From Iceland — The Westfjords: Boats, Birds And Baked Goods

The Westfjords: Boats, Birds And Baked Goods

Published July 7, 2010

Rex Beckett
Photo by
Meryem Yildiz

Nothing starts the day like an early flight to Ísafjörður. When my friend and I embarked upon an action-packed day tour from the good people at Air Iceland, we discovered that taking a domestic flight in Iceland is one of the most hilariously simple experiences out there. Maybe it’s because international airports have become so infuriating and unpleasant, but being able to stroll up to the counter 15 minutes before the flight, show no identification and undergo no security measures was completely delightful. And then you get to fly into the West fjords, which need to be seen from the sky, I highly recommend it. It’s fantastic.

Pretty soon after landing, we found ourselves standing in the back of the Vesturferðir travel company’s cosy log cabin, trying to squeeze ourselves into waterproof pants one size too small. Our extremely friendly guide for the day, the native Haukur, was about to take us on a nice kayak tour around the fjord. The prospect of kayaking in the West fjords originally seemed daunting to my cohort and I, although I had kayaked once a very long time ago. But upon arriving in Ísafjörður and seeing the calm, protected waters of the fjord, we were feeling pretty good about it. We just kept hoping we didn’t flip over.

Everyone does it

I asked Haukur how flipping over happens and what one can do to avoid that happening, but his answers were rather vague. “Usually it just happens when people get distracted and start looking at the birds and the mountains too much,” he said non-chalantly, “but it can really happen to anyone. One of our guides flipped over yesterday because he was trying to do some fancy moves. Don’t try to be a dancer.” Ironically, I learned how to kayak at ballet camp.

Once we got our gear on, we headed down to the tip of the spit of land the town is located to our kayaking launch point. This was set amongst some of the oldest timber frame houses in Iceland, built between 1734 and 1761, and truly gave us a sense of time travelling. Being only two people going on the tour today, we gladly lent a hand to Haukur to carry the kayaks down to the shore, their front tips barely resting in the water. We were then given a quick paddling lesson and rescue instructions if the unthinkable flipping over should happen, got our foot rests adjusted and then pushed into the water.

Easier than canoeing

Let me get right to the point: kayaking is fun. The kayak is a perfect individual sport since it is simple enough to learn in a short time and does not require an impressive physical disposition. My cohort quickly learned how to manoeuvre herself in the water, although it took some time to build up speed. Haukur casually soared ahead pointing out various interesting things to draw our attention to.

The views around us really were quite spectacular too. With the town now behind us, we were staring right into the majesty of the fjord on a remarkably clear and sunny day. I noticed a tunnel running through the mountains and Haukur told me there was a waterfall behind it, near their so-called forest. He drew our attention to a dip in the mountain and told us it was what locals called a troll chair. “A long time ago a troll came here and sat in the mountain,” he mused, “but now trolls are all extinct.”

He then pointed out to us a family of eider ducks taking their morning swim, but by the time we noticed and caught up they were gone. Once we made it to the half-way point in the fjord we decided to go back the way we came instead of going the full circle. While it is an easy enough activity, it does require endurance and ours was running thin. We got ourselves back to shore and thanked him. “I was really happy you came,” he said, “or else I would have been stuck in the office all day. And it’s so nice out!”

Another freaking boat!?

After a leisurely walk around town and a nice lunch at the catch-of-the-day summer restaurant Tjöruhúsið, we headed over to the harbour, where the second half of our day tour was to begin. We boarded a small tour boat with a handful of other travellers and headed off to Vigur, a tiny island in the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord with more birds than people. After a slightly jumpy boat ride where I got completely sprayed by seawater while overzealously leaning out to see the fjord, we arrived at a really old-looking dock.

Before stepping onto the island officially, our guide Lára instructed us to stay close together and not stray far from the group. The island is privately owned by one family of farmers who have lived there for many generations, and we were there at the peak of nesting season for the eider ducks, arctic terns, guillemots and puffins that inhabit the island. This made walking around a rather delicate affair as we tried to avoid stepping on bird eggs, meanwhile waving blue flags on sticks to keep the crazy arctic terns at bay.

The tour of the island was shorter than usual due to nesting season, but we saw a lot nonetheless. We began at the one and only windmill in Iceland, built in 1830. It was used to grind corn meal until it went out of use in 1917. The National Museum bought it in 1996 and plans to restore it. We then walked further up the island to where we could see a large area of puffin nests, which they make by digging two metre wide holes in the ground and hiding under there. They are quite easy to step on so we didn’t venture further.

Kind of like that Alfred Hitchcock movie

We returned down the island towards the homestead but people were dragging behind. Not all the people in our tour group were so respectful about staying on the path and keeping together with the group, but Lára seemed extremely patient. My cohort and I were less so, as we were standing there getting screamed at and threatened by the arctic terns. The closer we got to our next point of interest, the more upset they got and the lower they dipped towards us, no matter how hard we swatted at them with our little blue flags. Not cool, man—bird—but they gotta protect their eggs and all.

This disturbance came to a peak at our next stop, the Eiderduck Hotel. This was a low, stone wall built by the farmer who inhabited the island 200 years ago. Little cubbies were built into the wall at ground level making it ideal for eider ducks and guillemots to build their nests in peacefully. We then headed to one of the farmhouses, where we were invited to have coffee and a variety of some of the most delicious baked goods I have ever sampled. After this perfect little repose, we made our final stop at the eiderdown factory-slash-smallest post office in Iceland. The farmers on the island make their main living by selling the down to make some of the most luxuriously soft pillows and blankets available, and after feeling the freshly cleaned eiderdown, I badly want a new duvet!

We then boarded our tour boat again to take us back to the mainland, where we would fly home. Between the cakes and the thought of new pillows, my cohort and I both fell into deep, dreamy naps as we floated along the now peaceful waters of the West fjords.

The Birds & Blue Waters day tour offered by Air Iceland is offered all summer until August 23, all days except Sunday and cost € 270. See for schedules and more action-packed trips. Click Here to book a flight with Air Iceland.

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