Drive the Arctic Coast Way and Escape the Beaten Path.
For most people, Iceland means driving the Ring Road, but there are alternatives. One of them is the brand new Arctic Coast Way, launched on June 8, 2019. It's the first official touring route in Iceland (no, the Golden Circle isn't official even if it seems that way).
What Is the Arctic Coast Way?
The Arctic Coast Way runs from Hvammstangi to Bakkafjörđur, running through 21 small fishing villages. It's far enough north to get very close to the Arctic Circle, meaning you get true midnight sun in the summer and the Northern Lights in winter. The route covers about 900 km of roads.
The Way is split into three sections. From west to east:
The Coasts of Sagas and Mythology. This section offers high mountains, excellent wildlife habitat, spectacular views in the land of sagas and myths.
The Coast of Fishing Towns and Heritage. The center of the Way is a string of harbors and ports linked by cliff roads, mountain tunnels, ferries, and bridges.
The Coast of Elemental Nature. Millions of birds in the summer, utter silence in winter. The perfect place to contemplate nature and history.
How to Get There
You can fly to Akureyri or Husavik, or if you have more time you can drive up the ring road. (Road number 1) through the west of Iceland. The latter will take you through some spectacular country and historic sites such as the home of Snorri Sturluson and the Icelandic Settlement Centre at Borgarnes.
Scheduled flights are to both northern airports. There is also a bus, but having your own vehicle will allow you to properly explore the north of Iceland.
Husavik harbor in the morning.
Things to Know
There are a few things you should consider for your Arctic Coast Way trip:
Parts of the route are two lane gravel roads. It's worth paying the extra to rent a 4 x 4 vehicle. If not, drive carefully so as not to damage your car.
Pay attention to weather and driving conditions and be willing to adjust your schedule for the day accordingly
Install the 112 Iceland app on your phone. Cell phone service in Iceland is remarkably good even in remote areas, but the app uses text messaging, which can get through when a voice call won't. 112 is also an emergency number.
Drive carefully and don't let yourself get distracted.
Weather in the north of Iceland is variable. In winter, it is cold and snowy. In summer, it may rain or be windy, but there are often pleasant days. Akureyri is remarkably mild for its latitude, with temperatures above freezing even on some days in January. There is less rain in the north than the south, which can be advantage for hiking. Wear layers and bring rain gear. In winter, bring warm clothing and good boots.
Things to See and Do
There is an amazing variety of activities along the Arctic Coast Way. Here are just a few things you can consider:
Some of the best seal watching in Iceland is on Vatnsnes Peninsula at the west end of the Icelandic way. Illaugastađir beach is a fantastic location. This is also a good place to watch seabirds. You can also see seals at Öxarfjörđur Bay, or take a seal watching cruise from Husavik or one of the fishing villages along the coast. Sea kayaking, in the summer, can be another great way to see seals.
There are many, many places to watch seabirds along the route. Take your binoculars! Spend time at Rauđinúpur near the village of Raufarhöfn. The sky is always in motion in the far north, and some of the islands have nesting grounds for skuas, puffins, and other sea birds. In many cases, you can watch birds and other wildlife without going far from your car, although it's worth taking a walk along the various beaches to see what you can see.
Skagafjörđur is a major center of horse breeding, and the Center for the History of the Icelandic Horse is in Hólar. Horseback riding tours are available throughout the area, and you can find tours for experienced riders and people who have never sat a horse alike. The stocky, smooth-gaited little horses are one of the best ways to see Iceland the way the settlers did.
Húsavík is the "Whale Watching Capital of the World". A whale watching cruise is an absolute must do, and while you are there visit the Whale Museum and the Húsavík Natural and Maritime Museum. You have a chance of seeing humpback whale, minke whale, and if really lucky the giant blue whale (minkes are the most common), as well as white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises. Short on time? It doesn't get dark – you can combine whale watching with observing the midnight sun. This is also a great opportunity to see thousands of puffins during breeding season (generally May through August), as well as other seabirds. (In fact, seabirds and whales often hang out together, and captains will follow seabirds when looking for a good sighting).
Whale watching in Húsavík, Iceland
The north coast of Iceland is perilous for sailors and fishermen, so it's unsurprising that there are a number of interesting lighthouses. One, Hraunhafnartangi, is the most northern part of the mainland. Some lighthouses are only accessible in the summer and may require a hike or a boat trip. They are interesting for their varied style and architecture, and also make great picnic places when the weather is pleasant. You could almost do the trip just as a tour of lighthouses.
If you are fit, there are many opportunities for a hike along the route. You can hike about 7km up Mt. Spákonufell, or follow one of the numerous trails in the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, where there are beautiful canyons and rock formations. There are many opportunities to hike along the coast and beaches. Some hikes are summer only, others are passable when there is snow on the ground, and lengths vary from an easy 2km to a solid day hike.
The Midnight Sun
During the summer, the sun never quite sets. At least once, abandon your hotel room to head to a nearby viewpoint to watch as the sun bounces off the horizon. Beaches are a great place for this. At Raufarhöfn there is the Arctic Henge, built to capture the sun's light in aligned gateways and well worth a visit. (In winter, the same locations can be great for observing the northern lights). The midnight sun also has a huge advantage; you can stay out later and the endless daylight tends to give one energy. You can hike (with or without a guide), take a late-night boat tour or just relax and enjoy the unique experience. The final advantage of the midnight sun is it gives the effect of sunset or sunrise for hours, which can be a great opportunity for some very interesting photography.
The route is dotted with small and fascinating museums. In addition to those already mentioned, visit the Icelandic Herring Era Museum, the Museum of Prophecies (which focuses on an ancient fortune-teller named Ţórdís, and the Icelandic Emigration Center. Find out more about Iceland's fascinating past, and spend some time indoors if the weather is less clement. There are also a number of museums and art galleries in Akureyri including an aviation museum, a motorcycle museum, a folk art gallery and three writer's houses. Akureyri is also a cultural center with a library and excellent restaurants.
The north of Iceland might not be habitable without the hot springs. Stop at the geothermal swimming pool at Selárdalslaug or the Mývatn Nature Baths near Akureyri for some relaxation in warm water...particularly if you are traveling at a colder time of year. Relaxing in a hot spring is a key part of the Icelandic experience and should not be missed. Take a bathing suit, possibly more than one.
Learn More About the Arctic Coast Way
There's enough to see and do that the recommended seven to nine days might not be enough. Maybe you will want to come back again, at a different time of year for a different experience. The hardest part of your trip is likely to be planning all the different things you want to do. Horseback riding? Whale watching? A guided hike in the National Park? The suggestions above are just a start for your Iceland experience.
Our self-drive tour of the Arctic Coast Way takes 9 days from Reykjavik to Reykjavik and forms a loop that will take you up past Lake Mývatn (a major breeding center for ducks) on the way back. The trip includes your choice of rental car (we recommend 4WD, but the roads are accessible to normal cars with care), accommodation and breakfast, GPS, etc. If you have been to Iceland before and want to do something other than the Ring Road and Reykjavik, this tour is a great option. If you have not, then the charms of the north coast may well bring you back again and again. To find out more about our self-driving tours in Iceland, including the Arctic Coast Way, contact Tour.is.