Learning to lose control on the outskirts of Iceland...
When I set off on a Westfjords adventure in early November, I never expected it to be such an educational experience. But, it was. What I learned was the utter futility of trying to defy the elements, how one must sometimes just surrender to the environment. City slickers heading to the Westfjords in wintertime, heed this warning: you are not in control. The forces of nature are. And that’s fine.
When it comes to tourism, November is definitely the off-season for the northern Westfjords, just a few skips from Greenland. Some might say this is for good reason. Up there, the weather gods rule. And boy do they love winter. Luckily, the idea of not having to worry about crowds or being cajoled into some kind of adventure hike by a well-meaning friend appeals to me greatly. It was with this attitude that I eagerly made a list of “must-dos” in the region and packed my warmest of jackets for a relaxed, fun-filled three-day trip, free from touristic trappings.
After showing my planned itinerary to a friend who grew up in Ísafjörður, the region’s capital, he filled me in on what would become the theme of the trip: in the Westfjords, you have to be flexible, you have to go with the flow. Without much warning, the weather can ground flights, close roads, cut off electricity and phones and render any plan or schedule useless. And there is simply no point in getting worked up over this. You need to take it as it comes, and try to enjoy the ride.
Condoms, guitar amps, ice cream
The nature of the beast became apparent before Grapevine photographer Anna and I even made it up there. A scheduled Friday morning flight to Ísafjörður was cancelled due to snowfall and wild winds. There would be no flights that day. By Saturday morning, we’d grudgingly accepted that the trip wasn’t going to happen, resigning ourselves to yet another day of coffee and pools in Reykjavík. At midday, however, the airline announced that our flight would depart in an hour. The unpredictability of the area had already hit me—and I was hooked.
The first view of the fjords as our plane made its descent had me quite literally gasping. As the clouds parted, we were greeted with pristine waters, black sands, snowy mountains, and even a rainbow. The kindness of every local we encountered once in town would prove just as shockingly pleasant. The stage was set as soon as we landed, when an airport employee moonlighting as a car rental agent (in true Icelandic fashion) offered to drive to his house to lend me his phone charger. This sort of behaviour would repeat itself throughout the weekend, the locals constantly going out of their way to be as helpful as possible.
As we approached the town of Ísafjörður proper, we were struck by the natural beauty in which it sits—inlets, mountains and an almost ominous number of ravens. After an extended period of time just standing around and gawking at Mother Nature’s majesty, hunger eventually got us moving, so we headed to Hamraborg, widely regarded as “Iceland’s best kiosk.”
Entering the shop-cum-restaurant was an assault on the senses. On that rainy Saturday afternoon, it felt like half the town had gathered in there under the watchful yet friendly gaze of proprietor Úlfur Þór Úlfarsson. Hamraborg is truly stuffed with stuff, offering most everything one could ever want or need in a town like Ísafjörður: from Fender guitar amps and flavoured condoms, to milk, beer and various electronics. While the fast food we enjoyed there was firmly up to the greasy standards of its category, the ice cream was truly next level. You should try some, if you ever have the chance.
Feasting on face
Hyped up on sugar, we were determined to explore the town and its surroundings. Of course, the weather had the final say. A quick visit to the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration’s absolutely crucial website, www.vegagerdin.is, revealed that the only road deemed to be in “will not lead to your slippery doom” conditions was the one that lead to the neighbouring hamlet of Bolungarvík, a full thirteen-minute drive from Ísafjörður. Opting to explore more Ísafjörður instead of risking a drive, we wandered through town as the sun went down.
Perhaps we took that whole going-with-the-flow idea too far that night when we accepted an invitation from Ísafjörður Mayor Gísli Halldór Halldórsson to attend the local Kiwanis charter’s annual “svið feast” (“svið” are seared sheep heads). The event was a quintessential example of Icelandic hospitality. The hosts, particularly club president Gunnlaugur Gunnlaugsson, went out of their way to make us feel welcome. I was gifted an expensive bottle of red wine, simply for being a visiting “British journalist” (close enough). Even the puffin hunter guy we sat next to seemed kind enough, despite constantly boasting of how many puffins he’d killed throughout his career.
Goaded on by our hosts’ warmth and jovial nature, we had no choice but to partake in the heaping platters of seared sheep heads on offer, getting a first taste of this local delicacy. The verdict: quite good, if you can look past the fact that you’re basically eating a face.
The next day, I woke up to find Ísafjörður had turned into a twinkling winter wonderland. Instead of getting worked up over the fact that our plan to explore the furthest ranges of the region (via our trusty rental car) was doomed, we serenely accepted our fate, opting to go along with whatever the day might bring.
In the end, our trusty pals at www.vegagerdin.is made our decision easy. The only roads safe to drive (particularly for outsiders who are not at all used to local conditions) were the ones to the neighbouring towns of Flateyri and Súðavík. While this wiped out half of our planned itinerary, having but a few simple destination options to choose from was kind of nice for a change.
The drive to Súðavík, while a little slippery, was absolutely stunning. This is no hyperbole: the fjords came off as majestic beings transported from Antarctica, leaving us in awe of the power of nature. While Súðavík’s main attraction, the Arctic Fox Centre, was closed (surprise, surprise), we got our fix of the local fauna from the delightful sheep we encountered while there. They serenely dug through the snow to eat the grass below, unfazed by the frigid conditions and the crashing waves of the ocean beside them. It served to underline nature’s way of adapting to challenges, rather than fighting them, which is something many humans might take to heart.
Bearing that in mind, I managed to not throw a tantrum when we learned that the road to Flateyri had become too treacherous to travel just as we were making our way there.
On the road
On our third and last day, the blankets of snow had melted away. The universe had rewarded our patience with a pink sunrise (Thanks Holuhraun!) over beautiful mountains, with a smattering of clouds rendering the fjord’s inlet a deep blue. The roads finally clear and safe, we immediately drove off.
As we made our way through the fjords that make up the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord—Álftafjörður, Seyðisfjörður, Skötufjörður, Hestfjörður and Mjóifjörður—we became increasingly exhilarated by the surroundings we traversed, mouths often agape for minutes at a time. Further adding to our sense of wonder was how quickly the weather and road conditions had turned around, the stark contrast highlighting the adaptability of the region (and the adaptability it demands of its denizens).
I’ll be back
The highlights of our Westfjords trip occurred right at the end of it. After passing a small pod of wild seals en route, we arrived at Heydalur valley, nestled in the fjord of Mjóifjörður. The valley is home to an adorable, family-run guesthouse and restaurant that both come highly recommended by those in the know. Resisting the urge to book a night at the guesthouse and explore the area properly (our flight to Reykjavík was regrettably only a couple of hours away), we opted for lunch at the restaurant. And what a delight that was! After slurping down some hearty (and affordable!) soup made by the friendly Stella, I was sorely tempted to order one of everything on the menu. And vegetarians rejoice, one of Heydalur’s employees, Elíse, is a vegetarian, ensuring plenty of veg- friendly menu options. She is also happy to answer any questions you may have about the resident cockatoo, dog (Loki) and rehabilitated arctic foxes they regularly host at Heydalur. Leaving the resort behind to catch our flight proved incredibly difficult—with two pools, friendly pets and a plethora of wintertime activities to get up to, Heydalur is clearly a great stopover in the Westfjords.
Even though it nearly gave my time-conscious friend a heart attack, I couldn’t resist a quick dip at Hörgshlíðarlaug, one of the many natural pools the Westfjords has to offer. While enjoying a soothing bathe, and gazing out at the snow flecked mountains and calm fjord, I firmly decided that I would be back. Sooner than later.
Considering it was the region’s off-season, there was still so much to see, even if most of it was covered in snow. Unlike most of Iceland, the winter season here has yet to be invaded by hordes of tourists, and it likely never will be. But for the adventurous, for those willing to be flexible and give up the human folly of needing to feel in control at all times, the Westfjords in winter is an excellent getaway.
Distance from Reykjavik: 450 KM
Average temperature in November : 2.6°C to -1.3°C
Average temperature in December : 1.2 °C to -3.1°C
HOW TO GET THERE:
Distance from Reykjavík: Around 450 km
How to get there: If you’re driving, take road 1 North, turn onto road 60, and then again onto road 61 until you get to Ísafjörður (use a map, follow directions, watch out for weather conditions). You can also fly directly from Reykjavík via Air Iceland: book your tickets online.
You can stay at Hotel Ísafjörður by booking online.
You can rent a car though Hertz.
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