Three fun-packed days in the Westfjords
Why not get out of the city and visit Iceland's most remote quarter: The West Fjords.
You've probably heard a lot about the fjords of Norway but what about the fjords of Iceland? As a nature enthusiast born and raised in Iceland's only city, Reykjavík, I have made it my business to travel all over my little island. Although I have family in tiny little villages in the North and East, and spent all my summers as a child on various farms in the South, I‘ve seen very little of Iceland's most remote quarter: The West Fjords.
If you're one of those people that see a sheep lying down when you look at Iceland on a map (yes, many people do), the West Fjords is the head of the sheep. According to folklore the odd shape is the result of a troll trying to dig its way from Hrútafjörður to Breiðafjörður, creating the “sheep's” slender neck. Truth of the matter is that trolls have wreaked havoc all over the West Fjords, tossing each other out into the fjords eventually forming little islands or rocks just offshore, peeing all over someone's excellent farmland, creating swamps that never dry up; stealing sheep, cattle and roaming the moors. Perhaps that's why the Westfjords have such a long and rich history of witchcraft and magic and every other stone has a story of its own.
A vacation to the oldest part of Iceland
The West Fjords are actually the oldest part of Iceland, having formed 10-16 million years ago and oddly enough, you can sort of tell by just looking at the mountains that just seem different from the rest of this island. Whatever your beliefs, be it trolls or geology, the area is truly unique, with its narrow fjords, steep mountains, remote islands, awe-inspiring landscapes and let's not forget the (at times) terrifying road system.
When it came to choosing a holiday destination for a whopping three day getaway, I decided it was about time I got to know this mysterious part of my country. I'm not the only Icelander who's a stranger to this area. The West Fjords are not part of Route 1, the highway that circles Iceland and connects some of the country's most popular tourist destinations, and as a result, they always seem a little out of the way; you need to be heading there with an agenda, which is exactly what I did. Since my car is, in all due respect, an antique, I chose to fly to Ísafjörður, the region's capital, but don't be fooled by the title, it's a town of just 2,500 people.
On clear days the flight is scenic and beautiful and ends in an unforgettable way when the airplane heads into the narrow fjord and all you can see are mountains on either side of the plane before making a turn and landing on a runway heading back out of the fjord.
Familiar and friendly
I've seen my fair share of Icelandic towns and villages so I figured I knew exactly what awaited me, but I was in for quite a surprise. Ísafjörður felt like a huge tiny little village. I immediately spotted the usual suspects of larger Icelandic towns: the town square, the bookstore, the fast food places, the pubs, cafés and museums but at the same time the houses were old and beautifully kept; the people called out greetings to each other across the street and everywhere I went I was met with friendly dispositions mixed with amicable curiosity and a couple of people I ran onto, shared stories about local people and places. When I accidentally walked straight into someone's kitchen, thinking it was a church, the person sitting at their kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the paper, simply just showed me in and we had a nice chat. When I tried to pay for my tea with a credit card the bartender insisted it wasn't worth charging me for it. When my travel companion pulled the door handle of a closed corner shop at midnight, the staff there cleaning up opened a large window to let him in so the poor bloke could buy a sandwich. And the list goes on. As an Icelander, everything felt familiar, but at the same time, everything felt slightly odd.
Knowing absolutely nobody in Ísafjörður, we stayed at Hótel Horn (Corner Hotel), a relatively new hotel situated on a street corner in the middle of the town centre. It was a wonderful mixture of luxurious minimalistic design and a homey atmosphere with no room service, limited reception hours and a friendly and relaxed staff. It suited us perfectly as a very comfortable place to sleep, shower and reboot between excursions and the location was perfect.
Culture walks and safaris
Day one and we decided to sign up for the “Ísafjörður walk”, a guided tour around the town with Helga Hausner, a German woman who has lived there for years. She showed up dressed like a woman from the 19th century and proceeded to walk the group through the town and its history in two hours. The tour was very informative as I knew nothing about its history, and fun since Helga is a charismatic lady who clearly loves what she does. Her foreign accent added a quirky note to the historical atmosphere. There's another thing I noticed about Ísafjörður, it's the wonderful multicultural vibe of the town, much more so than in your average Icelandic countryside hamlet. During our three day stay we met people from Poland, Germany, Thailand, USA and Canada, living and working in the town and they all seemed to speak incredibly good Icelandic.
Later that day, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and booked the “Rib Boat Safari Tour”, a four hour whale watching trip in Ísafjarðardjúp with a stop at Vigur Island. You should know that I'm not a big boatperson nor am I a big fan of things that make my adrenaline pump. I was, therefore, a little apprehensive about this tour since I've seen these rib boats in action. They go really fast, jump up really high and are, by default, boats. I surveyed the boat's captain with suspicion since he looked a little too urban and not much like an old veteran of the sea capable of being responsible for my life for the next four hours.
Again I was in for a surprise on all accounts. The captain, despite his terribly young age of 34, was in fact a veteran of these waters and had been fishing there since he was a kid. The suit they gave me kept me WARM for the duration of our trip and although the boat did go really fast and jump up really high a few times, I was never scared and it felt incredibly smooth and comfortable. My sheer enjoyment was tickled by the ridiculous number of whales we saw up close and the absolutely great atmosphere on our boat.
The two German women sitting in front of us with their massive and immensely expensive cameras, screeched with joy at every whale sighting (one rarely hears Germans screech) and the elderly British couple behind us laughed themselves silly with excitement (one rarely sees Brits get excited). Us Icelanders tried to play it cool at first but we were all in after a few minutes. When the boat pulled up at Vigur (an island in the middle of one of Iceland's largest fjords) we could see someone coming down to the pier to greet us along with his two loyal dogs. It turned out the dogs were lambs and the next hour or so was spent eating a wonderful two course meal in the traditional sitting room, cuddling the little ducklings and lambs around the house and chatting with the locals. The locals are the hospitable people who live in the house (singular) in Vigur. All in all, the rib boat safari changed my outlook on boats for life and I can't recommend this trip enough. I wish I could go everywhere on a rib boat.
Chasing waterfalls and museums
Day two and we decided to rent a car and drive to Dynjandi waterfall, an hour and a half from Ísafjörður. On the way we stopped at Þingeyri, a neighboring town of 247 inhabitants. We had a nice meal at Simbahöllin (served by really nice French people this time) and by sheer coincidence dropped in on the Old Smithy Museum. Old tools, workshops and smithies are really not my cup of tea but this was something so genuine and different that I shook my guide's hand vigorously in the end and told him it was the most fun I'd had in a museum in a long time. The gentlemen taking the tour with me, who seemed to be mechanics or specialists of some sort, had just as much fun as I did.
On we went and just before we got to Dynjandi we stopped at the Jón Sigurðsson Museum in Hrafnseyri. The museum hosts a new and very accessible exhibition of this Icelandic hero and icon of our independence and is a must see for all, not just diehard history buffs. The turf house next to it has a wonderful café where you can sit outside and drink in the amazing view over Arnarfjörður and my always favorite attraction, chatty staff that will give you the insider's scoop on this remote corner of the world.
After carrying the shame of never having seen Dynjandi my entire life, I was relieved to know that I would soon be able to lay down this cross. It is a truly breathtaking waterfall and despite all the glamorous pictures and superlatives that have come my way through the years, Dynjandi still managed to impress me with its majestic silhouette and powerful presence. I was wise enough to bring my raincoat and cap so I could enjoy standing directly in front of it and getting oozed by its waters.
We drove a little further and as we drove all those endless fjords back I got a really good feeling for the area and made an effort to memorize all the place names. It took forever to finally get back since we were constantly stopping to take pictures of breathtaking views, a deserted ship on dry land and at one point we witnessed the action packed thriller of a falcon trying to catch an arctic tern right in front of our car.
After a quick and informative visit to the Ísafjörður's Maritime Museum (don't miss the quirky accordion exhibit upstairs!), day three was devoted entirely to Hesteyri, a tiny village in the nature reserve of Hornstrandir. It's not accessible by car and my new-found love of boats was fine with that. We took the four hour “Visit to Hesteyri” tour, complete with boat ride, guided tour of the village and a lovely light meal at the Doctor's House. This all sounds very mundane and typical but it was everything but; Hesteyri, just like the rest of the vast area of Hornstrandir is not occupied during the winter months. During the winter the villages turn into ghost towns and in the summer, the house owners return to their beautiful, old wooden houses without cellphone reception, electricity or the geothermal water that we Icelanders view as a basic human right, to enjoy the quiet and untouched wilderness. It was really quite magical.
Flying back to the city that evening I was blown away by the short distance from these truly remote spots in the West to my buzzing city life. I could have kept myself happily busy for weeks in the Westfjords and I'm still a little bummed out about all the things I didn't have time to do (horseback riding on the white beaches of Þingeyri, kayaking in Ísafjörður, golfing, sea angling etc.). I highly recommend a longer journey, but if you only have three days like me, make sure you get the most out of your stay and talk to the locals. They'll point you in the right direction, get you in an appropriate vehicle and wish you well. Remember that you'll find cheap flights to Iceland with WOW air and be sure to give the trolls a special nod while you're there.
Text by Guðrún Baldvina Sævarsdóttir
Photos: Þór Steinarsson