“Are you kidding?” laughs the grizzled old bus driver. “I’ll never get to Ártun by 8:51. Maybe if this was a Ferrari.” He checks a timetable. “You should take Strætó number five. I’ll radio ahead… oh wait, there it is! Run!”
And so, a short getaway to Stykkishólmur, the largest town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, begins with us racing across Hlemmur, clumsily laden with bulky coats, backpacks and bags. The driver of the number five bus has been informed we’re coming, and after we pile aboard she puts her foot down—firmly. We grip the railings as the rattling city bus speeds towards Ártun, our intrepid driver radioing ahead to tell the connecting bus to wait for us. It’s a team effort, and somehow very Icelandic, that the plight of two foreign bus travellers should become such a family affair.
Once aboard the 57—a more comfortable cross-country coach—the panic is over, and we put our feet up. Soon, the scenery is flowing by as we shoot between snow-mottled bulges and craggy volcanic plains, through frosted farm fields and over snowy mountain passes. Just three hours later, Stykkishólmur’s distinctive church glides into view, looking as much like a grounded spacecraft as a place of worship.
The minibus chugs away from the cracked, empty gas station forecourt, and the silence of the town descends on us.
Old, new, borrowed, blue
Stykkishólmur is sopping wet under a drizzly ceiling of low, gray clouds. The streets are deserted, and we splash down the town’s raw, potholed main street. Hotel Egilsen is easy to find, being one of the older and more distinctive buildings on the town’s picturesque harbour—in fact, it’s the second-oldest building in Stykkishólmur, and will soon celebrate its 150th birthday. Its curved roof and cheery red exterior hold an immaculately renovated modern boutique hotel, complete with wooden powder-blue walls, artfully mismatched furniture, and cosy touches such as Vík Prjónsdóttir blankets and a library of Nordic folk tales and maritime fiction. We’re given a warm welcome and a hot coffee, and instantly fall in love with the place.
With a few hours left until check-in, we head to the town’s swimming pool, which is famous for its mineral-rich water. We have the pool to ourselves, and soak blissfully in the hot pots, the steaming water leaving a silken sheen on the skin. A large sign proudly proclaims that the water here is richer in some minerals than either the Blue Lagoon or Mývatn Nature Baths—and at 800 ISK entry, it’s considerably cheaper than either.
Stykkishólmur’s harbour is one of the town’s most noticeable features, with a huge, jutting, lighthouse-topped cliff protecting the marina. It’s still used for fishing, as a ferry port and, increasingly, for pleasure cruises. The most popular of these is the Viking Sushi tour—a feast of fresh seafood that’s pulled out of the fjord before your very eyes.
We board with a large, excitable tour group and settle down in the ship’s dining hold. As we pull out of the harbour, the captain’s voice crackles over the speakers. Some of the reputed thousand small islands in Breiðafjörður have their own folk tales. We steer alongside a distinctive island that has a large boulder precipitously jammed in a chasm between two ridges. It was apparently thrown there, centuries ago, by a misfiring troll who launched it at the Stykkishólmur’s church, irritated by the sound of the bells. “Geologists found that the rock is made of the same substance as the troll’s home mountain, and not the rock found on the island,” says the captain. “And furthermore, it’s on the right trajectory… so we have proof!”
Eventually, we gather at the back of the boat. A heavy basket is thrown into the water, and we look on as it sinks to slowly trawl the sea floor. When it’s wound in a few minutes later, out spills a menagerie of brightly coloured sea creatures, from purple urchins to orange starfish, pink crabs and huge scallops. The shells are opened up and handed out to the throng, who slurp down the tender, oily shellfish and salty roe with a splash of soy sauce. The amazement on people’s faces says it all: it’s the freshest and most delicious seafood imaginable.
Volcanoes, glaciers & other wonders
Stykkishólmur is also home to a handful of museums and local shops. In the Eldfell Volcano Museum, we’re shown a collection of mineral samples, maps and art that includes, to our surprise, original volcano-related works by Hokusai and Andy Warhol. As well as the science of volcanoes, the museum also examines the changing human perception of them across the centuries—whether you’re a geologist or not, it’s an interesting exhibit.
Overlooking the harbour is another large installation, this time relating to glaciers. Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn, or Library of Water, inhabits the town’s old library building, and presents a series of floor-to-ceiling glass tubes, each containing a sample of meltwater and silt from one of Iceland’s glaciers. The subtext is clear—one day, this may be all that’s left of them. Of the many attempts made by artists to express their awe and love for Iceland, the Library of Water is amongst the most impressive.
After dropping by a couple of local craft galleries, we finish the trip with a meal at Narfeyrarstofa, a homely restaurant in a well-kept mint green house in the harbour. The chef and owner, Sæþór, bought the place in 2001, and has since expanded it to two floors to cope with increasing demand. We soon learn why: after a starter of creamy but light seafood soup, some juicy pan-fried scallops and some tender redfish, we’re served a large, mouth-watering chunk of locally fished cod. It’s cooked to perfection with the huge, meaty flakes sliding apart under the fork—and when dealing with such a fine ingredient, just a dash of salt, garlic and chilli is more than enough to bring out the flavour.
But such a world-class meal shouldn’t be a surprise, by now. Whether it’s fine art, local culture, superior lodgings, bracing nature or unforgettable food, Stykkishólmur is a little town that has a winning knack for confounding expectations.
Eat at Narfeyrarstofa.
Also read: People of Stykkishólmur.