The 230km stretch of the Ringroad between Brú (a filling station at the junction of Routes 1 and 61) and Akureyri is one of its least interesting, and many travellers speed through it as quickly as possible. But while the Ringroad itself holds few attractions, it is worth detouring off it: highlights include the Vatnsnes peninsula, north of the workaday vilage of Hvammstangi, where there’s a good chance of seeing seals; the north’s great historical sites of Þingeyrar and Hólar í Hjaltadal; and two fine examples of small-town Iceland, Sauðárkrókur and Siglufjörður.
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The Vatnsnes peninsula
The Vatnsnes peninsula
From Hvammstangi, you’ll need your own transport to follow Route 711 as it heads northeast around the Vatnsnes peninsula, a wild and uninhabited finger of land on the eastern side of Húnaflói known for its superb views out over the bay towards the needle-sharp peaks of the Strandir coast in the West Fjords. While ascending tiers of craggy, inaccessible hills form the spine of the peninsula, the land closer to the shore is surprisingly green and is given over to grazing land for horses; you’ll also spot flocks of greylag geese, and seals on the beach at Ósar. Around 20km from Hvammstangi, the café at the tiny settlement of Geitafell offers a welcome opportunity to break your journey.
On the promontory’s more sheltered eastern coast, 29km north of the Ringroad along Route 711 and 18km east of Geitafell, there’s a seal-breeding ground at the the farm settlement of Ósar, where adult seals and their young can be spotted lolling idly on the black volcanic sands during June and July – a rare opportunity to see these appealing creatures at close quarters. A short path leads down to the sands from the friendly youth hostel. Ósar is also the location of the 15m-high Hvítserkur rock formation, a striking landmark just offshore. Sculpted by the tremendous force of the sea, this craggy rock looks like a forbidding sea monster rearing up from the waves.
Just 6km north of the Ringroad along Route 721, the ancient site of Þingeyrar is worth a stopoff on your journey to Akureyri. If you don’t have your own transport, you’ll find that it’s a straightforward walk from the Ringroad. This was originally the site of a legislative assembly during the Icelandic Commonwealth, and the first Bishop of Hólar, Jón Ögmundarson, pledged to build a church and an associated farm here if God were to relieve a severe local famine. When the land began to regain its productivity, the bishop took things one step further and established Iceland’s first monastery, Þingeyraklaustur, here in 1133, which remained in existence until the Reformation in 1550. The monks went on to copy and transcribe some of the country’s most outstanding pieces of medieval literature, and it was on this spot that many of the sagas were first written down for posterity.
There’s nothing left of the monastery, but a superb nineteenth-century church, Þingeyrakirkja, now stands adjacent to where the monks once lived and worked. Constructed of large blocks of basalt, brought here on sledges dragged across the nearby frozen lagoon of Hóp, the church was the first building on the site to be made of stone – all previous structures had been of turf – and it brought much admiration from local worthies. Although its grey mass is indeed an impressive sight, clearly visible from miles around, it’s the interior that really makes a trip here worthwhile, with stark white walls setting off the blue ceiling, painted with a thousand golden stars, and the simple green pews. The wooden pulpit dates from 1696 and is thought to come from Denmark or Holland, whereas the altarpiece, inset with religious figures made of alabaster, dates from the fifteenth century and was originally made in the English town of Nottingham for the monastery there. The wooden figures of Christ and the twelve apostles lining the balcony were carved in 1983 to replace the original statues from Germany, which are now in the National Museum in Reykjavík.
The Skagi peninsula
The Skagi peninsula
Barely a kilometre outside Blönduós, where the Ringroad swings sharply inland to follow the course of Langidalur valley towards Varmahlíð, Route 74 strikes off north for 23km towards the Skagi Peninsula, a lonely, uninhabited landscape of desolate rocky moors and tussocky grassland studded with tarns. Beyond the peninsula’s one and only town, Skagaströnd, the unsurfaced Route 745 begins its tour of the peninsula proper.
SKAGASTRÖND is a rather ugly place dominated by a hulking fish factory down by the harbour and the brooding heights of the Spákonufellsborg (646m) mountain, which bears down on the settlement from across the main road. Although trading began here centuries ago, there’s precious little to show for it, since most buildings date from a tasteless expansion during the 1940s herring boom. Unless you’re looking for fuel at the filling station at the entrance to the village, there’s no real reason to tarry, and it’s a much better idea to press on to the unspoilt peninsula beyond.
From Skagaströnd, Route 745 follows the eastern shoreline of Húnaflói bay as it heads north around the peninsula. Roughly 15km north of Skagaströnd, the 10km-long cliffs at Króksbjarg and the glittering waterfall where the Fossá river tumbles down the cliff-face into the sea are an essential first stop. Beyond Króksbjarg, the road passes several deserted farms before reaching the sweeping bay of Kaldranavík, at the tip of the peninsula, which offers some truly magnificent ocean vistas. Having weaved past the remote farm of Hraun, at Hraunsvík on the northeastern extremity of the peninsula, the road finally veers south following the coastline of Skagafjörður fjord for the rugged sheer sea cliff (signed from the road) Ketubjörg, actually the remains of an old volcano, and the accompanying rock pillar, Kerling, just off the shore to the northeast. From here it’s an uneventful and easy drive on towards Sauðárkrókur.