t certainly seems to be a trend. Shove some shiny signs next to a road, give it a hashtag-friendly name and voila — it’s not just a highway, it’s an Instagrammable experience. Ireland did it with the Wild Atlantic Way, and Scotland with the North Coast 500. Now it’s the turn of northern Iceland, which in June launched the Arctic Coast Way, some 900km of road that skirts fishing villages, mountains, meadows and geothermal pools just below the Arctic Circle.
In part this marketing drive aims to draw tourists away from Reykjavik and the south-west of the country, which sees the bulk of visitors. In recent years many locals think Iceland has done too good a job of promoting itself and they worry vocally about overtourism.
On my recent trip, Keflavik airport was a heaving mass of jetlagged bodies looking for floor space on which to flop. It made Luton and Stansted look like a traveller’s paradise. So I scarpered out of Reykjavik quickly and flew north for 30 minutes to Akureyri. (Air Iceland Connect’s inflight entertainment is to leave journals and pens in seat pockets for you to write up travel stories for subsequent flyers.)
Northern Iceland is a stunning breath of fresh air. In winter this area tends to be snowier than the capital, but in summer warmer (a relative term at this latitude) and sunnier. And of course, if you visit around June or July there’s the surreal prospect of 24-hour daylight. So towards midnight I found myself descending to craggy, snow-capped mountains and a Tolkienesque blanket of sheep-strewn fields, stunted forests, bright purple lupins and glacial rivers, all clearly illuminated. It’s a coin-toss if you go left or right from Akureyri, but on the recommendation of friends I headed slightly inland for my first night, to Lake Myvatn. En route are the spectacular Goðafoss waterfalls. It’s said this was the spot, in the year 1000, where the speaker of Iceland’s parliament tossed symbols of the old Norse gods into the churning water, and thus the island embraced Christianity.
Lake Myvatn is a birdwatcher’s nirvana, with species from North America and Europe enjoying an extended summer: you’ll see plenty of people hiking its volcanic shores with binoculars. One reason the birds come is to gorge on the zillions of midges; although they don’t bite, they’re annoying. The area is a seething mass of geothermal activity, where sulphurous steam belches from the ground in huge clouds and locals drink beer at midnight in the naturally heated Myvatn Nature Baths. You can take a day trip in a “Super Jeep” over lava fields to otherworldly Askja, where Apollo astronauts including Neil Armstrong trained.
Heading back to the coast, I use the small town of Husavik as a base to explore from. It has a laid-back charm, with a small harbour buzzing with fishing boats, and whale-watching vessels heading out in search of humpbacks, minkes and orcas. There’s a quirky Exploration Museum (explorationmuseum.com) and a new geothermal seawater pool (geosea.is), where you can bubble for hours overlooking snow-capped cliffs along Skjálfandi Bay.
It’s always tempting to do too much in a long weekend and I wanted to press east, where the sparse population be-comes even sparser. But I pootled back past the brand-new Arctic Coast Way signs, alone apart from an occasional camper van and fields of small Icelandic horses swishing their tails in the wind.
If luxury travel these days is escaping other humans, then losing a phone signal and being at one with your thoughts amid spectacular scenery, the Arctic Coast Way is luxurious indeed.
Details: Arctic Coast Way