The tiny isle of Grímsey is an utterly pure and separate world from the rest of Iceland, 40km (24.5 miles) off the northern coast. As the country’s remotest (inhabited) offshore island, Grímsey grants the traveller the gift of isolation and windswept beauty. On one side, a mighty wall of basalt cliffs stands firm against the open sea – from these great heights the island descends in a slope of green lumpy fields to the opposite shore with its lowly coves and harbour. The island is pleasantly small (5.3km² or two square miles), like a punctuation mark for the whole of Iceland. Besides a handful of resolute islanders and a few million seabirds, there are only rocks, grass, the wind and the sea.
Just being on Grímsey feels like stepping off the edge of the earth. The next stop north is the North Pole and when the sky is clear, locals point south to ‘Iceland’: the jagged line of grey-ish mountains that stretch from Skagafjörður to Melrakkaslétta. Exposed as it is, Grímsey gets hit with the full force of Iceland’s terrific weather in the summer and less-than-terrific weather in the winter.
Things are always a bit blustery, the fog rolls in and out and then the wind picks up. There’s sudden rain, sleet, hail, or snow – huge waves crash on all sides and then, total silence. On those days, Grímsey feels like the most peaceful place on earth. On other days, watching the sky is sheer entertainment. Grímsey is also one of the few spots in Iceland where you can see the entire ‘midnight sun’ above the horizon, and in winter’s months of darkness the northern lights streak a bright blue, green and red.
What to see and do
The southern end of the island descends in a chain of broken rocks and skerries, and it’s a good place to (safely) watch the furious sea. The fluorescent-orange Grímsey lighthouse sits square and squat at the edge of the southernmost cliff, built in 1937 and still functioning in winter. On a clear day, the view of the mainland from the lighthouse deck is magnificent. Moving up the road takes you past several old farms up to Grímseyarkirkja. The island church was built in 1867 out of driftwood, replacing a turf church dating from 1254. The white- and-red exterior is classic for Iceland, as is the cerulean roof and gold stars indoors.
Most of the ‘town’ is in the middle of the island next to the harbour. Vallargata is the residential street that looks incredibly suburban; Hafnargata is the street by the harbour. There’s always something going on by the water, and it can be interesting to watch the fishermen unloading their catch, typically in the afternoon. The large building on the hill above the harbour is the island’s salt cod factory where the fish is cleaned, salted, and packed for shipment. Someone’s always working here, but you can normally take a peek or else arrange for an informal tour (it smells awful).
Past the town and up the road are the airport and the Arctic Circle Monument, complete with the photogenic ‘Grímsey’ sign. However, since its inauguration in 2017, travellers looking to actually cross into the Arctic Circle must make the trek to the permanent artwork Orbis et Globus. This giant concrete sphere at the far northern tip of the island tracks the shifting boundary of the Arctic Circle, which changes annually with the tilting of earth’s axis. Each year, before the summer solstice festival, the sphere is rolled to its new location. However the boundary is notoriously difficult to nail down.
Getting there and away
Grímsey is not good for tight schedules. The uncertainty of getting on and off the island is exactly why this island is such a special place. Yes, flights and ferries are scheduled to be frequent and regular, but everything depends on the severe mood swings of island weather. A slight fog or wind is enough to cancel a trip for the day – when you see the tiny island from the air, it makes perfect sense that a sane pilot would not want to try to land a plane in the haze. If you have a tight schedule, it’s a good idea to come up with a Plan B, just in case.
The flight between Grímsey and Akureyri is a magnificent experience and the plane small enough for everyone to get a window seat from every angle. The whole trip takes less than 20 minutes, but passes over the spectacular mountains of Látraströnd, then across the empty sea before dropping into the middle and landing on the strip of rock and grass. Visit Air Iceland Connect for more information.