The city of Akureyri is a stylish, welcoming city, very much worth a visit
“We’ve just had two days of heavy snow and I’m afraid we won’t be able to get to the hotel you were meant to be staying at tonight.
The road is closed and there’s a danger of avalanches,” said Karen. Then she added, with a twinkle in her eye, “But don’t worry. Here, we have a Plan B.”
I have always loved Icelanders. Their blend of nonchalance and efficiency is unmatched as Karen showed.
For the vast majority a trip to Iceland is centred around Reykjavik, the nation’s compact but cosmopolitan capital.
But with new direct flights from Britain to Akureyri starting on January 12, the north is set to steal the limelight.
Despite heavy snow, Akureyri was still a must-have experience
It is a mini-metropolis of around 18,000 people and gateway to the rarely-visited fjords, canyons, waterfalls and national parks of the north
Back in the late 1770s Akureyri, 235 miles north east of Reykjavik on the shores of Eyjafjörður, was home to a handful of shops and storehouses and a mere 12 inhabitants but a move by the Danish King to improve living conditions sparked a change.
Today it is a mini-metropolis of around 18,000 people and gateway to the rarely-visited fjords, canyons, waterfalls and national parks of the north.
First though it was time for us to explore the city where its welcoming nature is even present in its traffic lights, which display heart shapes when they turn red.
After a night at the modern Hotel Kea we scrunched our way through knee-deep snow to Akureyri Museum, home to a delightfully tiny collection of items telling the story of northern Icelandic culture.
There were two displays, one about the boy Scout tradition (apparently Robert Baden-Powell loved Iceland) and the other about Christmas.
We learnt that in Icelandic tradition there are 13 Father Christmases, some of which are quite malevolent, including one Mother Christmas who your steals socks rather than filling them up.
Then it was off to Akureyri’s open air swimming pool.
The country may be icy but Iceland makes great use of its geothermal energy as a source of heating.
A thermometer high above the water registered the air temperature as -1C but the water temperature was in the high 30s, which produces a relaxing effect of a cool head and a warm body.
A morning dip in the pool is very popular among locals as a social event before work.
Icelandic swimming pools are unique, with pockets of geothermal energy keeping them warm
The highlight of the trip came in the afternoon when we headed even further north for a half-hour’s drive through snow-covered, volcanic terrain for a long slow bath in beer.
The beer spa in the small village of Árskógssandur is one of the latest additions to Iceland’s eccentric delights.
Founded and run by Agnes Sigurdardottir and her son Sigurdur Olafsson, the spa is an addition to their microbrewery with its six varieties of Kaldi beer.
Like all visitors to the spa I was led to a private cubicle with an individual wooden bathtub (two to a tub is also allowed but under-16s must be accompanied by an adult).
My bath was with beer in its early, pre-alcoholic stages, mixed with hops, extra yeast, bath salts and hot water to give it the temperature of a nice warm bath.
The small village of Árskógssandur plays host to Iceland’s eccentric beer spa
I also entered the spirit of the place during my 25-minute wallow by making use of one of the glasses and the beer tap placed conveniently by the side of the bath.
The ingredients are said to have a great softening effect on the skin, particularly if you don’t shower for the rest of the day. When the 25 minutes were up I was led to a dimly-lit room with my fellow beerbathers for a calming lie down while soothing music was played.
It all added up to a most relaxing wondrous experience which surprisingly left me hardly smelling of beer at all.
The next day we headed east towards Lake Mývatn, a spot famed for having more varieties of ducks than anywhere else on Earth.
They say 22 different species come there for the small fi sh and large midges the lake has to offer.
Beer spa’s leave you with softer skin if you dont shower, and no risk of a beer smell
Sadly it was already dark before we reached the area (northern Iceland gets only three hours of daylight at this time of year) so we saw no ducks but there were many other visual treats.
My own favourite was the Goðafoss waterfall, which is particularly beautiful in winter as its middle section freezes over, creating an array of icicles hanging between two huge cascades of falling water.
This region, like so much else in Iceland, is in a huge lava fi eld which looks rather like the way one imagines the Moon or another planet might appear.
The mysterious rock formations formed by the lava include shelves where Icelandic elves are said to sleep and the precariously rocky area where the 13 Father Christmases are said to live.
Goðafoss waterfall freezes over in the winter, making for a spectacular view
We spent the night in the warmth and comfort of the Hotel Laxá in Mývatn where they even have a service offering to wake up visitors if the Northern Lights put on a show.
Sadly the best I saw was a faint greenish glow through the cloud cover.
Apart from its typical Icelandic cleanliness, warmth and large rooms, the hotel provided an excellent dinner, showing off the superbly tender Icelandic lamb, a vast variety of seafood and some Icelandic versions of sushi and vegetables grown locally in thermally heated greenhouses.
All in all, a highly successful Plan B. The Northern Lights, and plan A, can wait until my next visit.
Super Break (01904 717 362/superbreak.com) offers four nights at Hotel Kea in Akureyri from £699 (two sharing), B&B.
Price includes return private charter flights from various UK airports starting January 12.
Iceland tourism: inspiredbyiceland.com