Exploring the Eastfjords of Iceland

Starting every April, a weekly ferry gives travellers access to Iceland’s remote eastern coastline, to see snowcapped mountains, cascading waterfalls and colonies of comedic puffins.

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”).

Shed 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.

Seyðisfjörður 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 in Iceland.

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.

Just 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
Despite (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).

Egilsstaðir (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.

The 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 peak summer.

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.