Akureyri is a quiet little port town in the North of Iceland, (to be fair even the country’s capital city is a place I would describe as a ‘quiet little town’), which sits on a very picturesque and tranquil fjord surrounded by mountains and a whole load of very fresh (and nippy) air; and from here it’s the perfect base from which to reach all manner of outstanding natural spectacles. When we arrived in June it was a cold and drizzly day, but despite this rather drab welcome into the area we knew exactly what we wanted to find and how to make the most of the mere day we had to explore. Obviously the majority of visitors will probably have a whole lot more time than I did to see the area surrounding Akureyri, but considering my time here was limited I still managed to see so much of the natural beauty this part of the world has to offer and managed to fall in love with the other-worldly beauty of Iceland even more than I already had done.
Hire a car! (Or if you want a proper challenge, cycle instead)
It’s not just the time factor that led us to hire a car (in actual fact, two cars); even if time is not of the essence, if you really want to get about and see all of the beauty that this country has to offer then hiring a car is the best (if not only) way to do it. We headed slightly further away from the actual port in the hope that this would mean hire charges were a bit more reasonable, though in Iceland prices in general are significantly higher than other parts of the world. Whilst sat in the car hire office I chanced upon a couple of Argentinian fellows in cycling gear who were also waiting to borrow a car for a while. Well- what a brilliant pair! Up until that point they’d been cycling around the entire coast of Iceland, though as the coast was rather more jagged around these parts they had decided that it’d be a good idea to hire a car for a short while instead. So maybe hiring a car isn’t exactly the only way to see this country, as these two had done a grand job of the bicycle option thus far. Good one, chaps! Good one, indeed.
Goðafoss, waterfall of the actual gods
We set off from Akureyri with the coastline on one side of us and a whole load of majestic mountainous countryside on the other. I was back in the hair-raising situation of having a true boy-racer in the drivers seat and a soundtrack of Russian rap on the stereo. Picture it if you will. Every now and then a stubby and very cute Icelandic pony would appear stationed next to the road, chewing on some grass and watching the world go by. The wide fjord that leads up to the town is well-known as the home of many a whale, so I kept my eyes as closely on the sea as I possibly could, just in case I spotted the slow peaking of the back of one of these downright marvellous creatures, and also in attempt to distract myself from the mega-speed at which we were now travelling. Alas, there were plenty of whale-watching boats bobbing along but I wasn’t to see one of my whale-buddies at that particular point in time. After a while we headed inland, through lush green hills and plenty of the purple Alaskan Lupine flowers that carpet a whole load of the land of Iceland. (Awkward times, pals, as these beaut flowers were introduced to the country in 1945 to help avoid erosion, however they spread rapidly and have since threatened the biodiversity of the country, taking over most of the land and leaving not a lot of room left for the indigenous plants who originally called Iceland home. Poor old souls)
After a wrong turn which led us to almost completely circumnavigate a lake before doubling back on ourselves, and then a very gravel-covered road which almost gave us an off-road experience into a herd of very concerned-looking ponies, we eventually reached our target- the very majestic Goðafoss waterfall.
What an AMAZING location.
The land had turned from green and purple in colour to rocky and almost lunar in appearance, fairly flat all around, and with the icy and startlingly blue water of the Skjálfandafljót river cutting through this dramatic landscape and cascading over the wide curved ledge of the waterfall. Although it’s not particularly high- 12 metres in total- the roar of the water combined with the downright marvellous contrasting colours makes for a rather overwhelming natural spectacle.
Legend has it that when Iceland was officially converted to Christianity back in the very late 900s (ie, quite a while ago), an old lad threw statues of the Norse Gods into the waterfall just to hammer it home that he was dead set against the old Paganism idea, hence the name meaning ‘waterfall of the gods.’
All the craters in the whole wide world
Alright, truth be told all the craters in the whole wide world is a slight exaggeration. But on the way to the next stop we drove through some very strange terrain, unsure of what exactly it was we were looking out for but knowing full well that something interesting was for sure supposed to be located around our location. Eventually our grand convoy of two hire cars stopped in a small car park next to the road and got out to climb up a small slope just to see if we could spy anything on the horizon. It was a mildly awkward moment as there was a faint smell of sulphur in the air and there was many a cloud of flies just swarming around the place in such high density that you couldn’t really escape. It reminded me of being in the smoking area at a club as a non-smoker, just really in need of a breath of fresh air but not able to get one.
When we reached the peak of the gentle slope it dawned on us that we’d probs stopped in the most perfect spot of all! Laid out before us in the style of Mordor was a whole load of very large water-filled craters in the ground- Skútustaðagígar. These were created years and years ago when boiling lava flowed into the wetlands and caused gas explosions in the land, making a downright bizarre-looking pattern in the earth as far as the eye could see. It’s possible to hike around the area, but we had to plough onwards as obviously time was a constraint in our case.
Myvatn and the shock horror of all shock horrors
The further we drove, the weirder the landscape became…red and brown like the surface of some faraway planet, with cold air around us but in the distance columns of hot smoke rising from spots in the ground. The vibe got more and more Mordor-like by the second, I am telling you. It was MENTAL, you guys!!
Eventually we arrived at Myvatn Nature Baths, a geothermal pool which is far less known than Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon (probably simply because it’s further away from the capital and therefore just generally less-visited as a result). If you’re not exactly sure what a geothermal pool is, it’s basically a pool which is naturally warmed by the temperature of the ground beneath it. Iceland is commonly known as the ‘Land of Ice and Fire,’ (cool name, right!?), due to the fact that despite it’s extremely close proximity to the Arctic Circle and it’s subsequent really really really low temperatures, there are also volcanos galore (remember a few years ago when an Icelandic volcano erupted and planes were forbidden from flying because of it’s ash getting all over the place?). So beneath the surface, this place is downright SCALDING.
We payed together at the entrance and headed our separate ways to the changing rooms- girls one way, guys the other- and it was at this point that things took a turn for the worse.
First things first, this changing room was 100% communal, and the three of us were not the only ones present. Oh no siree. Joining us in this gloriously chilly room was a whole gaggle of passengers from the ship that we worked on, which was admittedly a slightly awkward situation, but with the use of some simple but not very elegant contortionist moves it was totally possible to change without exposing ourselves to a bunch of strangers, never fear! Next step was to brave the even colder outside air in our bikinis…it may have been June but in terms of warmth this doesn’t mean a lot in Iceland. Out we tiptoed, because tiptoeing somehow helps to psychologically overcome the cold at least, only to be met by a young Icelandic pool attendant lass.
‘Did you shower?’
Errrr…to tell you the truth, no we did not shower. In England showering pre-pool isn’t the norm, though I know in parts of Europe this isn’t the case. So back inside we went, to jump under the showers in a large room adjoined to the changing room. Ten seconds later, the pool attendant appeared, glaring at us with raised eyebrows.
She gave us a once-over with her glary glary eyes, raised her eyebrows, and tapped a sign on the wall displaying a cartoon figure sans-swimwear.
‘Take. Off. Your. Clothes.’
The three of us looked at each other in full on fear, and my Ukrainian pal exclaimed- ‘I don’t vont!! I don’t vont!!’
Well let me tell you I did not vont either, but it seemed that the fully-clothed pool attendant would not be leaving the area and we would not be allowed into that pool until we made it clear we were going to fully remove the offending articles of clothing. So pals, naked communal shower it was. GAAAAAAH!!! I know for some people this really would be no problem at all but for a very modest lass from England of all countries, a naked communal shower with two pals and a bunch of people you’ll have to sing for later that evening is a downright all round palaver of the utmost kind. It’s just not my style ok!?
Once we’d got this embarrassing ordeal out the way, we finally made our way to the pool, and actually…I’m gonna say it was worth it. It kind of smelled a little sulphurous in the general atmosphere, (obviously this is a side affect of the fact that this is 100% au naturel) but to step into the milky blue water with steam rising off of it whilst it’s downright chilly all around is just. So. Cool.
At Myvatn there are several connected pools of slightly different temperatures, plus a sauna facility (which I didn’t actually use myself though some of the guys fully loved it), and an all round amazing open-air view of the volcanic landscape surrounding your swimming spot. What a majestic location.
Whales on the way out
Like I said pals, Akureyri is well-known for being a prime whale-spotting location, with a whole load of whale-watching boats sitting around waiting to spy them in the fjord. Once we made it back to the ship and headed up to the bow on deck 6 to check out the view as we sailed away, it became clear to everyone just how many whales there really are in this area. It was full on ASTONISHING, and the key was to keep your eyes peeled for the boats bobbing in one place on the waves as they were obviously waiting for a whale to break the surface. First would be the rounded back pushing slowly in a crescent through the water, then seconds after it disappeared, a gigantic tail would appear. They are just so full on majestic you guys!
Iceland is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited, with a landscape so bizarrely beautiful that I think it would really be difficult to visit and not be moved. Our day in Akureyri was the last stop for us in this altogether exquisite country, before we headed further North to Arctic Norway and Svalbard, and what a way to go out with a bang.