The icy wind howls furiously beyond the amber glow of coffee shop Frida Chocolate, as if Odin’s wolves were trying to get in, the day prematurely dark here in Siglufjordur, in Iceland’s far north.
Tonight, the elements have teeth – and so they should, a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle. It’s day one of a three-day trip to explore the wild north. Increasingly popular with British tourists, as a result of Super Break’s direct links from 14 regional UK airports to Akureyri, Iceland’s northern hub, it has also been enchanting an international horde of diehard Game of Thrones fans wishing to follow the filmic footfalls of the white walkers and crows beyond the wall.
When the eponymous owner of Frida’s lost her banking job in 2015, she combined her passions for creating chocolate, sculpture and painting, setting up this delectable café-gallery. Upon the walls are paintings of long-fringed Icelandic horses. She kindly offers me a few chocolates to try, while explaining the art installation I’m gawping at – a chair that looks like it lost a brawl with a huge blob of bubblegum: “Icelanders say they’re ‘walking on a cloud’ when things are going well. This represents the crashing to earth of that pink cloud when the recession hit in 2008. We came back to reality…”
Frida regales me with another story; in 2010, to celebrate the opening of two new tunnels connecting Siglufjordur to the neighbouring town of Olafsfjordur, she knitted a scarf from one village to the other.
“How much scarf was that?” I inquire. “Seventeen kilometres [101/2 miles],” she says, smiling, “but it wasn’t just me. There were lots of us who knitted our own sections.”
It’s precisely this kind of can-do attitude, applied to something completely bonkers, that make Icelanders so appealingly quirky. Maybe it comes from being left to your own devices in the middle of the Atlantic, or from those self-reliant, adventurous genes inherited from their ancestors, the Norsemen – yet there’s something both fey and robust about Icelanders, all at the same time. Whatever it is, it has made Iceland the world’s most literate country, the most peaceful, the site of the world’s first parliament – and ahead of the rest of the planet when it comes to harnessing green energy.
Aside from all that, if you want good service, minimalistic Scandi-style and fine cuisine, your best bet is olive-coloured Siglo hotel. I head to Sunna, its upscale restaurant, for organic free-range lamb with cherry sauce, sweet potato purée and crackling. Dominating the tiny town, Siglo sits on the marina almost opposite what turns out to be the highlight of any visit to Siglufjordur, the Herring Museum. On a visit earlier that day, it is dimly lit within, and rearing up before me is a 20ft-long herring boat in a harbour festooned with 11 other craft, nets, buoys and the sound of seagulls piped from the raftered ceiling.
Rather than describe the golden age of fishing from the Fifties through to the end of the Sixties, the award-winning museum recreates it, with figureheads and navigation lanterns galore. There are vintage photographs of fishermen with wind-lashed faces, ankle-deep in the day’s catch, and of the “herring girls” with bright Nordic smiles and fetching plaits out on the four piers that ran from the hungry earth to the boats.
It was the girls’ job to behead and gut the mountains of fresh herring, for which each was paid by the 240lb barrel. Some shifts lasted 30 hours. By 1969, the “silver of the sea” (as Icelanders refer to herring) had been overfished and a once-busy hub that had supplied oil to make Brylcreem, Nivea and Lux became a ghost town, only revived in recent years by tourism and health cosmetics.
The next morning, with a carpet of freshly fallen snow blanketing silent Siglufjordur, I drive back to Akureyri through tunnelled mountains, along the coast and across the bottle-green interior, and wonder where everybody has gone. At 39,000sq miles, Iceland is a little smaller than Cuba and much of its 340,000-strong population is based in the south. No wonder you quickly feel that it’s just you, the rugged elements and those hardy, chocolate-coloured horses.
Hemmed in by snow-capped mountains falling into the deep fjord, Akureyri is arrestingly pretty, with antique wooden houses cheek-by-jowl with corrugated moderns; tempting restaurants, bookshops and an excellent art gallery and café situated in a former dairy. I moor at the Kea hotel, a stately option with wood-panelled, Gustavian-grey walls and a widescreen view of the fjord. There’s also a buzzing restaurant called Mulaberg, where I lunch on freshly caught Icelandic cod, before wandering down to the waterfront to experience a whale-watching trip.
Whale Watching Akureyri claims a 99 per cent success rate of sighting a minke or humpback, and we’ve puttered less than a nautical mile when our guide spots a blowhole spray across the gunmetal water. Nearby, another leviathan pops up for breath before submerging for another six-minute feed, its flukes perfectly silhouetted against the snowy mountains. We sight seven humpbacks and are motoring back to shore when an eighth colossus makes her presence known, so close that I can count the barnacles on her tail.
Iceland may be famous for its health-giving geothermal spas but the new beer spa in Arskogssandur, about half an hour’s drive north of Akureyri, is an altogether different prospect. On arrival that evening, I’m given a waffle white robe to change into, then led to a room with a wooden tub full of warm water, hops, yeast and beer. Beside it are a beer tap and a pint glass.
“Climb in, I’ll come and get you in 25 minutes,” says the lady. “And don’t shower!”
Apparently, the hops in the bath are full of antioxidants and alpha acids, which are great for the skin. It’s a surreal experience, the slippery film of hops on the tub’s bottom and a pint of local ale in your hand. Time up, unshowered and sticky with hops, I’m led to a dark room and tucked up in bed under a clean sheet to relax. They have to wake me up.
An hour and a half’s drive east from Akureyri will take you to Lake Myvatn and some of the most dramatic scenery this side of Valhalla. On the way I come across a beautiful semicylindrical cascade known as Godafoss (waterfall of the Gods); the hallowed spot where paganism fell to Christianity in the year 1000: idols of Nordic gods were symbolically hurled into the icy torrents by a heathen chieftain. Just looking at the cyan-navy water reminds me of those incandescent blue eyes of the white walkers in Game of Thrones.
Further on, the landscape becomes ever more unearthly and serenely desolate as Lake Myvatn shimmers into view under a crust of ice like a bed of coruscating diamonds, pierced here and there by sentinel klasar (lava stacks). It’s this volcanic region of craters, fumaroles and wetlands that Game of Thrones used to such effect conjuring the land beyond the wall.
Ragnar, my excellent guide, is the boss of Myvatn Activity. He meets me for lunch at the Cowshed Restaurant at Vogafjos Farm in the hamlet of Reykjahlid. A favourite with the Thrones cast and crew, the name is pretty literal: it’s so close to the cows that you can see them through a glass window in the cowshed itself.
After lunch, we head first to Hverfjall, a massive ring crater whose sheer scope takes my breath away, then on to Grjotagja, the “Jon Snow Cave”. Its exterior served as the entrance to the grotto where the latter found love with wildling Ygritte. Tempting though the sapphire-blue water is, it was too hot for the actors to bathe in so a replica interior was built in a studio.
Thousands of years ago, lava flowed across these wetlands, cooling into huge petrified tubes and creating surreal formations. These lava fields are known as Dimmuborgir, which translates as “dark castle” – and Christian lore suggests this is where Satan fell to earth. For Game of Thrones fans, this location also served as Mance Rayder’s wildling camp in the third series.
Whatever you believe, as the sun hurls biblical shafts across the afternoon sky on to giant stacks shaped like trolls playing freeze-frame, it’s decidedly eerie. We end our day with a dip at Myvatn Nature Baths, a geothermally heated man-made lagoon with mineral-rich waters that soften your aches. A few locals sporting bobble hats are having their evening bath as Mars stakes its claim in the firmament – and I ask the fateful question: “Do you think the aurora will be here tonight?”
Ragnar is philosophical. “You may see them and if you do it’s a bonus.”
Before we part and I head to lively Sel hotel for the night, he looks up at the now dark sky and a wafer of greenish light. “I think you might be lucky.”
Richard Waters flew to northern Iceland as a guest of Visit North Iceland (northiceland.is/en). Flights from London Heathrow to Keflavik International Airport with Icelandair (icelandair.com/en) start from £122 each way. From here you can catch a domestic flight with Air Iceland Connect (airicelandconnect.com) to reach Akureyri (single from £57) in the north. Super Break (superbreak.com) offers four-night, winter-only breaks for £699 per person, flying direct to Akureyri from 14 UK airports, until mid-March.
One night including breakfast at Siglufjordur’s Siglo Hotel (siglohotel.is) costs from £161. Kea hotel (keahotels.is) in Akureyri charges £85 for a standard room including breakfast, while Sel Hotel (myvatn.is) offer rooms from £105, including breakfast.
Whale Watching Akureyri (whalewatchingakureyri.is) costs £68 per person.
Myvatn Activity (icelandprivatetravel.com) offers a one-day Winter Wonderland Tour for £154 per person.