Bienvenido to the Costa de Westfjords. Swap sandals for hiking boots, bikinis for anoraks, and ice-cold sangria for flasks of steaming coffee. And for the love of god, give up on any dreams of a sun tan.
Escape to the country
Gazing out of the office window on a drizzly Monday morning, I watch as tourists in ridiculously oversized pac-a-macs flee to safety of the nearest cafe. It’s early August, a period I would usually spend passed out on a Spanish beach, but for obvious reasons this year is a different story.
Throughout the week my vitamin-D-deprived brain is haunted by dreams of golden sands and azure seas and so at 9:00 on a Saturday morning, I drag the Grapevine’s resident photo wizard Art Bicnick on the ultimate summer road trip: a 6-hour drive to the wild, wild Westfjords, a mere 440 kilometres away.
First stop on the itinerary? Ice cream.
In one of the most remote regions in an already sparsely populated country, Erpsstaðir is a rare culinary oasis. Yes, it would’ve made more sense to enjoy an ice cream when we’d reached our coastal destination, but as I rapidly learn, in the Icelandic countryside, you get your food whenever you can. And when the ice cream is made onsite by a farmer named Einar using rhubarb, blueberries and meadowsweet from the surrounding hills, how can you refuse?
The clue’s in the name
Unlike its more famous cousin Reynisfjara, Rauðisandur matured out of its emo phase. In a country famed for its black sands, Rauðisandur is, as the name would suggest, a copper-toned outlier. Thanks to a relatively thin layer of pulverised scallop shells, the beach’s colouring morphs depending on light conditions. Today, under a strip of weak sun peaking out between ominous clouds, the sands are a soft ochre, contrasting dramatically against the dark cliffs and deep turquoise Atlantic. After the highway’s unfalteringly drab colour palette of greys, greens, yellows and blacks, the idyllic scene almost seems artificial.
A zeal for seals
Eventually he gives in and we set out across the sandbar towards the lair of the mighty mammals, some two kilometres away.
Around twenty minutes into the trek, another childhood emotion resurfaces: a deep-seated fear of being stranded at sea spawned from an ill-fated family picnic. “Did you check the tide times?” I ask trying to keep the panic out of my voice. Art shrugs and continues to stroll along at a painfully slow speed; he clearly has never had his sandwich cruelly snatched away by a rogue wave.
The only distraction from my sense of impending doom is a fun little game I like to call “Is it a seal or is it a rock?” On the 50th round, the answer is finally the former. One of the dark mounds suddenly flops off a neighbouring sandbar and into the rapidly rising waters.
Before us are around 50 seals, more than my inner 7-year-old can handle and by far outnumbering the people we have met since our arrival in the Westfjords. Quest complete, we turn back, but though we may have finished examining them, the seals are not finished with us. We are escorted back to the safety of dry land by an inquisitive convoy of glistening black heads bobbing in and out of the water.
Where the puffins at?
The moment we clamber back into the car, the rain resumes as if some good-tempered equally seal-loving god had held off the downpour on our behalf. The weather steadily deteriorates as we drive back over roads half-submerged in rusty-hued puddles towards our quite literal port in the storm: Hotel Breiðavík.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we venture back out into the rain towards the final stop of our adventure: Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Iceland and, if you forget the Azores (which we do), the westernmost point in the whole of Europe.
A small squat lighthouse perches on the cliff, modestly marking the landmark, as the Atlantic stretches out before us all the way to Greenland. But the real attraction here is the 14 kilometres of 440 metre-high cliffs, home to Iceland’s biggest seabird colony.
Guillemots, razorbills, arctic skuas and kittiwakes dive in and out of sight over the cliff top, gliding effortlessly through the air as if to mock our beleaguered struggle against the wind and rain. I squint down at the segregated bands in the cliff and the nesting birds, trying to take in the magnificent sight and simultaneously prevent myself from being swept into the sea.
The sweet fishy odour of guano fills the air. It’s this natural fertiliser made up of years-worth of bird excrement that is responsible for the soft mossy grasslands that top the cliffs and give puffins the perfect habitat to hide from nosy tourists. And sure enough, the unofficial mascots of Iceland’s recent mass tourism boom are nowhere to be seen. It’s just as we feared, the puffins had left the cliffs for a day’s fishing before we had even stirred ourselves out of bed and any remaining birds are sticking wisely out of view.
Just as we resignedly turn back towards the car, we spot a flash of orange amongst the greys and blacks of the swooping gulls and fulmars. You guessed it, a puffin is triumphantly returning to its nest with a beak full of small silvery fish. And suddenly we spot the nests strewn along the cliff edge and a handful of puffins peering good-humouredly out at us.
With the final item on our itinerary ticked off, we return to the car, ready for the 6-hour drive home, beach fix sorted for another year.
Read more about the Westfjords here.
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