Hvalfjörður and the surrounding area feels suddenly pastoral despite being a mere 30-minute drive from the capital. Although lacking the majesty of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula further on, the fjord offers quick day-trip fodder. Those in a hurry to get to Borgarnes and beyond should instead head straight through the 5.7km-long tunnel (kr1000) beneath the fjord.
This small agricultural community sits on the banks of the pretty Ytri-Rangá river in an important horse-breeding area in the plains around the Þjórsá river. The nearest town to shadow-wreathed volcano Hekla, 35km north, it remains relatively sleepy despite the arrival of new hotels in the area.
The largest village in this part of the Westfjords, zippy little Patreksfjörður is a convenient jumping-off point for visits to the Látrabjarg Peninsula. The no-frills town has dramatic views to the bluffs and good services for those preparing to head out to more remote fjords.
The sparsely populated south coast of the Westfjords is a tiny version of what's to come on the wild and wonderful peninsulas further north. Remote fjords (in a smaller version here) twist along the coast, and though there's a new road being built to cut across their desolate isolation, its still a bare and dramatic place.
Sleepy Dalvík found a snug, scenic spot between breezy Eyjafjörður and the rolling hills of Svarfaðardalur. Most tourists come here to catch the Grímsey ferry, but if you’ve got some time there are plenty of reasons to linger, including great activities in the area, plus interesting museums and superb accommodation.
Set under striking Akrafjall (572m), the town of Akranes lies at the tip of the peninsula separating Hvalfjörður from Borgarfjörður. Largely an administrative and factory town, it's mainly worth a stop for its sprawling Museum Centre, with a folk museum, restored boathouse, drying shed, church and fishing boats.
Spectacularly set on a dramatic bay, little Grundarfjörður is backed by waterfalls and surrounded by ice-capped peaks often shrouded in cottony fog. More prefab than wooden, the town feels like a typical Icelandic fishing community, but the tourist facilities are good and the surrounding landscape can’t be beat.
To the east of the national park, coastal Rte 574 passes the hamlets of Hellnar and Arnarstapi, with their glacier tour companies and interesting sea-sculpted rock formations. It continues east along the broad southern coastal plain, hugging huge sandy bays such as Breiðavík on one side, and towering peaks with waterfalls on the other. This stretch has some super horse riding.
As the winding Jókulsá river collides with the marshy delta of upper Skagafjörður, you’ll find scenic Sauðárkrókur sitting quietly at the edge of the windy waterway. Economically, Sauðárkrókur is doing quite nicely, thank you, with fishing, tanning and trading keeping the community afloat and the population vibrant.
The scenic corridor of rolling fields and craggy river-carved buttes between west Iceland and the Westfjords served as the setting for the Laxdæla Saga, the most popular of the Icelandic sagas. The story revolves around a love triangle between Guðrun Ósvífursdóttir, said to be the most beautiful woman in Iceland, and the foster brothers Kjartan Ólafsson and Bolli Þorleiksson.