The West Fjords the Remotest Most Unspoilt Iceland
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 ruedasmore info
Reykjavik A Great Small City II
Our main reason for visiting Iceland’s capital was to uncover the city’s musical melting pot. Reykjavik has continued to churn out musical icons ever since the initial boom in the early 1980s, as reflected in the documentary and double LP, “Rokk í Reykjavík”, featuring such Icelandic bands as Baraflokkurinn and Tappi Tíkarrass – the latter was Björk’s first serious music project. When talking of Iceland, the first thing that springs to mind are the two most popular names on the international scene – Sigur Rós, and the aforementioned Björk. However, there is an amazingly long list of artists distributed across the length and breadth of the land, as well as countless bands, soloists and collectives that often share their members, regardless of each group’s musical style.
All of these have at some time performed in Húrra, Reykjavik’s leading concert hall, previously known as Harlem. When we were there, we were impressed by the varied setlists scheduled for the following days – an extreme metal festival, a reggae group (Hjálmar, very popular in Iceland) and a tribute group to the Sex Pistols which hails from the continent. Húrra really acts as a downtown music hub, covering all the musical genres. For starters, it is one of the customary venues for the popular music festival, Icelandic Airwaves, which is held at the beginning of November at various settings in the city, including the marvellous Harpa, a musical and cultural activities centre which has fairly galvanised the local scene in the last few years.
Needless to say, we had to finish off the night with a beer. There are myriad Icelandic brands, including the ubiquitous Viking, in addition to some imported varieties. We ended up at Kaffibarinn, also known as KB, owing to the fact that Damon Albarn from Blur is one of its proprietors. The downstairs hall is comfortable, cosy and features a good, ongoing soundtrack, principally pop and electronic. But, remember not to bother the DJ – not for nothing is there a metal plaque near the crockery which reads, “No requests accepted”. If you want to smoke, which is not allowed inside the premises, they have an open-air interior patio where you can smoke and still keep up a conversation with friends and acquaintances. But, at midnight, everything changes and the upstairs area at KB becomes a dance club which operates until the early hours.
The local scene is clearly both extensive and surprising. Apart from groups with a proven track record, notably Of Monster And Men, Sólstafir, Amina, FM Belfast and Sin Fang, it is the new generation that is shaking the very foundations of the city. We could start with Retro Stefson, a pop group which has been migrating toward electronic and has recently shot to the number one slot in Iceland thanks to their new single, Skin, a preview of their upcoming album, Scandinavian Pain. In fact, it was their vocalist and guitarist, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson, who acted to some extent as our host during our fleeting visit. After inviting us to see his new studio, which is bound to become one of the most active in the city, he took us to have a coffee in Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, a hipster gastro hotel where he introduced us to two of Iceland’s best known rap stars, the upcoming talent, Gísli Pálmi, and the veteran Emmsjé Gauti, the author of a single called precisely Reykjavik. He talked to us about the female collective Reykjavíkurdætur, currently on a meteoric roll, and remarked how one of the leading lights of Iceland’s parliament, Óttarr Proppé, has played in various bands, among them HAM, which was very popular in the early nineties. He also revealed that his favourites included the very young singer (aged sixteen) from R&B and trap music, Aron Can, and the pop singer, Sturla Atlas. Truth be told, Manuel – of Portuguese and Angolan extraction – is also the brother ofLogi Pedro,one of the most celebrated hip hop producers in Iceland and the composer of much of the bass and rhythms for some of the aforementioned artists.
When it came to discovering new artists, we were also lucky enough to have the assistance of the writer, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, who goes under the stage nameSjónand who collaborates closely with Björk. He recommended the DJ, Flugvél Og Geimskip, and the trap duo, Úlfur Úlfur, whose popularity is on the up and up and who feature among Iceland’s best known current stars.
We could go on about contemporary figures well worth watching, including Sin Fang, who has just worked with Jónsi of Sigur Rós on the latter’s new album. Then there is the electropop group, Gangly, and Alex Somers, the hyperactive writer of American soundtracks who resides in the city and who, together with his boyfriend, the aforementioned Jónsi, recorded under the name Riceboy Sleeps.
And, of course, a must-visit is to the best record shop in town, Smekkleysa, associated with the Bad Taste label (which is what “Smekkleysa” means in Icelandic), and originally related to members of The Sugarcubes. In short, this venue is the basic driving force behind the burgeoning Icelandic scene, due largely to its promotion of such internationally acclaimed projects as Fufanu, Gus Gus, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Minus, Mugison, Múm and Sigur Rós itself.
You will be dazzled by the huge variety of musical offerings to be had in Reykjavik. Don’t pass up the chance to venture into the city’s music scene – check out our flights here.
Text by Joan S. Luna (Mondo Sonoro)
Images by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS
Reykjavik – the World’s Northernmost Capital City
Nearly two thirds of Iceland’s inhabitants live in the capital, Reykjavik, regarded as one of the greenest, cleanest and safest cities on the planet. In winter, there are hardly 4 hours of sunlight a day. On the contrary, if you happen to visit it around the summer solstice, you will find yourself in a city where the sun never completely sets at all. This enables tourists to make the most of their time in Iceland’s capital city, before embarking on the customary trip around the Icelandic Ring Road which skirts the whole island.
The major sightseeing area in Reykjavik is the western district of Miðborg, the city’s historical centre. Hljómskálagarður park, with its Tjörnin lake, is a good starting point, as you can sit on a bench and get your bearings on a map before venturing out on a walking route which will take you to the most interesting places in the city. At one end of the lake stands Iceland University (Háskóli Íslands) while, if you cross the bridge over it, you come to the National Gallery of Iceland, housing exhibits by the country’s most famous artists and a performance centre for traditional Icelandic culture. Standing next to it is the Reykjavik Free Church, founded in 1899, an alternative to the National Lutheran Church.
Iceland’s Parliament, known as the Alþingi, is located just a few blocks away. Built of dressed stone, it dates from 1881, although the institution itself goes back to the year 930 and is one of the oldest elected assemblies in the world.
Time for a Snack
Whether in summer or winter, one’s notion of time is somewhat warped in Iceland, on account of the marked changes in daylight hours. If there is one thing sacred in life it is snacking and Reykjavik is no exception. Heading along Lækjargata street, you come across the striking Harpa concert and conference hall, but press on towards the city’s harbour. Shortly before arriving, you pass by one of the must-see sights of the city, a hotdog stand known as Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Alright – we know it’s just a boiled sausage served in a typical bun smothered in various sauces, and it’s eaten outdoors, but at number 1 Tryggvagata street hundreds of sausages are served every day and long queues build up at the hotdog stand. This is undoubtedly one of the most popular gastronomic customs in Reykjavik and the most famous sausage in Iceland.
After building up your strength, it is time to continue exploring the city. The harbour is divided between the districts of Miðborg and Vesturbær. The latter is home to the Vikin Maritime Museum in which cod fishing is accorded special importance. You can taste Icelandic codfish in one of the restaurants in the harbour area, as well as other typical dishes such as lobster soup, salmon and lamb. To round off the experience, you can hire a fishing rod and while away the afternoon, or set sail on a whale-sighting excursion in Faxaflói bay.
The main area with bars is Austurstræti street and environs, while the shopping area is scattered along Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur street. Prominent among the stores selling garments, design and food is the Álafoss wool store, the best known and traditional Icelandic wool brand. Here you can also purchase a typical Icelandic jersey, known as a Lopapeysa.
Before nightfall, you should wrap up your visit by taking in the best views of the city, which are afforded by the vantage point that is Hallgrímskirkja Church. Access to the belfry costs ISK 600 (about €4), but it is well worth the price. You could end off the day in an inviting pop-up restaurant where you can taste a peculiar fusion between Basque and Icelandic cuisine. Sumendi, as it is called, organises several dinners during the year.
If you make the journey in summer, the sun will be a constant throughout your stay, so you’d best wind up the day at the famous sculpture known as Sólfar (The Sun Voyager), evocative of places to be discovered and countries to be seen, like those Vueling brings you close to through its air routes.
Haritz Rodriguez is a travel journalist and blogger with over 17 years’ experience in radio, television, press and internet. He is an editor of Tokitan.tv and director of the Barking Blogs communication studio.more info