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The Westman Islands: Practicalities

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You’re never going to catch us praising Iceland for its cheap and efficient public transportation. Without your own car, getting around the island is prohibitively costly and inconvenient. But as far as day trips from Reykjavík go, an excursion to the Westman Islands is about as simple as it gets.

Ferry Westman Islands

How We Got There
The public Stræto bus #52 leaves from Mjódd and runs directly to the mainland ferry terminal at Landeyjarhöfn twice a day. In the summer, ferries run five times daily (but only four on Tuesdays for some reason). The two and a half hour bus ride costs 3500 krona, while the forty-minute ferry is 1000kr. So you’re looking at 4500 total ($37) per person, from Reykjavík.

You can find up-to-date and detailed information about the bus schedule on Straeto.is, and about the ferries on Eimskip.is. There’s no need to pre-book for either.

Herjólfsdalur crater Camping

Where We Slept
The Westman Islands are a popular destination for vacationing Icelanders, and so even though it was a Monday, all the hotels were fully booked when we showed up. But that was fine, since the camping ground in the Herjólfsdalur crater is one of the coolest we’ve seen. We set our tent up alongside a large number of other campers, almost all of whom were from Iceland. The facilities are good and the bowl did a fine job of protecting us from the famous wind of the Westmans. [Location]

Plokkfískur

Where We Ate
The best meal we had in Heimaey, and one of the best we’ve enjoyed in Iceland, was at the Slippurinn. Housed in an old metal-working factory on the port, this place specializes in local Icelandic fare. I tried Plokkfískur for the first time: fishy mashed potatoes. Sounds good, doesn’t it? I’ve long complained that my mashed potatoes simply weren’t fishy enough. [Location]

Icelandic Kleina

Another good spot, particularly during one of Iceland’s rare sunny spells, is at the Vinaminni Kaffihús on Barustigur. There’s a large terrace where you can relax and enjoy affordable and surprisingly good meals like burgers and pizzas. Next door is a bakery, which sells some traditional Icelandic treats. [Location]

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September 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm Comments (4)

The Ruins of Selatangar

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Since the days of the settlement, Iceland has been a land of fishermen. Rough characters hewn from Viking stock, daily braving the deadly waters of the North Atlantic without a second thought. But I imagine that even the fiercest among them felt a shiver when coming ashore at Selatangar.

Stone Tower Selatangar

Set on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula in an unforgiving landscape of black lava, Selatangar was a fishing settlement until abandoned in the 1880s. All that remains today are the foundations of some shoreside dwellings built into the lava.

A single night on such terrain would be unbearable, so it’s hard to fathom that people spent an entire season here. The “homes” are little more than caves, protected from the sea winds by walls of lava rock. Despite the passage of 130 years, some are still in decent condition. Selatangar is an exciting place to explore; it doesn’t look like much at first, but that’s only because the abodes blend perfectly into the landscape. In fact, the settlement extends over quite a large area.

Exciting, but Selatangar is also deeply unsettling. In this harsh and unfriendly landscape, a split second of inattention could result in a nasty fall onto the craggy rock. It’s the kind of place in which evil spirits might feel comfortable. Indeed, the fishermen who lived here reported being harassed by a malicious ghost they called Tanga-Tómas.

We didn’t encounter any ghosts during our visit, but Selatangar still left us spooked. The place just has an evil aura and, although I enjoyed the time we spent there, I greeted our departure with a sense of relief.

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September 14, 2013 at 6:06 pm Comments (0)

The Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs

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Home to millions of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets, Látrabjarg is the westernmost point in Iceland and the largest bird cliff in Europe. Birds are lured here by the infinite rocky outcrops which, protected from the northern winds, are perfect for nesting. And humans come for the sheer spectacle of so many birds in one place.

We knew that we’d see puffins on our visit to Latrabjarg, but hadn’t expected to get so close to them. Despite being hunted in Iceland, the little guys are completely unafraid of people. They tend to nest toward the top of the cliffs, and after I had sat down to watch one do his thing, he waddled to within a couple feet of me, totally uninterested in my presence. Adorable as they are bobbling and skidding across the water, they’re even cuter up close.

A path extends for over a mile up and along the cliffs, bringing you to ever greater heights. But since the best view of the cliffs is close to the parking lot, a hike is strictly optional. It was fun just to sit on the grass and watch the birds through a pair of binoculars. I could spot hatchlings clinging for dear life onto their piece of cliff, puffins clumsily flying with fish in their beaks and thoughtless razorbills pooping on the heads of their downstairs neighbors.

An amazing and utterly unique place, Latrabjarg is a must-see during any trip to the Westfjords.

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September 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm Comments (11)

Breiðavík

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Hotels and guesthouses are certainly more comfortable but, as far as we’re concerned, camping is the best way to see Iceland. This country is all about the nature, and there are some incredible places to pitch a tent. Many of the campsites we visited during our trip to the Westfjords were highlights in their own right, and Breiðavík might have been best of all.

Breiðavík Beach

The southwestern corner of the Westfjords is home to the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, the Hnjótur Folk Museum, some gorgeous nature… and not much else. This isn’t an area overflowing with towns, people or services, and if you’re looking for a place to eat or sleep, the lodge at Breiðavík is pretty much the only option. So it’s a relief to learn that it’s a nice one.

Breiðavík offers hotel rooms, sleeping bag accommodation and a campsite bordering an incredibly wide beach of golden sand. We arrived at the end of a long day of driving and, although the dinner service had concluded, the friendly girls in the kitchen were happy to whip up a couple sandwiches for us. Apart from sleeping possibilities, the lodge offers ATV adventure tours of the area, but we chose to take a morning walk along the beach before continuing on.

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay near the bird cliffs of Latrabjarg, you’re almost definitely going to be sleeping at Breiðavík. So it’s not exactly as though you need our stamp of approval. But [stamp] there: you have it anyway.

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September 8, 2013 at 5:41 pm Comments (2)

The Dynjandi Falls

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Without exaggeration, I think waterfalls might outnumber people in the Westfjords. Fed by the massive ice blocks which dominate the highland interior, and coursing down the mountains toward the shore, there seems to be another waterfall around every corner. Some are trickles, some mighty cascades, but the most impressive we saw throughout our time in the peninsula was easily Dynjandi.

Dynjandi Falls

Dynjandi begins where a wide glacial river drops off a cliff on its way to the Arnarfjörður Fjord. From the parking lot, it looks like one huge waterfall, but as you approach you realize that there are at least a dozen. A path leads past the smaller falls, up to the main drop.

Cascading down over an ever-widening series of cliffs, Dynjandi forms a pyramid shape. Its initial width is 30 meters, but by the time it hits bottom, it has expanded to twice that. You can walk nearly to the foot of the waterfall, although it’s a slippery and dangerous path, and there’s no way to avoid getting drenched by the powerful spray.

We stayed for almost two hours. With the picturesque fjord stretching off into the distance, it’s an enchanting location and easy to reach, just a couple minutes off road #60 south of Þingeyri. An unmissable sight while in the Westfjords.

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September 8, 2013 at 1:37 pm Comments (2)

The Western Westfjords

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The Latrabjarg Cliffs are about five hours from Ísafjörður by car, but the drive takes most people a lot longer thanks to the abundance of entertaining stops along the way. We needed all day to amble along Route 60, stopping off in five villages before ending at the beach of Breiðavík.

Flateyri Mountain River

Most of the drive between Ísafjörður and the nearby fishing village of Flateyri is through a long tunnel. Trapped between a towering mountain and the Önundarfjörður Fjord, the tiny town is most famous for the tragic 1995 avalanche which destroyed many of its houses and killed twenty people, a good-sized percentage of the entire population. A documentary titled 66°23 North West describes the horror of that event (here’s the trailer).

Old Store Þingeyri

Our next stop was in the slightly larger town of Þingeyri. This was once the site of a Viking assembly (a “Þing”) and we had heard that there were Viking-era ruins behind the town’s church. We spent time looking for them among some grassy mounds, before realizing that the grassy mounds were the ruins. Kind of disappointing, but our spirits were restored by an excellent lunch of squash soup and homemade bread at Simbahöllin, a lovely cafe in the town’s former timber grocery store. And now it was time to get back on the road.

Hrafnseyri Church

Our route left the fjords and cut inland on a curvy gravel road, which ascended ever higher, producing increasingly dramatic views of the coast. Stopping the car every five minutes for another picture, our progress was slow, but eventually we made it to Hrafnseyri, a simple farm famous around Iceland as the birthplace of Jón Sigurðsson, one of the fathers of the country’s independence.

Today the farm has been converted into a museum celebrating the great man’s life. It sounded interesting, but we had limited time and were forced to make a choice. Either the Jón Sigurðsson Museum or the Sea Monsters Museum in nearby Bildudalur. Sorry Jón, but the Kraken wins.

Seamonster Museum

We made the wrong choice. The Sea Monsters Museum wasn’t nearly as fun as we had expected. It was just a single room, with trinkets, small sculptures and video interviews of locals who’ve claimed to have spotted monsters like the terrifying Shore Laddie in the Arnarfjörður Fjord. The museum is well-designed and creepily atmospheric, but we were done in minutes. Just not worth the cost of entrance.

Patreksfjörður

Our last stop of the day was Patreksfjörður which, with 700 inhabitants, is the second-biggest town in the Westfjords. As far as I’m concerned, an Icelandic town qualifies as “large” if it has a Vínbúðin liquor store. Maddeningly, Patreksfjörður’s Vínbúðin was closed by the time we arrived, so we contented ourselves with a dip in the town’s wonderful outdoor pool. With a view over the fjord and the sun getting low in the sky, it was a great way to wind down after a very long day of driving. Almost as nice as whiskey would have been…

Locations: Flateyri | Þingeyri | Hrafnseyri | Bildudalur | Patreksfjörður

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September 7, 2013 at 11:59 am Comments (6)

Socializing in Suðureyri

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It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like in tiny Suðureyri prior to 2001 and the completion of the tunnel connecting it to Ísafjörður. Today it’s just a twenty-minute drive, but before the tunnel, Suðureyri was connected to the outside world only by boat.

Suðureyri Tunnel

Driving through the tunnel to Suðureyri is quite an experience. It quickly narrows down to a single lane and there’s even an underground intersection at one point. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but the view which waits at the end is worth the stress. Suðureyri sits on the southern tip of the long and narrow Súgandafjörður fjord, and it’s a joy to drive down the smooth, curvy road into town, with such an astonishing and wholly Icelandic landscape laid out before you.

Only about 300 people live in Suðureyri and there’s not much to see in town, but we had come for relaxation, not tourism. We grabbed a beer at the bar to loosen inhibitions, and then walked over to the town’s popular geothermal pool. A couple minutes after settling into the hot tub, we had already made a dozen new friends. A German couple, a group of Finns, tourists on their way to Hornstrandir, and of course a bunch of Icelanders.

Even more than bars, swimming pools are Iceland’s real social hotspot. Alternating between the hot tub and the pool, we swam and drank coffee and chatted about everything under the sun, and ended up staying until closing time… which is not recommended by the way, as you’re then forced to shower naked with all your new friends before saying goodbye.

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September 6, 2013 at 5:56 pm Comment (1)

Ísafjörður

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Memorably situated on a narrow spit of land which nearly cuts the Skutulsfjörður fjord in half, Ísafjörður is by far the largest town in the Westfjords. Not that it’s terribly large; just over 2700 people call it home.

Ísafjörður Harbor

Ísafjörður is small enough to comfortably see in a couple hours, but most visitors tend to stay longer. After negotiating the remote and lonely roads of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður comes across as a relative metropolis, and is so beautiful that it’s impossible to leave immediately. We hung around for three nights.

A fishing town since its inception, Ísafjörður was devastated by the near-collapse of the industry, losing much of its population and identity. So it’s nice to see the town catch on as a tourism destination. There are loads of guesthouses and hotels to stay in, some of which are supposed to be great… but we wouldn’t know. Every single room was booked out on the weekend we visited, and we had to content ourselves with camping.

Not that this was a real problem. Ísafjörður has one of the best campsites we saw in Iceland. Tungudalur is a couple kilometers from the town center, but it’s directly across from a lovely waterfall and has all the amenities you might want.

Tungudalur Campsite

We had great meals at Cafe Edinborg and Tjöruhúsið, but besides eating and enjoying the novelty of being in a functional town, there isn’t much to do in Ísafjörður. The Byggðasafn Westfjarða Heritage Museum is supposed to be nice, but we passed it up in favor of a day spent walking down by the docks, sitting in cafes, and watching planes negotiate the terrifying landing strip of the town’s airport. Ísafjörður is surrounded by mountains and the sea, forcing planes to turn at a sharp angle, and descend rapidly in order to stick the landing.

We had a great time in this little northwestern town. It’s worth visiting just to appreciate its stunning location on the narrow spit of land in the fjord, but once there, you’ll likely find it hard to leave.

Location on our Iceland Map

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August 29, 2013 at 11:57 am Comments (5)

The Road to Ísafjörður

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As the puffin flies, Ísafjörður was a scant 40 kilometers away, but we were looking forward to a three-hour journey of 172 kilometers. The road leading to the Westfjords’ biggest city hems tight to the coastline, tracing six fjords deep inland and then straight back out to sea. You can drive for an hour and end up two kilometers away from where you were before. Luckily, the incredible nature kept us distracted during what would have otherwise been an infuriating drive.

Rain Amazin Light Iceland

We had set out from Norðurfjörður early in the day and cut west through the highlands of the interior. We passed stubborn drifts of ice which hadn’t melted, even in late July, and took a detour along route #635 to the Kaldalón glacial lagoon. More a long, damp valley than a lagoon, Kaldalón was formed by Drangajökull: the fifth-largest and northernmost of Iceland’s glaciers, and the only one which is expanding instead of shrinking. We continued north until the road ended at the small church of Unaðsdalur, where we paused for lunch.

During the rest of our drive to Ísafjörður, we were almost completely alone on the road. We stopped a couple times at especially photogenic spots, but otherwise kept a steady pace. Though lovely, the scenery of the fjords was unchanging, and with Sigur Rós droning on repeat over the speakers, we fell into a sort of trance. Turn south: fjord, mountains, fields. Turn north: fjord, mountains, ocean. Turn south… and so on, for hours.

When we curved into Skultulsfjörður, the sixth and final fjord, Ísafjörður finally came into view, signalling the end of a tiring and beautiful day in the car. It was a trip which we were happy to have experienced, but even happier to have put behind us.

Locations on our Map: Drangajökull | Unaðsdalur | Ísafjörður

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August 27, 2013 at 11:08 am Comments (4)

Djúpavík

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The first two things you see when approaching Djúpavík are a defunct herring factory and a shipwrecked boat just offshore: rusting shells that set a mournful tone in this tiny northern town. We made a short pit-stop here on our way to Norðurfjörður, and were entranced by Djúpavík’s melancholic beauty.

Lightning Djúpavík Waterfall

Djúpavík was founded as a herring salting station in 1917. But its glory years arrived in 1934 with the opening of a major factory which was the most technologically advanced in the world, and among the largest concrete structures in Europe. By the mid-40s, though, the fishing had dried up and the company shut its doors for good in 1954. The workers moved away, leaving behind little more than a ghost town.

But like a herring who won’t stop flopping around regardless of how often you whack it, Djúpavík has stubbornly clung to life. And it’s done so by embracing its isolation. Iceland is the most remote part of Europe, the Westfjords are the most remote part of Iceland, and the northeastern coast is the most remote section of the Westfjords. So travelers who are looking to get away from it all can hardly do better than Djúpavík.

The town is memorably nestled into a valley at the back of the Reykjarfjörður fjord, with a lightning-bolt waterfall crashing down behind it. And the herring factory, which was never demolished, serves as a reminder of the town’s brief Golden Age. During our visit, it was acting as a venue for a photography exhibition, featuring the work of Icelandic and foreign artists. The town’s hotel runs daily tours, but you’re free to walk around inside yourself.

The Westfjords are the most geologically stable land in Iceland: the least affected by volcanoes and earthquakes. But Djúpavík serves as an evocative reminder that there are other, less dramatic types of natural disasters to worry about. Global warming has caused Iceland’s fish stocks to plummet in the last half-century, and tiny towns dependent on the trade have been disappearing from the map. So far, Djúpavík has managed to resist the grave… here’s hoping it can hold on.

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August 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm Comments (2)

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The Westman Islands: Practicalities You're never going to catch us praising Iceland for its cheap and efficient public transportation. Without your own car, getting around the island is prohibitively costly and inconvenient. But as far as day trips from Reykjavík go, an excursion to the Westman Islands is about as simple as it gets.
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