Around 200 kilometres from Reykjavík, somewhere near Kleifar on Route 60, the rolling landscape of western Iceland starts to change. After speeding through the hopeful springtime farmland of Borgarfjörður and Hvammsfjörður and over the Gilsfjörður land bridge, the green-tinged land fades into autumnal expanses of umber and maroon shrubbery and shivering copses of reddish trees. Open fields become wild, barren heaths, rough hills, and stretches of broken, islet-littered shoreline by steep, eroded mountainside; well-kept farm buildings give way to careworn farmsteads and rusty barns, and the few gas stations we pass seem weather-beaten and forlorn. As we enter the Westfjords, there’s a palpable shift in atmosphere.
The Westfjords have historically been a genuinely remote region of Iceland. Until the 1950s, the Vestfjarðarvegur road ended somewhere around Bjarkalundur, near the Reykhólar peninsula. Travelling further meant a voyage by boat, with some southern Westfjordians having to sail to the tiny island of Flatey to buy everyday items in the general store. All-but disconnected from the rest of the country, the region developed a distinctive local culture of proud and fierce independence that survives to this day.
Shall not pass
Even now, the road isn’t easy. The narrow paved road of Route 60 often gives way to sections of potholed dirt track that curve through long, precipitous fjords, and over mountain passes that are still snowbound in a blustery May. At the highest points, fierce winds whip the fresh, powdery snow over the road, creating treacherous snowdrifts. We crawl past a jackknifed articulated truck, and shortly after we’re waved past a Mercedes stranded in a snowbank as the stoically smiling driver organises his rescue by cellphone.
The fishing town of Patreksfjörður sits nestled in the fjord of the same name, perched on a narrow shelf of land between the mountainside and the water. There’s not a soul to be seen as we pass the pool, police station, a diner, and a shop, and pull up at the Fosshotel Westfjords. Weary from the long road, we’re the last to arrive at the restaurant. We take in the view as we eat, wordless and exhausted, drinking a cold beer and gazing through the spitting sleet as the sky slowly starts to darken over the wetly flapping Fosshotel flags, the steely ocean, and the huge, snow-streaked mountains beyond.
Croaks, chirps & trills
Patreksfjörður is one of three towns in this region of the lower Westfjords, and in the morning, we set out to explore the other two. The season seems to be having an identity crisis, with the weather cycling quickly between bright sunshine, violent hail, rain, and snowfall, sometimes in the same minute.
We arrive in Tálknafjörður in a bright moment. It’s a tiny, quiet town with a modern church overlooking the few rows of houses. A recently-built self-service fish shop still smells of sawdust and hasn’t yet been stocked; just behind, a seaside path has an information board about local wildlife. As I read about seals, eider ducks and falcons, I realise there’s not a sound to be heard other than the rhythmic wash of the tide, and the croaks, chirps and trills of the manifold seabirds that line the shore.
The nearby forest behind the town pool has a tempting path leading up the hill and under the tree canopy. As large, fluffy snowflakes begin to fall, we take a short hike into the tunnel of knotty green branches. The trail leads past hidden away picnic benches and occasional viewpoints looking out over the fjord, which is by now barely visible now through a sheet of slow-motion snowfall.
Puddle and pool
A few kilometres along the fjord’s peninsula there’s a bathing spot called Pollurinn, or “The Puddle.” It turns out to be a set of three well-kept concrete hotpots with geothermal water piped in from a nearby hot spring. After changing in the recently renovated wooden changing room, I slide into the silky water of the hottest pot. It feels about 43°C, and as my car-cramped muscles slowly relax, I watch the vast, textured mountains appear and vanish through fast-moving bands of rain and sleet.
Over the next mountain pass lies Bildudalur, a former merchant town that’s now home to 200 or so people. The old store has been repurposed to include a bodega bar, with beer pumps by the till and a backroom café serving plates of hot and steaming fish ‘n’ chips. A nearby museum dedicated to centuries of multifarious sea monster sightings in Árnafjörður is still closed at the tail end of the off-season, so we decide to press on.
A glimpse of sun
We loop back towards Patreksfjörður via Reykjarfjarðarsundlaug, a dreamlike bathing spot in the middle of an obscure, almost uninhabited fjord. It’s too tempting to ignore, and we spend a blissful half hour swimming in the lukewarm swimming pool and basking in the nearby rock-lined hot pot, overlooking the fjord in the warm spring sunshine.
Even with a couple of days to drive around, the trip feels too short to fully explore the fjords and villages of the southern Westfjords. This sparsely populated region feels like another Iceland, and I’m left keenly aware of the turnings not taken, and how much more there is still to discover.