Tucked away on the bend of Iceland’s famous Golden Circle is Efstidalur, a family-run farm which welcomes guests to their restaurant for local meals and to their hotel for a night’s stay in rugged, rural Iceland.
The family has owned Efstidalur and its land since 1750, and it has been passed down to family members for generations. Today the farm is run by four siblings and their cousin, Ísak, who I had the pleasure of chatting with recently. We discussed the importance of family, community, and locality, as well as favourite ice cream flavours.
Hi Ísak, can you tell me about how Efstidalur became the popular tourist attraction it is today?
“I would make the case that the Golden Circle is probably the main hub of tourism in Iceland. It’s where so many of the waterfalls are, as well as the geysers. It’s all here, it’s all very accessible, and we’re right in the middle of it.
“The majority of our clients are people who are travelling, though it’s a split between young couples and families who are on their own journey and stopping by, and groups like Contiki who come to participate in a farming experience and tasting of our products.
“Every year we say we can’t take more people than we did this year, and every year we do.”
What can our Contiki travellers expect from a visit at Efstidalur?
“First and foremost they’d get a very legitimate representation of life on an Icelandic farm. We try to have everything very open and visitors are free to roam around and see what they want to see. They’ll probably meet one of us, either myself or one of the cousins, maybe our kids as well, and we’re always happy to have a chat.
“Part of what we prepare for our Contiki tours is a farm presentation where the travellers will get to learn everything about how the farm works and what we do. Then we also have a product tasting with the farm-to-table lunch and our fresh homemade ice cream after!
“When we give these presentations, what we’re trying to do is give them an understanding of how the farm works, and how our community works, how it’s different to their own. And the Contiki groups are always so curious, they ask so many questions which is great.”
What’s the story behind Efstidalur’s famous ice cream?
“Ice cream is a really big deal in Iceland, we eat it at all times of the year, even in the height of winter. The reason for it, historically, is that we never had much of anything apart from milk, so ice cream became this easily available treat! It’s a huge part of our culture really, every town in Iceland has at least one ice cream shop.
“We decided to make it here because it just made sense. We have fresh milk everyday, so we separate that to make cream, which becomes ice cream, and low fat milk which we use to make cheeses and yoghurt. And for the flavours, we buy fresh ingredients like strawberries and blueberries from the other farms around us.”
I noticed on the farm’s logo that Efstidalur is followed by ‘II’. Where does this come from?
“So, Efstidalur means ‘highest valley’ and that’s because we sit on the highest part of a big valley called Lowell. The ‘II’ is because of a fun historical anecdote! Back in the 1800s it was traditional in Iceland that inheritance was passed down only to the oldest male heir, however there was a time when the family had no male heirs, only two daughters.
“The procedure in these circumstances wasn’t clear, so they basically just split the farm and the land in two. So, there’s two farms now. We live along the same fence now, though we’re not really tied to each other anymore, apart from through very distant relatives. But we have a very good and friendly relationship.”
In the short documentary on your website growing up on a farm is described as being a privilege. Can you explain what farming and Efstidalur’s heritage means to you?
“I can say for my part that what I really like about it is that it feels like we’re doing something very genuine. You’re providing, you’re creating, you’re preserving a culture and a history. Of course, it’s hard work, but I don’t know any kids who grew up on a farm who think that’s a bad thing.
“In Iceland, especially, in these small farming communities, you grow up together and create these very tight-knit relationships. There’s maybe 10 kids in a class and you all become very close and you’re with each other through childhood, then adulthood, you’re still working with them, you’re still together.
“I think what’s cool about Efstidalur is that we have everything on display, we have nothing to hide. It’s my understanding that a lot of people don’t actually know how farming works, and they don’t know that farming can be done sustainably and with care. There is a genuine place for small family-run businesses who put animal welfare at the forefront of everything they do and provide for the communities around them.”
As a family owned business, how important is family to you guys?
“It’s everything, you know? They say ‘don’t work with family, don’t work with kids, don’t work with animals’ and we do all of it. The whole business has been based on family, and part of the reason we became a tourist attraction was because of family as well: to create more jobs for us all and more income. We all want to provide for each other.
“It’s very rare, these days, that younger generations stay at home and take on the family business, but with us, the more time has passed, the more our family members have come home. Family is very important, and it’s very much the core of our brand. The whole point of what we’re doing is to try and give people a little taste of what it’s like being a farming family in Iceland.”
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Efstidalur’s restaurant uses only local meat and produce, from your own farm and others around you. By including the local Icelandic people in your business, does that create a different kind of family?
“Absolutely. As you said, it’s really important for us to take part in the community that we live in. We could buy all our ingredients imported for much cheaper, but we prefer to get our produce from our neighbours. We know them, we know they have a greenhouse growing everything we need, we know how they grow it, etc. They come over and deliver the salad, tomatoes, bell peppers, and they sit and have a coffee with us and we get to talking.
“We’re all one big community and it’s good to know that we’re all getting something out of it as well. It extends to more than just to food as well. For example, one of our neighbours is an accountant, and her husband is a builder who is actually building some new rooms for us right now! We also sponsor our local sports team.
“For us, and everyone in Iceland, it’s important to be an active part of the community you live in.”
Do you think that travelling and meeting different communities can create similar bonds?
“Yes. I think, most people, when they go to travel, especially in a place like Iceland, it’s not to just sit on the beach and drink some beers. It’s to really take part in something. When they come to Efstidalur and meet our family and our dogs and our cows, they’re engaging with new people and taking part in our way of life, even briefly.
“The visitors are all so interested as well, and it makes me laugh. I thought they would ask questions on farming, but instead they’re really interested in us personally and our rural town, you know? ‘How do you find a girlfriend in this tiny town?’ ‘Where do the kids go to school?’.
Part of what we love about travel at Contiki is having these MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experiences and getting to know the communities we visit. What makes travel matter to you?
“For me it’s a question of broadening my horizons and learning from people. You can learn so much either for your own interests, or there are so many lessons you can take home as well.
“I tend to take the Contiki groups myself because I enjoy them. The reason being that you can clearly see that they’re like-minded people and it’s clear that this tour appeals to people who aren’t necessarily going to see the quick sites and go home. They very clearly have a deeper interest – my presentations are never as long as they are when I do them for the Contiki group because they won’t stop asking questions, because I think they’re genuinely interested.
“We love doing this, opening our farm to visitors. We do it because we love our farm, we love our family, and we love our community.”