The West Fjords the Remotest Most Unspoilt Iceland
16 May, 2017
Low light, wistful dusks, endless fjords, fishing villages accessible only by dirt track, thermal pools with views of the sea and, above all, tranquility – oceans of tranquility. All of this awaits travellers to Westfjords, Iceland’s loneliest, most unspoiled region. A few days spent exploring its secluded confines is the closest thing to what it must have been like until quite recently to travel around the now very popular Ring Road. We tell you how to reach this remote, captivating paradise and, once there, what to see.
1. Ísafjörður – the Old Fishing Capital
While it is the largest settlement in the Westfjords, Ísafjörður has just 2,600 inhabitants. However, in these latitudes, a census of this size is regarded as a veritable crowd of people.
The atmosphere is surprisingly lively in the quaint town centre, which features a considerable number of timber houses built in the 18th century. There are some good restaurants – fish and seafood are the local speciality – and pleasant cafés which, with the heating always up full blast, are a magnet for visitors seeking to take shelter from the invariably harsh weather outside. The Westfjords Maritime Museum is worth visiting as it is full of relics from the whaling era. It also provides valuable insights into the origins and the heyday of this isolated fishing port.
By land, sea and air: daily flights from Reykjavik have turned Ísafjörður into the quickest and most convenient port of entry to the Westfjords. It is also the point of departure for ships sailing to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
2. Snæfellsnes – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Those opting to instead make the journey to the far north overland from Reykjavik are advised to take a slight detour to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The scenic road runs around the perimeter of the whole peninsula and looming overhead is a spectacular volcano covered in glaciers which inspired Jules Verne for his novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Although the wind is usually rather gusty, the journey is rewarding as it is studded with breathtaking scenery, including lofty cliffs, rivers of lava and peach-coloured sandy beaches. One highly recommendable hike – wind permitting – is the coastal trail linking Arnarstapi to Hellnar. The 5 km route takes you past spectacular basalt formations, sea caves with blowholes weathered by the waves and natural rock arches.
3. Puffins on the Látrabjarg Cliffs
The Látrabjarg cliffs, marking the westernmost point in Europe – and probably one of the windiest, too – afford close-up sightings of the highly photogenic puffins, those flashy birds with colourful beaks that nest alongside other species on the impregnable crags, which rise to over 400 metres above the ocean.
Despite being endearing creatures, visitors should know that the locals once used to feed on puffin eggs and meat. In fact, puffin is still a select dish in some restaurants. The method used to catch these birds involves laying nets and abseiling down the cliff faces. Interestingly, the courage and skills of puffing hunters were put to good use when in 1947 a British vessel sank off these shores and all crew members were rescued and hauled one by one up the cliff faces.
Reaching Látrabjarg entails driving along one particular 50-kilometre stretch of dirt road (only on the outbound journey). Some 5 km before the lighthouse marking “Europe’s land’s end” is a rudimentary campsite suitable for camper vans or for pitching tents – there is a toilet and drinking water, but no showers or hot water.
The road takes you past Hnjótur, where there is a café and an interesting museum with a hotchpotch of items, including an aircraft from the United States Navy.
4. Thermal Pools at Reykjafjarðarlaug
Thermal pools are always a gift of nature but, in an environment like Westfjords, it becomes more of a genuine gift of the gods. One of the best warm pools – although not the only one – was built by a group of volunteers in 1975 opposite the Reykjafjörður fjord, just 50 metres off the dust road running between Bíldudalur and Hrafnseyri. The source of the spring lies a few metres upstream and wells up at 52°C, but the pool is kept at 38°C. Sadly, this is the way it was before, as in 2016 we found it closed. We hope it will reopen in 2017.
5. Dynjandi Waterfall
The Dynjandi waterfall (also known as Fjallfoss), which tumbles 100 metres in the shape of a beautiful staircase, is undoubtedly the most spectacular falls in Westfjords. It is reached by untarred mountain road and a simple camping area has been adapted for tents and camper vans. With its west-facing orientation, the best time of day to take your snaps is at dusk.
6. Seals and Jams at Litlibær
Some 70 km east of Ísafjörður in the direction of the Reykjanes thermal peninsula lives a colony of seals which is visible from the main road. To get an idea of how trusting the locals are, a farmer from the area leaves out some binoculars for anyone wishing to observe the seals in more detail, as well as a few jars of homemade jam and a piggy bank to pay the 6 euros for each jar they may want to buy.
7. Kayak Rides
In the next fjord, called Mjóifjörður (it’s easy to lose count of them), the newly paved Route 61 saves modern travellers from having to take the previous, roundabout way to the bottom of the estuary along the old 633 dirt road. Located in a remote spot is Heydalur, a country hotel with hot pools where they organise kayak outings that start at the site of the seal colony in the mouth of the fjord. Whales can also sometimes be spotted during the excursion, which lasts 5 hours.
8. Expedition to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
No one lives there, apart from the forest wardens, birds and Arctic foxes. This is the most isolated and unspoilt spot in Iceland and can only be reached by boat. Beyond the Hesteyri harbour – where you can sleep the night at the old doctor’s house, built in 1901 and with a capacity of 16 – there are no shops, restaurants or hotels. You will only find rudimentary camping grounds. Hence, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is the preserve of fauna and flora enthusiasts used to open-air living and the whims of Arctic weather. Some agencies organise guided hiking excursions lasting 4 or 5 days.
Text by Sergio Fernández Tolosa & Amelia Herrero Becker from Con un par de ruedas
Images by Con un par de ruedas
16 May, 2017