A couple of weeks ago, I was given the chance to try out a new 3-day minibus tour to the north of Iceland with one of our partners. When our partner first announced last year that they were adding this tour to their selection of multi-day tours, I got excited because the north is such a beautiful part of Iceland and for various reasons, it’s often overlooked by travelers.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that many travelers have such limited time in Iceland and they may find the south of the country a bit more accessible on a short trip. Prices of domestic flights and a few mountain passes on the way that can be difficult in winter may also play a part.
Because I knew this tour would probably be of interest to many of our guests and we prefer having first-hand knowledge of the tours we recommend (although we can’t possibly try them all), joining this tour was a no-brainer. When I had found the time to do it, that is.
So one rainy morning in February, I tied on my hiking shoes and made my way to the closest convenient pickup location to pretend to be a tourist for three days.
I’ll be the first to admit that the fact that I can legitimately pass off a three-day adventure around Iceland as work is pretty awesome.
The 3-day Mývatn, Akureyri and North Iceland tour
The itinerary for this tour lists the following stops as the tour’s highlights. On the map below you can also see which part of the country we’re talking about and the distances traveled.
- A hike on Grábrók Crater
- Hvítserkur rock formation
- A visit to a local brewery
- Dalvík Village
- Mývatn Nature Baths (admittance optional)
- Whale Watching
- Glaumbær Turf House
- Northern lights (if they cooperate)
On day one we drove from Reykjavík to Dalvík, stopping for a short hike at Grábrók crater and a few more stops before doing a brewery tour at Kaldi brewery. We ended the day driving to Dalvík where we spent both nights. The northern lights made an appearance, much to the joy of my fellow travelers, but I was fast asleep and missed the whole thing.
On day two we drove to the Mývatn area and made some stops along the lake. A longer stop was made at the Mývatn Nature baths where you could both soak in the lagoon and eat lunch. On the way back to Dalvík we made a 2-hour dinner stop at Akureyri where everyone went their separate ways. Some ate dinner, others checked out the sights while yours truly found a nice bar, drank some beer and read a book. When we got back to Dalvík, most people went out looking for the northern lights again and got lucky the second night in a row. I slept.
I feel I need to tell you that I had been sick with the flu, hardly leaving the house, for two weeks straight before I did this tour so my energy levels were not where they usually are. I don’t always fall asleep at 9 pm – I’m getting older but not that old.
On the last day we did a whale watching tour in the morning where we got pretty close to a beautiful humpback and after lunch we drove back to Reykjavík, making only one sightseeing stop at Glaumbær turf house. We got back to town around 8 pm or just in time for me to have dinner with my family.
Unfortunately, the road to Hvítserkur was impassable so we had to skip that and the person who was supposed to greet us at Glaumbær Turf House fell sick last minute so we were only able to see the farm from the outside. Changes like that, especially weather-related changes like impassable roads is something you can always expect in winter in Iceland and the guide did a great job trying to make up for it with extra stops that were not on the itinerary.
The organization of the tour
For most parts, the tour was pretty well organized. Three days is not a long time for all this driving though so at times it did feel like we were spending a lot of time on the bus. I was aware of the distances though so this didn’t come as a surprise to me but it may not be for everyone.
The last day, in particular, felt like a lot of driving and because we couldn’t visit the Glaumbær museum the drive seemed extra long somehow.
The guide was super knowledgable though and he filled the long drive with all kinds of interesting facts and stories. He said in the very beginning of the tour that he would be talking a lot (and talk he did!) but he also said that he would not be offended if anyone chose to nod off or listen to music on their headphones instead. It can probably be argued that he could learn to enjoy the silence a bit more but for those who were interested in all he had to say, you could have left the bus with a diploma in all things Iceland.
Finally, the bus was quite comfortable and I had two seats to myself which was nice. Speaking as a taller person with a sizable bottom and long legs, I don’t know how comfortable I would have been if the bus was completely full but thankfully that was not an issue with our group of 11.
The hotel and food options
We spent both nights at Hótel Dalvík which is the hotel most often used on this tour. Although the people who run it are lovely, this 2-star hotel is not going to make any lists over the best hotels in Iceland. It’s quite basic but everything was clean and to be fair we didn’t do much else there than just sleep after a long day out on the road. I will give them extra points for being nice and accommodating and for the surprisingly good breakfast buffet.
What was not great though was the dinner we had at the hotel the first night. It was kind of expensive for what it was and sadly not very appetizing. I was told that it somewhat depends on the guides where you eat your meals so I would recommend you ask the guide at the beginning of the tour where those meals will be had. If the plan is to have dinner at the hotel, I would recommend you try to eat a good lunch and then buy snacks for the night.
Sadly, in winter there are not a lot of options for dinner in Dalvík but there’s an Olís gas station across the street from the hotel that has all sorts of snacks (skyr, sandwiches etc) and although I didn’t really pay attention when I popped in there, I’m almost 100% certain that you’d be able to at least get a hot dog there.
On day two we ate lunch at Mývatn Nature Baths. They had a few options and the prices were reasonable. As I mentioned before, the dinner stop on day two was in Akureyri which I thought was a nice touch. There are a lot of options in Akureyri and the guide gave some good advice about where we could get some food.
On the third day, we had lunch at lovely little café called Gísli Eiríkur Helgi (or Kaffihús Bakkabræðra) where you could choose between their famous fish soup (vegetarian option was also available) and some sandwiches and such. If you like good fish soup, that’s what I would recommend.
Full disclosure: I know the people who own and run Kaffihús Bakkabræðra and I love them so there’s that. The soup was good though.
Apart from the official lunch stops there were a lot of other stops made where you could buy something to eat and use the restrooms.
The only meals that were included were the breakfasts on day two and three.
The stops and everything that was included
For the time we had and the distances we drove, I think the stops on this tour make sense. I think the stop at Glaumbær Turf House and the little hike on Grábrók are nice ways to break the long drive between Reykjavík and Dalvík and it was a pity that we couldn’t go inside the museum because it’s quite nice and gives a great insight into how people lived in Iceland not that long ago. The stop at Hvítserkur is also a nice touch when it’s possible.
The stops in the Mývatn area are all the highlights that you can cram into a day like that and Goðafoss waterfall is always worth seeing.
Although I’ve stopped many times at Kaldi Brewery and know their story almost by heart at this point, I always enjoy stopping there. It doesn’t hurt that you get to taste the beer and they don’t mind you being extra thirsty. They also give you the glass that you use to taste the beers so you can fill it up for the drive to Dalvík.
I am a big fan of the Mývatn Nature Baths and I would recommend that you take advantage of that stop, even though you need to pay extra for the admittance. Especially in winter when the crowds are small like when we were there.
Finally, I was a bit skeptical about the Whale Watching tour because I’ve done the same tour before and the forecast was iffy. In the end, I did the tour and I don’t regret it. We got quite close to a beautiful humpback and it was really beautiful to be out at sea with the white mountains all around us. I also like about this particular whale watching tour that you get the chance to do a little sea angling on the way back to the harbor and then when you’re back at land the catch will be put on the BBQ and everyone gets a taste. It’s a nice tour and although we only saw one humpback the sightings get much better in summer.
Tips and advice to keep in mind if you join this tour
- Crampons are not provided on this tour and in some of the areas we visited they were needed. Although everyone eventually got up to the top of Grábrók crater, for example, I was one of the first ones up there because I had crampons on and I’m never first to the top of anything. I personally used bigger hiking crampons because I have them anyway but even the city spikes would have helped. Most of the people on my tour bough spikes at the next stop we made after the hike.
- Because of the long drives, I would recommend you bring a book or something to listen to for the drive. Most guides would probably not talk as much as our guide did and I was especially happy I brought something on the way back.
- The northern lights mentioned in the description for this tour are dependent on the conditions and you will not be driven anywhere to see them. Our guide gave some information about where it would be best to walk to find enough darkness to see them and he made some noise on the hallway of the hotel when he saw them to notify people that they were out. But I’m sure this depends on the guide.
- There’s not a lot of space on the bus if it’s full so I would try to limit what you have in your daypack for the day. My daypack was quite heavy because I was lugging around my food and book and crampons and everything but I only brought all that because I knew I had an extra seat for my backpack.
- Like I mentioned before, I would recommend you skip dinner at the hotel but it may be a question of personal taste.
- There’s a seat rotation system in place for the bus and in our case, we were asked to move two seats forward at the start of each day. The idea is to avoid a situation where the same people sit in the front the whole time and the same people are stuck in the worst seats in the back. We did have someone on the tour that really didn’t like this system because they had been lucky enough to snag the front seats on the first day but I understand why this is done. But maybe if the person who didn’t like the system would have known about this beforehand, they wouldn’t have been so disappointed with it.
- At least on our bus, there was free WiFi onboard and also a USB plug where you could charge your phone so if you worry about your phone running out of juice, keep a charging cable in your day pack.
- You can only bring a medium-sized suitcase and a small day pack on this tour so try to limit what you pack. Luggage storage for a small fee is provided by the operator if needed.
The conclusion: Would I recommend the 3-day Mývatn, Akureyri and the North tour?
This is a bit of a tricky question to answer.
Do I think it’s better to travel around the north with a bit more time on a self-drive tour (if you’re a confident driver and used to winter conditions, of course)?
If money was not an issue, would I rather fly to Akureyri and do day tours from there?
However, if you don’t want to drive yourself and you want to see the north and get away from the hustle and bustle of the more touristic south Iceland for a reasonable price (all things considered) I think this tour is definitely a worthy contender. If you know what you’re getting yourself into (somewhat long days, basic hotel etc) and you adjust your expectations accordingly, I think you can have a lovely time on this tour.
If you’re lucky and you’ll have a lot of people you click with on the tour I think the small group and the fact you spend so much time together could make this tour a lot of fun. On my tour, we had quite a lot of quiet reserved people (myself in my leftover flu state included) so although everyone was nice and polite to each other, there was no group dynamic per se. I also think the guide could have done more to facilitate that but again, this is probably a question of personal taste.
Although I was tired and not fully myself and I had seen most of the places we visited a million times before, I enjoyed this tour for what it is: A pretty low-key small-group highlights tour of the north.
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