Besides gawking at the staggering coastal and mountain scenery of North Iceland from the road, there are opportunities to do everything from exploring geothermal vents beneath the sea’s surface on a scuba dive to taking a dip in a beer bath at a novel new spa. And with tunnels now linking the northern townships of Siglufjörður and Ólafsfjörður, access is better than ever.
Akureyri: a ‘big’ city start to your trip
At the head of Eyjafjörður, you’ll find the nation’s second-largest city – though with a population of under 20,000 Akureyri is more charming seaside town than urban metropolis. Its traffic lights are even part of its appeal, with the red signals shaped like hearts to make the wait for green feel more like an embrace than a warning. Walking past its cute cottages in winter, with their windows lined in fairy lights and roofs powdered with snow, feels like stepping into a Christmas card.
The surrounding mountains provide skiing and snowboarding opportunities (both on-piste and off), with the nearby Hlíðarfjall Ski Centre being home to Iceland’s premier downhill slope and numerous cross-country routes. In town there’s no shortage of fine restaurants to replenish energy reserves après-ski, as well as plenty of hotels to catch the necessary Zs. And no matter what the outdoor temperatures may be, there is nothing more soothing for well-worked muscles than a trip to Sundlaug Akureyrar, the city’s outdoor swimming complex. One of Iceland’s best, it’s a local institution, with many residents taking daily dips in its heated pools and hot tubs, and lounging in the sauna and steam rooms.
During summer the mountains are a very different type of playground, with mountain biking and hiking on offer. Summiting peaks such as Mt Súlur (1213m) is possible on day trips. The city too feels like another world at this time of year – its Lystigarðurinn gardens are flush with flowers, and thanks to Akureyri’s close proximity to the Arctic Circle, the daylight seems never ending.
Whale-watching cruises in the fjord are possible year round, though there are more sailings during the summer months. The Lutheran church, designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (responsible for Reykjavík’s Landakotskirkja Roman Catholic Cathedral), the Akureyri Museum and the Akureyri Art Museum are all worth a wander.
Árskógssandur: making a splash
Set almost 35km north of Akureyri on Eyjafjörður’s edge, this tiny fishing village was the birthplace of Iceland’s first microbrewery, Bruggsmiðjan – Kaldi. Hatched from one mother’s plan to help her family after her husband injured himself at sea, it has been a resounding success since being founded in 2006 and now employs 10% of the community. Organised tours are available or a staff member will usually be happy to show you round.
The microbrewery also allows visitors to make a splash in a literal sense, with its beer spa, Bjórböðin. Here, within its stylised confines, a personal bath of young beer will be poured for you to bathe in. The hops, yeast and other ingredients are high in vitamin B, antioxidants and alpha acids, so take your time, pour a pint from your own tap next to the rather lovely wooden bath, and soak it all in. If you’re too relaxed to hit the road afterwards, stay for a meal at the restaurant or collapse for the night (they have a small house for rent).
Far from a bathtub of 38°C beer is the experience offered by the Strytan Divecentre – it takes divers into the depths of the Eyjafjörður to explore its underwater world, with intriguing sites including geothermal chimneys. The company’s base is just south of Árskógssandur in Hjalteyri.
Árskógssandur is also the place to make the leap to the island of Hrísey. Gently protruding from the waters of the Eyjafjörður, it provides visitors with some sensational vistas of the fjord and surrounding landscapes, and is a haven for birdwatchers thanks to its large populations of ptarmigan and Arctic tern.
Dalvík: wild adventures on your doorstep
Diminutive Dalvík is never far from adventure. Whether you’re after heliskiing, ice climbing, ski mountaineering, alpine climbing, sailing or ski touring, it’s all possible – contact Bergmenn Mountain Guides, who will lead you through some of the area’s incredible terrain. Also based here is Arctic Sea Tours, who run whale watching trips, with a bit of angling included, which opens up the possibility to catching (and grilling) your own dinner. The town is also the main departure point for the ferry to the island of Grímsey, Iceland’s only foothold above the Arctic Circle.
Ólafsfjörður: backcountry skiing par excellence
Caught between steep mountain slopes and the waters of Eyjafjörður, and accessed by a 3km-long tunnel, Ólafsfjörður has a true feeling of isolation. Like Dalvík, it is a hub for extreme outdoor exploits. Arctic Freeride use a snowcat to take visitors up into the wilds, such as to the peak of Múlakolla (984m); opt for a return trip, or choose to ski down. Also an option is donning skis, dropping out of a helicopter onto a remote peak and making some turns in pristine powder with Viking Heliskiing – its guides are former Winter Olympians, so you’ll be in good hands.
Siglufjörður: herring history and more
Once the epicentre of Iceland’s herring industry, employing 10,000 workers, Siglufjörður has been a quiet outpost since the collapse of the industry in the 1960s. But thanks to the new tunnels connecting it to Ólafsfjörður, its role in the 2015 Icelandic TV series Trapped, and the activities possible here, Sigló (as it’s known locally) is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. In summer, hiking and whale-watching tours are a large draw; in winter, it’s skiing at Skarðsdalur. Even without all that though, the stunning journey here is a compelling reason to visit at any time of year, as is a stop at the town’s fascinating Herring Era Museum. For a live take on the current fishing industry, try a tour of a fish factory at Ekta fiskur – you’ll learn the ins and outs of salting cod, and will get the chance to try hákarl (fermented shark).
Worth a detour: Goðafoss
A little over 50km east of Akureyri is Goðafoss, a waterfall that befits its name: ‘Waterfall of the Gods’. This horseshoe-shaped falls, broken into almost half a dozen chutes, makes a spectacular drop through the Bárðardalur lava field. Come rain, sun, wind or snow, Goðafoss is truly a sight to behold.
Matt Phillips travelled with support from Visit North Iceland and Inspired by Iceland. Lonely Planet contributors don’t accept freebies for positive coverage.