Best Of Iceland Awards: West - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Best Of Iceland Awards: West

Best Of Iceland Awards: West

Published December 13, 2017

Welcome to Grapevine’s Best Of Iceland—a guide to the best hikes, hotels, must see spots, eateries, road trips, tours, shops and more, all around the black shore of this rocky subarctic isle. We assembled panels of locals, travellers and Iceland experts to help us decide the winners and runners-up in each category: all come highly recommended. On this page, you’ll find our awards for the western area of the country.

If you’d like to hold a copy of the Best of Iceland magazine in your hands, you can order one here, posted worldwide; if you think we’ve missed something, give us a shout via Facebook or Twitter. Finally, a word of advice: some places—whether a hiking route or a countryside restaurant—close down for winter, so be sure to check ahead. If a winner is marked “Summer,” it’s probably either not accessible or not open in winter.

Stormy Adventure Time by Magnús Andersen

Best Hike

Winner (Summer): Skor Hike in Rauðisandur 
Past the Westfjords’ red Rauðasandur beach, over a mountain called “The Saddle” and two very steep coves, is the old boat landing area Skor and the abandoned lighthouse of Skorarviti. The hike is precipitous and follows sheep trails, so take a guide; if you aren’t an experienced hiker, perhaps sit this one out. That said, if you do it, “you’ll see absolutely no one, except maybe some seals,” as one panellist said.

Winner (Winter): Arnarstapi to Hellnar
This leisurely Snæfellsnes coastal walk takes you past beautiful lava fields and ocean outlooks. While it could take an hour, there are ample places to lounge to the sound of the waves. Make sure to watch your footing—you’ll see enough seabird eggs here to make a very large omelette.

Runner Up (Summer): Hornstrandir
The northernmost point of the Westfjords, deserted Hornstrandir is the most inaccessible part of Iceland. No roads, no hotels, no organised campsites—not even toilets will greet you there. Get there by hiking, or via boats from Bolungarvík, to see astounding landscapes and plentiful wildlife. Are you ready?

Runner Up: Dynjandi Waterfall, Flókalundur
One of the icons of Westfjords is the Dynjandi waterfall. It has a loud and dominating presence, falling from a high cliff and down in a stream of smaller waterfalls, with the water rolling alongside the winding path that takes you to straight up to Dynjandi. It’s one of the most impressive waterfalls in Iceland, and for anyone who enjoys nature and powerful streams of water, this is a must.

Runner Up: Helgafell, Stykkishólmur
For centuries, the Holy Mountain of Helgafell was thought to be a gateway to the afterlife – a place so sacred that if visited with respect could grant you up to three wishes. Even if you’re not superstitious, once you reach the top you’ll be welcomed by such a breathtaking view that you’ll wish for your trip to never end.

Must-See Spot

Winner (Summer): Rauðasandur Red Sand Beach/Sand Reefs
A peachy ray of sunshine hidden between misty cliffs, the Rauðasandur beach is decidedly unexpected. It’s a bit off the beaten track, making it ideal for both tranquility and wildlife spotting. “Take a walk out to the sand reef,” said one panel member. “Last week I saw fifty seals sunbathing there, who then swam to us.” In good weather, you can see all the way to the shining Snæfellsjökull glacier.

Winner (Winter): Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs
“You have to go there. Period,” one panel member exclaimed when another brought up Látrabjarg. These cliffs, in the westernmost part of Iceland, are the place to go to see puffins, razorbills, guillemots, the northern gannet, and many more. And if it’s winter and the birds are away, it’s also home to a number of hiking trails and beautiful vistas.

Runner Up: Snæfellsjökull
If it’s a clear day in Reykjavík, you can spot the majestic Snæfellsjökull glacier sparkling from your balcony. If it’s not a clear day, you can drive three hours to see it up close and in person. While it’s considered an active volcano, it’s not slated to erupt anytime soon, so relax.

Best Bathing Spot

Winner: Drangsnes or Krossneslaug, Strandir
Warning: to get to Krossneslaug, first check if the tiny, winding, unpaved mountain road is snow-free, because it’s not serviced by snowploughs in the winter. If the conditions are safe, steel yourself, and drive the precipitous route past the remote hamlet of Djúpavík to this charming beachside pool and hot pot, where the road ends. If there’s snow on the road, don’t try it: the seaside hotpots of Drangsnes are closer to civilisation, and a more accessible option.

Runner Up: Pollurinn, Tálknafjörður
Pollurinn is small free swimming hole that looks out over the mountains of the Tálknafjöður fjord. “Tálknafjörður is the best place to camp, and it’s a nice walk from the campsite to the pool,” noted the panel, “and Pollurinn is open 24/7, so you can soak and watch the sunset.”

Runner Up: Grettislaug, Reykhólar
Grettislaug is a cosy little countryside pool in the tiny village of Reykhólar. While you’re in town, if you feel like an alt-swim, you could also see if the Sjávarsmiðjan seaweed baths are open.

Best Road Trip

Winner: Snæfellsnes
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is often referred to as “Iceland In Miniature.” Why? Well, a one-day road trip grants you access to essentially every notorious Icelandic topography: geothermal areas, lava fields, canyons, cliffs, black sand beaches, and, of course, the Snæfellsjökull glacier. Follow Route 54 to circle around the area, but make sure to check out Stykkishólmur—it’s a gem of a coastal fishing village.

Runner Up: Djúpavík
Accessible only by an undulating unpaved road that zooms around precipitous coastal cliffs and up steep snowy mountains, this isolated Westfjords haven is a world away from anything you’ve experienced. Comprising one hotel, a few houses, and an abandoned herring factory, a stop here is the cherry on top of any Westfjords journey.

Runner Up: Hvalfjörður
This picturesque fjörd was once part of the Ring Road, but now stands all but forgotten due to the Hvalfjörður tunnel. It’s close to Reykjavík if you’re pushed for time, and packed with interesting spots: there’s the creepy fenced-off whaling station, an abandoned mine, the Glýmur waterfall hike, the remains of a British WWII base, and loads more besides.

Best Tour

Winner (Summer): Seafood Boat Tour, Stykkishólmur  
Do you like fish? Of course you do. Boats? Obviously! Well, the “Viking Sushi” tour just might be your thing. Take a cruise around many islands of the Breiðafjörður bay while eating the freshest seafood around. How do you know it’s fresh? Well, they fish the scallops, clams and urchins from the sea floor right before your eyes, serving them right there on the deck. Soy sauce and, wasabi are provided.

Winner (Winter): Breiðafjörður Ferry
In the summer, many boat tours run out of Stykkishólmur including the famed ‘Viking Sushi’ seafood trip and pleasure cruises around the picturesque Breiðafjörður. In the winter season, the options are more limited, but you can still take a daily ferry over to a historic area of the Westfjords, taking in the wildlife and the “countless” islands of Breiðafjörður along the way.

Runner Up (Summer): Boat to Vigur Island 
A 30-minute jaunt from Ísafjörður lies avian paradise Vigur Island. Inhabited by thousands of birds including puffins, black guillemots, Arctic terns, and eider ducks, it’s the place to indulge your Birdman-esque fantasies. Don’t be surprised if you see whales too.

Runner Up: Snowmobiling on Snæfellsjökull
There’s no better way to experience the vast badlands of the Snæfellsjökull glacier than from the jiggling handlebars of a snowmobile. Relax in a sea of white while you zoom up on top of the (active) volcano. Don’t worry though, it probably won’t erupt.

Runner Up: The Arctic Fox Centre, Súðavík
Arctic foxes are the only native terrestrial mammals of Iceland and the best way to see their eerie white muzzle is to visit them at the Arctic Fox Centre. Whether you’re interested in their research or you’re travelling with children, this will be the experience of a lifetime.

Best Museum/Gallery

Winner (Summer): Samúel Jónsson Art Museum, Selárdalur
Just along the south shore of Arnarfjörður, in one of the most isolated areas of Iceland, lies a cartoonish house and church surrounded by a number of bizarre plaster sculptures. These are the work of Samúel Jónsson: a hermit self-taught artist who used his pension money for plaster, which he then used for these peculiarities. “Prepare for unpredictable road conditions,” our panel warned. “But perhaps that’s just part of the whole bizarre Selárdalur experience.”

Winner (Winter): Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, Hólmavík 
A weathered wooden structure with a turf roof, Hólmavík’s main tourist attraction may look underwhelming, but like its subject, it’s got some magic. The museum’s most famous acquisition is a replica of a pair of “necropants”: trousers made of human skin. If that tickles your occult bone, indulge your morbid side with a visit.

Runner Up: The Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, Bíldudalur
Arnarfjörður is rumoured to play host to most of Iceland’s sea monsters and there’s therefore no better place to learn about them than the tiny coastal town of Bíldudalur. Sceptical? The Sea Monster Museum is decidedly academic, with an extensive library of folklore and a staff of knowledgeable believers. Come with an open mind.

Runner Up: The Volcano Museum, Stykkishólmur
Stykkishólmur’s volcano museum is home to the personal collection of volcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson. There’s a pleasing mixture of film, historical documents, geological samples, and a display of the culture surrounding volcanoes, including rare prints by Andy Warhol and Hokusai.

Best Café

Winner (Summer): Franska kaffihúsið, Rauðasandur
Located directly on the shore of the Rauðasandur beach—the winner for Must-See Spot— Franska kaffihúsið might boast the best vista in all of Iceland. Relax with a cappuccino on their patio while gazing out at the peachy shores, the Breiðafjörður islands, and all the way to the Snæfellsness glacier. “Make sure to ask them where the seals are that day too,” One panel member added. “They always know.”

Winner (Winter): Settlement Centre, Borgarnes
This fun museum about the long history of the Borgarfjörður area also boasts a wonderful café. Take a break from your road trip and opt for the all-you-can-eat “Wellness buffet” for 2200 ISK, which includes hearty soup, homemade bread, and plentiful veggie and vegan options.

Runner Up: Kaffi Kyrrð
Kaffi Kyrrð is both a coffeehouse and a florist, so if you’re looking for some lilies and a latte, this is your spot. With kitschy décor and sanguine platitudes (“Dream, Hope, Love”), Borgarnes’s Kyrrð is the best place to have a nosh while pretending you’re in your great aunt’s living room.

Runner Up: Simbahöllin Café
You might not expect to find a superb waffle haunt nested in a tiny Westfjords fishing village of Þingeyri, but hey, Iceland is full of surprises. Simbahöllin has a homey bohemian vibe and serves up authentic Belgian-style waffles along with a damn good cup of coffee.

Budget Pick: Skúrinn, Stykkishólmur
Skúrinn is pure comfort. The cosy Stykkishólmur haunt boasts nachos, milkshakes and some of the best burgers in Iceland—the Senior Citizen is a particular standout. With low prices, a cosy atmosphere, and friendly staff, it’s light on the wallet while still yummy in the tummy.

Best Accommodation

Winner: Hotel Húsafell
The recently built Hotel Húsafell is pre-tty pre-tty fancy. The lobby sits within a glass atrium that leads into a spacious restaurant with an open fire, where an impressive tasting menu is offered to guests nightly, with wine pairings and flawless service. There’s also a nice pool, free to guests. After a day on the road, it’s a welcome taste of comfort and unexpected luxury deep in the Icelandic countryside.

Luxury Pick: Hotel Búðir, Snæfellsnes
Hotel Búðir’s environs will take your breath away, from the historic church to the opportunity for sand dune walks, coastal hikes and sea-swimming. It has a vintage feel with taxidermied raptors, and a telescope overlooking the bay. The room are cosy, and the restaurant is a destination in itself.

Budget Pick: Freezer Hostel, Rif
Freezer Hostel has a cosy bar, hostel rooms, and a theatre space that holds regular events, including live music and plays. They recently staged an adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic ‘Journey To Centre of the Earth’—a story that begins just up the road at Snæfellsjökull.

Best Meal

Winner: Tjöruhúsið, Ísafjörður
Wolffish, cod, halibut, bacalao, redfish—these are just some of the scrumptious seafood options you’ll find at Tjöruhúsið. Located in a large century-old red cabin, this family-owned mess hall serves skillets of freshly caught fish buffet-style along with a selection of sides, salads, and soups. It is, as one panel member raved, “the best seafood in west Iceland, and quite possibly the whole country.” Be sure to book ahead.

Runner Up: Bjargarsteinn Mathús
Located in the coastal haven of Grundarfjörður, Bjargarsteinn Mathús is a small-town eatery that serves up a mix of traditional foods (think dried shark skewers, fish soup, skyr) with bold twists (think sweet potato muffins and blueberry thyme sauces). If that’s not enough, the food also comes with a stunning view of the mountain Kirkjufell.

Runner Up: Narfeyrarstofa, Stykkishólmur
This cosy eatery in Stykkishólmur is a stone’s throw from the harbour, and is famed for its fish dishes. The fish of the day is amazingly fresh, coming straight from the harbour, and the creamy lobster soup will warm you right through.

Read more Best Of Iceland awards here. Buy a copy of the magazine, posted worldwide, here. Read more travel articles here.

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