Google Maps can be misleading. I’m not talking about accidentally driving into a lake, no, I mean from a purely travel planning point of view. Before my most recent trip to Iceland, I wanted to keep up what has been a tradition; to explore parts of the country I still haven’t seen. It was my 4th trip, but my first time tackling the northern areas of the country. I was excited; Iceland is always a fun experience and the photos from both Akureyri and the large Lake Mývatn region looked beautiful. I may have bit off a little too much though, planning to spend just a couple of days in the north, driving about 5 hours each way en route. The driving wouldn’t have been so bad had I factored in the weather. I’m not new to Icelandic winters, but I think I forgot how the intense winds can create blizzards along the roadways. This is where Google Maps really needs a weather function, or an agony setting to help deter would-be travelers from tackling impossible challenges. But I made it through, and as soon as I arrived into Akureyri I knew I had made the right decision. Reminding me of the kind of northerly outpost towns I love, I felt comfortable and at home wandering the icy streets of the downtown. Since my time though was so limited, I wanted to make sure I experienced the best the region has to offer in a way that maximized my time, so after much searching I finally decided to book a tour of the region – the Lake Mývatn Classic – with local company Saga Travel. As it turns out, it was a brilliant decision not just so I could avoid some more wintry driving, but the expertise shared by our guide that day made the experience truly special.
In addition to spontaneous mini-blizzards, another thing to keep in mind when visiting Iceland in the winter months is the daylight, or lack thereof. When I was there in the middle of January, the official sunrise time was around 11am, although the first rays of light started earlier and sunset was close to 4:00pm. That’s not a terribly long day, which meant a methodical and well-paced day of sightseeing, led by our capable guide for the day, Ármann. It’s not everyday that I’m greeted by a Viking, but as we learned within a few seconds of meeting Ármann, he is very much a Nordic warrior. Not unlike so many other Icelanders, Ármann can trace his family all the way back to the first Viking settlers who started a new homestead in what is modern day Akureyri. His family is still the proud owners of farmland, a river and even a couple of mountains, so I knew I was being shown around by the exact right person. Hitting the road before sunrise meant our small group of intrepid tourists enjoyed each stop along the way at almost the exact perfect time of day, all in an effort to experience the best of the Lake Mývatn area.
As soon as we left the comfy confines of Akureyri, I instantly understood why “Game of Thrones” has spent so much time filming in the area – it truly is Beyond the Wall. Considered by many folks to be one of Iceland’s most beautiful and under appreciated regions, Lake Myvatn is very much the Land of Ice and Fire. The lake for which the area draws its name was formed by a volcano more than 2,000 years ago, the resulting lava flows creating the stunning landscape that is akin to visiting another planet. I know I felt the mystical and somewhat eerie energies of the area so I can only imagine what those first settlers must have thought when eyeing the mountains and weird formations of the countryside. It’s also no doubt why places like the gorgeous Godafoss waterfalls have been so important to local communities.
One thing that amazes me about Icelandic history is that Icelanders have kept meticulous records since arriving as Vikings from Norway, to the degree where entire family lines can be traced back. Thanks to that genealogical quirk, Ármann’s ancestors must have known another ancient resident of the area, the man who made this gorgeous waterfall famous still today. Godafoss translates as Waterfall of the Gods and is so-named because in the year 1,000 the Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði at this spot proclaimed Christianity to be the new religion of Iceland, throwing statues of the old Norse gods into the falls. It’s a romantic story, one that perfectly fits with the spectacular landscapes found not only at the falls.
The daylong tour took us to many such important spots around the countryside; formations and geological oddities that aren’t only pretty to look at, but which have had deeper meanings for generations of communities. The Skútustaðagígar Pseudo Craters, Dimmuborgir Lava Formations and Mt. Námafjall were all important highlights, but I found unlikely inspiration at the point where the Eurasian and American continents meet – the rift at Grjótagjá. Best known for the caves with thermal pools inside, I was more attracted to the rift itself, especially with the sun drenched mountain in the background. Some folks would avoid this part of Iceland in the winter months but, personally, I think it’s the ideal time to visit. I think it’s the time of year when the northern country shows off the true beauty of the season that has shaped and defined it over the centuries.
Mývatn Nature Baths
The tour order shifts depending on the time of year, daylight and weather conditions. That means that what was the final and most enjoyable part of the day for me, may be the middle of the tour for others but, no matter when it’s enjoyed, there’s no doubt that almost everyone who visits the relaxing Mývatn Nature Baths walks away forever entranced. Iceland is a strange little island, and I’m not talking about their odd love affair with elves. No, it’s strange in any number of ways but one of the best ways is its geothermal resources. Iceland sits over a rift in the continental plates, resulting in a high number of volcanoes and a landscape that can only be called steamy. In addition to providing much of the energy requirements for the country’s citizens, there are some other fun by-products to this geothermal energy, namely the many thermal baths and spas located around the island, including at Lake Myvatn. Like the Blue Lagoon, the basin for this complex of thermal pools is manmade, using water from a nearby borehole. The water has a temperature of around 130 degrees C, before it’s tempered and made suitable for bathers. The water here is very high in sulfur and also a number of other health-promoting minerals. I wasn’t thinking about any of that though when I visited. No, instead I used the all too rare opportunity to relax and just zoned out in the steaming hot waters. Unlike some other baths, due to the relative isolation of Mývatn, there were only a few other visitors with me that day, creating a nearly private experience. I only spent about an hour there but, believe it or not, it was one of the best hours of my time in Northern Iceland.
Best Way to Spend a Day
On the quiet drive back to Akureyri, most of the small group napped, recently mollified by the steamy waters of the baths. I stayed awake though, listening to the stories of Ármann, his life, his family and answering my somewhat ridiculous questions. We left him that day with recommendations for the best ice cream shop in town, confident that we had spent our far too short time in Northern Iceland in the best possible way. I originally had wanted to travel with Saga Travel to avoid some stressful driving, which was smart. But what they offer is so much more than that. They know the region better than anyone else because it’s their home, oftentimes for generations, and they know well the best spots to take visitors. Not only that, but Ármann’s insight into the region and local culture and traditions was priceless. While he may not have convinced me to try fermented shark, I at least understand why it’s enjoyed whenever there’s a traditional celebration. Iceland is one of my favorite places in the world not only for its natural beauty, but for its quirky and fun-loving spirit, qualities I was well immersed in as I spent a fun day exploring the gorgeous Lake Myvatn region.