25km north of Reykjavík lies the secluded, undulating fjord of Hvalfjörður: the “Whale Fjord”. This 40km coastal route was once a part of Iceland’s circular Route One, connecting Reykjavík to the north and, eventually, the rest of the country. But in 1998, after two years of construction, the 5.7km Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel opened, making Hvalfjörður into a seldom travelled route that faded from everyday use.
Into the dark
We set out to explore Hvalfjörður on a stormy autumn afternoon. On the northward drive, the clouds get heavier and heavier, until they finally unleash a dramatic downpour. Ours is the only car that turns right before the tunnel’s mouth, leaving the traffic behind and peeling off onto a slick and shining two-lane road that skirts the shelf of land between the fjord and the mountains.
We rattle across an old fashioned single-lane bridge, sending up clouds of spray, and pull over in a windblown lay-by that looks over the area. There are no other cars in sight, and just a few scattered industrial buildings across the fjord. The water is dotted with nooks, islands and peninsulas, and the vast mountains that cradle the fjord are dusted with snow, revealing a textural surface, heavily scored as if clawed by the elements.
The churning sky mutes the bright autumn foliage, turning quickly from a heavy, watery blue-grey to inky black. Driving carefully through sheets of rain, we decide to aim for the welcoming lights of Hotel Glymur for a hot meal and a warm bed, and to resume the adventure in the morning.
By dawn, the rain has turned to hail. The sunrise feels late, with pink sunbeams strafing the sky horizontally, picking out the bottoms of the clouds. I open the cabin doors wide and tip-toe across the frozen deck, pulling the top off the hot pot and slipping into the steaming water to watch the sun creep upwards. In the distance, the lights of a small town twinkle, and the mountains—visibly whiter than yesterday—curve gracefully down to the fjord. A sole lorry appears in the distance, trundling by noisily, and stoking my appetite to get back on the road.
We pull up first at the locked gates of an unmarked industrial facility that is, famously, one of Iceland’s sole remaining whaling stations. It seems all but abandoned, with a couple of lights on, and a single column of steam rising from a nondescript cluster of buildings. I trudge around the perimeter, peering in through the mesh fence. There are no signs of life inside, but I catch a grim glance of a ramped concrete dock that vanishes into the waves—it’s where whales are landed before being processing into oil, blubber and meat. Further up the hillside, there’s vantage point that looks down upon two whaling vessels marked “Hvalur.” The whole place carries a sad, desolate feeling, like the fjord’s guilty secret.
Not far down the road is another hulking industrial complex of a different kind. A large white factory sits in front of a huge, muddy cleft in the hillside, peppered with piled pipes, fragments of metal, and a sole rusting JCB. It’s site of a former rhyolite quarry, where the mineral was harvested to be processed into concrete. Now, the machines are still, and the sheer, raw cliff of the quarried earth bleeds with natural grey-green chemicals. The monumental foothills stand sombre over the scene, criss-crossed with power lines, creating a sense of forlorn beauty and desolation.
The largest peninsula in Hvalfjörður is Þyrilsnes. After a couple of minutes trundling out towards the tall ridge at its end, the potholed track is blocked—first by a puddle so deep that’s more like a ditch, and then by a fence. There’s a stile that allows us to continue on foot. At the peak of the hill, the view unfolds beautifully—bands of hail and rain sweep over the water to the gargantuan, rubble-strewn slopes that grow up to the sky on all sides of the fjord.
On the other side of the water lies another peninsula named Hvítanes, which holds the remains of a WWII naval base, including the rusted remains of a railway jutting out precariously into the ocean. Information placards show drawings of the fjord filled with warships. It’s hard to imagine, standing amongst the shivering trees and occasional lonely farms, that this place was once an important hub of military activity.
We run out of time and leave the fjord having passed by many intriguing signposts, trails and sideroads unexplored. There’s no crash barrier along much of the precipitous trail, and the steely, rippling ocean feels within touching distance. As we coast back towards Route One, night is already falling once again. The mountains rear up behind us, silhouetted by the dim dusk light as we set out back towards the city.