Wild landscapes, empty roads, and more than a few surprises await along the shores of Iceland’s remote eastern fjordland.
By Will Hide
In the far east of Iceland, it pays to grab your photo opportunities when you can. One moment the sun is shining brightly on a couple of small, shaggy-maned horses posing nonchalantly against a backdrop of cascading waterfalls, and the next, a thick fog has rolled in across the fjord and you’re groping your way back to your rental car in near-zero visibility.
Did the makers of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty face similar challenges when they shot Ben Stiller’s skateboarding scenes along the road to Seyðisfjörður in 2012? Perhaps—though you wouldn’t know it from the film’s final cut, which portrays a gorgeous landscape of mountain-backed fjords lapped by water the color of steel. Never mind that erupting CGI volcano: East Iceland, with its swaths of spongy green moss and craggy, mist-shrouded hills, is heaven for hikers, birders, kayakers, and nature photographers. Just don’t expect to see too many of them. While the country is welcoming more travelers than ever before, most stick to the so-called Golden Circle route, which takes you from Reykjavík through Thingvellier National Park to Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal field of Haukadalur. The remote east, by contrast, offers a respite from the crowds. Intrepid travelers aside, it’s home to just 5 percent of Iceland’s already modest population (332,000), with long stretches of empty road connecting a scattering of isolated fishing villages and lonely farmsteads.
One of the latter was my first stop after driving an hour and a half south from the airport at Egilsstaðir, Iceland’s largest eastern township. “Once you reach Berufjörður, keep going a bit and look for the red roof on the left,” Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson, owner of Karlsstaðir Farm, had e-mailed me the day before. The directions were vague, yes, but sufficient. Thanks to a thick fog that had descended by the time I reached Berufjörður, that roof was all I could see through the murk—a ruddy sheet of corrugated metal seemingly afloat in a vaporous gray sea.
Originally from Reykjavík, Eysteinsson and his wife Berglind Häsler moved here with their three children in 2014, converting the property’s 1927-built farmhouse into a cozy B&B called Havarí and starting production on a line of vegan sausages and sea salt–dusted turnip chips. Confirming my conviction that Icelanders are both multitasking and quirky, the couple also happens to be behind the band Prins Póló, whose soundtrack to the indie movie hit París Norðursins (“Paris of the North”) became one of Iceland’s top-selling albums in 2014. Arrive at the right time in summer and they may be throwing an impromptu concert for friends in their barn.
My original plan had been to do some hiking in the area, but the weather scotched that idea. So after a sausage-centric lunch during which Svavar and I chatted variously about music, politics, and vegetables, I got back on the road for the meandering drive north to Stöðvarfjörður. I arrived an hour later, by which time the fog had thinned but not dissipated altogether, lending a striking photographic quality to the seashore.
Once a thriving fishing village, Stöðvarfjörður is now home to the HERE Creative Centre, set inside a converted fish factory. The young, enthusiastic artists I met seemed to relish having an overseas visitor to admire their recording studio and workshops for ceramics, wood, and metal. “Tell more people to come, we need the money!” they called out as I left to wander up the street to Stöðvarfjörður’s other claim to fame, Petra’s Stone Collection. Billed as the largest private assemblage of minerals and crystals in the world, it fills the small bungalow and garden of local rock hound Petra Sveinsdóttir. Though she died four years ago at the age of 94, her time capsule of a house remains as much a museum for those who want to remember bygone days of East Iceland as for those whose interest lies in glinting shelves of jasper, quartz, and amethyst.
Looping around the next inlet to Fáskrúðsfjörður, I checked in to a century-old former hospital called Fosshotel Eastfjords. In the hotel’s bar a crew of young cod fishermen were bracing themselves for a night on the Atlantic. “It’s a shit job, but the money’s good,” one of them told me after inquiring about my English football team allegiance: Icelanders are obsessed with the Premier League and you’ll win friends if you can chat about Leicester City’s winning streak or Spurs’ strengths in defense.
The next morning I drew back my curtains to reveal the mirror-like waters of the fjord outside my window. In the small museum across the road, exhibits explained how Fáskrúðsfjörður served as a seasonal base for French fishermen from the mid-19th century until the outbreak of World War I. Working conditions were horrendous, as men were paid only for what they caught, which meant they had to stay on deck in freezing weather on mountainous seas for hours at a time, swigging alcohol to numb the cold. The reward was a pension, unusual for the time. But the graveyard on the edge of town was a frequent destination for those who never got to cash their pay slip. It’s still there today. A French flag flaps forlornly over those who never sailed south again, and streets bear both French and Icelandic names in their memory.
I carried on north to Neskaupstaður. In summer, the town’s headline attraction is a heavy-metal festival called Eistnaflug, which translates to “Flying Testicles.” But I was here to hike, and the weather gods were finally cooperating.
“We are like Scotland on steroids,” said my trekking guide Siggi Olafsson, smiling broadly under a cloudless September sky as we caught a boat across the fjord to a beach on the Barðsnes Peninsula. There was no one else around, and we tramped for several hours over squelchy moss toward dramatic sea cliffs to peer over the edge at the gannets and gulls below. Afterward, back in Neskaupstaður, I soaked in the municipal hot springs, chatting with the locals as the fog rolled in once more.
My last stop was Seyðisfjörður, where Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty finished his skateboard ride. “Yes, we still get people knocking on our door because they recognize it from the film,” laughed the owners of the Hótel Aldan, a red-trimmed former bank building that sits right at the entrance to town.
Tucked at the head of a 17-kilometer-long fjord, Seyðisfjörður is an artsy place that buzzes in summer, when daylight is pretty much around the clock and tourists keep galleries and restaurants busy. I settled in for the evening at the cozy Skaftfell Bistro and was served beer and pizza by candlelight. As I wandered back to my hotel along the harbor, the northern lights glimmered ever so faintly above the surrounding hills. I felt a long way from anywhere—and that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
The gateway to East Iceland is Egilsstaðir, an hour’s flight from Reykjavik on Air Iceland.
Where to Stay
Karlsstaðir Farm, Berufjörður; 354/663-5520; entire four-bedroom house from US$284.
Fáskrúðsfjörður; 354/ 470-4070; doubles from US$205.
Neskaupstaður; 354/477-1950; doubles from US$170.
Seyðisfjörður; 354/472-1277; doubles from US$185.
This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Far Fjords”).