At the edge of Lake Myvatn, in northern Iceland, the gorse is still green, the sunlight bounces off lava rocks and the sky is blue, even in late September. But the chop on the water and the smoke from the distant Bardarbunga volcano hint that it will not always be so. Winter is coming.
And that brings a smile to the lips of Game of Thrones fans, for it is here, along the jagged shoreline and among the bizarrely shaped pillars of lava rock, that (spoiler alert) Jon Snow denounced the men of the Night's Watch and pretended to side with the Wildlings. Here he found love with Ygritte, hid from the White Walkers, and tried to save Winterfell, his family, and the world he knew.
For devotees of the fantasy TV show (more than 18 million viewers per episode last year), this is the motherlode – the land beyond the Wall, the battleground where men and monsters clash, and where a wolf can be both friend and protector. The Icelandic landscape appears so alien to visitors that it is a small leap to accept it as the homeland of the fictional characters.
And making the leap is easy: Organized tours of Game of Thrones Icelandic filming sites are available, running from one day to a week. I spent four days in Akureyri, the centre for filming most of the show's winter scenes and the land beyond the Wall. That gave me lots of time to explore the town and countryside, tour the GoT sites and even fit in a plane ride over an active volcano.
Akureyri is Iceland's second-largest city, located on the long fjord Eyjafjordur, on the far northern edge of the country. As part of a day-long GoT tour, we visited the Godafoss waterfall, a small but dramatic version of Niagara but without guard rails, fast-food outlets or warning signs.
We also hiked along the shoreline of Lake Myvatn, the location site for scenes in the encampment of the Free Folk. The glacial lake glitters steely blue in the sun, dotted with convoluted columns of lava pillars, topped with hardy grasses and lichen. Around the lake, black lava fields stretch to the base of glacier-topped mountains. Perfect GoT terrain.
Nearby is the Vogafjos guest house and its Cow Shed Café, where we stopped for dinner. The rusticfarm restaurant serves local produce, with cows actually bedded down next to the diners, behind large windows. The food is excellent; I went for the "Wildling special," braised lamb shanks named in honour of GoT cast and crew, who ate there often.
Also nearby is the mysterious Hverir, a craterous geothermal field rife with hot pools, bubbling mud pits and steaming eruptions. (It's rumoured that future scenes will be set in these hot pools.)
Late in the evening, we experienced an Icelandic ritual: communal bathing. The Myvatn Nature Baths, overlooking the lake and the volcanic crater of Hverfjall, offers a series of pools filled with geothermal water drawn from depths of up to 2,500 metres. Soaking in the pools is a social event, one the GoT crew enjoyed often at the end of a long day of filming in winter weather. On this Saturday night, it seemed as if most of the town was here.
As darkness fell, we drove beyond the lights of town and witnessed the northern lights, green flashes in the dark sky. Just beyond the mountains, the still-active Bardarbunga volcano glowed red.
GoT is only the latest show to use Iceland as a location site; its remarkable scenery has appeared in a wide variety of films, including Flags of Our Fathers; Lara Croft, Tomb Raider; Prometheus and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Snorri Thorisson, the Icelander who was line producer for the 17 GoT episodes filmed here, described the conditions encountered by cast and crew. Because actor Kit Harington (who plays Jon Snow) broke his ankle, filming had to be delayed until late November. "We had only four and a half hours of daylight so we prepared in the dark and wrapped in the dark," Thorisson recalled. "There were snowstorms and blizzards, but the actors' costumes were warm. … They stood in the snow, knelt on the ice and had icicles in their beards – but it added to the authenticity."
IF YOU GO
Iceland Air flies regular non-stop flights from Halifax, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver to Keflavik International Airport, a 40-minute drive from the capital, Reykjavik. Iceland Air also operates daily 45-minute flights from Reykjavik to Akureyri. icelandair.com
Touring aroundIceland Travel offers "Beyond the Wall" Game of Thrones tours, with guided bus excursions or drive-yourself options. One package includes two nights in Reykjavik and two nights in Akureyri (including breakfast), return flight from Reykjavik-Akureyri, and a guided tour of GoT sites. icelandtravel.is
The Traveling Viking (ttv.is) has escorted GoT tours from Akureyri, while Saga Travel offers guided day tours of GoT sites, from Akureyri, as well as tours of waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes. sagatravel.is
Where to stayIcelandair Hotel Akureyri is a warmly inviting Nordic-style hotel. Attractive rooms are spare but spacious and the dining room is excellent. Thermal soaking pools are only steps from the hotel, and botanical gardens are a short walk. Rooms range from about $100 to $320. icelandairhotels.com
Good quality bed and breakfasts are plentiful in the countryside. Combined with a rental car and a good map, they are an affordable way to visit. farmholidays.is
Culture notesBe prepared for sticker shock: Prices for food, alcohol and gasoline are high in Iceland (a simple sandwich and a bowl of soup at Keflavik airport cost nearly $30). Your best bet is the fresh fish and seafood and (surprisingly) fresh vegetables, grown year-round in geothermal-powered greenhouses. Traditional hand-knit wool sweaters start at around $200. But most visitors don't come to Iceland for the food or shopping. The main draw is its incredible scenery, best enjoyed through hiking, biking, skiing and horseback riding; and its thriving music and artistic communities.