You cannot help but admire Icelanders for their optimism. Rather
ambitiously, they celebrate summer's arrival with a festival and public holiday
known as Sumardagurinn Fyrsti (First Day of Summer) on the first Thursday after
18 April. Before you accuse them of winter-induced madness, note that the
celebration is linked to pagan times, when Icelanders used the Old Norse
calendar and the year was divided into only two seasons: winter and summer.
True, temperatures in Iceland in mid-April are far from summery – the
capital's average daily high for the month is 6C. But the Icelandic
winter is notoriously long, dark and cold, making April feel balmy and
bright in comparison.
Along with the lift in mood and a spring in
everyone's step, April in eastern Iceland sees the reappearance of two
summertime favourites: the weekly ferry connection with continental
Europe and the staggered arrival of millions of migrating puffins.
From April to late October, a weekly car ferry, the Norröna,
runs from the port town of Hirtshals in northern Denmark, via the Faroe
Islands, to Iceland's east coast, the 47-hour journey covering a
distance just less than 1,600km.
For travellers, it is an
undeniably majestic welcome to the country. The ship sails up a
17km-long fjord to dock at the small town of Seyðisfjörður
(population 675), where the multi-coloured wooden houses are sheltered
by an obscenely picturesque backdrop of snowcapped mountains and
cascading waterfalls. Allow the setting to distract you from the
near-unpronounceability of the town's name (“say-this-fjur-ther”).
your sea legs by lingering a few days in Seyðisfjörður. Not only is it
gorgeous, but the town is the perfect package of outdoor opportunities
and civilised indoor pursuits. Seyðisfjörður started life in 1848 as a
trading centre for foreign merchants, fishermen and whalers, but its
wealth came from the “silver of the sea” – herring– with its long,
sheltered fjord giving it an advantage over other fishing villages. A
small local museum charts the history.
is stuffed with 19th-century timber buildings, brought in kit form from
Norway when the herring boom was at its peak. The most prominent of
these is the pretty Blue Church.
On Wednesday evenings during peak travel season (July to mid-August),
the church is home to a popular series of jazz, classical and folk music
concerts. If you are departing on the weekly ferry (sailing Thursday
mornings in summer), this is the perfect way to spend your final night
A friendly community of artists, musicians and
craftspeople call Seyðisfjörður home, and several buildings have been
transformed into cosy ateliers. A leisurely loop around town will reveal
half a dozen places to drop some serious krona on art, handicrafts and
knitwear; do not miss the beautiful lopapeysa, hand-knitted sweaters featuring traditional Icelandic patterns.
outside of town, hiking opportunities abound in the lush green hills
that tower over the fjord. For a sublime outdoor experience, contact Hlynur Oddsson,
a charming Robert Redford-esque character who spends his summers around
town (and the rest of the year in Germany). Having grown up in the
area, he guides tailor-made tours on or around the fjord (by mountain
bike or kayak, according to your skill level, time commitment and
interests). With kids, opt for an easy half-hour paddle on the inner
fjord, staying close to shore; hardier souls can take one- to six–hour
trips, visiting a shipwreck or waterfalls, with an option to include an
overnight camping trip.
Some 19km east of Seyðisfjörður is the remote farm of Skálanes,
a wonderful private nature reserve whose once-abandoned farmstead now
hosts overnight visitors and showcases the incredible flora and fauna,
ecosystems and settlement history of the reserve. The coastal cliffs are
home to a mind-boggling array of seabirds, including the ultimate
crowd-pleasers: the divinely comedic puffins that arrive for the
breeding season in April and depart for warmer climes in mid-August.
Just getting to Skálanes is an adventure in itself – the track is not
accessible to regular cars, so you will need to hike, bike, kayak or
4WD, or organise staff to pick you up.
Between May and September camping is available in Seyðisfjörður, and the local hostel
is open from April to mid-October to coincide with the ferry's sailing
months. The pick of the town's lodgings, though, is boutique Hótel Aldan,
spread across three timber buildings. The reception shares space with
the cafe-restaurant, serving coffee and homemade cakes all day, then
stepping things up at night when traditional Icelandic ingredients such
as lamb, langoustine, reindeer and fish come with a polished
contemporary touch. Also do not miss Skaftfell, an artsy bistro with an upstairs gallery space where you can snack and meet the locals to a suitably cool soundtrack.
Exploring the Eastfjords
(mostly) surfaced roads, the concertina coastline of the Eastfjords
region seems remote, even by Icelandic standards. It is a feeling
enhanced by immense, dramatic mountainsides and the tiny working fishing
villages that nestle under them.
About 90km to the north is the township of Borgarfjörður Eystri,
where the selling points include more puffin-watching, legends of
hidden elves and hiking trails among ethereal rhyolite peaks. If you
really want to get away from it all, the ultra-remote fjord Mjóifjörður
lies 66km to the south, accessible by a rough unsealed road. The village
here, Brekkuþorp, is Iceland's smallest (population 35).
(population 2,300), 27km inland from Seyðisfjörður, is the service town
for east Iceland and the regional transport hub. It lies on the Ring
Road (Route 1), the main 1,339km-long route that circles Iceland, with
buses passing through regularly and an airport for domestic flights to
and from Reykjavík (660km to the west).
Egilsstaðir is located on
the shore of Lagarfljót, a large lake that is home to the Icelandic
version of the Loch Ness monster, the serpentine Lagarfljótsormur,
or Worm, which has allegedly been spotted since Viking times. All
amenities are clustered near the central crossroads, including the
regional tourist office, whose website is a font of information.
most common way for visitors to get around Iceland is by car. The
majority of people taking the ferry from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður bring
their own vehicle, often 4WD and kitted up for outdoor adventure, to
save on the cost of hiring a car in Iceland – an expensive exercise in
Ferry fares vary widely, depending on when you
travel, your vehicle and what cabin you choose. Sample one-way fares for
a car and two passengers in high season (mid-June to mid-August) is 738
euros, before cabin choice is factored in. For a solo traveller
(without vehicle), the one-way base fare is 203 euros. High-season cabin
prices start at 58 euros per person for a dorm-style “couchette”, 92
euros for a berth in a four-berth cabin. The ferry offers stopover
packages for travellers wishing to explore the Faroe Islands.