If you've seen a map of Iceland, the chances are you've noticed its big, craggy ‘head’ in the northwest corner and marvelled at how it makes the country look like some sort of morbidly obese slug monster. Clearly.
Noticing the Westfjords (Vestfirðir) peninsula on a map is often as far as the visitor to Iceland goes in exploring it. It remains to many a mysterious far-off land at the end of two or three quiet roads off Route 1 that they never dare to turn down. And that is a crying shame, because the Westfjords is totally unique and totally spectacular.
It is often said that the Westfjords region is ‘another Iceland’ – meaning that it is distinctly and proudly Iceland, but that its landscape and local culture set it quite apart from the rest of the country.
The region is characterized by towering mountains, like competing tsunamis fighting for control over the deep fjords. And when there is a town in the middle of the ‘battle’ – like the region’s largest town, Ísafjörður – the visual impact on the visitor is always huge. About half feel the sheer mountains on all sides are embracing them and making them feel unexpectedly comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings; while the other half find the mountains stifling and as though they are trying to trap them.
The latter group can easily escape up one of the region’s many lush valley pastures, or over an old mountain road which will provide immense landscapes and panoramic views in a matter of minutes. There is no shortage of space in the Westfjords and the landscape makes mere humans feel very small indeed.
There are few places where whales and seals swim alongside roads; but the deep fjords and winding roads of the Westfjords make spotting a whale from your driving seat a real, if bizarre, possibility. Not that you should take your eyes off the road; because in summer they are covered in sheep and angry birds. In the winter the region’s rural roads are inexplicably covered in mice…and often ice as well.
But what to do in the Westfjords, you ask? Well, the region is home to (take a deep breath before starting):
The westernmost point in Europe, the only place in Iceland where the Arctic fox is formally protected, the Arctic fox centre and museum, the only glacier in Iceland which is not shrinking, two of the biggest and best bird cliffs in Europe, the bewitching Dynjandi waterfall, the museum of witchcraft and sorcery, some of Iceland’s only yellow sand beaches, Iceland’s only remaining windmill (from 1849), the oldest houses in the country, the best bakery in the country, putrefied skate to die for, a sheep museum, a real stuffed flamingo which arrived all by itself (while still alive), great skiing, great kayaking, sailing, snowmobiling, the current president comes from the Westfjords, the Icelandic music museum, an aviation museum, the annual European mud football championships, the second-best-known Icelandic music festival (free entry), only one branch of Bónus, a castle owned by Germans, at least three swimming pools unlike anything you’ve ever tried before (the swimming pool at Hótel Reykjanes, Heydalur thermal springs and Krossneslaug), and not a single pig in the whole region. There used to be one, but apparently he died. You can, however, see guinea pigs if you so desire.
Getting to the Westfjords is easy; if not always particularly quick. Driving there takes three to six hours from Reykjavík, depending on where your destination is. You can fly to Ísafjörður or Bíldudalur. You can get the coach in the summer. There is a ferry from Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and you can even get to Hólmavík on the Reykjavík city bus service (route 59)!