Iceland’s tourism boom is bringing planeloads of happy explorers to popular routes like the Golden Circle. Yet just one hour north of Reykjavík, grand West Iceland remains off the beaten track.

It unfurls in a spectacular array of ice caves, lava tubes and open sea, while its petite towns offer super views into Icelandic life and make great bases for exploring this compelling region.

A humpback whale, Iceland. Image by Ullstein Bild / Getty

Snæfellsjökull National Park

The beautiful, 100km-long Snæfellsnes Peninsula juts from the far flank of West Iceland. Its western end has been conserved as a national park, where you can explore Snæfellsjökull ice cap, which inspired Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. You’ll also discover native flora in craggy lava fields, watch whales off its coast, see waterfalls jetting off mountainous ledges and walk trails connecting seaside hamlets.

Snæfellsjökull National Park offers epic exploration for the well prepared. Image by fran-42 / CC BY-SA 2.0

The park and peninsula offer incredible variety and activities; drop into the Hellnar Visitor Centre to learn more. Go West!, in the hamlet of Arnarstapi, offers a broad range of tours.

Soaking up the scene in Stykkishólmur

Stykkishólmur, a great base for further exploration. Image by Tristan Ferne / CC BY 2.0

You may recognize the seafarers’ village of Stykkishólmur from the 2013 Ben Stiller flick The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This very cool small town retains some of its early architecture and boasts several great restaurants, a laid-back scene, and good museums such as Norska Húsið, based in an 1832 trader’s house, a Volcano Museum, and the unusual Library of Water, an exhibit by US artist Roni Horn featuring water from Iceland’s ice caps. Stykkishólmur is a great base for seeing the West, and a top spot for wildlife-watching boat tours, as well as ferries to the even more remote Westfjords.

Horseback riding

A farm on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Image by Bri / CC BY-SA 2.0

The south coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a ribbon of soft beaches and bright green fields, backed by the jutting foothills of the central mountain range that marches down the peninsula. Those fields are the terrain of several horse farms such as excellent Lýsuhóll, which also provides comfy accommodation, and Stóri Kambur, which offers short or longer rides around the area – a perfect way to take it all in.

Whale & puffin watching

A puffin in West Iceland. Image by Mr Hicks46 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Head to the north coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Stykkishólmur, Ólafsvík and Grundarfjörður to catch the whale- and puffin-watching tours that sail out into the broad Breiðafjörður, which teems with wildlife. While there’s no guarantee you’ll spot whales – though pods of orcas are not uncommon ­– there are several well-established puffin colonies, including one atop the super-photogenic basalt towers of Melrakkaey island. Check out Láki Tours and Seatours.

If you sail from Grundarfjörður you’ll also find the famously photographed Kirkjufell, a multi-hued spire of a mountain backed by waterfalls.

Exploring lava tubes

West Iceland is home to some of Iceland’s largest lava tubes. These deep caverns were formed as immense lava fields drained and cooled, and can now be explored with guides and the proper gear.

Langjökull Ice Cave

A group heads up the glacier to Langjökull Ice Cave. Image by Roman Gerasymenko / Langjökull Ice Cave

One of the marvels of West Iceland is the new ice cave that has been drilled deep into the heart of the Langjökull glacier. Tours go daily from Reykjavík and nearby Húsafell and offer the chance to see this strange ice-scape from a novel perspective: the inside!

If you’re coming up from Reykjavík under your own steam, and have both a sturdy vehicle and attitude, you can approach the glacier cave via the Kaldidalur Corridor, a raw and adventurous route through lava fields, ice caps and hidden valleys. It connects near Þingvellir, part of the Golden Circle. Or stick to the Ring Road and take paved roads almost all the way to the glacier. Ice Explorer takes super-truck tours on top of the glacier (never go up there alone).

Ice cream and cheese at Erpsstaðir

If you’ve got your own wheels, swing into the verdant Erpsstaðir dairy farm. You’ll see its products distributed around Iceland, but it’s much more fun when you can tour the barns and livestock and then cap it off with delicious local ice cream, cheeses and desserts right at the source. Don’t miss the skyr-konfekt, a decadent missile of white chocolate filled with delectable skyr, a yogurt-like Icelandic treat. It's on Rte 60, which heads north from the Ring Road.

Following the sagas to Borgarnes

Jaunty Borgarnes is a must for its excellent Settlement Centre, which shows in vivid detail the arrival of the original settlers to Iceland, as well as the graphic story of Egil’s Saga, one of the most renowned Icelandic sagas. Once you’ve wrapped up your exploration of Viking lore you can either dine at the centre’s top-notch Icelandic restaurant or head out into the bustling town for home-cooked local fare and fresh-baked cakes at Edduveröld.

How to visit West Iceland

West Iceland is easily accessible from Reykjavík, since its southern reaches sit just 40km north of the capital. Much can be seen in a day trip, on a multi-day tour, or as part of a Ring Road trip.  Tour operators include: Reykjavík Excursions (re.is), Arctic Adventures (adventures.is) and Snæfellsnes Excursions (sfn.is).

If you have your own wheels and can stay in the region, base yourself in Stykkishólmur with its great crop of restaurants and hotels. Top-end Hótel Egilsen offers subtle luxury, Icelandic-style, in a restored historic building, while Bænir og Brauð guesthouse is an impeccable, more casual option.

If you’d like to be based inland, get away from it all at the eco-cottages at Fljótstunga Travel Farm, or stay at the new resort Húsafell Hotel, in the village of the same name. It features the artwork of Páll Guðmundsson, perhaps best known for playing his stone idiophone with the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Húsafell is the main local gateway to the Langjökull ice cap, and nearby Gamli Bær offers modest guesthouse accommodation.

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