Come face-to-face with humpbacks on the coast of Iceland
The mercury is hovering around zero and an Arctic gale is snapping across the surface of the fjord.
It’s the sort of weather to snuggle under the duvet and have an extra hour’s snooze. But not for us.
We are about to embark on the adventure of our lives, searching for humpback whales in Eyjafjord, a 45-mile-long inlet on the north coast of Iceland.
A humpback whale jumps in and out of the water off the northern coast of Iceland
‘We can’t guarantee you’ll see whales,’ says Manu, our guide. But I can tell from her smile that she’s feeling confident.
I’ve come to Akureyri, a little coastal port just a whisker short of the Arctic Circle. It has its own airport (soon to have Super Break flights from 11 UK airports) and a handful of cosy hotels, making it the ideal gateway to northern Iceland.
This is nature at its most raw: a vast wilderness of snow-crusted mountains, empty skies and waterfalls so huge that rainbows form in the spray. It’s so otherworldly that they filmed parts of the TV series Game Of Thrones here.
Namafjall is one of the most bizarre places on the planet. Here, the Earth’s crust has buckled and cracked, allowing the liquid beneath to belch to the surface in a giant cauldron of mud soup. Evil-looking syrup gurgles upwards and huge vents of steam hiss and puff like overactive steam trains. Even if you have no interest in geology, this place won’t disappoint.
But I’ve come for whale-spotting, the most popular activity in this part of Iceland. Eyjafjord is home to several types, including blue whales and minke whales, but humpbacks are the most frequently sighted.
Giles Milton travelled to Iceland and the 45-mile-long inlet of Eyjafjord to spot the animals
We dress as if we’re heading to the North Pole, with watertight overalls, hats, gloves and even giant goggles. And then we clamber into our speedboat and we’re off, shooting across the fjord at a skin-blasting 60mph.
‘Twelve o’clock!’ shouts Manu and we all look straight ahead. One, two, three jets of watery air erupt from just below the surface – the telltale sign of whales. And then – spectacularly – they’re everywhere, huge black beasts who are riding alongside us, surfacing in giant arcs of rubbery flesh and then crashing back underwater, their huge tail fins silhouetted against the backdrop of snow-covered cliffs. The humpbacks get so close that the spray from their blowholes gives me an early-morning shower.
Eyjafjord is home to several types, including blue whales and minke whales, but humpbacks are the most frequently sighted
Iceland’s waters are rich in fish and the locals still make a decent living from the daily catch. On the following day, I pay a visit to Elvar Reykjalin, a cod fisherman with a zany humour and a sideline in rotten shark meat. He dares me to try some and I agree: it tastes vile, but it gains me membership of Elvar’s Rotten Shark Club (member 18,898).
Over shots of home-distilled moonshine, Elvar guts a giant cod, pops the huge eye into his mouth (his party trick) and then invites me to lunch in his homely fish-shack-cum-restaurant. Salt cod has never tasted better than this.
The people who live on this remote coast are among the friendliest in the world – all speak fluent English – and few come friendlier than Sigurdur Olafsson.
He and his family own a beer-spa: you splash around in a hot tub full of fresh beer before heading to the adjacent micro-brewery where Sigurdur pours generous glasses of his excellent home-made pilsners, pale ales and porter.
On my last night, long after dark, I head to the outdoor thermal pool at the Siglo hotel in Siglufjord, Iceland’s northernmost settlement. Here, as I wallow in a pool of geothermal water, the Arctic sky launches a breathtaking display of shimmering green lights.
It might be the beer, it might be the moonshine, but experiences don’t come much better than this.
Super Break’s flights to Akureyri start in January from Bournemouth, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Humberside and Newcastle airports, and in February from Stansted, East Midlands, Liverpool, Leeds Bradford and Norwich.
Four nights’ B&B at the Hotel Kea by Keahotels costs from £779pp, including Lake Myvatn Land Of Fire And Ice and Search For The Northern Lights tours, and return flights from Stansted. Visit superbreak.com/promotions/incredible-iceland-breaks or call 0800 042 0288.