Compared with the neighbouring West Fjords, the scenery of Northwest Iceland is much gentler and less forbidding – undulating meadows dotted with isolated barns and farmhouses are the norm here, rather than twisting fjords, though there are still plenty of impressive mountains to provide a satisfying backdrop to the coastline. However, what makes this section of the country stand out is the site of two of Iceland’s great historical sites, most notably Þingeyrar, once the location for an ancient assembly and monastery where some of Iceland’s most outstanding pieces of medieval literature were compiled.
As the Ringroad heads northeast from Þingeyrar on its way to Akureyri, the best place to break the long journey is likeable Sauðárkrókur, enlivened by stunning sea views out over Skagafjörður and Drangey island, once home to saga hero Grettir, who bathed here in the nearby natural hot pool now named after him. Just half an hour’s drive away is the north’s second great historical site, Hólar í Hjaltadal, which functioned as the ecumenical and educational centre of the north of the country between the twelfth century and the Reformation. A further detour up Route 76, via the Vesturfarasetrið (Icelandic Emigration Centre) at Hofsós, brings you to the pretty fishing village of Siglufjörður.
Slicing deep into the coastline of this part of northern Iceland, Eyjafjörður is the country’s longest fjord and was for centuries Akureyri’s window on the world as ships sailed its length to deliver their goods to the largest market in northern Iceland. Today, though, fisheries have taken over as the town’s economic mainstay, profiting from the rich fishing grounds found offshore. With a population of fifteen thousand making it the largest town outside the Reykjavík area, not only does Akureyri boast a stunning setting at the head of Eyjafjörður, but it’s also blessed with some of the warmest and most stable weather anywhere in the country.
Though the sleepy villages of Dalvík, with ferry connections across to Hrísey, and Ólafsfjörður both make excellent day-trips once you’ve exhausted Akureyri, it’s more fun to head out to the beautiful island of Grímsey, where the cliffs and skies are alive with around sixty different species of screeching birds, many of which consider you an unwelcome intruder.