Heimaey in the Westman Islands is Iceland's largest and most populated offshore island; Hrísey is second on both counts, with about 180 residents. With its paved roads, well-tended homes, and geothermal swimming pool, the village does not feel particularly marginal. Hrísey has been inhabited since the 10th century but sprouted rapidly in the 19th century as a base for processing and exporting herring. The herring vanished at the end of the 1960s, and in 1999 the fish-freezing plant closed, forcing many residents to leave.
Hrísey has a clear view to the northern horizon, and is perfect for witnessing the scooping midnight sun in early summer. Fjord views on the island are heart-stirring if not heart-stopping. In mid-July, Hrísey plays at being a sovereign nation during its "Independence Day" family festival: Guests pass through customs, get their Hrísey passport stamped, then enjoy tractor and fishing trips, dancing, and a children's singing competition.
The main ferry to Hrísey, Sævar (tel. 695-5544; round-trip ticket 800kr/$13/£6.40 adults, free for children 11 and under; departures every 1 to 2 hr. daily from 9:30am-11pm), leaves from Árskógssandur, a small village on the western shore of Eyjafjörður, 35km (22 miles) north of Akureyri. The ride lasts 15 minutes.
Hrísey's information office is inside the Pearl Gallery (tel. 466-1762; www.akureyri.is/hrisey/english; mid-June to mid-Aug daily 1-6pm), a crafts store by the ferry landing. The Akureyri tourist office is also helpful.
Exploring Hrísey Island
In summer, as you disembark the ferry, you'll likely see Ásgeir Halldórsson (tel. 695-0077) offering bird-watching tours in his tractor-pulled trailer, which has seats and a loudspeaker so he can commentate from the driver's seat. Call in advance to make reservations.
Free trail maps are available on the ferry. The main trail, color-coded green, ascends to Hrísey's highest point in a 2.3-km (1.4-mile) loop, but the longer trails are best for bird sightings. The far northern section of Hrísey, Ystabæjarland, is a private nature reserve accessible only with the owner's permission; consult Ásgeir or the information office if you hope to hike all the way there. Permission is usually not granted until mid-July, to protect birds during nesting season.
Hrísey's bird populations chose their residence well. Hunting is prohibited, and no foxes or mink have made it out to the island. Hrísey is a quarantine station for imported pigs and cattle, so Icelandic horses and sheep -- which never interbreed with foreigners, at least not in Iceland -- are kept off the island to keep them safe from species-hopping diseases. This leaves more vegetation for ground-nesting bird species.
Warning: Arctic terns, which harass and sometimes attack anything that comes near their eggs, are a serious menace and can turn a Hrísey walk into a Hitchcockian nightmare. Terns are very agile -- those that spend the winter in Antarctica have the longest annual migration of any known animal -- and the attack comes in a quick swoop, with furious flapping and hideous shrieks. (The Icelandic word for tern, kría, comes from the shrieking sound.) The worst time is June, when walkers should carry some sort of stick, pole, or umbrella over their heads for protection.
Ptarmigans, on the other hand, haven't the slightest fear of people, and in early September waddle right into village streets and yards seeking protection from falcons. The spindly legged and needle-billed godwits, around from mid-May to mid-August, are another endearing sight.
Where to Stay & Dine
The market Verslun Hrísey (tel. 466-1213; Mon-Fri 11am-6pm; Sat 11am-5pm; Sun noon-5pm), a short walk from the harbor, has seating for snacks such as skýr and hot dogs. The only restaurant and lodgings are at Brekka (tel. 466-1751; firstname.lastname@example.org; AE, MC, V; restaurant Jun-Aug daily 11:30am-9pm, Sept-May Fri-Sat dinner only), a yellow building visible from the harbor. The restaurant is far better than anticipated, with first-rate fish, lobster, and lamb dishes (2,500kr-5,400kr/$40-$86/£20-£43) as well as burgers, pizzas, and sandwiches (850kr-1,590kr/$14-$25/£6.80-£13). Four basic doubles with shared bathroom and ocean views go for 5,600kr ($90/£45).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.