We were driving in from the northeast of Iceland toward Hauganes in the north, which is located on Eyjafjordur, one of the longer fjords in Iceland. The town has 137 inhabitants and is 30kms north of Akureyi, which is called the capital of the north, and is the only town we saw a traffic light in besides Reykjavik. At 18,000 inhabitants, Akureyi is the second largest urban area in Iceland and was jokingly likened to New York and Paris by a local resident since it had “everything you could ever want.” We followed the directions from our AirBnB host to a dirt road about 12km before the town of Dalvik, then down to our accommodation for the next two nights, a farmhouse called Sela. It’s common in Iceland for houses to have names as opposed to street numbers as the small towns often have a single house on a street.
We were greeted at the door by Pieter, our large statured, long haired host who looked gruff enough to be the captain of a fishing vessel. Despite his imposing look he was extremely friendly and showed us to “the barn” where we would be staying. The place was an old barn, but completely renovated using wood boards for the floors, walls, and ceiling. The rooms were beautiful with stunning views of the fjord that was right outside the window. All of the fixtures were modern, however everything else was vintage and recovered pieces from dumpsters and trash areas which were then sanded down and painted for their new life in the barn. Sissy was ecstatic and fell in love with the place instantly. Pieter recommended that we take a short walk down the coast to a small waterfall nearby, so we dropped our bags off and headed down. The waterfall was the smallest we’d seen in Iceland, but was very nice, right on the fjord, and only minutes from the barn.
After we got back we remembered that it was the 4th of July, and being American I had bought beer to celebrate and Sissy had some wine. We made dinner and got to drinking as our housemates from Denmark noticed and asked if we were celebrating my national holiday. After some drinking and dinner, and talking about our neighbor’s trip to the US some years back, our celebration was over and we headed to bed.
Having partied hard the night before, we slept in until a very late (for this trip) 9am, had a talk with Pieter and his wife Swany, and got some tips for what to do that day. Based on Swany’s advice, we headed to Dalvik just a short drive up the fjord for some hiking. We found a route from the visitor’s center that was 8.5km and stopped off at a small cabin for hikers on the edge of the snow in the mountains. Along the hike we saw lots of birds, some more waterfalls, and a ton of sheep. Waterfalls, sheep, and ice were becoming the common factors about anywhere we went, which wasn’t a bad thing. As we navigated the mud and patches of snow, and harassed some local sheep, we finally came to the cabin. We signed the guest book, pulled some chairs out onto the deck, and had lunch with a beautiful view of the mountains and no one else around.
We headed toward Akureyi next to check out a geothermally heated pool on the outskirts of town. It was a Sunday evening and the pool was packed, which was unfortunate as it was supposed to be the least busy of the pools in the area. Reluctantly we headed back to the beautiful farm for a lasagna dinner, which was a treat for us as it wasn’t the normal pasta and pesto we had been eating each night since we got into the country. Meat in Iceland is expensive, at least during the time of year we went, but we found some at a decent price and hoped it was cow as neither of us speak or read Icelandic.
The next day we took more of Swany and Pieter’s advice and went in search of puffins. I’m not much of a bird guy but I think puffins look so cool, so off we went. Pieter had worked as a guide in the tiny town, if you can call it that, of Reykir, about 2 hours from Haulganes. There they run a tour company of a nearby island, Drangey, pronounced Dronk-ay. The island juts straight up out of the sea and consists of the mainland and a column that’s to it’s right as you face it from Reykir. Drangey houses roughly a million birds, of which at least 70,000 are puffins. There is one family run company that takes trips to the island, and there would be about 20 of us going that day. The trip wasn’t inexpensive by any means, as most tours in Iceland weren’t, and set us back $75 each. It was a 20 minute boat ride to Drangey, and as we approached we learned just what a million birds on a small island meant. First we approached the column, which the guides called the woman, and saw birds everywhere on it’s 20-30 meter high sides. As we pulled around to the mainland we docked at a small wooden walkway we’d use as a harbor.
The large cliff walls loomed high above us, at 180 meters high with birds covering them.The path we’d be hiking on was pointed out as one that went almost straight up the side of the island with ropes to pull ourselves up. I was thrilled to be on the side of an uninhabited island with a relatively small group, pulling ourselves up along cliff sides and drop-offs. Sissy was a bit less excited about the ordeal as she isn’t fond of heights, but she was very gracious about it and enjoyed the scenery on the way up nonetheless. As we worked our way around a cliff side on a path that was less than a foot wide, we saw puffins flying past us and circling in the cove to our right. Our last obstacle before reaching the flat, grassy top of the island was a very long metal ladder to the top.
Once on top of Drangey we were greeted by two very small single room cabins with grass roofs. The cabins were typically used for hunters that may stay on the island for some time, catching puffins for their families to eat. Neither of us could imagine eating puffin as they were so adorable, plus it didn’t sound overly easy to catch them anyway. Locals would make a trip to the island, climb up, and then use large nets to snag the puffins out of midair. They had to ensure the puffins weren’t carrying fish in their mouths, which isn’t an easy thing to do since a puffin is no larger than a quail and they fly pretty fast. If they had fish in their mouths it meant they had a baby which was important because puffins only lay one egg per year, and that baby couldn’t survive without it’s parent. We were told about a puffin that lived to be over 40 years old, maybe it was too agile to be netted!
We walked all over the top of the island, up to the highest point which overlooked the cove we had landed in. Birds flew in constant circles in the cove, landing from time to time on the cliff walls. After watching the wildlife for a bit we headed to an area on the island that overlooked Reykir and the coast of Iceland. There was a sunken area with no grass in it which we were told was the old site of the house of Grettir. Grettis Saga is one of the great tales of Iceland which we were told in length the entire story by our local guide. Around 1,000 years ago, Grettir the Strong was an outlaw who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering multiple people as a young man. He had been on the run for a long time and Iceland allowed a maximum sentence for outlaws of 20 years at the time. He had survived 19 of those years, which meant in one more year he’d be a free man by Icelandic law. Living on the top of Drangey Island, he could see anyone trying to approach the island, and he’d bring the rope leading to the top up so no one could attack him. He was known to swim the 7km stretch between Reykir and Drangey in the frigid waters and made a lady friend on one of such trips. After a while a band of men were able to get up the rope to the island due to the use of sorcery and trickery. With much effort they beheaded Grettir where we now sat enjoying the view.
After some more exploring we were told it was time to head back to Reykir. With much convincing I was dragged to the start of the descent to the boat far below. Sissy and I enjoyed more phenomal views of the puffins as they whizzed past our heads and landed on the rocks around us. I may have enjoyed the views a bit more than she, as she was concentrating on making it down in one piece. We set off from Drangey for the 20 minute boat ride back to Reykir. About 50 meters from shore our boat engine died, so we were delayed in our return to mainland, but our guide did a great job in getting us back up and running 5-10 minutes later. After a long trip to Drangey and some steep climbs, we were relieved to be invited into the natural hot springs that the tour company owned.
We headed off next to the West Fjords where we stayed in Grundarfjordur. The next morning would be Sissy’s favorite in Iceland as we would finally ride Icelandic horses. Sissy is a fan of horseback riding and has been riding since she was a kid. Icelandic horses have two special gaits that other breeds of horses don’t, making them more comfortable to ride. As we drove up to the horse farm, Sissy noticed that the ocean wasn’t far off, and hoped aloud for a ride on the beach. We were greeted by two German volunteers, which I knew might get Sissy thinking about doing the same.
I had ridden horses one other time as an adult, in Peru, which were not well cared for and we rode up and down a steep canyon in the rain. The horses were constantly slipping and almost falling, and my saddle wasn’t well adjusted to the horse, causing it to shift quite a bit. I had shared that information with Sissy before, which proved to be a mistake as all I heard now was, “I know you’re scared of horses.” After constantly reassuring her I wasn’t afraid of horses, we saddled up and headed off toward the beach. Icelandic horses are relatively small, but are very strong and very fast. We trotted along down a path and straight through a long, shallow stretch of water. We both got drenched up to our waists from the horses kicking up water, but it was a lot of fun.
As the other horses broke into a gallop down the beach, of course mine had to join, and off we went. Riding in a gallop was actually more comfortable than any of the other gaits they had, and was a lot more fun than I had expected. We rode along by a waterfall and a stream, and the volunteers told us about a wild horse they would try to catch soon that would roam that portion of the beach by itself most days. It was known for swimming in the ocean and galloping around on it’s own, which is uncommon as most horses prefer to stay in groups. We weren’t lucky enough to see the wild horse that day, but the scenery more than made up for it. The volunteers pointed out a volcano with a glacier on top of it that we decided to try to check out after we finished. After an hour or so of riding along the beach, we headed back to the stables to pay and say bye. The ride wasn’t terribly expensive by Iceland’s standards at $45 per person for an hour or so.
We drove back toward Siglufjordur to try to find a good way up to the glacier, however this glacier was completely covered in snow and not nearly as impressive as the others we had seen. We didn’t end up finding a good path up, and hiked around down lower instead. Unfortunately in the land of fire and ice, there is very rarely the chance to see any lava flow as that only happens during eruptions. The volcanoes themselves are impressive, but they wouldn’t put on a show for us this trip. After hiking around a bit, we started the three hour drive back to Reykjavik.
That night we would eat at Prikid, one of the oldest restaurants in Reykjavik, which was a reasonably priced and very tasty dive bar. Our AirBnB would redefine our standards for clutter and dirt, although it was in a phenomenal location right in the heart of Reykjavik. When we brushed our teeth, Sissy mentioned that the water smelled funny. Upon closer inspection, it had a strong smell of sewage, which ended our tooth brushing session. The bathroom door didn’t close, so using the facilities proved a struggle. Luckily we had some writing to do for our previous blog post, so we focused on that, and went to bed around 10pm with the light shining directly upon us as this room was more of a greenroom with no curtains to block the light or heat. We would wake up at 12:45am to drive to the airport, which was fine with us as we didn’t want to stay in that place any longer than necessary.
Reflecting on our trip in Iceland, it was much nicer and much different than either of us expected.
– 24 hours of sunlight per day in summer. If you want to go climb a mountain at midnight, don’t worry about it getting dark because it won’t!
– Waterfalls everywhere! If you miss the last waterfall you just left, don’t worry, drive 5 minutes and you’ll find another which is even more beautiful than the last.
– One of the largest glaciers in the world. You can climb on them, explore inside of them, and do what you want without anyone telling you not to. There are signs near the glaciers recommending you bring crampons and an ice axe, and basically tell you to enjoy!
– No traffic. We saw a half dozen traffic lights in the entire trip and there wasn’t need for more. We could drive for hours without seeing another car and that exactly how we like it.
-Icelandic horses! These horses are the only ones to have their two extra gaits and have the most amazing manes. Once an Icelandic horse is exported to another country they are never allowed to return, partially due to disease control, partially to keep the bloodline pure.
– Puffins! There are an estimated 8 to 10 million puffins in the country. If you can combined your love of puffins with an adventurous climb up Drangey Island, even better! Iceland is home to 60% of the world’s puffin population.
Tips and Advice
– Rent a SADcar or hitchhike. Hitchhikers were everywhere. The series of events along a drive would be: see a waterfall, avoid a sheep on the road, see a waterfall, pass a hitchhiker, repeat. Our SADcar may have broken down on us once and threatened to a few times more, but at half the price of the next cheapest rental, it was the only way for us to go. It was also nice not worrying about the gravel that was constantly shooting up against the side of the car since ours was such a wreck already. You will drive on gravel roads if you spend any amount of time driving in Iceland and it will scratch your car. Better drive a junker or buy gravel insurance, your choice. Hitchhiking is very safe there as there’s virtually no crime on the island, just make sure you don’t have a firm date you need to be anywhere.
– Cook your own food. If you stay in a hostel there will be a kitchen, make sure to head to the local Bonus or Netto store and stock up on pasta and sandwich material. Eating out is on par or slightly more expensive than the US or Europe, but that’s being gauged off large city prices like LA, San Francisco, Munich, or London.
– Download the app named Here. It is a navigation app that allows you to download maps by country and works without internet or cell connection. It saved us multiple times when we didn’t have one of the many free maps from the information centers handy. Make sure to download the country while on wifi or you’ll be without any use for the app.
– Pre-book when going in high season. You won’t be able to find accommodations in hotels or hostels if you don’t book at least a month in advance. AirBnB was slightly less than hostels in our experience and gave us some nicer rooms, less the final night in Reykjavik.
– Bring your spirit of adventure. Iceland doesn’t restrict where you can and can’t go like many other western countries. If you see a mountain, go climb it. If you want to chase sheep through a field, have at it. If there’s a waterfall nearby, go see it.
-Allow more time than you think is necessary for driving. Googlemaps lies on drive time. The map is deceptive when showing how small Iceland looks. The island isn’t small and 10-11 days is barely enough to get around it while seeing what there is to see. I couldn’t imagine a shorter trip than the one we took.
We hope you enjoyed our three part post on Iceland and that you’ll ask us questions below about your upcoming trip, the route we drove, or anything else you may have questions on. Next stop for us is London, please read on!