City Mouse and Country Mouse: Akureryi and Varmahlíð

In a crazy whirlwind three days, Chris and I had covered the entire south coast of Iceland and the east, so on Day Four we headed up to Akureryi otherwise known as “The Capital of the North.” We didn’t have any plans for our half-day in Akureryi other than to wander the streets, take photos, and stay for lunch and that’s exactly what we ended up doing. Akureryi holds the title of the second largest city in Iceland, although just 17,000 residents call the city home! We found lots of cute shops and cafes in the city center, interesting museums (though we didn’t have time to visit any), and it seemed like it would be a good jumping off point for seeing the attractions in the north. Just walking around we spotted several tour operators that do excursion trips to the surrounding areas.


After lunch at the hot dog stand pictured above, we promptly hit the road again to make it to our next excursion on time (more on that below), but of course we enjoyed the scenery along the way and ended up stopping a few times for photos. Chris took the sheep trio photo below, and it makes me laugh every time I look at it. I wonder what’s on their minds? They look like a sheep gang. We suspect the one on the left is the leader while the one in the middle is the muscle.


Here’s a hint as to what we spent our afternoon doing…


Did you guess horseback riding? Ding, ding, ding – horseback riding! And this was my first time on a horse ever! It’s always something I had wanted to try, and Iceland seemed like an idyllic backdrop in which to peacefully trot alongside fields, streams, and mountains. Plus Icelandic horses are extra special with a fascinating history. There is only one breed of horse in Iceland due to the ban of importing horses from outside the country, and if a horse leaves (for a show, or for…I don’t know, leisure travel?) he/she is never permitted to return! I can’t imagine a horse wanting to leave Iceland though – they all looked so happy. And so incredibly cute! Icelandic horses have short legs such that their height actually makes them sized more like a pony, but they have strong builds and very full manes. Short legs, strong build, and long thick hair? I can relate! I had to see these magnificent creatures up close.


We booked a two-hour Country Life beginner level tour with Hestasport Riding Tours in Varmahlíð. Their main office is just off of Rt. 1, and the stable is a short 6 km drive from the office. Thinking back on our first two rainy days on the road, I’m glad everything worked out the way it did because this was the day to have perfect blue skies. After being introduced to our horses (Magnusson and Lala) and getting a basic overview from our guide, we followed a trail out across the picturesque farmland I had envisioned. I felt like we were starring in a beautiful ad for the Icelandic Tourist Board. For the first 5-10 minutes though, I admit I was a little nervous. I kept worrying that my horse would know I was scared and he’d toss me off to the side, but he was sweet and gentle. Oh, except the couple of times that I had too much slack in the reins while we were stopped and he swiftly dipped his head down to graze, causing me to suddenly forward-fold without notice. I eventually felt more comfortable and learned not to let Magnusson have control.

We forded a river (!), experienced the tölt – a gait unique to Icelandic horses – and we even galloped, all of which made me giggle both with nerves and joy! Our guide was so nice and accommodating to our level of riding (super duper beginner, in my case). She always asked if we’d like to try going a bit faster before just taking off, and by the second half of the tour I enthusiastically agreed every time. But oh my gosh I was sore afterward! I had no idea how much human physical effort goes into riding. I thought I would just sit there, but no, a lot of stabilization work goes into staying balanced. My thighs especially were screaming at me the next day. Ooouch! All-in-all it was a really neat experience though, and we couldn’t have asked for a better guide. I highly recommend Hestasport if you’re in the area and have a hankering for the most scenic ride ever.


And just to finish the day in a ridiculously amazing fashion, we were treated to a brief Northern Lights show at 1:30am during our overnight stay in Borgarnes on the west coast. I had no expectation whatsoever of seeing them on this trip and I wrote more about it in this post, but it happened for us and here are the two images that turned out best. I love the first one; the second one is a little weird to me because of the longer star trails making it look blurry (I was trying out some really long exposures), but it’s still awesome to see the colors of the Aurora Borealis and to unexpectedly cross it off my bucket list.


We were nearly to the end of the road trip at this point! Our last day on the road took us full circle to Reykjavik where we went on a very unique tour of the inside of a volcano, and then we ended our day by relaxing in the Blue Lagoon. That post is coming up next!

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