August 5, 2007


Savor the sveit life in Iceland's countryside: Hit the road to hike over lava fields or join in with the locals as they round up sheep. (Krista Mahr, August 3, 2007 , Los Angeles Times)

Iceland gets more yearly visitors than it has residents (a little more than 300,000), and nearly all of these tourists make Reykjavik and environs their primary destination. I've watched too many of them fly all the way to the middle of the North Atlantic, hit the bars and spend the rest of their vacation hung over. So I always gave my guests the same line: If you're on the island for a long weekend, you have a choice. You can explore Reykjavik's amusing but over-hyped night life and suffer -- and I do mean suffer -- the physical and financial consequences, or you can escape the grip of the $11 pint and explore.

Akureyri, Iceland's second-largest city at 16,700, is a base for another kind of weekend. Here the days revolve more around sheep than stocks, and beater Ford Broncos are more common than Reykjavik's flashy fleet of SUVs. People in Reykjavik still call northern Iceland the sveit, or countryside, and it remains an idyllic escape from the capital's increasing pressures -- and increasing ennui for tourists.

Up north, you might find yourself standing in an empty heath with only a few blank-faced sheep and a looming volcanic crater to keep you company. Or you might find yourself treated to a good dose of Icelandic country hospitality from a local who still has the patience to show a stranger around this strange land. [...]

If you look at a map of Iceland, you will see Akureyri sitting almost dead center between east and west, tucked in a fiord on the north shore. Myvatn, Sigfus' hometown, is a short jog east. If you follow the road (yes, the only road) to the west, however, you will find the last inhabited place on the northwest coast, the farming community of Arneshreppur.

The first time I drove up the one-lane dirt road to Arneshreppur, I had rented a small car with a junky radio that only got one station. Johnny Cash sang "Ring of Fire" over the snapping static as my friend Lissa and I peered down the side of steep cliffs, notably lacking guardrails, at the unforgiving North Atlantic.

We were headed to Hotel Djupavik, a little less than 50 miles north of anything qualifying as a town and one of the few places to stay on this remote stretch. The hotel itself, a former dormitory next door to an abandoned herring factory, sits deep in the crook of a narrow fiord, where a slowly sinking fishing trawler and the concrete hulk of the defunct factory are stalwart reminders of a long-lost local economy.

Lissa and I stepped into the dark, wood-floored dining room of the hotel after sunset, where Eva Sigurbjornsdottir, one-half of the inn's husband-and-wife team, cheerfully served us burritos. After dinner, we settled into a communal couch upstairs to watch the 1999 film "Election" on an Icelandic station. In time, Eva's entire family, grandchildren and all, in jammies and robes, walked up the creaky wood stairs and joined us around the television, the blue glow of the TV soon flickering on their faces.

You don't have to drive quite as deeply into Iceland's rural isolation as Arneshreppur to get a glimpse of how things are done in the sveit. In late summer and early autumn, one of Iceland's most public social events erupts throughout the countryside -- the fall sheep and horse round-up -- when families band together to collect their animals that have been wandering the grasslands all summer.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 5, 2007 8:05 AM

Are you implying that Iceland is another place where "men are men and the sheep are nervous"?

But at least it's nice to see European sub-groups being added to the list of places with quaint customs and antiquated practices that need to be preserved for the benefit of modern trendy tourism. Might take some of the pressure of the Nepalese.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 5, 2007 11:40 AM

Eating burritos in an outpost of Iceland! I like it.

Posted by: erp at August 5, 2007 1:45 PM

Hmmm.... lutefisk burritos.

(Or is letefisk peculiar to Norway only?)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 5, 2007 9:09 PM

Other than their historical intense dislike for Americans, I suppose it's OK to throw your money at them, if so inclined.

Posted by: Genecis at August 6, 2007 12:13 PM

They aren't just pro-American, nor just a vital ally in the Cold War, they also seemingly train their entire medical profession here.

Posted by: oj at August 6, 2007 12:38 PM

"historical intense dislike for Americans"


Posted by: Andri at August 6, 2007 5:16 PM