Sauðarkrókur

This town of 2,700 inhabitants is more than a convenient regional base with good dining and accommodations. It's also an agreeable base to come back to at the end of the day and enjoy an after-dinner stroll in the older part of town. Consider unwinding at the town pool, which has two large Jacuzzis (ask to have the bubbles turned on).

Drangey & Málmey

These two uninhabited, bird-rich islands -- whose fantastical shapes look like artists' creations -- make for an ideal joint tour. Drangey is surrounded by vertical cliffs reaching 180m (591 ft.). From a distance it appears cylindrical, but a closer look reveals strange contortions and indentations in the rock face. It's the ultimate fortress, and in The Saga of Grettir the Strong (aka Grettis Saga), one of Iceland's best-known legends, the outlaw Grettir spends the last three years of his life here. Sheep once grazed on Drangey's smooth top and had to be hoisted up and down with ropes. From the single landing spot, a steep path ascends to the top with ladders and cable handrails. Málmey is larger, with an elegant S-shaped contour, and reaches 156m (512 ft.) high. A family farm prospered here before burning down in 1950.

Jón Eiríksson, "the Earl of Drangey" (tel. 453-6503 or 846-8150; fagri@simnet.is), leads tours of both islands on request. Tours can leave from Sauðárkrókur, though he prefers setting off from Fagranes farm or Reykir on Skagafjörður's west coast. The price is 5,000kr ($80/£40) per person, but could be higher if the group numbers fewer than six. If you'd like to include fishing, let him know. Jón's English is limited; if you have trouble, call his son Jón (tel. 847-9600), who often leads the tours. If a tour with the Jóns doesn't work out, contact visitor information at Varmahlíð and ask them to find a guide in Hofsós.

Grettislaug

In Grettis Saga, Grettir swims from Drangey to the western shore of Skagafjörður, where he bathes in a geothermal spring and then fetches some glowing embers to bring back to the island. 962 years later, in 1992, Jón Eiríksson built Grettislaug, a pool in open surroundings at Grettir's legendary bathing spot. An adjacent pool was added in 2006. Both are constructed with natural stones and remain at bathwater temperature. For a memorable swim at Grettislaug, drive north from Sauðárkrókur on Route 748 to the end of the road. The pools do not yet have toilets or changing rooms, and bathers are asked to contribute 200kr ($3.20/£1.60) into a metal box.

Jón's house is close by, and farther uphill is a shed with a fluorescent tube over the door. This is Jón's homemade hydroelectric power station, which utilizes the stream toppling from the mountain 500m (1,640 ft.) away. On a clear day, you could walk farther up the mountain for a view over the fjord.

Hólar

Hólar (tel. 455-6300; free admission; all sites open daily 9am-6pm unless otherwise specified), also known as Hólar Í Hjaltadalur, was the northern seat of power in Iceland's Catholic era. Today's visitors see little direct connection to its bygone prestige, but the present cathedral Hóladómkirkja displays perhaps the best artifacts of any church in Iceland.

In 1056, Iceland's first Catholic bishop was installed at Skálholt in the southwest. Northern Icelanders complained he was too far away, and fifty years later a second diocese was added at Hólar. Just before the Reformation, the Hólar bishopric owned a 70-ton ship, invaluable manuscripts, stockpiles of gold and silver, and large holdings of land and livestock -- all ripe for confiscation by the Danish king, who, like other European monarchs of the time, realized Protestantism would ease his financial problems. Hólar's last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason (1484-1550) was beheaded at Skálholt, after leading a rebellion against the king. Lutheran bishops remained at Hólar until 1798, when the two bishoprics were consolidated and relocated to Reykjavík. Hólar is now home to about 60 people and Hólaskóli, a small university.

Hólaskóli's main building holds a restaurant, pool, and guesthouse. In the lobby you'll find the free brochure Hólar History Trail, which lays out the nearby sights in walking tour format. Nyibær is a preserved 19th-century turf farmhouse, but it's empty and hardly worth visiting with Glaumbær so close by. Auðun's House (Auðunarstofa) is a reconstruction of a bishop's residence from the early 14th century, built in 2002 with only 14th-century building methods. A 13th-century chalice, vestments, and medieval manuscripts are stored in the basement, which should open as an exhibit around 2010; in the meantime only group tours are let in.

Built in 1763, the current cathedral, though large by Icelandic standards, is the smallest ever built at Hólar. It's also Iceland's oldest stone church, built with local red sandstone and basalt. The detached bell tower was consecrated in 1950; just inside the entrance is a 1957 mosaic of Jón Arason by the well-known contemporary artist Erró, then barely out of art school.

Inside the cathedral, a glass case holds a 1584 Bible, the first printing in Icelandic. A painting of a Hólar bishop, from 1620, is the oldest known portrait of any Icelander. On the side wall is a crucifix from the early 16th century. Its large size and visceral gore are uncharacteristic of Lutheran churches, and it's surprising to learn it was imported in the mid-17th century after the Reformation, probably from southern Europe. The 1674 baptismal font is made of soapstone, which -- according to popular lore -- drifted to Iceland on an ice floe from Greenland. More likely, it was imported from Norway.

The altarpiece, made around 1500, is an impressive, painted wooden sculpture depicting the Crucifixion story in the center with apostles and saints on the wings. Jón Arason bought the piece in Holland, though it's thought to be German. Both side panels swivel inward, revealing paintings on their back sides; on the right side, Saint Sebastian spurts blood from several arrow wounds, while St. Lucy is indifferent to a sword through her neck. Make sure to ask the attendant to draw out these back panels for you. An even older altarpiece from Nottingham, England, made of alabaster and also in sculpted storybook form, hangs over the side entrance.

An attendant is always on hand for questions, but tours (300kr/$4.80/£2.40) are only given for groups; so call ahead. A concert series is held in the cathedral from June to August, and the schedule is posted online at www.kirkjan.is/holar, but only in Icelandic. Evening prayers are at 6pm Monday to Saturday, and Sunday services are at 11am. A single Catholic ceremony is held each summer.

Hofsós & Nearby

Hofsós, a trading post dating back to the 16th century, has maintained its throwback feel by preserving some of its 18th-century buildings and replicating others.

Siglufjördður

The impossibly picturesque town of Siglufjörður is accessible by a single road that winds along a pretty stretch of remote coastline. Visitors experience disbelief that such an established community would be deposited there, inside a short, steep-sided fjord less than 40km (25 miles) from the Arctic Circle.

Siglufjörður, which still runs on fish, was a herring boom town in the early and mid-20th century. During the town's herring heyday, hundreds of ships were docked in the harbor, and hordes of girls came for the summer to gut, salt, and pack the fish in barrels for export. Herring populations plummeted after World War II, thanks to overfishing aided by sonar equipment, and, in 1969, the herring failed to show up entirely. Since then, thanks to better oversight, herring numbers have largely recovered.

A walk around the docks is a good window on the fishing life. Any pungent odor emanating from the fish factory is what Icelanders call "the smell of money." The town has preserved its older buildings well, and its faded glory is worn gracefully. The population, now around 1400, has slipped slowly but surely each year, but the pattern could reverse when a new tunnel east to Ólafsfjörður is completed in December 2009. Surely Siglufjörður's teenagers are counting the months; the drive to Akureyri will be cut from 3 hours to 1.

Besides strolling around town, or perhaps a round on the nine-hole golf course, the main activities for visitors are the Herring Era Museum and the fine hiking nearby. From mid-June to mid-August, you might time your visit for a Saturday, when herring-salting demonstrations are presented at 3pm, complete with costumes, song, dance, and accordions. Tickets are 1,000kr ($16/£8) and include museum admission. On the first weekend of August, a celebratory holiday across the country, Siglufjörður draws hundreds of visitors for its nostalgic "Herring Adventure Festival," with musical performances, family entertainment, and yet more fish preparation demos. In early July, a 5-day folk music festival (www.siglo.is/festival) includes workshops as well as concerts day and night by Icelandic and international artists.

The Siglufjörður area offers several first-rate hiking routes. Avid hikers can sustain themselves for two full day trips, one to the west of the fjord and one to the east. Routes are well annotated at http://siglo.is/en; click the "tourism" link, then "hiking trails." The excellent and widely available new trail map Gönguleiðir á Tröllaskaga II: Fljót, Siglufjörður, Ólafsfjörður, Svarfaðardalur has no trail descriptions in English, but you can still deduce estimated walking times and altitudes. A short hike on the fjord's eastern shore leads to the Stadarhólsfjara herring factory, destroyed by an avalanche in 1919. Two routes head east overland to Héðinsfjörður, a wild and beautiful fjord abandoned in 1951; the shorter route is at least 4 hours one-way. A popular hike follows the old road leading west through the 630m (2,067 ft.) Siglufjörðarskarð Pass; this road is usually free of snowdrifts and passable in 4WD vehicles from early July to late August. Instead of taking the full 15km (9 miles) route one-way, and having to arrange transportation back, you could cut north along the ridge and then descend into town in a strenuous but very rewarding 6- to 7-hour loop.

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.