I’m not sure if there’s a shade of green called Icelandic Moss, but there ought to be. It’s almost shocking, especially when viewed against a cloudless blue sky. So much so, I find myself pulling over to the side of the road and prodding a clump of it, as a small herd of woolly-maned horses look on inquisitively.
I’m lucky. Icelandic weather is fickle. Flying here, the country had been blanketed by cloud, but coming in to land at Egilsstaðir, the skies had parted, almost biblically.
From May, the journey here will be easier for British visitors when a twice-weekly non-stop service starts from Gatwick. The east is an area often overlooked by visitors other than Icelanders — many of whom drive the eight or so hours from the capital — or those who arrive at Seyðisfjörður on the weekly ferry from Denmark. But make the effort and you’ll be rewarded by friendly fishing villages clutching to the side of fjords and ravishingly beautiful countryside where you’ll lose count of waterfalls as you hike, bike or canter.
Heading south, I quickly learn it’s difficult to stick to any kind of schedule due to the sheer number of things to photograph along the way. There’s that moss for a start. And the waterfalls. Not to mention lonely farmhouses along dirt tracks framed by lopsided hills, and herds of Icelandic horses just begging to be snapped. And just when you think you’ve got the shot, you drive a few hundred metres down the road and discover there’s a much better angle, so you pull over and start all over again.
By the time I arrive at the guesthouse of Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson and his wife Berglind Hasler, a rolling hill fog had nearly obscured the entrance to their property. Luckily, the red roofs are just about visible, as is a farmhand waving me in from his tractor. I’m here for lunch, to experience some of Svavar and Berglind’s vegan sausages (sold all over Iceland), as well as to find out about their latest venture: crisps made on the farm from swedes.
But while they’re naturally keen to chat about the new flights and the economic benefits new visitors will bring to the region, there’s something else I’m impatient to discuss. For while they may be farmers, the pair are also members of Prins Póló, the band that had the country’s biggest-selling hit last year, Paris Nordursisns — they even hold concerts in their barn.
Half an hour’s drive away in Stöðvarfjörður, I pause at Petra’s Stone & Mineral Collection, a quirky local institution. The late Petra Sveinsdóttir collected local minerals and rocks for 80 years, and now her former house overflows with thousands of them; so much so that they cover her gardens too.
From there, I make my way to Fáskrúðsfjörður, another fishing village about a half hour’s drive north along the coastal road. It’s almost dark as I arrive at the Fosshotel Eastfjords, and I head straight from there to a pub where some young fishermen are having a few drinks with the Polish barman before heading out on their trawler at midnight. Conversation ranges from the likely result of the impending Arsenal v Spurs match (a sure-fire way to break the ice in Iceland is to ask a local which Premier League team he or she supports) to life on board their vessel. “It’s hard work but good money,” I’m told.
Not as hard as in the olden days, that’s for sure. The next morning, local guide Berglind Ósk Agnarsdóttir shows me round the impressive village museum. From the 17th century till the outbreak of the Second World War, Fáskrúðsfjörður was a base for French fishermen who made the hazardous journey north to the whale- and cod-rich waters around east Iceland. In Catholic France, meat was prohibited for much of the year on religious grounds, so the North Atlantic supplied much of the population with fish as an alternative.
Drink numbed the pain of working in freezing conditions for up to 20 hours a day, with pay linked to the amount each man caught. Poor diet often caused the fishermen’s teeth to drop out by adulthood. If they did make it to middle age, the prize was a pension back in France. A more frequent destination was the graveyard near the shoreline just outside the village, where a French tricolour still flaps forlornly in the wind that whips up the fjord.
The village has street signs in Icelandic and French. In summer, Berglind organises concerts and saga readings where the audience are blindfolded, to help them concentrate solely on the sounds or voices they’re hearing.
I drive onwards for an hour and a half to Neskaupstaður, with the road clinging to the coast, before climbing over a high pass and through a single-lane tunnel next to ski lifts. Another new tunnel will do away with the need to drive over the icy mountain route in winter; the final blasting has taken place the day before and the locals are celebrating.
“We send Reykjavik plenty of money, thanks to our fish and aluminium exports from round here, but we don’t get much back,” says one elderly gent later that afternoon as we sit together in Neskaupstaður’s municipal hot pool.
Having just returned from a horse-ride up to a waterfall in the hills, I welcome the opportunity to chat with the locals while soaking my bones. A sea fog has rolled in, accompanied by a cold drizzle, but everything beneath my shoulders is toasty and warm. Getting out is likely to be a struggle, but there’s no rush.
The next morning, I join Jona Thordardottir, her dog Sveppi and her husband Siggi — a management consultant who also guides — to go hiking. There isn’t a cloud in the sky as we catch a boat for the 15-minute transfer to the Bardsnes Peninsula on the other side of the fjord. We beach near an abandoned farmhouse. I try to capture the shoreline on my camera, with the millpond-calm water behind and the hills on the other side bathed in golden morning sunlight.
As we walk on the springy moss, Siggi picks my brains on London bookshops and music shops, while I ask him about life in east Iceland. We’re alone apart from the odd inquisitive gull nesting on the cliffs we’re marching towards — returning via the lower path, overlooking coves, inlets and beaches.
My final overnight stop, Seyðisfjörður, is another hour-and-a-half’s drive north. It found fame in 2013 when Ben Stiller filmed scenes here for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Asian tourists, in particular, still come to try to recreate the action. It’s a place that attracts artists and a boho crowd. In summer, Norð Austur Sushi Bar flies in chefs from America, and there are galleries, craft markets and buzzy little cafes where bearded, latte-clutching hipsters sit around pondering the meaning of life in chunky jumpers. Or perhaps they’re wondering which waterfall to hike to next. Or what makes Icelandic moss so incredibly green.
From 28 May-24 September, Discover the World will begin flying non-stop, twice weekly, to Egilsstaðir Airport from Gatwick. British Airways flies direct to Reykjavik from Heathrow, while Icelandair, EasyJet, WOW Air and Thomson Airways fly to the capital from various UK airports.
Average flight time: 3h.
You ideally need a rental car to cover any distances over a weekend, although the bus is possible if not pushed for time: check timetables at austurfrett.is. Cycling is popular in summer, although east Iceland is quite hilly.
When to go
In summer (May-September), days are long and hotel prices rise. The shoulder months (April and October) sees fewer crowds. You’ll see plenty of snow and storms in winter, and days when the sun rises around 11.30am and sets around 3pm, but you’ll have a much better chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Need to know
Currency: Krona (ISK)
£1 = ISK 193.
International dial code: 00 354.
How to do it
Discover the World offers the four-night Fjord Escape from May in east Iceland, including flights from Gatwick to Egilsstaðir, car hire and B&B accommodation from £787 per person based on two people sharing. Similar, week-long, packages start from £1,129 per person (two travelling).
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)