Iceland is often touted as the poster destination for overtourism, but Emma Thomson discovers an alternative Icelandic route for those keen on exploring without the crowds.
‘It’s overcrowded,’ say travelers to Iceland. In under a decade, the island’s visitor count has risen from half a million to 2.3 million—that’s more than six times the local population.
And while the numbers are startling on paper, most of those travelers can be found somewhere along the Golden Circle, a 300-kilometer loop around southern Iceland.
Nevertheless, the impact is real, so to rebalance tourism and showcase the country’s whale-rich, magic-filled north, the government has breathed new life into an existing road network that traces every inlet and rugged hillock of the Atlantic-carved northern coastline. And they’ve called it the Arctic Coast Way.
On par with Scotland’s ‘North 500’, this epic 800-kilometer road trip embroiders together 21 villages, encompasses four islands, and connects visitors with legends of trolls and dragons, sightings of puffins and whales and, best of all, the people living close to the Arctic Circle.
“It’ll take heat away from the crowded areas and spread it to areas where the traveler has unique experiences, where they can meet locals and feel more like explorers,” says Sigurđur Lindal Pórisson, who sits on the board of the Arctic Coast Way and manages the Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi, the start point of the route.
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I pay him a visit after a boat tour of the bay where harper and gray seals are curled on the kelp-laced rocks. Behind a desk of seal-stamped pencils and keyrings, he explains the allure of ‘the North’.
“Traveling here is different from the south,” explains Pórisson. “Down there, all the main attractions are beside the road and you go from one to the other. In the north, it’s more exploratory.”
Ólafsfjörđur is filled with trolls … all thanks to American artists Jeanne and Jim Morrison, who have created pointy-eared, big-footed portraits of the local residents to preserve the area’s mystical legends. It also gives them an identity on the new Arctic Coast Way.
“For example,” he adds, “in the south, Kálfshamarsvik, [a jagged jigsaw of two-million-year-old columnar sea cliffs, much like Giant’s Causeway in Ireland] would be world-famous, but in the north, only locals know how special it is.”
I’m also interested to hear how the steady increase in tourism has helped Hvammstangi so far.
“Before, the supermarket opening hours were shorter and prices were higher. Now we have a post office, a bank, a new hotel and a really nice restaurant,” he says, pointing upstairs to Sjávaborg, a former meat-freezing warehouse-turned-chic restaurant with windows overlooking the humpback whale-visited bay.
I ask which portion of the route is his favorite. “Past Skagaströnd [an hour’s drive north of Hvammstangi], there are no restaurants, no public toilets and only about 50 people,” he says, smiling.
Of course, I nose the car the northwards, where the road signs warn of sheep and horses, not lorries and motorbikes, and fog blurs the bumps and grooves of the coastline.
The town of Ólafsfjörđur (population 800) is dwarfed by an almighty valley and lapped by the chilly ocean. When I pull up outside Jói Guesthouse, my accommodation for the night, my watch reads 10.30pm, but the soft midnight sun makes it feel like four in the afternoon.
The owner, Ida Semey, is a Reykjavik local who moved here five years ago and never wants to leave. “It’s so calm,” she says, pouring me a cup of tea.
We’re joined by Halletor Gudmundsson who was born here. “We’ve got a surprise for you,” he says, rubbing his hands together. I glance nervously at his wife, Gudrún Pórisđottir. “We’d like to take you jet-skiing!” he declares.
“It’s 11pm,” I stutter.
“The light is the best now,” he urges. “We’ll take you past a waterfall and a troll cave …” He’s got my attention.
Ólafsfjörđur is filled with trolls. They haunt the sides of houses, the school, the swimming pool, and even the bank—all thanks to American artists Jeanne and Jim Morrison, who have created pointy-eared, big-footed portraits of the local residents to preserve the area’s mystical legends. It also gives them an identity on the new Arctic Coast Way. “We want tourists—we like their spark.”
“It’s about slow travel and experiences and I agree with that. The coastal way is about taking time for yourself and getting back to nature. It’s open and wide and that’s rare.”
Miriam, lodge owner
In the crooked armpit of Eyjafjörđur Bay, I enter Akureyri, the regional capital, where traffic-light stop signs feature red hearts, not circles. It’s hosting the annual Medieval Festival of Gásir, so I spend an afternoon mingling among locals dressed in burlap, churning butter, spinning wool and fighting with rough swords.
Mentioned several times in the old Icelandic Sagas, Gásir was Iceland’s main medieval trading bay. An event like this in the south would be inundated with camera-wielding tourists, but here it’s just sons and daughters riding on the shoulders of local mums and dads.
Also in the history books is Húsavík, believed to be the site of the country’s first settlement. Today, it’s the whale-watching capital of Iceland and used to receiving visitors.
“There’s three things you can look for while searching for whales,” shouts our guide over the boat’s tannoy system as we sail the Skjálfandi Bay. “Look for their geyser-like blow, dark shadows under the surface—or, failing that, other boats!”
Whale hunting is still legal in Iceland, but it’s forbidden in Húsavík. And more income generated by Arctic Coast Way road trippers will fund further conservation of the whales.
Húsavík’s other highlight is the new GeoSea, a minimalist spread of geothermal pools where I wallowed and spent 10 perfect minutes watching a pod of porpoises arcing across the bay.
From bustling to barren, my final stop is Ytra-Lon Farm Lodge near Þórshöfn on the last peninsula of the trail. It means ‘The Outer Lake,’ but it might as well mean ‘Outer Space’—for this mist-laced land seems severed from all reality.
“When there’s no wind, it’s good weather—whether it’s raining or mist that doesn’t matter,” says owner Miriam, who ekes out a living farming sheep with her husband. Her cozy rooms and restaurant (serving the best lamb you’ll ever taste) are set up to cater for the superb birding opportunities the area offers.
I ask how she feels about being added to the Arctic Coast Way route. “It’s about slow travel and experiences and I agree with that,” she says, “The coastal way is about taking time for yourself and getting back to nature. It’s open and wide and that’s rare.”
Numerous destinations face the growing problem of overtourism. It’s too early to tell yet, but hopefully Iceland’s approach with the Arctic Coast Way will serve as a positive template of how opening an alternative route and region can shift focus and rebalance tourism, so everyone wins.
The writer’s research was supported by Discover the World who offer an 11-night Arctic Coast Way self-drive offered between May and September.