Despite being cast away in the North Atlantic Ocean, shrouded in volcanic activity, Iceland has an increasingly magnetic allure. Tourism is booming, with annual visitor numbers tripling in the past decade; they now top 1.7 million, more than five times Iceland’s population. Most travellers stick to a tried-and-trusted circuit: they potter around Reykjavik, the quirky and creative Icelandic capital, soak in the milky, mineral-rich geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon spa, and road trip around the Golden Circle – a jaw-dropping route fringed with bubbling mud pots, spewing geysers and rainbow-tinged waterfalls. Relatively few tourists, however, venture onto the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
This surreal, spindly finger of land is a two-hour drive north-west of Reykjavik, but feels blissfully rugged and remote, its mostly empty roads threading past eerie, crinkly lava fields, giant basalt columns and pastoral fields dotted with cuddly sheep and beautiful Icelandic horses. Every now and then, we glimpse a colourful farmhouse or a hamlet, a volcano or a glacier. “We call this ‘Iceland in Miniature’,” says our driver, Kristjan Gudmundsson, an amiable, bearded, barrel-chested character who dates his ancestry back to Ingolfur Arnarson, the first Viking to settle on Iceland in 874.
Snaefellsnes, explains Kristjan, boasts its moniker because it contains many of the flavours and sights that typify a country shaped by a hardy Nordic spirit and Mother Nature’s mercurial ways. Iceland nestles on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates drift apart, sparking sporadic, and occasionally earth-shattering, volcanic events; the 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, for instance, spawned a giant ash cloud that shut down European airspace.
Despite a faint whiff of sulphur in the air – it’s a smell you get used to when exploring Iceland – all seems peaceful today, as we hop in a boat in the quaint little harbour of Grundarfjordur, a sleepy fishing village on Snaefellsnes’ north coast. Zipping into the bay’s serene, deep-blue waters, we gawp back at Grundarfjordur’s dramatic setting.
Jutting by the shore is Kirkjufell, a cone-shaped mountain that graces so many of Iceland’s tourist brochures. Lurking in the backdrop is Snaefellsjokull, a sprawling ice cap that acted as the doorway of Jules Verne’s sci-fi novel A Journey to the Center of Earth, and is regarded as one of the planet’s great ‘energy centres’ by New Age travellers. We’re jolted out of collective daydream by a cacophony of squawking and squabbling as we near Melrakkaey, a tiny offshore island that’s a sanctuary for seabirds, such as kittiwakes, cormorants, Arctic terns and, of most interest to us, puffins. Seeing these adorable ‘clowns of the sea’, perched on the craggy rocks, elicits coos and ‘aahs’ from my co-passengers (along with a few curses about the lack of zoom on their smartphone cameras).
Leaving Melrakkaey behind, we’re handed fishing rods by the crew, and told it’s time we caught our dinner. Over the next half-hour, as flocks of terns circle noisily above, angling for a feed, our 20-strong group reels in a few dozen cod – plus a catfish that puts up a mighty fight.
Our haul is gutted and cleaned by the crew and later we enjoy a delicious grilled fishy feast at Hotel Framnes, a former fishermen’s hostel converted into a snug waterfront hotel and restaurant, with a sauna and outdoor hot tub. In this part of the country, accommodation is generally more traditional and rustic than swanky and stylish, but you’ll find that it’s warm and cosy, and the food, by and large, is excellent, with tasty servings of say, North Atlantic salmon, Arctic char and tender Icelandic lamb, followed by desserts such as skyr (a creamy yoghurt-like dairy treat), par for the course.
Dining in Iceland may come as a pleasant surprise considering the country’s world-famous reputation for odd delicacies like rams’ testicles, singed sheep heads and hakarl (fermented shark meat). We sample hakarl, with rye bread and brennivin – a distilled schnapps that Icelanders call ‘Black Death’ – at the pungent Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum and Farm, the Snaefellsnes’ biggest hakarl producer.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain panned hakarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten, and I’d probably concur, though it is fascinating to learn about hakarl’s heritage, and the near six-month fermentation process that makes the toxic Greenland shark meat safe to eat (it’s buried under sand, frozen and thawed, then aired).
Bjarnarhofn’s owner, Gudjon Hildibrandsson, whose family has been in the hakarl business for about 400 years, tells us food was historically scarce during the long Icelandic winters, so preserving and eating shark was a matter of survival for their forebears. Hakarl’s popularity endures, with Kristjan, our driver, likening this ammonia-tinged delicacy to ‘candy’, and some peckish fellow tourists (Americans) displaying an acquired taste for it.
For me, a nicer quintessential Icelandic experience is riding a native horse. You can saddle up across the country, but I do it along the grassy banks of Eyjafjordur, the longest of Iceland’s myriad, mountain-flanked fjords on the outskirts of Akureyri, a pleasant port city and the unofficial ‘capital’ of Iceland’s north.
Riding in Longufjorur
Like all Icelandic equines – some of the world’s oldest and purest bred – my charge, Hera, is a descendant of the horses brought here from Norway by the first Vikings. As I inhale the fresh, sulphur-less air, we clip-clop, trot and canter beside the fjord, occasionally breaking into a ‘tolt’. My instructor, Klara Olafursdottir, reveals that the Icelandic horse evolved this extra, four-beat gait to cope with the island’s rough, lava-strewn terrain. It is now so naturally ingrained that even foals perform it. Not for the first time on my Icelandic travels, I’m left marvelling at this unique, magical island.