We’re just north of Bifröst when the night falls hard. After a blustery three hour road trip up the western coast of Iceland, the richly coloured autumn landscape is plunged into an eerie, enveloping darkness. Without the comfort of highway lamps, distant glowing windows, oncoming traffic, or even a smudge of light on the horizon, it feels like driving into inky nothingness.
After an hour, the lights of Blönduós appear through the murk. The town feels deserted, and we cruise past the floodlit forecourt at an unmanned gas station, a closed down factory, and some shuttered houses. Hotel Blanda is the last building before the shoreline of Húnafjörður, and violent, crashing waves are audible somewhere nearby. Even with the hotel room window open just a crack, the wild winds and the bassy roar of the ocean lull me swiftly into a deep sleep.
In the morning, Blönduós is held under a shroud of grey, spitting clouds. The shoreline lies just a few metres from the back of the hotel, and the tide crashes against the rocky seawall, sending jets of spray high into the air.
We drive through the town’s few residential streets, peering out at nondescript industrial units, factories, faceless municipal buildings, a fenced-in pool, and a supermarket. Route One slices straight through Blönduós, bridging the River Blanda on its way. A picturesque wooded island named Hrútey sits in the estuary, and a lonely, colourfully painted wooden ram stares at us from the island as we leave the town behind.
Art and prophets
Route 74 is a 20 kilometre strip of road that skirts the edge of the island-dotted Húnafjörður to Skagaströnd. This discreet little town, with a population of 498, has been a trading centre since the 15th Century, and looks across the fjord to the distant snowy peaks of the Westfjords. It has some life to it: people wander the streets going about their day, and the streets are scattered with sculptures, murals and photographs—all evidence of the artists who stay at the NES art residency.
Most of the town’s attractions, however, are closed down for the off season. The cosy-looking Bjarmanes café doesn’t open for another hour, and a museum dedicated to Þórðis, a 10th Century fortune teller who was the first named inhabitant of Skagaströnd, is locked. We peer in through the windows, and instead take a walk over some mossy seaside hillocks topped with a tall cairn. The view across to the Westfjords is spectacular, and as I look down over Skagaströnd, I resolve to return during summer.
Off the map
The road northward is a dusty gravel track that traces around the top of the Skagi peninsula. The first stop is the Kálfshamarsvita lighthouse, standing tall and proud amongst some stunning basalt cliffs and formations that resemble a hexagonally tiled floor. A hundred years ago, there was a busy fishing village here, but all that remains today are the signposted ruins of several stone houses.
As we trundle around the tip of the peninsula, the occasional farms give way to wide tracts of rocky, untouched land. Distant mountains are reflected in still lakes as the route winds its way around the headland, crossing barren plains and coastal outcrops with no sign of human interference but the road ahead.
On the eastern side of the peninsula lie the high cliffs of Ketubjörg, where a small, meandering stream plunges over the edge, tumbling down 100 metres onto the black beach below. The land is visibly deteriorating around the cliffside, with large cracks appearing in the ground. A wooden stile leans precariously towards the precipice, the onward path swept away by an earlier landslide. I stand shivering in the fierce wind, looking out at the twin islands of Drangey and Málmey, imagining what life was like in this unforgiving place in centuries past.
End of the road
The final stop is Grettislaug, a geothermal bathing spot where it’s fabled that Grettir of Grettis Saga once had a soak. It lies at the end of Reykjaströnd, a long, narrow shelf of land between the tall, jagged mountains of the peninsula and the rippling sea of Skagafjörður. We bounce up the unpaved road, pausing occasionally for herds of horses to cross in front of us.
Grettislaug is where the road terminates. The attendant is a white-bearded Akranes resident who’s been living here all summer in a wooden cabin that also serves as a reception area and café. He pours us some hot coffee, relating that even during the autumn he welcomes fifty or so visitors to Grettislaug each day.
There are two small pools on the shore, Grettislaug and Jarlslaug. They’re man-made, but natural in look and feel, built into the ground from large stones and filled from a nearby hot spring. The water is silky and clear, and we linger for an hour with the pool to ourselves, watching the chilly evening set in. The sky fades into a gradient of fiery orange, vivid pink and bruised purple. We leave the pool reluctantly, drying off hastily as the temperature drops and the light fades, before setting out to race the sunset back to Blönduós.