Travel tips on Grímsey Island, Iceland, including information on the Arctic Circle and travel from Akureyri by ferry or Iceland Air
Grímsey Island is just 5 km² in size and located around 40km from mainland Iceland. It is a place of natural marvel. In summer, the sun doesn’t set. Instead, midnight sun stretches across the 3 miles of the island, skirting its rugged coastline. By the time September comes, the Northern Lights have begun to twist in the sky. This island was born of a volcanic explosion; its charred volcanic soil is a remainder of the lava that burst out of the sea. Along the coast, chiselled basalt columns testify to the lashes of the ocean that have, over years, flayed rock from rock.
The main link between the tiny island and mainland Iceland is the north Icelandic town of Akureyri. The island itself teeters on the northern verge of the inhabitable world. Birds reign here; over 1 million seabirds call the island home. In comparison, the human population amounts to little over 100 inhabitants. Polar bears have been known to visit the island, brought over, helpless, by drifting ice from Greenland.
The History of the Icelandic Island
The origin of Grímsey is appropriately surrounded by legend. Some say it was formed by a giant, who tossed a fistful of earth across the sea from Akureyri, mainland Iceland. Others prefer to look to the island’s Viking roots, suggesting that it was named after a 10th-century Viking called Grimur Sigurdsson.
The island is known for its enthusiasm for chess. In 1879, Daniel Willard Fiske, an American scholar and librarian with a passion for Scandinavian language, visited Iceland. He sent chess supplies to Grímsey, and left a generous amount of the money to the island in his will. Today, a lonely chessboard lies heavy on the horizon; it is a testament to Fiske, a man who never actually trod on Grímsey’s soil.
In 1803, an epidemic swarmed over the tiny island like a Biblical plague, killing all but six men. Women stood staunch against the virus, which was filling the island’s modest graveyard with husbands, brothers, fathers and sons. In a rushed bid to repopulate Grímsey, the remaining six men cast their nets across the sea, and travelled to mainland Iceland. Tragically, the violent ocean swallowed up the ship, leaving the women alone. For some time, the only man on the island was a rather ill placed priest.
Why to Visit: The Arctic Circle
The main draw to the island for tourists is the fact that it is straddled by the Arctic Circle. A signpost marks the spot where latitude 66° 33′ 44″ north slices through the island, and visitors can buy a certificate (in English or Icelandic) to document their journey across this remote polar boundary. Despite its position, the island isn’t as cold as you might expect: the North Atlantic Current sweeps over Grímsey, bringing a mild Icelandic climate.
Why to Visit: The Wildlife
Other visitors flock to the island see the 60 species of bird that squawk over Grímsey’s steep cliffs and inconstant seas. Here, seagulls rub wings with kittiwakes, puffins with arctic terns and guillemot with razorbills. Puffins can be seen breeding and nesting on the island’s cliffs from early April until late August, when they take to the sea for the winter. Those with a strong stomach can sample a freshly caught puffin at ‘Krian,’ the island’s only restaurant. In their nesting season, the arctic terns become a league of dive-bombers as they protect their young. The locals call the terns ‘Kria’ – a very appropriate name that mirrors the bird’s high-pitched screech as they wail over the island.
Visiting and Accommodation
Many tourists take a two-hour trip with Iceland Air in order to visit Grímsey, but the island’s single guesthouse makes it possible for the more adventurous traveller to spend the night. See Accommodation for booking details. When the accommodation closes in late August, it is still possible to camp on the island. Staying overnight gives the traveller a chance to explore the island’s coastline. Standing on the northern shore, staring out to the North Pole from this tiny platform in the Arctic Ocean can be an exhilarating experience. Walking down the island’s single road, you could meet the inquisitive eyes of the island’s children, that is if they’re not watching their older brothers or sisters racing over the desolate land on quad-bikes.
Getting there from Akureyri, Mainland Iceland: Ferries and Iceland Air Flights
Grímsey can be reached from mainland Iceland by either flying or catching a ferry. Iceland Air flies out from Akureyri: the country’s second largest urban area after Reykjavík. The flight takes around 25 minutes and gives a unique introduction to Grímsey. On approach to the island by Iceland Air’s tiny propeller plane, tourists first see a yellow lighthouse standing proud on the horizon, and then the tiny chapel, hewed out of driftwood. Flocks of birds rise expectantly from the tiny landing strip as the plane glides in to land. See Air Iceland for flight information.
The ferry between Grímsey and Akureyri takes around 4 hours (see Ferry for more information). Whilst travelling across the open Artic Ocean, you might be lucky enough to spot a whale, dolphin or porpoise: this part of the ocean is awash with marine life. The best way to travel – especially if you’re staying the night – is one-way by airplane, the other by ferry. Not only does this make the best of the sparse travel options to and from the island, it also enables you to see Grímsey from the air and the ocean. This is an experience not to be missed: only on reaching and waving goodbye to the island, which is lost in vast expanses of ocean, do you appreciate its unique beauty and isolation.