AKUREYRI sits on the Ringroad pretty much halfway along the country’s northern coastline, 385km from Reykjavík; 285km from Egilsstaðir and a whopping 555km from Ísafjörður. The largest town in the country outside of Reykjavík, it has a population of around eighteen thousand and is a transport hub and commercial centre for the whole of northern Iceland. If you’re doing much touring, you’re almost certain to find yourself in Akureyri sooner or later, as the town makes an excellent base from which to explore nearby Lake Mývatn, Húsavík and the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park (all covered in Chapter 6); Akureyri can also be useful as a departure point for tours into the Interior. The town is divided into two distinct areas: the centre, harbour and commercial district north of Kaupvangsstræti, and the suburban areas to its south, where the distinctive Akureyrarkirkja church, museums and the superb botanical garden can all be found. As far as entertainment goes, Akureyri is a decent enough place to relax in for a day or two, with an excellent open-air swimming pool and enough cafés and restaurants to keep you well fed and watered. That most un-Icelandic thing, the forest, makes a welcome appearance just south of Akureyri in the form of Kjarnaskógur, easily accessible on foot from the town centre and a popular destination for locals at weekends who come here to walk the many trails that crisscross the forest and to picnic.
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According to Landnámabók, the first Viking ships sailed into Eyjafjörður fjord, its mouth barely 40km south of the Arctic Circle, around 890, fifteen years after the Settlement began. The first intrepid pioneers to set foot in the hitherto uninhabited north, Helgi Magri (Helgi the Lean) and Þórunn Hyrna, made landfall at Kristnes, 9km south of where Akureyri presently stands, believing that Þór had guided them into Eyjafjörður. Their faith seems, however, to have been in a state of confusion since they curiously chose to bestow an unqualified Christian name (Christ’s Point) on their new home. Although little more is known about this early period of Akureyri’s history, it is thought that Helgi suffered from a nutritional disease he developed as a child in the Hebrides, where he lived with his Irish mother and Swedish father before coming to Iceland.
Several centuries passed with little mention of “the cornfield on the sand spit”, as Akureyri’s name translates in English, until 1602, when the town became a trading post, with the establishment of the commercial monopoly which gave Danish merchants the exclusive right to trade with Iceland. Curiously, though, the traders were not permitted to take up permanent residence in the town, forced instead to leave for Denmark after closing their stores in the autumn. It wasn’t until 1787 that this punitive monopoly was lifted and Akureyri became one of six towns in Iceland to be granted municipal status, despite the fact that its population then numbered little more than a dozen and most trade remained firmly in the hands of Danish merchants and their families. However, it was to the sea and its sheltered harbour, today located right in the heart of the town between Drottningarbraut and Strandgata, that Akureyri looked for renewed prosperity. Indeed, from then on the town prospered, and in the late nineteenth century one of Iceland’s first cooperatives, KEA, was established here, going on to play a key role in the economy. Iceland’s only university outside Reykjavík was established here in 1987, giving the town a much needed youthful boost.
Spend any time in and around Akureyri and you can’t fail to notice the ubiquitous KEA logo, plastered on hotels, fishing boats and even Kaffibrensla Akureyrar, the town’s coffee-roasting plant. It’s said locally that KEA, the Kaupfélag Eyfirðinga Akureyri (Cooperative Society of Eyjafjörður and Akureyri) and no relation to Sweden’s IKEA, owns everything except the church – and while that’s not strictly true, KEA does have fingers in many pies. Established in June 1886 by local farmers keen to win a better price for the live export of their sheep to England, the society opened its first co-op store ten years later and never looked back. Still with headquarters on the main street in Akureyri, and still operating despite the economic downturn, KEA now owns shares in virtually any local business you choose to mention, concentrating on the food and merchandise sectors.
At the southern end of Eyrarlandsvegur, the glorious Lystigarður (Botanical Garden) was established in 1912 by Margrethe Schiöth, a Danish woman who lived in Akureyri, and offers a rich display of plant life enclosed by that Icelandic rarity, fully grown trees. Besides virtually every Icelandic species, there’s an astonishing number of subtropical plants from South America and Africa – seemingly defying nature by existing at all in these high latitudes, the annual mean temperature for Akureyri being barely 3.4°C. In summer, when the fragrance of hundreds of flowers hangs in the air, the gardens, with undisturbed views out over the fjord, are a real haven of peace and tranquillity.