“What the hell are you going to do in Hella?!” asked my friend, when I filled him in on my latest travel destination. It’s true that Hella (pronounced ‘Hett-la’) is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town: to the west, it’s bound by the Ytri-Rangé river, and to the east by fields of wild lupine. Between lies the town itself: a small smattering of shabby diners, gas stations and industrial buildings.
We were only planning on spending half an hour in Hella. For most people driving Iceland’s main highway, it’s just a gas stop between Selfoss and Hvolsvöllur. In fact, even the woman working at Litla Lopasjoppan, the local handicraft and wool market, told us it would be hard to spend more than a few hours here.
We stumbled upon Litla Lopasjoppan after noticing its bright red exterior by the side of the highway, with wool sweaters blowing in the wind out front. It’s an Icelandic sweater collector’s paradise, with wall-to-wall shelves stacked with lópapeysur of all the colours and patterns imaginable. The shop is also a true family affair, with generations of Icelanders working together to make the classic sweaters that we all know and love. For smaller gifts and souvenirs, they also make scarves, mittens, and—a personal favourite—a glove that’s been tailor-made to hold a can of Víking without your fingers getting cold.
Like all Icelandic towns, Hella of course also has a pool. But complete with a 25-metre lane pool and a warmer pool for kids, as well as a variety of hot pots, two waterslides and a sauna, this isn’t just any pool! While its small size evokes the memory of classic small-town Icelandic pools, the water slides add a modern flair. The sauna was also a pleasant surprise—tucked away near the changing rooms, it could be missed if you’re not looking for it. ince my time in Hella, I’ve been raving about this pool to everyone who will listen, and I’ve promised myself that I’ll go back.
On our way out of town, we stopped in at the local café/ bar/ motel before picking up some Bingo Balls at the gas station for the road. You could find businesses like these—nondescript but functional storefronts with poor paint jobs—in any other roadside town. But that’s part of their appeal. As a Canadian who spent a large chunk of his childhood driving from tiny town to tiny town on the open prairies, Hella held a lot of nostalgia for me. In this #InspiredByIceland age, there’s something to be said about the fact you could find towns in such uninspiring places as Saskatchewan or Nebraska that look, at least on their surface, almost identical to this town in southern Iceland.
I’ve driven through a few times since our half hour in Hella, and each time, I make some effort to get whoever is driving to make a pit stop. “They have a really nice pool,” I’ll say. “And just look at that lupine!” Without fail, they’ll snicker or roll their eyes, and refuse my suggestion. If only they knew what they were missing.