Exploring fishing villages in the far northwest

Photo by
Zoë Robert

With petrol prices at an all time high and a car suited to city streets, it didn’t exactly seem like the ideal time to go on a road trip to the most remote region of a country already known for its exorbitant prices and hazardous driving conditions. We set off and arrive late in the evening at the sleepy fishing village of Hólmavík, in the eastern West Fjords in the far northwest of the country, for a five day tour of the region starting with the eastern section of the fjords and then travelling west and then south.

Hólmavík, the largest settlement in the area, is characterised by its traditional colourful corrugated iron houses and its picturesque harbour overlooking Steinsgrímsfjörður. Although just a 270 km drive north of Reykjavík, the days here are noticeably longer. We watch the sunset fade into a pinkish haze on the horizon well after midnight.

Strandir Coast
The next day we head off along the Strandir coast toward Norðurfjörður, which is as far as the dirt, all-too-often-bumpy, road will take us. The friendly owners of the guesthouse in Hólmavík hadn’t visited the remote area in a few years but estimated that the drive would take around two hours. The unsealed, narrow road winds endlessly between the mountains on the one side, and the rocky, black sand coastline on the other. Save the couple of cars that pass us, we are alone on the road. The weather gods provide us with rare (at least for the capital) warm, sunny and still conditions. It’s around 15°C but, as is often the case in Iceland, it feels warmer – more like 20 plus °C. We take a stroll up the side of the mountain at Kaldbaksvík where a couple are fishing in the crystal clear waters of the lake. The rusty coloured mountain vegetation, deep blue waters of the fjord and its lush green surroundings offset the pastel blue skies.
Eventually we come to the largely abandoned village of Djúpavík, where the old herring processing plant, now housing an exhibition on the industry, stands as a reminder of this sleepy town’s more prosperous times. The Strandir coastline is lined with beaches littered with driftwood and flotsam – rope, nets, buoys, random plastic objects – and the odd seal sunbathing on the rocks. It’s so sparsely populated around these parts, with only the occasional farm dotting the countryside, that we share the road only with the sheep and birds that inhabit these shores during the summer. Combined with the rough roads, the animal and birdlife prove to be a hazard, forcing us to reduce speed to 30 to 40 kms an hour for much of the way. Kría, or arctic terns, are notoriously aggressive at this time of year, repeatedly attempting to swoop our car and diving directly in front of the moving vehicle. On more than one occasion the mating birds lay smack bam in the middle of the road, bringing our car to a halt.

A Pool in the Middle of Nowhere
More than four hours after leaving Hólmavík and a scenic, but slow, drive through nothingness, we arrive at our destination of Norðurfjörður – more specifically, the open-air geothermal swimming pool at Krossness. An eight hour return drive to get to a swimming pool may sound a bit extreme, but the simple, unattended pool we’re talking about, with its single hot tub, lies on a quaint pebbled beach with unobstructed views of the sea. The weather wasn’t feeling so summery by this time, but we were only too eager to test the new waters – soon agreeing that the drive was worth it.
In true Icelandic fashion, the locals strike up a conversation in the hot tubs. They talk to us about the hardships of the life in the tiny village, the woes of the fishing industry, and the all too familiar trend of migration to the bigger centres of Akureyri and Reykjavík, referred to as “the City” around here. Times might be tough in the country, but these people have unrivalled peacefulness and surely one of the best pools around.
The sparsely populated and isolated Norðurfjörður is the last stop before the Hornstrandir peninsula, abandoned from settlement in the 1950s. The peninsula, comprising of Drangajökull glacier and an expanse of wild grassland and tundra, is a popular summer hiking destination. But hiking isn’t on our agenda, and with the prospect of the weather closing in the following day, we decide to head back down the coast for the long drive to Hólmavík.

The following day we continue on to the regional hub of Ísafjörður, population 3000. The drive soon turns tedious after the marvels and more desirable weather of the previous day. Fjord, after fjord, after fjord… endless fjords, it seems as we drive the length of each. Finally Ísafjörður appears, strung out on a protruding spit into the fjord with the steep, snow tipped mountains providing a dramatic backdrop.
People around these parts, like in much of the West Fjords, survive off fishing, sheep farming out of town, and increasingly, tourism. The owner of our guesthouse, who just so happens to be one of the most talkative and friendly people I’ve encountered in Iceland, insists that we have dinner down at the harbour at the fish restaurant housed in one of Iceland’s oldest buildings. The fish is reportedly right off the boat – and according to all accounts, is phenomenally good.
The owner of the guesthouse tells us that she is trying to help to establish the West Fjords as a tourist destination. And she’s not the only one. The region’s slogan is “A different Iceland”, and there have been concerted efforts to attract tourism to the area and even talk of trying to get direct flights from abroad. Eager to promote what the area has to offer, she enthusiastically proclaims that the West Fjords offer many of what the whole of Iceland has to offer in a concentrated area. And, she could be right.
An icy wind blows from the mountains still striped with snow that refuses to budge despite the arrival of summer. The following afternoon we make a trip to the nearby towns of Hnífsdalur and Bolungarvík, where fish drying racks line the coast.

Iceland’s National Day
On our final day we drive back along the western fjords through the 5 km tunnel, detouring to Suðureyri, yet another fishing village set in a stunning fjord, where we visit the local wool craft store. Being Iceland’s National Day, we take the opportunity to also stop at Hrafnseyri, the birthplace of Jón Sigurðsson, leader of Icelandic independence, where the car park is quickly filling for a special ceremony. Sigurðsson’s former home is now a museum dedicated to his legacy and life in the 1800s. Inside the adjacent wooden church, built in 1886, Iceland’s bishop is preparing for a special mass.
Later, we spend the afternoon driving through the fjords and over the highlands towards Reykjavík. While many of the towns in the West Fjords are not worth all the driving in themselves, it’s the dramatic views that impress. The friendliness of the inhabitants, along with the rugged beauty of the region, has left me with a new appreciation for this country.

  • PLACES VISITED: Hólmavík www.holmavik.is, Suðureyri www.sudureyri.is, Hrafnseyri www.hrafnseyri.is, Hnífsdalur, Bolungarvík www.bolungarvik.is, Ísafjörður www.isafjordur.is
  • FLY: Air Iceland to the Westfjords
  • DRIVE: www.hertz.is , www.sixt.is
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