Ed Grenby’s Akureyri Adventure: A Journey Out of This World

Ed Grenby’s Akureyri Adventure: A Journey Out of This World


"Ed Grenby, Travel Editor of Radio Times, recently took his first trip to North Iceland with Regent. He discovered a world far removed from the well-trodded track of the Golden Circle."

Ed Grenby

Ed Grenby

When the captain gives the crew their “Take seats for landing” announcement, I casually glance out the Airbus window – and see absolutely nothing that looks like it could be landed on. (Honestly, if the voice had said “Mission Control, the Saturn module is touching down”, it would have made more sense.)

Mere moments before tyre hits tarmac at Akureyri airport, at a point where you expect to be level with a city’s skyscrapers, the view through the plexiglass is still of an utterly alien landscape. Unearthly volcanic extrusions pierce the seemingly endless ice-caps and snow-fields, and even when we do land, ice crystals fly off the runway glittering like the mineral wealth of a sci-fi movie’s off-world mining colony.

Discovering Iceland’s North

The north of Iceland is… different. Even if you’ve visited the country before – weekended in Reykjavík, perhaps, or orbited the south’s Golden Circle – you’ll find the Atlantic island’s Arctic end refreshingly unfamiliar. But new direct flights with easyJet, from Gatwick to Akureyri, make this alternative universe oddly accessible for Brits; and although those flights don’t run in the summer months, Akureyri is still only a 45-minute, £60, one-flight-every-couple-of-hours hop from the Icelandic capital, which is served by multiple airlines from the UK. What’s more, the easy, open, exquisitely scenic roads up here make the Land of Fire & Ice effortlessly doable as a fly-drive, whether it’s Spring, Summer or Autumn.

Akureyri, Iceland

Akureyri itself makes a great launch pad for your mission of discovery: it may be “Iceland’s second city”, but it’s a slender sliver of a town, wedged between brooding mountains on one side, and dark, cold fjord waters on the other. You don’t need days and days here, but you’ll want one night at least, for its excellent restaurants, lively bars and – oddest but most wonderful of nightspots – the Forest Lagoon. Its geothermally warmed waters are wrapped into a fairy-tale birch and pine wood, and it’s open (complete with swim-up bar) till midnight.

The Forest Lagoon

Such bath-cum-boozer double-acts are a key part of Icelanders’ social lives, in fact, and I sample a different one every day of my five-day trip. Not all are so beautiful (or have bars!); indeed, some have a more ‘municipal swimming pool’ aesthetic. But they all steam invitingly under open skies, and are a great place to chat with locals, de-stress – and, yes, warm up. I’m here in early November, and it’s all cool, crisp, blue-sky days, a mere dusting of snow decorating the sheep-strewn lowland pastures beside Route 1, the great ‘Ring Road’ that encircles Iceland. But venture up into the mountains – which I do by superjeep and snowmobile, near Lake Mývatn – and you enter a whiteout world of whistling winds, whipped-up whirls of snow, weird rock forms spewed by angry volcanoes, and edge-of-the-snowmobile’s-driving-seat excitement.

More sedate (but just as bumpy) is my other off-road adventure – by horse. An hour west along Route 1 from Akureyri, the Skagafjörður valley is Iceland’s horse country, where the dales are streaked with silvery rivers and speckled with handsome equines. (And, as if Oðin thought it not quite photogenic enough, he shrunk the latter down to pony size: Icelandic horses are famously diminutive.) Astride Astiður – whose name means ‘passion’ or ‘joyride’, but whose temperament was as mild as milk – I trotted 20 minutes to a many-braided waterfall that in any other country would be a huge tourist attraction but here doesn’t even merit a signpost.

Horseriding from Akureyri

I begin to understand why once I visit two more waterfalls, Goðafoss and Detifoss. The former is a pleasingly symmetrical trinity of pretty, bridal-veil cascades that I could spend a good few hours sighing at; the latter a thunderous 40m-high wall of water that – even from a distance – is so deafeningly, frost-sprayingly, terrifyingly fierce that I can endure only a few awe-struck minutes there.

Goðafoss Waterfall

Both are east of Akureyri, on northern Iceland’s ‘Diamond Circle’, a 250km route that also takes in preternaturally peaceful Lake Mývatn, supernatural-looking Ásbyrgi valley and the old whaling town of Húsavík. The latter is home to the Húsavík Whale Museum, which is much more interesting than it sounds (and it sounds pretty interesting, actually, due to the ethereal whalesong soundtrack that’s piped around it). Its star attraction, inevitably, is a blue whale skeleton – so large that it doesn’t even really fit in the museum’s largest gallery, so has to be curled uncomfortably round at the tail end.

Come in Spring, meanwhile, and you might get to see one of these giants uncurled – and alive. Húsavík is one of several picturesque harbours on Iceland’s northern coast where whale-watching has taken over from whaling as the main industry, and though you’ve only a 25% chance of seeing the great blue whale, you’re more-or-less guaranteed humpbacks. I take a trip from Dalvík and see several of these off-shore show-offs practising their crowd-pleasing signature routine: breach… spout… flick tail-fluke theatrically… and… dive!

Whale Watching in Húsavík

It’s quite a spectacle (even more so with the backdrop of Eyjafjörður, one of the country’s deepest fjords), but there’s no doubting what’s top of the bill right now. This year and next are – for reasons you’d need a degree in astronomy to understand – particularly good for the northern lights. And having failed to see them on previous trips to Svalbard, Greenland, Lapland and (numerous times) southern Iceland, I’ve resolved to stay up all night every night of my four-night trip to get a glimpse this time.

Northern Lights in Iceland

In the end, I don’t even have to try. Driving back to cosy, characterful Hótel Tindastóll, in Saudárkrókur, after an early-evening session in the local geothermal baths on my first night, I catch something out of the corner of my eye – a smear of subtle colour across the otherwise jet-black sky. Pulling over, I watch as this strange grey-green curtain wafts lightly across a small arc of the firmament like when Hollywood tries to depict the presence of God.

It is an eerie, beautiful and – literally – celestial experience. This trip has, in more ways than one, been out of this world.

Do you want to experience an adventure in Akureyri?

If you’re fascinated by Ed Grenby's journey to the North of Iceland, speak with one of our Travel Specialists to start planning the ultimate Iceland trip. 

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