12 Chapters
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7 NORTH ICELAND

Nicholas Gill FrommerMedia ePub

7

North Iceland

The north of Iceland is tucked just beneath the Arctic Circle and Greenland Sea, but enjoys relatively hospitable weather and forgiving land. Northerners gloat about their climate, which is sunnier and drier than the southwest in summer. The multiform northern coast bears little resemblance to the south coast, which is dominated by glaciers and worked over by the flow of glacial sediments. The north has the highest population of any region outside the southwest corner; even cod and puffins are migrating to the north coast as the oceans warm.

Most visitors cluster in the near northeast region comprising Akureyri, Iceland’s thriving northern capital; Mývatn, a wonderland of lava forms, multi-hued geothermal fields, and birdlife; Húsavík, Iceland’s whale-watching mecca; and Jökulsárgljúfur, an extensive canyon full of magisterial rock formations and waterfalls.

Touring within this so-called “Diamond Circle”—a bit of marketing one-upmanship based on the popular “Golden Circle” in the southwest—you may keep seeing the same tourists, who can access all these sights by day from the same accommodation. Venture west of Akureyri or east of Jökulsárgljúfur and the tourist sightings quickly diminish. Visitors zoom past Húnaflói on the Ring Road, but would not regret an excursion to a seal colony on its Vatnsnes peninsula, or the stone church at Þingeyrar.

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11 PLANNING YOUR TRIP

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11

Planning Your Trip

This chapter is designed to help you with practical matters in planning your trip to Iceland: when to go, how to get there, how to get around, how to prepare. Advance planning is especially important in high season (mid-June to August), because tourism is booming and services have trouble meeting demand.

When to Go

Iceland has a concentrated tourist season, peaking from mid-June until the end of August. Many Icelanders think the summer tourists don’t know what they’re missing. Iceland offers plenty to do in the other seasons, even winter, and prices are dramatically lower for airfares, car rentals, and places to stay. Icelanders are avid Christmas celebrators, and the aurora borealis is remarkably vivid in winter. Most off-season visitors use Reykjavík as a home base, and combine city culture and nightlife with activities such as horseback riding, snowmobiling, and visiting spas.

High Season

On the other hand, high season is high season for good reason. Most tours and adventure trips to Iceland’s most renowned natural attractions end after September. Roads in the hinterlands are generally closed from October to mid-May, and some don’t open until early July. Precipitation increases in September, peaking from October to February, and frequent storms and driving rain are enough to dissuade many would-be winter adventurers.

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3 SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

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3

Suggested Itineraries

Advance planning can save you a lot of grief in Iceland. From late May until the end of August, places to stay and tours often fill up, and knowing some things in advance, such as if and when you’ll have a rental car—and whether it will have 4WD—will affect your itinerary.

We also suggest allowing for some free time in your itinerary. In Iceland, the factors most likely to derail an overbooked itinerary are the weather and weather-based cancellations of domestic flights. Free time is also useful for when you find a place you’d like to explore more thoroughly or for when a local fisherman suddenly offers you a boat trip around a nearby island, as has happened in our experience.

To jumpstart your planning, a few itineraries are suggested below. Others are found throughout the book, just waiting for you to string them together. We’ve even known people to flag all the swimming pools and hot springs for an itinerary, treating this pool-crazed country as a giant (albeit non-tropical) resort.

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2 ICELAND IN CONTEXT

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2

Iceland in context

Tell friends you’re going to Iceland, and many will wonder whether they’d be able to place the little country on a map. Most people know only that it’s somewhere west of Europe—and close enough to clog the continent’s skies with ash should a volcano or two decide to awaken, as did Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Bárðarbunga in 2015.

Iceland, dangling from the Arctic Circle between Greenland and Norway like a prickly Christmas decoration, is indeed a land of volcanoes. Eruptions are rare (on a tourist scale if not on a planetary one) but evidence of the country’s volcanic history abounds in the landscape—from moss-covered lava fields stretching as far as the eye can see, to geysers and hot springs, to black beaches and basalt-lined bays, to the craters and volcanic mountains themselves (often teasingly hidden away under glaciers).

In some places, houses half-swallowed by lava have been preserved for show. The Westman Islands showcase a port extension created during a 1973 eruption (p. 228), when some quick-thinking locals decided to tame the lava stream, hosing it down from boats on one side so that it would flow into the sea to improve the shape of the existing harbor.

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5 NEAR REYKJAVÍK

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5

Near Reykjavík

Visitors using Reykjavík as a home base will find an incredible wealth of scenery and activities within easy reach. Typical highlights of Icelandic nature and culture are only a day trip, or even a half-day trip, away. If you have limited time, or are taking advantage of Icelandair’s free stopover on flights between North America and Europe, this southwest chunk of Iceland will provide you with more than enough waterfalls, geysers, lava fields, activities, and museums. There are plenty of good bus tours, but we recommend renting a car (even just for a day) because many sights are otherwise inaccessible. Keep in mind that parts of West and South Iceland (chapters 6 and 8) are also only an hour or two away, in case you’d like to add a glacier or volcanic eruption site to your itinerary too.

Hafnarfjörður

10km (6 miles) S of Reykjavík.

From the main road, it’s easy not to notice Hafnarfjörður, even though it’s Iceland’s third-largest town (pop. 26,000) and second-busiest port. Once you’ve reached the waterfront, however, it’s clear Hafnarfjörður has a distinct identity. Its port has been trading continuously since the 14th century, and by the early 15th century it had become a major trading hub, first with the British, then the Germans, before the Danish king imposed a trade monopoly in 1602. This history, combined with the shape of the port and its effect on centuries of town planning, gives Hafnarfjörður more the ambience of a Northern European seaside town than Reykjavík. Also unlike Reykjavík, the town is carved out of the surrounding lava field. If you’re visiting in June and want kitsch overload, come to Hafnarfjörður for the Viking Festival (p. 29).

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