In her first story for Adventure.com, our featured contributor Paula Froelich investigated overtourism on these zany Bjork-loving shores. Now, she’s returned to the country she labels the ’prom queen of Europe’ to find out exactly where the magic can still be found—even after word’s got out.
Iceland is all the rage these days. Thanks to a great marketing campaign, Icelandair’s free stopover program, and cult-favorite TV shows like Game of Thrones filmed there, the tiny Nordic island is on everyone’s travel list—as it should be. Its alien-like landscapes are seen nowhere else on earth, the people are fascinating—many believe in elves, or ‘hidden folk’ as they call them—and the food is as pure as its glacier-fed waters. Even better, at least for US East Coasters, it’s closer than Los Angeles.
But sometimes too much of a good thing is not great—especially on an island where the population (around 350,000) is dwarfed by the amount of tourists (over 1.7 million last year). This problem is exacerbated when the epicenter of the country’s tourism is disproportionately located in one area—the Golden Circle. Home to black beaches, glaciers and the traditional turf houses which are scattered all over Iceland’s mesmerizing countryside, this famed southern region is indeed beautiful—but it’s packed.
So what’s a girl to do? How do you actually experience the magic of Iceland without having to crop 50 tour buses and throngs of tourists out of your photo? It’s easy: Turn your GPS toward Iceland’s east and west coasts.
RELATED: Has Iceland become too popular?
I recently took part in a vintage air rally across the Arctic that recreated, in reverse, the supply lines from America to Europe in World War II. As part of that rally, we stopped in Egilsstaðir in the east of Iceland and Ísafjörður in the west, and I was reminded that some of the best places in Iceland are the ones people don’t go to on a three-day layover. So go to Iceland, but take a week and have yourself a truly magical experience—without the maddening crowds.
On the banks of the Lagarflot River in east Iceland, Egilsstaðir is the starting point for anyone who wants to visit Mt. Snæfell, Mt. Dyrfjöll and the Hafrahvammar canyon. The people in the town are so friendly, that if you forget some or all of your hiking gear (ahem) and need to stock up, they will give you a discount. You just have to ask.
The drive (or hike) to nearby Reyðarfjörður, a small coastal fishing town of just over a thousand people, is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Cliffs carved with a seemingly infinite number of waterfalls and moss-covered volcanic rock fields line the road, and puffin colonies hide in the hills by the sea. Even better, when you reach the smaller towns, there are numerous spotless hostels to stay in for a fraction of the price of a hotel room—even in the busy summer.
After exploring the east coast, drive or, if budget allows, hop into a helicopter to west Iceland or the Westfjords region. The flight is spectacular; look down and you have a panoramic view over a frozen Jurassic landscape of azure blue glacier ice, snow-capped volcanoes, and tiny isolated red-roofed farms in between.
The Westfjords of Iceland are unlike any other part of the island. You have the red sand beach of Rauðasandur, and the jagged inlets jutting out into the ocean rival any in Norway for their dramatic beauty. It is also one of the country’s oldest inhabited regions—it’s where the Vikings lived and the traders built their ports and is steeped in history, and yes, even a little witchcraft. Yes, witchcraft (read on).
Ísafjörður is one of the larger towns in the Westfjords, with a small airport for helicopters and domestic flights. Dating back to the 9th century, the former whaling village is both pretty and fascinating—it was the scene of the witch trials in the 1600s, where, unlike Salem, witches weren’t burned at the stake, but instead banished to a nearby peninsula. If you have time, check out the nearby town of Holmavik, home of the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, which has a pair of Nábrók—necropants made from actual human skin from a a dead man, that, in Icelandic witchcraft, are believed to be capable of producing an unlimited supply of money.
Ísafjörður is home to Iceland’s oldest house, which dates back to 1734, and another of Iceland’s fiercely guarded secrets, the restaurant Tjöruhúsið. Set near the mouth of the fjord in an old long house once used for curing cod, the restaurant is reaching near mythical status in Iceland. Established in 2004, the communal restaurant only serves what comes in on the fishing boats, and with its seasonal, daily-changing menu, it’s Icelandic fare at its best.
As we discovered, Tjöruhúsið is also very popular. A delayed flight meant we arrived 20 minutes after our original reservation to see lines forming out the door, despite the chilly weather. “Sorry, we have no room,” the hostess said. “You missed your time slot.” But the promise of ‘the best seafood in Iceland’ was too good to walk away from and we opted to eat outside in the frosty evening air, made comfortable with blankets and pillows provided by the staff.
Dinner—at $50 a person for the all-inclusive meal—started with a tomato-and cream-based fish and langoustine soup that I will dream about for years to come. Then came the feast. On offer that evening was halibut in butter with capers, cod cheeks fried with lemon and garlic, salted cod with olives and sundried tomatoes, pollack with blueberries, bacon, red onion and citrus, pan-fried plaice with oil, lemon and cherry tomatoes, wallfish (also known as Arctic catfish) in a green peppercorn sauce, and spotted fatty wallfish in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and capers.
“Do not eat too much of one dish because then you will not be able to try everything and you must try everything!” our waiter, Wolf, exhorted. He was right. Two and a half hours later, my friends and I rolled back to the Hotel Isafjordor to dream of that meal. Extra bonus: Children under 14 eat for free. Not kidding.
After checking out Ísafjörður and the Westfjords towns, get off Route 1 or Ring Road, and rent a home or a room in the one hotel on Flatey Island—the summertime escape for (actual) Icelanders. Only two families live year-round on the island, inhabited since 1182, but in the summer it comes to life with vacationing families. It’s easy and inexpensive to get across, via a ferry that travels between Flatey, Stykkishólmur and Brjánslækur, both towns just south of Ísafjörður. On the island itself, there is one road, two restaurants and several hiking paths—the perfect place to unwind and relax for a few days.
But be warned. The island is also home to a colony of fierce Arctic terns, a small, aggressive seabird, so should you go for a walk on the cliff side, watch out for these avian terrorists. They will appear out of nowhere and, like a scene from Hitchcock’s Birds, attack from the air, screaming, pooping and poised to dive-bomb your head—all the while trying to herd you away from the town and over a cliff. It’s terrifying. Trust me.
But give me the choice between fending off violent Arctic birds or fighting hordes of tourists on the Ring Road, and I think you know my answer.