When most visitors to Iceland—or really, most people living the capital area—think of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður is usually the first place to spring to mind. Arguably the capital of the region, this is a town that, to me, feels more like a mountain town than a seaside town. I wish I could adequately explain why this was; it might be because the downtown area looks very much like my hometown, which is way up in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, or maybe because the town is surrounded on three sides by tall, stark mountains, while the fjord upon which it rests is dwarfed by comparison. Either way, plenty has been written about Ísafjörður, a town that has come to embody the spirit of the Westfjords.
Not as well known is Gamla Gistihúsið (“the old guesthouse”), often overlooked by the better-known and more modern Hótel Ísafjörður. Gamla Gistihúsið, true to its name, is a converted house that dates back to the 19th century. It was first a hospital, and then a home for the elderly, before becoming a guesthouse in 2000. The accommodations were the ideal blend of old-timey and modern—the panelling and wooden fixtures for the stairs were very early 20th century, but the place has open WiFi. We slept like rocks, and were treated to quite a spread when it came to breakfast, replete even with shots of lýsi (cod liver oil), which I was person-ally very grateful to see.
Heading north, along the western coast of the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord, we came to Bolungarvík. An Ísafjörður native had remarked that when he was younger, the smell from the fish rendering plant in the town was almost overpowering, but we encountered no such smell when we arrived, so either they’ve found a solution to the fish rendering odour problem, or ceased operations altogether. Either way, it should be said that this is quite the ideal place for bird nerds—the vast shoreline and interior wooded area make for fine birdwatching opportunities, but if you’re lazy or pressed for time, you can always check out the Natural History Museum in town. There, you will find literally dozens upon dozens of stuffed birds (and their eggs) from all over the country. This includes birds that are not native to Iceland but by chance ended up here, such as a pink flamingo that apparently arrived here via the UK.
When we asked the curator what she would tell a foreigner to go see in her town, her reply was immediate: Bolafjall, an imposing mountain that looms over the town. “On a clear day”, she told us, “you can see all the way to Greenland”. Unfortunately, it was not a clear day. It was cloudy, windy and cold, and the idea of climbing a mountain filled us with dread. We learned soon enough that you don’t need to actually climb the mountain to get to the top; there is a well-worn road, built by the US Army (that used to operate a still-standing radar station on the mountain), that winds up there fairly quickly. We decided to explore.
We passed snowbanks before even reaching the foot of the mountain, and by the time we drove to the top, there was snow everywhere. Keep in mind this is in late May. Sitting at the top of this mountain is an enormous metal geodesic sphere—the aforementioned radar station, now being used by the Icelandic government. There are warnings all around the facility that you are being videotaped, and that you must not enter, so we were cautious about exploring the area. Despite the heavy cloud cover, the view was spectacular, so much so that it was easy to forget the biting cold we felt. So, word to the wise: if you do drive up to the top of this mountain, put on some warmer gear first.
Accomodation on this trip provided by Gamla Gistihúsið, Ísafjörður, Tel: 456-4146 – www.gistihus.is
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