Avoid the Tourist Traffic in Iceland by Driving the Arctic Coast Way
It’s 11:15 p.m. in Iceland and the sun still hasn’t set. “Watch out for that sheep,” I say to my boyfriend as we round a corner headed north. There are no other cars on the road and it feels like we’re uncovering something special, getting a jump on one of Iceland’s best-kept secrets.
For many, visiting Iceland means a trip around the Ring Road. But for those looking for an experience off the beaten path, the new Arctic Coast Way is hard to beat. As of June 8, travelers can land at Keflavik Airport, rent a car with companies like Blue Car Rental, and drive three hours north to where the journey beings. The road stretches 560 miles along the coast of six peninsulas and passes through 21 fishing villages, it’s marked with sporadic signs that display a blue and green infinity-symbol-like design.
The Arctic Coast Way starts at Hvammstangi, a quiet coastal town famous for seal sightings. Drive along the Vatnsnes peninsula past vast stretches of farmland full of roaming sheep and majestic Icelandic horses. Then, stop at the beautiful Hvítserkur basalt stone stack where you’ll find a massive stretch of black-sand beach to walk along and another chance to glimpse the seals.
Stop in Blönduós for a quick bite or stretch your legs on Hrútey, the town’s small island that’s surrounded by a glacial river. Then, drive on gravel north to Kálfshamarsvík, a peninsula made of basalt columns with a lighthouse at the end.
End the day in Sauðárkrókur at the historic Hotel Tindastóll, one of the 20 oldest wooden houses in Iceland. Just north of the town is Grettislaug, a striking thermal pool where you can soak while enjoying views of Drangey island. In the summer, there are daily tours to the island that give travelers the chance to see puffins close-up. For dinner, sample local cod stew at Sauðárkrókur’s KK, and in the morning, visit Sauðárkróksbakarí for an impressive variety of bread, donuts, and pastries.
Trollaskagi (Troll) Peninsula
Keep driving east and then north on the Arctic Coast route to Hofsós. Here, you can see more basalt columns against the ocean backdrop and partake in a public thermal pool soak with a stunning ocean view for less than $8 — just be sure to bring your own towel.
The scenery changes as you approach Siglufjörður, a famous herring fishing town with a chocolate shop called Frida Chocolate and the Herring Era Museum. Snowcapped mountains can be seen across the bay, and one of the world’s most unique tunnels is up ahead — a one-way tunnel that stretches for miles. Drivers coming from the west have the right-of-way, but make sure to keep your headlights on and proceed with caution so that oncoming cars can pull into the designated pull offs.
There are fees to take the tunnel, so set an alarm to pay the toll electronically within three hours or the fee practically doubles. You can also ask the staff at Blue Car Rental to help you set up payment when you pick up the car.
After the tunnel, veer off the main road and take a gravel road into a breathtaking valley for an unforgettable stay at Deplar Farm. This all-inclusive luxury adventure lodge by Eleven Experience has unparalleled views of Icelandic waterfalls as they cascade down the hilltops. A stay at Deplar Farm also includes access to every outdoor activity you could dream of: skiing, hiking fjords, white water rafting, visiting islands full of puffins, riding Icelandic horses, swimming in waterfalls, rock climbing, massages — you name it. Spend as many days as possible in this stunning turf-roof lodge; it’s one of the best places to experience northern Iceland.
Back on the Arctic Coast Way, stop in Dalvik for some of the country’s best fish soup at the quirky Gisli Eirikur Helgi Kaffihûs Bakkabrædra cafe. Then, make your way to Bjórböðin, Iceland’s first and only beer spa. Take a dip in a tub brimming with warm water and beer made next door at Bruggsmidjan Kaldi Brewery, Iceland’s first microbrewery. Once you’ve had your share of unlimited pints during your 25-minute soak, you’ll need one of their addictive burgers and a side of fries.
Drive to Akureyri, northern Iceland’s largest town, to shop and visit the Akureyri Art Museum, or make your way north toward Grenivík if you’re looking for stunning coastal hikes. When you’re ready to continue on, cut across on the Ring Road and turn left onto Route 85 toward Húsavík. But first, drive five minutes more on the Ring Road to see Goðafoss, a massive waterfall that people kayak off — yes, you read that correctly.
Once you reach Húsavík, check into the Árból Guesthouse, a quaint historic home that once belonged to the town’s governor. Book a whale watching tour with North Sailing for an extremely high chance of seeing humpback whales. Húsavík is also home to a new, cliffs-edge thermal pool called Geosea, where saltwater is taken from the bay and heated geothermally. Grab a beer and marvel at the white-capped mountains in the distance while you relax after a day of driving. With the sun practically never setting during the summer, it’s a can’t-miss moment.
Melrakkaslétta and Langanes Peninsula
The next section of the route is where the Arctic Coast Way gets really rugged and really remote. If you’re not comfortable driving long distances on gravel road with no one in sight for hours, avoid the 870 turnoff after Kópasker. If you feel up to the challenge, enjoy the long stretches of volcanic rock, black sand, and Hraunhafnartangi Lighthouse, the northernmost mainland point in Iceland — a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle.
Otherwise, keep traveling on Route 85, passing the Rauðanes Rock Formations and the town of Þórshöfn before spending the night at the award-winning, family-run Ytra Lón Farm Lodge. After a comfortable night’s sleep, drive up the Langanes peninsula for bird watching and finish your adventure at the last small fishing village on the Arctic Coast Way, Bakkafjörður.
To see every key stop along the way, load this interactive map. Keep in mind that the Arctic Coast Way has a different route during the winter when some roads are closed. And whichever route you drive, remember to keep an eye out for the roaming Icelandic sheep.