When I find myself in a place of incomprehensible loveliness, the kind that makes my eyes sting, I’m reminded of a line from the film American Beauty: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty, I feel like I can’t take it.”
It was that way for us Yankees in the Westfjords. I can hardly do justice to the bright blue water and the gray-pink banded cliffs, majestic against the snow-white and gray striped “Snæfjallaströnd” mountain chain, all at the almost-endless late-spring sunset.
The Westfjords jut off into the North Atlantic like some misshapen lobster claw, isolated and ignored by the Ring Road. My husband Thayer and I knew it would be a trek, and a long one, as the road is paved in places and sometimes just gravel or dirt. But the real kicker is the length of the drive. The only real traversable road follows the coast in, and out, and in, and out of each fjord. So “the shortest distance between two points” is not, as they say, a straight line, but an unbelievably long meandering one.
The more it seemed no other travelers we encountered were making the Westfjords a part of their trip, the more we wondered if we’d be wasting our time there. If it was beautiful like the rest of Iceland, would we be seeing anything new? Would it be worth the trip? We were not prepared.
The Westfjords are that beautiful. It’s as if, just when you think you’ve seen as much beauty as can possibly exist, the gods throw this in your face, like “BAM! You thought that was it? Get a load of the Westfjords.”
In search of…
I don’t know how Thayer managed to keep our Suzuki Swift from tumbling over the guardrail-less mountain roads. His eyes—like mine—were glued to the water that glowed bright blue and gold, like it had swallowed the sun, maybe to bring itself closer to heaven. We pulled over just to stare, and the stinging in my eyes stretched down to squeeze my throat until, inevitably, my cheeks were streaked with tears.
Once we’d composed ourselves, we pressed on in search of lodging. We stopped in Dýrafjörður, where there were two guesthouses, but no one to be found at either of them. One—Hótel Núpur—was unlocked, so we snuck in and roamed the former schoolhouse, searching in vain for someone to give us a room but finding only deserted hallways filled with framed class pictures dating back to 1953.
It was a long time before we reached the next guesthouse, Hótel Látrabjarg, and when we arrived there was no one there, either. To be fair, it was 22:00, even though it felt like midday. Thayer found the cook in the backyard gardening, because why wouldn’t the cook be gardening? At night? He didn’t speak much English but he knew what we were after. He whipped out his phone, and soon the host pulled up in his truck and welcomed us in—a happy ending to a seemingly endless day. And yet, I don’t think we’d have been upset if we’d had to continue driving along the fjords all night. Or forever.
The next day was another lengthy, stunning drive to the bird cliffs where, as you might imagine, there were many birds, including puffins. We also did some frolicking at the westernmost part of Iceland—and therefore Europe—at Bjargtangar.
In a small town on our way out of the fjords, we stopped at an Icelandic handicrafts store and I bought a precious “lopapeysa” with short sleeves and a sheep pattern around the neck. After doing giddy jumpy-claps over my purchase, I discovered that the woman sitting nearby knitting was the one who made it. It’s not often you get to meet the maker of the stuff you buy, and I wanted to hug her and the sheep that inspired her.
The woman and her daughter were kind enough to help us plot our route to Hellnar, but not before several minutes of language barrier over the pronunciation of “Hellnar.” Over and over we said it, our repetition met only with their confused stares. Finally, we pointed to our map. “Oh, Hkbmfnvoslvd!” they said, or they may as well have for how much the Icelandic pronunciation sounds like “Hellnar.”
We left the Westfjords with heavy hearts—the good kind of heavy that can only come from being so full of love and happiness that your heart might actually split open at the next snow-tipped mountain or pristine reflection in still, silent water you see. The kind of heavy that returns in part with every recalled image long after you leave. The kind you can’t wait to feel again, in all its crushing glory, when you return.