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It’s Always Christmas in Akureyri

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Maybe it’s because of the long, dark winters, when any scrap of joy or warmth is especially appreciated, but Christmas is a very big deal in Iceland. And nowhere is the Christmas spirit stronger than in Akureyri, where it’s celebrated all year round.


Jólagarðurinn, or the Christmas Garden, is found about ten minutes south of Akureyri. Halldor (from Fab Travel) insisted that we visit after I accidentally betrayed some cynicism towards Christmas. He had been shocked. “How can you not love Christmas?” He kept asking me the same question over and over, unable to wrap his head around the concept, regardless of how I tried to explain. The crass commercialism of the American holiday turns me off. I can’t stand “Last Christmas” by Wham!, not the first time I heard it and certainly not the 385th. The Christmas lights, the caroling, the stress, the fake plastic joy brought to you by Coca-Cola, it’s all just too much. But Halldor couldn’t understand. To him, hating Christmas was akin to hating love or family.

We arrived at Jólagarðurinn, driving up to a bright red house which, despite appearances, wasn’t made of gingerbread. Inside, a shop sells a mind-numbing array of Christmas decorations from around the world, with a special emphasis on Icelandic traditions. We browsed the ornaments, sampled some smoked lamb and Laufabrauð (a fried cookie decorated in hand-made patterns), walked around the garden, and saw Grýla the Christmas Ogre in her cave.

A Christmas Ogre? With this revelation, I felt myself warming to the Icelandic version of the holiday. Grýla is an ogre with extremely sharp hearing, who will throw misbehaving children in a bag and cook them into a stew. She has a black cat who also eats children, and thirteen sons known as the Yule Lads. The Yule Lads have big bushy beards and bring gifts to children, but that’s where their similarity to Santa Claus ends.

Dressed in ratty, old rags and with dirty grey beards, the Yule Lads most resemble crazy old bums, and they’re always up to no good. Each of the thirteen is known for some special sort of mischief, reflected in their names. There’s Sheep-Cote Clod, Gully Gawk, Shorty, Ladle Licker, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler (I’m not making these up by the way), Sausage Swiper, Window Peeper, Door Sniffer, Meat Hook and Candle Beggar. One by one, they begin arriving at Icelandic homes, from December 12th to the 24th, each leaving a small gift for children.

I imagine the 23rd is a sleepless night around Iceland, because that’s when Meat Hook is coming to town.

We had a surprisingly good time in the Christmas Garden, and even bought an ornament of Spoon Licker as a souvenir. But just as the Christmas Spirit was sinking into my bones, the speakers started bleating “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…” and I fell back into my old holiday-hating ways. Iceland has some fun traditions of their own but Wham!, it seems, is universal.

Location of Jólagarðurinn on our Map

1 Dollar Gifts

Letters To Icelandic Santa
Sweets House Iceland
Santa Boots
Golden Stars Iceland
Santa Claus Laundry
Christmas Shop Iceland
Christmas Gifts Iceland
Icelandic Candies
Icelandic Christmas Ornament
XMas Shop Iceland
Christmas Ogre
Spoon Licker Iceland
Christmas Ogre Iceland
Christmas Cookies Iceland
Icelandic Nut Cracker
Santan Mushroom Ornaments
Candy Shot Bottle
Dried Lamp Christmas
Santa Claus Toilet
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October 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm Comments (0)

Ice Cream and Coffee in Eyjafjörður

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A day spent exploring the beautiful Eyjafjörður Valley, south of Akureyri, can be surprisingly exhausting. And the locals seem to know it. Two farms on either side of the valley have expanded their normal operations to offer unique places to recuperate, and we took advantage of both.

Automatic Milking

The Holtssel Farm on the western side of the valley had no experience in the business of ice cream making, but decided on a whim to try it out. After purchasing equipment from a Dutch company, the farmer and his wife started producing fresh ice cream which immediately became a hit with Akureyrians. At first, there were no facilities at the farm and guests had to eat their ice cream outside, or in the barn when it was stormy.

Fast-forward a few years. There’s now a small parlor on-site, the Kaffi Karling, and the family has finessed its ice-cream-making prowess. Holtssel has become known for their strange flavors. Not rotten shark, thank god, but you can order licorice or beer ice cream, alongside classics such as vanilla or chocolate. And the flavors are strong; my beer-flavored scoop tasted like a lager left too long in the freezer. Which is to say, delicious.

Across the valley, we found another interesting place to take a rest: the Kaffi Kú. Here, a cafe with glass walls sits above a barn where about a hundred dairy cows are going about their business. Of course, “cow business” mostly consists of eating hay, but every so often one will queue up to wait her turn for the milking robot.

Cameras stream live footage from the milking robot into the cafe, and we sat at our table transfixed, completely forgetting to drink our coffee. Each cow decides for herself when it’s time to get milked and ambles over to the robot. She’ll walk herself in, and eat treats while a robotic arm extends between her legs. Using lasers and an internal database of detailed nipple-information, the arm detects the position of the udders and suctions itself on, one by one. Schluck, schluck, schluck, schluck.

It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie. We walked down into the barn to get a better look at the machine, and meet the cows. They seemed happy enough, and it was fun to scratch the heads of the little calves, but I was vaguely relieved to leave the barn. One day the Singularity will occur, and when the machines become self-aware, I don’t want to be around in case those nipple-sucking robots decide to turn on their masters.

Locations on our Map: Holtssel Farm | Kaffi Kú

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Icelandic Ice Cream
Kaffi Karling Ice Cream
Broddur Mjolk
Kaffi Karling
Cow Cafe Iceland
Cow Giving Milk
Icelandic Waffle
Fried Bread Iceland
Kaffi Karling Farm
Curious Cow
Cow Farm Iceland
Cow Blog
Icelandic Caves
Cute Overload
Cow Spa
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October 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm Comment (1)

Fall Colors in the Eyjafjörður Valley

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When Halldor offered to show us the autumn colors of the Eyjafjörður Valley, south of Akureyri, I was a little amused. Up until this point, we had seen approximately three trees in all Iceland. “Maybe the idea of ‘autumn colors’ means something different here,” I thought. “Like, a pile of red lava rocks on top of wet, yellow hay.” But it turns out that Iceland has some trees after all. There are a lot, in fact, if you know where to look.

Born and raised in the valley, Halldor definitely knew where to look. He’s the son of the founder of FAB (Free as a Bird) Travels, based in Akureyri and Reykjavík, and not only knowledgeable about the Eyjafjörður region, but enthusiastic about it. Throughout the day, he would point out various farms and churches, share some history, and relate funny anecdotes from his childhood. It brought the valley to life in a way we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate alone.

We stopped by a couple beautiful old churches, including the strange Grundarkirkja. Built in 1905 by a local merchant, this large church is unlike any other we’d seen in Iceland, topped with a Russian-like spire. Unfortunately, this being the winter season, we weren’t able to get into either the Grundarkirkja nor the Saurbæjarkirkja, which we visited next. Built in 1858, this is one of Iceland’s last turfed churches.

The churches were nice, but next we drove into the Basilica of Mother Earth. At the end of a long gravel road on the southwestern end of the valley, and through a relatively impressive forest, we found the campsite of Leyningshólar. Gold, orange, yellow, dark red — the September colors on display here wouldn’t have been out of place in New Hampshire. A lovely sight, and one we hadn’t expected to see while in Iceland.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Grundarkirkja | Saurbæjarkirkja | Leyningshólar

Book Your Northern Iceland Tour Here

Eyjafjörður Valley
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October 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm Comments (2)

Akureyri – Iceland’s Second City

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When we pulled into Akureyri, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This cute little village was supposed to be the second-biggest city in the country? Come on, Iceland, stop kidding. Where’s the real Akureyri? Where is this “Capital of the North” we’d read so much about? Where are you hiding it?

Harbor Akureyri

After days in the tiny hamlets which dot Iceland’s northern coast, we had been eager to visit a big city, so the first couple hours in Akureyri left us completely disillusioned. It didn’t take more than a couple hours to see the extent of the town. The skies were gray. Winter schedules meant all the museums were closed. And we had planned two days here! What in the world were we going to do?

Some towns immediately win our hearts, like Ísafjörður and Húsavík, but Akureyri needed time to work its magic. The downtown is small, but it’s also tightly packed with a lot of neat stores and good restaurants. Akureyri is home to a university and once the evening settled in, we discovered a young and energetic vibe. Away from the central square, there are a number of worthwhile sights. The weather is milder here and, when the sun does eventually shine on them, the town’s colorful houses and buildings are hard to dislike.

We walked through the famous Botanic Garden, which contains samples of almost every plant found in Iceland, and many from around the world. We climbed the stairs to the big church, very reminiscent of the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík. We had great meals at Bautinn and Hamborgarafabrikkan (Hamburger Factory), and spent hours in various cafes and bars. We toured the old part of town, where houses from the 19th century are still standing, and scaled a hill to arrive at the cemetery. We browsed a quaint second-hand bookstore near the church, and spent some time at the harbor, looking at the ships and the mountains across the bay.

Our two days in Akureyri flew by, and I would have been happy to stay a little longer. It’s the kind of town… alright fine… the kind of city which only gets better the more you get to know it.

Location on our Iceland Map

Great Hotels In Akureyri

Harbor Akureyri
Old Sailbot Akureyri
Architecture Akureyri
Botanical Garden Akureyri
Flowrs Akureyri
Birdhouse Akureyri
Bushy Thorn
Liquid Flowers
Sport in Akureyri
Churches of Iceland
Fjord Akureyri
Stret to Akureyri
Oldtown Akureyri
Baby Blue House
Green House Akureyri
Yellow House Akureyri
Cute Street Corner Akureyri
Nordic House Akureyri
Author Akureyri
Cemetery Akureyri
Weather Akureyri
Cute houses Akureyri
Red House Akureyri
Street Art Akureyri
Blue House Akureyri
Modern Family
Urban Akureyri
Old Architecture Akureyri
Stuppi Hair
Curry Hut Akureyri
Spiral House Akureyri
Old Bookstore Akureyri
Hamburger Muffins
Heart Traffic Light
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October 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm Comments (3)
It's Always Christmas in Akureyri Maybe it's because of the long, dark winters, when any scrap of joy or warmth is especially appreciated, but Christmas is a very big deal in Iceland. And nowhere is the Christmas spirit stronger than in Akureyri, where it's celebrated all year round.
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