A four lane freeway led onto a two lane road with a single bright centre line. Twenty kilometers from downtown Reykjavik, Iceland, we transitioned from an international capital city to a tiny highway in a remote Arctic wilderness.
A long flat straightaway hugged the sea, framed on the left by icy whitecaps charging in across the North Atlantic. On the right, green moss shrouded volcanic hills rolled up in dinosaur-spines and ribbed edges leading into the mists.
It was here that Jules Verne set his Journey to the Center of the Earth, beginning with their descent into the volcano Snaefelsjokull.
Our own journey to Iceland, with my riding partner Fritz Blau, had its inception a year earlier when I’d led a climbing expedition to unclimbed peaks in Greenland.
Passing through Reykjavik, we’d sampled just a few of the distinctly curved roads shaped by the surrounding volcanos, set against the streaming clouds above, and the dark Arctic sea below. With a retired Harley riding Icelandic policeman serendipitously ferrying us around, he was quick to point out the obvious joys of the open road on a big bike.
The primary, if not almost the only real road in Iceland, Highway 1, circles the entire island, providing a natural route – on 1,400 kilometers of mostly paved road – with plenty of room for diversions to the outer fjords or the inner mountain areas. Perfect for a quick escape from my life of advertising in New York City and a fast week of riding.
The first hurdle to getting our Harley’s on Ice was just getting our bikes there.
This was quickly solved with a newly minted but short lived rental program by the local Harley Dealer, S. ‘Diddi’ Krisofersson and local beta from HOG (Harley Owners Group) President Daniel Guomundsson. Climbing mountains, riding motorcycles in unknown lands, paragliding off new peaks – always best to be grateful and appreciative of local area knowledge.
We reserved a Dyna and a Road King, and packed our bags with wooly long underwear and balaclavas for the chilly temperatures.
Late one Friday evening we jumped on the direct flight from New York’s JFK, and woke up in Reykjavik the next morning.
We rocketed down one side of Snaefellsnes Peninsula, an earthy extension into the sea where the paved road soon turned to hard packed dirt. The low slung Harleys settled onto this surface with reassuring stability, rocks spitting out the side and tires throwing tiny roosters of dust as we drifted through the corners.
In the cool temperatures, the engines were very happy, burbling at stops and growling forward quickly under acceleration. At the end of the peninsula, fog shrouded the road and we whisked through the cloud bank, sliding in and out of tiny fishing villages set with bright red, white and green metal-clad houses. Fishing boats clustered along the shores and nuzzled against the docks, bobbing in the North Atlantic.
The sun dipped, then dipped some more. It was 9 p.m., but we still had a few hours of daylight left. We curved north on highway 58, a dead-end road leading out over rolling plains of grass and wheat to Stykkisholmur. Thankfully, no one ever teased us for not being able to pronounce Icelandic place names.
We had made no hotel reservations, preferring to have the freedom of riding in any and all directions, at the risk of sleeping in a barn. In Stykkisholmur, the one hotel on the hill provided us their last room, complete with sea view.
We thought we were lucky, only to be treated to 5 nights in a row with sea views. The dining room was nearly empty, the service just for us, the expansive view over the sea, balanced with a bottle of red and large cod fillets soon shook off the days chill. Was this only day one?
Iceland may be a small country, but we were soon to see its geologic diversity was immense. We fired up the bikes, shook off the dew, and headed back down the road and onto another dirt track along the fjord down route 54.
I was still mastering the art of high speed Harley riding on unpaved surfaces, something Fritz had turned into an art with his many years and miles on the road. Having warmed ourselves up to longer rides the year previous on a USA coast-to-coast blast, this would be a shorter, if not completely different adventure. Over the next 70 kilometers we passed a car, then a pick-up truck. Both gave us waves.
As we sped inland, the dirt soon dropped us back on the pavement of Highway 1 as we sped towards the interior. Corners were linked and banked as if built for motorcycle riders. With a thin center-line and no shoulders, the road simply disappeared into the grass alongside – it wasn’t a place to be dozing.
We were aiming for the second biggest city in Iceland, Akureyri (pop. 17,300). The cities hot pools were on a ridge above town, with a choice of 10 to choose from, from refreshingly cool 29c (84f), up to a melt the day away quickly 49c (120f), best known as exceedingly toasty.
Bright light came into the room at dawn, bouncing off the sea. Locals said it had rained for 29 days straight before we had arrived, completely exhausting the sky. We were now to be blessed with a week where the rain gear never made it out of the bottom of the panniers. Breakfast was small cups of intensely black coffee, pickled herring, cucumbers, tomatoes, four types of homemade bread and tiny Danish rolls adorned with cloudberry jam.
We devoured that top of the morning feeling of throwing the leg over the motorcycle and settling into our saddles: choke out, twist to load the carb, then thumbing the start and the rumble of the engine vibrating up the back and into the brain that induces complete happiness. All medically proven I’m sure.
The ride opened out on Highway 1 with a clearing morning blast along the fjord, then a twist and curve up into the mountains, mufflers echoing off the hillsides. Then we dipped into the valley, long sweeping corners leading us down, throttles wide and exhausts skimming the asphalt.
Fog threatened along the edge of the sea as a reminder of our island status, but quickly rolled back as the day warmed. We headed off the main road and up Route 76, nearly touching the Arctic Circle, the sea rolling off north and black into the imagined icebergs over the horizon.
Hofsos for lunch, Siglufjordur for tea, and Hauganes for a pre-dinner snack saw us through the day. We were balanced between the heights of the black volcanic earth, traversing a terrace of flowing green grasses, set over the darkness of the ocean crashing at the cliffs far below us.
Early evening crept in and we dipped south again, into a land chosen for moon landing training for Apollo 11. Orange craters sliced with yellow and black volcanic rock framed our road. With asphalt the same color, the edge of the road and the moonscape flowed into one – now we were Harleys on the Moon.
From the moon we escaped over the eastern rim and back out to the sea on Iceland’s east coast. The area was cut with fjords and peninsulas so numerous it looked a 12 fingered hand on the map. Visually it looked repetitious, but in reality, every corner led to a new vista.
One-lane bridges led over streams tumbling down in waterfalls from the volcanic heights above, then rushed under us and out into the frothing sea. The road mixed sweeping high-speed curves with tight, blind corners, the ocean crashing at the edge.
Guardrails not being an Icelandic strong point, the view into the abyss was uninterrupted. Perched at the end of the Eastern Peninsula surrounded by the sea, our evening accommodation was in Hofn. In the hot pools, voices from Norway, Germany, England and France reverberated.
Fog, rising up from the cold sea and extending into the highlands, cloaked us at dawn. A leisurely feast of fish, fruit and an extra coffee allowed time for the sun to melt it away and we were off to Jokulsarlon.
We traded Harleys for a boat, a whale of a boat, with wheels that looked down on us and that rolled down a rough gravel beach and into an ice-berg filled lagoon, gateway to a different planet. The water caught the rays of the sun, the icebergs reflected deep blue and white against the azure sky.
We roared away from the glaciers and along the sea, seemingly now connected to the molten core of the earth, the polar ice and the sky above, balanced naturally amongst it all.
Our timing being fortuitous, we arrived back into the civilization that is Reykjavik to a weekend of folk and rock music, streets thronged with people from Iceland and over from Europe.
We made new friends, we rehydrated from our adventures, we watched the sun set, and the sun rise. Such is Iceland.
Should you have read this far, thanks. And if you happen to be into the Iceland ride and want a whole lot more pictures, my show, edited to a rather suitable music track will give you the entire ride in our video here.