Hannah Kent on north Iceland - Halong Junk Cruises

Hannah Kent on north Iceland

The haunting and captivating north Iceland landscape, near Akureyri
The haunting and captivating north Iceland landscape, near Akureyri. Photograph: Michele Falzone/Getty Images

The first word that comes to mind when I think about Iceland is beauty. It has a strange but hospitable beauty, the kind that haunts you. Landscape and the natural world are always pre-eminent in my memories of it.

North Iceland is the type of place where you don’t necessarily have a conventional tourist experience – that’s more for the south of Iceland, with its “Golden Circle” of attractions, which you should still do, of course. With the north, it’s a case of finding your own way. Give yourself time and don’t rely on coach trips. Hire a car – you’ll need one to make the most of the place.

Prepare yourself for all weathers, because the weather will definitely shape your days in north Iceland – in ways you could never have imagined. It’s also important not to get too attached to any plans that you may have made. Things can, and do, change quickly.

If you want an alternative to a hotel, try a farm-stay holiday. Many of them offer horse-riding and other outdoor activities and they include self-catering cottages and lodging in traditional working farms. Icelandic Farm Holidays is a good place to start your search.

Hannah Kent in Iceland.
Hannah Kent in Iceland

My favourite view? I have many, because this area has some of the most picturesque landscapes you’ll ever see; but my favourite is in Sauðárkrókur, the town where I lived. It’s one of the larger towns in the north, and is on a fjord with Tindastóll mountain behind it. The view is from the town’s cemetery, which is set above it, on a hill. Walk up at twilight, or during winter when the Christmas lights are out, and on a clear night you have the most extraordinary vision: of the town, the fjord and all the lights of villages on the other side of the fjord.

The lack of trees defines the landscape in north Iceland. When I lived there, I would go for long walks by myself and be struck by the extraordinary contours of the mountains. The absence of forest or woodland gives you a tremendous view of the horizon at all times, but it also leaves you exposed. This extraordinary feeling of vulnerability the landscape gives you is not necessarily a negative thing.

Stop for a coffee in and around the village of Hofsós, one of Iceland’s oldest trading ports. Sólvík and Lónkot are good places to try, while there is also a fantastic permanent exhibition at the Icelandic Emigration Center.

The village of Hofsós.
The village of Hofsós.
Photograph: Alamy

The restaurants Ólafshús and Kaffí Krókur in Sauðárkrókur are among my favourites but there’s also one at the Hótel Varmahlíð in Varmahlíð that you should make a beeline for. It focuses on local produce from the Skagafjörður region such as its own mozzarella cheese and salted cod heads.

Northern lights aside, I’ve seen colours in the sky that I’ve never seen anywhere else. There is an openness there, a subtlety and ephemerality in the light and the way it changes throughout the day. There’s such atmosphere in Iceland. It completely captures your imagination.

There’s a museum that I love, called Glaumbaer , which is a turf house, an old farmhouse, actually, from the 18th century. It opened its first exhibition in 1952. It has been preserved so you can go in and see how life was lived in north Iceland. It’s not open all year, so it’s worth checking ahead. The museum cafe, Áskaffi, is also a real treat.

Traditional farm at Glaumbaer, north Iceland
Traditional farm at Glaumbaer.
Photograph: Alamy

One museum tip for north Iceland: if a museum is closed you’ll probably find a telephone number for it on the door, or in the corner of a window. Call the number; it is almost inevitable that the person who runs it lives just up the road, and if they’re free they will pop down and open up for you.

For a taste of north Iceland sample kleina, which is delicious, a bit like a traditional doughnut – but more refined. You should also try smoked lamb on flatbread, and pönnukökur – Icelandic pancakes that you can put whipped cream and jam on. And don’t forget skyr, of course, which is one of the best Icelandic foods going … it tastes like yogurt.

If you’re looking for a gift there’s plenty of alcohol to try. Viking beer is a good one. In terms of spirits, try brennivín, it’s known as the Black Death, and it translates as “burning wine” – for good reason. It’s worth a shot; it tastes like caraway seeds and will burn the hairs off your chest.

Brennivin
Schnapps to it … with brennivin.
Photograph: Alamy

Iceland has an obsession with liquorice. They have lollies, a bit like pastilles, which everyone eats. And they also have a liquorice and herb liqueur, called topas, which basically tastes like Sambuca. Again, it’s strong, and not to everyone’s taste…

Avoid cycling around north Iceland. It may sound like a wonderful way to see the area, but often Icelanders will think you’re a bit strange, or may even be concerned for your safety – the weather changes swiftly here.

Hannah Kent is co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings. Her novel, Burial Rites, is out now in paperback (Picador, £7.99). To order a copy for £6.39 including UK p&p visit guardianbookshop.co.uk or call 0330 333 6846

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