Ammonia on the nose. Rubbery comte texture. Funny fishy taste. It seems odd that eating neat little cubes of fermented Greenland shark should be a highlight of my trip to north Iceland. Perhaps it was the fact that in doing so I can now claim to be a proud member of The Rotten Shark Club of Hauganes.
Or maybe it was down to Elvar Reykjalin, its president and my tour guide of the small factory where the stuff is made. His madcap ebullience brought the experience to life, taking me on a deep-dive into Iceland’s fishy history. One fact stood out: these sharks – eaten in very small quantities – are toxic.
“Oh good,” I thought, forcing down the second lump. “But don’t worry, the fermentation makes it edible,” he said with comic timing. The accompanying local-berry schnapps proved a welcome digestif.
With spirits high, I walked to a black sand beach at the edge of the village. My midwinter dip was a life-affirming baptism of ice.
Seconds later, body now shutting down, I ran back out and jumped into one of the beach’s free-to-access geothermal hot tubs.
Looking out over the moody waters of the freezing fjord from the comfort of lava-warmed water is when it really hit home: “Yep, definitely in Iceland.” It became apparent, too, that The Land of Fire and Ice loves a good contrast. Its people are another: in one sense of a gentle disposition, but then viking hard too – particularly the fisherman.
But perhaps the most noticeable polarity on this trip was the difference in visitor numbers between the north and south of Iceland. Ever since the dual force of Games of Thrones (”north of the Wall” was filmed here) and that bothersome ash cloud put Iceland on the tourist map in 2010, the world and her husband have been keen to come.
But folks haven’t travelled much beyond the Golden Circle, a coach-laden visitor vortex of attention-grabbing geysers and the Instagram-conquering Blue Lagoon. By comparison, the north has always felt off-grid; a place for seasoned DIYers.
That is soon to change, though. In 2020, a collection of the north’s finest spots – and they are fine – were given their own shiny sobriquet: the Diamond Circle. This summer is its Goldilocks moment: now simpler to organise and navigate, but not yet known enough that you’ll be cheek to jowl with herds of package holiday hons. Travel restrictions are clear: show your vaccination certificate and they’ll let you in.
The Diamond Circle is a 250km driving loop that begins near Iceland’s bijou second city, Akureyri. Drive from capital Reykjavik and it’ll take you four-and-a-bit hours. Or, permitting it’s not screaming outside, you can fly in under an hour. I did the latter on an evening flight, which gave me just enough time to enjoy an indulgent dip at Bjorbodin, Iceland’s only beer spa.
It was kit off, robes on and onward to my own wooden tub full of antioxidant-rich hops, yeast and beer. A tapped keg of delicious suds was within arm’s length. This outre alternative to Iceland’s regular geothermal options is said to be great for your skin and hair. Liver, not so much.
Outside, there are (non-beer-filled) tubs from which you might (season depending) see the Northern Lights. It’s little known that the northern coastline enjoys the lowest cloud cover in the country and therefore the greatest chance of an aurora sighting.
It was only the next day, as the road trip began, that I could appreciate the area’s cosmic wilderness. You could spend days trying to describe the high drama of this widescreen landscape: fire and ice together have taken turns to construct or carve out reality-bending mountains and other titanic topography.
Things step up another notch when you see Dettifoss, “Europe’s most powerful waterfall”. My knowledgeable, fun and friendly guide Halldor Ingvason – and owner of Amazing North – knew a spot where we could get right up to the river’s edge. The water had the menacing, mesmeric look of roiling obsidian (or “dragon glass”, right?), but I plunged my bottle in to drink the glacier melt anyway.
Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area is a big stop off on the loop. Odd lunar-like craters surround the lake, which offers blue relief to a vast and foreboding lava field created some 2,000 years ago. One of the best spots to take it all in is at Myvatn Nature Baths. Infinitely more laid back than the scrum at the Blue Lagoon, there were around 10 people there when I went.
The view is at some distance from any earthly comparison. You’re left asking yourself whether this is the nearest you’ll ever get to being on another planet – or, indeed, to fully connecting with our own. Nasa sent Neil Armstrong and the moon-landing gang there for geology field training in the sixties; they’ve been back since to prepare for landing on a certain red planet.
Game of Thrones fans will then love visiting the cave where John Snow lost his V plates to Ygritte, and nearby Dimmuborgir – “the Black Fortress” – a lava labyrinth of rocky columns, caves and arches, all steeped in shadowy Icelandic folklore.
If you’re still not getting “hang-on-am-I-actually-on-Mars?” vibes, then wait till Halldor drives you down to Hverir. Infernal fields of gurgling mud pools, thunderbolt fissures and smelly sulfurous steam all have a perversely seductive appeal. It’s a place where one can ruminate on questions too big for quotidian life. “How did life begin?” In these seething planetary pores, probably.
Back on earth there’s husky petting and humpback whale watching to enjoy. I didn’t make it out for the latter, but the insider’s tip this summer is to head out with Elding Whale Watching in Akureyri. The fjord, Eyjafjordur, is said to be producing more sightings than erstwhile hotspot Husavík. It’s a three hour ride (at approximately £70pp) and you’re invited to take your own drinks and snacks. Rotten shark, anyone?
Icelandair flies from London, Manchester and Glasgow to Reykjavik from £159 return.
Amazing North offers private one-day Diamond Circle tours for £980 or £150pp (up to 18 people) as part of a group trip. amazingnorth.is
Travel North offers a three day Diamond Circle Adventure tour from £1,110 per person. Price includes pick up and drop off at agreed points, transportation and private guide for the duration of the tour, two nights’ accommodation with breakfast, daily lunches, entrance to Myvatn Nature Baths and GeoSea, entrance to Husavík Whale Museum and Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum and one activity depending on seasons.
Nonni Travel offers a nine hour Diamond Circle – Dettifoss and Myvatn tour from £145 per person. Price includes a tour guide, accommodation pick up and transportation.
For more information please visit visiticeland.com