By Molly Born, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
WESTFJORDS, Iceland–It’s hard to say what’s a greater wonder: The remote treasures of this country’s northwest region, or the fact that so few tourists ever visit.
It takes an adventurous spirit and a bit of planning to map out this road trip to the upper reaches of the planet, a roughly six-hour drive from the Nordic island country’s capital, Reykjavik, but the reward is an endless and largely isolated panorama of nature easily accessible by car only part of the year.
My beau, Dillon, our friend Justin and I visited the Westfjords last month, just before the start of the summer season when snow and ice patches still covered some roads and a few remained impassable.
After three days in Reykjavik, our rental arrived: an SUV with four-wheel drive and snow tires with studs for extra traction. The guy who handed us the keys asked where we were headed and looked dubious when we answered. A friend who visited Iceland suggested we download an app that would alert authorities in case of emergency and confessed she worried we weren’t prepared.
Maybe we didn’t know exactly what we were getting into. But, we thought, if growing up in West Virginia taught us anything, it ought to be how to drive in snow.
Only 14 percent of summer travelers and roughly 6 percent of winter travelers to Iceland visit the Westfjords. Following Route 61 north as it wrapped around one fjord after another revealed sprawling farms and red-roofed churches dotting the treeless landscape. Snow-streaked cliffs rose out on either side of the fjords’ blue waters. Along the side of the road, man-made stone piles, known as cairn, help fellow travelers know they’re on the right path.
In Isafjordur, the peninsula’s largest town with 2,600 residents, we dined on the catch of the day and a heaping portion of curry-flavored seafood soup in a window seat overlooking the mountains. Two daily flights connect the town to Reykjavik, and ferries to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve on Iceland’s northernmost peninsula leave daily from Isafjordur in the summer.
The next day, we had the option of heading back the way we came or exploring the southern parts of the fjords, where the road conditions were said to be less favorable. The lure of the powerful waterfall Dynjandi and tales of geothermal hot springs so remote you have to ask for directions drew us south.
This stretch along the fjords proved more treacherous. At one point as we climbed, the scene was almost totally white, with mountains of untouched snow and a milky sky interrupted only by the occasional power line. Alarmingly, the path began to blend into our surroundings, too. Occasionally a giant plow truck would hug the side of the road to allow us passage.
During one white-knuckle ascent, a wall of packed snow maybe 10 feet high towered to our right and a steep slope lay perilously close on the left. There were few guard rails.
Neither was the way back a breeze. We crept down, and as the ocean came into view, we met a sedan (a sedan!) charging up the mountain _ likely a local accustomed to these serpentine roads.
When we rounded another fjord and saw Dynjandi in the distance, we exploded in laughter. From our view, it appeared completely still. We’d come so far for what looked to be a frozen waterfall. What we actually found was a spectacular series of waterfalls that spilled into one another. The hike to the base of still partially frozen Dynjandi–“thunderous” in Icelandic–offered a stunning view of the falls and the vastness of the fjord.
We settled on one more stop during our long drive to Holmavik. A tour guide we met in Isafjordur suggested a small hot spring near Hotel Flokalundur, a few minutes’ drive from the ferry to Flatey Island, the largest in a group of islands off the southern coast of the Westfjords. Only in researching for this piece did I discover this spot actually had a name: Hellulaug Hot Spring.
The hotel was closed for the off-season, so we asked a pair of construction workers for directions. A quarter-mile away we found a parking lot, and tucked into a cliff, a pool of water heated naturally by the earth, overlooking the ocean. Markedly different from the Myvatn Nature Baths we would visit later in our trip and the Blue Lagoon, a popular hot spring for tourists near Reykjavik, this felt like our own private hot spring without another person in sight for miles.
While sparsely populated, the Westfjords is home to some of the kindest people we’ve met as tourists, and there’s no better example than Siggi, who we found unloading his snowmobile along the main road in Holmavik, a town of roughly 400 people.
We stopped to ask him if he knew someplace we could buy a few beers, knowing we’d arrived long past last call and after the state-owned liquor store had closed. He had kind eyes and said he had a few beers at home and invited us to follow him to his place up the hill. We tagged along, and he reached in his truck, handed us a plastic bag with three tall-boys and went inside to fetch two bottles. We offered to pay him, but he wouldn’t take a cent.
“I hope you enjoy Iceland,” he said with a smile.
The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavik was our last stop in the Westfjords before heading east to Akureyri. Its website bills it as the “Home of the Necropants,” but it’s much more than that macabre title would suggest.
The small museum, opened in 2000, traces the country’s history of the occult and memorializes those accused of practicing it. During the 17th century, 21 men and one woman accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake. One such practice, according to Icelandic legend, involved skinning a dead man from the waist down and placing a coin in the scrotum. Whoever wore these “necropants” would be wealthy for life.
A large map on the wall donned push pins marking the hometowns of the museum’s international visitors. Pittsburgh was already accounted for, but we added one for our home state, too.
It was amazing to realize that we were among the first West Virginians to visit this museum, but that only confirmed what we had already discovered about this rarely visited part of Iceland.
As a friend who recently visited put it: “It’s just you and miles upon miles of unbelievably gorgeous landscape, so untouched that it feels like you are the first human to ever lay eyes on it.” She was referring to Iceland as a whole, but it embodied the Westfjords in particular, a place where the world feels like only yours, even if for a moment.
WHERE TO STAY:
My crew booked all Airbnb apartments and one (incredible) micro house, all reasonably priced when split three ways. Most places included linens, towels, Wi-Fi, free parking, a kitchen or kitchenette and other amenities. Hostels and family-owned “guesthouses” might be cheaper options.
We rented our SUV through Reykjavik Cars. If you think you may travel on any unpaved roads, gravel insurance (yes, this exists) and a GPS are musts. You might be able to use your own navigation system _ just make sure to first download any updates required for international travel before your trip. Friends who recently road-tripped around Iceland also recommended Happy Campers, a camper van rental company.
Gas stations are usually pay-at-the-pump and don’t always have an attendant. American debit and credit cards should work at most pumps. The website Road.is has up-to-date travel conditions; avoid the routes marked “impassable.” Trust me.
WHERE TO EAT:
Food and alcohol, like everything in Iceland, is expensive. If you’re on a budget, find a grocery store and pick up some cheap options for breakfast and lunch or pack some in your luggage. Buy booze at the duty-free shop in the airport. State-owned liquor stores called “Vinbuoin” also sell wine, spirits and beer. When you’re ready to splurge, though, don’t miss the hearty, curry-flavored seafood soup at Husid in Isafjordur.
(c)2015 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo by Brian Pocius via Flickr