland’s northernmost village, to look at the blocky orange lighthouse and the newly constructed Arctic Henge, a Pagan-inspired circle of basalt archways.

Lighthouse Raufarhöfn (Graeme Green)

Lighthouse Raufarhöfn (Graeme Green)

The Arctic Coast Way finishes at Bakkafjörður, but before my final stop, I made one last detour into the isolated Langanes peninsula. I spent my final evening driving along the coast and through deserted moorland to the Skoruvik cliffs.

From a metal platform high above the ocean, I looked out at Stóri Karl, a column of black rock and home to one of Iceland’s largest gannet colonies. Noisy fulmars and kittiwakes nested in the grassy cliffs. Northern gannets took flight, gliding over white frothy waves, while others came in to land, struggling to find a clear space on the column’s rounded summit.

There were too many birds to count on there, little clusters of yellow-tinged adults, black-feathered young and chicks with fluffy grey down.

For the first time on this trip, I’d found a part of north Iceland that looked a little crowded.

The trip 

The author travelled with Discover the World, who offer tailor-made self-drive holidays and escorted tours to the north of Iceland.

Its 11-night Arctic Coast Way self-drive trip, available between May and September, costs from £1,604pp based on two sharing, including hotel accommodation with breakfast, car rental and exclusive iDiscover App.

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