From whale watching and puffin spotting to the Northern Lights, Iceland is an outdoor traveller’s paradise. See the best of this wild island on Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way, says Rosie Gizauskas
Sparsely populated Iceland enjoyed a moment in the sun during the Covid-19 pandemic, when it became one of the only countries to be consistently included on the UK government’s green list. The traffic light system is no more, but Iceland hasn’t gone down in popularity; Lonely Planet recently named Iceland’s remote Westfjords as the top region in the world to visit in 2022.
From whale watching and puffin spotting to experiencing the Northern Lights and black sand beaches, Iceland has it all. And if you’re keeping up the social distancing, there’s a new way to take a road trip around its best-hidden and most breathtaking spots.
Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way – the country’s first official touring route – opened in June 2019. It goes 560 miles along the beautiful northern coast of the country and is as close as Iceland gets to the Arctic Circle. Along the wild, rugged coastline are 21 villages to visit, interspersed with unique rock formations, six islands to explore and even the Arctic’s answer to Stone Henge.
“There’s a lot to see and do,” says Katrín Harðardóttir from Visit North Iceland. “The challenge is working out exactly what you want to do in a limited amount of time, as there is so much to pack in.”
With that in mind, we’ve put together a handy guide of the best highlights to visit along the way, starting west, and travelling east. Winter trips will be more limited due to the weather, so it’s recommended you plan ahead, to visit in the summer between May and August. Make sure to pack your hiking boots…
The Hvítserkur rock formation
Starting in the west, the first stop on Iceland’s Artic Coast Way is the sea cliff at Hvítserkur. Almost 50 feet high and set out in the sea, the rock – an eroded volcanic dyke – is located just off the coast of Vatnsnes, and in the summer is home to flocks of fulmar birds.
Iceland is known for its folklore, and this rock is no exception. The story goes that this rock was once a troll that was trying to destroy the Þingeyrar Church nearby. But before the mythical troll made it to the shore, the sun rose, and turned it into stone. Whatever you believe about fairy tales, this one looks excellent on the ’gram.
The fishing village of Skagaströnd is 52 miles away, and the next stop on Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way road trip. Inhabited by 520 people, it’s small but perfectly formed, around a small harbour with brightly coloured fishing boats and set in the foothills of the spectacular Spákonufell Mountain. If you’re keen to get walking, there are many staked-out trails that you can take, with the top of the mountain offering impressive views out over the Skagi peninsula and the sea (which local people tackle on skis during winter).
For some downtime in the village, make sure to check out the Nes Artist Residency, where you can watch local artists creating art, much of it focused on the beautiful surrounding landscapes.
A 14-mile drive further down the Skagi peninsula is Kálfshamarsvík, a small cove that hides a big secret. When you get down to the shore, you’ll come across a collection of extraordinary basalt columns. One of nature’s wonders, the columns, some of which are hexagonal in shape, were formed by lava flowing from volcanoes two million years ago.
“The columns are a must-see,” says Katrin. “And when you’re done exploring the coastline, head up to the top of the cliffs. Here you’ll find what’s now a ghost town. In 1900 this area was once a busy fishing village, but now it’s just ruins, after it was abandoned in the 1940s during the economic depression. The houses are marked out by plaques.”
To reach the island of Hrísey (which is 131 miles away and the next spot on Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way) head to the village of Árskógssandur, where you can hop on a ferry that takes you there in 15 minutes. Known as the ‘pearl of nature’, the island is renowned for its birdlife and is home to 40 different species. It’s a haven for birds because there are no natural predators on the island.
Give your legs a rest by doing some sightseeing on a tractor. It’ll take you down to the shore, where you might glimpse a whale, and also to visit the small fishing village on the island.
You can also check out House of Shark-Jörundur, the oldest building on the island, which was built in 1884 from the wrecks of Norwegian ships. Inside is a museum telling the story of shark hunting in the area.
Head next to Húsavík, 79 miles to the east. On the shore of Shaky Bay, this town is the oldest settlement in Iceland, having been established in 870CE. It’s formed of a pretty harbour of brightly coloured buildings, and is known as the Whale Capital of Iceland, because there are 23 different species of whales to spot here. You can take a two-and-a-half-hour whale-watching tour with Gentle Giants (from £111 per adult) and it’s not just whales you’ll see here – there’s a large colony of puffins, too.
Also recommended is the town’s Whale Museum. “Inside, you’ll find skeletons of the huge mammals,” says Katrin. “You’ll really get a scale of how gigantic they are.” And if you need to warm up at the end, the town also houses the GeoSea geothermal baths, where you can bathe outdoor in soothing hot salt water from the mountains, which comes in at 38-39 degrees, whilst looking out to sea (from £27 per adult).
The Arctic Henge
The next stop on the journey is the Arctic Henge, 81 miles along the road – another spectacularly photogenic rock formation. A homage to ancient monuments such as Stone Henge, it’s a nod to ancient pagan beliefs. Having been started in 1996, it’s still being built, and was inspired by an old Norse poem called Völuspá, about 72 dwarves. When it’s finished, it will consist of 72 different basalt blocks, and if you catch it when the sun’s going down, you’ll feel like you’re being transported back in time.
A trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without an attempt to glimpse the Northern Lights. Luckily, the north of the country, closest to the Arctic Circle, has the best chance of seeing natural phenomenon.
Head to the village of Bakkafjörður for the last stop on your tour, which is the furthest village that you can get to from Reykjavík and the start – or end – of Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way. Whether or not you see the lights, make sure to check out Digranes Lighthouse the next morning. It’s a five-mile walk from the village along the shoreline. With just 72 people inhabiting the village, this really is as remote as it gets.
Covid-19 entry requirements
Iceland is one of the top tourist destinations for fully vaccinated travellers as its cases have remained low. To travel there and road trip along Iceland’s Artic Coast Way, you must be able to prove you are fully vaccinated or have previously recovered from Covid-19. Passengers need to present a negative PCR or antigen (rapid) test that is no more than 72 hours old before departing to Iceland and prove that they’ve been vaccinated using the NHS Covid Pass.