When we dream, people we know from our waking life often turn up in unusual places, doing things we never expected. Real life is a lot like that in the tiny town of Neskaupstadur, nestled in the easternmost part of Iceland.
The man with the grey hair and the piercing blue eyes I met on a small fishing boat one afternoon is the same man who turned up in the town’s lone bar that night, and then at the sole concert later on (attended by just 40). The next day, I see the man again, this time serving breakfast at one of the few local hotels, which, it turns out, is owned by his son.
“Everyone has to wear many hats here,” said another local resident, Siggi Olafsson, who bills himself as a management consultant, lecturer, hiking guide and bassist. “With so few people, we all pitch in.”
A boat ride in a fjord in Neskaupstadur, Iceland.
The spirit that fosters — of cooperation and intimacy — distinguishes this unspoiled place and provides one of its key draws. Relatively few travelers to Iceland linger in the east, favoring instead the south for its sprawling glacier.
The east’s rarity proves ideal for those who pine for solitude and a personal touch. Another town in the region, Djupivogur, underscores the latter element: You can hire the mayor himself as your tour guide to the local beach, an expanse comprised of black sand, the devilish by-product of this volcanic island country. There, Mayor Gauti Johannesson regales visitors with local myths, all of which seem to end with its protagonists in hell.
Egilsstadir, a town in east Iceland on the banks of the Lagarfljót river.
As untrammeled as the east may be, it isn’t hard to get there. An hour’s plane ride whisks you in from Reykjavik, the capital and largest city of Iceland, where most of the country’s population resides. You’ll land in Egilsstadir, which boasts an allegedly haunted lake whose shore line lures hikers, eager to gape at the surrounding mountains, mirrored in the still water. Mountains in the region climb to sharp peaks, a feature you won’t find elsewhere in the country. (The glacial legacy elsewhere flattened their tops). You’ll also find more trees in this part of the country, though still very few. Credit, again, the island’s volcanic core. People prize the openness around here. When the owner of the organic farm Vallanes planted a small patch of trees, locals couldn’t figure out why he would “block” his view.
The organic farm Vallanes in Egilsstadir, Iceland.
To navigate the vast terrain, rent a car. The road trip proves as exciting as any hiking, whale watching or fishing expedition. The two-lane, roller coaster road that snakes through the mountains, and plunges to the valleys, allows you to take in a breathtakingly stark landscape, colored with a rich mix of moss, rust and grey when I arrived in late September during the relative warmth of early fall.
Waterfalls tear through the land at every turn, cascading with sound and energy. You’re only allowed to stop the car at designated viewing stations, though it’s hard to imagine anyone catching you violating that rule. You can easily drive an hour here without seeing another car. In three days, I saw precisely one tourist bus. Luckily, the viewing stations have been placed to catch the land’s most stunning turns. With a landscape this photogenic, even the clumsiest photographer can seem like Ansel Adams.
The roads in East Iceland offer great views of the area’s landscape.
Likewise, the air is so pure, every inhale feels like a hit from an oxygen bar. The wildlife you’ll spy consists mainly of sheep (the country has over 460,000 of them) and horses (over 80,000). The latter have shorter legs than those in America, lending them a comic figure. Sadly, I saw no puffins, though the island holds more than eight times as many of the seabirds as people. All 4 million birds had flown away by my stay to migrate to warmer areas.
One particularly eventful stretch of road cuts through the Oxi pass. It’s unnavigable in winter, but in warmer months it provides an ideal chance to savor the upward-leaning horizontal lines of the sedimentary rock. The road beyond flows to Djupivogur (population 450), a place proud of its role as Iceland’s sole “slow city.” The designation references an Italian movement dedicated to mindfulness, though that attitude seems redundant around here. The environment forces contemplation.
A fjord in Neskaupstadur, Iceland.
There’s a growing trend in citizens from the capitol relocating here for such simplification. Viewing Reykjavik as too stressful may seem like viewing Dubuque, an Iowa city on the Mississippi River, as too cosmopolitan, but waves of dreamy bohemians continue to come, intent on farming, music-making, craft beer production, and art. The subsequent culture clash with the local fishermen can make for enough social tension to fill a sitcom. In Neskaupstadur, a collective called Art Attack has drawn fanciful murals in town which have the locals rolling their eyes.
At the same time, the isolation of the place breeds camaraderie, a feeling expressed most sweetly at the geothermal pools, where everyone gathers. They’re great equalizers, as everyone sits together in steamy water and stares skyward. The locals also bond by taking boats through the fjords that penetrate deep into the land here. One day, I joined both fishermen and artists on a sail to the east’s smallest town.
Everyone smiled as we savored the incredible count of its population: Eleven.
If you go…
Getting there: Iceland Air has frequent flights from NYC-area airports to Reykjavik starting at about $ 470 round-trip. You then hop a connecting flight to Egilsstadir (starting from about $ 250 round-trip).
Lake Hotel in Egilsstadir, Iceland.
Stay: Lake Hotel in Egilsstadir (english.lakehotel.is); Hotel Blafell in Breiddalsvik (breiddalsvik.is); and Hildibrand in Neskaupstadur (hildibrand.com).