Iceland: Play out your Game of Thrones fantasies in this crowd-free corner of the north
A new museum focusing on one of the Nordic country's bloodiest battles opens this month. Sarah Marshall looks at other reasons to visit the region.
Clasping a rock in one hand and a shield in the other, I take aim at enemy forces galloping over the hill. Yet despite all my might, the ammo fails to hit its target, so I cower in a corner, soon realising I've backed into a wall.
Although animated, the burly warriors projected by my virtual reality headset seem disturbingly real, and for 10 minutes I'm plunged into a war scene which could have been scripted for Game Of Thrones.
The attraction is part of new museum 1238, opening this month in sleepy fishing town Saudarkrokur, in north west Iceland, where some of the Nordic country's bloodiest clan battles took place.
Featuring interactive displays, weapons encased in glass cabinets and contemporary art installations, the 21st century exhibition rolls back to 1238, when one of the fiercest frays took place. Informed by the Sturlunga Saga, a collection of epic narratives composed in the 12th and 13th centuries, it brings the past vividly to life.
But aside from being informative and entertaining, 1238 serves a greater purpose; to bring visitors to a quieter corner of Iceland that's often overlooked. While Reykjavik and the southern circuit are burdened by overtourism, here, the waterfalls, volcanic formations and hot springs are generally crowd-free.
Flights operate from the capital to Akureyri and Husavik, but it's also a highlight of a road trip around Iceland's Ring Road 1, and if you do find yourself in the area, there are many more sights to seek out.
A fortress fit for a Viking
Commanding panoramic views of the Vatnsnes peninsula, it's easy to see why this cloud-tickling structure may have once been used as a Viking fortress. In the absence of any mention of it in historical documents recounting Iceland's Sagas, Borgarvirki's purpose remains ambiguous, although it was one of the first sites to be granted conservation status in 1817.
Irrespective of the past, at present it's a marvel; a volcanic plug ringed by basalt columns, it feels like a castle in the sky. Drive along a steep gravel track to reach the top and look down at swirling rust-red patterns cooled by silky fjords and lakes.
A waterfall as nature made it
If waterfalls get you gushing, this magnificent cascade in the Vididalur valley really is a wet dream. Unlike so many of Iceland's bucket list cataracts, there are no barriers or safety ropes, making it possible to feel the full force of Kolufossar as it clambers through the Kolugljufur Canyon. From the car park, it's only a few metres to the source; head right under the bridge to climb down for the best spay-soaked selfie shot. Walk left along the gorge to find different angles for photography, looking out for rainbows, and relish the fact that even at midday, there's never a queue.
A beach where trolls bathe
Various theories abound about the origins of basalt sea stack Hvitserkur; it could be an eroded dyke or possibly a petrified troll. Offshore from Hunafloi Bay on the Vatnsnes peninsula, the wind-battered monster appears to be marching through water, it's body so pancake-thin its sheer existence is a miracle.
A panoramic platform overlooks the bay, but at low tide, it's also possible to descend via steps. Gaze at gulls swooping from nests in its crevices, but watch out for territorial Arctic terns, prone to pecking tourists during their summer nesting season.
A spa flooded with beer
Well known for its therapeutic benefits when slugged from a glass, beer is also a tonic for your skin. An offshoot of the Kaldi brewery in waterside town Arskogssandur, Bjordin Beer Spa invites guests to wallow in a concoction of young beer in the early stages of fermentation (good for cleansing), spring water, Vitamin B-rich brewer's yeast and hops packed with antioxidants.
Beer barrel baths are made for one or two - although the best results are achieved by whipping everything off, so pick your partner carefully. Don't be temped to drink the bathwater (it's alcohol-free) but make use of the unlimited lager on tap. With sessions strictly limited to 25 minutes, you'll have to swig quickly to get your money's worth. A single bath costs 9.900kr/€72; bjorbodin.is.
A nostalgic look at a fishy past
During the early 1900s, fjord town Siglufjordur suffocated under a noxious fug of fishy odours. Being the epicentre of Iceland's booming herring industry, however, residents agreed the smell of money wasn't that bad. But when businesses collapsed in 1968 due to overfishing, salting houses were abandoned and boats thrown on the bonfire.
Housed in several buildings, the excellent Herring Era Museum charts the industry's rise and fall, telling a nostalgic story through original artefacts, machinery and even fishing vessels which you can climb aboard. Declarations of love scrawled on walls of a dorm used by the 'Herring Girls' - female workers famously portrayed wearing yellow rubber gloves - give a personal touch. Entry costs 1.800kr/€13; sild.is/en.
A hot spring fed by the sea
Across the country, landscapes fizz and gurgle with hot springs, often identifiable by their sulphurous eggy smell. For anyone who finds the stench overpowering, Husavik's new GeoSea spa could be the solution; fed by sea water heated over volcanic rocks, it's thermal and therapeutic, minus any odorous minerals dredged up from the earth's core. Designed by the dream team behind luxury hotel The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon, it's an architectural delight. Relax with a beer in one of several cliff-top infinity pools, watching humpback whales breach out at sea. Entry costs 4.300kr/€31; geosea.is.
For more information, visit inspiredbyiceland.com.
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