Horseback Riding on the Southern Coast
The south coast of Snæfellsnes, with its sand beaches, lava fields, and sightings of birds and seals, is a marvelous setting for riders of all levels.
Snorrastaðir Farm (tel. 435-6628; www.snorrastadir.is), at the base of the peninsula, leads rides on the picturesque sands of Löngufjörur at an hourly rate of around 4,800kr. Accommodations, if needed, are in functional up-to-six-person private cabins (set at a weekly rate of 15,500kir per person). The turnoff from Route 54 is 35km (22 miles) from Borgarnes, and the farm is 2km (1 1/4 miles) farther ahead.
Hótel Eldborg (tel. 435-6602; www.hoteleldborg.is) has a 2,800kr package that includes a 4-hour ride on Löngufjörur, a night's lodging (before or after the ride), three-course dinner, and breakfast. The hotel is in a school building and operates only from June 5 to August 20; the 16 rooms are simple, with shared facilities. To get there, exit Route 54 onto Route 567, about 46km (29 miles) from Borgarnes, and proceed 4km (2 1/2 miles).
Lýsuhóll Farm (tel. 435-6716; www.lysuholl.is), the leading horse tour operator on the south coast, is based farther west, about 9km (5 1/2 miles) east of the southern junction of Route 54 and Route 574 (next to the Lýsuhóll geothermal swimming pool). Tours range from 60-minute rides (6,000kr) or day trips (23,000kr) to 8-day explorations of Snæfellsnes (261,100kr with full room and board). Lýsuhóll is near Búðir and Búðavík, recommended destinations for a few-hour jaunt.
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull glacier lies atop a 1,446m-high (4,744-ft.) volcano that last erupted around the year 250. The national park, inaugurated in 2001, extends down from the glacier and volcano to cover the entire western tip of Snæfellsnes peninsula.
The National Park Visitor Center (Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull) (tel. 436-6888 or 855-4260; www.ust.is; 20 May-10 Sept daily 10am-6pm) is in Hellnar, on the main road leading into the village. A second visitor center will soon be in Hellissandur, on the north coast. Park information is also found in Ólafsvík, at the Pakkhúsið on Route 574 (tel. 436-1543; May-Sept daily 11am-5pm). All these information centers carry a good topographical hiking map of the park.
When seen from Reykjavík, 115km (71 1/2 miles) away, Snæfellsjökull glitters by day and glows red at dusk; sometimes the sun sets directly behind it. With its near-symmetrical white cone and iconic stature, Snæfellsjökull could be compared to another dormant volcano: Japan's Mt. Fuji. Both mountains have exerted an unusual grip on artists, writers, and spiritualists. Jules Verne, in his 1864 sci-fi novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, made Snæfellsjökull the entry portal for a scientific expedition to the earth's core. In the Halldór Laxness novel Under the Glacier, Snæfellsjökull inspires an almost hallucinatory religious transformation in a small Snæfellsnes community. New Agers make pilgrimages to the glacier, believing it to be one of the earth's primary "energy points." Snæfellsjökull was exceptional even to the Vikings, who thought trolls lived inside it. (Trolls normally prefer rock dwellings.) Sadly, Snæfellsjökull -- already one of Iceland's smallest glaciers -- is shrinking rapidly. Since 1996, the icecap has dwindled from 14 sq. km to 11 sq. km (5 1/4 sq. miles-4 1/4 sq. miles), and more and more rocks poke through.
Activities on the Glacier -- Glacier conditions vary, and the visitor center should be consulted before you do any climbing. Generally the best access is from Route 570, which skirts the eastern side of the glacier and connects with Route 574 on the south and north coasts, near Arnarstapi and Ólafsvík. Regular cars can usually traverse Route 570 in summer. (Snjófell, the tour operator listed below, can take you from Arnarstapi to the glacier's edge for 1,300kr/$21/£10 round-trip.) Continuing 1.3km north on Route 570, you will come to a parking area near the Sönghellir “singing cave.” About 100m (330 ft.) along the walking path is the tiny cave, and if you have a flashlight, peek inside at the graffiti dating back centuries. The cave’s famous echoing potential is best exploited when you stand outside the entrance and sing.
Hiking routes from Route 570 to the summit are inconsistent from year to year. The usual advice is to walk on tracks formed by snowmobiles and snow tractors, lessening the chances of falling into a hidden crevasse. Warning: Conditions are worsening as the glacier melts, and as a rule no one should climb Snæfellsjökull on foot before mid-February or after late July. The best time for an ascent is from March to May. Always be prepared for a sudden onslaught of rough weather. No technical equipment is necessary, except at the spire of rock at the final summit, which is sometimes coated in ice, necessitating an ice axe and crampons. The crater, about 1km (3/4 miles) in diameter, is filled in with ice, and two lesser summits are along the ring. Go West (tel. 694-9513; www.glaciers.is) offers technical hikes with gear on the glacier from July to September; it’s 18,000kr from Arnarstapi, or 22,000kr from Reykjavik.
Snowmobile and "snow cat" tours up Snæfellsjökull are arranged by The Glacier (tel. 663-3371; www.theglacier.is), based in Arnarstapi. Scheduled trips run throughout the day from mid-February to mid-August, with additional 9pm and 11pm departures in summer to enjoy the midnight sun. Snow cats are tractor-like behemoths with bench space for up to 20 passengers. A snowmobile tour is 11,000kr per person (six-person minimum), and snow cat tours are 25,000kr. Prices include snow suit, gloves, and helmet.
Whale-Watching & Horseback Riding on the North Coast
Ólafsvík is one of Iceland's best launch points for whale-watching, with a success rate around 97%. The most common sightings, however, are minke whales, which are 7m to 8m (23-26 ft.) long and only flash their backs for a few quick breaths. Dolphins turn up on two out of three occasions and put on a better show. Lucky passengers see orcas (aka killer whales), sperm whales, or blue whales. Travelers headed to the north coast are advised to wait and take their chances in Húsavík, close to a migratory route for the histrionic humpback whale.
Whale-watching tours depart from Ólafsvík with either Seatours (Sæferðir) (tel. 433-2254; www.seatours.is) or Laki Tours (tel. 546-6808; www.lakitours.com) at 8,900kr for either.
Reykjavík Excursions (tel. 562-1011; www.re.is) offers a 15,700kr ($251/£126) day package from Reykjavík to Ólafsvík, including a whale-watching tour and a visit to the shark-curing operation at Bjarnarhöfn Farm -- but whale-watching from Reykjavík is almost as good, so the high cost may be hard to justify.
The best horseback riding outfit on the north coast is Kverná (tel. 438-6813; www.simnet.is/kverna), a farm 1km (1/2 mile) east of Grundarfjörður. Tours vary from 1 hour to 14 days and can range all over Snæfellsnes. A compelling nearby destination for a shorter ride is Kirkjufell Mountain (7,500kr/$120/£60; 2 hours) .