Northern Iceland: A Locavore Tour

The locavore turn seems to be everywhere in evidence. An intensified interest in local food products, the rediscovery of forgotten local food traditions and creative attempts to merge various culinary heritages with modern preparation techniques all fuel this turn.

One side effect of this movement is the increased prominence, in many places, of local food products – on menus, in markets and in the profusion of food tours.

In August, I took a fantastic locavore tour in the form of a northern Iceland culinary tour, put together by Akureyri‘s Saga Travel. Iceland, despite its northerly position, is no agricultural wasteland. The country is self-sufficient in fish, meat and dairy and also produces vegetables.

The entire tour is worthwhile, though its first three stops are especially compelling. First up on the tour’s August incarnation: Hrísey, a quiet island to the north of Akureyri whose surrounding waters are used to farm beautiful fat, organic blue mussels. We boarded a fishing vessel and checked out submerged ropes used to farm the mussels before motoring on to the island itself. Here, we sat down to a simple and delicious lunch of mussels served with a garlic sauce and bread. These orange-hued mussels are richly flavorful, a real revelation after years of soggy, near-tasteless mussels.

Next up on the tour was a stop at Kaldi, Iceland’s first microbrewery, in the small town of Árskógssandur. Beer was actually banned in Iceland from 1915 until 1989. Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that the microbrewery explosion present in many locations has been slow to develop here.

Kaldi’s founders hired a Czech brewmaster to get the brewery off the ground. Today, demand for the company’s brews is so high that the company doesn’t yet see the need to export. (An Icelandic resident abroad told me that the seasonal Christmas brew sells out so quickly that he has to ask his parents to buy it so that he will be able to enjoy it when he returns for Christmas.) Kaldi beer is not pasteurized, nor does it contain preservatives. It is also delicious.

There is one jokey part of the tour, a stop at the Ekta factory to sample hákarl, the rotten shark for which Iceland is notorious. Our sample was provided by the company’s hilarious manager, Elvar Reykjalin, who also graciously facilitated passage of the stinking flesh down our convulsed throats with a shot of bright red liqueur. Hákarl, with its aggressive ammonia aftertaste, might be the worst thing I have ever tasted. A nice light meal followed, centered around Ekta’s very good salted cod.

Subsequent stops included Kaffi Kú for beef carpaccio and Holtsel for ice cream. The local food tour is offered year-round, with the itinerary varying from season to season. Pricing is not cheap, at 24,500 Icelandic kronur ($200), though in the context of Iceland’s high cost index, it seems relatively reasonable.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

Northern Iceland: Myvatn Nature Baths

Northern Iceland typically only makes it onto longer Iceland itineraries. The region is too far from Reykjavík for a leisurely day trip and is best experienced on an extended holiday, like a one- or two-week circular tour on Iceland’s Ring Road.

About 90 minutes by bus from Akureyri, Iceland‘s second city and Northern Iceland’s most important population center, is Mývatn Nature Baths. The baths overlook Lake Mývatn, one of Northern Iceland’s big tourist attractions. The baths consist of an enormous pool and steam rooms. Unlike the much better known Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík, facilities are pretty minimal beyond this. A café serves a decent selection of Icelandic beer and delicious homemade bread, and there is a gift shop as well.

Admission runs 2500 ISK (about $20) for adults; a towel is an additional 500 ISK ($4). Perhaps it should go without saying that you should bring your own swimsuit, but if you don’t you can rent one for 500 ISK.

The Mývatn Nature Baths are fed by a borehole 2500 meters deep. Their waters are high in minerals and silicates. The water interacts with the pool’s basin to produce a therapeutic mud that many bathers plaster over their bodies. The facility’s steam rooms are fed directly by clouds of steam emerging from deep fissures in the earth. Best of all, they’re not packed with bathers. Until tourism picks up in May, many visitors will move through these therapeutic waters more or less alone. (Bathers hoping for maximum privacy should consider weekday afternoon visits to avoid the after-work crowd.)

Sheer solitude places Mývatn Nature Baths in a very different category than the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s biggest tourist sites. The Blue Lagoon is located very conveniently about 20 minutes from Keflavik, Iceland’s main international airport. It is an ideal spot for a quick layover and also makes a great final pit stop en route to the airport.

If by some unexpected development Akureyri becomes a significant transport hub, perhaps Mývatn Nature Baths will evolve into a major tourist site. But for the foreseeable future — and especially in off- and shoulder-seasons — this is one low-key gem.

There is a bus from Akureyri to Mývatn daily in the summer and four times per week in the winter. It costs 3400 ISK ($27) round trip. Passengers traveling to the baths should communicate directly with the driver regarding drop-offs. Upon request, the driver will release bathers just down the hill from the baths on the outskirts of the town of Reykjahlíð.