skip to main content

The road tourism forgot

In Iceland’s northeast corner, there’s a road that few will recommend. It has largely been forgotten by the tourism boom – and that’s what makes it so special.

The Melrakkaslétta peninsula in Iceland is a road less travelled.

Photo by Eric Guth.

A path less chosen

Amid a mega tourism boom in Iceland – where travellers now outnumber locals four to one – most people skip the northeast corner. When we asked a local in the whale-watching town of Husavik, Iceland, about driving around the Melrakkaslétta peninsula, the answer was clear: “You don’t want to take that road. It’s flat and featureless. It’s of no interest.”

Amid a mega tourism boom in Iceland – where travellers now outnumber locals four to one – most people skip the northeast corner. When we asked a local in the whale-watching town of Husavik, Iceland, about driving around the Melrakkaslétta peninsula, the answer was clear: “You don’t want to take that road. It’s flat and featureless. It’s of no interest.”

But by leaving the paved ring road and travelling 275km on roads 85 and 870 over three days, we entered a new territory of unexpected encounters, full of tundra beauty, moody vistas and unforgettable locals.

Sveinbjörn Árni Lund and Kristinn Johann Lund are carpenters.

Photo by Eric Guth.

Icelandic hillbillies

About 100km outside of Husavik, where road 870 begins and the track turns to gravel, two brothers came riding out of the fog wearing matching blue-and-red, foul-weather gear. They’d been working on horseback for four days alongside 20 other men to gather 4,000 sheep that had been grazing in the highlands.

Sveinbjörn Árni Lund and Kristinn Johann Lund are carpenters who return to their family land on the Melrakkaslétta peninsula whenever they get time off. Here, they round up sheep or hunt Arctic fox for a little extra cash.

“We’re what you would call hillbillies,” they told us. They offered us whisky from a plastic soda bottle and took some chewing tobacco in exchange.

Hraunhafnartangi, Iceland’s northernmost lighthouse.

Photo by Eric Guth.

Northern light

It was nearing dusk when we reached Hraunhafnartangi, Iceland’s northernmost lighthouse. We walked a path made from ocean-washed stones woven with discarded fishing nets to reach the tower. There, we were enveloped by an intriguing soundscape that included grasses rustling by an old sod house, waves raking the shore and a deep metallic echo when we knocked on the lighthouse door. Nobody lives there, but I got the sense of being watched, like someone could have walked onto the scene at any moment.

These are part of an installation called Arctic Henge.

Photo by Eric Guth.

A psychedelic Stonehenge

After midnight, we came across these impressive stone structures that called to mind both Stonehenge and The Lord of the Rings. The main towers, which frame the midnight sun during the June solstice, are the first components of an elaborate installation called Arctic Henge. It will eventually include other whimsical features such as the “Beam Salon”, whose webcam will connect visitors to their families back home, and the “Polar Star Pointer” with a stone arm that reaches toward the North Star. By combining folklore and creativity, the town of Raufarhöfn hopes to entice more tourists to leave the well-travelled ring road and come north.

Erlingur B Thoroddsen is the man behind Arctic Henge.

Photo by Eric Guth.

Arctic vision

Erlingur B Thoroddsen, the man behind Arctic Henge, was a deep thinker with a unique way of seeing the world. When he gave us a tour of the site the next morning, he acknowledged that Iceland is at risk of too much tourism, but he also recognized that increasing visitation could do a lot of good in his tiny community. His zany ideas for Arctic Henge – inspired by everything from ET to the Rolling Stones – had an appealing energy. 

Thoroddsen died in late 2015, shortly after our visit, but there’s a movement to complete Arctic Henge, with Iceland’s former Minister of Finance working with the current government to support the project. As Thoroddsen told us, “What has never happened before can always happen again.”

Seventy-five kilometres southeast of Arctic Henge is the open bay of Finnafjordur.

Photo by Eric Guth.

A unique harbour

Seventy-five kilometres southeast of Arctic Henge is the open bay of Finnafjordur, which has been identified as an ideal site for a container port. As the sea ice diminishes and opens up Arctic shipping, the tiny municipality could become an important and strategic stop along a new supply route from China to Europe. 

Currently, the 530 people living in the area are linked to the rest of the world by a single gravel road and rely heavily on a local fish processing plant for work. If the master plan goes through, their world will change drastically.

Siggeir Stefánsson manages the local fish processing plant and is head of the municipality.

Photo by Eric Guth.

Facing forward

Siggeir Stefánsson, who manages the local fish processing plant and is head of the municipality, showed us around town, including the intended port site.

“It is a beautiful area, but it is nothing special,” he said, implying that his country has countless gorgeous places to visit. Part of his job is to find a way forward for a town with limited options. 

“Our young people are not coming back,” he said.

We never knew what to expect from our trip to the Melrakkaslétta peninsula.

Photo by Eric Guth.

Winding away

In the end, our trip around Melrakkaslétta was neither flat nor featureless. A shifting mix of fog, clouds, showers and sunlight mirrored our experience: we never knew what to expect. I’m sure if we drove the road again, new stories and different personalities would present themselves. It seems like the kind of place that will keep reinventing itself, whether people come to visit or not.


This article was first published at BBC Travel on September 20, 2016.

Comments are closed.