Alt Iceland: Far From the Maddening Crowds

Alt iceland

Iceland is all the rage these days. Thanks to a great marketing campaign (“FREE LAYOVER”!), TV shows like “Game of Thrones” and cheap airfares, the tiny Scandinavian island is on everyone’s travel list – as it should be. It’s stunningly beautiful with landscapes seen nowhere else on earth, the people are fascinating (they believe in elves!) and the food is fantastic. Even better, for East Coasters, it’s closer than Los Angeles.

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But sometimes too much of a good thing is not great – especially on an island where the population (around 350,000) is dwarfed by the amount of tourists (over 1.7 million last year). This problem is exacerbated when the epicenter of the country’s tourism is disproportionately located in one area – the Golden Circle. Home of the black beaches, glaciers and plenty of turf houses dotting the idyllic landscape, this famed section in the South of the island is indeed beautiful – but it’s packed.

Related: Europe’s Prom Queen has a Headache – Iceland is Too Popular

So what’s a girl to do? How do you actually experience the magic of Iceland without having to crop fifty tour busses and throngs of tourists out of your photo? It’s easy: turn your GPS toward Iceland’s East and West coasts.

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I recently went on a vintage air rally across the arctic that recreated (in reverse) the supply lines from America to Europe in World War II. As part of that rally, we stopped in Egilsstadir in the East of Iceland and Isafjorder in the West, and I was reminded that some of the best places in Iceland are the ones people don’t go to on a three day layover. So go to Iceland, but take a week and have yourself a magical experience – without the crowds.

Related: 15 Awesome Things to Do in Iceland

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East Iceland

Egilsstadir, Iceland

Located on the banks of the Lagarflot River in East Iceland, Egilsstadir is the starting off point for anyone who wants to visit Mt. Snæfell, Mt. Dyrfjöll and the Hafrahvammar canyon. The people in the town are so friendly, if you forget some or all of your hiking gear and need to buy some (ahem), they will give you a discount – you just have to ask.

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The drive (or hike) to nearby Reyðarfjörður, a small coastal fishing town of just over a thousand people, is one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced. Cliffs carved with innumerable waterfalls and moss covered volcanic rock fields line the road and puffin colonies hide in the hills by the sea. Even better, when you get to the smaller towns, there are innumerable clean hostels to stay in for a fraction of a hotel room – even in the busy summer.

After exploring the East Coast, drive or, if budget allows, take a helicopter to West Iceland or the Western Fjords region. The flight is spectacular and gives you a panoramic view over the frozen Jurassic scenery of azure blue glacier ice, snow capped volcanoes, and the tiny isolated red-roofed farms dotted in between.

The Western Fjords of Iceland are unlike any other part of the islands. There is Rauðasandur, the red sand beach, and the jagged inlets that finger out into the ocean rival any in Norway for their dramatic beauty. It is also one of the oldest human occupied regions in Iceland – where the Vikings lived and the traders built their ports – and steeped with history, culture and witchcraft.

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Isafjordor, Iceland

Isafjorder is one of the larger towns in the fjords and has a small airport for helicopters and local Icelandair flights. Dating back to the 9th century, the former whaling village is picturesque and fascinating – it was the scene of the infamous witch trials in the 1600’s, where (unlike Salem) witches weren’t burned at the stake, but banished to a nearby peninsula. (If you have time, check out the nearby town of Holmavik, home of the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, which has an actual pair of Nabrok – necropants made from actual human skin).

Related: Meet the Elf Whisperer of Iceland – She’s on the Government Payroll

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Isafjorder is home to Iceland’s oldest house (built in 1734) and another of Iceland’s fiercely guarded secrets: The Tjoruhusid Restaurant.

Located in an old long house used for curing cod near the mouth of the fjord, the restaurant is reaching near mythic status in Iceland.

Established in 2004, the communal restaurant only serves what comes in on the fishing boats – it is seasonal and the menu changes every day. It is Icelandic fare at its best.

And it’s popular. Our plane got in late and we arrived 20 minutes after our original reservation to lines forming out the door despite the chilly weather.

“Sorry – we have no room,” you missed your time slot,” the hostess said.

But the promise of “the best seafood in Iceland” was too good to walk away from so we opted to eat outside in the frosty evening air – made comfortable with blankets and pillows provided by the staff.

The meal – at $50 a person for the all inclusive meal – started with a tomato cream based fish and langoustine soup that I will dream about for years to come..

Then came the feast. On offer that evening was Halibut in butter and capers, cod cheeks fried with lemon and garlic, salted cod with olives and sundried tomatoes, Pollack with blueberries, bacon, red onion and citrus, pan fried place with oil, lemon and cherry tomatoes, wallfish (“arctic catfish”) in a green peppercorn sauce, and spotted fatty wallfish in a cream sauce with mushrooms and capers.

“Do not eat too much of one dish because then you will not be able to try everything and you must try everything!” our waiter, Wolf, exhorted. He was right. Two and a half hours later my friends and I rolled back to the Hotel Isafjordor to dream of that meal.

Extra bonus: Children under 14 eat for free. Not kidding.

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Flatey Island

After checking out Isafjordur and the Western Fjord towns, get off the ring road, leave the caravans behind and rent a home or a room in the one hotel on Flately Island – the summertime escape for (actual) Icelanders. Only two families live year round on the island (inhabited since 1182) but in the summer it comes to life with vacationing families. There is easy and inexpensive access to the island via a ferry that travels between Flatey and Stykkishólmur and Brjánslækur – both towns just south of Isafjordor. On the island itself, there is one road, two restaurants and several hiking paths – the perfect place to unwind and relax for a few days. But be warned: the island is also home to a colony of fierce arctic terns. Should you go for a walk on the cliff side, watch out for the nesting birds – these avian terrorists will appear out of nowhere and, like a scene from Hitchcock’s “Birds,” attack from the air screaming, pooping and poised to dive bomb your head – while trying to herd you away from the town and over a cliff. It’s terrifying. Trust.

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