“People don’t end up here accidentally.” Or so I’m told upon my arrival in Siglufjordur, the northernmost village on the Trollaskagi peninsula in North Iceland. On this beautiful morning in early March, there’s not a cloud in sight, and I’m gazing across a glittering fjord at a mountain that looks like it was dipped in powdered sugar, as sunlight skips back and forth across the water and alights upon multicoloured houses perched like Easter eggs behind me. On such an absurdly gorgeous day, it’s difficult to imagine why this place isn’t constantly overrun by visitors. And yet, having just made the journey myself, I get it. Siglufjordur – or Siglo, in the local and more easily pronounceable parlance – is barely an hour’s drive away from Akureyri, the region’s largest town, but getting there is something you have to really commit to. There’s no way of entering the town by car without driving
through one or more tunnels – two of which are single, one-way lanes – that have been blasted out from the mountainside. And so Siglo remains off the beaten path for most travellers. Which is a shame, because this historic fishing village turned local hot spot is definitely worth a detour.
If you’ve heard of Siglufjordur before now, there’s a good chance you remember it as the snowbound setting for Trapped (Ofaerd), the Icelandic crime drama that took audiences by storm last year. Happily, suspicious deaths are confined to fiction here, and not only on TV: local boy Ragnar Jonasson’s award-winning Dark Iceland crime novels are also all set in and around the village. But checking into the elegant Siglo Hotel – with its harbour-side hot tub, inventive cocktail list, and well-dressed clientele clinking glasses around a crackling fire in the lounge – I can’t help but imagine myself in an Agatha Christie novel. Most of our fellow travellers are Icelanders who’ve come to enjoy the town’s small but well-appointed ski area, which is part of a network of five reciprocal facilities in North Iceland. In marked contrast to hotel demographics elsewhere in the country, my partner and I are among the few foreign guests currently checked in. Siglufjordur, it seems, is where Icelanders go when they want to get away.
The hotel extends into a working harbour which has recently been restyled as Siglo’s “Marina Village”. It’s not hard to imagine the area being quite lively come July: along with two patio restaurants, visitors can enjoy mini golf and giant outdoor chess in the summer. Stepping out in blue afternoon light of early March, however, we encounter a much more contemplative atmosphere. The few people who pass each other coming out of the bakery, the swimming pool, and Torgid, the local pizza place, generally seem to know one another. Walking up the hill past the red-roofed church and into the lovely mountainside cemetery, there’s no sound but the crunch of snow under our boots. And although the sun has yet to set when we reach the impressive illuminated cross at the top of the churchyard, when we turn around we can see the whole town before us, shimmering in the glow of the rising moon
The local Herring Era Museum does not have regular hours during the winter months, but a quick email is all it takes to arrange a visit. Spread across five adjoining buildings, the museum immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of Iceland’s “Herring Adventure”, a 100-year period when enormous stocks of the fish were found in the waters north of Siglo, earning it the nickname “The Klondike of the Atlantic”.
The museum’s first exhibit invites you to poke around the dorm for a group of “herring girls”. With tinny music issuing from a phonograph and a leaky tap dripping in the kitchen, it feels like they’ve just stepped out of the room, tying their hair up in kerchiefs and heading down to the pier to clean and salt the incoming catch. In the factory next door you wind through a maze of machinery, absorbing the ingenuity of an industry that quickly learned to wrest every ounce of usable oil or meal from each herring processed. And then, finally, there’s the Boathouse – “the best one”, laughs museum director Anita Elefsen when I gasp audibly. It’s a recreation of a typical herring port featuring 11 different boats, including one 38-tonne vessel that you can climb aboard and explore.
Gifted with another sunny afternoon, we head to the edge of town to explore a small, idyllic wood that’s crisscrossed with trails for walking or snow-shoeing. Our aim is to find Leyningsfoss, or “Secret Fall”, a picturesque waterfall tucked amidst the evergreens.
It may be secret, but it isn’t hard to find. Within 10 minutes we’ve followed the sound of rushing water to a small dell where we forget ourselves for a moment, watching light refract off the icicles that lace the fall. Picnic tables dot the forest, and though we haven’t brought a lunch, peeling off our coats and sitting in the sunshine is its own kind of nourishment, a moment of completely unexpected beauty and solitude before we make our way back home.