A whale of a time in North Iceland
With my nose pressed up to the car window, I see something magnificent unfurling in the darkness. Milky shafts of light stretch across the blackened sky, undulating and curling like silvery skeins of seaweed. Feverish with excitement, we pull over and barrel out. Eyes thrust upwards, we gaze in amazement, paying little heed to the sub-zero temperatures nipping at our cheeks, as a light show erupts, growing more elaborate by the second.
As I shiver, huge strobes of greenish light shimmer, then pull together to dance like smoke from a cauldron. Feathery plumes of greyish-green reach far across the horizon, their movement the magnetic beckoning of long, witchy fingers against a blanket of stars. It’s a good thing it’s pitch black round here, as I furtively wipe quiet tears of joy away from my eyes.
WHALES OF A TIME
North Iceland is a wonderfully ghoulish place: a land of tiny fishing towns, petrified trolls and craggy, lunar-esque landscapes. But given Icelanders have one of the longest life-expectancies on Earth, and constantly top the charts of the world’s happiest nations, it’s becoming a surprising wellness destination, too; somewhere to hop on a husky-sled, watch the northern lights and wallow in a bathtub of beer, all in a single afternoon.
The morning arrives with a road-trip and a wash of pink over the mountains of Akureyri – Iceland’s second-most populous town at the base of Eyjafjörður Fjord. We’re on our way to Hauganes, a tiny smattering of houses making up a salt-soaked fishing village that clings to the coast of the north-west fjords, to take a traditional wooden sailing boat in search of whales.
It’s cold (in 2013, temperatures plummeted to -31 °C), and the sleet stings our faces. But we’re rewarded when two humpbacks leap clear of the water in unison – their skin glinting in the morning sun – before disappearing into the depths. Minutes later, a huge sigh – like a dinosaur collapsing with exhaustion – announces the flukes and tails of the colossal beasts breaking the surface, diving back under with little more than a whisper.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
Elvar Reykjalin – owner of one of Iceland’s most successful cod-salting factories – looks alarmingly youthful, belying his six decades. This, he says, is down to a unique mixture of “Schnapps, cod liver oil and fermented shark.” Indeed, Reykjalin has titled himself President of the ‘Rotten Shark Club’ of north Iceland, and his eagerness for the meat is infectious. That’s how I find myself ingesting the most repellent morsel that has ever passed my lips.
Kept in a box for two months and suspended for six weeks to cure, to top things off, sharks have no kidneys, so it’s saturated in urine. I shut my eyes and hurl the cube of meat to the back of my throat, chewing ferociously to make the pungent taste of rotten, smoky cheese and ammonia disappear. I look up to see Elvar holding his hand ready for a high five. “Pass me the schnapps,” I groan, before downing enough to make my eyes stream.
Luckily, not all the food is so unpalatable, with some of the most delicious fresh produce you can get your hands on: farm-fresh beef, tender smoked salmon, salted cod and crisp Icelandic potatoes. The beer is so good, you can even bathe in it – which is exactly what I do at the Beer Spa at Árskógssandur. Private wooden tubs are filled with gallons of young beer, yeast, hops, oil and salt, then warmed with hot water before you soak naked in B vitamins and magnesium. I was sceptical, but my skin was curiously smooth afterwards and I felt quite relaxed. The fact you can drink the beer as you bathe may have had something to do with it.
A LAND OF FIRE AND ICE
The best way to appreciate north Iceland is to get out into the open air. From our bases at Sigló (a tranquil hotel, filled with neutral palettes and pretty harbour views) and, after, the Fosshotel at Lake Mývatn (punctuated with copper accents and pine detailing), we fix crampons around our hiking boots and venture out into the snowy landscape.
Ice crunches underfoot as we strike out across ancient lava fields washed away by catastrophic floods. We perch on clifftops to peer at roaring waterfalls, and pick our way round glittering icicles framing geothermal lakes and staggering mountain ranges, said to be inhabited by ghosts and trolls.
As the sun goes down, we pull on romper suits and take to snowmobiles. As immense mountains and shield volcanoes rise in the distance, the landscape is eerily calm, even as the roars from our engines ring out into the distance. As the lucid moon shines bright in the pastel pink sky, a warmth blossoms in my belly and a huge grin spreads across my face. Yeah, I’d be happy if I lived here, too…
E-FISHENT DAY TRIPS
This cod salting factory is full of fascinating stories
and like Elvar (above) and myself, you can even indulge in the infamous joy of fermented shark. If you dare… ektafiskur.is
PRINCE OF WHALES
The fjords around Akureyri are brimming with humpbacks, orcas, blue and sei whales. On Whale Watching Hauganes’ carbon-neutral wooden ship, you can even fish for cod, too whales.is
HAVE A SKINFUL
Good for skin, nails, hair and (naturally) booze lovers, a dip in the hops-filled bathtubs at Árskógssandur’s unique beer spa will leave you smooth and smug bjorbodin.is
The Mývatn Naturebaths’ geothermal lagoon might not be as famous as its Reykjavik counterparts, but it’s just as beautiful… and half as busy! myvatnnaturebaths.is
Superbreak offers a four-night trip to North Iceland from £749 per person. Prices include return flights and some activities. Accommodation across north Iceland includes Hotel Nordurland by Kea Hotels, Fosshotel Mývatn and Sigló Hotel. For more information, visit Superbreak.com